The first time she summoned me, neither of us realised she had. It was only long after the fact that even I understood how she had called me to her side, and longer still for her to believe it. We did not recognise one another for who or what we were that first time, which was more my mistake than hers. I am as old as time itself; older even. My domain is the dark depths of the ocean, my power as strong as the currents and my strength implacable as the tides. She was only a child of six, living in the human world.
There is a storm ravaged and remote beach along the south coast of England, a place where I had visited a few times in my existence, the small patch of sand only visible for a few hours each day before being swallowed up by the sea, leaving only the sheer, red cliffs to be battered by the ocean. That was where I first saw her, not questioning for even a moment how such a small thing had managed to get there, let alone how she planned to get back out again.
I stayed away from humans for the most part, but something about this child called to me, her carefree laughter like music and her blue eyes dancing with a wonder that I knew was only brief in their realm. She saw the magic of the world, but human society had a harsh tendency to blot that out of their young as quickly as possible. I was tired from my travels, lonely perhaps, though I would not have admitted it at the time, and this small child caught my attention.
She was quite alone, racing back and forth and laughing as she played tag with the waves, shrieking in delight each time I caught her. I had not meant to play along, but her simple pleasure and innocent glee made my involvement irresistible. Her black hair streamed out behind her, her round face red with exertion and hilarity as my waves chased her back and forth, and as we played the small game, I noticed save for her tiny feet she was completely dry. Perhaps it was cruel, though I tend to believe it was mostly thoughtless, but I felt challenged by that. I am old, as I have said, and details occasionally slip away from me. Details such as young human children being unable to swim.
I pulled my power back, then pushed forwards once again, with much more force than I had been using, and the little girl hardly had time to cry out as the wave washed over her head and knocked her over. The act itself was careless, but when I look back now I am filled with abhorrence that I almost decided not to help her. I am often accused of cruelty, but have always shrugged it off as a human concept, far beneath my notice. I suppose that is what comes of being as old as the world and commanding the power of the oceans.
Still, save her I did, despite my brief hesitation. I felt responsible for her predicament as her body was dragged back into deeper water than she could possibly survive, her little lungs filling with cold ocean as she tried to cry for help. She fought against me, even as I lifted her up to the surface and pushed her tiny body back towards the safety of the beach. She continued to inhale more water than was safe for a human, and I knew she did not understand that I was trying to help.
I pulled together my power until I was a solid form, making certain it was human-shaped, and swept her little body up in my arms. I thought little above the basics of the shape I took; male, black hair not unlike her own, and adult. A normal sort of human shape, I believe, and other than the sea green eyes that I couldn’t help, relatively unremarkable. She coughed and spluttered, heaving and crying as she clung to me while I carried her to dry land, and I remember thinking how very small and easily broken these creatures were.
‘There there,’ I said patting her back and helping to expel the water from her lungs. ‘You are safe now, little one.’
She said nothing, but continued to cry and gasp, pointedly refusing to let go of me. I tried not to sigh in resignation, sitting down on the sand and rocking her gently as I waited for her to become calm. It’s difficult to explain in terms that can be understood how it feels for me to contain myself to a body. It isn’t uncomfortable, exactly, but it is unusual. To me the world is small, the creatures who reside here smaller still. When I confine myself to a solid form I do not feel small, but I feel like I ought to. I occasionally make myself far too large for the species I am attempting to impersonate, but as I held this shivering bundle of frightened human child, I had never felt larger. She was so tiny and helpless, and for the first time in my long years, I felt clumsy. It was odd, and in my confusion, I became annoyed.
‘What are you doing playing with the ocean if you cannot swim?’ I asked, the question being the very justification I would have gifted myself had she not survived. She looked up at me, and I could see the hurt and fear in her sky blue eyes, the innocent joy of only minutes before completely dissipated.
‘It wasn’t supposed to do that!’ she cried, her lips quivering. ‘I was only playing! We were having fun!’
Her choice of words confused me for a moment. ‘We?’
‘Me and the sea!’
I watched her carefully, but felt an odd shame for my actions. She did not mean to accuse me, at least not in the sense of her knowing I was personally to blame, but it cut me somehow. We had been having fun, and I had ruined it. It was not her fault that I had become carried away.
