Always leveled-headed under stress, Lenny thought his plan out carefully before implementing it. It was not going to be pleasant to hit the forest floor after a fall, but Lenny saw no other course of action to free them.
"Hey--hey, Ralph!" called he. "Twist your left hip a little--there, got it!"
"Got what?" Ralph called back. "I can hardly move--what are you doing?"
Lenny grunted in reply, twisting his fingers farther about the pommel that stuck out of the golden eagle. Straining against the confining nets and the other bodies, the top of his head squishing Arim's arm into the blue-eyed boy's side as he pulled, Lenny slid the blade inch by agonizing inch from the hard leather sheath.
At last the sharp point came free. Being very careful to avoid nicking people with the keen edge, Lenny thrust the dagger out through one of the little gaps between vines.
His tongue protruding from the corner of his mouth, Lenny sawed downward through a thick principle vine. In the strange quiet, the others could hear though not see his efforts.
"Lord Lenny?" Emrey said. "Are you--cutting--through a vine?"
"Yeth," Lenny answered around his tongue.
"A thousand blessings on thee and thy blade!" the Elf cried in relief. "Lady Cheryl is in dire straits, and the rest of us are little better."
"Cheryl's in trouble?" Lenny said in alarm. He began sawing faster with less care.
"No," came Cheryl's muffled voice from behind Arim. "Not dire, just bad."
"What's that supposed to mean?" came Ralph's mystified voice.
"She can breathe, but not well," Viara answered for her friend, who could barely even hear now, she was so dizzy from oxygen deprivation.
With a snap, the first vine separated, whipping away from the rest of the net. The net was nonetheless very well made, and Lenny saw he had a long job ahead of him.
Worried for his sister, he went right ahead with more concern for haste than safety. Vine after vine broke and whistled through the air. The suspended net began to creak alarmingly, listing slowly to one side. Lenny's wrist began to feel sore and he wished he could switch hands, but he couldn't even wiggle the other. He kept going in a circle, cutting a hole into the side of the net.
Each time a vine broke, more pressure was put on the others. Even had Lenny not begun chopping at it, the net would probably have finally broke, as it was not designed to hold such a large weight. As fewer and fewer vines held the full weight of six people, some weaker ones began to snap on their own, jouncing the net frighteningly.
One especially big bounce caused several to gasp in fright, and Ralph cried, "Whoa!" The horrible bouncing didn't last long, however, because with a final mighty crack, the last major supporting vine broke, and part of the net and all six prisoners dropped heavily onto the ground with several thuds and a few gasps of pain.
For several moments they lay winded, panting, their hearts pounding in their chests. Lenny sat up and shook his head, then untangled his leg and the dagger from the remnants of the net before standing to look around.
Some of the others were beginning to sit up as he had, shaking their heads dizzily and looking around. Above them some vines hung loosely from the broken, now-empty net, which was turning slowly, like a mobile. Lenny's magnifying glass lay near his foot, and he bent to pick it up, then looked to see what had become of his sister.
She and Emrey were sitting up, apologizing to each other. They'd landed half-on, half-off each other, and it was very embarrassing for both.
"Are you in proper control of your abilities?" Lenny asked her.
"Yeah," Cheryl said, breathing hard. It was nice to breathe the free air again. "I'm okay."
It was at that moment Elves dressed in shades of gray, bearing spears and arrows, several with rapiers, stepped from behind the trees or dropped from low branches and surrounded the travelers.
"The Allistrey!" Emrey gasped, eyes wide.
"You will please come with us," the leader of the invading elves said.
Only two of the gray-clad Elves walked with them, but Cheryl could sometimes see other elves on either side of the path, sliding silently through the trees like dappled shadows.
"Yes, you are guarded." The leader smiled, seeing her furtive glances. "But it is more to protect you than to prevent you from escaping."
"Escaping?" Lenny asked fearfully. "Are we your prisoners?"
