Eliza Zanziba Mordredsen lived in a small cottage in the middle of the woods at the top of a hill. Despite the cottage technically being in their center, the woods were a respectable distance from the cottage and left her ample room to have a proper lawn on the front and garden at the back. The front path was lined by thorns and the porch was lined with of things like Belladonna and Wolfs bane and Blister Bush. Anyone paying a visit would have to follow the way very carefully or risk getting burned.
The back was filled with things like tulips and pansies and marigolds, with intermittent vegetable boxes in nice, orderly rows between them. Roses of every color grew wild along the invisible boundary line between Her Property and the woods. There was no fence.
Eliza herself was short for a witch. She wore a clean black shirt over a clean black skirt and always made sure that they were free of cat hair, dandruff, and other miscellaneous bits. Her curly black hair was always held back in a clip, and her half-moon glasses rested well on the bridge of an otherwise unnoteworthy nose.
At the moment, she was partially tucked beneath the kitchen sink, trying to figure out why the water wasn't working. She'd never had the need to fix a sink before, and was looking forward to this as a learning experience. Around her feet was an array of tools she thought might be useful for the job, including (among other things), a bunch of mis-matched screwdrivers, a socket wrench, and a hammer.
There was a knock at the door.
Eliza sighed and set the needle nose pliers down. They hadn't been working out, anyways. She's only managed to get about halfway out before the front door flew open and Agatha Snicked stalked in.
Agatha Snicked, to Eliza's mind, looked every inch the wicked old witch. She was tall and waspish, her hair was gray (though proper hair care saw to it that it still remained lustrous as ever- the only failing to her outerwitchiness), and she had a personality that managed to fill up any room she entered, squashing everyone else's personalities while it did.
She dropped off her coat on the hanger and immediately began to pace.
"I've had it!" she said. She tossed her black bag onto the table and dropped her broom off into the corner.
"Had what?" said Eliza calmly returning to her place beneath the sink.
"I mean, I'm finished." There came the sound of rummaging. She had gone to the cupboard and started rooting around, looking for the good mug. "I absolutely refuse to work under these conditions any longer."
"Well, I'm sorry to hear that. Second shelf, on the right." Hmm. There was something wrong with the suspicious looking metal box. Perhaps . . .
"You are not going to believe what's happened down in Mafaelle." Agatha went to the sink and tried turning on the faucet. "Your sink's broken," she said. "There's no water."
"Really?" said Eliza. "I hadn't noticed. There's a pitcher of water in the pantry."
"I say again," said Agatha from the pantry. "You're not going to believe what's happened in Mafaelle."
"What happened in Mafaelle?" said Eliza dutifully. The darn bolt just refused to come off. She'd have to get a better wrench.
“There’s a new dryad.”
She stopped fiddling with the pipes. “What?” She pulled herself out from beneath the cabinet and squinted in the new light. “When?”
Agatha couldn’t help a small, satisfied smile. “Sometime within the last month. It’s wreaking all sorts of havoc with the locals. People go in for firewood and come out with scratches, saying the trees beat them up. Kids who used to be able to play near the riverbank and pick berries say the bushes laugh at them. I, of course, thought it was all nonsense at first, but when I went in one of the trees started hurling pine cones at me.”
Eliza sighed. She knew what was coming. “And you want me to-“
“Stop it, yes. You’ve dealt with these things before, haven’t you? You’re the expert.”
Eliza sat up and wiped her glasses off on the edge of her skirt. She could feel her face beginning to burn up. “Well, I wouldn’t say expert. . . “
"Oh don't start that up now!"
“Why can’t you do anything about it, Aggie?”
The older woman’s mouth twitched slightly in disgust. “I can’t. She’s got that faerie magic. It’s so. . . sideways. It’s improper. It’s indecent. It’s-“
Eliza tried hard not to smile. “It’s my sort of magic.”
“Well there’s nothing wrong with it,” said Agatha hurriedly. “It’s just not my forte. I tried everything I could think of to try and get her out, or to calm her down. None of my spells could touch her. She just slipped right past them all and threw more pine cones.”
Agatha shot her a look, daring her to laugh. "I need you to deal with the dryad."
