Authors: Emigh Cannaday
“What weapon do you use in that?” the blonde asked naïvely. Annika laughed quietly.
“I guess my best weapon is my foot, which is useless now,” she replied. Runa looked confused.
“I’ll show you what I mean when it gets better,” Annika said. “I don’t know how I’m going to walk anywhere on it, though.”
“Oh we’re not walking. We’re riding, remember?” Hilda laughed. “If you expect a ride from the Srebra Gora deer, there’s a song you’ll have to learn. Now hurry and dress.”
Annika wasn’t too sure about riding on a wild deer, let alone one that required a lullaby. She’d only been on a pony ride once as a girl, and the experience hadn’t ended on a good note. After a light breakfast of tea, bread, and honey, Hilda opened Annika’s bandages and reapplied more of the cooling paste. Her ankle was still swollen, but it had gone down enough for Annika to at least put her shoes on. The three gathered their cloaks and stood for a moment, looking at each other and then at Annika.
“You may as well use Magda’s cloak,” Sariel said dryly. “She would’ve wanted you to wear it.” She opened a large trunk and dug about for just a moment, retrieving a heap of dark fabric which she brought over to Annika.
“It’s so heavy!” Annika exclaimed as she took it in her arms. It was a magnificent hooded garment made of a soft woolen material and lined in fur. The back of it was embroidered in golden threads with ancient writing.
“What does this say?” she asked.
“They’re different stories about our ancestors,” replied Hilda. “These cloaks have been passed down along with the traditions behind them. They’re rich in our history.”
“How old are you anyway?” Annika asked, quite obviously mystified at the legacy before her eyes. A legacy that possibly included her.
“Younger than the forest, but older than the trees,” Runa and Hilda both chimed. Annika gave what felt like her millionth skeptical nod, content that she’d received a satisfactory enough answer for the time being.
“So is the legend really true that sometimes the samodivi will leave their life here and go become a man’s wife?”
“Yes,” Hilda breathed softly. “When we marry men and become part of the human world, we become mortal. We’ll have children, grow old, and die. We can come back, but that’s more easily said than done.”
“If that’s true, I don’t know why you’d ever get married,” Annika said.
“I never want to get married!” Runa laughed, then spun in a graceful circle. “I want to dance with every handsome fellow I can until the end of time.”
Annika smiled wide at this, finding it to be the most logical idea she’d heard since arriving in that cave.
“I can’t see anything! Am I going to fall?” Annika called out ten minutes later. A small, soft hand clasped hers. It was Runa.
“You’re alright. I apologize for assuming you’d know every stone and bend in the path. We’ve had a long time to navigate this cave. Just follow me close. We’re almost out.”
They walked for what seemed an eternity. The only thing to stimulate the senses was the occasional explicative from Annika’s mouth as she stubbed her foot into a rock or walked into a wall every now and then. But Runa never let go of her hand, and thus she was able to move almost as swiftly as the others. Annika could feel a breeze that brought sunshine and flowers with it, and knew that they’d nearly reached the other end of the cave. It drove the mustiness away and filled her with the expectation of seeing green fields and waving trees. When she saw what lay on the other side, it was all worth it.
A myriad of roses grew around in a small circle. Inside the thicket of trees and blooming flowers was a small meadow. Annika turned around in a complete circle and saw pink yellow, white and red sprays of color everywhere but up in the blue sky. Sariel and Hilda joined them, and began the song that they’d taught Annika earlier. Runa nodded with her head for Annika to join them. At first she sang timidly, but the words were not so many that she grew comfortable singing them again. The translation, as Hilda had explained it, begged their deer brothers to come out and play with them, and that they were the sisters, as all the animals in the forest were siblings. It was a lonely melody; haunting, but mesmerizing. And then a strange thing happened.
A pale shadow zipped around the meadow. Twice it circled, and then came to a halt. It was a large silver stag nearly the size of a small horse. His eyes were black and twinkling, and the sun reflected off his antlers, sending shimmers of pale silver light to each of his points. He trotted over to the nymphs and stopped just out of Hilda’s reach. When she reached her arms to him he pranced backwards. Their dance had begun. She chased him in circles, in zig zags, but as soon as she had him he bolted one step ahead of her. Annika watched in amusement as two more silver stags just as handsome as the first stepped into the meadow. Runa let out a shriek and began chasing hers all around in figure eights. She ran back and forth, and it occurred to Annika how ridiculous this all seemed. The samodivi were all laughing and running in circles, and these deer just pranced in circles with them. They wanted to be caught, but they were making a game of it.
