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Stranger Strangers

The Eastern Mountains stood to her right, and the Western Wall stood to her left. In a meadow, at the most northern corner of Tarsus, a slim gap grew. From a distance, the gap was not noticeable, covered by a curtain of vines. The passage was slight, just large enough for Dirus to enter, but not with Nelumbella riding. When Nelumbella looked up, she thought she saw the wall touch the sky. Nothing from the other side was visible.

From one end to the other, the gap was more like a tunnel; and journeying through with Dirus in front as her crutch, Nelumbella saw very little light. Having travelled hidden in the night, she had made it to the border by morning’s twilight. Thus, the only light she saw was a faint eerie blue, which escaped between the chasms above her. She saw blocks of stone and the beginnings of life on one side, and imprints of those blocks on the mountain on the opposite; the wall was shaped to be a continuation of the mountain. Along the path were growths of moss, mushrooms, the odd sprout, and creatures that could thrive in the bleak crevice. The deeper they went, the darker it became, and the lower they had to crouch.

Nelumbella focused on her uncle’s tales. The other side was where she knew the greatest stories came from. On the other side were legends. The other side was a place for a lost man to find his was way, the path to seek gold, glory, or even a home.

Vision becoming pitch black, she gripped onto Dirus’ long furs tightly. The wolf sniffed, and they treaded further. Seeing a star at the end of her vision, she knew the path was ending.

The forest welcomed them. Protected by the Western Wall, the Eastern Mountains, and thickly set trees, the girl and her wolf remained in the shadows. The contrast between this side and Tarsus was stark. Unlike where she came from, the bricks were not clean and polished. Overgrown weeds and vines ran from top to bottom, blending it into the environment. Brightly coloured flowers bloomed, scattering across the stone. Nelumbella wondered if the meadow was once like this.

The trees before her were large, growing almost as tall as the wall. First, she saw pine trees; then as she walked a small distance, the leaves took the form of flattened droplets. She saw trees with unusually large leaves and every colour she could imagine. She was in the place where all the lands met, and variety flourished. She recognized not one flower, not one shrub, and not one tree. The scents she smelled were unlike those from Tarsus. Lighter and fresher, the air she breathed cleansed her being.

Nelumbella and Dirus were tired. Their pace was haggard. Nelumbella wanted to collapse onto a soft patch of grass and curl up with Dirus for the sleep they desperately needed, but she knew it was not an option. She did not know what dangers lurked, and to sleep without shelter was unwise. They kept going further, searching for nourishments and a place to rest. She was certain an inn was nearby. If as many people travelled through the forest as he uncle claimed, it made sense for such an establishment to exist.

In the forest, they continued to encounter wilderness. Nelumbella was hungry, but the majority of fruit grew above her. With her bound feet, she did not know how she could reach nourishment. They found no streams for her to fish from or meat for her wolf to eat. She was parched; and she knew Dirus was even more so. He ran with her on his back all night, and he had yet to drink. She shared the berries she had found with him, hoping to quench his thirst a little, but it had little impact on the large wolf.

They walked and stumbled, searching for a body of water. Dirus chewed patches of grass for moisture and rolled on the cool ground. He rose, and moved a couple paces, but fell. He repeated the cycle until he was so tired that he was unable to push forward any further.

‘Oh, Dirus,’ said Nelumbella, ‘Rest and wait here. I will fetch you something to eat.’

Nelumbella found a nearby tree that bore large golden fruits. They smelled delicious. She was tempted to remove the bandages containing her feet, but she was not willing to risk a traveller spotting her. Most likely, word of her hideous feet was out, and they had likely discovered she was missing. If they found her, she knew that she would be sent back home; and Dirus’ efforts would go to waste.

Determined not to disappoint her companion, Nelumbella climbed the tree. She did so with plenty of trouble, but with her strong legs, and the diamond shoe, she managed. Embedding the heel of the shoe into the bark like a hook, she pulled her body up, stabilizing herself with her legs wrapped around the trunk.

Reaching the lowest branch, she picked the small fruits she could reach and tasted them, testing their quality. They were small, hard, and sour. Still green, they were not yet ripe and difficult to eat. Where the sun was able to reach the tree with ease, she saw the prize.

Balancing and stepping on each branch proved a challenge. Wobbling like a top on her rounded appendages, her bound feet lacked a groove to set herself on. She fell many times, but before she hit the ground, she always managed to catch a branch. Her pursuit was taking longer than she expected, but Nelumbella was unrelenting. No matter how many times she fell, she continued climbing.