Eliza sighed and got to her feet. The glasses were placed back into position. "Alright, alright. I'll take care of it."
"Good!" Agatha got up out of her seat and, leaving the half-empty mug on the table, went to her broom. "Come on, then, I'll show you the way."
"No time like the present. You do have a broom with you, correct?"
Eliza shuffled. The only broom in the house was the dingy one in the hall closet, nestled snugly with the dustpan, washrags, and other cleaning supplies.
"Well. . . "
"You've been cleaning with it again, haven't you?"
She shrugged. "Well, I usually walk."
Agatha rolled her eyes to the ceiling in a silent prayer. "Come on, I'll give you a lift."
* * * * *
It was a long and unpleasantly chilly ride to Mafaelle. Winter still hadn't quite ended yet, and the air was thick with a general dampness.
Agatha rode like a madwoman, constantly shifting from flying too high to flying too low. The fact that her broom was old and had a tendency to swerve left did nothing for Eliza's motion sickness. She clutched the broom with whitened knuckles and tried to keep her breakfast put. At one point, she made the mistake of looking down. Country roads and little farmhouses no bigger than matchbooks passed idly below. She immediately forced her eyes shut and remembered exactly why she hated flying.
Mafaelle was small, even by village standards. There was just enough time for Eliza to notice the crowd of people below, gathered around the well, before Agatha took both hands from the broom and let them drop.
Eliza closed her eyes and screamed.
Agatha held onto her hat one handed and waited until the second before the inevitable splatter to grab hold again. Four feet from the ground, the broom ceased falling and floated gently down.
The crowd watched with only mild interest. They were used to Agatha and her method of landing. They were not, however, used to the disheveled looking woman riding with her. They watched with slightly more interest as she slid from the broom, staggered, then went running to the nearest bush to vomit.
Agatha adjusted her hat and turned to the headman.
"Don't worry about her, dear. She's just not used to flying."
The village headman was a large fellow, built along the lines of an ox and a brick wall. He was tan from all the time in the fields -Because this was the sort of place where everyone earned their share- and had surprisingly sharp eyes.
“Yes, aunty,” he said.
“She really is the best for this sort of job.”
There were unpleasant sounds coming from the bushes. People around shuffled uncomfortably and –now that the novelty of seeing the new witch had fallen flat- suddenly found that they had other places to be. The crowd dispersed.
If Agatha noticed, she didn’t let on. “How’s Nelly doing? And Loesia? Is Patrick still teething?”
“Yes, aunty. They’re all fine, aunty.”
“And you, Will? You been eating well?”
“Yes, aunty. We’re all doing good, aunty.”
Eliza came out of the bushes a moment later, sparing Will from any more agonizing family small talk.
"Eliza, this is my nephew Will. Will, Eliza. She's the one I told you about."
"Pleasure," said Will.
"Charmed," said Eliza, looking paler but slightly more stable now that she was safe on the ground. “I hate to seem rude, but I'd like to get things done with quickly. Which way?"
“There’s a trail,” said Will. “I’ll lead you to it, but I can’t go in. Last time I tried, the trees came alive and started throwing fruit at me.”
Eliza nodded and gestured for Will to show the way.
“You coming, Aggie?”
Agatha snorted. “Not likely.”
Eliza nodded, having not expected anything less. “Oh,” she said as they started. “Wait.” She ran over to the nearest woodpile and pulled out an axe. “Can I borrow this?”
Will nodded. “That’s Tom’s. He won’t mind, so long as you bring it back. What’d you need it for?”
She swung the axe a few times, getting the weight of it. “Bait,” she said.
They headed off.
* * * * *
Eliza one-handedly wiped her glasses off on her shirt and wondered if she’d missed lunch yet. Only the barest rays of sunlight made it past the canopy, making it impossible to judge.
She’d been wandering around in the woods, carrying a hatchet and making a big show of inspecting all the trees. She would raise up the hatchet as though to take a swing and say things like, ‘Oh, this one will do’ or ‘Yes, I’ll get plenty of firewood out of this one.’
Each time, nothing happened. None of the trees burst to life and tried to flee, none of the bushes tried to attack her. She always wound up lowering the axe and muttering ‘Oh, never mind. This one’s too thick’ or ‘No, this one’s rotten’ before moving on to the next one.
