This story is copyright © 1998 Samuel Marshall. All rights reserved. May not be distributed without permission of the author.
[musical support: massive attack - "mezzanine" ("You're not my savior, but I still don't go ... I could fake it but I still want more"), ltj bukem "progression sessions"]
* * *
Gentle ripples drifted across the surface of the pool, making green-tinged sunlight flicker over the surroundings in slowly shifting patterns. Above, tiny gaps in the forest canopy were the only sign of what, down below, was a clear area amidst the trees. The pool made the centerpiece of this area, almost filled it, the water's edge a confusion of rocks on the one side and tree roots on the other. A trickle of water filtered down the tumbled wall of stones that made up the hillward border, a trickle that would become a seething waterfall in thaw. Now, midsummer, it produced only a soft murmur of sound, and the slightest of waves on the pool's surface.
The elf sat on one grassy bank, her legs dangling over the edge. Bare feet, pale and narrow, brushed the water; occasionally a twitch of her toes made a small disturbance in its surface. She wore short pants and a kind of smock, both made from a thick, durable cloth and dyed forest-green. Intricate patterns, in the same subdued green, decorated her arms and curled subtly around part of her neck and cheeks also. Her face, revealing nothing of her age and little of her feelings, she held high but angled down, staring at the water, large almond eyes unfocussed. Around it fell locks of long dark hair, seeming untamed but not snarled.
"I am unsure what to do," she admitted quietly. Nobody else was near; she talked to herself or to the pool or both, a habit that - in the absence of other company - was common for her.
High in the trees upslope a songbird chirped nervously, catching the elf's unease, and fluttered away. She glanced its way, distracted, and sighed, looking momentarily smaller than her already slight stature.
"They wish to fell this entire forest, not simply a few trees, to build some fortress. Humans, still fighting after all these years... I had thought they might grow out of it." She looked down, tensing inwards guiltily. "I should have paid them more attention. Perhaps there was something I could have done..."
A breath of wind stole through the clearing, wrinkling the pool with tiny shivers and caressing the elf. "Regardless. I went to the loggers' camp, spoke to the leader. He seemed a kind-hearted man, but still he would not hear my pleas. All I saw to do was to take their tools and hide them, but they will get new ones sent in a few days, and keep a guard on those..."
Hesitantly a small red squirrel approached her, twitching its tiny ears in a question. She made room in her lap, smoothing out the fabric for the little creature to climb on. Nodding brief thanks, she stroked its fur slowly, carefully, concentrating on that for a moment. The distraction didn't last long, and she smiled sadly at the squirrel. "Your kind and the like will be hard hit. I doubt many of you will survive." She looked up at where the bird had been perched; though it had flown away rather than offered comfort, she bore no grudge; that was the way birds were. "Perhaps those who can fly will do better."
The squirrel peered up at her, its eyes pleading to the elf's, asking that she might cheer up. It sensed her mood, as she could sense its, but it had no way to understand the problems that faced her. "I suppose you're right," she admitted ruefully, "I should not give up yet. There is still hope."
She leaned forward a little over the water - careful not to dislodge the squirrel - staring into the depths for inspiration. None came, until her own reflection wakened a glimmer of an idea. This human might not take notice of her, but perhaps if she made a stronger use of her charms... perhaps then she could have him do as she pleased. With a touch of the magic that was her birthright, she should easily be able to make herself appear irresistible to a simple human.
She winced a little. The idea was somewhat dishonest, but her small evil would have to be borne, if it could save the forest. In fact, it would also help the human, since he would not be guilty of that larger evil, so it could almost be viewed as a good act... but she put back the thought quickly, recognizing where that path would lead. No. Seducing the human would be an evil act, but she would have to do it anyway.
Of course, there were other dangers and discomforts as well as the slight tainting of her spirit, but those she would have to bear and could; she was not weak, not when her own protected lands came under threat.
"I must make ready," she said aloud, and gently lifted the squirrel from her lap. She gave the creature her blessing (for whatever that was worth) and it scampered off, relieved to leave its elf in a better state.
Experimentally, she ran a hand through her hair, pleased with its fullness and strength. She smoothed it back behind her ears, making sure to show them to full effect - briefly she paused. Although she judged the angle and point of her ears a pleasing feature, to a human they might look alien, whatever magical glamour she wore... should she hide them instead? No, she decided, there would be an allure to the difference.
Standing up, she cast about for something to tie her hair, and wildflowers for its adornment. She moved gradually away from the area in her search, giving a brief glance over her shoulder. A tight beam of late-afternoon sunlight sloped down into the pool, glittering brightly from the branches and leaves that crossed its path. That was a good omen. She hoped.
* * *
Next day the sky was clouded and overcast, and threatened a reversion to spring rain. The pool's water reflected gray, and though it was still brighter here than in the rest of the forest, the light was subdued and indirect. There were none of yesterday's startling contrasts or sparkling reflections.
Even so, the elf - appearing seemingly from nowhere, as usual - seemed happier.
"I think it is working," she announced to nobody in particular. She crouched in her place on the grass, balancing on both feet at the very edge of the bank. "We talked quite a lot, myself and the human leader. I did not really expect that..."