The Elf hesitated. "Nay. You are our guests, but you must remain so until you cross out of the Allistrey lands."
Lenny shook his head and grinned wryly. "Then I suppose you know who set the trap? If you scouts found us trespassers so quickly, surely you know of every snare and booby-trap."
"Indeed," the elf-leader said, then hesitated again. "We set it to trap any evil creature that would attempt to cross out of the rotten spot into the blue lit trees, though most shun the healthy trees in great fear, to be sure."
"Well, if I hadn't had a dagger," Ralph interrupted accusingly, "and if my brother hadn't been able to use it, you might have killed our sister Cheryl. She was suffocating!"
"I am truly sorry to cause the Lady harm," answered the Elf, "but you must have known the risks of walking in this part of the wood. Prince Emrey, surely you did not come unprepared? And why would you bring manlings on such a dangerous excursion?"
"Sounds like you don't know our side," Cheryl said softly.
With that Ralph launched into the long tale, and did not pause until he had told all, including that none of them had eaten since the previous noon, and Lenny and Emrey even earlier. Before he had been talking two minutes, the two elves' eyes had opened wide, and stayed that way for quite a while.
"By the Light of the Stone, that is a remarkable tale," the younger Elf murmured.
"Hush," admonished his superior. Then he smiled slightly and nodded. "But you speak the truth."
"Okay, mister," said the unquenchable Ralph. "Now you know our story, our names, where we come from, where we're going, and why. Watcha gonna do?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"Uh, he means 'what are you going to do,'" Lenny explained.
"Ah." Again the Elf hesitated. "In light of your tidings--though it is highly irregular, and never before have we done this--I believe we should take you back to the dwellings of my people to speak with our Princess. She will choose our right path."
"Very well." Prince Emrey sighed. "Though it will delay our quest; you too obviously have the upper hand, and therefore the right to lead us where you will."
"I don't see any 'right' about it at all," Arim grumbled. "You waylaid us like a band of robbers, and treat us as captives! Have we not the right to go as we please? Release us!"
"Let no hasty words pass your lips!" Emrey rebuked, putting a restraining hand on the blond-headed boy's arm.
"Say not they did as they did unrighteously, young Arim," Viara cautioned, justifiable concern tinting her voice. "They are neither robbers nor out of their rights. We are in their lands without leave, and are therefore trespassers. Speak not in hot anger! It is the tool of Kataphage." She glanced anxiously at their captors.
"Please do not take his words as a token of our own ingratitude," she said to the elf-leader. "We are thankful for your goodwill, and share not the boy's sentiments. And please forgive his hasty words, for he is young and restraint lies heavy to him, and he is besides famished and weary, as we all are." The usual peace in her lovely voice was replaced by anxiety.
The Elf dispelled her fear by removing his hat and bowing deeply to her, his pure laugh shimmering in the close atmosphere.
"Let it never be said that the tongues of the Trastille maidens are prude and harsh," he said, rising. "Never have I heard a more eloquent apology. But I have been negligent in my duties as a host. You visitors have told me your names, but the rest of us have not been introduced; though Prince Emrey is well known among the Elven-People. I am Chaeremon, leader of the third march, scouts of the Allistrey." He bowed again, less deeply, and put out a hand to Viara. "And what is your name, fair maiden?"
Viara blushed and put her hand on his, as Ralph had once seen in old movie in which couples were pairing up for a dance. "I am Viara, of the Trastille, and I am honored to meet the valiant Chaeremon, of whom I have heard so much." She curtsied.
Chaeremon kissed her hand and smiled at her, eliciting a deeper blush. They stood gazing deeply into each other's eyes, and Ralph began to become suspicious.
He nudged his sister's arm. "Cheryl," he whispered in her ear. "Do you think they're in love?"
Cheryl grinned. "Maybe not, but given time, it'll become love, I can see that now. Isn't it romantic?"
Ralph grimaced. "It's disgusting."
