Chapter 9



f there is one thing that can make your heart skip a beat, it's a dragon getting ready to attack. Landon knew this first hand. Its eyes sparkled dangerously, baring its razor-sharp teeth and flapping its wings, tail whipping in warning. He wondered vaguely how it could grip that branch with all four claws and not break it. This thing looked to be about as big as a Clydesdale. He hadn't believed in dragons since he was little, and now here was one right in front of him.

            Pulling himself together, he grabbed his bow and arrow from his saddle and aimed at the beast's eye. He wasn't sure if her could penetrate its scales, and he wasn't about to take chances. His finger was just sliding off the bowstring when something grabbed his ankle and pulled his foot out from under him, causing him to fall on to his back and let the arrow fly into the sky. He jumped up and drew Tempest just in time to see a hand slither back into the underbrush.

            And then they were surrounded by archers.

            At first Landon thought the Blackmasks had found them, but these weren't Blackmasks. He wasn't even sure if they were people at all. Their bodies seemed longer and more feline, and their skin was a light, pale green.

            Then it hit him; elves.

            At this point he was confused and quite thoroughly freaked out. All the tales had described the elves as a peaceful people, opting out of wars and helping travelers. And yet they pointed arrows at them.

            "Dyn florai mendin," Jeaine said, dropping off her horse. Mark did the same. The elves relaxed at the sight of her, dropping their weapons and smiling. One of them with graying hair who could only be the leader stepped forward. "Dyn florai mendin," he answered back, touching his heart and then hers. "Welcome."

            Mark leaned in close to Jeaine's ear and whispered, "You speak Elvin?"

            "Not really," she replied. "I just know a few greetings and such."

            Landon looked up and saw that a few elves were up with the dragon, calming it and stroking its head. "Be at peace, child of the wind. We mean you no harm," the lead addressed him. He remembered what Jeaine had said about elves being able to sense powers in people.

            "Then why were you just pointing arrows at us?" Mark remarked smartly.

            The elf took no offense. "We try to be a peaceful species, but we had to learn that not everyone is the same. Normally, we wouldn't have made such a scene; but we were afraid you were up to no good with all those weapons. But we know Jeaine." A few other elves murmured their agreement. A black-haired elf that looked about Landon's age stepped forward and pointed a spear at Landon. "Are you sure they aren't our enemies? He tried to kill the dragon. Can you really believe that to be an act of peace, Smoothwater?" The hatred in his dark green eyes was intense as he glared at him. Why did he hate him so much? The leader raised his hands and said, "It was in self defense, Winterleaf. Humans are not the same as us. They have different customs."

            Winterleaf glared at Landon, and he glared back. Finally, he lowered his spear and stepped back, muttering, "That's what my parents thought before they were murdered." Suddenly it made sense; his parents had been killed by humans. If Landon's parents had been killed by elves rather than Blackmasks, he probably would hate them, too. He wanted to tell him he was sorry, that he was better than those people—who would want to kill such peaceful people?—but the look on his face didn't invite apologies.

            "Sorry about that. He hasn't much liked anyone since men in black masks killed his mother and father. I've taken care of him since." He frowned. "Forgive me for not introducing myself earlier. I am Smoothwater, Tribe Leader of the Treeleaf clan."   

            "These are my friends, Mark, Landon, and Chelsea," Jeaine introduced. "We are on our way to Aroth."

            Smoothwater smiled. "Welcome, Mark, Landon and Chelsea. We would be honored if you would rest with us tonight. Our home is your home." Chelsea nodded for Jeaine to accept the offer, and so she did. This was amazing. They were going to see an elvin community!

            As they made their way to the Treeleaf tribe, Landon noticed all the elves were barefoot. They moved gracefully, maneuvering through the jungle smoothly as if they had been doing this their entire lives. Which, of course, they had.

            At first he didn't even realize that they had entered the village at all. There were no houses, just hammocks hanging from branches all the way up to the tops of the highest trees. Looking up, it looked like millions of cocoons swinging among the leaves. The elves were leaping about, waving to everyone and smiling. Their clothing was earthy and loose. It looked very comfortable. He even saw a mother carrying her baby in some sort of backpack, his pointy ears sticking out of his red hair. Some curious bystanders stared at them or whispered to their neighbors in Elvin. Most went about their business or simply waved. It was all so peaceful.