Her pretext for meeting the man had been to further discuss the forest's fate. Leaving that problem still unresolved, they had shared life histories. In her case these were mostly stories of long ago, from before she'd settled down. The human's more recent tales had centered around the various things it seemed humans needed to do in order simply to survive. It was a strange life, a rather worrying life, the decisions of which seemed to consider nothing at all except humans, and precious few of those.
His readiness to talk, though, had reassured her, and she had caught him staring at her a number of times. When she'd suggested, adding what she hoped was the appropriate veiled hint in her body language, that they continue the discussion the next evening, he had agreed instantly.
"I think," she told the pool, "that I have him." She felt a little guilty already at the deception, especially as this particular human was really rather a pleasant specimen. But he was still the one in charge of the destruction of her forest, and she pushed the guilt away.
"I cannot keep him waiting long. He told me the new axes would arrive tomorrow, so tonight I must sway him fully to my side." She grimaced at her reflection.
"Perhaps, after I win him over, he could even help me for a time. It seems that these humans at the logging camp are working under the control of somebody else, so my human could tell this leader not to cut wood here." The situation puzzled her; she understood the concept of a leader, but having two levels of order leader, and one in a far-off place, didn't seem to make any sense. It was something to do with money, small round metal objects which, apparently, humans needed in order to get food and other necessities. She didn't quite see why they couldn't just grow what they needed to eat, or hunt if they insisted on meat, but then, perhaps humans weren't supposed to be understood.
Still, the news was good, and tonight she would be at her absolute best, in order to make certain of this human. It was a long time since she'd needed to impress others with her appearance, and some of the techniques were coming back to her. She wandered away to find the plants and flowers she needed - for dye, for scent - leaving the pool to its smooth ripples of gray.
* * *
It was shortly after dawn the next day when the elf returned. Wildlife scattered from her path, even the adoring squirrel disappearing about its business, in the wake of her emotions.
"Things," she burst out, before even sitting at the pool, "did not go as I had planned."
Fighting to control herself, regain the serenity that should be hers by right, she made herself sit down carefully. She didn't crouch; in this state of mind, she might even lose her balance.
"I-" she began, then stopped herself, forced herself to put things in order and regain some semblance of normality.
"We talked some more last night, a lot more. I learnt more about human culture, perhaps I even understand some of it; I do not understand why they put up with it, but that is another matter." She stared for a moment at a toad trying to climb out of the far side of the pool, onto the rocks; more effects of her unquiet mind. Forcibly, she calmed herself, bringing her thoughts under the same control as her voice; this wasn't the way to treat yourself, but it would have to do.
"Then we made love, and it wasn't as bad as I had expected. Perhaps because, in truth, by then, I had fallen for the human.
"I know," she told a non-existent audience. "That was not supposed to happen. Perhaps it was just that I have been without similar company for a long time, or perhaps because he told me enough about his situation that I cannot help but feel sympathy.
"I do not think he feels much for me, perhaps he likes me a little. He was playing the same game I tried, to make his task easier. I can hardly blame him."
She stared at the water for a long moment. "He is going to begin destroying the forest soon. There is nothing I can do against his team. I have already forgiven them."
The impact of her admission took a while to settle. Forgiveness was normal, expected. She would be an unwell elf indeed if she did not forgive. But that forgiveness implied she had given up all hope of preventing the destruction, implied the forest she loved and held a duty for was doomed. She had not spoken a vow to protect this area; but throughout the past decades, she had lived it.
"Perhaps, if I had not become too interested in this human, I could have found some way to defeat his plans. I am sorry. I have failed you."
She spoke to the pool below, or to all the forest. Seeing movement, she glanced to one side, and saw the red squirrel, venturing close to her once again. In the trees high above, a bird - the same one as before - had just settled uneasily on the branch, though it did not sing.
In the distance, a tearing thud indicated that logging had begun. It was followed soon after by others, eating into the forest in a wide front with over a hundred men to work. Within a few days or weeks, the area would be devastated.
The elf bowed her head in final apology. A single tear hung on her cheek, glittering slightly in the orange near-dawn light. With all her remaining energy, she extended a blessing and apology to the creatures and plants within her realm, a tiny piece of her magic for each of them. Then she slipped free of her clothes and jumped neatly into the pool, feet tight together.
She dropped down as deep as the pool went; the top of her head was not far below the waterline, but it would do. Her large, almond eyes pierced the watery gloom, examined the rocky floor. She found a suitable rock and wedged her feet underneath it to hold her in place, standing straight up.
Then she breathed out.
Into the stream of bubbles, a little bundle of red dived. It was the squirrel again, trying to follow its beloved elf one last time.
She smiled, a true smile, and reached out to catch it.
"No, my friend, though I thank you for the thought." It was the last air in her lungs, the last words she'd ever say, and nobody would hear them, but that wasn't the point, that had never been the point.
Above, a squirrel leapt to safety from small elven hands that barely broke the surface. Dark hair rose to form a swirled pattern in the water, and everything gradually settled to a near-stillness. The sound of tree-felling in the distance was still clear.
A lone songbird circled above the pool slowly, twice, then headed away in a straight line to find its new home.
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