The portal glows and shivers around him as he steps through. He whimpers as the gated magic pulls at his injured wing. His feet hit the soft, mossy ground and behind him the portal closes with a sigh. Leaves, branches and vines scratch and poke at him; the portal has been overgrown while he was gone.
Leelan takes a deep breath, filling his lungs with the warm and spicy air and casts a ripple from his mind. The vines soften and sink down; a few branches snap and the rest he can move to the side with his hands. The blanket gets caught on a thorny vine and the vegetation pulls it from his shoulders. He hisses when it slides over his injured wing. A long step takes him out of this natural cage and away from the tall slate of rock. Turning back he can see the creeping plants already climbing up again, covering the hole he cut out. The blanket has disappeared, swallowed by moving plant tendrils.
The forest is thick and humid around him, a jungle of gnarly trees and winding vines. The tiny patch of light he stands in is threatened by the trees closing up over it. He raises his hand and casts another ripple upwards, a strong one this time. The trees lean back and branches snap and splinter above and rain down on him. The light spills down on the moss and small, white flowers rise up to greet it. Leelan steps right in the middle next to a small wooden statue and coughs politely.
The little statue begins to move, stretching itself out up to his knees. He yawns, which makes his bark crack and green light glows in the cracks. A knobbly face with a flat nose unfolds and looks up to him.
“Leelan! It has been quite a while,” he greets with a voice full of creaking wood and screaming birds.
“A good day to you, Verkesh,” Leelan says and bows low towards the little troll.
“We’ll see about that,” Verkesh says, shaking himself, sending flakes of his hardened skin flying off. “I was having a good day, sleeping like a little spring baby but now you woke me and what good has ever come from that?”
“I’m sorry my friend.” Leelan smiles at him and sits down next to him, wrapping his tail around. Verkesh can’t walk yet, not so soon after waking up. He lets his tail slide through the moss and the tiny white flowers and a long lost smile creeps up on his face. It feels good to be home again.
“Tell me, how long have I been gone? Did I aim so far off?”
“The flowers tell me that they have not been crushed by your ass for six tempers,” Verkesh says, his knobbly hand stroking lightly over the little white flowers.
“Six? I was aiming for one half. I was over there for not even a year.”
Verkesh looks at him, his black eyes blinking in curiosity. “And a year is?”
“The time it takes for their planet to revolve around the Sun.”
“Why is that important?”
“I have no idea.”
Verkesh snickers and stretches out his feet. “And how did you like it this time? And why is your wing wrapped up?”
“Remember how I said that it almost feels like home, warm and lush?”
Leelan sighs. “I was wrong. At first it was warm but then it got colder every day. Maybe their world is dying? Do you think she sends me there because of that?”
Verkesh gets up and motions to Leelan to follow him. “The Grandessa does not let me participate in her thoughts, unfortunately. But she has sent out a message that she wishes to see you.” He shakes out his short legs and Leelan stands to walk with him.
“I wish I knew what she expects from me. I’ve watched the humans and I watched the portal. A few visitors here and there but they all behaved themselves. Nothing happens for so long that I even slept. And then I get hit with this enormous presence; a Gerlden, but wrong, foreign and strong.”
“A strong Gerlden? In that world?” Verkesh’s voice pitches so high that it hurts to hear him speak.
“Yes, as tall as me and not only strong but also trained.”
Verkesh looks to his wing that Vibeke had wrapped so neatly. “Is that how you hurt your wing?”
“Yes, I followed his scent to a house and fought with him. He was trained well enough to take me and he knew it too. He wasn’t scared of me.”
Verkesh gasps. “Did he not greet you?”
Leelan twitches his wing. “There’s the result of his ‘greeting’,” he says and hisses at the bolt of pain shooting through his body.
The small wood-troll shakes his head. “That is wrong, very wrong. A Gerlden not greeting a Dragon, a Gerlden strong enough to fight a Dragon…”
“He almost won.”
