Roses. They're remarkable when you think about it. All across the world, people present them to the ones they most adore. Not as a mere gift, but as a tangible symbol of sincerest love.
A cynic might call such a universal gift 'uninspired'. After all, it's common knowledge that the gesture is replicated millions of times across the world, every year.
Yet the vast majority of people who receive these humble offerings will feel truly special in doing so. To hold one between your fingers is to feel the very affection it represents. Their innate ability to express what is so often inexpressible transcends the borders of spoken language, politics, wealth and even time.
Have you ever wondered why they have such a natural connection to the magic of love? The answer lies in a little-known tale that has never before been recorded for posterity. An ancient tale, that lovers share while embracing naked beneath the stars. A tale of a man named Epimonos.
Epimonos was not a mighty warrior, nor a hero of the great epics. He was a diplomat of no consequence -- a minor envoy dispatched by the Athenian assembly to assist with their governance of Corinth.
There came a point in his journey where Epimonos noticed the road to Corinth was becoming overgrown. Within an hour, he had lost the road completely amid the long grass. With no path to guide him, all Epimonos could do was continue walking in the direction of the setting sun.
Epimonos' wandered across hills and fields until he came upon a lush grove at the foot of a small hill. Trees and bushes of all types and sizes stood all around, yet with enough space between them for a person to move about freely. Melodious birds filled the air with their song as they fluttered between the branches of the taller trees. The ground was covered with grass that was greener that any he had ever seen in his life.
The beauty of this place was almost otherworldly. For a while, Epimonos worried that perhaps he was trespassing on Olympus itself.
Some distance away, behind a dense bush, Epimonos heard what sounded like a soft, distinctly feminine sigh and a simultaneous huff of exertion. As he tentatively ventured towards the odd noise, he was stopped by the most extraordinary sight. Before him, countless patches of clover instantly blossomed into full flower, as if the motions of springtime had suddenly rippled right through the grove.
Epimonos stared at the landscape in sheer amazement, unable to believe his own eyes. He wrestled with confusion until a figure rose up behind the bush where he'd heard the noises. Forgetting about the clovers for the time being, Epimonos strode briskly towards the figure.
As Epimonos came within just a few feet of the bush, the obscured figure suddenly twitched as if it had heard him approaching and been startled. A moment later, it bolted towards a nearby tree, giggling sweetly as it ran. Whoever or whatever it was moved with impressive speed.
Epimonos only caught a brief glance of the figure. But it was definitely a humanoid creature and judging by its slender proportions and hourglass curves, it was female. She seemed to be stark naked and, oddly enough, her shoulder-length hair was the same color as the grass.
Upon arriving at the tree, the creature leapt up the trunk with inhuman swiftness until she had climbed to one of the lowest branches, several yards above the ground.
Driven by curiosity, Epimonos followed her. As he came a little closer he noticed the wide brown eyes staring down at him keenly, from atop the branch. Epimonos was a little uncomfortable being watched from on high like a hawk's prey. Yet somehow he felt the creature meant him no harm.
A second figure arose from the same place the first one had appeared. However, this one moved at a more relaxed pace. As he stepped out from behind the bush, Epimonos could clearly see that this being was just an ordinary man.
The stranger was tall, with a robust physique and looked to be mid-twenties in age. He was cloaked in a toga that he was still in the process of wrapping.
"Hail and well met, friend," the stranger said as he raised his hand in greeting. "I am Odigos of Thermopylae."
"Hail! I am Epimonos of Athens," Epimonos replied with a nod.
The slight bulge in the middle of the stranger's toga made Epimonos uneasy. He hoped it wasn't a sign that the stranger had a carnal interest in him.
"You, too, have come to partake in the hospitality of the great dryads, Epimonos of Athens?" Odigos inquired with a smile.
"Dryads?" Epimonos repeated in surprise. So that's what that flighty creature must have been: a dryad, a legendary tree nymph. He turned his head to see if she was still watching him from her tree branch. She was.
"Uh, no..." Epimonos continued. "It would seem I am lost. I am an envoy making my way to Corinth."
