She always loved the water. Standing on the shore of the lake and
watching its crystal surface reflect the sky above reminded her just how big
the world was. It was like standing between worlds, with a sky below as well as
above, and seeing it on a clear night with the stars shining was the best of
all. It was a special part of her and had been ever since she was a child. She
would often sneak out after dark and hurry through the trees of Moon-hollow to
the shores of the lake. Her parents would scold her for it when the sun came up
each time they discovered her missing, but she made these secret journeys far
more often than she got caught.
Like all elven youths when they came of age, she was given the opportunity to change the name her parents had given her at birth to one of her choosing. It was a rite of passage, a ceremony where an elf became their own person instead of the ward of their parents. She loved her parents and had enjoyed the name she’d grown up being called, but she knew from an early age that, when the time finally came, she would go by the name of Shimmer.
The ceremony had taken place earlier that year, and she still lived in the tiny hut of sticks and leaves with her parents on the edge of the village, but her child-like wonder for the water still consumed her. Even now, as she joined her fellow elves at the edge of Sky Lake for the celebration of the harvest, she remained as close to the shore as possible, her gaze constantly stolen away by the reflections of moonlight dancing on the water’s surface.
The shores of the lake constituted the largest clearing in all the elven territory and were always used for large gatherings such as this. Grand celebrations were held here to accommodate attendance by the entire territory. Anywhere else would require the elves to congregate amongst the trees, which stretched on forever in all directions. Though the ground was rocky and uneven, all the elves of Moon-hollow were packed tightly between the shore and the tree line as they talked, laughed, and danced to the music played by the finest musicians in the territory.
Shimmer’s feet were sore from stomping against the uneven stones by the water, but she was too full of joy to care. The spectacle of the evening was too enchanting to be dampened by anything. She was having fun, dancing with her friends as the pulse of steady beats from the animal-skin drums coursed through her body. High above her head, a brilliant display of fireworks lit up the sky, mirroring their performance on the surface of the lake. The whole scene was absolutely magical and she never wanted it to end.
“Twig!” shouted a young woman from behind her.
Shimmer whipped around to face the voice that had called out to her. The wavy curls of her fiery red hair flew past her colorful eyes, the left being blue and the right being green. Shimmer’s mother had always told her that the Lady used every color she could when she made her. “That’s not my name anymore!” she shouted playfully.
The girl laughed as she lightly slapped her left palm against her forehead. “Sorry, Shimmer,” she responded. “I’m never going to get used to that.”
“I’m still getting used to hearing it myself,” Shimmer replied. Her naming ceremony had only happened a few months before. At the age of sixteen she was now considered an adult in elven society. Of course, full recognition of adulthood wouldn’t come until she was married and out of her parent’s home. That was another reason this night was so important. This was her first big gathering as an adult where she could legally be courted by eligible men.
Her mother had spent hours getting her ready. Her hair was washed and brushed with two small braids from the top of her head joining together at the back of her neck and traveling down to her lower back. Her fair skin had been delicately powdered, making it seem to glow in the moonlight. Her makeup was perfect, she was wearing the nicest silver dress she’d ever owned, and her head was adorned with a crown of pink flowers. She had never seen herself so beautiful in all her life, and no night of her life up until now had ever been this important.
“I can’t wait until my renaming ceremony!” the other girl shouted. Even with the two young women standing so close, the amalgam of noise from chatter, music, and fireworks made it hard to hold a conversation.
“Have you got your new name picked out yet?” Shimmer asked. “If I’m not going to be calling you Snowflake anymore, I need to go ahead and get used to it!”
Snowflake giggled. Her straight, blond hair shook slightly as her head turned playfully from side to side. Snowflake was a little shorter than Shimmer but was around the same age. Her hair came down to her neck and her eyes were green like the leaves in the summer. “I just can’t decide! It’s such a big decision!” Snowflake glanced over towards the tree line. “You want to go somewhere where we can hear each other?”
“But the fireworks are better from the shore!”
Snowflake grabbed Shimmer by the hands and began dragging her away. “Lady’s grace, you should’ve been born a duck!” she said with a playful laugh.