“Annika, you better start running!” Runa cried, as she had already caught her ride and hopped onto her stag’s back. It didn’t look too difficult. Annika looked around and saw a fourth deer standing at the edge of the thicket, waiting for her to notice him. He puffed out his chest proudly and licked his black nose. If ever a deer was capable of appearing conceited, this one certainly did. He tilted his head to one side and flicked his ears, as if he knew what a fine creature he was. He took a step forward in a casual manner, waiting to see what Annika was going to do about him. She hobbled straight for him, and he walked around her in a wide circle. He seemed to know she was injured, and so he came closer to her, giving her the smallest hope of catching him. They trotted in circles for a very long time, and she was getting out of breath and more irritated by the second. It was a frustrating dance they were doing, causing her sore ankle to hurt even more.
“You’re supposed to be having fun together! This is just a game! Don’t be angry that you haven’t won yet!” the nymphs shouted out to her. It was easy for them to say; they’d probably done this a million times. Annika was discouraged, though she couldn’t give up. Suddenly she had an idea. She remembered a trick she had once used to catch a neighbor’s dog when it had gotten loose. The dog had been part wolf, and too independent to come when called.
Annika smiled to herself, then fell down in a heap and didn’t move.
“Annika, are you hurt? Is it your leg?” the samodivi called out. Annika didn’t move a muscle, and sure enough, the deer eventually wandered over to see if his new admirer was injured. While he leaned his nose down to sniff her head, Annika slowly reached out her hand once again, and this time her fingers curled tight around the left antler. The animal was caught off guard, but he was caught nonetheless. Then he did something completely unforeseen. Rather than fight or struggle, he lay down and motioned for her to climb onto his back instead.
“That was too easy! That wasn’t fair at all!” Runa pouted, but Hilda and Sariel just laughed.
“No,” Hilda said, “it was fair. And very clever. I can’t believe I’ve never tried that before. Now come on, let’s ride!”
a most magical creature
The nimble feet of the deer stepped carefully between the trunks of the beech and oak trees. They moved with such grace that it wasn’t difficult for Annika to stay seated and enjoy the view. The forest grew less dense and the sunshine warmed the air a little more, leaving patches of light all over the forest floor. They passed numerous squirrels, a family of red fox, and even a lynx with a freshly caught gopher in his teeth. It was so captivating that Annika didn’t realize how dark it had gotten until Sariel signaled them to stop. It appeared to be a place the samodivi rested often, judging by the huge patches of soft green moss at their feet.
“This is where we’ll sleep tonight,” she said, sliding off of her stag’s back. The others did the same, and the stags slipped into the forest.
“Are we going to have to catch them again in the morning?” Annika complained, making Hilda laugh.
“No, they’ll stay with us until we’ve reached the Marinossians. They always eat well at their house. Besides,” she gave her bow a little pat before setting it down on her things. “They know they’re safe with us.”
“That’s a pretty nice arrangement,” Annika observed.
“Speaking of a nice arrangement, one of you can lay out my bedroll. I’m going to the hot spring for a bath,” Sariel announced as she walked down the faint path in the tall grass. Annika would’ve liked to have a good long soak as well, but didn’t feel nearly as comfortable around Sariel as she did with Hilda and Runa. She found a soft spot on the moss and curled up in her cloak. She looked up at the stars for a long time, perplexed that she couldn’t find any familiar constellations draped around the moon.
By the time Sariel returned, Hilda and Runa were fast asleep, yet Annika felt restless. Even the deer occasionally stirred from where they lay on the ground. Their legs were tucked under their bodies while their ears constantly moved, searching for sounds in the night. Annika gazed longingly towards the mossy path in the grass where Sariel had gone earlier, wanting nothing more than a hot bath. She glanced at her companions who were all asleep, and the deer, who were snoozing without a care in the world. If they weren’t concerned about what else lived in the woods, Annika decided she didn’t need to be, either. Limping in silence along the mossy moonlit path, she was delighted to hear the faint gurgle of water within a few short minutes. The spring was impossible to miss. Pale mist rose from the steamy pool, giving it a surreal glow from the reflection of the pale white moonlight. As she stepped closer, she saw light grey boulders that were worn by weather and promised to offer a soft place to sit. She wasted no time slipping out of her clothes and into the spring, and sighed in bliss. The contrast between the heat of the water and the sharpness of the air was hypnotizing, and while her body felt paralyzed by comfort, her imagination began playing tricks on her.
Annika remained quiet and still, but she couldn’t shake the idea that something in the woods was watching her. While she couldn’t explain the reason, she felt certain that whatever it was meant no harm; only good. She felt it in her heart, in her body, and guessed maybe it was one of the deer coming to check on her. In fact, she thought she saw her stag walking towards her, defined by the moonlight outlining his body. The closer he came, the darker he appeared. The delicately built animal stepped out of the trees, dark as the shadows behind it, and studied Annika with glittering black eyes. She drew in her breath sharply when it tossed its head, revealing a silver mane and no antlers at all; just one long silver horn.
