Alistera swallowed down the bile that scorched the back of her throat.
“Do you mind if I open the window?”
Geoff raised an eyebrow, but didn’t take his eyes off the road. Alistera took it as assent, flicking thumb and index finger in a complicated gesture. The glass resisted for a moment, as if sensing her weakness, then melted away. She gulped, hoping the fresh air would stave off the nausea.
“Really, Ali? This is my cousin’s car.” Geoff shook his head. “How am I supposed to explain that?”
She wrinkled her nose. “It reeks in here.”
A tree-shaped air freshener dangled from the rear view mirror. Pine fresh. Alistera wondered if the person who’d made it had ever stepped foot in a pine forest. It smelled more like chemical depression than the great outdoors. A flash of memory swept over her.
Twilight painted amethyst shadows on the thick carpet of pine needles. Alistera slipped between the trees––distant cousins, barely sentient. She’d avoided the older, eldritch wood where the oaks and ash had judgmental eyes.
A rustle sounded from the thicket, then the heavy thump of a footstep silenced the forest in unnatural paradox. An invited intruder. A will-o’-the-wisp shot out from behind a thatch of wild rose and zipped up to circle around her head. It whispered in her ear––the human comes. A shiver of anticipation tiptoed up the dryad’s spine.
Geoff grumbled as he pushed through the undergrowth, a prickly vine tugging at his sweater. Robin’s egg eyes searched the clearing. Alistera stifled a giggle as his fingers brushed against her trunk. Bark softened to flesh, and Geoff grinned and wrapped his arms around her waist.
The car lurched as Geoff braked, pulling her back to the present. She groaned and clutched her stomach.
“Sorry.” He glanced over to her. “Feeling any better?”
Alistera focused on the upcoming road sign.
Wistwick 50 Miles.
With deliberate casualness, she changed the subject. “What’s Wistwick like?”
Geoff shrugged. “It’s just a normal city, I guess.”
“I hear it’s amazing. Full of enchanted lights and cafes on every corner. Towers of glass built to dizzying heights. Metal birds, screaming across the sky.” Her voice tangled, wistful and awed.
“High rises and airplanes.” He shook his head. “And the lights are just electricity––it isn’t magic.”
“It is to me.” A dreamy smile drifted across her face. “The things you humans think of…”
Geoff’s fingers tightened on the steering wheel. “Are you sure this is what you want?”
A pang shot through Alistera. Was it? If she went through with this, she’d be banned from the forest. Her kinship with the trees would fade, away from the mystic wood. She’d never shift again or feel the rich earth around her roots. Never again would songbirds nestle in her hair or fairy lights caper between her branches. The feel of her mother’s thoughts echoed in her head.
The great oak’s canopy rustled in disapproval. The matriarch had chosen long ago to give up her two-legged form and merge fully with her tree. Root bound, she couldn’t speak, but thoughts passed mind-to-mind, not in words, but in images and feelings. Alistera bowed under the weight of her mother’s disdain. To cavort with a human brought shame upon them all.
The matriarch shot a stream of images at Alistera. Fire. Steel. Blood. Cold-eyed men tearing down the forest, spreading violence. Broken branches. Trampled flowers. An overturned nest, lying in the dirt––tiny eggs cracked on the ground.
No! Alistera reflected beauty back to her mother. Geoff’s work-roughened hands cupping a sparrow, his eyes bright. His laughter as the will-o’-the-wisps dotted the night like waltzing stars. Music and dancing. A gentle kiss, his lips like the flutter of butterfly wings upon her skin.
The matriarch changed tactics. More images twirled around Alistera. Silvery moonlight dappling the ground, feet rooted in dark, cool soil. Summer breezes ruffling her leaves. Sprites snuggled in the crook of her branches. Ash, oak, and thorn: wise and gnarled elders, emanating a sense of peace and family.
Your home or your human. You cannot have both.
“Ali?” Geoff cleared his throat. “Can you really live in a city with no magic?”
Vision wavering, she blinked hard. “You’re wrong, Geoff.” She laid a protective hand across her stomach. “It’s the one place the three of us can be together. That’s truly a magical city.”
She smiled as she read the next road sign.
Wistwick 25 Miles.