Leelan watches Vibeke, how her eyes flicker over the trees and the meadow and follow the flight of the tiny fairies, how she scans the sky. So many things must be new to her.
This is the first time that Leelan has brought someone from the other dimension into the realm. While he watches her, he searches his mind for a reason why. Why has he brought her, why was he so sure that he absolutely had to do that?
Something draws him to her in a way he has never known before.
Before he took up his post as a watcher in the other dimension, he had to study that world and the humans. The books had said that humans had a powerful urge to procreate, that their desire to be intimate stemmed from the deChapsire to have children. But Leelan and the other students soon learned of the many times that humans were drawn to others and were intimate with each other when procreation was either not possible or actively prevented.
“It can’t be about just procreation,” his elfling friend had said back then. “Maybe they just love to touch, to be intimate? Maybe that’s a basic urge for them?”
Leelan had wondered about that too. Maybe it wasn’t so different for humans, maybe they also followed strands of destiny through space and time to find each other, much like here, in the realm.
Nobody ever explained to him how he would know if he had found his strand, his connection. Maybe it was a connection like what he felt for Vibeke or maybe it was just an alignment of minds. He just knew, when had he looked at her in her brightly dotted sleepwear in the hallway of her house, that he had to convince her to come with him.
He needs her by his side, he just doesn’t know why yet.
Vibeke plays with the stem of a flower, letting her fingertips dance along it. The flower twitches away and shakes its blossom.
“Is it ticklish?” she asks, her voice bright like a child’s.
“It looks like it,” Leelan says and tickles a flower himself. The bloom twitches away and then hits his hand.
Vibeke giggles. She continues to play with the flower when she suddenly looks at the ground in horror. “But I’m sitting on them, oh my god, am I hurting them?” She jumps up but freezes in her steps. “And I’m stepping on them.”
Verkesh tugs at her pants and hums soothingly. “No need to worry, Lady Vibeke, you don’t hurt it.”
Leelan points at a crushed flower he has been sitting on. “That is not the plant, it’s just extensions. The plant is underground, spread out in a gigantic network. We aren’t even sure if it is just one plant or many.”
“And it’s okay that I sit on them?”
“I think it’s kind of like sitting on hair?” Leelan gives her little smile.
“Oh, okay.” Vibeke doesn’t look entirely convinced, she still places her feet very carefully as walks. The color has returned to her cheeks and she looks healthier than before. She tugs a few strands of her dark hair behind her ears and studies the sky. “Is that the same sky that I see at home?”
“What is the sky, in your world?”
Vibeke opens her mouth and snaps it shut once before she starts to speak. “Well, it’s space, you know? I mean not directly, it would be black then but through the atmosphere of the planet it looks blue most of the time, unless it’s nighttime…”
“I like it when it’s blue,” Leelan says, thinking back to those sunny days when the blue color of the sky was so bright that he could hardly look at it. “And the clouds, when they are white and big, I like those.”
“You don’t have clouds here?”
“No, and no night time either.”
“What? How is that even possible?”
“This is not the sky as you know it. I don’t quite know how we relate to your world but this is not a look into space and the light doesn’t come from the sun.”
Vibeke shakes her head. “This is making my brain hurt.” She gives the sky another sceptical look. “The color is pretty though, is it always like this, pastel peach?”
“It has been as far as I remember.” One book in the Grandessa’s library mentioned the sky changing color to a deep red when an old god got angry but that had been just a story. No other story ever spoke about the sky changing.
Vibeke now looks towards the line of trees around the clearing. “You said trees are dangerous?”
“They can be a bit mean.” Leelan puts his hand on her shoulder and swallows a gasp at the surge of energy he feels from her through the touch.
Is it the same for her? Does she feel this too?
She laughs softly. “So, I should not go into the woods alone? Like in the old fairytales?” She shows him a delightful smile that makes her eyes sparkle and her cheeks turn rosy. But she quickly looks away to the trees, much more interested in her surroundings than in him.
He lets his hand slide off her shoulder, disappointed. She doesn’t feel it. The connection, the strand of destiny, she doesn’t feel it.
“You will be safe as long as I guide you,” he says and gently steers her towards a narrow path with his hand on the small of her back.
Verkesh makes a scratchy noise in his throat and a leaf unfolds on his head. “Leelan, if I may… I could clear the way easily, if…”
“If I knew where we are going.”
“Ah, yes.” Leelan scratches his neck to hide the fact that he doesn’t quite know himself. “You know we’re not welcome in the palace anymore, my friend. And I don’t think we’ll get answers there anyway.”
Verkesh looks up to him, a frown forming in his bark. “Do you want to find the Ancient Ones?”