She sighed and found a suitably mossy spot. It was, she decided, high time for a breather. The axe was tossed down and, with little aplomb, she sat down.
Just a few seconds, she thought, her eyes closing. A minute or two at the most.
It took all of ten seconds before she had to get up again. She knew- she counted. There was a familiar fizzing sensation in the back of her mind. For a moment, she was overcome by a sudden wave of nostalgia. It was magic, and furthermore, it was her kind of magic.
“Alright,” she said, sitting up. “Come on out. I know you’re here.” She put a little of her own power behind the words, just as an attention getter.
There was a sound like the rustling of leaves and the thick smell of green things. An eye-blink later and she was no longer alone.
The dryad was small- much smaller than she had been expecting. Had Eliza been standing, she would barely have gone to Eliza’s waist. Her skin was a pale, almost muted shade of green. Her hair was a wild mass of small, leafy vines. She had the pudginess of youth and wore a shift made from leaves and petals.
“Oh,” said Eliza, taken back. “You’re just a sapling.” She got to her feet.
The little girl glared at her, arms crossed, red eyes peered from beneath the writhing halo of ivy. She bared her small, sharp teeth.
Eliza was not impressed.
"No, none of that now. The village sent me out here to ask you to stop-"
Roots upheaved themselves from the ground and twined around Eliza's feet. She managed to leap back in time to avoid being sucked into the dirt.
"My shoe!" She watched as the shoe disappeared into the ground. “You stole my shoe!” She gave the dryad her best no-nonsense glare. "That was very rude, young lady." She adjusted her skirt and continued on. "They sent me up here to tell you to stop-"
Rose vines shot out of the ground beside Eliza's feet and sprouted into full bloom. They snagged on her clothing and wrapped around her wrists. She could feel the thorns growing and digging into flesh. The flowers made their way into her hair and in front of her face, blinding her with shades of pink and white. She sneezed, only to have pollen fly up and get into her eyes.
All right, that's quite enough!
The plants- vines, blossoms and all- shot away from her. The rose vines fell to the ground and withered into nothing, leaving behind only the petals behind. Roots sank back into the ground, thoroughly cowed.
The girl stared up at her in shock.
"Listen," Eliza said. "These men and women have work to do, and they were here long before you were. Whether you like it or not, these woods are not your own. You're going to have to learn to share. I know that might not come easy to your kind-"
The girl kept her eyes on Eliza. At her feet, small sprouts began to rise up.
“Oh no you don’t.”
Eliza pushed her glasses up and fixed the plants with a stern look. They fled back into the earth.
“Don’t try me, girl. I’ve been around a lot longer than you have.”
The dryad pouted.
“Now,” said Eliza. “You’re going to stop all this nonsense. No more harassing the locals. No more chasing kids off, and no more throwing pinecones at witches. Do you understand me?”
The dryad looked down at her feet, her hands clasped behind her back. She nodded, once.
“Alright, then. I’ll leave you to it. Remember, though, behave, or else I’ll come back. You hear me?”
The girl peeked up at her and nodded again.
Eliza picked up the hatchet and, with as much dignity she could muster in only one shoe, headed for the village.
* * * * *
All of two days passed before trouble started up.
Eliza was outside in the front garden, puttering with the new snapdragons. She was trying to coax some particularly stubborn ones into bloom. It wasn’t going well: each time she tried to magic them out of the bud, the flowers would bite her fingers and curl back up.
She heard Agatha before she saw her.
She looked up in time to see Agatha’s broom nose-diving straight for the house. At the very last second, it swooped off to the side and looped the yard. Agatha came to a skidding stop on the flagstone path, hopping and running a few paces until the broom stopped entirely.
“Hello, Aggie. What-?“
“The dryad. She’s stealing now! Come on.”
Eliza sighed and got onto the broom without protest. One stomach-writhingly swervey trip later, and she was back at Mafaelle.
* * * * *
The dryad had stolen a plough. A heavy, traditional plough meant for two horses and one man. Nobody knew how she’d managed to do it, and they didn’t care. All the Pike's family cared about was that Eliza brought it back to them.
It was surprisingly easy to find the dryad this time around. The second Eliza stepped into the woods she could feel the hint of magic hanging in the air. In fact. . .
