"This is our music tower," the Queen Mother said and I gasped.
"It's amazing," I breathed.
Elves sat in the windows playing various instruments. The one that drew me in the most was the flute. A she-elf was playing it cheerfully a few windows above me, watching the clouds.
"Do you know how to play?" the she-elf asked, seeing me watching her. I shook my head and she gestured to the window. "Come, I will teach you."
The Queen Mother had a flute brought to me. I sat down, looking out the window nervously. We were very far off the ground....
"It's simple enough," the she-elf said and placed my fingers in the appropriate places. "You just blow in through this hole at the top. Wherever your fingers are, it will make a different sound. Try it."
I did so and a harsh screech emitted. The she-elf and I winced and she giggled.
"I thought you said it was simple," I said with a pout.
She giggled again. "It is. You're a beginner. You'll get the hang of it."
"Queen Mother, the creature hunter, Ryllae, requests your audience," a he-elf said from the door.
"I shall return," she said and I nodded.
"So you're really her granddaughter?" the she-elf asked and I nodded. "That's fascinating."
"How long have you played the flute?" I asked.
"Thirty years," she said proudly.
"But you don't look a day over 20!"
She giggled. "It is the nature of elves. I have a feeling you will look younger than your age for a while, too. You are not full elf, are you?" I shook my head and explained my heritage briefly. "This is amazing! I've never met one like you!"
And you never will.
"Do you know someone by the name of Onvyr?" I asked and, once again, she giggled with a blush.
"You mean him?" she asked and pointed a few windows up.
An elf playing a harp was smiling down at the ground below. He had long, white hair and crystal blue eyes. He swayed as he played.
"I hope you don't have your eye on him," she said. "He's.... Well, he's taken."
She looked around and beckoned for me to lean closer.
"She's a creature hunter," she whispered, her eyes wide. "Can you believe it? A musician and a creature hunter?"
"Why is that a problem?" I asked, confused.
"Ryllae will never settle down," the she-elf said. "She enjoys being a hunter too much."
"Are you sure? She doesn't seem the kind."
I was trying to be careful and not say that I knew her. Inside, though, I was dancing a jig. Ryllae didn't have a single thing to worry about.
"Well, her parents were creature hunters and so is her twin, Wren." She sighed with a dreamy look in her eyes. "Now there's a he-elf if I've ever seen one."
I giggled. "You fancy him?"
"Sadly, yes," she said.
"Sadly?" I repeated. "Is it because you don't know if he returns your affections?"
"No, it's not that. He is not made for me."
"How do you know?"
She leaned back, returning her eyes to the sky. "It's hard to explain to one who is not accustomed to our ways."
"Is there some kind of special way you can find your love?"
She thought for a minute. "It is a feeling you get inside," she said finally. "When you are near he who was made for you, you feel a sort of warmth. You feel like the world is at peace."
"That's hard to not feel here," I said, glancing out the window into the elven realm.
"True. But your heart races, your mind gets cloudy, and your mouth goes sort of dry."
"That's how humans feel when they fall in love."
She frowned. "Fall in love? That sounds painful!"
"It's just an expression. It really just means that when they discover they love each other."
"They don't know right away?"
"So you don't get those feelings around Wren?"
"No. I don't think anyone does. He's a very handsome he-elf, though. I just wish he was happier."
"The Queen Mother mentioned that he changed when his mother disappeared."
"He's also... strange," she said as if she hadn't heard me.
"How do you mean?"
"He spies on the humans," she answered. "We think it's because he wants to see if it was they who stole his mother. We know it wasn't, though. He does, too, whether he wants to admit it or not. It's whatever is dwelling in the forest that took her. I also think he fancies someone there."
I laughed. "Forgive me, but that seems impossible. I live in the kingdom just outside of the forest. I watch it every day and not one person, human or elf, has come out of there."
"Remember what I told you? We don't have to see the person to know we are near them."
"You think she's a human?"
"It's entirely possible. Are there any unclaimed women in your kingdom that have been near the forest recently?"
I thought some. "No. Well, there's my cousin, Sally. But she has her eyes on a young guard in the palace."
"Hmm. Perhaps her love with the guard is not real; perhaps she is the one made for Wren."
"I wish I knew who was made for me," I said sadly.
"You have not found him?" she asked, sounding shocked. I shook my head. "But how? You are so beautiful!"
I laughed. "Thank you but, much like Wren, I am different. Too different for the men of my realm."
"So stay here," she shrugged, leaning back and lifting the flute back to her lips. "Maybe he's here."
"Maybe," I muttered.
I walked along the forest path. I didn't light a torch this time though I was wondering if that's what drew them to the path. Or perhaps they could see in the dark.
The sword was vibrating but I'm sure it was from the twenty elves spreading throughout the forest. I saw movement to my right and froze, gripping the hilt of the sword. I heard a snarl and a howl. That was what Cori had heard before she was attacked. I closed my eyes and listened carefully.
Heavy footsteps and heavy breathing. A foul smell that made my nose burn. I turned slowly and opened my eyes. I gulped.
Another creature stood before me. It was staring straight at me. It wasn't making any moves to grab me, though. Then it started to crawl onto the forest path. I backed up a few steps.
"What are you?" I said in a strong voice.
"Death," it said in a rasping voice. "Despair. Fear."
"What are you called?"
A twig snapped and the creature started to fade back into the forest.
I woke, sweating. I was by the bridge, shaking violently. Wren and Ryllae were standing over me. The Queen Mother was speaking to someone.
"Are you all right?" Ryllae asked.
"We found you on the forest floor," Wren explained. "Why did you leave the path! You weren't supposed to!"
I frowned. "I didn't...."
"What is the last thing you remember?" the Queen Mother asked.
I sat up, rubbing my head. "I was walking on the path when I saw one of the creatures and-"
"Did you kill it?" Wren interrupted.
"Hush, Wren," Ryllae snapped. "Let him finish."
"It came toward me." I frowned. "It didn't grab me like it did Cori, though. I asked what it was. It told me that it was death, despair, and fear. But it wouldn't give me the name of its kind.... I must have fainted." I stared at the forest. "But how did I get into the trees? And why did it not kill me?"