Rather than being snowy white like Annika expected it to be, the unicorn was so dark that it absorbed the light of the moon instead of reflecting it. Its muddy hooves were not those of a horse, but of a deer. Its tail was different too; it was long like a dog’s with a wispy tangle of long silver hair at the end. It looked down at this human in the water and stood there for quite some time, swishing its long tail in contemplation. While Annika had been more than skeptical of the samodivi back at the cave, she was quickly changing her mind now. The unicorn’s ears swiveled forward and it cocked its head to one side before blowing Annika’s mind by lying down along the edge of the water. The unicorn looked straight into her eyes, leaving Annika awestruck.
This isn’t real. You can’t be real…can you?
she kept thinking in her mind, over and over. The creature blinked its inky eye as though it understood.
I’m here before you, aren’t I?
Funny, I didn’t say that. Can you hear me?
she thought to herself. Ever so slightly, the unicorn nodded its head.
I didn’t think you existed.
The animal broke its gaze for a moment and turned to look at the forest behind it, then faced her again.
We live in secret. Welcome home, little samodiva.
Annika was floored.
No one is ever going to believe this.
Don’t be so certain.
The unicorn stood up, still staring into Annika’s eyes. As it tossed its mane, a long, thick, silver hair fell onto the water’s surface. She instinctively reached out and scooped it into her steaming fingers, afraid to let it go.
Cherish that gift wisely. Use it when the time is right.
The mystical animal took a step back as if to leave, and Annika was overcome by a deep longing in her heart. “Please,” she gently begged. “Don’t go…Tell me something else. Tell me about why I’m here.”
You are here because Fate invited you. You cannot go back the way you came. I suggest you go forward instead.
With that, the mystical being walked back into the woods as silently as it had emerged.
Annika stared into the black emptiness for as long as her eyes could bear, still in disbelief of what she’d just seen. She’d loved unicorns when she was a little girl, but to actually see one as an adult was incomprehensible. She wound the thick strand of hair around her engagement ring and shivered as she climbed out of the hot pool of water. She was shaking so much with excitement that she could barely dress, but she managed to do so and find her way back to the camp. She wished that she had brought along her digital camera, but it was sitting in her backpack, miraculously undamaged in its case. When she got back to the camp she wanted to wake everyone up and tell them what she’d seen, but a voice deep inside told her not to.
Annika woke up to the smell of wood burning. It was just past dawn and the birds were carrying on rather loudly. For a second she thought she might look up and see Vince’s cottage. Glancing around, she was reminded of how far from home she really was. She peeked down at her left hand. There was a silver hair snarled around her engagement ring, looped around her finger at least three dozen times. Shivers coursed through her veins as she studied it. The experience had been real, all right.
“Are you feeling well?” Hilda asked. “If not, I’m sure we can split up your share of breakfast.”
Sariel and Runa both snickered.
“Oh, yeah, I’m fine. I was just dreaming…that’s all,” Annika lied. For some reason, she still wanted to keep her experience private and locked away for the time being.
“Well, you better get packed up. We’ll be leaving shortly,” Hilda said cheerfully. They ate a small but filling meal of boiled potatoes, bread, and honey, then set off for another day of riding. It was very much like the previous day, but Sariel assured them that they were headed straight for the Marinossian’s home.
It wasn’t until the end of the second day that the trees began to change. Annika didn’t notice it at first, but then the forest took on a different shade. The trees were now primarily silver poplar, aspen, and birch, and all of them were unusually tall. They soared nearly two-hundred feet in the sky. The light reflected from them wasn’t golden and warm, but pale and cool, with silver light shimmering all about them.
“We’ve finally crossed into the Srebra Gora. That means the Silver Forest,” Runa turned to tell Annika with a hopeful look on her face. “It won’t be much farther now. We know a shortcut.”
“Yes, but recall how difficult that road to the river is,” Hilda reminded her. “That always takes a bit of time to navigate.” They began their descent down into a canyon where a river cut through jagged white and black stone that matched the bark of the trees. Their deer walked carefully along the edge of the rocks, unconcerned by the sheer drop down into the river below. Annika, on the other hand, was extremely concerned. Rapids were splashing white water over the boulders with no mercy, and she tried not to imagine how easy it would be for her deer to trip and fall down the cliff. She turned the other way and held on to her deer a little tighter, afraid she might throw up if she looked down again.
