A crunching of leaves roused Oliana from her unheralded slumber. Remembering herself, she tried to rise and keep running.
“A-agh!” she cried out from the pain that surged through her body. She could barely move, let alone flee.
“I hear you, you little rat! I’m coming for you!” the general’s voice pierced through the dark forest. The crunching drew closer and closer. “Relax, child. The more you move, the more it hurts. I can hear your pain.”
Oliana tried desperately to crawl away, but it was just as the general said. Each movement came with a new and sharper sting. And then she noticed something.
A bizarre silhouette appeared before her, outlined by pale birch trees in the moonlight. Its amorphous outline gave it a strange, monstrous appearance, though it looked as if it were made of foliage. This was not the general.
It crept closer, silent and nimble, until the form collapsed beside her. Oliana became swallowed in the darkness of a mossy cloak.
“Shh,” she heard the stranger beside her warn. “Lie still and wait. He cannot see us,” the whisper sounded like that of an ordinary man.
The crunching continued to escalate. “Really dear, it’s no use playing this game. You’ll die out here if you don’t come with me,” the general said. Oliana felt a damp hand slowly cover her mouth. “I can wait ‘till daylight, if you prefer. I may not know where you are, but I know you’re not going anywhere.” A final crushing of leaves indicated that the general had taken a seat on the forest floor.
Hours passed until Oliana could see pinkish rays of light creeping through the mossy mesh. Do I dare look? She resolved to turn delicately to her side and saw two wide eyes like hazelnuts staring back at her.
He had the overall appearance of a young man, but his skin, while very tan, sported a greenish tinge. His hair fell in loose, dark locks around a wild expression that seemed painted on his face.
It began as a rumbling in the ground like that of an empty stomach. Oliana could feel something beneath her moving, creaking forward. Snapping branches? she wondered. She looked at the stranger and saw reassurance in his eyes. The noise grew louder and louder, and they could hear the leaves crumbling again. “Is that you, young chief? Still alive, are you?” asked the general. More crunching. More creaking.
A great crack sounded from the earth nearby. Oliana heard the muffled screams of the general mingle with fallen leaves. Her breath quickened with panic. The green lad just held a finger to his lips and kept still. A few moments later and the sounds of the struggle went quiet as Oliana’s companion stood up. “Well, that’s that, then!” he exclaimed.
“Awful introduction. Where are my manners? Ghillie Dhu, at your service!” he held out his hand to help Oliana slowly rise.
“What happened? Where is he? How could he not see us?”
“Everyone knows if you sit in one place for too long in these lower woods you become tree fodder,” he said matter-of-factly. "Those were roots."
Oliana looked at him with a bewildered look to match his own. “Why weren’t we eaten, then?”
“I’m a faerie. Trees don’t eat faeries. As for him not seeing us, well, faeries are invisible to adult-types, and you're not quite there yet. I try to help all the lost children I come across.”
“A faerie? I remember my mother telling me stories about your kind. But you were little folk in the stories, inches tall. And you didn’t exist. Not really." She felt compelled to ask him, "How could you possibly exist?”
"That's an interesting question! How could you possibly exist? Anyway, I think life would be so much less interesting if we never discovered we were wrong about some things." His head twitched as he spoke as if he were a timid squirrel. "I do exist. And as payment for saving your life, you may tell me your name, young maiden."
"Yes, thank you so much. I'm sorry, I would have shown my gratitude earlier, I was just... surprised. My name is Oliana. Do you have any water? Food?"
"I have just what you need, Oliana," Ghillie said. He pulled out a canteen from his belt. The belt and the tunic he wore were both made of woven leaves that had somehow managed to stay green despite the season. "Drink this. It's water from a healing spring nearby. You'll be feeling better very soon."
Oliana let the refreshing liquid touch her dry lips and quench her aching body. She had to stop herself from imbibing the entirety of the canteen's water. Her strength returned to her straightaway, and she could see that her cuts and bruises had faded to nothing. She was no longer even hungry.
"Remarkable," she breathed.
"So... what brings you here?" asked Ghillie in a chipper voice.