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The Black Pool
Melissa E. Beckwith
She crept through the woods as smooth and silent as a cat. She made her way over felled trees as ancient as time, down moss-covered slopes, and through thorny brambles.
She had made this trip many times before, yearning to escape the city. She tip-toed past lichen covered trees with their gray beards hanging low and the caps of dull dusty mushrooms dotting the floor of the breezeless dim of the wood. Finally, she reached a small clearing in the very center of the trees, its lush green carpet of grass was as soft as pillows under her feet. Long, searching fingers of sunlight pushed through the canopy thawing her bones and turning her cheeks red.
Today, though, something was out of place—or rather—in place. Nestled in the cool grass and tightly woven in sweet vines of sticky white flowers was a dark pool of water. She walked up to the glassy pool, its surface as smooth as a flawless sheet of ice. No movement or ripples broke the sullen face of the water.
Contemplatively, she sat amongst the flowers and looked deeply into the eye of the pool. She searched the oily blackness for an answer to why it had appeared, but the pool revealed nothing. In time, the sleepy sun drooped in the sky as day happily relinquished its post to night. She still sat by the pool, quietly pondering over its sudden existence in her wood. Finally, not being able to stand it any longer, she dipped her hand into the water. It made no sound, no ripple creased its surface. She gasped and quickly pulled her hand from the water, for it was neither wet nor cold in the cooling dusk.
Curiosity bade her close to the water once again. This time she dipped her cupped hand back into the pool and quickly brought the water to her parched lips. It tasted neither sweet nor sour; it tasted of nothing. Strangely unconcerned of the darkness that crept over the clearing, she began to sing to the wood. Soon, stars appeared upon the black arc of the sky. They twinkled and danced and fell from the heavens. A breeze developed from somewhere behind her and softly lulled her into a sleepy state. She lay down in a blanket of flowers that perfumed the obsidian night and peacefully closed her eyes.
The lick of a rough tongue brought her from her dreamless slumber. She sat up with a start and stared at a polka doted fawn. Never encountering a deer in the wood, she smiled and reached out to pet the small fuzzy animal. The fawn stepped back, just out of her reach, and cocked its perfectly shaped head as if forming a question that it wished to ask.
“Are you Her?” the fawn asked. The girl jumped and looked around for the source of the voice. “I think you are Her,” the fawn spoke again.
“I do not know of whom you speak,” the girl replied in a shaky voice.
“The woman who will rid the forest of unhappiness,” the fawn replied, matter-of-factly. The small, brown-eyed animal looked around sharply as her mother melted from the trees and came to them. “I found Her, mother!” the little fawn exclaimed.
The mother, with kindness and patience in her voice, looked quickly at the girl and then to her offspring. “This is not Her, my love. This girl is from Man.” The fawn hung her head and they both walked from the clearing and back into the forest.
The girl jumped to her feet, and quickly finding her shoes, ran from the clearing and headed towards her home. Soon she realized that her scrubby, peaceful wood had become a fathomless dark forest of damp trees that reached far into the sky and out of view. Dark green ferns that were three times as large as she was fanned all along the forest. Brightly colored mushrooms poked up from the dark, rich, loam and patchy dusty colored moss clung to the bark of trees.
Panicked, she ran down a worn path towards where her home should have been. An owl swooped down from a bough high up in the canopy and landed upon a branch above her head. She stopped short and looked at the great bird, its sharp eyes pin-pointed at hers.
Finally, the owl spoke. “You could be Her…,” he said pensively. “Though, I do not think so.” He blinked huge, round eyes and twisted his head around to look behind him. He turned back to her and gave her a severe look. “There are wolves about, young woman, but the Prince is also roving. Pray he gets to you first.” He turned his pudgy body around, jumped from the branch, and with more grace then expected, flew into the grayness of the canopy.
Questioning her sanity, the girl continued down the path, lost in the belly of a harsh forest. Birds did not sing, nor did frogs croak, no squirrels scampered across the extended arms of trees—it seemed there was no happy life at all. She walked on for
what seemed days, though only hours had passed. Her stomach grumbled and her mouth was hot. Still she walked on.
