It wasn’t the all-out run of being chased by a bear, not even close. It didn’t even truly start out as a run. At first it was a quick, stealthy attempt to slip past the camps of the elves from the east, west, and south. I knew they’d have rangers with them, so there was no way I could go completely undetected, but I tried to make my passing as uninteresting as possible while still passing rapidly through their area.
They all wanted to see me gone. I wanted the same, only not in quite the same permanent manner.
It worked. Soon I was past the circle of tents, and then I was jogging.
I pushed it faster.
I didn’t set out for any place in particular. I hadn’t been to all that many places, for one thing. Back home I’d explored nearly every nook and side street of my neighborhood before I really knew what I was doing, but the training to become an elf queen is just a little more arduous than that. I’d managed to explore the grounds to the south of Cysegredig three times since my arrival, each time with my father, my cousin, or both. Heck, every time I’d been anywhere on Kiirajanna it was in the company of someone else, most often several someone-elses.
This time, it was just me.
I was alone. Happily, gloriously, alone.
I ran, exulting simply in the silence of being alone.
Thoughts, some dark and others not, tried to cloud over my mind as they had all day. Each time they tried to take over, though, I’d focus on one of the perfect-coiffed bushes nearby, or one of the trees, and the thoughts went away.
What did Seph mean when she said to tell the trees if I needed her? I wondered if I could test it by telling the nearby elm. I didn’t try, though, out of respect for my newfound—or re-found—self-presence.
It was good to be with myself, and just with myself.
Before long the sun disappeared. The shadows were already at their longest when I left the castle, so the sunset was no surprise. No surprise, but a grand revelation. The darkness on Kiirajanna is alive. I don’t mean like at home, aurally alive, with owl hoots and animal calls, though those are present in the elf realm as well. I mean physically alive, ringing and zinging about with a charged energy as ancient as the realm itself and more powerful than anything imaginable.
I stopped, allowing the energy in, letting myself become filled with a sense of anticipation and awe.
The energy was tremendous. I checked to see whether Draignerthol was somehow causing it, funneling it from wherever the pendant found its well of magical force. The ancient relic was silent, cool, dark. It was waiting on something.
A gaze upward confirmed that there was a full moon. That didn’t mean anything in the elf lore I’d studied. Still, I felt connected, somehow. It seemed like the flowing power that surrounded me was pulsing along to the shimmers of the great white orb in the sky, though I couldn’t figure out why. Strangely, for me, I didn’t want to figure it out just then. It felt right, and that was enough.
It was dark, but I could see well enough when I relaxed and let my eyes and subconscious work together.
There was a tree nearby. Yes, there are always trees nearby in an elf forest, but this one was special. It called to me, though of course I know how silly that sounds. Suddenly, Seph’s comment resounded in my head: “tell the trees.” I didn’t actually need her, but for a few bizarre moments it seemed completely natural that I would tell the trees—that tree, in particular—anything that needed saying. It stood strong, and tall, its bark perfectly uniform as it raised its arms to the darkened sky.
I reached out with both hands and touched it, fingers splayed out along the bark ridges.
Maybe, anyway; I don’t remember whether I actually made a sound or not as the wonderment spread through me. It felt like I was suddenly split open, turned inside out, becoming one with the trees just as they were part of me.
Walking no longer made any sense whatsoever. Why would anyone want to change locations when sturdy roots were available to keep you safe and fed?
Wind rippled gently through my hair, tugging at the branches growing upward and away from my core. It rippled among my brethren and me as we all stood in its path, rattling leaves and rapping limbs against one another: an intricate symphony that played the breeze’s energy out.
Trees are one—all of them. Suddenly that was obvious, like saying the night is dark or the bedrock is hard. While some trees—the ones nearby, I thought?—whispered in the chill wind of the central region, I could sense the freezing cold as others—brothers, almost twins, but definitely siblings—gently shook off freshly fallen snow. I reached down, behind the murmur, and found the bushes there as well. They weren’t nearly as powerful, or capable of drawing their sustenance from as far down in the soil, or as happy in the wind. They were the little baby brothers.
