"You did what?" I cried. "Permanently?"
The elf's green eyes widened in alarm and she hastened to reassure me with fluttering hands. "No, no, it will wear off at sunrise. I just needed some way to communicate with you and this was the only way I could do it."
I exhaled heavily, suddenly aware that I had been holding my breath. "Well," I said, trying to calm down, "I suppose I should be glad that you didn't turn me into a cat."
"And just what is that supposed to mean?" purred a loud voice from behind and somewhere above me. I jumped up to see Taffy, as big as an elephant, peering around the corner of the dollhouse, her huge golden eyes luminous with amusement. She grinned at me and I was suddenly aware of how large and sharp her teeth were, like ivory daggers, not to mention the claws that had done so much damage to my furnishings during her kittenhood. It is rather an awesome thing to be faced with a domestic pet that is several times larger than you are. Suddenly one is aware how much of the dynamics of the relationship are based on relative size.
She brought her face right up to mine, sniffing curiously, and I took an involuntary step backwards, afraid of being poked in the eye by her whiskers - which were as long as bulrushes to me now. She inspected me for several long moments, then sat back on her haunches with her head cocked to one side. "Well," she said finally. "It really is you. Remarkable." She nodded towards the elf with an approving trill. "Quite impressive, really. Who would have thought it?"
The elf preened a little. "Thank you very much!" Then she turned to me. "We haven't been properly introduced. My name is Cleome Oakenhall." She curtsied gravely. "I am the daughter of King Oakenhall of The Goldenwood, and have come through great danger to your house. I can only believe that it was fate that brought me here. My people are in terrible trouble and in desperate need of help."
"I am just Christine Hardy, I'm afraid." I bowed my head a little, not from lack of courtesy but from a complete helplessness at curtseying. "A writer of books and stories, and builder of miniature houses. And friend to this excellent cat." Taffy looked pleased. "I will certainly help you in any way that I can."
Cleome Oakenhall looked relieved. "Then let us sit down where we can be comfortable and I will tell you my story." We went into the dollhouse, bringing the little chairs and the teapot with us and leaving the door open for Taffy to hear. I was afraid that the cat would feel excluded, but Taffy seemed content to crouch down on the table with her paws tucked beneath her white bib and watch us through the doorway. I reminded myself that whatever Cleome had to say, Taffy had already heard.
The little house was lit with that marvelous green sunshine emanating from the fireplace. It was odd to see such a thing indoors however; everything seemed "inside out," so to speak. But it was cozy, nonetheless. The light glistened off the miniature tankards and dishes I had displayed on the mantle and shelves, and illuminated the little bunches of dried herbs and grasses hanging from the beams. The furniture, so expertly made by attentive Chinese and American hands, looked quite wonderful when seen "full sized." However, I was aware as I looked around of all the small gaps in the woodwork and smears of glue that my clumsy big hands and eyes had missed during construction. Overall, though, it wasn't half bad really, and I felt a little surge of pride. I was especially proud of the curtains, which I had sewn by hand and trimmed with lace, and the needlepointed cushions.
Cleome curled up in one corner of the red jacquard sofa, twisting her fingers nervously, and I took the armchair. It occurred to me that I was sitting in my bathrobe next to an elf princess in the living room of my own dollhouse. Whatever would happen next?
Cleome took a deep breath and began to tell her story.
For hundreds of years, my people have lived in the Goldenwood. It lies about fifteen miles from here, in the deep forest that covers the foothills of the mountains. It is a very secret and magical place, composed of a dell surrounded by giant and venerable oak trees that drop enormous golden acorns in the fall. These are not ordinary acorns such as you would see in the gardens of Big People, which wear a fine, golden-colored coating that rubs off with your fingers, but actual golden acorns. Not all of them are golden, of course, most of them are ordinary though still great in size. But every ten years, one of the trees will bear a crop of golden acorns. As you can imagine, these acorns are greatly prized. We guard them carefully and use the gold to make many beautiful things to trade with the fairies, gnomes, sprites and other magical creatures. The leprechauns, of course, are always trying to get their hands on them but we have no dealings at all with leprechauns if we can help it; in fact it's been several decades since we've encountered any so perhaps they've given up and gone back to Ireland.
In any case, we are not just the harvesters of these trees, but their caretakers. We tend the trees, pruning back the branches and feeding the roots, making our homes in the great cracks that appear in the boles. We never damage the living material, but as the trees age we carve out additional rooms, spending much time on their decoration. If only you could see the beautifully carved and gilded elfin homes in the trees! We have gardens on the ground, and fish for minnows in the pond that sits in the bottom of the dell. We harvest the regular acorns as well as the golden ones, using them for food and planting them as needed to maintain the forest. We trade many of them to the squirrels. There are huge black squirrels deep in the woods; noble creatures, most of them, but some are quite bad. Black-hearted through and through!
Here she paused and sighed deeply. It is the squirrels that are the problem now, she continued. Their population has grown while ours has dwindled. They have lost respect for the ancient territories and have invaded the Wood, seeking our acorns for food and for trade. Gold is of no use to them - they do not work or shape it - but they love the glitter and power of it. We do not have the kind of magic that will withstand direct assault; our powers are powers of healing and making and hiding, if needed. The squirrels are several times bigger than we are - bigger than even Taffy here - and very malicious and strong. They have driven us out of our homes and taken them over, destroying our beautiful handiwork with their gnawing, impatient teeth as they seek to enlarge the rooms for themselves. They are also damaging the trees. They have allied themselves with some of the gnomes and the gnomes have taken us hostage, forcing us to work underground in their mushroom farms. Horrible damp, dark places away from sunshine and air!
She paused, hiding her head in her hands, stifling a sob. Not only that, but the Squirrel King - or so he calls himself, a great brute named Filbertkin - has taken my father prisoner and is keeping him at the top of the highest tree in a great nest guarded by four of his biggest ruffians. They won't let him go until he agrees to leave the Goldenwood and give up his right to the trees forever. Of course he won't do that, and my brother is gathering together all the fugitive elves that have escaped, and all the friendly creatures that are willing, to try and rescue him and win back our homes. But the odds are against us; I'm afraid it is a futile effort and that they will die in battle and our people will be forever enslaved by the gnomes.
I myself was underground for a long time in one of those horrible, suffocating farms. But one day I found a back tunnel and managed to escape. It was dangerous and full of spiders; I wandered hopelessly underground through many old tunnels and burrows and I was nearly caught by a ferret, but finally I managed to reach the surface. I have been travelling for weeks, running from owls at night and cats and foxes during the day. I was dragged underground by a snake and I thought that would be the end of me, until I found a rock which I shoved into his throat just as he was about to swallow me whole. I escaped through a tunnel that ended just beneath your hydrangea bush.
I lay there exhausted for I don't know how long until Taffy found me. I thought that was the end for I was too weak to resist, but to my surprise she picked me up and brought me here. Two tears rolled down Cleome's cheeks. I simply must help my brother rescue my father from Filbertkin and free our people from the gnomes. Not to mention save the Goldenwood from destruction. Please, please will you help me?