Verkesh shakes his head. Little flakes of dust and bark sail down. “It’s wrong, so wrong. Our world is falling apart and she isn’t doing anything about it.”
“Maybe she doesn’t know,” Leelan says, only half listening because he has to fill his lungs with the precious spices and scents of his home, his ears with the sounds of birds, lizards and squill. Life and happiness is returning to his mind; his melancholy dropped and forgotten.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Verkesh says with an angry huff. Little leaves appear on his head and are puffing up in anger. A bird circles his head, waiting for an opportunity to pick one.
They reach the edge of the forest and Verkesh has to walk ahead to have the wood creatures and trees make room for them. Occasionally he has to hiss and snarl at a tree aggressively stretching its branches. Leelan bows down low to pass under poking branches and grabbing vines. Before them, small lizards scurry over the path, clearing away leaves and mowing down grass for them. The last time he had taken this path it had been clean and wide, now it is overgrown and almost invisible.
“I’ve been gone too long,” he murmurs to himself.
“I must say that I welcomed the extensive sleep I got, but I agree that the overgrowth is quite tedious.”
“You could have left though; you didn’t have to stay.”
Verkesh shakes his head and the leaves on his head curl up. “What kind of servant would I be if I were not here when you returned? And my spirit was busy floating around so I was not entirely lazy.”
“I never would have accused you of laziness. You had no way of knowing that I’d stay away for so long. I didn’t aim right.”
“Your injury, Leelan, it hinders you.”
“You’re right, it tainted my focus.”
Verkesh leans down and whispers something to a lizard in front of them. The animal squeaks and runs away, jumping and running over the other lizards until it disappears in the underground growth of the forest. Verkesh nods, satisfied with himself. “The healer will await us at the gate now.”
“Thank you. I’d rather not step in front of the Grandessa with bandages wrapped around my wing.”
“I’m sure her Highness would understand.”
Leelan nodded in agreement. The Grandessa was not known for having a bad temper or being unforgiving. “What has your spirit heard while you slept?”
The wood-troll slows his steps, his breath coming in short puffs. Leelan adjusts his walk and slows to a leisurely stroll. Verkesh picks a leaf from his head, giving it a kiss and letting it float to the ground. The leaf settles on the earth and Leelan can see thin roots sprouting from it immediately. Soon another tree will grow here, one that could become a wood-troll should it choose to.
“In spirit, I listened to the talk of the cutters and growers, of the washers and menders and even to a few meetings in the halls of the palace. But they have warding spells there, to keep spirits out, I must apologize for the lack of information I could gather there.”
“No need to apologize. What have you learned?”
“A secret that no one wants to talk about. There is a war going on on the outskirts.”
“A war? How can a war be a secret?”
A new leaf springs up on Verkesh’s head, showing his worry. He touches it with two fingers, stroking over it before plucking it. It trembles down and lands on the ground again the roots taking hold. “A rumor it is for now. Hearing of your encounter with the Gerlden, I would venture a guess that it involves them but nobody has said it yet.”
Leelan looks ahead where the path is getting wider. As they are getting closer to the city, the cutters are working everywhere, keeping the vegetation under control. Trees can be angry and vines can be vicious but even the most aggressive branches get cut down and bundled up. Small, white Gerlden pick up the bundles and fly them away to the washers and makers. The vegetation may be dangerous but this realm never suffers from lack of resources for it.
The closer they get to the golden city gate, the busier the path becomes. People of all kinds are hurrying towards the gate or leave the city. Leelan picks up Verkesh despite his protests before someone kicks him over. People move out of the way for a dragon but a small wood stump like Verkesh is usually not so lucky.
The people around them carrying wares, tools or their whole household greet Leelan whenever they notice him. He ignores most and searches for the healer instead. During the long walk, his wing has started to throb in pain and the heat he has missed so much begins to feel uncomfortable.
“Leelan, stop,” Verkesh calls out, his feet kicking against his side.