There was a narrow path that led away from the edge of the cliffs and towards a section of forest less densely filled with the same silvery-white trees. Twilight was descending upon them quickly, and Annika felt tired and irritable from riding along a treacherous cliff all day. She couldn’t imagine how her stag must have felt, but she gave him a grateful pat on the neck for his surefootedness. Since their day was almost at an end, they moved with less haste. The sky was quickly changing into breathtaking hues of purple, pink, and orange. The silver leaves high overhead reflected the light onto the white tree trunks, causing the entire forest to appear enchanted. Even the deer seemed to notice something was different. They moved less cautiously, carefree even. Finally the travelers stopped at Sariel’s signal.
Annika helped the samodivi collect firewood before she busied herself with laying down her soft cloak for another night’s rest. Runa knelt beside her and started the small fire as the other two walked off into the trees to refill the empty canteens.
“So what are the elves like?” Annika asked, imagining a bustling little village of tiny sprites with huge pointy ears. After seeing a unicorn and having a strand of hair to prove it, she was trying to keep an open mind. A very open mind. Runa twirled her pale blonde hair around a finger and smiled.
“Well, there isn’t a sour one among them, though I suppose they have their moments like any of us. Anthea is the eldest child. She studies the healing arts, and she has the most adorable little ones! Her mother Althea makes more things than I can count, like beautiful yarns, and the best smelling soaps. Their father Ambrose studies books a lot, and settles disputes among the others in the village. Finn is extremely clever at books as well; almost more so than his father, but the twins Talvi and Yuri are the most fun to be around by far. Talvi and his sister are always up to something.”
Annika realized something wasn’t adding up quite right.
“I thought you said Talvi was the boy.”
“But isn’t Yuri a boy’s name?” Annika pointed out. Runa giggled her girlish laugh and lay down next to her.
“It’s a funny story, the reason they have those names. Before they were born, everyone knew they would be twins. It was prophesized that they were both male, and no one questioned it because elves are so skilled at sensing the spirit of a person.”
“They know that about babies even before they’re born?”
“Well, yes,” said Runa, as if this were common knowledge. “Anyway, they were both given male names. Althea was certain that they were both boys, because they were both so fierce and strong-willed, even while inside the womb. The day they came into the world, they were greeted with the names they had been growing into. Can you imagine how surprised everyone was when Yuri turned out to be a girl? We couldn’t believe it when they were born!”
“I guess you had to be there,” said Annika, not finding the story to half be as entertaining as Runa thought it was.
there,” she said with a grin, making Annika grin as well, since Runa didn’t get her joke.
“So why didn’t they change her name when she was born?”
Runa giggled a little.
“That’s where the tradition ended up playing a funny trick on Yuri. It’s bad luck to change a baby’s name after you have been calling them that for a year,” she said.
“You don’t mean their mom was pregnant for a whole year, do you?” Annika wrinkled her nose at the thought. She couldn’t even stand the idea of driving a minivan, let alone the idea of being pregnant for an entire year.
“When you consider how long elves live, it’s not very long at all,” Runa said. “But they were born two months earlier than expected. It’s interesting that Yuri came first. She’s always on time and organized, while her brother is chronically late, always making a grand entrance or exit. Knowing her, she probably dragged Talvi out of the womb by the umbilical cord while he was in the middle of a nap!” Runa said, giggling to herself. “The name suits her perfectly, however, because she is more like her brother than her sister Anthea.”
“You would think that mistake with the names happens a lot,” Annika snickered. But Runa shook her head.
“No, it’s very rare with the elves. They’re much better at seeing a soul than any of us, except unicorns. Those things see right into you and beyond. I suppose that’s why they prefer to be alone. It takes a lot of energy to read so many souls.”
Annika looked the other way and rubbed her finger against the coarse hair wrapped around her ring. Did any of the samodivi know she’d seen one so close, or that she carried a souvenir of her experience in the hot spring? Runa didn’t seem to notice, but if she did, she didn’t say anything. She just rubbed her legs against the furry inside of the cloak and yawned, trying to fight off sleep. The sky had grown dark just as quickly as the fire had grown to spread its warmth around them. There were only a few stars visible through the treetops and no light from the moon. A gust of wind blew through the trees and sent a shower of falling leaves to the ground. Annika looked up to see a raven swoop low overhead, circle, and fly off. The dark bird had looked right into her eyes before it left their tiny camp, giving her the eerie feeling that she’d been found by someone or something. It wasn’t peaceful the way it had been with the unicorn. Instead, she felt on edge. Her arms and legs broke out in goose bumps, as though the very air itself were electrically charged. She turned to Runa for an explanation only to find her deep in slumber, sounding off a very small and cute snore.