She frowned. It was too easy. There hadn’t been the slightest effort to hide the trail.
It’s like she wants me to find her.
Which was, of course, ridiculous.
She hurried on until she got to a small glade. Sitting in the middle bold as brass, was the Dryad. She was sitting cross-legged beside the plow, watching.
“Hello,” said Eliza. “I believe you have something that doesn’t belong to you.”
One of the trees bent down and scooped up the barrel. The dryad herself went through the tree and materialized in the branches of another off to the right, half faded into the bark.
“Yes yes,” said Eliza, looking directly at the girl. “You’re very clever. But I need that back.”
The dryad tilted her head.
“What, you thought I wouldn’t be able to see you? Come now, I need that plough back.”
The dryad grinned and shook her head. She dived further into the tree and was gone. She reappeared in the bushes a few more feet away, still smiling.
Eliza was suddenly strongly reminded of her little niece and nephew.
“Fine,” she said, following. “I’ll play. But when I catch you, you have to give the plough back, agreed?”
All the leaves in the trees around them rustled. The dryad was laughing. The game was on.
* * * *
She didn’t know how long they chased one another.. Far too long, in Eliza’s opinion. She was a witch! There were things she could be doing- important things. Like gardening, maybe. Or cleaning. Or painting.
But, well, it seemed to make the girl happy, so that was something, at least.
In the end she did catch the dryad. No matter how the girl darted from treetop to treetop, or sank beneath the moss or (as she did on occasion) actually hide inside an individual leaf, Eliza was always close behind.
It was the leaf trick that got her caught, in the end. She’d hidden inside one and Eliza plucked it from the rest of the bush.
“Got you!” she panted. “I win!”
The girl oozed out of the leaf and giggled. She wasn’t tired in the slightest. While Eliza herself was scratched from branches and mussed from the run, the dryad was- as it were- fresh as daisies. She made like to start off running again.
“No,” said Eliza, “I need the plough back. That was the arrangement, remember?”
The smile died on the girl’s face. She nodded sullenly. There was the thick sound of metal cutting earth. Behind them, the plough fell out of the tree that had been holding it up.
Eliza stared, first at the plough which had gone several inches into the dirt, and then at the broken branches above. “Did you have it following us the whole time?” Her stomach gurgled queasily. Images of ploughs falling from the sky and squishing people reeled past.
The dryad didn’t answer. Instead, she melted backwards into the brush. The last things to go were a pair of sad, scarlet eyes.
Eliza shook her head and turned to the plough. She could only handle one problem at a time, and it was getting late. There was the little matter of actually taking the damned thing back. She bit her lip. Dragging it herself was out of the question.
She sighed. She didn’t want to have to do this sort of magic with a dryad nearby, but there was nothing for it.
She went down on one knew and whispered to the grass.
Immediately, all the blades straightened lifted the plow. They were fueled by borrowed strength from all the other plants around them. It was cheating, but hopefully nothing too upsetting would happen. She whispered some more, and they began passing it on ahead, to other grasses.
“Wait for me!” she said as the plow sped away. “You don’t know where it’s going!” She hurried to catch up.
* * * *
From then on, it seemed like every week Eliza was called in to deal with the dryad.
"My plough's gone missing again."
"There was a full barrel when I left-"
"She stole my dog! My dog!”
And Eliza would dutifully go into the woods to find it.
Each time she went, there was a game to be played. Whether it was tag, hide-n-seek, a race, or some other of the hundred and ten children’s games, there was always something to be played. Once the game was done, the dryad would happily give back whatever she'd stolen (if she had stolen anything at all. More than a couple times Eliza would leave the woods empty handed, only to find that, no, the baker's son really DID misplace the saddle).
“She’s toying with you,” said Agatha one day after an atrociously long game of keep-away involving the little church’s invaluable statuette of the Virgin Mary, which- the deacon assured her- they could not leave in the hands of that horrible little heathen.
Eliza shrugged and deeply inhaled the smell of her tea.
“She’s just bored.”
She stirred in a bit of honey. “Think about it. She’s stuck there all by herself- she’s got no one else to play with. I'm the closest thing this side of the county to something fae. She’s a little kid, and she's bored.”
