I’m taking a bit of a breather from my main literary project to write a short story. This one takes us into the Philippines, where folklore lives on deep in the heart of Filipino culture. Here we follow the journey of Segunda. Her tale is fraught with mystical creatures such as elves, dwendes, tikbalangs and asuwangs set in a rather darkly run underground fairy world.
I’ll post a part of the story once or twice a week until it’s complete. Until next, happy reading!
Part One. The Elf Prince.
There is no place as dangerously precarious yet beautiful as a wild rainforest. With her lush green foliage like emeralds splashed with rain and vicious creatures hiding beneath her wind blown canopies and shadow eaves, you’d die in beauty if ever her hidden dangers befell you.
Segunda was the village’s one beauty. Though her father was dark and wizened like a cracked riverbed during the dry season, Segunda’s skin glowed as a full moon does and was as alive as a bouquet of freshly blossomed white roses. And though her mother vanished easily in a crowd like a plain field mouse lost in the weeds, Segunda conquered attention as an eagle does sweeping over the mountains. She possessed grace like the tall and whispering bamboo that moved with the wind yet possessed a character as strong as a typhoon. With eyes the color of sun-kissed honey, Segunda seemed as if she had been born from the fabled secret world of elves, dwendes and other mystical creatures of the forest.
But that was perhaps because she was.
On her sixteenth birthday, Segunda’s father called her into his room. His expression was very somber as he began to speak.
“Anak, I have to tell you the truth of your past. When your mother was four months pregnant with you, she fell very ill. According to the doctors, you were developing in the wrong spot inside of her. We were too poor to afford surgery. You and your mother would have died had I not gone into the forest cave, seeking a miracle. It was then when I met Viktor, king of the elves.”
Segunda’s father breathed, his eyes lost in the past. “Viktor looked like any ordinary man, but his eyes shone like firefly lights as he spoke to me. He said he knew of your mother’s sickness and had a offering. He would save you and your mother’s life if I agreed to give your hand in marriage to his son when you turned sixteen. Since I had no other way to save your life, I agreed.”
Segunda, although shocked at hearing this, could not speak as he continued.
“That night as your mother slept, Viktor sat beside her bed and placed his hand to her belly. He whispered some foreign words over and over again, then removed his hand. At first it looked like nothing had happened, but I noticed the change in your mother’s face. Whereas before she had been pale and waxy, silently suffering in pain, her skin transformed into a healthy glow. Life had once again returned to her. She was no longer sick.”
Her father then took his daughter’s hand and looked her in the eyes with a grave seriousness she had never seen before.
“Viktor said that you would be born beautiful and wise, fit to marry a king’s son. But if you refuse his son’s hand in marriage, you will suffer a curse, one that would affect unborn children for years to come. That is why…anak, you must not be selfish. Do not throw away the gift of life and risk the lives of others. Tonight, I will take you in the forest cave and you must be brave.”
Her father took her into a comforting embrace, but Segunda could not utter a word. All she could hear was the thudding of her heart in fear and her thoughts racing, screaming in her mind. She did not want to be left alone in the forest. She did not want to be married to a stranger. She needed a way out…but it seemed there were none, and when her father finally left her, and she was certain that he would not hear her, she began to weep.
Night fell across the village like someone had thrown black paint over a colorful palette. Segunda was escorted by her father out of her home like an animal being taken to the outhouse for slaughter. Her mother could not even say goodbye nor look at Segunda before she left, but if it was because of shame or heartbreak, Segunda could not be certain.
Once they were at the forest’s edge, her father placed a blindfold over Segunda so that she would not know how to return. They walked for almost three hours until Segunda could no longer recognize the rivers they crossed over and the way the forest breathed around them thick and wild, for they were in the depths of the forest were not many ventured.
At last her father removed the blindfold from her eyes and aimed his flashlight toward the mouth of a cave that she had never seen before. It was so large that it seemed to inhale the dark night around it. The forest here was strangely silent and calm, giving Segunda the impression that a very dangerous predator was lurking about, and the forest creatures dared not make a sound lest they lure it to their hideout.
“Anak…Segunda,” said her father. Her heart trembled and jumped. She wanted to run and scream into the dark forest, chance any other monster there than whatever lived in the cavern. But she faced her father one last time and nodded. “They will treat you well. You are alive because of their magic. This is were you belong. Do not be afraid.”