Suddenly a huge silvery wolf jumped from a grassy slope. He snarled and growled and slinked toward her. She backed away, hunger and thirst forgotten. The wolf advanced and soon she could feel its hot, foul-smelling breath. Its tongue lolled over white, knife-like teeth, splattering thick saliva on her shoes. “Man does not come into our forest,” it hissed. “But I am happy to find you here, you will make a tasty treat for a hungry wolf on this afternoon.” it growled in a deep strident cacophony as it leaned in closer.
The dull whisper of a sword cut through the thick air as a man approached the beast. The wolf looked up at him and dejectedly turned and ran back from whence it came. The man replaced his sword at his hip and stood before the girl. He was tall and
slim and seemed as sly as a leopard. His eyes were of deep blue and his gaze as a harsh winter. His hair, a soft shade of green, lapped over his thick, well-made cloak. He folded his long arms across his chest. “What is your name, girl?” he demanded.
The girl stepped forward and stuck out her chin, suddenly brave. “My name is Mary,” she declared and thrust her fists upon her hips.
“I have heard soft whispering in the forest of a girl that might be Her, but now I can see you are from Man and not of Elf origin, so you can not be Her.”
“Who is this Her everyone refers to?”
The Elf unfolded his arms as his eyes grew wide. “Why even Men know of Her!” he exclaimed. “How can you not know of the prophecy?” He threw his hands up in the air.
“I know nothing of the prophecy,” she answered with a frown at the Elf.
His eyes sharpened as he approached her. Suspiciously, she took a step back and looked up at him. He reached out and took a golden lock of her hair. She gasped and wanted to run, but stood very still. He picked a white flower from the strands of her hair. “The Flower of The Black Pool,” he whispered. “Where did you get this?”
“I feel asleep in a thicket of flowers last night,” Mary answered, suddenly afraid.
“Did you see a pool of water as dark as a moonless night?” the Elf asked.
Mary hesitated, but answered his question. “I did, and I drank from its waters,” she replied stubbornly and took the remaining sticky flowers from her hair.
The Elf suddenly dropped to his knees in a graceful bow. “My name is Taienn. I am the Prince of Sona, the Elven Kingdom.” He stood back up and took her hand. “You are Her,” he said breathlessly. “You are the Kiangle we have been awaiting.”
Taienn bade Mary to follow him through the forest, and as they walked he told of her of the disharmony between all living creatures of the forest. Elf, Men and animal had become imbalanced and did not fit in the world that they had peacefully inhabited since the beginning of time.
Mary could offer nothing in reply except through the inquisitiveness of her eyes.
It was in the densest part of the forest that they arrived at Sona, the great Elven Kingdom—the heart of the living forest. Many cottages lined dirt streets and houses hung perilously from thick boughs of tall trees. In the center of the Elven town a great castle rose from the forest floor reaching high into the darkening sky. Dusk was setting in the land; lanterns began to burn along all the paths and at the front doors of every house giving the forest a warm glow.
They walked down the large path that led into the castle, no one paying them much attention as they passed. Though inside the castle, Elf men and maids alike gasped and fell to their knees. Mary wrung her hands in her dirtied skirts as she looked about unable to utter a word. They climbed a grand stairway intricately carved by master Elven craftsmen and polished to a lustrous shine.
The walls of the castle were of twisty tree boughs so that Mary could not tell just where the trees ended and where the building began. Lanterns and torches burned brightly as they hung from the walls and cast long, fluttering shadows across the floor. Finally, they reached two tall, wooden doors with an Elf soldier at each side. Each soldier bowed to Mary and to Taienn before they opened the doors.
Mary followed Taienn into a cavernous room. The sheer size of the room would suggest it should have been cold and drafty, though its warmth and coziness was immediately upon her. The gaping mouth of a giant fire pit sprawled across half of one wall and housed a mighty fire. It crackled and roared as the two walked further into the room. On the far side of the room sat three large thrones. As Mary approached she could see an aged, wizened man sitting in the center throne. Grand chairs to his right and to his left sat empty.
Taienn bowed and Mary hesitantly followed. “Father, I have found the Kiangle!” he exclaimed as he rose and pushed Mary in front of the old man. The irregular light from the fire and guttering torches threw misshapen shadows across the man’s sunken face. His eyes were bright and wise though, and would not be diminished due to illness. That he was very ill was plain to see and Mary involuntarily took a step back under his intense stare.
