The rain stopped, as morning light trickled through the canopy. Drops dripped into the stream, ripples dancing outwards about the surface. Flowing downstream, leaves carried by the early-morning deluge off the trees came to a waterfall, and descended over the precipice into the wind.
A bronze-skinned young woman snatched one of the leaves from the air. Closing her eyes, she felt the texture on her fingertips, and the pulse of Life dimming, but still there, in its green veins. She released the leaf to its fate.
The apsara, or nymph, knelt at the water’s edge. This was her home, a clean pool fed by the great river, which eventually flowed out of the wooded wetlands and beyond to the floodplains and seas. The pool was but a few feet deep, like a wide natural bathtub, part of a large collection of pools in the hilly landscape. The forest and its creatures loosely surrounded the apsara’s abode like the walls of an open house, branches as the roof chattering with birds and monkeys.
The girl rubbed sleep from her shining eyes, rising with the dawn. Looking in the pond’s reflection, she ran her fingers through her long, dark hair, which shone like the clear water. Her features where gorgeous, befitting a spirit of beauty and the rain, nubile and graceful like nature. She discarded her clothing of clouds, which lay upon the rocky wet shore like a silvery fog, as she dipped into the pool.
From throughout the forest, animals visited the spot. A few forest deer had come for a drink, and they bowed to the spirit. Sometimes they would drink side-by-side with ferocious tigers, but the apsara quelled the savagery of all beasts. Cobras swam in the water, elephants thundered through the distant undergrowth, and monkeys called from the high canopy. Gavials, looking only for fish, sat calmly in the water.
Downstream, lotus pads were pushed aside by something large.
The apsara rubbed her naked skin gently with a smooth soft river rock. To the west of the pond, illuminated by the morning sun, sat a worn, carved statue. The temple it was a part of has since long been destroyed, and the ruins lay some distance beyond. She never went to see the ruins, for her place was in unspoiled nature, although she found the divine figure of the statue familiar; perhaps the humans worshiped her parents ages ago. While she washed her body she mused on a possible connection, but only briefly.
She gave it little thought. She listened to birds singing their morning songs, and placed the stone back where she found it. After some swimming, she showered her naked form beneath the waterfall, its cold stream blasting hard against her dark skin. She washed her hair, and it shown like diamonds in the sun.
The moving thing paused, waiting. Then it resumed its slow approach.
Satisfied her body was refreshed she took to lounging upon the rocks, letting her feet splash playfully in the water. She looked up, and a bird fluttered down to land on the back of her outstretched hand. It sang to her, and she smiled as she listened. She released it from her enchantment, and it flew away. She sat there upon the rock, watching the clouds go by. Eventually she rose, and sauntered over to where she had discarded her clothes.
The approaching thing was waiting. It saw its chance.
In a violent surge, the water erupted from behind. Before she could turn her head, a hand grasped out and covered her mouth, silencing her. A dark gray knife, extremely sharp, hovered above her throat. The attacker, a woman, was calm.
“Do not scream. Do not call for help, even to the animals. Don’t even THINK to them, believe me, I will know and I WILL kill you here,” she said softly. The attacker was plain, not a stunning woman, with short hair and clothed simply. Her satchel and gear were completely soaked from waiting all night, and they were caked with moss, mud, and loose plants. With a pause for thought, she then added, whispering, “but I’d rather not have to kill you.”
The apsara had only seen humans at a long distance, most of them mountain woodsmen who stayed far away from her; that had been years ago. She was panicking, having never needed to fight for her life before.
Her wide panicked eyes darted back and forth. She closed them in fear, trying to understand the gravity of the danger. She moved to turn her head.
“No!” the attacker warned, “do NOT turn your head, do not look at me. I will not risk you bewitching me with your gaze. I risked going blind just trying to find you. Any man would be blind already, as they couldn’t help themselves to gawk, but I,” she emphasized with pressure of the blade, “I am not so easily beaten.”
The apsara closed her eyes again, terrified, confused and helpless. She could feel the metal’s magic weakening her as well.
“Now,” the attacker said, still dripping with swamp water, “I’m going to make you a deal. There’s a sorcerer who wants your hair for his magic spell. Don’t know why, but he wants you hair. Willing to pay scum like me a lot of money for it, though I doubt you know what money’s for. Regardless, this can go two ways. First, you can let me cut your hair, no harm to you, and I’ll be on my way. You don’t sic the tigers and monkeys on me, and I only take your hair. Second, alternatively, I slit your throat, you fall dead, I take your hair anyway. So basically, it’s you’re choice: cooperate, or this gets messy. And trust me, this cold iron WILL cut through your skin and you WILL be dead before you hit the ground.
“Understand? Nod if you wish to live,” she concluded.
The apsara could barely stand. The metal did something to her, made her loose all strength. Finally, realizing she’d been asked a very important question, she nodded weakly.
“Good.” said the attacker. Besides breathing and speaking, she didn’t move a muscle. The woman was very good at hunting, but this prey required special precautions.
“Here’s how this works. I’m going to cut your hair. You will not scream or speak. You will not call to the animals to come rescue you. I will cut your hair, and by the time you recover from the cold iron, I will be gone. If you flinch, if you move, if you look like you’re doing anything I don’t want you to, ANYTHING, just remember that I will have a knife VERY close the back of your neck and it can cut VERY deep.” For the first time, the attacker blinked. Finally, she added, “do you understand?”
Tears rolled down the apsara’s face, and they touched the woman’s hand, still over the poor spirit’s mouth. The sensation changed nothing in the attacker’s attitude or mind. The apsara, mortified, nodded.
The forest was still. Both women were locked together, one totally at the mercy of the other. The subtle nod decided the next course of action, but not the outcome. Humans knew that looking upon divine beings could be dangerous, even fatal, and if it looked as if the apsara was turning to gaze at her, she could wind up facing the whole wrath of wild nature.
She took a deep breath.
In an instant, the knife moved from the spirit’s throat, and the other hand slipped around the left side of the face to the back of the head, grabbing as much hair as it could. The knife came to greet this hand, sliding in above it and sheared the still-wet locks clean in one slice. The apsara, now released from her assailant’s grasp, fell exhausted upon the shore. She did not hear the soft swift footfalls of her attacker as she fled that place for her life, knowing all the forest could be on her trail at any moment. The spirit was simply glad to be alive.
For several minutes, she laid in tense silence. Then she sobbed and moaned so loud the whole forest shook, as every animal, tree and stone felt her. The river water rolled and boiled as she moaned with grief. She dragged herself to the water’s edge, and saw her reflection in the pool. He hair was cut clean and short, but had lost its shine. The sky grew gray and the rain fell in torrents.
The apsara spent the rest of the day curled up on a rock behind the waterfall. She thought of sending all manner of wild beasts after her attacker, but she was probably hours gone by now, and her own powers were limited. She wallowed even through the rising of the moon.
“So that is the power of human women,” she said to a passing lizard, but mostly to herself. She put her head back on her knees as she sat alone in the dark. Scared, but alive. Her hair hung down from her head, and barely touched anything for its shortness.