"Ah! You haven't lost your way so much as you've been led astray," the friendly stranger chuckled heartily. Upon noticing the confusion on Epimonos' face, he elaborated, "Many of us have travelled far and wide seeking this garden. Tales abound of its many beauties and pleasures. But then some visitors come to this place without ever seeking it. They are drawn here deliberately by the dryads, with their magic."
"But why? What would they want with me?" Epimonos asked.
"They want from you what they want from all of us, friend; to mate," Odigos explained with a jolly smile. "Every year, at the dawn of spring, the great dryads bring a handful of mortal men into their garden to be their lovers."
Epimonos now understood why Odigos had had an erection when they'd first met, and was relieved to notice that by now it was almost completely gone.
Odigos continued, "These dryads are the mistress spirits of all plants. In order for their species to bloom, they each need a man to fertilize their womanly valleys. We couple with them and flowers all across the world open as we fill them with new life. We are here to bring about spring, and I assure you, friend, it is a most agreeable task."
Epimonos was speechless. Nymphs were notoriously very attractive and very uninhibited creatures. The dryad sub-class was no exception. To be 'chosen' as a consort for a tribe of these women was a marvellous prospect. Yet, an overwhelming one in some regards, also.
"I mean you no disrespect, but it would be foolish to spend any more time conversing with a man, when there are many sweet maidens around willing to offer their company," Odigos said. He was already walking off towards some other area of the grove. "Go! Explore the garden! Enjoy its bounty. There is ample food and fresh water and many comely dryads still waiting to be seeded. The ones who have already been tended are not frigid, either," he advised, before turning his back on Epimonos and leaving.
"Th... Thank you," Epimonos absently replied, after Odigos was already out of earshot.
He turned his gaze up into the towering tree nearby once more. The dryad was still up there, gazing at him. She flashed him a flirty smile before turning and climbing higher until she disappeared among the leaves.
With a bemused sigh, Epimonos left as well, deciding to take Odigos' advice and explore the grove for himself. He found the lovely birdsong that flowed throughout the garden particularly charming.
As he made his way through the garden, he passed dozens of dryads, with their numbers seeming to grow denser the further he explored.
Every single one of them was the archetypal ideal in terms of feminine physique. They were all slender, with long legs and fine hourglass figure. Their breast sizes varied, ranging from almost cantaloupe-sized to being virtually flat-chested. But each one knew how to carry her body in a way that made her extremely attractive. They all moved with confidence, and an enticing sway in their hips. Epimonos' maleness began to grow firm after only a few passing glances at some dryads.
The dryads' were quite varied in their shades of skin (if one could call it skin). Some were as fair as pine timber, some were as dark as ebony, some were lime green, and there were all manner of shades in between. Yet regardless of her color, each dryad had a 'grain' running all across her body, like one would see on a plank of timber. Some even had swirling dark 'knots' upon them in place of birthmarks.
In many regards, they had the appearance of wooden sculptures. Some even had a few leaves or small vines growing from their bodies. Yet they moved with the flexibility of a fit human woman. The breasts of the more buxom dryads were a paradox unto themselves. They didn't jiggle as the creatures walked, suggesting they were solid. Yet Epimonos discovered another human man locked in heated foreplay with a dryad, and he could see her breasts yielding to the man's caress like tender peaches.
Most of the dryads wandered around nude, but some of them wore flimsy brassieres and loin coverings fashioned from large leaves and held together with thin strands of creeper.
Their faces were each unique, yet similar in their faerie-like sweetness. Their features were delicate and they had doe-like eyes that would captivate any man who gazed into them.
As he explored the garden, Epimonos noticed many of the dryads watching him with bedroom eyes. It seemed that satiation for his sexual cravings would be easy to find.
Apart from the dryads, Epimonos had also noticed many fruit-bearing trees along the way. Some of which bore fruit significantly larger than their mortal-world counterparts. He had also seen several other human men. It seemed that fertilizing every plant on earth was a process that required many sires.
He had not actually seen the fresh water that Odigos had mentioned. But he had heard the sounds of a babbling brook on a few occasions.
