It had only been four or five hours since we’d been riding but it felt like an eternity. Especially since we had written mostly in silence. The sun was beginning to set, casting streams of buttery, golden light through the trees. The sky, painted with shades of warm orange and soft pink, would soon be a blanket of stars speckled darkness, much like Dristan’s eyes. I shook that thought from my mind as soon as it had formed, scolding myself internally.
A sudden whooping sound ahead pulled me from my daydreaming and I snapped my eyes forward to the voice of the Bakru’s leader.
“Halt! We have arrived!” I looked around, above and behind me, utterly perplexed.
There was nothing but forest surrounding us. Trees plunged into the dimming sky, the canopies softly swaying in the breeze. Tangles of vines, roots and varying plants littered the ground. There was no sign of civilization in sight.
“Raise the wards!” Ferrin, the Bakru leader shouted. I glanced at Dristan, who looked as if he were about to fall off of his horse from exhaustion. Just as I was about to open my mouth to ask him what in the hell was happening, something amazing happened.
I felt the magic before saw it. I could feel it on my skin, tingling me like static electricity. It burned inside of my nostrils, the scent almost sweet. Invisible walls before us began to dissipate, dissolving outward in the way that frost would form on my bedroom window during the winter months. I watched in disbelief as the mirror like wards disappeared, revealing a massive array of tree-houses above us.
The hidden civilization was the size of a small city. The houses varied in size, some as small my own home back in my village. Some were as large as five of them put together. The houses were at least fifty feet above the forest floor. The homes had been connected to each other with wooden bridges, which were roped together with thick vines.
Candles and lanterns burned in many of the tree-house windows, casting warm, inviting glows about them. The roofs were made of bundled branches and hay and the walls were constructed of some kind of mud or sturdy clay. I gazed up at the tree-houses and found several faces peering down at me over the sides of the bridges. Some were peeking out of windows or doors. There had to be over one hundred Bakru here.
“Dristan?” I whispered a bit nervously. His only answer was a small yawn. He didn’t seem impressed at all.
Suddenly, several rope ladders were thrown down to our group. Ferrin slid off of his brown horse and walked toward me, his face neutral.
“My lady, we offer you access to our home. We will provide you with a guest house, a hot meal, and whatever else you require while you stay here. Lord Dristan has helped us a great deal. Whatever we can do to help you both would be an honor to bestow.” He dipped his head, his twisted, twig like fingers extending toward me in a gesture to help me off of my horse.
I blinked at his hand, wary of the consequences of accepting such an offer. Everything I had been taught told me to refuse.
“A-and what would you require of me in return for this hospitality?” I asked timidly. He lifted his head, his much too large eyes meeting mine. They shined with offense.
“We ask for nothing. It is an honor to accommodate royalty.” He answered sincerely.
My eyes widened. “I-I don’t understand...” I stammered. Royalty? Did he mean Dristan? Or... me?
“We will accept your offer. Thank you, Ferrin.” Dristan cut in, slicing me a hard glance. I winced and then gave Ferrin a small, apologetic smile.
“I am grateful.” I said softly, a bit embarrassed. The wood gnome returned my smile, his face lighting up.
“If you please, follow me.” He said.
I dismounted, staying close to Dristan’s side, as I watched a Bakru female take our horses and lead them away. No doubt to some magical, warded stable of some sort.
When we reached the top of the ladder, the village seemed much larger than it had from below. The scent of cinnamon and freshly baked bread wafted toward me and my mouth watered. Ferrin led us to a large tree house, which was snuggled around a massive oak tree. It was set apart from the other houses, giving me a very welcome feeling of seclusion from the numerous Bakru that were still watching us.
We stepped through the rounded doorway and I had to struggle to maintain the mask of indifference glued to my face. Inside, I was jumping up and down and marveling at the beautiful home.
The middle of the house was interrupted by the trunk of the oak tree, which plunged upward through the floor and continued through the roof, where it disappeared through a large opening in the ceiling. The wooden floors were littered with several colorful rugs of varying shapes and sizes.
To the far left was a small kitchen area, complete with a sink, an ice box, a lovely kitchen island, a wood-burning oven and a rectangular shaped dining room table. To the right, a brown, over sized couch was placed before a dazzling fireplace, as well as two plush brown chairs. Near the back of the open room I spotted a doorway, which no doubt lead to a bedroom and washroom.
“I hope this will be sufficient.” Ferrin said, turning to me. I smiled. It was the most genuine smile I’d worn since leaving my village.
“It’s the most beautiful home I’ve ever seen, Ferrin. Thank you, truly.”
His chubby cheeks grew red and he bowed his head.
“I am pleased to hear your approval, my Lady. Please, make yourselves at home. Dinner will be delivered soon.”
Dristan stretched a hand toward him and they shook hands breifly. “Thank you, my friend.” Dristan said.
“As always, my Lord, it is a pleasure.”
And then he was gone.
As soon as the door closed, Dristan stalked toward the couch and collapsed in a heap.
“You can use the washroom first. I just need to rest my eyes...”
He was snoring by the end of his sentence.