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Rumaya hid in the cover of the trees, her belly pressed to the leaf-strewn floor of the forest, her dagger useless at her waist. She watched in grim horror as the blows kept coming, and the dryad was pummelled into the dirt with all of the force of a waterfall pounding into a fly.
She hardly breathed. Dryads were the life of a forest; when they were weak so was the forest, and when the forest was weak, so was Rumaya.
“You’re useless,” the rogue was shouting at the dryad, though the ethereal creature knelt in front of him submissively, her lovely battered face close to his. He swore at her, while his band watched with silent sneers. They were too powerful for Rumaya to fight, so she only lingered as a witness, tied to that spot and the dryad’s pain as surely as if ropes bound her.
Reality flickering, Rumaya closed her door slowly and silently. She backed away, her breathing silent and shallow. She didn’t cry. She didn’t remember how.
“Rumaya!” the roar came through the walls of the kitchen like an earthquake about to level the foundations of all she knew. But she didn’t hesitate.
The bandits had spotted her. They had circled around behind her, where she lay there watching, and they had trapped her in her own woods. Hiding or running would only have her join the dryad in the dirt. All she could do was deceive.
“Fetch me a beer and clean up the kitchen,” her father ordered, they ordered, monsters of men who laughed at the blood on their blades. And then he swept past her, and for one heartbeat she couldn’t hold back the viscous shiver that threatened to tear her up from her roots, like a sapling in a hurricane.
Rumaya averted her eyes from the destruction as she stepped out into the clearing of the road, into the vulnerability of light and space, and felt the danger of exposure bearing down on her like the summer sun in a heat wave. She pressed a finger to her studded leather armour, reminding herself why she had to live through this. She remembered her wish, foolish as all wishes are, to someday escape these woods and find a better world.
The dryad lay broken on the ground. She was crying, her tears sliding along the bark of her body, hissing softly as they hit the earth. She was beautiful.
“Sorry,” Rumaya’s mom said, smiling through her tears. The bruises were new. The words were not.
Rumaya picked up the broken plates, the mug, the weapons he had used. The torn earth of the road was littered with spears and arrows and swords flecked with blood, and in the distance she could hear the laughter of the men as they departed.
Rumaya hugged the dryad once, shuddering against the pain that bled into her flesh through that brief touch, and then she left the dryad there, strewn upon the ground like refuse. She couldn’t linger, couldn’t dream, couldn’t fail. The forest wasn’t safe anymore, for anyone. This was war. This was the end. This was her life.
When the dryad had faded into the shifting colours of the trees and the bandits were gone, for now, Rumaya pulled up her hood and slipped back into the darkest spaces between the trees. She breathed a forced rhythm, echoing that drumbeat calling her from the deep, and uncurled her fingers from her palms.
Her nails left a row of red punctures: the only proof that this was real.