‘You must be more careful in future,’ I cautioned, sweeping my strange reactions aside in the face of her sense of betrayal at my hands. ‘The ocean is dangerous. It is vast and deep, and cares little for those who treat it with no respect. You must learn to swim if you wish to play again, but even then you must understand and accept the dangers of taking so lightly a timeless creation.’
She looked up at me, the wonder at my words plain on her open face. Perhaps it was a little heavy for one so young, but I felt compelled to warn her if I might. She shifted slightly on my lap and the movement jolted us both as the red, bleeding scrapes along her legs and arms where the sand and sharp stones had dragged against her helpless body pained her. Tears again began to well up as she noticed the state she was in, and I found it almost laughable that humans were more upset by the site of an injury than the actual pain itself.
‘There now, don’t weep,’ I soothed, looking at the injuries and assuring myself they were only superficial. There was no real damage, no broken bones or even seriously damaged flesh, but her tears came anyway, a fresh tide of salt water pouring forth. ‘Hush little one, won’t you? It is not serious.’
She hiccupped, her emotions more volatile than I had expected, her own anger and frustration at her tears flashing forth. ‘It hurts!’
‘I can heal you, if you choose?’ I asked, my dislike for the sound of her weeping becoming stronger with each moment. Elementals such as I are governed by strict rules, the most important of these that we cannot give without receiving, nor can we take without giving back. So far we were balanced, she having given me her laughter and I had given her life back. There were always loopholes, ways around certain things in order to get or do what was needed, but to heal her injuries would require more obvious payment.
‘Can you?’ she sniffled. ‘Do you have a plaster?’
I believe I may have smiled at that, her innocent misunderstanding of my offer, her childlike belief that a strip of man-made plastic would set everything right once more was endearing and sweet. ‘No little one, I do not have a …plaster. I have instead the ability to make your wounds vanish immediately, but it is very precious. If you wish me to use it, I must ask for something in return.’
‘What?’ she asked, the simplicity of a child much more refreshing than her adult counterparts. There was no suspicion, no disbelief for my words or claim, and I became a little saddened that one day this would leave her. She would become as jaded as every other human at some point, and it was a terrible shame.
I considered my options as I looked at the child. Payment must be taken, but she had nothing to offer me. An adult, in the rare instances that I had offered any service, could be bought off with a kiss or some personal gesture, but this was a small girl and I did not want such a thing from her. I saw the tears on her round cheeks, the way they had tracked to her chin and mingled with the water of her near drowning, and I was struck by an inspiration.
‘May I?’ I asked, reaching out carefully to her face. She nodded, and I gathered each droplet upon my fingers, using my magic to bind them together. A small drop of her blood was mixed in with the tears and seawater, and I gently extracted it into a separate creation. With these things, I forged a pendant for myself, a milky stone from the water and salt, decorated with swirls of silver and adorned by the tiniest red gem from her blood. I looked at the beautiful thing and smiled, creating a slim chain and looping it over my head to wear. It would remind me to have more care with my power.
When I looked back up at the child, still sat upon my lap, she looked at the pendant with awe. I smoothed her black, wet hair back from her face, then offered her the pendant to look upon. Still on its chain about my neck, she took it up in her tiny fingers and caressed the smooth stone and raised silver design. While she was distracted, I washed my power down her broken and sore flesh, mending it immediately. She appeared not to notice.
I allowed her to sit and fiddle with the charm I had made from her pain for a while, the peace of the moment soothing. Eventually though, I became afraid she might fall asleep, and knew the time had come for the tide to turn.
‘Time to return home, little one.’ I said more softly than I’d intended. She said nothing, only releasing the pendant and nodding once. I helped her stand, and she ran a pudgy little hand down her leg as she realised her injuries were gone. She gasped in surprise, but I was already gone. I did not want her to thank me, as it had really been my own fault to begin with.
It was only when I had moved miles from the coast that I realised she had no way out of the enclosed beach, and without thought, I turned and went back again. I chose at the time to not too closely examine my concern for her as I rushed back to the patch of sand on that rocky outcrop that I knew full well would be almost swallowed whole by now.
When I got there, however, there was no sign of the child.