"It's beautiful in God's sight."
He looked sideways at her. "Yeah?"
"Really." She looked at him and grinned mischievously. "You might find out yourself, someday."
He shuddered. "I hope not."
She laughed out loud, and Chaeremon and Viara looked up suddenly.
To cover her embarrassment, Cheryl quickly coughed and said, "As my brother said, I am Cheryl, of the world you call Terra. And these are my brothers, Lenny and Ralph."
Chaeremon kissed Cheryl's proffered hand instead of shaking it, and she flushed and curtsied clumsily, feeling a fool. She'd never expected someone to actually kiss her hand, and it put her very off balance. Then the elf bowed slightly to Lenny and Ralph in turn, and Lenny hesitated, then returned a flustered dip, but Ralph looked extremely confused.
"Why don't we just shake hands?" the green-eyed boy questioned.
"Pardon?" asked Chaeremon, puzzled.
"On our world," Cheryl explained hastily, "we greet each other by gripping right hands and shaking them, so." She demonstrated with Ralph as her partner.
"Ah," Chaeremon said, as he hesitantly extended his hand to Ralph. "We have no such custom."
Ralph took the offered palm and shook it vigorously, rattling the elf's teeth. "Yeah, well we don't kiss people's hands and bow, either."
"You shake the hands of ladies as well?" the other elf asked, bug-eyed.
"Yep," Ralph said cheerfully. "It doesn't really make much difference."
"By the Light of the Stone," the elf muttered to himself.
"What's your name?" Ralph asked him.
The young elf flushed and turned to his leader for consent. Chaeremon nodded, and the elf said, "My name is not so famous as that of my leader. I am Tekoa, scout of the Allistrey."
His name may have been Tekoa before, but Ralph promptly nicknamed him 'Owlie' because he seemed to be all eyes. The introductions completed, Chaeremon led them off the path, deeper into the woods. He said it was the way to the Allistrey dwelling places.
He spoke the truth, but they walked on and on, and Ralph began to wonder if it would ever end. Cheryl's stomach growled as if in anger, and in front of her, Arim tripped and nearly fell.
Chaeremon, who was directly in front of the boy, turned and caught him before he hit the ground. He helped Arim regain his feet and noticed the blond-haired boy sway as if dizzy.
"I see you are in trouble," the elf-leader said in concern. "What is it?"
"We lost our boats yesterday, with all the provisions and supplies, which were short already," Viara said wearily.
"None of us have eaten since yesterday," Ralph added.
"Ah," said Chaeremon. "Well, your worries are ended. The rotten spot ends just ahead, and beyond that the trees are heavily laden with food of all kinds. You are welcome to it." He smiled, and the travelers grinned back in relief.
Not long after they were stuffing themselves with strange fruits that were a delight to both the tongue and the belly. "Delicious," Cheryl sighed, sinking her teeth into a fruit the shape of a small pear with the refreshingly cool, slightly tart tang of a cherry.
"Excellent," Lenny said around the bite in his mouth.
"Wonderful," she countered in pleasant competition.
"Superb," he replied.
"Top of the line."
This friendly contest went on for some time, their voices rising higher with renewed energy as they feasted on the scrumptious fruits.
Ralph put his hands over his ears and muttered to the others, "I hate when they start reciting the dictionary."
Chaeremon laughed heartily and clapped the boy on the back. "Come, young sir! Truly I have not enjoyed an excursion in the forest so for many weeks! Do you not find it humorous?"
Viara and Emrey smiled at the Allistrey elf. They were enjoying themselves, especially Viara. Tekoa continued staring in mute amazement.
As they passed on through the trees following their elven-leader, Arim whispered to Ralph, "What is a dictionary?"
While Ralph tried to explain the volume in question, Lenny and Cheryl were still mentally flipping its pages, searching for more adjectives of 'wonderful.' They had calmed down some by now, each occasionally saying "Uh, extraordinary!" or "Um, delectable!"
