By Doug Lefler
Bryn Oakkart was listening to the music of the stream at the center of Whispering Hollow when he saw her for the first time. Her eyes were so attentive and her smile so mysterious that he forgave her for not being human.
At the age of sixteen, Bryn had fallen in love. Not with Aila, the minister’s daughter, as his mother had hoped, but with the lute. All thoughts of a career in the clergy vanished in a single day. The instrument came from his grandfather, who had given up on music in his youth and allowed the lute to languish, unused for the better part of five decades.
Bryn’s lute was not one of those modern monstrosities that had grown to enormous proportions in hopes of overpowering a crowded music hall. It was a proper lute with seven lines of strings that emerged from its base, angled gently over the bridge to race straight and sure across the soundboard, and up the neck where all fourteen strings made an abrupt and well-choreographed turn at the pegboard. Byrn’s natural talent, quick ear, and nimble fingers had the added benefit of an excellent teacher. Master Harlyn Owler had once been the First Lutenist at the Court of Ridge Rock beyond the Great Meadows. Harlyn had retired to Bryn’s small fishing village, hoping that the sea air would save his lungs.
They did not, and he died of consumption two years later, but not before imparting the basics of the instrument and a passion for music to his talented student.
At eighteen, Bryn’s indulgent father gave him an old horse named Fellow, and with this gentle beast, the young man began a wandering life. He enjoyed some popularity on the Western Coast, from Recollection Bay to the vibrant seaport of New Conquest. By nineteen he had learned all the favorite ballads, love songs, and comic ditties of his day and had begun writing his own. To this end, he would often venture off the forest road seeking a quiet spot to compose. Thus, fate and a liberal amount of artistic ambition landed him in the seldom visited Whispering Hollow of Old Badger Woods.
Bryn had heard stories of the Hamadryads but did not believe that there was any left on this side of the Colliding Mountains, but with her large black eyes, gracefully pointed ears, and lightly spotted blue skin, the girl could be nothing else.
“Hello,” Bryn said in his most soothing voice. “How long have you been watching me?”
The creature looked down on him and blinked.
“Can you understand me?” Bryn asked.
She cocked her head curiously but made no reply.
“Master Owler said that music is the universal language. Let me play something or you.”
The Hamadryad made no protest, so Bryn rested his grandfather’s lute on his lap and began a slow melody.
The girl in the tree had been crouching like a compressed spring, but now she settled into a comfortable position. Bryn played for her the sweetest songs in his repertoire, and the Hamadryad lingered until the sun went down. When he finally stopped, the creature rewarded him with a tantalizing smile.
“If you don’t mind,” Bryn said gently, “I am going to stand now. I’ve been sitting for hours, and my right leg has fallen asleep.”
He carefully set aside his lute and uncrossed his legs.
“Don’t be alarmed. I won’t approach your tree.”
She exhibited no alarm as she dangled her naked legs from the crook of the oak branch, but by the time Bryn had his feet underneath him and was stretching his back, the branch was empty. Her exit had stirred not a leaf. Not a sound betrayed her movement.
The hollow was quiet except for the music of the stream.
“Lady of the Trees” was the talk of the Summer Festival at New Conquest that year. He had intended to spend three days at the festival, but the coin and applause kept him there for two weeks. The Innkeeper’s daughter at the Broken Wheel was much more polite to him the day after she attended one of his performances, and he was able to afford a new saddle for Fellow.
“Although lovely to see, the Hamadryads were simple creatures,” Mr. Drake, the bookseller, read from a leather-bound tome. “Incapable of articulate speech, but proficient climbers by virtue of their long slender arms and prehensile tails –”
“Tails, you say?” interrupted Bryn. It was musty inside the bookseller’s shop, although the smell might have been coming from Mr. Drake himself. The Allistyr Drake Book Emporium was his last stop before leaving New Conquest. Bryn did not remember a tail on the Hamadryad, but she had been some distance up a tree.
Mr. Drake lifted his eyes over his spectacles to glanced sharply at the young man. “May I continue?”
“Apologies,” Bryn replied.
“These forest spirits were the most passive creatures of the Faerie Realm,” the bookseller’s bony index finger followed the words on the mottled parchment. “They would not raise a hand to defend themselves even in the face of their death, which is likely the reason for their eventual extinction.”
“How much for the book?”
Mr. Drake displayed a condescending smile.
“More than a street musician can afford, I’m afraid. Books,” he insisted, “are meant for the elite. This particular volume represents two years of impeccable scribe work by the monks of Red Rook Abbey.”
Bryn knew that his next question would likely get him expelled from the shop, but it was time to leave, and Mr. Drake was annoying.