Off in the distance, I heard a surprised, overjoyed shriek. Only, it wasn’t a sound, rather a sensation, and it felt strangely familiar. I opened myself to the voice, and then I realized what—who?—I was hearing. It was Little Treebeard, all the way back in my room in the castle. L.T. had sensed me joining into the meld, entering his world, and was overjoyed. The L.T. in the pot could only shake his little leaves and smack his branches against whatever was nearby. The L.T. in the meld danced and cavorted in joy.
In spite of the miles I’d run, I could almost see him. Her. Suddenly I realized that the gender thing was a really dumb question. L.T. was both him and her, and neither as well. As I came to that realization, all the trees around me—smiled.
That’s how it felt, anyway. The elf smile is one of complete radiant joy, using nearly every single muscle in the face, but the trees have neither faces nor muscles, nor did I feel my own facial muscles moving. Still, it was the same internal sensations: joy, happiness, and for that moment, perfect and total serenity.
It was a wonderful moment. Beautiful, in fact. I’d suddenly realized that I could commune with the trees pretty much across the entire continent, and that was amazing. But when I left the castle, I reminded myself, it was for a run, not for standing with the trees.
I expected it to be painful to separate from the newfound bond I’d created with the trees. That somehow a part of me I hadn’t known before would be suddenly, tragically ripped away, never to be whole until I found that unity once again. At least, that’s how it seems like the sensations should feel. It’s not how they felt, though. I disconnected, and that was that. The trees were all still there. I knew—somehow—that they would always be there, if and when I needed them. And while the long-distance group thing was nice, I didn’t miss it as I gathered my human senses about me once again.
A couple of loping steps later, I stopped again. Curiosity enveloped me, and I knelt slowly and put both hands on the ground, wondering if I’d sense anything different.
Suddenly, I was touching the entire world.
With a gasp, I raised my hands to collect my thoughts, and then my breath. I checked Draignerthol for participation or for blame; no, the pendant was still chill to the touch.
I reached down and touched the ground again.
If all the trees seemed like a tremendous breadth of sensation, it was nothing compared to pretty much the entire world. The sky was dark, so my eyes saw nothing, yet my internal vision connected into a seemingly infinite pool of sensations. It was overwhelming, at least at first.
By exerting a little concentration I found it easy to localize. A bug creeped along the ground a few meters from me. What moved and acted like a snake slithered by on the other side, which startled me a little. I guess it’s hard to have the people of the west actively worshiping serpents, with a leader known as Swadda of the Serpent Veils, without acknowledging that there actually are snakes in the realm. I’d just never really thought about it.
Luckily, for me and for it, I could tell that the creature really was more afraid of me than I was of a little snake.
Off in the distance, roughly in the same direction as the now-destroyed library, I saw and acknowledged a dark patch. It wasn’t barren, but rather dark in a malevolent sort of way. It was huge, and it seemed to be growing, alive even. Dark animals roamed across it in spite of the hour, and that brought a shudder as I remembered being chased by dire wolves and dire ravens across the blight. I made a note to check that portion of the continent out more thoroughly some day, to see if there was anything the rangers of the realm could do. Granted, they had probably already done all they could do, but perhaps there was something I could accomplish as queen of the realm.
Once I got there.
If I got there.
My musings were interrupted by a shadowy flash across my consciousness. It was faint, as though something—or someone—was hiding from me, and using the earth itself to do it. It was close, though, no more than twenty or thirty feet away. It didn’t hold anything like the malevolence of the blight, but it was anxious—scared?—agitated and perturbed, at least a little? It wasn’t like the snake, though, nor any other creature. The conscience, the mind—the footprint, if I can call it that—was too big, too grand, to intelligent. It wasn’t a creature at all, I realized.