Shimmer rolled her eyes. “Oh, all right!” She kept a hold of Snowflake’s right hand with her left as they made their way through the crowds of elves dancing and conversing in the Sky Lake clearing. They each did their share of bouncing off the shoulders and backs of other elves en route to their destination, but no one seemed to care. In a crowd like this, personal space was a necessary sacrifice in order to be where the action was.
“No one’s going to see me back here,” Shimmer whined like an attention-hungry child. They reached the trees. The crowd was much thinner here, allowing them room to move and the ability to speak without shouting. The music could still be heard, but the beat didn’t course through her body like it had on the shore, like she wanted it to.
“Out there you’re one in a million,” Snowflake said in rebuttal. “Back here you can at least get noticed. Besides, the elder precession is about to start so they’ll be stopping the music and fireworks any moment now.”
Shimmer sighed and ran her fingers delicately through her hair. She wanted it out of her face, but didn’t want to disturb the intricate braids or the flowers that her mother had so carefully woven into them. “I guess you’re right.”
“Come on, we’ve hardly spent any time together since your renaming ceremony,” Snowflake said. Her head turned to the side and Shimmer could swear she was making that pouting face on purpose.
“Well, you’re not going to ask me to marry you, so other things have demanded my time.”
“You don’t know that for certain,” Snowflake rebutted with a coy smile. The two girls shared a laugh.
Ever since the ceremony her mother and father had been working very hard to make sure she drew the attention of the men in the village. They had set her up with the sons of family friends and sent her to every social gathering in Moon-hollow that they even heard rumor of, all in hopes of getting their daughter married off and out of their house. She was an adult now, ready to leave the nest, and her parents only wanted the best for her.
It wasn’t as if she weren’t beautiful. In fact, she was stunning. Unfortunately, it was her reputation that preceded her. Though Shimmer was at the beginning of her adult life, she was far from mature. Her mannerisms were childish and she lacked a clear sense of responsibility. She was also prone to disobedience, running off in the night to watch the starlight reflect off the lake, or sneaking berries into the pockets of her dress when she’d be out picking with the other girls. Shimmer was gullible, easily distracted, and it was impossible to hold her attention for more than a few moments. She was beautiful, yes, but still far from ready to be someone’s wife.
Truth be told, she didn’t want to be married yet. Marriage meant responsibility and duty, things that she dreaded like staring down a hungry dragon. She knew it was time, but her inner child was rebelling. Life still held so much wonder, and she felt becoming someone’s wife would keep her from experiencing it.
The music suddenly went silent as the performers put away their instruments. The elves stopped dancing and turned to face inward along a worn path in the sand stretching from the tree line to the shore. The blaring of a horn echoed over the water as the elves parted along the path, clearing the way.
“See, now we don’t have a good view of the procession,” Shimmer said to Snowflake. “I told you we should have stayed by the water.”
“It’s no different from any other harvest celebration,” Snowflake retorted. “Do you really need to see it that badly?”
“I love hearing the high priestess speak.”
Snowflake rolled her eyes. “There’s just no pleasing you,” she said with a laugh. Snowflake rose up on her tiptoes as her eyes scanned the crowd for an open spot closer to the stage. With a target in sight, she gave a playful smile and pointed off towards a spot on the tree line closer to the stage. “You could always go stand with them,” she said with a smirk.
Shimmer’s eyes followed the invisible line Snowflake’s pointing finger made all the way to a group of humans standing together with plenty of room around them. In fact, the elves that were nearby formed a perfect half-circle around them, almost like a pen. Her head snapped back towards Snowflake with an eyebrow raised. “Stand with the Harmonious?” she asked with a roll of the eyes and her head tilted to the side. “I’d rather watch from the other side of the lake.”
“Well, if you want a better view, that’s the only option.”
Shimmer groaned, dropping her shoulders in a gesture of defeat. “I blame you for this,” she said.
Snowflake smiled. “It will still be better than standing shoulder to shoulder against the shore. Besides, the Harmonious are just like us, just taller and with little ears.”