On one of her many falls, as she grabbed onto a branch, she saw Dirus with a man she assumed to have brown hair. He was too far down, and the forest was too dim, to make him out clearly. ‘Miss, do you need help?’ he called up.

‘No, thank you,’ Nelumbella replied. She certainly did not need help. Before she left Tarsus, she had been able to climb atop any tree. Eyeing him suspiciously, she asked, ‘What are you doing with my wolf?’

‘He brought me here,’ the man yelled. From what she could tell, he was around her age. ‘I found him dehydrated. I gave him some water. He nudged me in this direction. He was quite persistent, so I went with him. He said that you needed help.’

‘Said that I needed help?’ Nelumbella questioned, knitting her brows. ’He said that to you. You speak wolf?′

‘Yes, he said that his companion was doing a task she could no longer manage,’ said the man.

He was mad! She had never heard a wolf speak. Yes, they barked, and they communicated with their barks, but their barking was hardly intelligible. Their language was limited at best. Intruder, food, walk, and play, might have been believable, but they did not say phrases such as; my companion is doing a task she cannot manage. Nelumbella shouted at the man: ‘Get away from my wolf, crazy!’

‘Crazy? What did I do that is crazy?’ he asked incredulously. ‘You’re the crazy one trying to climb up a tree with lotus feet. No sane person does that!’

Dirus whimpered to the man, explaining her situation. The man whimpered back. Nelumbella stared blankly at the two, unbelieving. ‘You really do speak dog,’ she said.

‘Of course I do, but that was wolf. They are very different,’ he said. Dirus barked in agreement. ‘Now, why don’t you come down? He says you haven’t eaten in ages.’

‘That is why I am climbing,’ she said, pointing to the fruit. Landing on the ground safely with the state of her feet was not a reasonable expectation, and she did not trust the man to catch her.

‘There’s no need for that. I know a place nearby that will take care of you,’ the man yelled in the most coaxing voice he could manage. Dirus barked too; the man translated, ‘He says you’re dressed impractically to climb a tree—that you are being silly. I have to agree. It is out of fashion too.’

‘What is wrong with what I am wearing?’ she asked, insulted. She was not wearing one of her costly gowns, but her dress was not ugly either. Her dress was simply plain.

‘You look like a maid from the south, and your feet are bound like the grandmothers from Loti,’ he replied honestly.

‘Oh, what do you know, you—you boy!’ cried Nelumbella.

‘Whether you acknowledge it or not, I do have a brain. My gender doesn’t affect that. I’m not stupid,’ said the man. She was such a strange girl. Honesty was supposed to be appreciated.

Despite Nelumbella having limited interaction with people, she knew men were not supposed to make negative comments about what a woman wore directly to her. ‘Apparently, you are,’ she said. ’You do not know how to talk to women, and I am not stupid. Which means you must be. I knew exactly what I was doing when I dressed myself.′ She turned and climbed.

The man thought hard, genuinely wanting to help. He had to help. The wolf was so sad when speaking about his companion; and he did not want to abandon an attractive young woman in his forest, even if he knew it was safe. He decided to try to befriend her first. Maybe then, she would be more compliant. ‘Trees don’t like being stabbed,’ the man called. She left the shoe on a lower branch and continued. The man thought it was a good sign. ‘I bet if you unwrapped your feet you’d be able to climb up a lot more easily.’ She ignored him, and the wolf barked at him. The matter of her feet was to remain unspoken.

‘Are you lost by any chance?’ he asked, tying a different route. ‘I know you’re not from here.’

‘How do you know?’ she asked.

‘This is my land,’ he said.

‘This is neutral territory,’ she said, raising her voice more as she climbed higher than before. For a young thing like him to own land defied reason. All the landowners she met at the balls were old and wrinkly.

‘Politically speaking, you are correct; but the animals have entrusted this forest to me. I am their elf, and this is my forest. I care for it and all who are within it,’ he explained, also raising his voice to reach her. ‘That includes you,’ he added. ‘If you’d come down and let me do my job—’

‘I do not need any help,’ she cut him off, insisting that she was capable.

‘Seems to me like you do,’ said the man.

As if on cue, she slipped and fell to a low branch. She took the opportunity to rotate her body to inspect him thoroughly. From what she had heard, elves had delicate features; the man was definitely a human. He was not any more delicate looking than her uncle was, and he did not have long pointy ears, or the bright blond hair, elves were supposed to have. He was not short either! Although she had never seen an elf in person, and knew she might be incorrect, she made her opinion known. ‘You do not look like an elf,’ she said.