“Possibly. But at first, I want to find the roaming elflings.”
Three new leaves spring from Verkesh’s head as he looks even more worried. “Is that wise?”
“Probably not.” Leelan shrugs. “But they have magic and they must know something. I cannot rest until I have answers for the Grandessa.”
Vibeke gives him a strange look. He still has his hand on her back and he doesn’t want to lose that connection.
“Is the Grandessa your queen?” she asks.
Thinking back to the books he read, he nods. “Yes, that would be equivalent. She has been taught from birth to guide the realm.”
“Did she inherit that position?”
“Where I come from… well not exactly that but close enough, they have bloodlines that are supposed to be royal and one of the offsprings gets to be king or queen.” He must look quite bewildered at her because she raises her hands as if to stop his questions. “There’s not many places anymore that have kings or queens and most of the time they’re just sort of decorative, they don’t have political powers anymore.”
Leelan shakes his head. The human world is so strange, he isn’t really surprised by anything he hears. “Our Grandessa was chosen by the gods. There was a sign at her birth from the gods themselves.”
He opens his mouth to tell her of the godly realm but she stops him.
“No, if we start talking about religion and compare it to the 3000+ religions we have, we’ll be here for weeks. Can we, like…” She sighs and turns fully to him. His hand slips from her back and hangs in the air. Before he can let it drop, she takes his hand in hers and holds onto it like a lifeline.
“You see, I like making lists,” she says, staring into his eyes, “And currently, my list has about 876 bullet points but if we stick to the first five, we get: Why am I here?, Where do we go?, Is it dangerous for me to be here?, What do you expect me to do?, and, most important: Where can we eat something?”
He can’t bear the intensity of her gaze any longer and looks to her hands clasping his own. Her touch ignites him and he can’t believe that she doesn’t feel how her energy streams through him like a fever.
“We will find enough to eat for all of us,” he says to her hands. “But we can’t go to the center, I’m sorry.”
“Why are you sorry?”
“I would have loved to show you the golden city and the palace.”
“But still… why am I here?”
He looks into her eyes again and is hit once again by the absolute certainty that she has to be here, with him, no matter what they’ll do. “I don’t quite know it myself, but I feel that I need you here, that you are important to this.”
“But how?” She stares at him, her eyes pleading. “It’s not that I hate it here, it’s lovely and fascinating but what can I possibly do?”
“I don’t know yet but I’m sure it will be revealed.” He sounds more confident than he feels. Even with his believe of the strands of destiny connecting them, he still doesn’t know what that destiny will be.
Her hands press his with more urgency now. “But you won’t leave me, right? You won’t leave me here with no way of going home?”
“If you desire to go back, I will take you at once.”
She straightens her shoulders and lets go of his hand. “Okay. I… I try to keep up.” She holds up her fingers and counts down on them. “What I learned so far: One, plants are aclive here and will grab you. Two, trees can be dangerous, stay away from trees. Three, there’s trolls and magic here and all sorts of stuff I can’t quite think about. That’s,” she turns back to him and drops her hand, “I think that’s all I can handle right now. And I’m hungry.”
He wants to take her in his arms and never let go again. Everything about her charms him. He turns to Verkesh to hide the blush he knows is darkening his skin. “Verkesh, we require food, do you have an idea where we should go?”
“Not towards the city as I understand.” The tree troll twists his stick-arms onto his back and paces in front of Leelan on his stumpy legs. “Can I assume that our path will take us to the Purple Plains?”
“I would think so, yes.”
“Then I’ll have to ask, as I not know that area well.” He gently picks up a small lizard from the ground but he hesitates to speak to him. “You are aware that the palace will learn of every conversation I have with these creatures?”
He has not thought about that but he nods in agreement anyway. This close to the center, the palace will know of everything they do anyway.
Verkesh whispers to the lizard and listens intently for a while before he sets him back on the ground. He picks a tiny leaf from his head and carefully lays it on the ground. Roots grow from it immediately and Vibeke watches the process intently.
“It’s so fast!” She pulls gently at the leaf but it has already connected with the ground. “How long until it has grown into a tree?”
Verkesh bends down to the leaf and studies it. “It might not become a tree. This is a gentle leaf, maybe it wants to be a flower instead.”
“It can decide?”
“Yes.” Verkesh gets interrupted by a tiny blue lizard climbing up his bark and settling on top of his head. They can’t hear anything but after a moment, five leaves sprout on top of his head and his eyes turn to slits. “I’m afraid we have to hurry.”
“We haven’t done anything wrong, yet,” Leelan says, but nevertheless steers Vibeke towards the line of trees with his hand on her back.
“But it seems the dragons are on their way to us.” Verkesh hurries in front of them, leaving a trail of leaves behind him.