“So you admit she’s toying with you.”
Eliza scowled. “Quiet, you.”
Agatha rolled her eyes and broke off a piece of biscuit.
* * * * *
It was high summer when Eliza was once again called back to Mafaelle.
She was pruning the roses out back when Agatha flew down without bothering to land. She hovered a foot above the petunias, face ashen.
"Aggie," said Eliza. "What's wrong?"
"I don't know," said Agatha. She was shaking. "I just know Will looked like he was going to start hitting things, and Mrs. Tanner and Abby Creech and Lena and a few more ladies were with him, and they looked like they were about to start hitting things too. Except," she added hastily, "for the Loam girl. She looked like she was going to start crying."
Eliza hopped onto the broom without another word, and together they sped towards Mafaelle.
She knew things were bad before they landed. Mafaelle was packed. Everyone who'd normally be in the fields or inside doing indoor work were out on the street. If they'd been standing still, then maybe things would have been okay, but no. These people were anxious and swarming.
Eliza had never seen a mob before, but she had a fairly good feeling that this is what the start of one looked like.
There was a strange smell hanging over Mafaelle. It was smoky, sour, and slightly spicy, and it was strong enough to make her eyes water.
"Aggie, what's that smell?"
Agatha frowned. "Smell? I don't smell anything. Come along, I think I see Will."
Will was surrounded by people, but he was talking to a man in black Eliza didn't remember seeing before.
"Who's that, Aggie?"
Agatha tilted her head slightly, brows drawn in thought. "You know, I don't think I know."
She straightened up and adjusted her hat. "I do, however, intend to find out." She strode forward, and Eliza followed.
He was, upon closer inspection, a tall, angular man who would have looked astonishingly thin had he not been wearing such loose fitting clothes.
Oh dear, thought Eliza. He's even got a cape. . .
"Who," said Agatha once within earshot, "is this?"
Will had the decency to look ashamed. "This is Mr. Waythorne, aunty," he said. "He's- uh. Well he's-"
"An exorcist, madam." The dark clad man stepped forward and gave a swooping bow. "Good Mr. Vansen here has seen fit to hire me to take care of your little problem."
"Eliza has been taking care of this for months-"
Waythorne cut in smoothly. "Not meaning any offense, madam, but I believe that may be the problem right there. I'm here to settle it in a more. . . definite fashion."
"You can't," said Eliza's mouth with no input from her brain. "You can't."
The sides of Waythorne's mouth crooked up in what could be called a smile. "I'm sorry, madam, if that's the way you feel, but unless-"
"She's just a little girl!" she turned to Will. "She's just a little girl!"
"Miss Eliza, I can't have her kidnapping people!"
Eliza suddenly felt quite cold. "Kidnapping?" she said. "That's. . . there must be some mistake."
"Who?" said Agatha.
"The Tanner boys and Danny Creech. They went in sometime last night and haven't come out." He ran a hand through his hair. "We all thought it was just the Tanners having a lark, but then Nance Creech came 'round and told us that Danny hasn't come back, either-"
"-And Danny's not the sort to play games like that." Agatha nodded, apparently perfectly familiar with the stream of names.
"Let me talk to her."
She shook Agatha off. "No. I need to see her."
"Miss Eliza," said Will, steel in his voice. "We can't keep doing this. We have to get rid of her-"
The air suddenly went very, very still. "Then let me get rid of her."
* * * * *
She found them back in the clearing. The dryad hadn't even tried to hide the trail.
In the middle of the glade was a huge mass of plant. Vine and leaf wove together with branches and bark, twisting and twining together into a cocoon. Muffled shouting came from inside.
Tentatively, she went up to the mass and sent a tendril of magic into it.
It was composite, not just in the material, but in the power holding it together. The strength behind it came from all over the forest, haphazardly bound and tied around the shell like the wrapping on a candy.
She balled her hands into fists. With as much force as she could put behind it, Eliza called the dryad. The woods around her shivered and leaned in slightly.
My spell, she thought. She stole my spell.
The dryad must have known she was in trouble. She oozed her way into the glade, making herself seem as small as possible.
"Let them down," said Eliza, keeping her voice even.
