The village of Oakbridge consists of a bridge, an inn, and a dozen-odd cottages. The whole is enclosed in a circle of enormous standing stones. The circle is split by the river, and the northern half is occupied by the village; the southern half is taken up by an unkempt grove of ancient oak trees. The villagers gather dead wood in the oak grove, and cut back the brush from time to time, but never touch a living tree, and react with hostility to anyone who suggests such a thing.
Zhanh arrived in Oakbridge from the east shortly before the sun set. He was thirsty and out of breath; there was a storm brewing on the western horizon, and he had maintained a much more than comfortable pace for many miles in the now-realized hope of getting under a roof before the rain came. He decided to splurge on a private room, and a bath, and the irony of paying to bathe after spending several hours striving to avoid being rained on was not lost on him. He ate well and was sound asleep before the storm finally arrived. Wall-rattling thunder jolted Zhanh out of a sound sleep; he pulled the pillow over his head and gnashed his teeth until the celestial bombardment finally abated.
The mood in the inn was decidedly gloomy when Zhanh breakfasted the following morning. When the moment seemed right, he asked the landlord what was wrong, and the man scowled at him, then replied, "Mother Tree was struck by lightning last night. She's dying."
"She went out in the storm?" Zhanh asked, and the landlord snorted.
"Mother TREE. The biggest and oldest tree in the grove across the river. You'll see for yourself, if you go south this morning."
"Ah." Zhanh said, and nodded. He finished his breakfast, paid his bill, gathered his goods, and started walking. He saw the tree as soon as he was off of the bridge; it was an enormous old oak, nearly twice the size of any of the others in the grove. Its main trunk had been split nearly to ground level; the weight of the branches was causing the wound to yawn precariously. Zhanh set down his pack and climbed carefully into the tree to examine the damage, then went back across the river and into the inn.
"I think I can save your tree," Zhanh told the landlord.
The landlord looked at him skeptically. "Can you, now?"
Zhanh smiled. "You can do ANYTHING if you have enough time, energy, money, and knowledge." The landlord's scowl deepened at the word "money", but Zhanh continued. "Money or materials. I have time, energy, and knowledge, but I will need a place to sleep and food. And rope, at least a thousand feet of it. And a cart load of shovel handles."
"Strong pieces of wood about that size and shape."
"And that's all? What's in it for you?"
Zhanh smiled. "I'm not sure. Maybe I'm tired of walking all day, and want a few days off of the road. Mostly, I can. And the tree is beautiful, and I don't want to see it die."
The landlord nodded. "I'll see what I can do."
"I'll be at the tree," Zhanh answered, and went back outside.
Zhanh knew the job before him was huge; first he had to bind the sections of the tree together so that they would support each other against the wind, because if either section fell, the tree was doomed. Then he had to carefully remove the splintered wood so that the two sections would mate cleanly when they were drawn together. And THEN he had to actually draw the two sections together, and finally he had to use magic to heal the torn wood. He wondered how much magic it would take; he was certain it would be everything he had for several days.
He wondered if the village would be able to gather the necessary rope and wood, and how long it would take to gather it. He hoped they would succeed; his effort was doomed otherwise. But that was out of his hands, so he climbed into the tree and began scraping away splintered wood.
The rope and the wood arrived in dribs and drabs, first from the village itself, and then from outlying farms, as the word spread that Mother Tree was injured and in need of help. Wagons rolled up bearing varying amounts of rope and wood, and spectators to see the crazy elf with the strange accent. Zhanh first applied several loops of stout rope at a point midway up the tree, and then began adding a series of Beggar's Windlasses at regular intervals as the materials became available.
Just before sunset an old woman called to Zhanh from the base of the tree. "Let it die, Fool!" she shouted. "Can't you see that its time has come?"
Zhanh looked down at the woman and decided he was done for the day; he began to climb down. "I don't think so," he said as he jumped to the ground. "There is too much life left in her, and she is too beautiful, to let her die without a fight."
The old woman swung her crutch feebly at Zhanh, and nearly fell over in the process. "You're an idiot," she said. "No good will come of this."
Zhanh shrugged. "I will do what I will do," he said. "Can I escort you back to the village?"
The old woman spat. "I don't live in the village. Be off with you." Zhanh bowed to her, then gathered his tools and crossed the bridge back to the village.
The next morning Zhanh located the village blacksmith and borrowed a hoe, which he then honed until its edges were razor sharp. He then returned to the tree and continued work, climbing and scraping splinters, honing his tools as necessary, and adding more Beggar's Windlasses as he had material.
