The sun was setting, and Susan had discarded her clothes some while ago, but she still felt warm as she crossed a simple wooden bridge over a narrow, fast-flowing stream, and entered the woods.

The trees here were old, and spaced well apart. There was grass, and some bracken well back from the path. The previous spring's gales had taken down a few of the less resilient oaks, and there were a few stumps, mainly growing nothing but fungus now. The council must have dragged the felled trees away, there were still obvious ruts and scars from their activities, but the place did not seem to have been hurt. There were already saplings growing; individual trees may have died, but life went on.

Susan stopped under a massive silver birch, and leant back against its cool, smooth trunk, trying to get her thoughts in order. One of her hands went across under her breasts, and the other one idly explored lower down, kindling the echo of a familiar warmth and desire...

"Excuse me?"

The woman looked like a hiker, with socks and sturdy boots, shorts and a lumberjack- style shirt, but no backpack. Susan hadn't heard her approach, but here she was, standing right in front of her, smiling tentatively. She had ash-blonde hair and tanned skin, and looked no older than twenty.

What would a hiker like this say to a naked woman touching herself up while leaning against a tree, in a wood bordering a golf course not more than twenty miles from the centre of London? Most people would have stayed well clear, Susan decided, and made an effort to stop her fingers from continuing their rather pleasurable explorations. She gave the woman a rather dreamy smile, and waited for her to continue.

"I've been watching you ever since you entered the wood," the woman said, and paused. "Are you lonely?"

Susan had to think about that. She sat down cross-legged on the grass, and the woman crouched down beside her. Lonely. She thought of Christina, how she'd been a year ago when they had first met, her laugh, her touch, the swirl of her hair, sharing a shower, the kiss of breast against breast, and then she thought of platform five at Paddington station, helping her with her luggage as she went off to spend a few weeks with her parents in Ledbury, the final embrace, waving as the train slowly began to move. And then, a month later, hearing about the car crash near Hereford on the radio news and wondering... then reading the names in cold print in the morning paper, seeing the photograph of the car as a half-crushed metal skeleton embedded in the trunk of a massive tree. Her own train trip down for the funeral, the parents, so kind and well-meaning, putting her up overnight in the bedroom next to Christina's...

"Yes, I am lonely," Susan told the woman quietly. "But where were you watching me from? I didn't see you."

"The top of this tree. It's taller than you would think from down here."

Tall it might be, but with its smooth trunk and thin upper branches, not exactly an easy climb, Susan thought. Not exactly a possible climb.

"Getting up there can't have been easy."

The woman smiled again, took Susan's hands, and pulled her to her feet, surprisingly easily. "Oh, there's a trick to it -- I'll show you."

With that, she walked straight into the trunk -- not like a cartoon character not looking where it was going, thunk! -- but through the bark, and into the tree, and holding Susan's hands so that she came too.

The trunk was no more than twenty inches in diameter, so Susan wasn't expecting to be in a room at least forty feet long, thirty feet wide, and at least twenty feet high. The walls weren't solid, either, but screens of interwoven silvery roots, letting sunshine stream in between them. The floor seemed to be a solid red-veined marble, with in the centre of the room a lively, splashing pool of water, continuously fed by a stream which flowed in from one end of the room, and vanished out again beneath the floor.

"I'm dreaming, aren't I?" She turned to her guide, who had let go of her hands while she turned and stared at the room. Were there birds up beneath the ceiling? Was that a fox she glimpsed just outside, looking through the silvery screen for a moment before turning away?

"No, you're not, Susan," the woman said. Her mundane clothing had now vanished, and she wore only silvery chains circling her neck, her waist, and around her brown-tipped breasts. "Things really aren't that simple."

With that, she hugged Susan, and kissed her on the lips. Her breath was warm and invigorating, with the scent of fresh leaves after a rainstorm, and as their breasts pressed together, Susan felt herself renewed, found a fire and a feeling inside that she'd not felt since -- well, not since Christina's death.

The woman gently pushed one leg between Susan's thighs, so that she was rubbing against Susan's pussy. One hand was behind Susan's shoulders, the other one on her bottom, and Susan put her own arms around the slender waist, hugged her new friend to her. Their tongues met urgently, stroking...

She ended the kiss, moved her face a few inches from Susan's, and gave her another smile, while still holding her tight. "How do you feel, Susan?"

"Who are you? Where are we, what is happening to me?"

There was a gently hooting, and an owl flew in from outside, going towards one of the corners of the big, sun-filled hall. The woman watched it for a moment, seemed to be concentrating.

"You ask many questions. My name is Naxienna; I am a dryad, a wood-nymph if you prefer, and we are within my tree. Do not be afraid. I felt your need, and I came to you... But it cannot be coincidence that first you came to me, can it?"