“How much just to buy the pages on the Hamadryad?”
Bryn had left Whispering Hollow with the determination that he would return. To that end, he had carefully marked the path back to the forest road. But as he retraced his journey through Old Badger Woods, those markers were nowhere to be seen.
“That’s curious,” he said to his horse. Each marker consisted of three stacked stones. He might have missed one or two of these stacks, but not all. “Do you suppose someone moved them?”
Fellow snorted but offered no opinion.
Would a passive and unintelligent creature like the Hamadryad do such a thing? Bryn frowned. A thought intruded that maybe the forest girl did not want to hear him play again, but his ego quickly dismissed that as implausible. When he closed his eyes and remained still, he thought he could discern the Whispering Hollow stream’s signature music, but it was impossible to identify in which direction it lay.
Having no other option, he decided to play his lute in the middle of a quiet grove and hope that the Hamadryad would come to him.
The sun was sinking, Bryn’s fingers were numb, and he had exhausted all of the songs that pleased the Hamadryad on their first meeting. There was no sign of her. Bryn had saved the best for last. As the light was fading, he began “The Lady of the Trees.” Bryn had been eager to play it for her ever since he composed it. She must be listening now, he thought. She must.
As he strummed the final chord, Fellow tossed his head and whinnied.
“What is it, boy?” Bryn was expectant. “Is she here?”
The horse fidgetted and pawed the turf. Bryn could hear something approach. He knew that it was not his Hamadryad, primarily because he heard it coming. Through the birch trees, he could discern three stout men riding three draft horses.
There was no logic in fleeing. Bryn had previously removed his new saddle from Fellow’s back, but his old horse could not have outdistanced those hardy steads even if he was packed and ready to leave. So instead, he stood with his lute in one hand and bowed graciously to the intruders.
“Greetings, gentlemen. Welcome to my humble camp,” he said to the men. They were wearing woodsmen garb.
One of them nodded politely to the young musician.
“That was an able bit of minstrelling just now,” he offered in a deep voice. “Are you familiar with that song Malwyn?”
He turned to the bearded man on his left.
“It’s new to me. Mervyn?”
The third man shook his head. “Very pretty,” he offered. “What’s it called?”
Bryn was hesitant to answer, but he had been singing this song for weeks; it was now public knowledge, and other musicians had picked it up and were spreading it from tavern to tavern. “‘The Lady of the Trees’,” he answered.
“I am Madog,” announced the first man. “And we are –”
“The Three Huntsmen of Craggulch,” interjected Bryn, for they could be none other.
“You know of us?” Malwyn asked.
“From the song ‘The Gryphon of Calamity,'” Bryn replied with another bow. “Written, if memory serves me, by the Minstrel to the Court of King Edryd. I am honored to make your acquaintance.”
“The honor is ours,” said Madog as he untied a complex object that hung from his saddlebag. In the dark, Bryn could not discern what the thing was until it thudded to the ground in front of him. He looked down on the head of a magnificent stag, with shaggy red and blue fur and extravagantly curled alters of iridescent gold. The eyes stared blankly, and the tongue protruded from the mouth in an undignified.
The three Huntsmen of Craggulch dismounted.
“If you will permit us to share your camp,” said Madog as they unpacked their gear, “we will gladly share our bread. And there will be five copper pieces for you if you’ll play for us after supper.”
“An appreciative audience is all the payment I require,” lied Bryn. Seeing the stag’s head had cost him his appetite.
“Nevertheless, the copper pieces are yours to take,” insisted Madog, and he counted out five of them onto a flat stone in the middle of the camp.
After supper, Bryn played a medley of tranquil ballads and soothing lullabies. He put his heart into the performance, and soon the huntsmen had dropped into a deep slumber. Bryn gathered his belongings and led his horse out of the camp.
He did not take the five copper pieces.
Two months had elapsed before Bryn Okkart passed through the Old Badger Woods again. He did not pause to play his lute in the birch grove or seek the path to Whispering Hollow. If the Hamadryad was still in the forest, she should stay as far away from humans as possible, including those who sang songs that might draw attention to her. Bryn had not performed “Lady of the Trees” since his encounter with the Huntsmen. To his consternation, the song’s popularity spread without his help.
Some distance beyond the grove, Bryn reined Fellow off the path and found a quiet stream. It had been a long ride from Bailly Ridge, and the young man was happy to unlace his boots, pull off his shirt and trousers, and bathe in the clear water. The stream was refreshing. Its current tumbled over the rounded stones to make a hauntingly familiar melody. Bryn found himself pondering how fast the world was changing. Mystic Dire Wolves once hunted Unicorns through these woods. In his grandfather’s time, meetings with the Fair Folk were uncommon but not astonishing. These days an encounter like the one he had with the tree spirit could only be described as an aberration. Magic was leaving the world.