He visibly flinched. His plan of action was unfolding not as planned. She was so sceptical. He did not think he appeared like a dishonest fellow, and elves were known to be trustworthy! ‘I’m built a bit differently is all,’ he defended.

‘Just admit it,’ she said. ‘You do not speak wolf, let alone dog, and you are not an elf.’

The man was taken aback. He did not know any other race that spoke to animals the way elves did. Even if elves were expected to look a certain way, it did not mean that he could not be different. ‘Didn’t I just prove to you that I speak wolf? Besides, you aren’t built like a typical human female, and you don’t see me questioning your gender—or your race!’ The words were out before he realized his mistake.

‘Leave me alone!’ she shrieked. She climbed the short distance to her shoe and yelled at him more. ‘I do not need any help from you!’ Taking her shoe, she threw it at him, hitting him on the head. He had little time to react, and the force knocked him over. Her wolf licked his face, encouraging him to get up. ‘Dirus, get away from that non-elf!’ she commanded, but Dirus did not move, staying by his side.

’You are a mad woman,′ he said, recomposing himself. ‘This is your last chance to come with me.’

‘I said, leave me alone!’ she cried, grabbing stiff, little, still ripening fruits. With her expert aim, she shot at him.

Shielding his head from her fire with his arms, the man attempted to manoeuvre around the incoming fruit. He was certain his was going to be bruised. She did not miss. As she restocked ammunition, he spoke. ‘Fine, but I’m taking this deadly weapon of yours with me,’ picking up her diamond shoe. ’I see no reason for an innocent person in my forest to be injured by your wrath. You are lucky I don’t make you leave.′

‘Didn’t your mother teach you not to talk to strangers?’ she screeched, pitching more fruit towards him. ‘That includes wolves.’

’My mother was an elf, and elves encourage their offspring to talk to all the animals in their forest—including the pesky human girls!′ screamed the man. Grumbling, he stalked forward as she continued to shower him, and he knocked on the tree. She clung on as the tree wiggled, leaves fluttering off. Then, much more aggressively, it shook her off, along with a bounty of ripe fruits.

The bed of leaves softened her fall, and he was gone before she got up.

‘Couldn’t he have done that sooner?’ Nelumbella mumbled. She ate the fallen fruit with Dirus. They were hungry, and there was plenty. Food was food, even if it came from an insensitive, delusional man, who thought he was an elf. As she expected, the fruit had an exotic, yet delicious, taste. The harvest filled their bellies and quenched their thirsts.

Nelumbella and Dirus yawned. If they had a full night’s rest, they would have all their strength back, but it was already noon and they had not slept since the night before the ball. To add, both she and Dirus were in pain. Dirus was fatigued from running for hours nonstop; and her feet felt as though they were breaking.

Nelumbella leaned against Dirus, and they went deeper into the forest. Unable to see the sky, or a hint of the wall and mountain, they were no longer certain of their direction. Nelumbella hoped to find the end of the forest or a suitable place to sleep. They chanced upon a fresh water spring, where they had rested briefly, drinking plenty; but wanting to explore, the pair left with Dirus leading the way. The wolf sniffed the path, confident he would find an appropriate place to sleep.

Stumbling along, Nelumbella allowed Dirus take her to a part of the forest where the trees grew shorter, further apart, and looked the same. They were common oaks, which were native to Tarsus. The familiar trees made the area feel safer.

When Dirus stopped, Nelumbella saw what he had been seeking.

Surrounded by the small trees was the largest tree she had ever seen. Save for its size, the tree resembled its neighbours. The trunk was as broad as the houses in the countryside and stood as tall as the Western Wall. Standing below the tree, shadow covered her. The leaves that covered the tree were proportionate to the tree as well.

Nelumbella feared what lived on the tree and what might happen if they met a giant insect who wanted to eat them. Dirus had no such qualms. He was a giant breed himself. The wolf continued ahead, sniffing around the trunk. Not wanting to be left behind and eaten, Nelumbella followed.

They circled the tree, climbing over the protruding roots. If they walked around the roots, they survey would have taken more than twice as long. With the most delightful, normal sized, flowers growing in the nooks of the trunk and in the creases of the roots, the tree had a particular charm. The flowers were so strategically placed that if she did not know better, Nelumbella would have assumed the flowers were part of a garden. The existence of the little flowers baffled her. The tree was so broad it did not seem as if there was space for more plants.