They kissed again, and knelt down together, lay down on the sun-warmed marble. Susan was on her back, and, keeping her knee between Susan's legs, Naxienna kissed her chin, her neck, and then sucked and teased at one nipple, while her hand played with the other. Susan's nipples were jutting now, hard and sensitive, and Naxienna continued down, kissing her belly, her navel, and the start of her labiae, through the soft strands of fine pubic hair. Susan stretched, almost purring with pleasure. "I should feel guilty," she whispered.

Naxienna raised her head, and inserted a finger into Susan; her vaginal muscles accepted it eagerly. "No you shouldn't -- not any more," she replied softly. "Things are different, here ... and now. But hush, this is not the moment for talking."

She bent over Susan's belly, and licked along the now-engorging lips, licked into the pink, sensitive moistness inside. Her tongue was like a living thing, a root seeking moisture; it delved in more deeply, and Susan began to move with it, raising her pelvis. Naxienna's finger was rubbing round Susan's pleasure-bud, and Susan, her hands on her breasts, massaging and rolling them, moaned quietly, and quivered. Tongue and finger grew bolder, more insistent, and Susan rocked and lifted with them, in a timeless ascent to joy. At last she reached the top, and cried out in ecstacy as she peaked, burst, exploded once and again, a series that bucked and gentled her back down to mere incandescence.

She found herself shaking, and realised she was crying, feeling strangely light. Naxienna was lying beside her, hugging her, letting Susan's tears drip onto her breast. "It's all right," she was saying. "Susan, everything's fine -as good as it ever could be, just you wait."

"Christina's dead," Susan wailed. "Oh, I do miss her so much..."

"And that's why you took all those pills, and walked out into the woods?"

She'd forgotten that. The tablets, washing them down and almost being sick, then looking round her flat, and wanting to be somewhere else -- anywhere else. Walking to the fields, not seeing anyone, continuing in a daze shedding shoes, jacket, shedding everything in the clean summer sunshine.

"I should be dead."

"Do living people make love to wood-nymphs?"

"Well, not that I've heard of, but who'd spread that sort of news around?"

Naxienna helped Susan to her feet, and they retraced their steps to the wall. "I can take you through for a moment, but you must hold on to me, Susan."

Susan looked at her. This was a wood-nymph. She accepted that, she didn't know why, but there was no question at all in her mind. She grasped the dryad's hand, and they went through the wall ....

There was a body on the ground. A pretty girl, still young, just collapsed close to the tree. A robin was perched on a stone nearby, watching cautiously, not wanting to be involved but looking ready to help. But there could be no help; there was no movement, no breath animating the pale, immobile flesh. It was Susan lying naked on the grass. She was dead.

Back inside the tree, in the sunlight of the hall, close to the chuckling icy water, Naxienna hugged Susan again.

"I don't understand. I'm a ghost, aren't I?"

"Out there you would be -- but you're not out there. This isn't the suburbs, this is faerie, and here you are alive, truly flesh and blood for as long as you wish, because your body was not dead when I brought you through."

"Inside one tree?"

Naxienna let her go, and moved quickly to sit at the edge of the pool, her legs dangling into the water. She looked over her shoulder at Susan, who moved to follow her example. "The tree is a doorway, not a prison. You came in with me through one side -- if you leave without holding my hand, you will be in the true land, a dear and honoured guest."

"I certainly can't fault the welcome." Susan sat close beside the nymph, who put an arm around her shoulder.

"We nymphs are like that -- hospitable," she said with a broad grin, and quickly kissed Susan on her jawline. "But it also helped to distract you from the moment of your body's physical death."

Naxienna helped Susan back to her feet, and lead her to the far wall. The sunlight was still streaming in, although dusk had been falling in Susan's old world, which was feeling less real with every passing moment. Dappling shadows of leaves, a breeze which was just the tight temperature, a clean scent of woodlands after a shower. "You must go through alone," Naxienna told her.

"I'll come and visit you."

Naxienna smiled a knowing, mischievous smile. "I know you will -- and I don't think you'll come alone."

"You think I'll make friends here?"

"Well, I'm not the only doorkeeper to faerie. Other nymphs with other trees have been known to bring a friend through... or someone who was dying close to them."

Susan saw that newspaper photograph again. The car, wrecked and gutted ... the tree. She began to shiver, and fresh tears appeared in her eyes. "Naxienna, I'm scared, it's been..."

"Hush, don't be a baby. Go through -- now!"

Susan passed through the silver tracery as if through mist, into the sunlight of the ancient, unspoilt forest. And a figure, naked as she was, was running towards her, arms flung wide...


It was. They lunged into each other's arms, laughing and crying -- and then their lips met, for the first time in much too long.


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