The garden catered to a man's every essential need. It provided nothing more than the simplest comforts, which in a way was what made it so appealing. Epimonos was sure he would be very happy there.
Even though he had not yet seen the entire garden, he had satisfied his curiosity for the time being. He thought about seeking out a comely dryad to proposition. But before he had a chance to do so, he was distracted by the distant sounds of harp music. Suddenly, his curiosity was piqued once more. The prospect of a harp seemed out of place in a garden that spurned civilization.
Epimonos set off to find the source of the music. He soon realized that the sonata was in perfect harmony with the singing birds. As the notes became clearer, Epimonos found the melody more and more delightful.
His investigation bought him to the top of the small hill at the back of the garden. A tall ash tree with a wide trunk grew at the summit. Just in front of it stood a squat bramble bush that looked almost like a couch in shape. Epimonos could see someone sitting on the 'couch,' with their back to him. At first, he assumed it was yet another dryad. But then he realized that this creature was unlike any dryad he'd seen thus far.
A long, sharp spire protruded from each of its shoulders and the outer sides of its arms were lined with many smaller spikes. The creature's back was likewise covered in many pointy spikes, each between 3 and 4 inches in length. Its hair, which reached partway down its back looked like dark brown pine needles, yet somehow seemed far more hazardous, like porcupine quills.
Epimonos kept following the music, soon realizing that the mysterious creature and the music's source were one and the same. Before the spiky creature sat a shiny golden harp, which she elegantly plucked at with her long, pointy fingers.
As he approached her, Epimonos realized that the creature had much in common with the dryads. Her body was distinctly feminine in shape, with an ample bust swelling above her slender waist. Her olive skin tone had a wooden grain running all across it, too. In fact, the only marked difference between her and the dryads were the spikes all over her body.
Like some of the dryads, the harpist wore a botanical and brassiere and loin covering. Her bra, however, looked like it was made from the tough shell of a seed pod. The cups were covered with thorns, like a prickly pear and the entire neckline looked as if it had been bevelled down to a razor-sharp edge. A skimpy, yet husky plate of bark protected her nether regions. It, likewise, had a razor-sharp edge on top, to cut anyone foolish enough to try to reach inside.
The harpist must have sensed Epimonos' presence as he came within a few feet of her. The music ended and her head whipped around with anxious speed to look at him.
Her face had foreboding characteristics much like the rest of her body. Big, hook-like barbs curled down and away from her cheekbones. A smaller pair protruded from the sides of her chin. The ends of her eyebrows twisted into long, straight spikes that extended several inches away from her face.
Yet beneath those deterrents, her features were just as gentle and sweet as any of the other plant spirits Epimonos had seen. Perhaps even more so.
Her wide, hazel eyes gazed up at him in alarm.
"I... I'm sorry," Epimonos apologized. "I didn't mean to startle..."
Before he could finish his sentence, the creature sank into the bramble couch and seemed to dissolve into its tangle of thorny vines.
"No! Please, don't be afraid," Epimonos humbly protested to the brambles. He wasn't even sure if the creature was still inside. "I mean you no harm. I just wanted to see who was playing that music," he explained.
There was no reaction whatsoever from the botanical couch.
The sudden silence seemed somewhat eerie compared to the pleasant melody that had accompanied Epimonos up the hill. Even the birds had stopped chirping.
"Please come back," Epimonos pleaded. "I won't hurt you. I promise."
He stood there for almost a minute, waiting patiently for the mysterious being to emerge from her thorny sanctuary. Eventually he decided that she had either magically disappeared to some other place, or that she still felt threatened despite his assurances of peace. Feeling disappointed and guilty for scaring the poor creature, he started back down the hill.
A few minutes later, as he wandered the garden, the music resumed. Epimonos smiled.
Gilt in the silvery moonlight, the garden possessed a sense of ethereal serenity. Here, the darkness that fell from the canopies was, oddly, not at all threatening.
Most of the dryads had returned to their trees and fallen asleep shortly after dusk, but a small number of them seemed to prefer the cool of night. The prickly harpist had certainly not retired as Epimonos could still hear her wonderful music. If anything, it was even clearer in the still night air.