            "Where are the houses?" Mark asked, staring up at the hammocks in awe.

            "There are none," a voice answered from behind. They turned to see an aging elf woman approaching Smoothwater. "We don't need any. They only block us from our neighbors. We eat together, sleep together, and live together. I guess you could say we are one big family."

            "Friends, this is my wife, Dewdrop," Smoothwater introduced. Her long blonde hair was beginning to gray, but her eyes seemed as young as ever. Her clothes were much more revealing than he was used to. Human women usually wore dresses that covered their stomachs and upper legs at least, but not elvin women. Her skirt was short and her shirt left her stomach exposed, showing off her exceptional figure. She didn't seem to care.

            "Come," she cooed. "You have arrived just in time for the feast."

                The feast took place in a large clearing. They all sat in a huge circle on the ground facing piles of all sorts of fruits and vegetables. There was no meat. Landon recalled the way the elves had protected the dragon. It only made sense that they were vegetarians.

            It was not a pleasant happenstance that he ended up sitting next to Winterleaf, who tried his best to ignore him. Looking around, he noticed that most elves were pointedly not sitting next to Winterleaf until Dewdrop and Smoothwater sat on the other side of him. He noticed a difference in him. All the elves were jolly and friendly, but Winterleaf kept to himself, not talking or noticing others. He was a stick in the mud.

            Just to see what would happen, he decided to talk to him. "Hello." Winterleaf ignored him. "I'm Landon." He grunted. "Listen, I don't mean to bother you, but I would really appreciate an answer."

            The elf gave him a sideways look. "Well, you are bothering me, so I would appreciate it if you would go away."

            Landon could have given up, be he was feeling that impulsive itching that most women would call irrational behavior. So he said, "Do you say that because you really don't feel like talking or because I'm human?" Winterleaf's scowl deepened, but he didn't get a chance to respond because at that moment Smoothwater began to speak.

            "We have been graced by the presence of visitors to share our meal with this fine evening; our friends Jeaine, Chelsea, Mark, and Landon. We welcome them with open arms." There were shouts of approval, and he waited them out before continuing. "Let the feast begin!" There was no rushing to the center to claim the best foods; they all walked to the middle in an orderly fashion, each taking a plate of one kind of food and sitting back down. After the middle was cleared, they began to take what they wanted off of that plate and pass it on to the next, who did the same. They were all one big family, sharing with one another.

            When the plates had been emptied, they began to talk. A beautiful brunette headed over and sat by Winterleaf. "Dyn florai mendin, Winterleaf." He looked up at her, wide-eyed.

            "Dyn florai mendin, Starlight," he whispered, subdued for the first time Landon had seen him. It was amazing how a fierce warrior could transform into a lovesick coward so fast.

            "How was your day?" Starlight asked cheerfully, not waited for an answer. "Mine was excellent! Of course, almost every day is excellent. But today is even more so, with the visitors and all." Beyond that was impossible to tell what she was saying because in her excitement she shifted into Elvin. After a few minutes of unintelligible chatter, she switched languages again. "Winterleaf." She paused for the first time. "Do you love me? Because I love you." She stopped, biting her lip. Winterleaf just sat there for a moment, staring at her. "Winterleaf?" she repeated nervously. He opened his mouth, then closed it, then opened it again. Finally, he nodded. Starlight squealed and tackled him in a huge hug, nearly knocking him over. Pulling away, she kissed him on the cheek and ran away to celebrate with her friends.

            Smoothwater clapped him on the back and said, "Well done, lad. It's about time, too. I thought you were going to turn fifty without a mate! Luckily, she's a little more straightforward than most." Winterleaf immediately guarded his face and again he was the fearless warrior.

            "Fifty?" Chelsea said curiously.

            "Yes. We elves live longer than humans," he explained. "We get to choose when we die, lest illness or injuries take us first."

            "Then why don't you live forever?" Mark asked through a mouthful of watermelon.