At last, several minutes passed in relative silence, and Arim noticed that the usual sounds of the wood had replaced the eerie silence of the rotten spot. Birds called, small animals scurried in the underbrush or chattered in the branches, the wind rustled blue-tinted emerald leaves, and their feet crushed dry, crimson leaves underfoot. Ralph wondered if his siblings had finally run out of words, and he rejoiced at the thought.
Then Cheryl said, "How obvious, silly me! Good!"
"Very good!" Lenny replied immediately.
"Extremely good!" she answered as quickly.
Lenny paused, stumped. He thought for several minutes, then snapped his fingers in defeat. "Aw, you win," he groaned.
He looked so dejected that Cheryl couldn't help but smile and put her arm around his shoulders. "We should do this more often. Pick something real hard, and we'll totally exhaust all possibilities before moving on."
Lenny smiled back. He wasn't the type that sought out physical contact, but her touch felt good, and eased the loneliness he realized he too frequently felt. "All right," he replied, humor touching his tone. "Try 'difficult.'"
"Not far now," Chaeremon answered one of Arim's frequent inquiries. "The next few minutes will see the completion of our journey to the dwellings of my clan."
Less than ten minutes later Chaeremon and Tekoa halted. "We have arrived," the younger Allistrey elf said. "The other scouts have gone on to bring our tidings to the Princess. We will know soon if she will see you."
The visitors turned around slowly, scanning the surrounding woods. They saw no difference between this part of the Bluewood and any of the others they had passed through to reach this place.
"Where are the houses?" Cheryl asked. "The people? Where are the gardens, streets, playing children? Where are the signs of life, of civilization?"
Chaeremon cleared his throat. "This is only the outskirts of our dwellings, but the people have hidden themselves from the eyes of you strangers. You are the first not of our clan to come here in many, many years, by your measure of time."
"But the buildings--" Cheryl had a sudden thought, and craned her head up, peering into the trees. Houses of supple branches, thatched with emerald-blue leaves and white flowers, were built into the very trees. She saw the double glints of the eyes of a curious gray-clad elf with long black hair, gazing down on them from her leafy home.
Chaeremon looked ruefully at the small figure of the girl whose bright marcellia-gray eyes had pierced the disguise his people had woven about themselves.
"By the Light, the little Lady is very sharp," he muttered to Prince Emrey.
"Indeed," Emrey snorted, amused. "I would stake my life on the wisdom of that one. She knows what she is about."
Catching Cheryl's cue, the other children looked up, but their eyes did not see past the clever camouflage.
"What do you see?" Lenny asked his sister.
"It's incredible," she said in a low voice, dropping her eyes to fix them on her brother's face. "They've built an entire city of tree houses!"
Lenny glanced upwards again, but saw nothing of note. "I don't see anything. Maybe I need to clean my glasses." He took them off and rubbed them vigorously on his wrinkled blouse.
"What are those?" asked Arim, watching him curiously.
"What?" Lenny looked up from his work, then held up his glasses to the light filtering through the leaves above. "These? They're glasses, sort of like my magnifying glass. They help me see."
"Really? I thought they were part of your face!"
Lenny paused, then shook his head, trying hard not to laugh. He started to show them to Arim, explaining how they work. "No, no Arim. Here you see, they come off and on--" He demonstrated, hiding his smile.
An Elf in light gray sped towards them from another part of the wood. He stopped before Chaeremon and bowed. Lenny pushed the bridge of his glasses back up his nose and left it there, listening.
Chaeremon bowed back. "What news, Olírin?"
"The Princess will receive the visitors, on the condition they leave their weapons with me at the entrance to the hall."
Chaeremon nodded. "That is hardly unexpected." He turned to Cheryl's group. "Please come with me, visitors, as guests, not prisoners.'
