An oppressive hush fell over the woods. No white hare darted through the underbrush. Birdsong died in the little singers’ throats. Even the wind fell still and silent, leaving the snow where it lay. Björg lifted her eyes to the sky, shielding them against the sun’s brilliance, and searched for a sign. Beyond the crystallized grasp of the trees’ branches only faint wisps of white blew across the expanse of pristine blue.No clues would her keen Ælv eyes spy there.
“What frightens the woods?” Björg whispered. Her words crashed to the ground around her like stones, disturbing the still air and shattering the silence. They were quickly muffled and lost in the snow. There was no answer to her query; the silence gathered itself around her again, pressing and weighing.
Björg stepped towards a young oak tree. The snow crunching beneath her boots for just those few short steps ground in her ears louder than an avalanche. Placing one slim, pale hand against the oak’s bark, Björg searched for the quiet little place inside herself where magic lived. Unlike the torturous silence around her this quiet was warm, and soothing, an old friend she’d gone to visit. From that place she reached out to the oak tree, shaking it gently from its slumber.
Sister Oak, Björg beckon softly. Sister Oak, tell me. What frightens the woods today? The oak tree was slow to rouse from her slumber. Her thoughts came sluggishly. The daze of the tree’s winter slumber pressed against Björg and pulled the Ælv woman’s eyes to half mast. The oak’s voice brushing against Björg’s mind resembled the rustling of a gentle breeze through the first leaves of spring.
A child. It dies. Its sap freezes upon the ground.
Where? The thought cracked like a whip and the oak, now fully aroused and alarmed, recoiled from Björg’s touch. The branches on the tree’s north side rustle frantically, pointing the way.
Thank you, Sister Oak. My debt to you and your sisters. Björg rested her forehead against the tree’s bark, conveying soothing feelings and gratitude. The tree quieted, then fell still, lulled back to sleep until Spring should come to call.
Björg moved quickly through the woods. No sound nor footprints marked her passing, for no one may trace an Ælv who does not wish to be traced. Every so often she would stop to commune with the woods. The pines, ever watchful, responded eagerly. Follow us, the conifers whispered, their tops bending one after another beneath an imaginary breeze. Hurry. Hurry.
She saw the blood first.
Bright spots of crimson dotted the clean snow. A macabre painting swirled around the churned up tracks of a human with more feet than woodsense. The trail led to the base a holly tree and back before heading away into the woods to the east. East. The direction of the humans’ village. Björg moved cautiously towards the holly. The baby lay unmoving in the snow, her tears freezing to her face. Frozen blood matted her dark hair and streaked her little body that was now more purple and blue than healthy pink. She no longer made any sound at all, though her little chest moved every so often.
“Oh littleling,” Björg whispered, scooping the freezing child into her arms. The Ælv woman quickly unlaced her outer dress and tucked the babe in close before closing her thick winter mantle around them both. She sucked in a breath as the little girl’s skin touched her own. It was akin to embracing a hunk of ice. The baby never stirred, never so much as shivered. Tears filled Björg’s eyes, turning the holly into nothing but a blur of dark green. “Oh, sweet littleling.”
She sank down against the holly’s rough bark. The leaves pricked her scalp through the fine cloud of her moonlight hair, but Björg’s hardly noticed. Rocking from side to side she sang to the babe in the language of the Ælva, something few human ears have ever heard. And she wept. Though the baby’s cold breath still brushed softly at the skin near Björg’s heart, the Ælv the knew the light of life was slowly seeping from the tiny, fragile little human.
“I’m sorry, littleling,” Björg whispered when her song had ended. “I was not quick enough to save you. Cold, cruel winter has stolen the life from your tiny body, still so very new. I’m so very sorry, littleling.”
Fresh tears flowed from the Ælv woman’s eyes, their crystal blue depths now dark and stormy as the northern sea.
“I will find the one who did this, littleling. I will find them and make them pay. What evil could you have committed to deserve such a death? To be abandoned still wet with your mother’s lifeblood?”
The baby could give no response.
A man left the child, the holly whispered, her thoughts touching Björg’s gently. He leaked water as he laid the child down.
A man who cried as he murdered his daughter? Björg wondered at the holly’s revelation.
No matter. I will find him. I will follow his trail and I will show him what the wrath of the Ælva looks like. That is all I can do for the littleling.
You have the power to save her, the holly said, for the holly was old and wise and knew many things about men and elves and all the other creatures that walk the woods.
It is forbidden. But even as she denied the holly’s suggestion, Björg felt a pounding in her heart. The wise old tree was right. She did have the power to save the littleling, but she would risk her brothers’ wrath.
Then the human child will die.
Björg squeezed the babe tighter, the tempo of her rocking increased. Did she dare? Could she truly break one of the sacred laws of her people? She was already walking a fine line just by holding a human child in her arms. Her elder brother would be furious if he knew her plans for revenge on the man who had abandoned the child. That fury would be nothing compared to his wrath should he discover that his sister, a leader among their people, had shared her lifeforce with a human.
It dies, the holly mourned.
Björg reached deep into her secret place, deep into the well of magic that was at the core of her very being. She drew from it, pulling at her essence until it began to tingle. The tingle became a sting and the sting became a burning. A great cry wrenched itself from Björg’s lips as she ripped a part of her very soul, a piece of her own immortality, away. She placed it in the child and smiled through the pain as the gift was accepted.
The babe’s lips were no longer blue. Her fingers were not purple, but a healthy pink. They began grasping at Björg’s dress as curious blue eyes peeked up at the Ælv who was now looking a little worse for the wear. Hair once the color of moonlight now hung limp and dull against bone white flesh. Some of the youth and vitality had left her, revealing fine lines that webbed across her skin. Only the eyes remained the same, immortal and knowing.
“You will live, littleling,” the Ælv said, a smile lightening her tired eyes. “Though it cost me dearly, it is good to know that you will live.”
Now assured of the baby’s survival, Björg went about the business of setting up a camp beside the holly who graciously provided of herself wood for their fire. Björg washed the babe carefully with melted snow before wrapping her securely in a blanket torn from the Ælv’s gown. Resting against the holly, Björg drifted off to sleep with the baby held securely in her arms. Just before her dreams claimed her Bjorg marveled at the baby’s downy hair. It was the color of moonlight.