The girl shook her head and hopped on top of the cocoon.
"I said, let them down."
A gust of strong wind came seemingly out of nowhere and blew the girl off the shell. She somersaulted and landed gracefully enough on her feet. Eliza was already beside her, brown eyes blazing.
She grabbed the girl's arm.
"Do you know what they're going to do to you? Do you know what he'll do? They're out there right now with iron and torches. They're going to burn you out. They're going to kill you."
Just the thought of the exorcist gave her the shivers. Mr. Waythorne had struck Eliza as a very mild, very practical man who, once set to a task, would complete it in the quickest manner possible. The problem was that said task was the annihilation of wild things like the dryad. Things like Eliza's old mentors and -whispered an oily voice in the back of her head- things like Eliza herself.
The girl refused to meet her eyes.
"Do this now, and I think I might be able to help you."
Almost regretfully, the cocoon fell away. Vines and branches peeled away, withering in midair and turning to dust before they touched the ground. When it was gone, all that remained were three frightened looking boys and their bags.
Eliza went to them.
Two of the boys looked alike, almost to the point of passing for twins. The other was smaller, and brown haired while the others were blonde. The Creech boy, then.
"Excuse me," she said. "Danny?"
Danny nodded, eyes wide.
"May I see your bags for a moment? All of yours?"
Only the Creech boy looked ashamed. She took his bag and went through it.
"Hatchets," said Eliza. "And matches. You just thought you'd go in and burn her out yourself? You're lucky you're not dead right now. I've known dryads who've killed for less." She tossed the bag down. "Get up. Get out. Tell all them out there I'll be done in a bit.
The boys picked themselves up under the watchful eyes of Eliza and the dryad, and left. Branches prodded and pushed them on their way out.
* * * *
Eliza came out of the woods an hour later, and the dryad came with her. Held in the witch's arms, bagged with what had entered the woods as a sweater, was a small apple sapling. People stared, most looking at the little green girl with flowers growing in her hair.
The Tanner boys and Danny Creech were wisely absent.
Agatha and the exorcist, however, were looking at Eliza and the plant in her hands. Waythorne in particular looked like he was trying hard not to laugh. He tipped his hat slightly as they passed. If he was upset about losing the commission, he hid it well.
The dryad went up to Will and- as per Eliza's instructions- proceeded to look small and meek and utterly apologetic. People crowded around her, chattering amidst themselves. Some were angry, but they wouldn't try anything now.
"That's her, isn't it?" said Agatha, gesturing discreetly to the sapling.
Eliza nodded and kept on walking.
"Where are you going to go?" said Agatha, trying to keep up with the brisk pace.
"We're going to walk over Mayborough, then get a cart ride home. I know you won't be able to fly all of us."
Eliza shrugged. "I'll see if any of my contacts knows any dryad tribes willing to take in a sapling. Until then, though, I suppose she's stuck with me."
"That's it?" They were at the edge of town, now, at the unofficial spot in the road that divided Mafaelle from the rest of the world.
Eliza nodded once more. "That's it."
The girl hurried up to her, and together they walked off down the road.
* * * *
Eliza Zanziba Mordredsen lived in a small cottage in the middle of the woods at the top of a hill. The front of her house was guarded by things like belladonna and blister bush and thistles and thorns, and the back was filled with pansies and poppies and bluebells and roses.
In the back of her house, far past the orderly boxes of vegetables and tucked between two towering lilacs, there is a small slip of empty space. If anyone who is not Eliza looks through it or at it, all they will see is the woods behind (and around) Eliza's house.
If Eliza looks through it, she will see the same thing.
If she were to step through it, however, the woods, the house, and the garden would all disappear. She would be in the middle of a much larger, much older wood. The air there would be thick with magic, and a thousand eyes would watch with interest as she glided unfaltering through the tangle.
Deep in the woods, beside a small pond, is a sapling. It's a little taller now than when it was first planted, but compared to the trees around it, it's still pitifully small.
If Eliza were to sit down beside it and wait a few moments, she'd soon find herself surrounded by tall, green people with ivy for hair and leaves for clothes. The little dryad is among them.
Eliza always knows the little dryad by sight (even if she's not quite so little anymore). She's the only one with scarlet eyes.