He gently lifted her chin with one finger and wiped the tears that fell from her amber eyes. “You have never been mine. You were already lost before you were born. You are a jewel I have borrowed from royalty. I am blessed to have held you for so long, my one beauty in a world of hardships. I now let you go.”
He held her one last time before lighting up an oil lamp and giving it to her. “Head down into the cavern until you come to where it splits into three separate, smaller caverns. Wait there, they should come for you. Goodbye…anak.”
Segunda bid her father her love and finally turned away. She did not look back, carrying herself into the cold darkness of the cave that spiraled down and down, soft earth slipping beneath her feet and smelling like decayed wood and moist earth. Cavern fangs from above dripped with cool water that sparkled menacingly in the light of her oil lamp, like a snake’s wide-mouthed venomous jaws, ensnaring her shivering soul. Dark holes in the cavern walls howled mournfully as if lost souls wandered there. She felt as if she were detached from herself, a puppeteer joyfully pulling the strings of her body from above, moving her where she did not want to go.
Her lantern’s light eventually exposed the place her father had described. Three smaller tunnels divided the cavern. In the center was a clearing where a large stone slab marked. Feeling apprehensive, she made her way to the stone and sat on it, resting her lantern beside her. And she waited.
It was not long before she sensed something there before she could see. Like a leaf had dry rolled and whispered. She turned, eyes searching a darkness and seeing nothing. Her heart quickened, and in the silence she could almost hear it. Drumming. Drumming. Stop heart. Stop!
She turned. Just a whisper. Nothing more. Segunda picked up her lantern, adjusted herself on the cold hard stone. Her hands lifted her lantern toward the darkness where the whisper had come from. For a second, just a second, she thought she saw a tall dark shadow. Then it was gone. Just the darkness of that cavern’s corner where someone must have been but was no longer there.
Chills stitched up her arms and down her spine. She began to cold sweat. With numb lips, she uttered, “Who’s there?”
Someone hissed! Right by her ear. So close she felt the warmth of the whisper, brushing back the downy hair near her ear like a soft gust of wind.
Shocked, she threw her lantern toward that direction and in her haste, it fell from her hand. Dropped to the floor. Sputtered and then was out. Darkness and fear enveloped her like a suffocating blanket. She was paralyzed. Now it was just her and her hammering heart.
Still as a statue, gazing into the darkness straight ahead, she felt someone standing there. Right before her. But she did not move.
“You are pretty. Just as father promised,” said a voice. A young man’s voice. Gentle. Amiable. Cool. “I hear your heart. Where I live, we make music from heart beats.”
Suddenly she felt he no longer stood before her. His voice then appeared next to her. Close by the ear he had whispered in.
“This darkness terrifies you. I will not lie. You are more beautiful afraid than brave. Like a bird ensnared, gauzy waterfall rainbow wings sputtering in the sunlight while I laugh and gaze.”
She felt a finger press against the center of her chest, firm. As if someone intending to pierce open an animal’s skin with a knife. Segunda fell back, the finger trapping her down to the cold stone before lifting away.
“So helpless. Human. I fall in love even more.”
The hiss of a match. Light exploded in Segunda’s eyes and she was blind for a moment. The elf prince sat beside her, looking down at her face. His skin was like hers, pale and watery like a rain-washed moon. The firelight played in his unusually colored eyes, like flames laced in grey ash. Dark hair framed his face. Shadows lined his strong jaw.
Segunda finally found her courage and pulled herself up, quickly backing away from the mystical being. His dark brows frowned, not hiding displeasure at how she retreated, but he did not say anything. Instead he stood up, a tall, lean being that commanded respect dressed in a darkly simple royal suit, and gently bowed his head. “I meant not to scare you. My name is Aeron.”
He leaned down and picked up Segunda’s fallen oil lamp, lighting it up with his match flame before placing it down on the stone slab. “Please,” he continued, gently offering his hand, but his eyes burned as if a refusal would prompt a murder. Heart still racing, Segunda felt sick as she took his hand and he guided her off the stone until she was standing beside him. His presence made her feel as if she would never get far if she tried to run, and his hand firmly held hers in a tender, yet controlling, manner.
“We will leave the lamplight here. Come with me. Now step. One. Two.”
And as she left the safety of the light and was further pulled into the blinding darkness, she could not help but sense the sinister soft smile that played on Aeron’s lips.