“They’re still humans,” Shimmer responded. “Just because they don’t live in that abomination up in Medowgold doesn’t mean I trust them.”
“They’ve never given us a reason not to. Besides, they disapprove of the way humans live just as much as we do. Why else would they be here?”
Shimmer raised her palms up on either side of her. “Lady’s grace, when did you become such a fan of the humans?”
“When they ended up with the only standing room left that’s close to the stage. Now, let’s go.” Snowflake took the reluctant Shimmer by the hand again and pulled her through the crowd. It wasn’t long before they found themselves with plenty of room to stand in. The closer they got to the Harmonious, the fewer elves they came across willing to stand with them.
The Harmonious were humans that lived with the elves in Moon-hollow. Having shunned the human tribes for their disrespect of the forest and villages built in unnatural clearings, they had embraced the grace of the Lady of the Forest and came to live in harmony amongst the trees. They had been welcome in Moon-hollow ever since the Great War, but many were still far from welcoming. Elven-like or not, they were still humans, and they made most of the true elves uneasy.
Snowflake was able to drag her reluctant friend into the widest part of the clearing around the human gathering before she would finally go no further. Shimmer was uncomfortable enough just being this close to the humans, but she would be a goblin’s mistress before she’d stand amongst them. Snowflake may have been adventurous and foolish enough to stand in the group of humans, but she had to put her foot down somewhere.
“This is fine,” Shimmer said as she gently but forcefully pulled her hand from Snowflake’s grasp. Snowflake halted her steps and turned again to face the water. Shimmer didn’t want to admit it, but this was quite a great vantage point. The elders were moving into place and she could not only see them clearly from this spot, but do so without being tightly packed in with her fellow tribesmen.
This was not to say that she was completely comfortable. Though the band of humans, about thirty in all, were behind her and to the left, she could still feel their presence. Humans had a distinct, musky smell that set them apart from the elves. Their sweat carried a unique odor that was easy to detect, and smelling it so strongly was giving Shimmer a constant reminder of where she was standing. Though she didn’t want to, she kept turning her head to the left to sneak glances at them.
Humans were far broader than elves and much taller. Elves had a slender, rigid look to them where humans were meaty and rounded with small, smooth ears. They reminded Shimmer of hairless apes in clothes. Though the Harmonious dressed like elves, wore their hair in fine braids like the elves, used elven weapons, and even worshiped the Lady with all their heart, it was still difficult to be comfortable around them.
At long last, from the gathering of tribal elders by the shore came the face Shimmer had anxiously wanted to see all evening. It was the lovely face and heart-warming smile of the Moon-hollow’s high priestess, Rosewood. She was a beautiful and mysterious elf in her early thirties with skin as dark as the tree that bore her name and a long flowing mane of silver hair. Her robes were as green as ivy leaves and she carried a staff of gnarled wood that twisted like a braid of hair up to a large emerald at its tip.
Rosewood raised the staff into the air, quietly but authoritatively calling for silence. The crowd hushed as the elves each fell to their right knee and placed their hands on the left. “Great elves of Moon-hollow,” Rosewood began. Her voice was angelic and carried within it an almost musical quality. Hearing Rosewood speak truly felt like listening directly to the Lady herself. “Truly the Lady has blessed us this year, for our harvest is bountiful and our stores are filled. Winter will find no elf going hungry, and it is all thanks to the dedication and hard work that each of you has shown during this long summer. I thank each and every one of you for your efforts. Moon-hollow thrives for yet another year. Blessed be the Lady of the Forest!”
“Blessed be the Lady of the Forest,” the crowd chanted in unison.
The Harmonious also chanted along with the multitudes of elves, allowing one voice in particular to catch Shimmer’s attention. It was deep voice with a strong presence, but gentle too, carrying with it a sincere love and honor for the Lady. Shimmer couldn’t help herself and turned her head to catch a glimpse of the human to whom the voice belonged. He was directly behind her, some ten yards away. She hadn’t noticed him on the glances she’d stolen previously, but only because she had not turned her head so far until now.
