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When the Guardian Returns

Ash and the Whispering Woods

By Mary K BrackettPublished 4 months ago 11 min read
"Ash the Wood Dragon" - Photo by M.K. Brackett April 28, 2019

Nicole opened her eyes slowly and blinked into the too bright light. For a moment, she stared up into the tree canopy above and watched the leaves sway in a gentle, but steady breeze. Small glimpses of the bright blue, cloudless sky raised questions. As did the fact that the sun seemed to be directly overhead, blocked intermittently by a broad tree canopy.

She lifted herself up onto her elbows, grunting at the sudden throb in her head. Closing her eyes for a moment, she slowed her breathing until the throbbing began to ease and then slowly eased them back open to take in the scene in front of her.

She was met by a well-worn path that trailed from beneath her legs, through a thick undergrowth of ferns and small bushes that looked like huckleberries. Oak and ash stood on either side of the path, above, and all around her in what looked to be a thick forest. Acorns and ash seeds dropped sporadically as the wind blew through the leaves above. The former bouncy around her like little bombs as they hit the ground, but thankfully missed hitting her. The latter, twirling lazily in their slow, one-winged descent, swaying back and forth on the breeze as if searching for the best landing on the ground below.

Her frown deepened.

This is all wrong.

She had been in the paddock with Dancer, feeding him a carrot after school. Which meant it was about four o’clock when there’d been a clattering in the trees at the edge of the paddock that had startled him and made him rear in panic. “Pine trees,” she murmured to herself, “birch, ash, maple. Elm?” She tipped her head slowly, careful of the pain, and frowned at the oak towering above her. “No oak.” She blew air out her nose in frustration. “Definitely no oak.”

The breeze gusted through then and sent up a rustling of foliage that sounded uncannily like laughter. “Noooo oooak,” it seemed to whisper back. “Aashh.”

Nicole snorted. “Not funny,” she snapped, and immediately rolled her eyes at herself. “Okay. I’m dreaming. Dancer must have knocked me out rather good.” She’d have laughed if there wasn’t such an undercurrent of doubt in that thought. Surely her head wouldn’t hurt so bad if she were dreaming. Right?

She brushed away the acorns on the moss beside her so she could get her hands onto the softer ground beneath and push herself further upright. Pushing up and back, she slid herself into a sitting position and towards the oak behind her so she could lean against it, but the sudden motion sent sparks of white lightning shooting through her vision. The throbbing renewed with intensified vigor and the world around her spun in a nauseating kaleidoscope of greens and browns. “Definitely. Not. Dreaming,” she groaned through gritted teeth, locking her right elbow so she could stay upright through the pain, and doing her best to regulate her breathing until it eased.

“Dreeeamiiiing,” the wind echoed softly. Then the leaves tittered in reply, “aaawaaake!” and giggled like an amused child.

Her eyes were open in an instant and the pain in her head forgotten. She had taken the whispers initially as echoes of her words, though maybe a little delayed. Or. Out of order? But she hadn’t said the word “awake.”

“Aaash,” the wind whispered again, and this time Nicole felt as if it was calling to someone.

“Who iss sheee?” the leaves rustled in reply.

A soft clatter of branches and a crunch of acorns to the right, nearly made her jump up and run. Only the quick turn of her head towards the sound and the bright flashes of light across her vision reminded her that running was about as likely in her current condition as standing up without falling over.

“Who? Who’s there,” she croaked, throat going suddenly dry with rising panic.

The breeze died and the whispers fell silent. The woods became so silent then that Nicole fancied she could hear her own heartbeat thudding wildly in her chest.

There was nothing there, except a strangely familiar deadfall framed between two small oaks. The fallen ash tree and its bundle of broken branches had always looked like the shape of a dog laying on its stomach, its neck and long head outstretched and watching her beneath the paddock fence from the edge of the wooden area behind her family’s property. Sometimes, when Dancer was being a little less than social, her friends were busy, and she was feeling a bit lonely, she had pretended it really was a dog, had named him Ash, and told him of her day.

Now though, her deadfall, ash-wood dog confident wasn’t laying down at the edge of the woods on its stomach watching her. No. It was sitting upright, long straight legs in front balancing the bulk of the pile back on its haunches, while what she had always considered the head gazed back at her through a pair of dark spots in the wood that looked hauntingly like eyes.

