We had barely started our evening song when the young woman wandered into our clearing.
“You have got to be kidding me.” Elondriel lowered their flute. “That’s the third time this moon.”
There were twigs in the woman’s hair. Her arms were laced with scratches where she’d pushed through the brambles. I sighed. I’d grown those especially after the last intrusion. Humans are tenacious little tykes, I’ll give them that.
She was staring at us, wide-eyed, where we stood in our circle. Correction: she was staring at me.
Elondriel elbowed me in the ribs, grinning. “Looks like you’re up, Juriel.”
I cast a desperate glance around our circle, but was met only with shrugs and rueful amusement. My friends’ expressions said clearly: You’re on your own, pal.
“I heard your music.” The woman’s voice was husky as she stepped towards me. “I knew you were calling me.”
I hid my flute hastily behind my back. “I’m afraid there’s been a misunderstanding. We play every evening. We don’t call anyone. You just happened to be in the vicinity.”
But she was already within a foot of me, her eyes shining as she gazed into my face. “I’m here now,” she murmured. “Where I’m meant to be…”
I struggled not to roll my eyes. Why did humans always think everything was about them? “I’m sorry, but you’re definitely not meant to be here. This is a private clearing, and you’ve just wandered in uninvi—”
I yelped as she touched my cheek. “…with you,” she breathed.
Elondriel snickered as I batted the woman’s hand away. Had she even heard to a word I’d said?
“Look,” I said desperately, throwing Elondriel a glare, “why don’t we talk about this somewhere quieter?”
Her lips parted. “Of course…”
I flushed. “I didn’t mean—”
Laughter trailed me as I led the woman away.
In the village’s central treehouse, I tried explaining to the woman that we do not, as she believed, call humans from the forest path and wed them. But again, my words seemed to blow straight through her.
“Isn’t there another human you could, ah, grace with your affections?” I tried.
A cloud crossed her expression, a brief hesitation, but the moment passed. “There is no one else. But I need no other, now that we are together.” Her hand snaked out to touch my hair. “Like starlight…”
I backed away with a groan. Thing is, humans are obsessed with us wood-folk. It’s not healthy. It’s not nice. It’s objectifying, is what it is. I supposed I was lucky I’d never been the focus of a human’s attention before. That usually fell to Elondriel, who had pointier ears than I did. No wonder they were enjoying this so much.
I was grateful when hoof-beats sounded outside. Grateful, that is, until I ran to the window and spied them: five riders, all armed, hacking through my hard-crafted brambles.
“My princess!” the lead rider yelled, brandishing his sword. “They have taken my princess!”
“Wait, you’re a princess?” I turned back to the woman, squinting at her dress. Muddy and torn though it was, I supposed it did have a certain regal quality to it.
This just got worse and worse.
“Well,” I said, “that settles it. You have to go back. Now if you could step outside before they break through and start marauding…”
To my dismay, she threw herself to her knees. “Please, do not banish me. I ran from the prince, and I cannot return. He…” Her words went hoarse. “He is not a good man.”
I sighed. I wished I didn’t believe her, but I did.
“All right,” I relented. “But this doesn’t mean you’re staying, you hear me?” I took a deep breath. Then, leaning out of the window, I summoned my power.
The brambles answered. Stalks erupted from the earth and thorns elongated into cruel spikes. The riders shied back from the barbed growths that writhed and twisted before them. When I was confident the thorns were impenetrable, I lowered my shaking hands to the windowsill.
“Juriel!” Elondriel called from below. “What are you doing? You’re meant to get rid of her!”
“I know, but I couldn’t just—”
The woman pulled me back into the room. “Oh, my love, thank you. I knew you would save me.”
“Please, stop.” I disentangled myself. “Look, I am not ‘your love.’ We literally just met. I don’t know why you think that’s good grounds for a relationship, but—”
Another cry from outside. This time, though, the woman’s face brightened and she raced to the window. I peered out from behind her. Another human was extricating himself from the brambles, even more scratched than the woman had been. Poor kid must have been halfway through when I made them grow. He was lucky not to have been impaled.
Elondriel threw up their arms. “Seriously?”
But, to his credit, the youth ignored us wood-folk as he cast about the clearing. “Alyssa?”
“Tomas!” The woman waved. “Up here!”
“Alyssa.” He fell to his knees beneath the window. “When I heard you had fled, I had to follow. I never dared speak when I thought you loved the prince, but now… I know I am a mere second son, but I love you. Will you have me?”
The woman’s hand flew to her throat. “He came for me,” she murmured. She whirled around, heading for the treehouse steps, then started as she was reminded of my presence. Her eyes travelled over me once more, lingering on my hair. Then she gave a small shake of her head. “I am sorry,” she said, “but Tomas…”
“Oh, by all means.” I all but pushed her out of the door.
Reaching the ground, she flung herself into the youth’s arms. Elondriel wrinkled their nose at the couple’s ardor, but I breathed a sigh of relief.
I’d be sure to keep those brambles good and thick from now on.
— Jess Hyslop