I awoke inside of my tree. Not in a hollow, but inside the tree itself, her wood against my skin, the oxygen that ran through her own vascular system filling my lungs. This was my tree, and I was its druid. We were one in the same.
Most druids had an oak or an ash or a yew as their heart tree, but mine was a bald-cypress. She had to be, since my grove was a swamp — a fen, to be precise — at the base of a large hill. The environment had its benefits: the humans from the fortress atop the hill and the settlement downstream from me mostly kept their distance from my swamp and its tangled undergrowth, thorny vines, buzzing insects, and pools of black water. But a druid did not fear their grove.
With my eyes still closed, I let my awareness ripple out across the swamp. My senses followed the tree’s roots into the mycorrhizal web and along to every tree and shrub and even to the ferns and rotting logs. I strained to reach the edges of my range, and sure enough, I sensed what I had feared: the patter of frog feet.
I sighed and the wood of the tree parted around me, letting in the damp chill of the pre-dawn air. I opened my eyes to still more darkness, but my ears were greeted with the drum of a woodpecker, the gurgle of blackbirds, the call of a barred owl. I stepped out and walked out onto the water of my swamp.
The water rippled around my bare feet, but I did not sink. Vines, meanwhile, bent and swung to make way for me, while even thorns hid rather than pierce my skin. I could probably have walked in twenty minutes the same distance that it would take a man with a machete an hour to cover, if I’d wanted to. But the frog hadn’t gone too far yet, so I went slowly, watching and listening to the forest as it woke around me. The old snapping turtle slipped off of his log. One of the muskrats peered at me from the shadow of her burrow. And as the sky turned pale, the frogs began to sing.
The frogs weren’t the only animal that would wander out of the area of the grove I could protect. They would all usually wander back once they caught scent of humankind, but the frogs were simply too vulnerable to the toxins the humans were dumping into my waters these days. The trace concentrations of the poisons reached even farther than the smell of their towns did, and so the frogs who drank in the world through their skin could die without ever having known they were in danger.
I did my best to keep the water clean. I wasn’t always awake to purify it directly, so instead I relied on the thick belt of reeds and rushes the cypress and I had bolstered around the grove’s edge to keep the water safe. But if a frog were to wander beyond that barrier, it would certainly die. In the grand scheme of things, the numbers weren’t big enough for my rescues to really matter. But I always tried to save whatever I could.
I caught up to the little guy — a leopard frog — just as the day was breaking. It wasn’t hard to turn him around: get ahead of him, shapeshift into a snake, and lunge at him a couple of times until he started hopping towards the interior. Normally I would have pursued him at least a little bit further, but now that I was near the belt I could sense a disturbance just outside the edge of the reeds. As far as I could tell, humans only ever came this close to my grove when they were dumping poison. Perhaps this was a chance to finally catch them. To stop them. To end them.
I shapeshifted again, shedding the skin of the snake for the wings of a sparrow, and took flight. I darted around tree trunks, not even waiting for them to move out of the way, before gliding out low above the reed belt. But as I grew closer, my senses grew clearer. It was just one individual, alone. Once I caught a glimpse of them, it became obvious that they weren’t carrying any poison to dump. A woman, and as far as I could tell, not a particularly rich one. My initial assumptions may well have been mistaken. The only way to find out why the woman was here would be to ask her. Which was a much more terrifying thought than the idea of facing a gang of human soldiers in battle.
I shifted back to human form as I landed on the water in front of the woman. She shrieked and fell backwards. Not a surprising reaction, but it was still one I didn’t know how to deal with. I stood in silence as the woman recovered, then moved to kneel before me.
“Druid,” she said, her head bowed, “have mercy. If my presence angers you, just say the word and I will flee.”
The woman paused for a moment. When I stayed silent, she glanced briefly up at me before immediately swinging her gaze back towards the dirt.
“Thank you, Druid. Your mercy is a gift. And yet still I would bring myself to ask for another. The war with West Faylen has refused to leave our valley alone. The enemy cannot breach the walls of the fortress above, so they have sought to defeat us by poisoning our waters. Until now, though, your magic kept us safe. But it seems Faylens have learned about your power, and so they have poisoned the stream as it leaves your grove. Our crops, our cattle, our children—they are all dying. Our whole village prays night and day that you will save us. You are the only one who can.”
