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“Hello, darling. I’ve brought you pecans.”

The squirrel hiding in the tree popped its head out to peer down at the pretty redhead as she proffered her offering up to it. Cautiously, it scampered onto the branch and bobbed its head over the side. Diving into the pile, it plucked out one nut and began to nibble it, small hands clinging to the large-compared-to-its-head meat.

This isn’t the first time Hilda has fallen in love with an ensorcelled animal. It's not as inappropriate as it seems on the surface, of course. For centuries she'd protected this woodland, and for centuries humans had foolishly stumbled into enchantments, tumbled into brooks, hurt themselves doing simple tasks any animal could complete in a trice. She thought of her old lovers with chagrin and amusement in equal parts - there had been a deer, for instance, who had begun life as a hunter. He'd been transformed by drinking from an enchanted brook, then taken a bullet to his shoulder. She had turned him back to a human being at the border of the forest after a month of nursing him back to wellness and, wide-eyed, the man had never returned in spite of her tender loving care. But, Hilda was certain, he came away understanding his quarry more fully than he had before his time in hooves.

There have been other former-humans too – children running from unloving families. Scholars trying to learn new things about the small mammals. Young women who found freedom in the joy of being an animal, untamed and untrammeled by the universe.

This particular squirrel had come upon her forest while running from evil. What that evil was and what it had done to them came out in soft chatters and nickering noises over the past few months. There had been a wicked stepfather, someone who did not consider the old maid daughter of his new wife a member of the family. She was to be married off to a wealthy man of their choosing the morning after she fled to the woods, gliding on rumors spread by the servants that the magical forest bordering their land was a timeless place completely impenetrable to untrusting humans. And so Hilda had made her a squirrel, knowing all the while that either she might become an animal permanently if she stayed in this body for more than a year and that if she turned the woman back into a human being there was the risk that she wouldn’t be able to adjust to the eternal joy of Hilda’s wood.

For all of her life, Hilda had lived simply. The animals had been her companions. She had roamed the countryside, simply dressed, skinny dipping in the summer, scampering unaffected through the drifts, pushing piles of leaves aside with a sweep of her arm – always generous in spirit and lush of body. This girl was a new complication, and one that left her a little bit afraid of the future.

She put the wish in the girls’ paws. With soft chitters, she explained that she wanted to stay with Hilda – the only person who had ever shown her such kindness.

Hilda knew what she must do. The words of the spell came to her lips, perfectly familiar after all of these years. In the tree, spread along across a sturdy branch, was a naked woman, her dark eyes wide, her dark skin gently burnished by the setting sunlight. She sat up cautiously and brushed a small leaf from her decolletage and smiled nervously.

And then and there – though it had been bubbling in her immortal blood cheerily for so many months - for the first time in centuries, for the first time since that errant hunter - Hilda fell in love with a mortal being.