She swallowed. Then she giggled. High pitched and sounding hysterical, “Ash,” she repeated, realizing as she’d said it that was what the wind had been calling.

As if in answer, the wind blew up again and sighed. “Aaash.”

“O. Kay,” she said then, feeling the dried blood on her forehead where Dancer’s hoof had just barely clipped her before she’d thrown herself backwards to get out of the way. Maybe she’d hit a rock and the blow had knocked her senseless. Clearly, she was hallucinating. Gently probing the back of her head where the pain was sharpest, she found a small, rising lump where she’d hit the ground, but no dried blood. “Small concussion maybe,” she murmured to herself.

A soft rustle, scattering of acorns, and clatter of wood brought her attention back to Ash, the deadfall dog, which she was beginning to suspect had been the cause of Dancer’s panic and her current predicament.

She opened her mouth to give him a piece of her mind about it. Then just as quickly closed it again with a snap of teeth before her mouth fell back open of its own accord and would not close again.

The deadfall was gone.



She blinked at the open space between the two small oaks. Took in the broken and bent ferns that held the only clue that something large and heavier than they had been there only moments before. A strange gurgling sound rose up and it took a few heartbeats for Nicole to realize it was coming from her. “I. I. I. I gotta go,” she finally got out.

“Where?” the wind whispered.

“Home,” she croaked back in reply. “My. My parents must be looking for me.” Somehow, she must have staggered out into the woods from the paddock, lain down, and slept through the night, well into the next day. Which could only mean her parents must be looking for her. That would explain why she didn’t recognize where she was. Would explain why the sun was back at midday, high in the sky, instead of evening and dropping towards nightfall.

Taking a step forward, she teetered and had to place a hand on the oak to steady herself.


Dang it all.

There wasn’t an oak within miles of where she lived.

There was no way she would have been able to walk more than a few feet, let alone miles, to find the nearest stand of oak trees or even just far enough to lose sight of the paddock and her house. “Where am I?” she whimpered.

“Here,” the leaves rustled.

“Very freaking funny,” she snapped, and kid you not, the ferns all around her laughed. She would have sat down and cried, but just then something nudged her side and Ash, the deadfall dog, pushed his head up under her arm to look up at her with those dark-spot eyes. A piece of the wooden head split downward, and a thin slice fell out of the gap to one side, looking for all the world like a big dog with its tongue hanging out as it gazed up at her. Waiting.

Again, the woods went silent.

“Uh. I, uh.” Her thoughts went silent too and she kept opening her mouth but nothing else would come out. So, she did the only sensible thing possible.

Nicole gave Ash a pat on the head.

Instantly, the two dark spots condensed into slits that looked like upturned crescent moons and the split in the wood that looked like a mouth, widened at the edges, and curved into a big, woody, doggish grin. Then Ash’s eyes opened again, if you could call it that, the dark spots merely getting larger until they were circles once more. He turned his head and pointed down the path with his snout, while pushing his head upwards under her arm so that his bulk supported her body against it.

“Where are we going?” she heard herself ask and before she could tell herself how crazy that seemed, the ferns and berry bushes along the path bowed in the same direction.

“This way,” the wind whispered through the leaves.

Ash leaned his bulk forward, pushing her to take a step, then another as he stepped forward with her.

“But where are we going to?” she clarified. “Destination?”

That odd wooden head turned towards her as they continued to move forward and that toothy, crescent-eyed smile told her all she needed.

“Okay. Somewhere safe. Home? Ash’s home?”

Ash perked up and the rustling of the leaves all around them sounded like applause.

“Hmph, deep in the Whispering Woods, no doubt.”

A deep, grating sound, of wood rubbing on wood, bubbled up from deep within Ash’s bulk.

“Are you laughing at me?”

The wood, deadfall then made a sound like a sneeze and dipped its head.

“Apology accepted. Bad enough, everyone else thinks this whole situation is funny. I’m injured, lost, all alone…”

The wood grating rumbled up again, but with a deeper, growl-like tone and a tree limb dipped down from an oak to brush its leaves gently across her shoulder.