As the sun was setting the second day, the old woman again appeared at the foot of the tree and reviled Zhanh as he climbed down, and again he disagreed with her politely and returned to the village.
This pattern continued for three more days, as Zhanh climbed and scraped and honed and knotted. Each evening at sunset the old woman appeared and cursed at him, and each time Zhanh respectfully disagreed.
On the sixth day Zhanh stopped scraping splinters and began to draw the tree back together, slowly tightening each windlass in turn as he climbed up and down the tree. A crowd gathered as word spread that he was "closing the tree", and a few of the younger men even climbed into the tree to help the process along, though they left the highest work for Zhanh. By sunset the windlasses were all bowstring tight, and the tree looked much as it had before the lightning strike-- except, of course, for the occasional patches of white wood along the line of the break. There was a round of applause as Zhanh stepped to the ground, and he smiled and bowed. He let the crowd sweep him across the bridge and into the tavern, and he spent the evening drinking free beer. He told anyone who would listen that the job was less than half done, that it would take a long time and a great deal of magic to actually heal the tree, but no one wanted to hear that.
Later, Zhanh made his unsteady way though the darkness to the tree and spent an hour casting the first of a long series of healing spells. When he finished, he found the old woman standing there, watching him in the darkness. She did not seem quite so frail as she had previously. "You may not be quite the fool that I took you for," she said quietly.
"Thank you for that," Zhanh answered.
For the next several days Zhanh rose early, cast a round of spells, and then rested while his energy returned. Since he spent three or four times as much time resting as he did working, the townsfolk began to wonder if he was working at all. The innkeeper moved Zhanh out of his private room and onto the common room floor, and it was clear that many felt he did not even deserve that. The small gifts of food that had appeared regularly when Zhanh was obviously working hard disappeared, and Zhanh found himself living on water, occasional bread, and an increasingly grudging helping of the daily stew.
The old woman continued to appear every day at sunset, and she at least seemed to appreciate Zhanh's efforts. She also seemed to be less decrepit as each day passed, and the day came when she was no longer leaning on a crutch, but instead carried a large bowl of cold vegetable stew, which Zhanh ate happily.
The healing took twenty-three days, with Zhanh pouring all of the magic he had into the tree four times every day. After the fifteenth day the innkeeper chased Zhanh out of the common room, and he took to sleeping at the base of the tree. The old woman, who looked less old and more spry every day, took to bringing Zhanh cold vegetable stew twice a day.
Finally, in the late afternoon of the twenty-ninth day that Zhanh had been in the village, the healing was finished. Zhanh sat on a branch for a while and looked at the village and the surrounding countryside, and then began to climb down, releasing each windlass and dropping the pieces to the ground as he went. The woman was waiting for him at the base of the tree. She offered Zhanh yet another bowl of stew, and he realized that she now stood straight and tall, and no longer seemed old at all. She was not young, but she was almost painfully beautiful. Zhanh concentrated on his stew so that he would not stare.
"What will you do now?" the woman asked quietly. "Will you tell them that you are finished, and that they can come and get their rope?"
Zhanh met the woman's eyes. "I don't think so. They will figure it out soon enough, and I think that I have had enough of them. I have been in one place too long; there is a grove of trees down the road to the south that I think I can reach before nightfall."
The woman nodded. "Why did you continue, after the people gave up on you?"
Zhanh shrugged. "I didn't do it for them. The tree is beautiful, and I didn't think it was ready to die. In spite of someone's protests to the contrary."
The woman smiled. "I was in a great deal of pain in those days, and I wanted it to stop. I am glad that you ignored me." She took a pendant from around her neck, and offered it to Zhanh. "This is for you," she said. "It will let my sisters, all of them, wood and water and mountain, know that you are a friend."
Zhanh took the pendant; it was an acorn tightly caged in silver wire, and strung on a leather thong. He clutched it tightly in his hand. "My lady... I have not done what I have done for hope of reward, but only for love of beauty. But this... I cannot express my gratitude."
The woman shrugged. "You have given me my life; this is but a token."
Zhanh finished his stew, gave the woman her bowl, and stood. "Fare well is not meaningful to one such as you, is it? Joy, long life, and more joy to you."
The woman smiled. "And to you, Zhanh Redcap, and to you." The woman's soft smile took on a hint of deviltry. "But truly, the day is nearly gone, and you have not yet been a guest in MY home." She offered him her hand. "Take my hospitality, and meet the road at dawn."
Zhanh smiled and took the proffered hand. "I would like that."
Note: "Beggar's Windlass" is a fantasized term for what is known in our world as a "Spanish Windlass".
Edited 12/27/2015 to change the main character from "Plimsoll" to "Zhanh".