Even kneeling in reverence, Shimmer could tell that he was quite tall. He was broad, with a body built on a lifetime of hard work and self-reliance. His skin was tanned like leather and his long, black hair was tied behind him in traditional elven braids. His jaw was boxy and well defined and his eyes were blue like the sky on a clear day. For a moment, Shimmer was unable to turn away. There was an aura of mystery about him that enchanted her.
“Shimmer!” Snowflake whisper-shouted.
Shimmer snapped her head forward again, as if breaking herself from a trance. She wasn’t sure what it was about that human that had ensnared her attention. It must have been the mystery of being around a people she never socialized with. Whatever it was, the high priestess was speaking and to ignore her words was to shun blessings from the Lady herself.
Rosewood continued her speech. “As we celebrate tonight, full of the pride that comes with a good harvest, let us reflect upon all our blessings. Let us remember the Tri-leaf Pact, binding the tribes of the Lands of Order in a contract of peace. A bountiful harvest ensures us nothing when our enemies plot to destroy us, and the Pact ensures harmony continues in the Lands of Order. Blessed be the Lady of the Forest.”
“Blessed be the Lady of the Forest,” the crowd chanted again.
The voice of the human behind Shimmer sounded just slightly out of unison, allowing it to trail on for a single syllable after all other voices had quieted. Shimmer began to turn her head again but stopped herself. Why was she so mesmerized by this human? Why could she not tear her thoughts from him? She locked her neck, keeping her eyes focused on the high priestess and letting her mind only dwell on the wisdom of the Lady.
Rosewood spoke on. “Though the trees have no end, the Lands of Order do have their boundaries, and the savage tribes that lie beyond are a constant reminder of what the Tri-leaf Pact keeps us from becoming. As the forest beyond cycles in eternal chaos, we enjoy the safety and security that comes with binding peace. We are civilized, orderly, and we continue to thrive from year to year because of it. Blessed be the Lady of the Forest.”
“Blessed be the Lady of the Forest,” chanted the crowd.
Shimmer’s head darted up as her eyes widened. The human’s voice was not amongst the crowd. It had been so discernible, so easy to pick out amongst the chorus of other voices, but now it was missing entirely. She couldn’t help herself. Curiosity overwhelmed her sense of devotion and her head whipped around in a flash.
He was gone.
She didn’t know where he’d gone, she didn’t know why, and, more importantly, she had no idea why she cared. What was it about this human that was keeping her so enthralled? Whatever it was, it was finally winning out over all of her senses. She hopped up to the balls of her feet, crouching down on her fingers like a cat waiting to pounce.
“By Lady’s grace, what are you doing?!” Snowflake asked. She stayed still in her stance of reverence, but turned her head slightly and talked from the side of her mouth. Shimmer’s antics were starting to get the attention of other elves and even humans in the sparsely populated section of the shoreline. Attentions were being taken away from the wisdom of the high priestess and turning towards the strange behavior of a young elf refusing to show this moment the respect it deserved.
“I don’t know,” Shimmer answered, and it was the truth. She didn’t know what was compelling her actions, but she knew that they were somehow tied to the mysterious human behind her that she’d never met before in her life and she had to discover the reason behind them. “Please forgive me.”
Before Snowflake could utter another whisper of protest, Shimmer pivoted on her feet and bounded back towards the trees as fast as she could. She could hear other elves around her gasp, a few even whispering some remarks she would rather not have been able to make out, but her decisions were set in motion and there was no going back now. Though the high priestess continued to address the good citizens of Moon-hollow, Shimmer disappeared across the shore to the trees and back into the forest which held the village.
With the festivities going on at the edge of Sky Lake, the village of Moon-hollow was completely deserted. Shimmer’s eyes darted back and forth as she ran. They scanned the huts made of sticks and grass that wrapped around the trunks of trees or sat atop their thickest branches with bridges of rope and vine crisscrossing between them. Her gaze ran up and down each heavily worn path between the trees. There was no sign of anyone, elf or human. She was alone.