Dirus stopped. He went to the base of the tree and pawed at the bark. He did not claw; the wolf was gentle. Then, the outline of a door twice more than twice her size revealed itself. The wolf pushed against it with the side of his body. Seeing that it was not budging, Nelumbella aided Dirus. She planted her stump-like feet in the ground and pushed with all her strength. The door opened enough for them to enter; and they went inside. The door shut on its own. Nelumbella felt around in the dark, and she found what felt like a switch. She flicked it up. Their vision went from pitch black to clear.

The foyer was cold and had high ceilings. It seemed to serve as a buffer, but Nelumbella knew, without a doubt, that the tree was a home. An attempt to make the bleak space cosy was noticeable. By a narrow staircase was a display of wooden animal carvings. The sculptures came in an assortment of sizes: small, medium, and large. Each one had such attention to detail that residents had to have spent a lot of time with animals to be so familiar with their anatomy.

Nelumbella did not dwell for long, going up the stairs. The living room also had high ceilings, but was an intimate place to be. She noted that although the ceiling was high, almost absurdly so like some in the palace, the height seemed to be for practical reasons.

Size was not consistent in the home. Nelumbella deduced that the residents were a variety of sizes. She saw miniature furniture suitable for someone the size of a human child, such as a little rocking chair; she saw normal sized furniture, such as the loveseat; and she saw giant furniture, proportionate to the high ceiling and large space, such as the couch, which Nelumbella likened to the size of a large bed.

Desperate for rest, Nelumbella sat on each one. The rocking chair proved to be too small. For a moment, she thought she was stuck, but she managed to break free without damaging the dainty chair. Nelumbella thought better and left the couch alone. She did not want to attempt to climb it with bound feet. Dirus, however, leapt on and elongated his body along the monstrous couch. Nelumbella settled in on the love seat, which proved to be the perfect size, and rested her feet on the accompanying ottoman. A few minutes later, she began to nod off. ‘Oh, this is not an appropriate place to sleep,’ she said, shaking herself awake. Dirus agreed. ‘Let’s find a better place to rest.’

They walked past the dining room and saw that the table was taller than the average table in Tarsus and that the chairs were the same height. The legs of the chairs were conveniently outfitted with ladder-like steps for the shorter residents. The kitchen was set up in a similar manner, furnished with stools, and equipped with furniture and appliances customized to be practical for people of all sizes.

Besides the troublesome variety of non-size discriminatory objects, Nelumbella noticed what the residents collected. Many of their belongings were familiar to her; her uncle had collected similar items. She saw paintings and statues of specific styles, which she recognized. The residents also had many odd trinkets similar to things her uncle brought to her. They had a collection of books with several familiar titles and some that were foreign to her. The house was like the forest: a mismatch of everything.

Nelumbella ascended the next flight of spiralling stairs. She knew she was a stranger in the strange house, but she was both curious and tired. She reasoned that no one was home. They were probably working. She could take a nap and leave before they returned. They would not even know she was there.

She stood in a hall with three doors, nine if counting the way each door had two additional doors cut within that were incrementally smaller and framed by the prior. She knew which option she would use; the largest was too heavy, and she would bump her head on the smallest. However, she did not know which room to enter.

Nelumbella decided to go in order. Hoping to find a bed to sleep on, she put her hand on the knob of the middle medium sized door and turned. She unveiled a cramped bathroom. She thought the find was almost just as good. Like the rest of the house, the ceiling was high, but in the bathroom, it began as such to accommodate for the largest door. Save for the entrance, the ceiling steeply inclined so low that it was barely comfortable for Nelumbella. Considering the size of the rest of the house, the bathroom was much smaller than expected. She knew they had room to spare, and she did not know why they needed doors with three size options when the bathroom was obviously designed for the resident who used the smallest door.

Appropriately, everything in the bathroom was tiny.

The soaps smelled extremely sweet, and the wall was painted a happy yellow. In need to be cleansed of sweat and dirt, Nelumbella tried to enter the bathtub, but she barely fit. The bathtub was uncomfortably shallow. The towels were too small and so plush that it felt like blankets for a baby. If she took a bath, Nelumbella did not know how she would dry herself.

Dirus did not enter. He took one glance and doubted he could fit. Not wanting to keep her wolf waiting, Nelumbella left, and they headed for the next door.

