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Life and Death in the Magical Multiverse

An Autumn Tapestry
By Bailey S. Zelthebeo
Ruston had only been down once from the hills to see the Dryads in the forests at
the base of the mountain. It had been barely spring then, and they were in rare form
anticipating the warmer weather. Their mood had been as blooming as the trees, glowing
green, quite literally, with beauty and health. It was hard to resist the advances of a Dryad
in the spring, when the world was so full of life. Ruston knew this first hand because he
had had to endure it in spades. He wasn't a very strong man, though, and succumbed to
certain things. That was why he was down in the valley a second time nine months after
his first visit.
Winter was creeping across the countryside sluggishly this year, and the trees still
bore their autumn coats, reluctant to release them. Tiny shocks of red, orange, and yellow
blared through the ever-present carpet of brown leaf decay, the kind of accumulation that
typically appears in woods that rarely see human feet. Ruston full felt like the intruder he
was onto this solemnity as he urged his horse forward down what could roughly be called
a path. The air vibrated with magic in this part of the woods, arresting even the gentle
chirrup of whatever insects were still brave enough to venture out into the chill. There
was the wind, still, though, and the occasional animal stirring the underbrush as company.
Eventually, even these stopped, and he knew he had arrived.
It took only minutes for him to be approached by a nude female figure, and he
almost didn't recognize what he was seeing. Like humans, a Dryad's features varied from
one individual to the next. Even a non-Dryad could tell them apart with relative ease.
Their coloration was almost always the same, however, as they were designed to blend in
with their environment. They had tan skin tinged with olive underneath, dark blond hair
that had a pallor over it the color of pear skin, and ferny eyes that burst with little stars of
jade in the center. From afar, they simply looked green all over. This was in the spring
and summer, at least, the only time they pranced about for human visual consumption.
Ruston had just learned, though, that not only the leaves changed in the fall. This Dryad
before him was not light and springy, but dull and dark as she looked out at him vacantly
through flat taupe eyes. The glow had evaporated from her skin, leaving behind a sickly
looking shade of yellow-washed beige. Her curly hair, mostly tied back in a leather band,
fell against her shoulders in messy scarlet waves glazed with rusty orange. The curls
rippled from the source when she jerked her head toward a thicker part of the forest.
Ruston understood even as she darted silently away, her naked form a pale ghost of what
it once had been. He dismounted quickly and cast off in the direction the nymph had run.
Her path was easy to follow, and he found himself in a small clearing. Standing in the
clearing was another Dryad altogether, several years older if the wintered features of her
face were any indication. Her russet hair had been cut short with a knife if the ragged
ends were any indication, and she had clothed herself in a tan short-sleeve shift that hit
her mid thigh. She was holding a squirming bundle and didn't seem very happy about it.
Her eyes were hard, boring into him. It felt like a hundred other sets of invisible eyes
were doing the same thing, and the heavy disapproval was oppressive.
“You are the human, Ruston?” she asked quietly, her voice cutting sharply
through the afternoon air. “The one who was with our sister Shendonæd?”The language
of the humans wasn't her first, and it was most obvious in the tumbling pronunciation of
her syllables. Ruston nodded slowly. This was enough confirmation for the Dryad, and
she shoved the baby into his arms. “Take him and leave.” The new father found his voice
just in time to stop her from leaving.
“Wait, I don't understand. Does she not want him?” The nymph visibly bristled
and turned on him sharply.
“She's dead. She died giving birth to your child.” The forest around him seemed
to erupt in sorrow, then, silent yet terrifying. Ruston knew without being told he would
never ever be welcome in this place again. “We don't need a male half-nymph running
around, muddying up our bloodlines when he has a human father to watch over him.”
“What's his name?” Ruston floundered, still trying to grasp that he was now the
soul caretaker of this new little hybrid being. The Dryad gave a quiet harrumph.
“He hasn't been given one. That's your responsibility.”
“What does his mother's name mean...in human,” he said quickly, knowing he
was already overstaying his welcome but desperate to make something about this right.
She looked at him, considering, translating.
“'Falling yellow leaves.' She was a fall birth, too.” There was no more to be said,
so she was gone, and Ruston was alone in the clearing with a baby. His new son.
He ran a delicate finger over the baby's dark apricot face, touching on the tip of
ears that came to a square point at the top. Hopefully this shape would grow to something
more human as he aged. Otherwise, he would be ostracized. Ruston sighed at this
revelation and began to make his way back to the horse. The baby wriggled out of his
trappings as he walked and Ruston took a moment to examine what the baby was
swaddled in as he re-wrapped him. It had a appeared to be just a typical muslin blanket,
but now he noticed that the inside was stitched with decoration. Being careful not to
disturb the child or drop him, he folded down one of the corners. There, meticulously
embroidered into the fabric, were hundreds upon hundreds of tiny leaves in gold and
brown and red. In the direct corner was a single bright yellow one just a little bigger than
the others. There were acorns along the border trailing along wisps of threading that
were meant to represent wheat. His mother had made this blanket some time in the
months before his birth. It was meant to remind him what part of the year he had been
born. Ruston didn't know why it mattered, but he knew to the Dryads it was of the utmost
importance, that they identified in a non-corporeal way with the season they were born
into. Despite the feeling of utter unwelcome pressing at his back, Ruston knelt down in
the multi-colored foliage and rested the baby on his knee. He he needed to do this here,
while the forest watched. The Dryads he knew to still be watching him needed to know
that he was going to take the customs of the wood seriously.
“Your name'll be Kale,” he imparted to the baby quietly. “We plant it every fall in
the garden." Ruston paused, there was more that needed to be said but unsure how to say
it. "I'm sorry about your mother. If I had known what would happen...Mother always says
that those who have died are never really gone if...," his voice trailed off as the baby
wrapped his little hand around Ruston's finger. Kale cooed as if not only understood what
Ruston was saying, he forgave the man his transgressions. Then a leaf fell onto Ruston's
head. He took it in his fingers and turned it over. It was yellow. Kale wasn't the only one
who forgave him.

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