            "Because we are not afraid to die," Dewdrop said. "The oldest elf was over one thousand, but he had his own reasons. You see, when we die, we become a part of the land. Our bodies help the plants live. We....fertilize it, if you will. Besides, we do feel the effects of old age."

            Mark obviously didn't agree with their reasons, but he thankfully didn't voice it. Instead he said, "So, if Winterleaf is almost fifty, how old are you?"

            "Five hundred," Smoothwater replied coolly. Mark put his cup down and sneezed, and Landon had the feeling he had just accidentally sucked water up his nose.

            Before anyone had time to comment, Smoothwater stood up and announced, "Now let us sing!" Dang. Landon wasn't a bad singer, but it wasn't his favorite hobby either. Most of the songs were in Elvin, but the sound was beautiful all the same. Some songs were sad sounding and others very lively. Sometimes they would get up and dance. Despite his early uncertainties, it was rather fun. In the end they were all dancing and singing, even if they didn't know the words. It was the most fun he'd had in ages.

            When the singing was done and they were all exhausted from dancing, the elves conversed and laughed together. Many came to introduce themselves, touching their hearts and then his. Jeaine told him it was a peace greeting.

            In the midst of it all, he saw Mark try to kiss Jeaine, but she put her finger to his lips and said, "Before I let you kiss me, I want to know why want to." Mark shrugged.

            "You're beautiful," he started. She folded her arms as if to say "not enough." Mark thought for a moment. "You're kind and caring. You're smart and clever. You know what? Since you're so wonderful I can't even begin express how much I love you, so I'll sum it up. Jeaine, you're everything I could ask for." By now a small crowed of elves had gathered around, and they were applauding. Jeaine smiled and Mark kissed her. Landon suppressed the jealousy that was building up in him. He wanted to kiss Chelsea, but....but what?

            Smoothwater led them to the place where they would be sleeping, high up the "guest tree" that they kept unoccupied especially for visitors. Landon volunteered to go up first since he was the most experienced tree climber of the four of them. He climbed up a little bit and spotted the relatively safest hammocks. Elves were much lighter so they could climb higher, so he wasn't sure if they had taken extra precautions for humans. From what he could see it looked fairly safe, if you don't count the fact that they would be sleeping far above the ground. What did they do during windstorms? Well, he'd just have to make sure that didn't happen tonight.

            He swung back down to the lowest branch and told them it was clear. Mark and Jeaine followed and chose two hammocks on the lowest branch. Chelsea hung back. "Are you coming?" he asked, still lounging on the low branch.

            "Of course. It's just...." she trailed off, biting her lip nervously.

            "Don't tell me you're afraid of heights," he teased. "Here, take my hand and I'll make sure you don't fall." She hesitated, and he sighed. "You're not wearing a dress, so you should be safe from that issue. And you can't sleep down there; there are animals I don't fancy you getting acquainted with. So, you can either trust me or get carried up against your will." As an afterthought he added, "Or get eaten." He held out his hand and she took it. Helping her up, he put his arm around her waist to make sure she didn't slip. Having her so close was thrilling.

            He took her to the top, steadying her whenever she slipped. The progress was slow going, but she was gaining confidence. They reached the top and sat down to rest. "The view is beautiful," she said, staring out at the treetops.

            "It always is," he responded. He looked down at her and couldn't stop. The dying sunlight made her glow as she admired the scenery. "You know, you're so beautiful right now I could kiss you."

            She looked up at him and smiled. "Then why don't you?"

            Good question.

            "I'm afraid you would slap me," he said, stalling.

            "And what if I didn't?"

            He thought for a moment. "Then I would tell you that I loved you. But then would you push me out of this tree?"

            "I guess there's only one way to find out."

            And then he kissed her.

            It was the most amazing thing. The entire world didn't matter in that moment, as long as he was kissing her everything was all right. It was his first kiss. And it was by far the most incredible thing he had ever done.

            Later that night he lay there, staring up at the stars through the leaves and thinking about what had just happened. He was in shock. He was out of his mind. He had never felt better.

