SOME CONSEQUENCE, YET HANGING
Briera waited until her hunters had dispersed for their morning patrols before bolting for the edge of the woods. She had heard the three blaring alarms coming from the discarded object on the ground; they had made her teeth hurt and set her on edge. Her hunters may have been unfamiliar with the object, but Briera knew it to be a communication device that humans used. A “cell phone,” as she had heard it called. They relied upon these objects to sustain much of their way of life. The words “Amber Alert” had flashed across the screen as she’d watched it warily; these words meant nothing to her, but she was certain it was nothing good. Something was amiss among the humans, and Briera had a vested interest in finding out what it was.
This was not at all how she had planned for her morning to go. Briera had hoped to shed the mantle of leadership that she carried, and feel it lighten with each step she took away from her people. She had hoped to see nothing but Liam in her mind’s eye, imagining him waiting for the few precious minutes they could steal together before they each had to return to their work. But those caterwauling alarms had spoiled that fantasy entirely. Now, the urgency in her step was not from pure eagerness to reach her lover in his cabin. Instead, it came from cold dread and foreboding.
Briera was fast, even lighter on her feet than most elves. So, it did not take her long to reach her destination: the little outpost in the forest where a human forest guardian often stayed. These guardians were called “park rangers,” she knew. Briera was unsure what “ranger” had to do with anything. During one of their stolen moments together, Liam had once tried to explain it to her.
“Why do you call yourselves rangers if you don't fight with a bow and arrow?” she said, cocking her head to one side. Liam just grinned and tucked her curls back behind her ear, running his fingertips along the pointed edge.
“It just means someone who keeps the forest safe. Like a guardian or a keeper.”
She felt herself light up with comprehension, a puzzle solved.
“That's what I do! One of the things, anyway. I wouldn't have thought humans would…well, I don't want to offend…”
“You didn’t think we’d have any interest in preserving the forest?”
“Well, no,” Briera admitted. “We were always told that humans have no reverence for the earth. That you can't be trusted to be its stewards.” She looked at him, eyes wide, for signs of anger or offense. But Liam just kept smiling.
“I guess I can see why you would look at us and assume that. Especially over the last few hundred years or so. But there are plenty of us who do care. What if I went around thinking all elves were exactly alike?”
“You didn’t even know elves existed until very recently,” she pointed out.
“Right.” He leaned down to press his lips to her temple, then the tip of her ear. “Until you.”
The moment she entered the cabin, she knew that something wasn't right. The room stank of fear. Briera felt her ears flattening to the sides of her head.
He startled at the sound of her voice. His back had been turned to her, the set of his shoulders rigid as he’d stared out the little window.
“Briera,” he sighed, but his voice sounded tight and preoccupied. He wasn’t happy to see her. The alarms from earlier echoed in her ears, and she felt a rock in the pit of her stomach.
“It’s…it’s Danny,” he replied shakily. “He’s missing. We think he must have wandered off the trail, but so far there’s no trace of him. I…”
“Danny. Your brother?”
They sat outside the cabin, watching the sun sink into the trees. Briera could almost imagine doing this every evening, just sitting together and talking about their days. As it stood now, she was barely able to see Liam amid all her chieftainess duties. Even now, she felt a twinge of guilt at being away from her people for even a few hours, for keeping this secret. But she needed it. Even if it was selfish of her, she needed to pretend, for a time, that she was outside the world of politics and elven tribes and secret realms.
“Kaide is just so impetuous sometimes,” Briera said, taking a sip of the beer he’d brought. “He doesn’t listen to reason. I love him, but he frustrates me more than anyone I know.”
“So little brothers are the same for elves and humans, then,” Liam said with a chuckle. “I’ve got three. Noah, Jack, and Danny. They get away with more than I ever did.” He rolled his eyes, but his voice was full of fondness. “They’re all coming up to visit me in a couple weeks. Gonna take them on a hike, show them the lay of the land. I wish…” He trailed off. Briera had an idea of what he wanted to say. Indeed, he gave a little hopeless laugh.