“What is it?” Leelan asks. He tries to look at the troll under his arm but his vision is cloudy.
“The healer is right here! Put me down and let her treat you.”
Leelan looks up to see the healer but he almost misses her. She is a Dark Elf; her skin so dark it swallows the light. She stands before him, smiling and her hand is cool on his forehead, but before he can greet her she disappears.
“Leelan, wake up,” a soft voice says. The woman who helped him, such a lovely voice she had. Her hands so soft and resolut at the same time. He opens his eyes to see her smile but the face in front of him is wrong. Skin as dark as pitch and bright red eyes, not pale and brown.
Something tickles at his nose and he turns to the side to see Verkesh shedding leaves from his scalp. One has fallen on his nose and the roots are tickling his skin.
“He’s awake, yes? Will he be well again?” Verkesh asks, three new leaves sprouting from his head.
The deep voice of the dark elf healer hums reassuringly. “He will be strong again soon.” She turns to Leelan and helps him to sit up. “I need you to stretch your wing so that I can heal it.”
Clenching his teeth, Leelan fights against the pain and tenses his wing muscles. The healer must have done her magic already because it is not as bad as before when Vibeke wrapped it but it still hurts. The healer’s eyes glaze over as she reaches into her magic and he can feel his bones bending and snapping into place and sinew and muscles adjusting. The pain retreats to a dull throb and Leelan stretches his wings as wide as possible.
Relief floods him. Finally he can feel like a dragon again. The air calls him, rise, rise up!
“Thank you, healer Reesela,” Verkesh says. “Can we do anything for you to show our gratitude?”
“My services are provided by the great foresight of her Highness the Grandessa,” the Dark Elf rumbles. “I have no need for any payment. But… ,” she looks on the head of the Wood Elf, “if you could spare one of your leaves, I would love to grow a tree from it.”
“Gladly I will entrust you with one,” Verkesh says with a bow and plucks a leaf from his head. She takes it with care and places it on a piece of moss she has in her apothecary. Immediately the leaf roots itself to the moss.
The piercing scream of a hawk sounds out above them and Reesela gives them a nod in goodbye. “The Grandessa is waiting: you better hurry. Be careful with that wing,” she says to Leelan, a threatening undertone in her voice. “If you break it again too soon, I will not be able to heal so quickly.”
Leelan nods and thanks her. He stretches his wings out once more, almost smacking an elf in the face. The elf takes a breath to yell at him but stops himself. Leelan folds his wings, only a bit of pain as he tugs in his wings reminds him of the injury. Verkesh smiles at him. His head is free of leaves and he turns to walk in front of him with happy steps.
The palace sits high over the city, watchtowers looking to all six directions of the realm. A dragon guard in bright red trousers, his blue scales as dark as the nothingness at the edge of the world, stands at the entrance.
“The Grandessa awaits you in the library,” the dragonman says with a surprising light and melodic voice. He turns and walks ahead, not checking if Leelan and Verkesh follow. He walks fast and Leelan has to pick up his friend to keep up with him.
“His rudeness certainly proves his noble upbringing,” Verkesh grumbles and a new leaf sprouts on his head and twitches angrily.
“When I was young, I always envied the dragons who got to live at the palace,” Leelan says quietly, so that only the troll can hear him. “Now I’m glad I learned with the Ancients in the outskirts.”
“They get good training here,” Verkesh whispers, “but terrible fashion sense.”
They both snicker loud enough for the guard to look at them sternly. He walks faster now along the seemingly unending hallway. Golden walls enhanced by red, blue and green drapes, and glittering crystals in various colors surround them. It’s so bright and colorful that it hurts to look at it.
The white door at the end of the hallway is a relief from the onslaught of colors and opens without a touch or a sound. The guard gives them a short bow as they pass him and stays in the hallway as the double doors close again.
The library is quiet and the main color is, thankfully, brown. Wooden shelving, some cut to form and some grown, are set up in a maze like pattern, covering the whole floor and all the walls. They hold books of all sizes, bound in bark and leaves with colorful markings on the spines. The books contain all the current knowledge of the realm, written down since the day of the printing press.