Several of the human men had gathered at a small rock formation in a clearing, where their dryad lovers bought them sweet and juicy fruit to dine upon. Epimonos had joined them.
"...Of course, fire is forbidden here, because dryads are made of wood," Afigitis of Marathon explained. Afigitis seemed to be something of an expert in dryad folklore. "That's why men can only be here between the first and the last quarter of the lunar cycle. Otherwise, we would get lost in the darkness."
Epimonos gazed up at the moon overhead. It was more or less full. If the stranger's words were true, that meant he would only be able to stay in the garden for seven more days.
Afigitis continued, "But even though men would technically be able to exist here during the light halves of the lunar cycle all year round, the great dryads typically only welcome visitors at the beginning of spring, because that is the only time they crave our seed."
"I disagree," Mataios of Cyprus replied, "Even if you are correct and the gods remove us from the garden come the moon's last quarter, I shall just return at the next first quarter. I am certain that these maidens will eagerly await my return, as they shall miss the satisfaction I give them," he boasted while caressing the thigh and ass of a smiling dryad who had brought him a pear.
"You may journey as long as you like, friend," Afigatis retorted with a broad smirk, apparently amused by the Mataios' pride. "Having been to the garden does not mean one can find his way back here. It is not actually where you discovered it. It is not anywhere. And yet, it is everywhere.
"The entrance remains hidden, until there is a yearning among the dryads to be seeded. Then it opens exclusively for the men who seek the great dryads' affections, as well as some who exude an aura of impressive fertility. But otherwise, it is impossible to find. Even if you have been here before," the knowledgeable man explained.
The proud Mataios seemed downcast.
"You'll have to find other maidens to satisfy till they crave your seed again," Epimonos joked.
"Oh, I wouldn't count on being invited back here next spring," the knowledgeable man corrected in a serious tone. "The great dryads are not known for calling on old consorts, no matter how sexually adept they are. They take a new collection of lovers every year. Or so the legends say."
"But you said the garden admits for those who seek the dryads?" Epimonos queried. "And if we are enjoyable lovers, why would they reject us when they wish to consort?"
"That is the way of things in nature. The seasons come and go," Afigitis remarked. "A generation mates to bring forth new life and then its purpose is served and it disappears from sight and mind. The next season comes and it is time for the next generation to fill the role.
"The dryads take great delight in mating with us, as you say. But by next year we will have served our purpose as far as they are concerned. We will be relics of a bygone season. And there will be no shortage of virile men willing to fill their wombs with the stirrings of spring," he explained.
A solemn silence came over the small party.
"Savour these days in the garden, friends," Afigitis declared, raising a half-eaten apple in a makeshift toast, "for we may never return."
Several of the other men raised their fruity dinner in agreement.
The conversation drifted into other subjects after that.
Once all the men had had enough to eat, it was time for 'the hunt,' which Epimonos learned was an erotic game the nocturnal dryads liked to play. Essentially, the dryads would tease the men with sensual displays, so the men would chase them through the moonlit garden. Ideally, the chase would culminate in a night time liaison.
Epimonos chased three nubile dryads hither and thither across the garden. But the tree maidens played for keeps and Epimonos wasn't able to catch any of them. The occasional bursts of loud, feminine moaning he heard echoing through the garden suggested that others had better luck claiming their prey.
Eventually, exhausted from all the running, Epimonos paused to rest a moment against a sycamore tree. Within a few minutes his eyes were closed and he was fast asleep.
Epimonos awoke to the lively chorus of a flock of birds, perched in the branches above him. Twinkling specks of the golden sun winked at him through the shifting leaves of distant trees.
The garden was bright and well awake. Many of the dryads were already up and about. Epimonos noticed several of them sunning themselves upon the tops of trees; their backs arched, their pert breasts jutting proudly before glorious Apollo. A sense of contented awe chimed through his heart. Never in his life had a moment felt so perfect. Even the music was breathtakingly beautiful.
The music. There it was again. Those crystal clear chimes of harp strings sweeping through the air.
Epimonos remembered the spiky harpist and felt a renewed urge to praise her wonderful talent.