Hylurania by Bernadette Wouters
Helyna strolled through the Forest of Winterborough, the great forest which she had only just discovered.
Five days ago, home would have been a big house in the centre of an enormous city. A house shared with her parents, two sisters, and one brother. It had been a family life with loads of arguments and fighting parents. At least until the bombs nearly destroyed the entire island.
Helyna had found everyone dead and all the buildings burnt to the ground, yet she herself had remained unhurt. Realising that staying alive in this ruined place was impossible, she ran North, vaguely hopeful that survival might still be an option there. After twenty-four hours of constant travelling, she had reached the Forest of Winterborough, which, strangely enough, seemed completely unharmed. After a short rest, she had moved as deep as she could into the woods until it felt as though she had arrived in an entirely different world. A world in which everything was green and brown, the sky clear blue, and the air fresh. A world people might have never known.
Helyna realised that she was very fortunate, as she had soon been able to gather many edible plants, nuts and fruits. It seemed almost unreal that she was in a place in which nature flourished fruitfully, whilst the entire outside world was destroyed.
She soon settled down on a big branch high up in an oak tree, made herself comfortable, and dozed off.
Scratch, scratch. Tick. Helyna woke up with a start. This was no natural sound. Somebody else was near. Without moving, she looked around, but it was now extremely dark in the forest. Even the pitch-black sky showed no signs of ever having known stars or a moon. Scratch, scratch. Tick. There it was again, yet this time the noises sounded familiar, as if someone was making a fire. Careful not to break any twigs, Helyna descended a few branches to have a better view of the forest beneath her.
One moment she saw nothing, the next she nearly lost her balance. Someone, or something, was hitting two stones together every other second, but no natural fire was being made. Bright blue sparks flew out every time the creature hit the stones together, and soon an icy blue fire erupted from between the stones, which the creature then put on the ground. Helyna soon forgot about the possible danger and curiously made her way towards the creature. As if it had sensed her long before she approached it, the face looked up at her and stared. Helyna was surprised by how inhumanly beautiful the creature’s face was. Its skin was a clear greyish blue, the eyes bright green, and pointed ears were sticking out of its hair which was long, black and wavy with thin braided locks of silver.
‘W-who are you?’ Helyna tried to ask as kindly as her voice could manage, ‘Do you live here?’
The creature did not answer but inclined its head towards the forest and gestured her hand towards her chest. ‘Y-you mean this is your forest?’ Helyna asked. The creature nodded. It now stood up and Helyna carefully took a few steps back as she realised that the creature was almost twice as tall as she was. It was wearing long pine green robes with silver leaf-patterns on them. Then it spoke: ‘People no come here. Forest mine. No humans ever here. How you find me?’
‘I… Eh,’ she stammered, ‘I ran away from the city because it had been completely destroyed. I don’t know why, but suddenly I heard bombs fall and now there is n-…’ She stopped when she noticed that the creature was now circling her as if taking in every detail of her appearance. ‘You inhuman. No human manage to find this place’. It spoke as if not listening to a word she was saying. Helyna was confused now. What did it mean? She had simply run as far as she could into the forest, trying to find a place to survive. As if sensing her confusion, the creature beckoned her to follow.
Soon they reached a big oak tree on which the creature put its hands, closing its eyes for a moment. Helyna gasped. The tree turned around, and a gaping hole appeared in front of them in the tree’s trunk. The creature entered the hole and gestured for Helyna to do the same. Inside the tree, the gap closed and she felt the ground rise up as though they were in an elevator. High above them a bright light grew bigger and she found herself gasping for breath while standing on what appeared to be the highest tree in the world. As she glued herself to the tree trunk to maintain her balance in the strong winds whirling all around her, the world came into view. Indeed, she could now see the world, not just the forest or the burnt cities. It seemed that the entire island had indeed been destroyed. No sign of life was to be seen. Yet the forest itself remained green and lively as ever.
Flabbergasted, she glanced at the creature. Without speaking, it pointed towards the edge of the forest that she had passed so quickly. About a kilometer deep inside the forest, she noticed an endless wall of icy blue smoke, spread entirely from the East to the West side. ‘No human cross, never,’ the creature told her again. ‘How did I run through it without noticing?’ Helyna asked. ‘You no ordinary, you inhuman, I show you,’ said the creature and out of nowhere she pulled out a twig with golden leaves and touched Helyna’s shoulder with it. A warmth spread throughout her body and the next thing she knew was that she was nearly as tall as the creature, having now become of similar appearance. ‘W-what am I?’, Helyna asked. ‘You elf, belong in nature beyond humans. You in peoples house by mistake. Reason you survive. Human world dead. Peoples unkind. Destroy planet, make wars. Selfish. Only inhumans alive now. I, Briaenythade. Follow me.’
As they descended the tree, Helyna noticed that instead of leading to the forest, the gap that they had previously gone through now led to a place underground. An enormous, spacious hall, bright because of the many candles lighting up the space, appeared before them, and now they were no longer alone as they walked through. Keeping her eyes wide open in order not to miss anything, Helyna noticed other elves casually strolling around or chatting with each other, but they were not the only creatures. Dwarves, hobbits, and animals who, Helyna did not imagine it, could talk, all passed their way and seemed to live in perfect harmony with one another. Finally, they arrived at two big wooden doors with handles made of golden leaves. Before opening the doors, Briaenythade spoke again: ‘No shock. You new, yet one of here. Inside is family. Will show place.’
As they entered through the doors, Helyna felt as if she had set foot in a place that was to be treated with great respect, almost sacred. The place was calm and peaceful, yet the atmosphere seemed cosy and cheerful. Soon she was introduced to several wonderfully friendly elves, who hospitably served her delicious elf-made meals. There were the warmest herbal soups, the fullest potato-and-vegetable mashes along with piles of fresh fruits and side dishes, the most savoury pasties, the fluffiest bread, the most delicious cakes and cinnamon pastries filled with raisins and honey… When Helyna felt as if she could eat no more, which was after a very long while since she had never tasted anything this tasteful before, Briaenythade reappeared to show her the rest of the place. ‘Rooms’ was not the right word to use. Every space looked like a burrow, yet much larger and fresher. There were sitting rooms with wooden benches and swings covered in leaves, fireplaces in every corner and all-wood tables and closets. The bedrooms had large wooden beds with lovely leaves-and-straw woven mattresses and sheets so exceptionally soft that they made it nearly impossible to resist going to bed. Everything was underground, yet no place was too obscure as every ‘room’ had at least one opening to the forest through which beams of sunshine lit up the entire space.
‘You here now,’ said Briaenythade. ‘Only if you trouble to us, you back to rotten world. For peoples, world is end. For us, world only begin. Welcome to Hylurania, blooming never-ending forest.’
She had barely finished speaking before Helyna felt extremely dizzy. Everything went a piercing white and she knew no more.
Slowly but surely, the world came into view again. However, Helyna was not underground. Nor was there any sign of elves having ever been there. She blinked and realised that she was sitting on the same branch on which she had fallen asleep, the forest being as quiet and peaceful as it had been when she had dozed off.
Helyna descended the tree and walked towards the place in which she could have sworn the elf had lit the fire. Not a single twig looked as if someone had set foot on it. Strongly disappointed, yet refusing to believe that it had been a dream, Helyna decided that she had better collect food for breakfast. While she searched for fruits and berries, she convinced herself that she had not imagined it, simply because it all made sense. After all, she was the only ‘human being’ left. Bearing this in mind, she travelled deeper into the woods, unaware of where the trees would take her. Only one thing was certain. She would respect and take care of the forest and its creatures. Hidden or visible, the forest was theirs.