There is a sour churn in the belly when life turns for the worst. When one has lost something so important, the will to live on is little more than a thought. Such a sensation should not be known. Nevertheless, it is a destined haunt for many.
Ruina pushed herself through the woods where the branches of the dark forest gripped at her with lengthy fingers in the black night, forming much-too-clear images of her doomed future. Tears left cold streams down her once delicate face, now replaced with the course and dry feeling of bark. Her muscles burned, urging her to stop and rest, but she knew she could not.
Life passed her by, melting like the wax of a candle, until no more but a small flicker was left burning. Tonight, that life would freeze in time through all the ages of the world – but not until she let it.
The roots that grew from her feet were becoming stronger, pushing themselves into the earth as they searched for water to quench them. Ruina would not give in and she heaved on. There was no time to stop or they would plunge too deep, fusing her with the planet.
“Oh, to be a tree,” she hummed her family lullaby to herself through heavy breaths. “A life so still and pleasant, a life to gaze at time and see.” Every step forward was more and more difficult as flesh became heavy as wood. “My beloved sits beneath, as I peer from above. My roots grow deep, my heart asleep, in his arms, in love.”
A groan shook the ground, startling the girl, freezing her in her steps. She swirled around as it grew in volume then faded over and over again until she threw her hands over her ears. Whispers swirled up through her feet until words formed in her mind.
The earth was speaking to her.
“Please!” She cried. “Spare me!”
She needed to move forward -- to escape the change -- but it was too late. In the distraction, the roots grew thick and were already in the earth.
“No!” She cried, wrapping stiff fingers around her thigh, trying to sever her roots, but the attempt was in vain. When strength failed her, she fell on her knees in utter defeat.
Something stirred in the brush behind her and she hardly made an effort to move. What more could happen that would make anything in her life worse?
A twig snapped a few yards away, just as a deep voice of silk spoke. “Why does the lady weep in the dark?” It asked.
Ruina turned her head slightly and gave a sidelong sweep of the forest then said, “a dozen whispered words will pass, then I will be a lady no longer.”
“What power you give the spoken word,” the unseen man replied. “If a dozen whispers can change so much, we should all be fearful of opening our mouths.” His chuckle was thick and rumbled through the earth.
Ruina's attention perked at the realization that every noise was suddenly amplified with the new sense of awareness that filled her. The sensation frightened her.
“Who are you?” She asked, more for distraction than for really caring.
“What fate is upon you that distresses you so?” The man's voice came from before her now instead of behind but he still remained in the shadows. “It cannot be so terrible that you would run like a hunted stag in the woods when the moon is high.” His tone was rude and critical. “You cannot claim ignorance of what haunts our lands this age. Shadows in the day, gnarled creatures in the night. None should roam so carelessly.”
Ruina looked at her hands as her fair skin slowly transformed to the likeness of birch. Breath hitched in her throat and she could hardly reply to his chatter as her fingers lengthened before her eyes, sprouting sprigs with leaves.
“A darkness is shrouding me,” she whispered. “If you know doom as I will know it by dawn, then grace me with wisdom of how to cope. But if you are to stand there and pierce my heart with presumptuous arrows, then I beg of you to go on your way.”
A boot stepped into her line of sight and Ruina slowly rose her eyes to meet the man's. "My lady," he said. "What do you know about doom?"
Surprise must have been apparent on her face as his black lips pulled into a humored grin. White hair fell softly below his shoulders. He wore no tunic and his black skin blended into the night. If not for the new sense of perception from her change, she might not have even seen him. The man was a dark elf.
He knelt before her and studied her face in the moonlight. His eyes were a deep blue, as twilight; his skin, black as the walls of Sinstar.
He whispered, “I was born into a life where doom is a promise on the horizon. Becoming a dryad, my lady, is not dooming.”
Ruina could feel her arms stiffen and pull to the sky. “How do you know?” She asked. Tears poured down her face and her lips trembled. The change was almost complete. She would never move from that place.
