Elwin took me first to the gardens where they grew their fruits and vegetables.
"Do you do much gardening?" I asked but he shook his head. "Forgive me, but I thought elves were naturals with plants."
He smiled kindly. "The goddesses gave each of us special gifts." He nodded to the elves that were working among the plant life. "Some are gifted with the ability to grow exceptional food and flowers. Some, like me, are gifted with extreme sight and precision."
"So you mean to miss me that night?"
"Yes," he said. "I thought you were a rogue elf."
"What is Arl's special gift?"
He chuckled. "The ladies." I giggled, covering my mouth. "He can use magic to heal wounds."
"That is very handy."
"Hopefully we won't need it soon," he mumbled and I laced our fingers.
"Where do the king and queen live?"
He pointed to the south but I didn't see anything.
"They are many miles away," he explained. "If we were to walk there, it would take us five days."
I frowned. "So there are many colonies?"
"Yes. Each one is led by an elder."
"How is the elder chosen?"
"It used to be by experience." We stopped at the gardens again for some fresh fruit. "But, once Princess Linata conquered our evil king, we had no need for elders experienced in combat. Now it's based off of age and wisdom."
"How old is Winterblade?"
He smiled. "Two-hundred and fifty years old."
"Wow," I breathed. "I still can't get over you being 89! When is your birthday?"
He tilted his head. "Birthday?" he repeated.
"Um...." I tried to think of a way to word it. "When did you enter this world through your mother?"
"Eight-nine years ago," he said as if I were slow.
I laughed. "No. I mean what day?" He looked up at the blue sky. "Oh. I understand."
"I celebrate it at the start of winter, though. When is your... birthday is the word?"
I nodded. "Yes. Mine is on the 28th day of Spring."
"I will have to remember that."
"Is it always so beautiful here?" I asked. "I mean, it's almost autumn. Shouldn't it be cold?"
"Our weather is always neutral."
"Huh." I looked up at the huts and bridges. "I thought you said that you hated humans living from the earth."
He followed my gaze. "Oh! That's all dead wood that we couldn't bring back to life. It's been reinforced to hold our weight."
I nodded. "When can I meet your other friends?"
We were approaching the main colony again where the shops and homes were. He hesitated and I lowered my head. I had forgotten the conversation I heard last night. Before he could answer, a she-elf jumped from the trees above us and looked at me through startling green eyes. She had black hair and was a few inches shorter than I.
"So. This is the human," she said darkly.
"Not now, Lura," I snapped but she ignored me.
"You don't look like much," she said and Camila frowned at her, her violet eyes narrowing.
"Not everything is as it seems," she returned.
Lura smirked. "Is that so? I challenge you to a duel, then."
"No," I interrupted. "Leave us be, Lura."
"What? Are you afraid I'll beat your beloved?" she sneered.
Camila's hand tightened on mine as she got angry.
"I don't need to prove anything to you," she snapped and Lura arched a brow.
"But you do. You see, I claimed Elwin already."
I rolled my eyes and groaned. Camila spoke before I could. She held up our clasped hands.
"So then why is he with me?" she asked and Lura gripped her hands into fists. "You'd think that, if our roles were reversed, you'd be the one beside him."
"I would have if your human tricks hadn't warped his mind," she spat. "I've read about how you can manipulate the weak."
"Elwin is not weak. And what you've read is ridiculous. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'd like to have Elwin show me where Elder Winterblade lives."
"This isn't over!" Lura yelled after us as we went back to the ladder.
I let her climb before me. She hesitated but shut her eyes tightly and climbed regardless. I took her hand again and pulled her over to my home first. She opened her mouth to ask why but I pulled her to me, kissing her deeply.
She seemed shocked but wrapped her arms around my shoulders. I sighed into her soft lips. She stood on her toes so that our faces were level and I buried my hand in her hair. Our tongues moved together and I felt warmth in my body. I knew that this was who I belonged to.
"What was that for?" she breathed when I finally let her go.
I caressed her cheek. "No one's ever talked to Lura like that. She's been after me for so long. It's nice to have someone actually be on my side."
She smiled shyly.
"I do want to see where Winterblade lives," she said. "I know I was there last night but...."
"That didn't really count," I finished and she nodded. "Close your eyes. We have to go out there again."
"I think I'll try to keep my eyes open," she said in a small voice.
"Okay," I said slowly. "But hold my hand anyway. If you feel like you can't handle it, let me know."
She nodded, looking a little pale. We walked onto the bridge and it creaked under us. She squeaked in surprise and I tried to hide my smile as we got onto a solid deck again. I knocked on the side of the elder's home and he pulled the bamboo to the side.
"Ah! I was just about to summon the two of you," he said. "Please, come in."
He let Camila sit in his only chair. Elder Winterblade was a strong man. His hair was black and his eyes sparkling blue. He wore robes instead of the usual tunic and tights. He stood in front of us with his hands behind his back.
"How are you feeling today, Miss Camila?" he asked.
"Much better, thank you," she breathed.
I could tell she was intimidated so I put a hand on her shoulder.
"I received word from the king and queen."
"That was quick," Camila said. She looked up at me. "I thought you said that it would take five days."
"If you were to walk," Winterblade nodded, getting out a small scroll. "We have ravens do our journeys for us when we have important messages." He opened the scroll. "They wish to meet you, Miss Camila. They have also given us permission to send word to your father." He frowned and looked at me. "But we need to find a way to do so that won't expose us."
"I'll go," I said immediately but she shook her head.
"No, Elwin. Theodore knows what you look like." She thought for a few minutes. "Sometimes, we have messengers pass through our village on their way to our palace. If we can find someone to pose as such a messenger...."
"Then they can blend right in," Winterblade nodded. "That is a splended idea. We just need to find someone willing to do so."
"Not Lura," I mumbled and Winterblade smiled at me.
"Is she still chasing?"
"Well, maybe now that you have your soulmate, she will understand." Camila leaned against my side and I smiled down at her. "I will send word when I find someone who will do the journey for us. There are a lot of elves that are interested in you, Miss Camila. In a good way," he added when she looked nervous.
"Everyone comes in from their duties at sunset," I said, "to gather for dinner. We can set up a special place for you to do some teaching if you're willing."
"Just as long as they don't try to stone me," she said and I frowned.
"I don't know that expression."
She thought for a new way to explain. "I don't want someone to hurt me."
"They won't. I promise."
She looked out the door and sighed. "We should probably go. By the time I get down that ladder it will be sundown."
I laughed and we bowed to Elder Winterblade.