He offered his arm to Viara, and she took it graciously. Cheryl began looking for a place to hide, not wanting to have to (horrors!) take the arm of Tekoa or Olírin. She was rescued by Emrey who, perceiving her distress, held his elbow out to her with a wink.
A breath of a sigh escaped her, and she timidly passed her long slender hand around his arm.
"Thank you, Prince Emrey," she said shakily. "I've never done this before, you know."
"No, I wouldn't," he jested, as they followed Chaeremon with Viara beside him in the direction Olírin came from. "You went it like an old pro of banquet-attending! Many young ladies hold off, looking anxious, until the man they want offers to escort them."
Cheryl laughed easily, and Emrey joined her.
Soon the nine had reached a peculiar formation of trees. A huge circle of ten trees, they had grown over the ages into almost a single tree, so huge and tall they were and their girth so wide, barely a finger-width separated the trunks in most places.
"Magnificent," Emrey breathed, his eyes widening as he looked up… and up… and up into the heavy crown of foliage above the 'decatree,' as Lenny had immediately dubbed it.
"It--it's incredible!" Cheryl gasped, her hand slipping off the ruler's arm.
"Absolutely amazing," Lenny murmured matter-of-factly. "I don't think I've ever seen this before."
Chaeremon listened to their exclamations with a barely distinguishable half grin. "We Allistrey have always felt it unusual," he said, "and now we find it to be true."
Cheryl turned to him, amazement on her oddly incongruent features. "And the Princess's hall, it is up there?" Chaeremon nodded.
"How will we reach it?" Viara asked, awe in her voice.
A strange smile spread over the elven-leader's face. "Come."
The three Allistrey led them around the dark trunks of the decatree. There, out of their sight before, was a great doorway, cut through a gargantuan trunk. It lead to a staircase of living branches trained to form steps, spiraling upward in the roughly circular center of the decatree.
It was Ralph's turn to deserve the nickname 'Owlie.' The strange tree formation alone rendered him speechless, and this novel staircase added to his astonishment. "Wow," he whispered.
The others could sympathize. The sunlight was blocked above by blue-green, and what light reached them bore those colors, reflecting oddly on the black trunks of the trees, which did not absorb all light but were shiny in places. They passed one by one into the interior of the decatree, which was smaller than one would have thought by the greatness of the outside but larger than an ordinary spiral stairwell.
It was surprisingly airy and pleasant, for light and air entered in the small gaps between the trunks. The steps, which at first glance seemed to be logs fastened to the trunks, were actually formed of living wood, branches that sprouted from the trunks and were twisted and trained into footholds. They were entwined with flowering vines, in addition to their own blue-tinted leaves of great beauty. The air was sweet and fresh. Sunlight also came from above, in a manner the visitors could not see. Each step was placed precisely that the flowers and leaves below should have nourishment.
The beautiful stairs were not without peril, for there was gap between each step, and no handholds. No center column, no handrail guarded against a fall. The sunlight shone in a golden beam from high above to the forest floor below.
Curious, Ralph stepped into the shaft of light and peered upward, wanting to see how the light reached them. The roof was too far for even his keen eyes to see, but he could tell it let the sun in and was the color of the leaves of all the healthy elven-trees they had seen so far.
"What is the name of this place of beauty?" Emrey asked Chaeremon.
"The Abamos pai Raio," Chaeremon replied. "The Stairway of Loveliness."
"Stairway of Loveliness," Cheryl echoed softly. "How beautiful, and with a fitting name."
"Ah-bah-mose pay Ray-o," Ralph repeated carefully.
Chaeremon nodded. "Come, visitors," he said, leading the way up the beautiful but dangerous stairs. Olírin had already rushed ahead to announce their coming to the Princess.
They made it up the Abamos pai Raio without accidents, though several times one of them would almost step in the gap between steps. Lenny closed his eyes tightly and nearly choked when he made the mistake of glancing down the well of light that served as an un-supporting center column. It was strange to glance to the right and see friends steadily ascending above and below, instead of a stony central column, and it was strange but pleasant to have breezes caress and the sun shine upon them as they climbed the living staircase.