The king said nothing for a long time. Mary felt his gaze burning into her flesh, but suddenly the heat was gone and it was as if he was seeing what was inside of her. The slow tickle of a feather, or perhaps an unfinished thought, moved through her being and rested at her heart. Mary stood as still as the water of that Black Pond as her soul spoke to the king in hushed tones until finally she got up enough courage to utter her name—Mary.
His gaze intensified and then slowly eased like a passing summer storm. He looked from Mary to his son. “This is indeed the Kiangle that we have sought for so long. Though many will deny her authenticity as she seems to be from Man and not Elf, but I say she is from neither,” he spoke quietly.
Taienn looked at Mary with a frown and an exploratory gaze as sharp as his father’s. Suddenly his eyes widened in astonishment. “It is true, father!” he gasped.
“She is a Woman of the Forest. Neither Elf nor Man may lay claim to her,” the King stated. “It is her voice that all will listen to.” He looked to Mary and suddenly she
felt so small and vulnerable. She cast her eyes downward to the smooth wooden beams under her feet.
She looked back up at the ill King, only but a whisper of the man that he had once been. “How am I to help?” she asked in a voice almost too small to hear. “I am but one girl of no consequence.”
The King laid a palsied hand upon her shoulder. “You are a girl no longer, but a woman; a woman powerful and wise who will understand all in time.” The old man’s body shuddered with coughing and a soft groan, but then he recovered and continued. “You will restore harmony to the forest. For many a year all creatures within our borders have fought a bloody and unyielding battle.” His voiced died on the crackle of the fire and his eyes faded as if he could see something that Mary could not. “It was not always like this, young Mary.” Suddenly he spoke again. “Elves have always lived in peaceful harmony with all who lived in the wood, even Men. Then, for reasons we could not discern at the time, all became alienated, each from his neighbor.” He slowly raised his arms and face to the ceiling. “The trees that were once our friends grew wrathful and hard under our touch, the animals grew deaf to our voices and even the water and wind would not answer to our calls.” The King slumped back down into his immense throne. “You have the ability to speak to animal and trees alike, and Elf and Men will listen also. You are the Kiangle, the mediator of all. You are our hope.” The King leaned back and closed his eyes. His breathing steadied and the quaking in his limbs quieted.
Taienn led her from the room. The cool, sharp air felt good on her damp skin as they walked down hallways lined with unshuttered windows. “He is very ill, I am sure you could see that,” Taienn spoke out of the quiet.
“Yes,” she replied softly.
“He will die soon, just as my mother and brother have before him.” The sadness in his voice lay heavily upon her breast. “Many Elves have died, not only in battle as they have for centuries, but in sickness.” The Prince shook his head. “A new enemy, of which we have no defenses—we have never had to fight against our own bodies.” They stopped in front of her room and he pushed the door open. “Elves had once fancied themselves invincible, yet now we are humbled, left to die in our own arrogance.” He looked at her intently. “Do not forsake us, Mary,” he pleaded, and then closed the door behind her as she went to her bed.
Bright moonlight streamed through a window bathing everything in a grey light. She sat upon her bed and looked out at the forest. Moonbeams stretched down from the night like iridescent arms gliding their way through thick tree tops. She leaned a little farther out of her window to stare up at the round orb hanging perfectly in the dark night. All was silent in the still wood. She strained to hear the evidence of a living thing, but none was detected. Loneliness crept over her like a nighttime mist and she felt as if she were the only one in the world.
Very softly, down from the tops of giant mountains, a faint song started to form on the wind. It was so vague that it could have been lost in a slight rustle of leaves.
Mary closed her eyes and tried to recapture the tune that was barely more than a shadow to her ears. The wind picked up and the melody grew as it was carried upon the blustery back of the Earth’s breath. The song was sweet and poignant and sang of times past when all who lived in the shadow of the mountains lived according to their kind and lived, not as a separate order, but as one whole of a larger part.
The wind grew harsh as Mother Moon started to sing also, and told Mary of the haughtiness of Elves and their condescending treatment of Mother Moon, Father Sun, Brother Earth and Sister Stream. The howling grew as if waters from a thousand oceans were rushing to consume her. Sister Stream’s song was harsh and painful as she wailed of the dominance of Man; of the atrocities they caused on the forest, the Elves, and even themselves, all in an attempt to prove their right to be the dominant race.
