Dryad’s Kiss

There once was a mage named Leaf, who studied at the College of Mages in the sea port of Tabat. He had been a simple village boy with a talent for gardening, who was found by a Scout of that College. Within its ivied walls, he learned, and excelled, and when it came time for him to choose between that world and the larger one, he stayed there, content, and became one of its instructors.

He loved learning and pursued it like a drunkard ardently chasing an ale mug. His chamber shelves dripped with books and notes, and whenever new knowledge came to the college, whether in the form of an old map or a bard’s tale, he was there.

In his peerlessness, he had only one flaw. He loved to give advice, on anything and everything, and the less he knew about the matter, the more he spoke.

In time, he came to be known as a great expert on Romance, although he’d kissed neither girl nor boy, preferring the pages of his books. This had been remarked on, for he was a beautiful man, with dark curls and smooth skin on which the shadow of his beard lay like the coming of dusk. But he had no interest in romance, preferring to spend his days reading or pursuing arcane and outlandish experiments, such as how to color a flame purple or most efficiently bargain with an undine.

Still, he would sit in the tavern of an evening and pontificate on the whys and wherefores of women to his comrades, who eagerly accepted his advice.

His counsel, for the most part, was well-intentioned. But one thing he repeated over and over to his audience. “You must begin,” he would pontificate, taking another sip of ale to create a dramatic pause. “As you intend to go on. Decide how you want the relationship to go from the start, and she’ll get used to it. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself wrapped around her finger and dancing to her tune.”

Of course he fell in love.

He went head over heels in the classic manner after glimpsing her in a crowd, a flash of green eyes, a tilted chin, and hair as brown as autumn leaves. He tried to follow her, but she slipped away in Minnow Square, and there he stood, bewildered, scanning the faces in the crowd.

He haunted the Square for a week before he despaired, and took to wandering the streets near it. The Square lies in the southern edge of town, and is inhabited by streets of ancient brick buildings, and of course, the Piskie Wood, where young folk go to hunt a brace of piskies, now and then. The Duke pays a bounty of two coppers a head for the creatures, and it’s a point of pride for many a youth to buy a round in the tavern with their hunt’s profits.

One night he thought he glimpsed her through the black wrought iron fence that surrounds the trees there. He spent the evening hunting her up and down its damp green aisles, listening hard and hearing only the soft hooting of the piskies or the occasional thwip of an arrow and then quick footfalls. At length he came out of the Wood and sat there on a bench by the gate.

It was a misty evening, filled with a fine drizzle, and after he had sat there for an hour or so, beads of water collecting on his cloak, he felt a presence behind him. It was like a cold shadow.

“Come sit, if you’ve a mind to,” he said sullenly. “Or go on standing . either way, I don’t care.”

After a moment, another girl came around the side of the bench. Tall and skinny, she was pale and the chill that came off her white skin told him that she was undead. But she was very beautiful, nonetheless, with eyes like blue ice, and hair like silver waves.

Neither of them spoke, and they sat there another hour, during which no-one passed. Finally a party of late-night hunters came stumbling out of the wood, smelling of spiced brandy, and each bearing a brace or two of piskies at their belts, the little corpses limp as birds.

One of them waved cheerfully as he passed the bench, and then the group was past, sputtering into laughter and quick whispers and then more laughter. Leaf leaned back and sighed.

“Am I not beautiful?” the undead girl said, speaking for the first time. Her voice was cold and slow, like water dripping underground.

“You are, but I am in love with someone else.”

“The brown-haired, green-eyed girl.” She sniffed in contempt.

He shifted his weight forward. “Do you know her?”

She shrugged, a faint motion beneath the dark-webbed silk of her cloak.

He persisted. “Do you know her name?”

She looked at him with eyes like mirrors, moonstones, clouded white with spiritual cataract, and said indifferently, “Her name is Winter’s Ivy, I suppose it best translates to.”

“What language is it in?”

Her lips curled scornfully, and she stood. “I’ll leave you to find that out.” She stared over his shoulder at the black limbs of the wood and said “You’re halfway there, it seems like, already.”

And then she was gone, as though she had never been there.

He went to bed.

In the morning, the cries of the gulls outside his window woke him. He put his head out and scanned the street. Lowering coins in a basket, he received a round of fresh bread in return, its surface ridden with a smear of sharp white soft cheese, and a skin of fresh water. He ate the food on his balcony, watching the street.

In the sporadic sunlight that flickered between the clouds, the memory of the ghost girl thinned and vanished. All he could see in his mind was a line of nut-brown curls.

Looking over his balcony as he chewed at a ferocious bite of bread, he half-choked on it as he spotted those curls outlined against the chilly cobblestones.

He spat out the bread and shouted “Hoy! Hoy!” down at the street. He pointed at her as she and a handful of other people stopped, looking upward.

“Don’t move,” he shouted. “Not until I get down to the street! Please, miss, don’t move.”

He flung on his magister’s robe on his way out the door and scrambled down the stairs to arrive breathless at her feet. Her face had dimples in the pale brown skin as she laughed at him.

“And what is all this about?” she asked.

“Please, madam, if you please, I would ask your name,” he said, trying to draw himself up, ignoring the fact that the words were punctuated with little pants.

She studied him. “My friends call me Ivy,” she said.

“May I count myself among them? My name is Leaf.”

“Very well,” she said. “Are you coming with me to carry packages?”