Shimmer’s swift run gradually slowed to a jog and finally a complete stop. Reality was starting to catch up with her mind and it was grabbing hold of her by the ankles. The mysterious human was nowhere in sight and she couldn’t for the life of her come up with a compelling reason why she’d suddenly decided to chase after him. She knew she was prone to doing foolish and occasionally reckless things, but this was unexplainable even to her. She loved the Lady and loved hearing the high priestess speak. It was her favorite part of any big gathering and she’d just blown it off and embarrassed her family to chase after a human that she didn’t know and didn’t even like.
She had just started debating with herself whether she should return or go hide until this whole thing blew over when she finally caught some movement in the bushes. Off past the briars behind the last hut before the forest took a downhill slide into a low valley, Shimmer could see the cloak and boots of the mysterious human as he crouched low against the ground. He was staring down the hill intently, his head twitching left and right sporadically as his ears caught the faintest sounds echoing through the trees.
Shimmer didn’t know what he was doing, but she had gone to ridiculous ends to find him and she wasn’t about to leave until the two of them at least spoke to one another. She approached slowly, watching him after every step she took as if waiting for a reaction. The human male stayed as he was, head darting with the sounds and eyes glued on the dense forest below. She could hear the stream running through the valley now, rushing down from the vast body of Sky Lake behind her. It was that stream that had cut the valley over years dating back before the elves even settled this part of the forest.
The human still didn’t move, not even turning his head to look upon the company he had suddenly found himself in. His focus was too strongly taken by something beyond sight, and the realization of that was starting to worry Shimmer a great deal. If the whole citizenry of Moon-hollow was at the edge of the lake, what could he be monitoring down in the deep valley?
“Did you hear it, too?” he finally asked. He didn’t tear his gaze away from the valley, but he at least acknowledged that he was no longer alone.
Shimmer stopped dead in her tracks as her heart skipped a beat. It was the rush of excitement felt when prey stalked by a hunter finally sensed danger and bounded off without warning. She took a moment to regain her breath and hurried over to the human’s side. “Hear what?” she asked.
The human turned his face towards her. The sight of his eyes made her lose her breath again. They were much bigger than an elf male’s and rounder. The light blue of them was enchanting. Up close, she could see the coarseness of his face. The tiny, dark stubble of hair poking out of his chin and cheeks trapped the dust from the ground he’d kicked up while taking his position on the top of the hill. Elven men did not grow hair on their faces, and even seeing his cut down to the edge of his skin still made him seem so wild, so animalistic. She’d never been this close to a human before, and the experience thus far was far different than she ever imagined it would be.
The human gave her a puzzled look. “If you didn’t hear it then why have you come?”
Shimmer scrambled for an answer. After all, she had no idea what compelled her to leave her people at the lake and venture into the village after him. How would she be able to sell him a story she couldn’t even sell to herself? “It’s not like a Harmonious to leave when the high priestess is speaking,” she answered. “I was curious what tore you away.”
“Fair enough,” the human said as he looked again into the valley. “Back at the shore I heard voices on the wind, voices that gave me a shiver. Even now, I sense a presence here that is far from welcome. It is down there, coming closer by the second. I can’t hear it with my own ears yet but I can sense it.”
“Sense it?” Shimmer asked skeptically. “What matter of human trickery is this?”
“No trickery,” the human said. “The Lady blesses me with great gifts. For what purpose I do not know, but I do know that…” His sentence trailed off as his head rose into the air. He turned his right ear towards the valley as his hands lowered to the ground.
Shimmer opened her mouth to question him, but soon she was able to hear it, too. There was a rumbling in the distance. She could hear leaves rustling violently and entire branches breaking as easily as twigs underfoot. The ground began to shake with a small tremor that grew larger and larger with each beat of her now racing heart. As the sounds grew louder and closer, she heard voices, voices no creature of Order could ever make. They were horrid, sinister grumbles and cries mixed with low roars of beasts she had only ever heard of in terrible tales but never seen with her own eyes. She held her breath as she realized all these terrible things would be upon the village in a matter of moments.
The mysterious human grasped Shimmer by the shoulders and pulled her towards him. Her eyes locked with his stern, determined gaze. “We have to run,” he said. “Now!”