Into the Woods
No one wandered into the woods.
People said they were haunted by evil spirits and guarded by the elves, who suffered no humans in their lands. The few that had dared to enter, had never made it back alive, and no one ever knew of their fate.
Andor would make sure that it stayed that way.
He flitted between the tall pillars of the endlessly repeating rows of trees, little more than a volatile ghost to the unaware wanderer. With light and silent steps he trod over moss and roots, his dark brown tunic blending with the autumn foliage, his bow and quiver slung around his back. He wore no shoes, his feet used to the roughness of stones and the wetness of the earth alike.
A fleeting smile darted across Andor’s face as he strode along, his hands stroking the stems of lithe birches that gleamed in a dull white light. They were his favourite trees, healthy and strong. He loved the smooth surface of their bark and admired their resilience, despite their slender appearance. Andor lingered for a moment between the trunks, the everlasting melody of the rustling leaves the most beautiful song to him.
But he could not tarry. He had a task to fulfil. The fate of the forest depended on it.
At first, he had been hesitant when they had selected him for this mission, after all, he was only a young elf of a mere five hundred and ten years and he had no experience in such grave matters. But it was not up to him to question the decision of the elders. They would know what was best for them and their lands. He had humbly accepted and sworn to do his best, and then they had sent him on his way, the only advice being, “Do not fail us.”
Andor tore his eyes away from the trees and geared his steps towards the darker part of the woods, overhanging branches heavily laden with leaves in the bright colours of fall marking the entrance to the Heart of the Forest. Gnarled oak trees that were as old as the world itself guarded the pathway, their barks resembling the grey skin of ancient reptiles.
There was a certain heaviness in his heart as he entered the path, the fate of his people a burden on his shoulders, a burden he had not asked to carry. Andor looked up into the canopy above and the thick branches and spindly twigs hid what was left of the dreary autumn sky from view, enveloping him in a greyish gloominess that threatened to creep under his skin. But he would not falter now. He was determined to see this through.
Thick undergrowth, as well as giant ferns, lined Andor’s path and stout beeches joined the oaks and birches, ivy and lichen crawling like serpents around their trunks. The buzzing of moths that preferred the darkness over the light filled the air, and they swarmed around him, curious as to what might have led this elf so deep into their territory. Although it was not uncommon for his kin to venture all over these lands — after all this was their home —, the Heart of it was a place even they only rarely set foot in. Only in times of great need, or when it was necessary to make sure their magic would be renewed, they came to this sacred place.
Andor’s heart was beating like a drum, his excitement growing together with the far away murmuring that wove itself into the song of the trees. Light-footed and swift his steps led him ever deeper along the winding pathway until the vegetation around him was so dense that he had to cut through the thickets with his bare hands. He pushed the branches aside, the gurgling sound of a nearby river more prominent with every step, the water calling to him with its lamenting melody.
And then it lay before him: a small glade in the midst of the forest, untouched by the passing of the seasons. The grass was fresh and lush as after a spring rain, dotted with countless flowers in pearly white, a mild breeze ruffling through the sea of green and white. Oaks, beeches and birches stood around it like tall sentinels. In the middle, nearly hidden between boulders overgrown with moss, was a small spring, the water purling over the greenish surface with perpetually renewing strength. A natural pool beneath it collected the water, before it made its way as a young stream through the forest, and as a wide river into the lands beyond.
Andor stood for a moment mesmerised by the beauty of this place, eternal and everlasting. This was the Heart of the Forest and the heart of their lives. If it ever withered, so would they. And he would not allow that to happen. That is why he had come here.
He pulled out a small phial of glass from his pockets and filled it with water from the fountain, adding a pinch of golden powder to it. The liquid flashed bright red and then returned to its crystal clear colour. Sealing it tightly shut, he stored it away again in his tunic, retreating from the fountain. He walked back towards the ring of trees to sit down beneath the low lying branches of a massive oak.
Andor took off his bow, leaning it against the tree trunk and placed the quiver beside it. Now it was time to wait. For how long he did not know, but it would be soon.
He only needed to be patient. They always came.
There was a rustling in the leaves when a small and slender figure emerged from the thicket on the other side of the glade. It was as if the forest itself had made way for the person, granting entrance that would otherwise be denied.
Andor sat up in his hideout, his curiosity stirred up. It was a woman, that much was clear, despite the fact that she wore her blonde and wavy hair only at chin’s length. Her blue trousers and the black oversized shirt were as foreign to him as were her rugged shoes and the brown bag she wore across her torso.
She seemed to be hopelessly lost and was looking around in rising panic. He decided to wait another moment before he would make his move. Her gaze wandered around aimlessly until she discovered the fountain and made her way towards the boulders. She dropped her purse on the ground and bent down to drink from it.
“Don’t drink from that fountain! It might be enchanted,” he called out to her. She spun around, her eyes wide, clearly torn between trying to run and calling for help.
“W—what? Who are you? Don’t get any closer or I’ll yell!” she said, her voice wavering.
“Do not fear me,” he said, slowly emerging from under the branches and holding his hands up to show that he was unarmed. “But tell me first, who are you? What is your name and what brings you here?” Andor put on a nonchalant smile as he approached her.
She eyed him suspiciously, her mind obviously trying to make sense of his appearance, but she must have decided that it was probably best to stay friendly.
“My name is Rose and I have been hiking in this forest, but I guess, I must have taken a wrong turn and then I ended up here. I am sorry if I have intruded your territory. Maybe if you could point me towards the right path?”
She had given him her name. And her heart would follow.