“Sorry,” he said with a sheepish grin. “I know we said we wouldn’t hope for more than what we have.”
“I understand,” Briera replied. “Perhaps it’s too much to expect of ourselves, that we wouldn’t hope for more. I wish you could meet my family as well.”
The smile he graced her with was not as sad as Briera might have expected. He wrapped an arm around her shoulders. He didn’t say “maybe someday” or anything else to give false hope. Instead, he let the silence stretch comfortably between them. He traced the golden tattoos on her upper arm as they glowed. Briera leaned into his side and watched the forest reflect the colors of the sun, suspended between night and day.
He broke off to stare at the ceiling, overcome. Briera understood what he was not yet saying, especially when he fixed her with a hard look.
“Do you think he could have wandered into your territory somehow? Your realm?”
“I don’t know,” Briera replied. She wanted to reach for him, but held back.
“It’s unlikely,” she said, softer. “Very unlikely. No human has stumbled on our realm on their own in many decades, that I know of. He’s probably just somewhere off the beaten path.”
“What would happen if he did end up there?” he demanded.
She swallowed hard. “My people wouldn't harm a child. I wouldn’t allow it.”
“But your people aren’t all in agreement, are they? You said so yourself. The tribes are breaking apart. What if some elf zealot gets their hands on him, Briera? What then?”
The answer stuck in Briera’s throat, weighty with responsibility. There had been a clamoring amongst some of her people for a return to old ways. Liam knew this, because she had told him so.
“So…you don’t think there will ever be a way for us to be open about this?”
They were folded together into the twin bed in his cabin, their bodies touching at every possible point. It was warm, just at the edge of uncomfortable, but Briera didn’t care.
“Not for many years yet, I don’t think. There are enough of my people who still yearn for the past, when humans knew us and feared us. There were no unions between humans and elves even then.”
“There had to be,” Liam protested. “They probably just kept it a secret, like we’re doing now.”
“They would have been risking everything. Fraternizing with humans has long been a crime worthy of the harshest sentence. And in the very old times, elves were expected to attack humans, never befriend them. No act of violence was too much. Even stealing their children away.” She laughed a little and rolled her eyes, trying to make it clear that she found the practice barbaric and ridiculous. A relic of a distant past.
“So, wait.” For the first time, Liam looked troubled. “Are any of those laws still in effect? What happens to you if you get caught?”
Briera curled further into him, feeling impossibly fond of him. How very like him, to fuss and worry over her without a thought for himself. How sweet, and how unnecessary.
“Nothing,” she said, leaning up to reassure him with a kiss. “I am their chieftainess.”
The memory of how she had spoken about it now made Briera feel ill.
“I'll find him,” she whispered, voice quavering and thick. “Liam, I…I promise. I'll comb the woods for him and see that he returns safe.”
“Even if the elves want to kill him? Or keep him in your realm forever?”
“Even then,” she said. “Even then. The tribes will bend to me. They must.”
He got up and walked away, staring at her from across the room, and Briera understood that if Danny failed to return safely, she would certainly lose Liam. Whether her people were involved or not. What she had found with Liam would disappear like the last ray of sun before an endless night. There and gone so quickly.
“I am their chieftainess,” she said with all the resolve she could muster. “My people will do as I tell them. That's the way of it.”
Liam said nothing. Perhaps there was nothing more to say.
Briera opened her mouth to say more—more platitudes, more promises? She hadn’t decided—but the telephone on the wall began to ring. He gave her one last desperate look before answering it, turning his back to her again.
She should leave. Briera knew this. She had made him a promise, a guarantee that it was perhaps not her place to make. But there was simply no alternative that she would accept.
She left the cabin and closed the door behind her. With frantic energy once again speeding her fey steps, Briera took to the woods.
Elizabeth Westcoat is a writer of fantasy, speculative fiction, and poetry. Her work has appeared in Folklore: A Dark Anthology and Withintensions magazine. When not writing, Elizabeth is a mental health counselor, a singer, and a certified meditation teacher.