It was a leaf.
One singular leaf.
And it fell.
Speaking only in a whisper as it went. Its last cry carried on the wind that took it from its place, its home. It was just the one leaf, falling through the breeze. Calling to me, warning me, as it did.
He is not the same.
That’s what the leaf said.
He is not who you think him to be.
Was the echo the wind gave. Words that spoke of fall, of seasons changing. Words that carried truth to them. A resounding, hollow ring.
I will tell you something that few know:
A forest on the verge of death can only speak truth. It has been that way since always. Since forever. An ancient law, as old and bright as the sun. Which is how I knew:
He was not who I thought he was.
It was spring when I met him, and summer when I decided to stay. All warm, drizzling heat. Comfortable flowers blooming, making space through the fields for gazing. For ogling. For awe. It was spring when I saw him standing among those flowers. Reaching his hand out to them, only for them to shrink back.
“What’re you doing?” I had called to him.
He’d flinched, surprised. When he turned to me, he looked grave. Serious.
“I’m trying to get the dandelion to jump into my hand.”
“Is it working?”
“No,” he’d said, frowning. “It seems my druid magic is not quite what it ought to be.”
Of course, that was it. The hook that got me.
I’d never met a druid before.
That day, he’d told me he was a druid of spring and summer. That the flowers, should he work his magics properly, would grow at his command. Spring forth, and upward. Reach for the skies, should he ask them to.
How beautiful, I’d thought. How splendid.
Druids from the warmer seasons were kind, good creatures. And, while druids from the colder seasons didn’t necessarily mean harm, it was also known that:
They were often up to no good.
Of course, not all of them. Not always.
Being lied to by a colder druid didn’t leave a good taste in your mouth.
Usually, it didn’t mean good things for you. A bad omen. A warning for things to come.
So when the leaf called to me, warning me, and the wind backed its claims, I stopped dead in my tracks, noticing it for the first time. Feeling it. Understanding it.
Chill filled the air.
For a moment, it became so cold I could see my breath. Could feel winter pricking at my skin. Frost trying to dry out my eyes.
I was not ready for fall, for winter.
It was still mid-summer.
“Something wrong?” he’d asked, only half-turning. Afraid to show me the frost in his eyes. The cold glance. Not yet willing to reveal that he’d lied.
That there was something more going on here.
I couldn’t see the shift of the wind. Didn’t know the tethers being pulled, the warmth being harried away. I didn’t feel the way the wind was dying, breaths blowing frost across the ground. Couldn’t feel the way the forest was preparing, harboring twigs and leaves and small things to trap warmth. I couldn’t see any of it, and yet…
I could feel.
There was no way for me to nail it down. No way for me to track it. No starting point that I could see, no logic I could map out for another being. All I knew was:
“You’re getting colder.”
And the way he hunched his shoulders?
The way his bones seemed to freeze?
The way the wind nipped at my ear, whispering to me?
I could tell:
This was no good.
He is angry you’ve seen the truth.
A dying forest never lies.
As he turned to me, we both knew what I would see. Those jagged, ice teeth. Winter’s rage in his eye.
And yet, still.
I still stood.
Tall, unwavering. Swallowing my fear, I kept to my plan. Stuck with what I know. When he turned, I still stood.
And I faced the winter.