It had to be an elf.
Curious to learn who was watching me, I leaped up and darted toward the spot. I was rewarded with a gasp and a light thud as whoever it was tripped. We came face to face, and it was my turn to gasp, loudly, in shock.
It was a child. A girl, somewhere between five and eight years old, near as I could tell. But that wasn’t the shocking thing.
She was clad in hand-fashioned, primitive clothes. Her tunic looked, in the glow of the moon, like supple leather, and it was bound together across the tops of the shoulders and down the sides with crude lashings. On her feet were bound simple leather flaps folded up and around. Her hair was a mess, all frizzy and jutting out. But that wasn’t the shocking thing either.
What brought a shocked gasp to my lips was that she was black.
I’d seen black people before, growing up in the South. All the comments about Southern racism aside, though, we kids never really thought much about it. I had black friends, and my white friends had black friends, and my black friends had white friends, and we all just sort of ignored both the color of each others’ skin. At the same time we also ignored—or perhaps we just didn’t know—how the rest of the world seemed to think we ought to think about it.
But I’d left all that behind. I’d been in Kiirajanna for well over half a year, and I’d never seen a black elf. I hadn’t noticed that I’d never seen one, unfortunately, because to be honest I wasn’t looking for any sort of racial makeup. But now that a definitely dark-skinned elf sat sprawled in front of me, I couldn’t help but notice. Even Swadda, coming from the desert as she and her people did, carried her skin as pale as notebook paper. I’d been around Cysegredig many times with my father, to the point that I figured we’d visited every village there was to visit, yet not once had we seen a black elf.
I was going to marvel at my discovery a little while longer, but the little girl decided she’d had enough. She sprang to her feet and turned to run.
“Hi! Don’t—go…” I called after her as she took one step and then disappeared with a pop.
Teleportation! My mind screamed at me that this was important, but at the moment I was more interested in catching up to the girl and worrying about the implications later. I snapped my hand about Draignerthol and pulled upon the pendant’s power. With a matching pop, I teleported to right behind her, and then pressed my long legs into sprinting after.
She teleported away again.
I teleported right after.
She darted around a tree and angled slightly away. She was quick, but I had much longer legs and was pretty sure I could outdistance her in a straightaway. Not that she did much straight-line running; every time she came close to a tree she darted at some angle behind it. It was hard to keep up, but not impossible, and I started to gain on her. She could teleport, but so could I, and with Draignerthol around my neck I was pretty certain I could keep it up much longer than she could.
Before, back on Earth, she would’ve been nearly impossible to follow in the darkness of the night, camouflaged as she was by the darkness of her skin and clothes and the softness of her footpads. Here, though, I didn’t have any trouble locating her even after a teleport, thanks to Draignerthol’s power.
She teleported just as my fingers neared her shoulder.
I teleported right after without losing stride. Three more long paces, and…
I hit something solid, something unseen that stretched impossibly rigid between the trees. It hurt like heck, my momentum rebounding backward and downward onto the forest floor.
As I lay there gasping for breath, not sure if I would ever again be either capable of or interested in rising to my feet, a heavy weight was dropped over my limbs. I tried wiggling a finger, but couldn’t. I twitched my head, trying to move it from side to side, but it was stuck in a vise as well. I panicked, trying to get my hand up to touch Draignerthol, to awaken the pendant and gather in the ancient power that might help me press out of the bonds that held me down, but the more I twitched the tighter I was held.
Finally, not having any other option, I relaxed. As soon as I did, a face—a black elf’s face, mature this time—popped into view. The eyes in the face examined me closely, obviously taking in every detail in the dim moonlight. Eventually the eyes closed and the head nodded. She—I could tell it was a she from her rich, melodic voice—spoke to someone else I couldn’t see in a heavily accented version of the elf language.“Yes, congratulations be upon us all. We have undoubtedly captured the crown princess.”