“Dragons, like you?” Vibeke asks with wide eyes.
“Yes, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are our friends.”
The trees twitch and shiver the closer they get and Leelan pulls Vibeke to his side. He has to suppress a shiver from feeling her so close but this is just for her protection, no matter how much he wishes it were otherwise.
“Don’t get too close to the trees, stay right beside me. Verkesh will ask them to let us through.” He tries to smile at her but judging from the fearful expression on her face, he is not successful.
“The trees might attack?” She presses closer to him, adjusting her steps to his.
Her closeness is making him feel warm and connected and he almost moans from the feeling. He expands his wing and settles it around her shoulder. “They won’t dare to attack me or Verkesh but they might attack you.”
They follow Verkesh on a narrow path, made by animals rather than elves or dragons. The trees close around them and it’s not their imagination that they move closer to the human and the dragon walking swiftly past them.
“Are all the trees like that?” Vibeke whispers.
“They’re more aggressive here near the center,” Leelan says. “When we get to the Purple Plains, the trees stand more solitary and are much calmer.”
“They don’t like crowds? I can relate.” Vibeke slaps a twig away that pokes at her and glares over her shoulder as Leelan pulls her forward. “That was rude!” she yells back.
“I’m afraid they don’t understand you,” Leelan says, trying to hide his smile.
“I bet they do.” She keeps up, huddled into his side, protected by his wing over her shoulder. The way she glares at the trees, it seems like she wants to dare them to touch her.
Verkesh stops in front of them and they almost run him over. The trees and vines are interlaced like a fence in front of them and won’t let them through. Verkesh stands still, slightly bend forward and leaves keep growing and falling from him. The trees around them stretch out their branches, getting closer, poking at them and even try to wrap around their arms and legs.
Leelan kneels down, pulling Vibeke down with him and wraps her and Verkesh in his wings to protect them. The tree branches are now encircling them and sticks are poking into his wings and any uncovered body parts.
“Verkesh?” Leelan says quietly. He had not expected this much aggression.
Verkesh groans as if he’s holding a terrible weight. “I’m trying but they won’t listen.”
Viebeke smacks a branch away and huddles closer to him. Leelan takes in the scent of her hair, wishing the circumstances were better for this closeness.
“We’re stuck here?” she asks just loud enough for him to hear.
“I’m not sure why.”
She draws even closer to him and whispers, “Did your queen order this?”
“She’s not just a queen, she’s — “
” — could she order the trees to detain us?”
“Yes, she could but why would she? She wanted me to investigate this, she has no reason to stop us.”
“Well, somebody is telling these trees that we should not go on.” Vibeke shrugs his wing off her shoulders and stands up, her voice growing louder as she speaks, “And I’m getting kind of sick of it. I don’t know how people here deal with rude trees but where I come from we take a big axe and — ” The twigs and branches freeze in their movements and for a moment the silence is absolute. And then Vibeke yells, loud and deep from her chest, “and then we CUT THEM DOWN!”
The branches snap back as if burned. Verkesh runs forward, Leelan and Vibeke close on his heels. The trees seem to be unsure how to react, their branches quivering as they run past. Purple hills rise far out in the distance when the trees seem to have recovered and creep closer again.
Vibeke pulls her backpack from her shoulder and opens the zipper at the top. “Do I have to take out my axe?” she threatens with her hand in her backpack.
The branches snap back again and the path opens in front of them. Leelan stuffs Verkesh under his arm and takes Vibeke’s hand and runs out into the grassy field, swerving left and right to avoid the few young trees scattered close to the edge of the forest until all that surrounds them is grass and heathers.
He slows down, stops and puts Verkesh down, who shakes his whole body, scattering leaves around. Vibeke leans forward with her hands on her knees and wheezes.
“Is now the time,” she huffs out between breaths, “to tell you that I’m not in good shape? And that taking me with you on a long trip is probably a bad idea?” She coughs as she straightens, taking in the air in deep gulps.
“We will go slower from now on, the plains are not dangerous,” Leelan says.
“I’m still not sure how useful I can be.”
Verkesh looks up to her with a frown, “Do you really have an axe in your backpack?” There aren’t many things a tree troll is afraid of but axes definitely worry him.
Vibeke laughs out. “Of course not. Where would I even get one?”
Leelan grins at her. “I think you just proved how useful you can be.” He wants to pull her into a hug, just to show her how happy he is to have her along.
“You mean bullshitting is a desirable skill for this adventure?” She laughs, bright and happy and it makes his heart skip a beat. “Why didn’t you say so? I can bullshit us through anything.”
She keeps on laughing and he can’t take his eyes off her.
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