“Sorry. I guess I’m not used to addressing trees and plants as if they can understand me. So, right. I’m not alone and apology accepted.”

A loud percussion of acorns hitting the ground sounded behind them and Ash helped her turn to look back. A large knot in the oak she’d been laying under stared back with large, wisdom-filled eyes and she found herself blushing with embarrassment.

“Oh! Uh, and thank you for watching over me while I was out,” she stammered. Feeling foolish for addressing a tree.

Until it smiled and bent slowly forward into a bow that left her gaping.

Ash turned her and got her moving forward again with her mouth still hanging open in shock.

Before long they came to a little brook where Ash stopped and barred her from trying to cross, instead nosing at a small, moss-ringed pool at the edge of the bank until she knelt to take a drink. The cool water felt good on her parched throat, but while it quenched her unexpected thirst, it also awoke her hunger. As she reached down to fill her cupped palms with more water, an apple the color of the sky rolled up against her knee.

Along the way, Ash found berries of all sorts, some mushrooms that tasted very much like chicken, and wild carrots. Nicole ate her fill and found her energy increasing as the pain in her head finally subsided completely. “So how much farther?” she called to Ash, who, no longer needed as her crutch, was bounding, dog-like once again along the path ahead, wood-tongue lolling to one side of his open-mouthed grin.

A loud clap of wood on wood, resounded through the woods like a dog’s bark.

Which of course, stopped Nicole in her tracks as the humor of that suddenly hit her. Along with the complete craziness of her situation.

Ash cocked his head at her as she laughed.

“Oh, my goodness,” she gasped between full-bellied laughter, “don’t you see?” Chortle. Snort. “You. You.” Guffaw. “Barked!”

Ash stared.

Then he growled and stalked off up the path with his long wooden tail dragging.

It took a minute more to sober and follow him. “I’m sorry, buddy.” Snicker. “You have to admit it is funny though.”

Ash’s bulk expanded and retracted in what could only be explained as a heavy sigh, but his tail lifted from the dirt and Nicole knew she’d been forgiven.

Moments later, as they walked side-by-side, she was certain Ash was laughing to himself. Before she could comment though, they came to what at first appeared to be the end of the path. A wall of leaves rose before them and curved inward to either side of the path in what Nicole could only describe later as the outer edge of must be the largest willow tree in the universe.

Ash pushed through the curtain of leaves and disappeared behind it, so Nicole cautiously used her hands to push the long, thin branches of leaves apart to follow. The willow that stood at the center of the large clearing beyond was at least four feet wide at trunk and rose above them at least a couple hundred feet, but even more impressive and awe-inspiring was the large lilac tree that was at that moment turning to face them.

“You’re a. A. D-, d-…”

“A dryad. Yes,” she laughed, the sound echoing out around them like the rustling of leaves.

Ash went over to a pile of leaves, circled three times, then curled up to watch them, his head propped up on his long tail.

“I see Ash found you,” the dryad stepped close and released some water over the wound on Nicole’s forehead, using her leaves to first clean and then bandage it. “I was beginning to think you weren’t coming. Then where would we all be? Hmm?” The dryad took a step back, took Nicole’s chin in one lilac-scented hand, and stared at her with deep purple eyes. “I am Lila. It is good to finally meet you, Nicole. Ash has told me so much about you.”

“I don’t understand.”

Lila smiled and let her hand drop away. “I do not understand myself. I do not know if anyone does. Except the Queen. The Queen told me that one day I would lose Ash, but not to worry. He would find you. Then you would both find me.” Lila swirled in place, leaves and lilac blossoms flowing like hair down into a long gown, so one could not distinguish where the former stopped and the other began. When everything settled again, Lila yawned, “These things have come to pass. Rest child, new Guardian of our Wood. Night falls. In the morning, you meet the Queen.”


About the Creator

Mary K Brackett

Mary Brackett is a novelist, poet, & award-winning short story author. She has authored and co-authored articles for magazines with her husband and is currently writing a series of novels with her talented daughters.

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Comments (1)

  • Ameer Bibi4 months ago

    Your passion is contagious. Keep pursuing your dreams with unwavering dedication.

Mary K BrackettWritten by Mary K Brackett

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