And he did, an entire morning spent following after her with a basket, filling it with papers of needles and two pots of rouge, and a pair of embroidered gloves.

“May I buy you lunch?” he said when the sound of the Duke’s great clock chiming the noon hour echoed across the city.

She glanced up. “The time!” she said. “Where does it go? I must say goodbye.”

“How will I see you again?” he asked.

She smiled at him. “If it’s meant to be, it will be,” she said. And stepping backward with her basket, she vanished into the crowd, as though swept away by a river’s current, a flash of sleeve and then nothing.

He ate his meal in morose silence in a corner of the tavern. As he pursued a chunk of fish with his spoon, one of his fellows from the College slid into the seat across from him.

“You look gloomy,” he said.

Leaf looked up and shrugged. He did not remember the man’s name, nor did he want company. He stared back down into the murky depths of his stew and felt the other man’s eyes upon him.

“You’re in love!” the nameless man exclaimed in astonishment and, despite himself, Leaf’s cheeks flushed with embarrassment.

“It’s about time,” the man said. “Now you will be more realistic with what you prescribe for others. .Begin as you intend to go on’, indeed.”

Nettled, Leaf exclaimed, “But it’s true! You must begin as you mean to proceed and not let yourself be wrapped around her finger.”

“Ha, and is that what you’ve been doing?”

“We haven’t gotten that far yet,” Leaf said stiffly. “But when we begin, be assured I’ll let her know who’s calling the tune.”

The other man only laughed.

The zombie girl was perched on his balcony, leaning on the railing. It would have been a more charming sight if she wasn’t in the process of devouring an unwary pigeon. She wiped at her cheeks, feathers tumbling from her cloak and away into the wind at the gesture.

“What is your name?” she said, speaking into the breeze as it wove her hair into silver netting.

“Leaf. And yours?”

“Zuelada. She’ll be no good for you.”

“How do you know?”

“I know her,” she said. She regarded him with her uncanny silver gaze. Overhead clouds scudded across the moon like wisps of torn lace. “I would treat you better, much better. Trust me?”

He couldn’t help himself; he laughed, and one of the cloud shadows moved across her face.

“You don’t understand,” he said. “I am a magister of the College of Mages, and trusting in the word of an unsummoned undead . no matter how beautiful or charming . would be seen as very foolish indeed.”

She smiled. “Beautiful and charming?”

But thoughts of the brown-haired girl kept him from following up the flirtation, and they stood for a handful of minutes in uncomfortable silence.

She sighed and stepped backward and away from him, and was gone again.

He was walking along the street, carrying an armful of books he meant to trade at the bookseller’s, when Ivy slipped her slim hand through his elbow and bobbed at his side, smiling.

“It must be meant to be,” she said mysteriously.

He felt a giddy surge of delight as he smiled back at her.

“It must be,” he said.

All that the ghost girl said on the third occasion was “I’ve told you she’ll be no good for you” before vanishing.

The next morning he followed Ivy into the Piskie Wood, giddy and giggling as any besotted adolescent. She slipped between the trees, and her hair blended with the bark, there in the shadowy silence. Overhead a piskie hooted mournfully. She paused, gazing up a trunk, and held a hand up, signaling him to motionlessness. He stood watching as the small brown humanoid crept down the trunk towards her hand, rubbing its face against her skin like a cat yearning to be petted.

As she stayed still, it emboldened, and insinuated itself along her arm, plucking at the fabric of her sleeve. It grimaced, sniffing the air as it looked at him, and he glimpsed its sharp, ivory teeth only an inch away from the tremor of her neck.

His breath caught at that, and the thing hopped back to the tree.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I startled it.”

She waited, looking up, but the piskie had vanished.

“No matter,” she said. Moonlight touched her hair to silver. She took his hand and tugged at it. “Come this was, where the clearing is.”

They entered the clearing in the center of the wood. Gnarled trees, a medley of oak and thorn and graying apple, surrounded it, along with a thicket of wild roses, a few petals glazed with ice.

She led him to a vacant spot in the line of trees.

“Here,” she said. “I’ve chosen it for you.”

“What do you mean?”

She gazed at him with that faint, enigmatic smile. “Do you love me?”

“More than anything else in the world,” he said.

“Even your College?”

“Of course,” he said, looking at her slender, heart-shaped face.

“Then we might as well begin as we intend to go on,” she said to him as his roots began to spread into the ground and winter’s chill touch fell on his heart. “You’ll get used to it after the initial shock.”

His arms lifted, arching painfully.

“You’ll get used to it with time,” she said. From the edge of the clearing, he could see the zombie girl watching, and he tried to shout out something but could not speak as Ivy wrapped her frosty leaves around him and carried him away into stillness.

(This story originally appeared in the summer 2005 issue of Gryphonwood. It is a Tabat story.)

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About Cat

Cat Rambo lives, writes, and teaches by the shores of an eagle-haunted lake in the Pacific Northwest. Her 200+ fiction publications include stories in Asimov's, Clarkesworld Magazine, and the magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Her story, "Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain," from her collection Near + Far (Hydra House Books), was a 2012 Nebula nominee. Her editorship of Fantasy Magazine earned her a World Fantasy Award nomination in 2012. She is the current President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). She is currently working on Exiles of Tabat, the third book of the Tabat Quartet. A new story collection, Neither Here Nor There, appears from Hydra House this fall.
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