Through the nest door was another bathroom. Unlike the first bathroom, instead of being brightly coloured, the walls were painted a dull greyish blue. The ceiling was consistently high; and the room was justly much larger than the previous. Not allowing the vast space to be wasted, the sink, toilet, and bathtub were scaled up. The room was much larger than what Nelumbella wanted. For Dirus, the bathtub, which Nelumbella likened to a small pool, was exactly what he wanted.

Nelumbella plugged the bottom with the stop and turned the tap. She watched in fascination as water came out. The tree had plumbing, and the water smelled like rain. Reaching into the bathtub to wash Dirus, she felt that the water was warm. Dirus patiently sat as she lathered him thoroughly with soap that smelled too musky for her own taste. When Dirus was ready to leave the tub, he shook himself dry. He got the space wet, but Nelumbella took one of the large, rough towels and dried his mess.

The final bathroom was the perfect for Nelumbella. The bathtub was a similar size to the one she had at home, and the gently sloping ceiling was just the right height for her. Furthermore, the walls were the most coaxing shade of green.

Nelumbella removed her clothes, turned on the bath, and eased herself into the tub. She dangled her feet over the edge of the bath as she soaked, her feet remaining bounded. Wrapping her feet was a difficult task to do, and she did not want to see what was underneath.

Neither too musky nor sweet a scent, the soap smelled the best. As Dirus waited, Nelumbella cleansed her skin and shampooed. She was covered in sweat and grime from the ball and climbing. When she felt clean and refreshed, she drained the bath and hobbled out. The towels were the perfect texture and size too. She dried, redressed, and left the bathroom with Dirus.

They went up another flight of spiralling stairs. Both clean, they were more ready to sleep than before. On the next floor was a single door, but it was the same quirkily designed sort with three options.

Nelumbella found what she was looking for: a bedroom. Unfortunately, the bedroom was far from the right size for Nelumbella. The ceiling was low and consistently so. The resident had taken advantage of the odd ceilings in the level below to accommodate for the door by creating sloping floors with slides and ladders. Painted a vivid yellow with bright orange accents, and resembling a playground, the delightful room was spacious and fun.

Nelumbella made her way around the toys. On the opposite side, she found colourful bottles neatly lined up on a shelf; and below the shelf was a little table with a full platter of cookies and cake covered by a glass dome. Past the scattered teddy bears, in the centre of the room, was an egg shaped bed that was the perfect nest.

Nelumbella crawled into the bed, tempted as she remembered the plush towels in the little bathroom. The blankets were even softer than the towels! She satisfyingly sank into the fluffy mattress. The sheets smelled like childhood. Lying in the bed, Nelumbella shut her eyes, but her back began to ache from the softness. She lacked support, and Dirus had no room to sleep. She crawled out of the little bed, and they left.

Up another set of winding stairs, and through another odd door, Nelumbella arrived at the next room. The room was the companion of the second bathroom and reasonably large the giant resident. Compared to the previous room, without novelty or bright colours, the bedroom was bland and the furniture was brutish. Filled only with oversized necessities, the space was as simple as could be. Nelumbella though the salty grey walls must have been all the excitement the occupant could handle.

The bed was on the far side and had more than enough space for her and Dirus. The pair climbed on. Dirus did not like the bed. He constantly dug at the blankets, trying to fluff them into something suitable. He tried to settle several times, but he remained restless. Nelumbella had similar issues. She was unable to settle in with the stiff mattress, coarse blankets, and overly firm pillows. The smell of the blankets suffocated Nelumbella too. The bed was not quite right.

On the final floor, Nelumbella and Dirus found the last room. She hoped that the room was not too gloomy or too bright, and that its bed was just right.

When she entered, she saw it was all that she wanted. The walls were a soothing cream hue. The room was decorated with wooden carvings and trinkets. She was smitten with the little hollow allowing in sunlight; and by the naturally occurring window was a bed that was neither overly large nor abnormally small. Nelumbella thought this bedroom was the loveliest room in the entire house.

Slipping under the blanket, she buried her nose into the pillow. The sheets smelled like perfection, smelling even better than the soap in the medium sized bathroom. Dirus joined and agreed. He settled in, cuddling with his human, not even fluffing the blanket around. The bed was large enough for the two of them and another person. The mattress was neither too plush nor too stiff, providing the support she needed. The bed was even better than the one she had at the palace. Nelumbella could not get enough of the intoxicating smell either. She wished that the residents would never return. She wanted to stay. Finally, Nelumbella was able to drift into a deep sleep.

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