I tilted my head to one side. “You want me to save… men?” The words came slowly, my voice weak with lack of use. “Men who clear forests for wood and plow meadows for crops?”
The woman started to tremble. “Yes, Druid. We thought only that you, as a guardian of life, might want to prevent our deaths.”
“Death does not sadden me. It is senseless death, the death of your wars and of your waste, that grieves me.” I looked back towards my grove, then turned to face the woman once more. “Take me to the place of the poison. I do not like to leave my grove alone for very long.”
The back of my throat soured as I followed the woman further and further from my grove. But soon that was overwhelmed by the acrid taste of smoke. As the settlement came into view, I narrowed my eyes at its blackened buildings.
“How did so much burn in a town by a river’s edge?” I asked, breaking the long silence.
The woman spooked at my sudden speech, but then collected herself. “When the Faylens set the fires, they made sure we weren’t around to put them out,” she said. “We’re lucky the town is so damp, or it could have been much worse.”
“So they set fires and poisoned the water?” I studied the figures flitting around the buildings that remained. “They really must want you gone.”
“I guess so. Who knows why. Well, I suppose it’s probably to try to weaken Fort Heights on top of the hill. They’ve been going after it for ages now. But why they care so much about this fort and this valley, I have no idea.”
“But you stay.”
The woman frowned. “Well, we could leave. There are a lot of refugees wandering the country thanks to this war. We used to get a lot of them ourselves back at the beginning of the war, before we were on the front lines ourselves, but they’ve all moved on now. We haven’t, though. I just can’t see myself living without this land. It’s a part of me, you know? Or maybe you don’t.”
“Trust me, no one understands that like a druid.”
I remained silent for the remainder of the journey. Even when we arrived at the site of the poisoning, as evident from the metal slag that had been dumped in the water, I said nothing, just knelt down and placed a hand upon the water’s surface. The woman, who had started to speak, trailed off as the water began to gently bubble beneath my fingers.
Purifying the water took quite a while — my power was weak this far from my heart tree. The woman hovered anxiously by my shoulder the whole time, and we were joined by a steady stream of observers from the rest of the settlement. By the time I finished, the whole population may well have been standing behind me. They exploded with gasps and chatter the moment I rose from my feet.
“It’s done,” I said. And before the mob of faces could assault me with their thanks and questions and praise, I shifted to a raven and flew back home.
It was perhaps a few weeks later that I sensed a human visiting my grove again. It was the middle of the afternoon, so I had been asleep, but the fear of the plants that had flooded along the mycorrhizal web woke me in a cold sweat. I left my cypress and took flight as a sparrow, narrowing my senses in on the disturbance. It was a large group, it seemed, and one that was moving deliberately and rapidly inward to the forest. Already, they had crossed out of the reed belt and into the swamp proper. My suspicions of them were confirmed as I sensed, even from the air, the deaths of the plants they were hacking through to clear their way. It was confirmed again when I reached them and could study them from overhead. Machetes in their hands, rifles on their backs: these were soldiers. And they were hurting my grove.
I dove from the sky. Below, vines and thorns writhed at my command, entangling the men’s legs and limbs. Then I was upon them. I shifted to the form of a bear, and let my claws go to work.
The men struggled to escape, flailing with their machetes at the plants that held them. A few managed to escape and tried to run, only to be ensnared again after a few feet. One man was perhaps a little smarter. He freed his arms, then took a flask from his pocket and splattered its contents in front of him. Forest druids may not have recognized the smell of oil, but a swamp druid certainly would. When he took out some little metal tool that shot out sparks, I didn’t try to stop him.
Humans like to think of fire as domesticated, like their little hounds. But they forget that their hounds can be made wild again with a little hunger. And fire is always, always hungry. It is always wild. It is always mine.
I wasn’t afraid to let a little of my swamp burn if the men burned with it.
