Leila opened her eyes for the first time.
Tiny beads of humidity blanketed her naked skin, catching light from the faintest rays of sunshine peeking through the canopy. She was in fetal position upon the damp earth, arms threaded between her thighs and knees pressed against her breasts. She blinked a few times before tilting back her head, peering up at the arms of the tree she rested beneath. Then she heard something, a high pitched sound that had a rhythm and melody, and she realized it was coming from a small bird with a red forehead and bright yellow chest sitting on a branch above.
She smiled before her mouth open in wonder.
Leila rolled over onto her back and stretched her arms and legs, easily six feet tall if she ever decided to stand up. She interlaced her fingers beneath her head, gazing up at the leaves, and digging her heels into the dirt. Another bird called out from the distance and she tried to replicate the sound, bracing the back of her throat and pressing the tip of her tongue behind her bottom row of teeth. The attempt delighted her, evoking a ringing laughter from somewhere behind her eyes and nose.
But someone else was laughing, too.
She sat up and pressed her back against the base of the tree, eyes darting left and right before locking eyes with someone emerging from the foliage ahead. He wore a red tunic and brown gloves, carrying a bow in one hand as he stepped forward, smiling at her. Leila had never seen a man before. She was horrified, yet mesmerized at the same time. He must have felt her fear because he knelt down in front of her, about ten feet away, one arm draped over his knee and his other hand resting on the ground.
“Hello, bright eyes,” he said.
Leila swallowed and said, “Lo.”
He laughed again, lowering himself to the ground and wrapping his arms around his knees. She was afraid of him because he was strange to her, but she could not ignore her natural desire to gaze upon his face and lean toward him.
The man placed his hand on his chest and said, “I am Arthur.”
“Thoor,” she said.
Another laugh and, “Yes, that’s right. That will do. And you, what shall I call you?”
Although Leila had never spoken her name before, she seemed to know deep down what it was, a combination of song and sigh that rolled off the tongue with ease. It pleased her to say it, and even more to say it to him.
“That’s a beautiful name,” Arthur said.
Leila crawled forward, her brown hair falling over her shoulders and swaying. Just in front of him, she sat back on her heels and offered her right hand, palm up. Arthur took off his leather glove and held her hand in his, meeting her gaze and wanting nothing more than to hold her against his body and kiss her neck. He wanted to smell the earth on her back and run his thumb over her hip. Leila’s quiet strength buffered his self control, and then he knew what she was.
“Ah, Leila,” he said. “You are a dryad.”
She smiled, pulling his hand to her chest.
He removed a leaf from her hair and looked up at the tree behind her. “And is this your tree, sweet nymph?”
Leila turned to look and she nodded with understanding.
“Extraordinary,” he said as he stood up and approached the tree, still holding Leila’s hand. “She looks old and very wise.”
Arthur turned to Leila and placed his hands on her shoulders, tracing her collar bones with his thumbs. She pressed her palms against his chest, assessing the fabric of his tunic with her fingertips.
“It’s curious that you should appear in my moment of need. For a year now, I’ve been seeking the answer to a question, and it escapes me. Being with you only makes it harder to discern. What do women most desire?”
Leila seemed to ponder his words as Arthur squatted at the base of the tree, leaning back against it and pulling a small knife from his boot. He dug the tip into one of the roots, then dropped it, startled by Leila’s sharp cry. She fell forward, placing her hand over the spot where his knife pierced the bark. Arthur reached for her, but she recoiled. She glared at him as if a wounded woman, ready to retaliate. Her warmth was gone.
“Leila, I’m so sorry. It was thoughtless,” he said.
He reached for her again, but she shrugged him off, avoiding his eyes and staring at the ground. The silence stretched for miles between them and he could feel her spirit harden against him. For a moment, Arthur imagined bringing her home with him. He could make her his wife, his queen. She would bear his children and become the face of the kingdom. She would be a woman, not a spirit. So long as this tree lived, Leila could easily outlive him. His fantasy ended when he felt her hand upon his. Their eyes met and she smiled, but she also shook her head.
“No, Thoor,” she said.
What do women most desire?
They stood together, fingers interlaced. Arthur wanted to wrap his arms around her naked body and press his mouth to hers, but now he knew the answer to the question. His life as a soldier and a king was made up entirely of choices, and sometimes making choices against another’s will. Arthur could not bring himself to overpower her despite the fact that he could. He could not bring himself to seduce her with empty promises, nor threaten the life of the tree. He waited to see what Leila wanted, to see what she would choose, if she would choose him.
Leila’s lips were on his.
Then, she was gone.
“To choose,” he said. “The power to choose.”
Written by: Natasha Akery
Photograph by: Angela DeRay