At last they reached the top. Their journey nearly ended in tragedy when Lenny glanced back down the hole to the forest floor far, far below.
Lenny's head spun dizzily, and he stumbled and would have fallen down the horrible drop if Tekoa had not seized his arm and dragged him to less dangerous spot.
"Have care, Lord Lenny," the Elf in light gray warned. "The Abamos pai Raio is not without peril!"
Lenny nodded. His eyes were squeezed shut and his hand clenched over his heart, as if to still its frantic beating. He shared his sister Sarah's aversion of heights, and felt a little faint.
Concerned, Cheryl put a hand on her brother's shoulder. She had not missed his near fall, and she knew of his acrophobia. "You okay, Lenny?"
His eyes slowly opened, and he nodded once, drawing in a deep, shaky breath. "I will perfectly all right in a moment." His knees shook, and he closed his eyes again for a bit. "Just a moment."
When he was 'perfectly all right,' he looked around in curiosity, and found that they had emerged in a wide entrance hall, the floor living vines, the roof leaves, the walls trunks and branches with many naturally occurring windows. To Lenny's right were two large double doors that stretched from floor to ceiling, carved with figures of trees and flowers and woodland animals, streams, fountains, birds, elves, and banquets under trees. At the doors stood two uneasy-looking armed elven guards in light gray, and before them stood Olírin, shifting eagerly from foot to foot, an expression of impatience on his fair elven face.
Chaeremon's eyebrows rose almost off his forehead when he saw his subordinate's undisciplined manner. He frowned, and Olírin stopped fidgeting suddenly, abashed.
"Follow me, visitors," Chaeremon said to the six travelers. They followed him to the door, and there Olírin halted them, looking nervous.
"Your pardon," he said hesitantly, "but you must leave your weapons here with me."
Emrey sighed. "I dislike leaving my defense in the hands of one I do not know," he said, unbuckling his slender sword and drawing a hidden dagger from his boot. "But I do not rule here." He gave the weapons to Olírin. "Care well for them; they carry powers you know naught of."
Olírin nodded nervously and set them carefully by the wall.
Following the Prince's example, Viara gave her unstrung bow and quiver of arrows to the Elf, and he handled the weapons with great care. Her face betrayed amusement at his look of skittish fear.
Ralph handed over his eagle-dagger with a longing look and a sigh. He was fond of the little blade; it seemed almost a part of his hand when he held it. It was really a magnificent piece of workmanship, though he knew too little of swords and swordsmanship to realize its full value.
Cheryl reluctantly unbuckled the decorated belt that held her sheathed sword. The gray jewels flared up for an instant as she held it, and the Allistrey elves gasped. Tekoa once more looked the part of 'Owlie,' and Olírin gingerly took the weapon, as if fearful it would move of its own volition to harm him.
"Has it not a name?" Chaeremon asked, discreetly admiring the gold eagle that served as hilt.
Ralph started to answer no, but before his mouth did more than open Cheryl answered.
"Morrévril is its name."
Emrey seemed pleased though surprised. "You did not tell me it had a title. It is a goodly name: Morrévril." He seemed to enjoy the sound of it rolling over his tongue.
"Morrévril; the Darkrender," Chaeremon said musingly. "Most appropriate to your task."
Olírin eyed the sword in his hands with respect, and carefully laid it in a place of honor among the other weapons.
They were about to pass through the doors the guards had opened in readiness when Olírin stopped Lenny, looking embarrassed.
"Pardon, sir. I must take your weapon."
Lenny almost laughed. "I have none," he said, then hesitated, remembering his experience in the cave. "At least, none that could harm any good creature. It has no ill effects on those in the service of Abba." Tekoa and Olírin looked even more impressed at this new evidence of Terran 'magic.'
Now they passed into the hall of the Princess, and none hindered them.
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