As Leelan has learned back in the day, the humans were actually the inventors of book printing and binding. Mashing up plant fibres to a pulp, making paper out of it and printing letters on it with ink was a remarkable process that looked like magic but didn’t involve any. Only the production of the ink needs magic to turn the green plant juices dark.
Ever since the fairies had brought back the technology of the printing press and reconstructed it with copper and bronze, the Grandessa ordered all knowledge to be printed into books. The book makers became the most important workers of the realm.
Leelan knows the current Grandessa from when she was a little girl and he isn’t surprised to hear that she is in the library. It is expected of her that she read all the books, acquire all the knowledge and he remembers having spend many days with her surrounded by books. They had been good friends; the little girl destined to become the Grandessa and him, the dragon, watching over her. He was already fully grown back then and itching for adventures. But even if he was desperate to get away he still remembers her voice when she read her books to him. He loved her voice.
He searches for her in the maze-like hall and follows the sound of someone reading aloud. It doesn’t quite sound like he remembers. In an alcove window, he finally finds the Grandessa sitting in a comfortable chair while a young elf is reading to her. Her eyes are closed but she turns her head to his approaching steps.
“Who is there?” she asks, her voice still as clear and bright as he remembers. The elf at the window stops reading and stares at him.
“Leelan, Grandessa,” he says and bows.
Behind him small feet hurry over the hardwood floor. “And Verkesh, his servant, Grandessa.”
The Grandessa smiles brightly and stands up, her arms stretched out wide. “Leelan, you came back! Come here!”
He steps forward with his head bowed low and waits for her to offer her hand to him to kiss it but she doesn’t. She steps closer and pulls him up by his shoulders and hugs him. He stands frozen, caught up in the conflict of greeting a friend who has grown into a beautiful woman and knowing that this is the Grandessa and nobody is allowed to touch her like that.
But she pulls him tight and he finally relaxes and returns the hug. They stand like this for a moment, memories almost tangible in the air around them. When she releases him and steps back, he gets a closer look at her eyes and startles.
She keeps her hands on his shoulders. She is tall for an elf and her eyes are almost on level with his. Her skin has gotten darker since the last time he has seen her but her eyes seem to have lost their color.
“Leelan, please,” she pleads, “please tell me what my eyes look like.”
“Nobody is telling me.”
He stares into her eyes that used to be so bright and lively and now seem to look through him. “Do you remember the picture in the book of the human world, of the blue sky with white clouds?”
“Yes,” she whispers.
“That’s what they look like, as if clouds are covering your eyes.”
“Thank you,” she says, turning back to the chair. She feels with her hand for the tall backrest and holds herself steady on it.
“You have lost your sight?” Leelan asks.
“Yes, not long ago. Reading had become difficult a while ago but it has gotten worse. Now, only shadows are left.”
“I’m sorry.” Leelan’s thoughts rush through the consequences of a blind Grandessa. Will she be able to lead the realm?
“It is what it is. Come sit with me and tell me what happened to you.”
The young reader gets up and leaves and Leelan sits down in his chair. The Grandessa sits down in her chair, her hand sliding over the backrest to guide her. Verkesh sits down on the floor between them, worried leaves fidgeting on his head.
Leelan takes a breath and begins. “I was attacked by a Gerlden in the human world. He was tall, strong and he broke my wing. I probably only survived because a human woman saw us and her awareness scared him away.”
A bell like laughter interrupts him. The Grandessa laughs and reminds him of the young girl he once knew. “Leelan,” she laughs, “don’t be silly! A Gerlden? Strong enough to fight you? Oh, what a funny story!”
He swallows a sigh and looks into her unseeing eyes. “Your Highness, what do you know about the war in the outskirts?”
Another bell like laughter. “Oh my friend, whatever are you talking about? There is no war in the realm.”