The stream was lulling Bryn into a dream. Falling asleep under these conditions could have tragic consequences, so Bryn shook himself and rose from the water. His bare feet made their way across the smooth river stones until he was back on the bank.
“What’s this?” Byrn asked. He looked at his horse. He looked about the clearing and then back at the ground. “Where are my clothes?” And then, with rising alarm, “Where is my lute?”
He searched the clearing, bruising his bare feet on rocks and sticks.
“Someone took all of my things, and you just stood there?” Bryn demanded of his horse. “You didn’t make a sound?” Fellow shook his mane and looked in the direction of an elm tree. Bryn followed his gaze.
“Oh!” he exclaimed.
Eighteen feet above him was the Hamadryad dangling her bare legs from the crook of a branch. She was wearing Bryn’s shirt; his boots were next to her, his lute rested on her lap, and she was examining his trousers with fascination.
“Hello again,” Bryn said, for he was sure this was the same creature he had met before. “Could I please have my lute back –?” and suddenly remembering that he was naked, “and my trousers?”
The Hamadryad paid him no notice as she draped his trousers over the branch and picked up the lute. She held it to her ear as if she expected music to come from it. Frustrated by the silence, she shook the instrument.
“Please be careful with that,” the young man pleaded.
The Hamadryad took the lute by its handle and knocked it against the tree trunk. It was making a noise, but not the sound she wanted.
“Don’t! Please! That’s my livelihood!” Bryn insisted. Panic was rising in his stomach. “If you give it back to me,” he said as calmly as he could manage, “I will play it for you.”
He nodded, smiled, and held out his hands for the instrument.
The Hamadryad looked down at him, cocked her head, and held the lute toward him.
“Yes,” Bryn nodded more emphatically. “If you,” he pointed at her, “give it back to me,” gesturing to himself, “I will play it for you,” and he mimed the action of strumming.
The girl in the tree shrugged and let the lute drop. Bryn lunged forward and caught the instrument, stubbing the big toe of his right foot on a root of the elm tree. He danced about in pain, which seemed to amuse the Hamadryad. She mimed the action of strumming the instrument back at him to remind Bryn of his promise.
“Alright,” Bryn sat on a log and positioned the lute on his lap. “Just one song, and then I need my trousers back.”
The song seemed to delight the tree spirit more than the first time he played for her. Perhaps the three months’ absence of music had made her want it more. When he finished, she swung her feet in delight and tossed him one of his boots.
“No, not my boots.” Bryn caught himself and smiled at her again. “Well, I need my boots too. And I think I see how this will play out.”
Another song later, and the second boot dropped.
He played “Lady of the Trees” for her, and she gave him back his pants. Bryn dressed quickly, but by the time he finished lacing his boots, the elm tree branch was vacant. He turned to find the Hamadryad stood on the ground ten feet away. She was still wearing his shirt, and she placed a hand on the fabric to clutched it possessively.
“You can keep it,” He had another shirt in his rucksack that he usually saved for his performances. Bryne grinned at her. “You should have something to protect your modesty.”
“Modesty,” the Hamadryad said.
“You can speak!” Byrne exclaimed.
“Modesty,” she repeated.
“I’m Bryne Oakkart. Do you have a name?”
“Are you going to keep saying that word back to me?”
“Bryne,” she said, pointing at him. “Modesty,” she placed her hand on her chest.
“Very well. Modesty is what I’ll call you.”
The Hamadryad looked down at the shirt she was wearing and made a twirl. It hung on her like a short dress, but Bryn could see most of her bare bottom.
“No tail,” he asserted. “So much for the impeccable work of the Scribes of Red Rook Abbey.”
When Bryn woke the next morning, the Hamadryad, who he now called Modesty, was lying next to him. Nature had taken its course the night before as you might expect with a boy and a girl alone in a forest. Bryn realized that inter-species coupling would be a thing frowned upon by polite society, but when he saw her face in the morning light, he thought, “perhaps I’ll stay in the forest one more day.”
The next morning when she was still lying beside him, Bryn thought, “I can afford to stay one week.”
A month passed before the Minstrel packed his saddlebag again. He was surprised at his reluctance to leave Old Badger Wood, but he had agreed to perform at the Festival of Enlightenment in Ironhorn. To neglect his commitments would be a mark against his growing reputation. Modesty walked with him to the edge of the forest but would not pass beyond the tree line.
“I will be back in one week,” Bryn promised her. Modesty placed a hand over her heart, and Bryn answered with the same gesture.