Once the last man was dead, I shifted back to human and put the fire out with a wave of my hands, then summoned vines to drag the bodies out into the swamp to decompose. But despite the calm around me, my sense of my grove’s distress had not disappeared. This far from my heart tree, I normally wouldn’t have been able to reach out very far along the mycorrhizae. But the plants were screaming. I could sense dozens of gangs of intruders all over the grove, each like the one I had just fought. They hacked through vines, they set fires, they dumped poisons, they shot the mink and birds and frogs. And there were so, so many of them.
I didn’t have time to think, to question. I set the fires myself this time, flying between each group and burning them alive from above. Those that sought safety from the flames in the waters of the swamp, I ensnared with waterweed or whirlpools and then drowned them. For the time being, I spared no thoughts for anything other than the swift destruction of my enemies. Speed was all that mattered when I could feel the men hacking their way deeper and deeper into my grove with every passing minute. When I could feel them growing closer and closer to my heart tree. Too close.
I intercepted one of the last groups right on the edge of the central pool where my cypress stood. By the time I finished, another was already in the water, dumping poison.
I slaughtered the men, my vision a haze of red, then knelt on the water’s surface and began to purify away the toxins. I did my best to tune out the forest’s agony, to harness the strength here at the heart of my power and clear the poison before it reached my cypress tree. Because my cypress and I were one in the same. If it weakened, so did my magic. And if it died, so would I.
I was almost done when an axe was buried in my cypress tree.
I didn’t see it happen, but I didn’t need to, not when the echo of my tree’s pain ripped through my side. I bent double, while the surface of the water beneath me gave way. I barely even noticed the still-poisoned water filling my lungs. The only thought my brain could put together was to kill the axeman. Kill the axeman. Kill the axeman. But how could I when the power I relied on was dying with my tree and my grove?
Let me, a voice in my mind murmured. My tree. She’d never spoken to me before.
You can’t! You’ll die! And so will I, so will all of us!
We will go on. Life always does. So let me end this now, before it is too late.
I kicked out at the black water, fighting not to drown in my own swamp. For a moment, my head broke into the air again, and I could look out across the pool to where my bald-cypress still stood, pale in the gloom of the swamp. The last gang was gathered at her base, torches and axes in hand. I tried to summon vines, summon flames, summon water, summon anything to help, but my magic was bleeding out through the wound in my cypress’s side. I slipped back beneath the water. My head finally conceded what my bones had known ever since I’d first sensed those dozens of groups breaking into the swamp: this was the end.
All right, I whispered to my cypress.
Thank you. I don’t know whether she said that, or I did.
Even under the water, I could feel my heart tree uproot herself and tip herself backwards. I broke back through the surface just in time to watch her fall. In the dense undergrowth, the men didn’t have room to jump out of the way of her broad trunk.
The men were dead, as was my magic, but I was still alive. That meant my cypress lived still. I swam to her, grabbed hold of her roots, and felt her bark with my palm. She didn’t speak again, but there was still the faintest stirrings of life in her. There was a small green shoot a little ways up her trunk, so I half swam, half walked through the blood-stained mud until I reached it. I plucked it, then gathered moss from her bark to wrap the cutting in. Even as I worked, I felt the tree slip away from me. This cutting was all I had left now.
I began the trudge out of the swamp, through poisoned water and blackened trees and the detritus of dead plants. No vines moved to clear my path or spare my feet from harm, and I had to detour around the fires that still burned, several of which I myself had started. There was no birdsong, no chatter of rodents, no croaking of frogs. But I did spot a bromeliad at the base of a water tupelo.
The bromeliad itself wasn’t going to make it; its roots were deep in poisoned water. But some flicker of hope prompted me to peer inside its cup. A bundle of leopard frog eggs peered back from a pool of pure rainwater. I tugged the bromeliad free from its perch and carried it alongside what remained of my heart tree. This was my new grove.
There was a group of humans waiting for me when I emerged from the reeds. Animal fear coursed through me, but exhaustion hung from my bones like Spanish moss. Before the two had time to battle and determine the winner, though, I recognized the face of the woman who had sought me out those weeks ago. These were people of the settlement, I realized. They bowed to me.
“I could not protect my home,” I croaked. “I can no longer protect yours.”
“You could not protect this one,” the woman said. “But there will be another. Come.”
She, and the rest of her people, began to walk. I followed.