Now Father Sun’s song was but an echo carried on the beams of Mother Moon. He lamented over the impatience and indignation of the beasts and trees of the forest. Once all had been brother and sister, but now all were merely shards of a fractured mirror. The wind died suddenly and left the forest in a dark state of death once again.
Mary stood trying to catch her breath that the wind had stolen. Tears welled in tired eyes and splattered on a moon-bathed windowsill. “What shall I do?” she cried out to a silent moon. “I am but a girl, how can I make a difference?” Still there was no answer from angry Mother Moon.
Suddenly an owl flew up and landed in her window. He looked at her with steady orbs of wisdom. “So, you were the Kiangle.” The owl looked as though he were smiling. “I am of happy heart that you did not get eaten by the wolves then.”
Mary angrily snapped at him. “Are you here to tell me how I am to bring balance to this unhappy place?”
The plump owl ruffled his feathers and shook his horned head. “I am not. Mistress Tree wishes to speak to you, though.”
“Who is this Mistress Tree?”
“The wisest of all the forest dwellers, milady. Come with me now and I will take you to her.”
Quietly Mary left her room and slipped from the castle. She met the owl and followed him through the wood. No creature stirred, no night bird sang, not even an insect chirped into the cool night. A light as pale as wintry snow guided her way towards the root of the mountain. Soon she came upon a tree so large that its heights were lost into heaven and its very breadth was indiscernible. Mary could feel the sadness of
Mistress Tree as she wept ancient tears that pooled at her roots and flowed away from her. Her tears were as black as the darkest night and sent a raven colored ribbon of water flowing into the forest. Mary immediately recognized the water and knew it to be the source of The Black Pool. She approached Mistress Tree no longer afraid, but determined.
“What word do you have for me, Mistress Tree?” she shouted into the night.
The ground began to tremble and leaves began to fall. The black water rose and bled out onto the earth. Mary walked closer, suddenly overcome with pity. She placed the palm of her hand on the rough bark of the Tree and wept. Utterly exhausted, Mary sat in a patch of clover that grew at the base of the tree and fell asleep in Mistress Tree’s bosom as her arm-like roots held Mary close to the beating heart of the mountain.
Mistress Tree sang to Mary. She sang of Mary’s past as well as her future and the future of the whole forest. She sang of what must be done to stop the thick death-like creature called hate that now ruled the forest. She sang of fallen men and women of both Elf and Man and she sang of long empty wombs caused by hate’s menacing song. She sang of the dwindling numbers of Elf, Men and Forest Creature alike and what the outcome would be if Mary was unsuccessful in ridding the forest of hate. Mistress Tree sang through the night and through the brightness of the next day.
As Mother Moon climbed into a restless sky, Mistress Tree ended her song and Mary awoke. She stood and stretched, lifting long arms towards the trees. She stood majestically in the wood, knowing she had changed. A girl no more; she was a woman—The Woman of the Forest. With her skin as pale as Mother Moon and her sunny yellow hair pooling at her feet she turned her eyes, the deepest shade of rushing water, to look upon her forest.
She slowly walked on through the night, sticky white flowers dripping from her flowing robes of Earth Green. She lifted her sweet voice and it carried over trees, water, burrow and cottage. Men and women awoke and came from their homes to listen to her song as she passed through the forest. She sang of coalescence and love and children; the women wept. Mary walked on through the Elven villages and sang of tolerance, happiness and of Elven babies. She continued through the wood and placated beast and tree alike. As Father Sun started to warm his children, Mary took her rest at the bosom of Mistress Tree.
Every night when Mother Moon rose in the sky The Woman of the Forest made her trek along stream and fallen log, over hill and grassy lump and through the villages of Elf and Men. Soon babies were being born to replace those who had fallen into death, and the Elves were restored to their place as Keepers of The Forest and illness knew them not. Children would wake on the morn and seek out the trail of The Flower of The Black Pool and dance in the cool, sweet waters of the stream.
King Taienn never saw Mary again, but sometimes, late at night, he sat up and listened to her melodious voice as it was carried on a tame wind though the deep, dark wood.