The man rose to his feet, slung a bow over his torso, and held out his hand. She stared at it, eyeing the long, black fingernails. Slowly, she reached out and took his hand in hers. When she managed to stand upright, he held her steady and smiled.
“One thing I have learned in this life,” he began, “is that the stories are never what they seem. Take me for example. Your eyes betray you, calling forth imagined scenarios from stories of old against the dark elf. You see my black skin and you assume I am an evil man with a curved sword, who kills as I please.”
Ruina frowned at the mental image.
“Tales are but that; tales, and nothing else. I bleed red as you do. My tears run clear as crystal.” His thumb brushed her own tears from beneath her eyes. Ruina shut them and shook her head slightly, wondering what any of this had to do with her becoming a dryad.
“I can not even carry a blade, my lady,” he explained. “I am irritated by the clinking of metal against my belt. It is rather frustrating when hunting. Now, look at yourself.” The elf moved some of her blonde locks out of her eyes as he continued. “You stand alone in the middle of a wood, bound to this land for all eternity. That is all you know now, am I right?”
“Please, M'lord –”
“Wrong. Take another look.” With one hand, he gestured around them. “You are alone, yes. Do you know what this means? You are not just a dryad. You are a fount.”
Ruina's gaze shifted to the woods around her as the pull to reach to the sky grew. It was true. There were no other dryads to accompany her. That made her the foundation of a new cluster; as he said, a “fount.”
“If you would have remained with your family, you'd have rooted amongst them – another sapling in a dryad ring full of family,” he went on. “You knew your fate. And yet, your fear is clear, leaving me to wonder why – .”
“I ran away,” she admitted, watching her arms in horror as all likeness of hands disappeared with the growth of branches. “I thought – “
“You thought you would escape,” the elf finished for her. He ran a hand over the branches that hung above the pair. Within days, they would be full of leaves. “Lady dryad,” he continued with a sigh. “None can escape their destiny.”
With one last creak of wood, it was done. The change was finished and Ruina was a dryad, rooted in a wood she did not recognize. It was quiet, but for a light breeze through the surrounding trees and the sound of the elf's beating heart -- a new sound that vibrated through her roots. The thirst from running slowly diminished as they absorbed the moisture deep under the ground.
The man stepped back and appraised the new creation before him. Even with his one step, Ruina's new awareness made it seem as if he'd gone miles away. Her heart wrenched at the thought of when she would be left alone. It was too much. She closed her eyes and wept.
“What is your name?” He asked, concealing the pity her felt toward her.
Without meeting his gaze, she uttered through tight lips, “Ruina Nastai.” Her breath shuddered as black fingers touched her chin, lifting her face.
“Ruina,” he repeated, then with one last appraisal, turned and walked away.
Ruina's breathes came quickly. “I do not wish to be alone,” she admitted aloud. Her heavy heart lightened just the slightest when he stopped and spoke over his shoulder.
“You will not be,” he said, just as dawn shone through the forest. “You stand but thirty yards from my home.”
The morning light broke in rays behind a small cottage, hidden well between two large oaks.
Ruina looked on in wonder as critters left their dens, and suddenly, the once dreary forest was full of energy. The sun rose above the cottage and shone on her, and it was as if every fiber of her being soaked in the warmth and vitality of life and a new day. All sense of fear and uncertainty evaporated as light touched her face, sinking into the white bark.
Is this what truly lay in her future? What of the notion of being bound to one place for all of life? It was what ruled her thoughts for most of her years, goading her fear of what she was to become.
Ruina closed her eyes and felt herself everywhere at once. A fox groomed her kits. A crow cawed in the distance. Fish splashed in a cool creek. Everything was alive and she felt it come over her like a wave.
Ruina opened her eyes just as the dark elf entered his home and a smile crept across her face. “Stories,” she whispered, “are never what they seem.”