            In all his nineteen years the closest he had come to having his first kiss before tonight was when Lydia pulled him into an alley and tried to kiss him. Before he even had time to think, Mark came running down to tell him there was a fire—which he'd accidentally started—at just the right time. Well, that's what friends are for—even if their help is unintentional.

            This was something totally different, though. For example, if Mark had barged in shouting that the entire forest was on fire he would have murdered him. But—fortunately for him—Mark had refrained from causing forest fires and left them in peace.


That morning he rolled out of his hammock, remembered one second too late that he was dangling quite a large distance above the ground, and grabbed hold of the hammock just in time, swinging onto the nearest branch. He sat there for a moment, blankly staring at his hanging bed. The strange thing wasn't that he'd nearly fallen to his death, it was the fact that he really could care less at the moment. His mind was trained on something else. Or rather, someone else.

            He jumped a few branches to the right, where Chelsea lay sleeping. Feeling extra energized this morning, he snatched a soft looking leaf from the nearest branch and lightly tickled her nose. Her first reaction was to sneeze. Lifting her hand up to her face, she opened her eyes and squeaked in surprise. "Landon! How are you....?" She looked up and saw that he was hanging by his legs above her, hanging upside down. "Are you crazy? How on earth can you even attempt to do that, let alone do it?" she finished.

            He swung himself up and sat on the branch above her. "Practice. It doesn't quite make perfect but it's good enough to save your life. I know from firsthand experience." He smiled and tossed the leaf over his shoulder. "Well, good morning beautiful. Did you have a nice sleep?"

            She yawned at the mention of sleep and said, "As well as you can sleep in midair. How did you get out of your bed?" The hammock swung as she attempted to stand.

            "To tell you the truth, I nearly killed myself getting out, but that was only because I wasn't paying attention. Here, let me help." Lowering himself into the hammock next to her, he picked her up and hoisted her up. Once she was safe as it gets in a tree, he lifted himself up and picked her up again.

            "Landon, what are you doing?" she protested while throwing her hands around his neck.

            "There are several ways to get down from a tree, and I don't want you taking the fastest and most dangerous route. Which, naturally, would be to fall to your death. In other words, I'm going to carry you down because I don't trust you to make it down alive by yourself." She huffed indignantly, but didn't remonstrate further.

            He began his descent, purposely taking the most thrilling route just to make things interesting. "Slow down!" Chelsea gasped, holding on tighter. "Have you ever even done this before?"

            "Of course," he laughed. "Just not while carrying somebody." About halfway down, he could just make out Mark talking to Jeaine at the bottom. It was an unfortunate coincidence that he happened to be standing there because Chelsea's boot flew off and landed on his head. Landon dropped to the ground just in time to hear Mark swear. He put Chelsea down and retrieved her boot for her, laughing as Mark rubbed his head and threw them dirty look. Jeaine, however, looked downright thrilled.

            "You did it, didn't you?" she squealed, grabbing Chelsea's hand and tugging as the lightheaded girl tried to keep up while putting on a boot and apologizing to Mark. Jeaine was too excited to give her any time to recollect. "Oh my goodness! You have to tell me all about it!"

            "What was that all about?" Mark asked, mystified. "And why are you grinning like that?"

            Landon shrugged. "I just kissed her, that's all."

            "Finally!" Mark exclaimed, throwing his hands up. "It's about time! Congratulations, man." He patted him on the back and they started toward the clearing where breakfast was being held.

            Most of the elves were already there when they arrived. Some came up to greet them. He looked for familiar faces and found Winterleaf sitting next to Starlight looking as stony as ever. Smoothwater was sitting next to Dewdrop, greeting the elves that passed by. Jeaine and Chelsea were sitting next to them, and they went to join them. Soon after, the ceremony started.

            "Chelsea has just informed me that they will be departing shortly after breakfast," Smoothwater announced, "and they have agreed to let us send a guide to see them safely through the jungle. Do we have any volunteers?" There was a brief moment of silence and finally Winterleaf, of all the elves in the forest, stepped forward.

            "I volunteer," he stated somewhat grudgingly.

            Wonderful. Winterleaf, the only elf that had an undying vendetta against humans, was going to accompany them through the jungle.


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