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The Three Brothers

There once were three very different brothers, who lived in a forest much like themselves. The forest was comprised of a little bit of everything, and they too were a family of a little bit of everything. They were unlike any other family, and had a very special little brother. Their little brother was not the smallest like one might expect. The smallest was the eldest brother, who was a full-blooded elf from his mother’s first love. The little brother was not the largest either. The second brother was the largest, standing more than double the height of the elf. He was a giant and the product of his father’s first marriage. Having been born to the father of the giant and the mother of the elf, the little brother was medium in size.

Like all elf families, the brothers lived in a tree. However, unlike elf families, because they had an exceptionally large father and brother, their tree was exceptionally large. The tree they lived in grew from a sprout from the Land of Giants, but with elf magic, their mother was able to grow their home larger than any tree in the world. Lovely and strong, the tree had enough space for the family and more. Yet, more did not happen. One day, when the little brother was still young, their parents passed. Consequently, the older brothers raised their medium sized little brother.

The three brothers lived happily in the tree, undisturbed for many years, until one fateful night. Returning home from a long day at work, they found an intrusive young woman.

‘Wye!’ yelled the elf, knocking on the door to the giant’s bedroom. ‘Charter has a female in his bed!’

The giant, whose name was Wye, came out from his room, and gruffly said, ‘About time.’

The elf, whose name was Linden, ran up the stairs to the highest room. With the smallest of the three options the door had, Linden burst through. The little door recoiled into place. The giant followed behind and used the largest. The elf bounced to the sleeping girl and sniffed her. ‘She smells like him,’ he noted in his high pitched, but whispered, voice.

‘I didn’t think human was his type,’ scoffed Wye. While he was able to stand upright in the room, his hair skimmed the ceiling. The giant sat down and petted the wolf who was awake and sniffing him. Wye recognized the wolf to be an elusive breed from his homeland.

‘They do come in the sizes that range between giant and elf,’ Linden pointed out.

Wye snorted. ‘Where did he find a human female in the first place? They haven’t entered these parts in nearly two decades,’ he asked in his deep baritone voice.

The girl mumbled in her sleep about how she liked the way the bed smelled.

‘Oh, this is perfect!’ squealed Linden. Shushed by his giant brother, Linden continued softly: ‘She likes his man odour!’

‘Just because she likes his man odour does not mean she likes his personality,’ said Wye. The wolf licked him. ‘I don’t see this lasting long. She’s his first girlfriend. Watch him mess it up. Remember when you started dating?’

Linden blinked twice. ‘She...’ he said, trailing off. ‘Don’t be so negative!’

Wye shook his head. ‘I’ll give you this,’ he said. ‘She is pretty.’

‘Do you mean by elf, giant, or human standards?’ Linden asked.

‘Human, but she is pretty enough to be a passable elf,’ said Wye.

‘Yes,’ said Linden, rapidly nodding his little head. ‘If we shrunk her, dyed her hair blonde, and gave her long pointy ears, she’d be a very good elf.’ Linden moved for the exit.

‘Where are you going?’ asked Wye, extending a long arm out to grab the elf.

‘To retrieve hair dye,’ said Linden.

‘If she wakes up blonde, you’ll have lost Charter a girlfriend,’ said Wye.

Linden’s eyes widened. He went back to the bed and returned to staring at the sleeping girl. ‘Can’t have that—I want to be an uncle one day, and you aren’t doing any good in that department.’

Wye ignored the comment.

The girl kicked the blankets over. ‘Oh, Wye,’ said Linden, tugging on his brother’s sleeve and pointing at the rounded appendages. ‘Look at what big feet she has.’

‘Those feet don’t look very human,’ said Wye. ‘I told you human aren’t his type.’

Linden nodded. ’They are finicky creatures.′ He paused and looked up to Wye. ‘If she’s not human, what is she?’

‘At freaky mutt like Charter?’ suggested Wye. ’But it doesn’t matter what she is. What matters is what he should date. A giantess would be best for him.′

‘Oh, they’re too big for him,’ Linden countered. ‘A lady elf is the way to go. Why else did Father marry Mother?’

‘If giants are too big for him, then elves are too small for him,’ Wye said, narrowing his eyes. ‘And if you’re using Mother and Father as an example, then size doesn’t matter.’

Linden’s normally sprightly eyes darkened. ‘Elves are—’

‘What’s going on?’ asked their little brother, entering through the middle door, interrupting their dispute.

‘We’re watching your girlfriend sleep,’ said Linden. ‘I must warn you, although she does not snore, we have heard her sleep talking. You might want to consider that before you decide to burrow a tree with her.’

Charter was confused. ‘I don’t have a girlfriend,’ he said. Seeing the familiar wolf who sat by Wye, he went to stand between his brothers and looked down, inspecting the body in his bed. ’She is not my girlfriend.′

Wye and Linden leaned in.

‘Intruder!’ shrieked Linden.

The girl awoke.

The sky was dark, and the tree hollow no longer lit the space. Glowing lamp-like mushrooms illuminated the room.

Nelumbella nervously sat on the bed, awaiting the interrogation. She had hoped Dirus would wake her before the sun set, but Dirus did not want to leave.

Dirus rested his head on the lap of the man from the forest, who had introduced himself to be Charter. The two sat on a rug in corner. She noted that the man was a blend of the other two. His left eye was elf gold, and his right eye was giant green. Contrary to what she had thought in the dim forest, his hair was not brown; His hair was streaked blonde and black. However, as unique as his colouring was, his features were balanced, settling nicely between that of an elf and a giant, with not one part of him out of place. He looked like a well-made human male.

The little blond elf crouched down by her wolf, listening to its little whimpers. While he did not seem mad, the raven-haired giant was standing imposingly in front of her, his broad frame unwavering, and his eyes bearing through her. She shrunk at his gaze, but somehow, he seemed sympathetic.

‘Yes, yes, Mister Wolf,’ said Linden, nodding along. ‘There’s only one thing for us to do!’ Charter was horrified, but Linden did not stop. ’Can we keep them, Wye? Please.

‘That’s the human who tried to kill me!’ Charter stressed.

’Yes, maybe it isn’t the best idea for you to keep me,′ Nelumbella said, fidgeting with her dress.

‘It’s okay,’ said the elf. ‘We’ve all tried to kill him at one point or another.’ It was a lie.

‘What are you talking about?’ exclaimed Charter. He was a well-liked fellow. Nelumbella was the only person who had ever attempted to take his life.

‘What I am talking about is that I want to be an uncle, and neither of you have made that happen,’ Linden said, accusingly pointing his finger. ‘Here, we have a fertile young woman, who loves his man odour.’

The implications of Linden’s words appalled Nelumbella. What part of she attacked him did the elf not understand? She and Charter would never have children together. Yet, she was somehow starting to like the elf, even if he did have strange ideas. Linden was infectious.

‘Ignore them,’ said the giant. ‘Do you have a name?’

‘Nel—’ she started, before thinking twice.

‘Never mind her name,’ Linden piped. ‘She could stay with us.’ He skipped over to her. ‘Your big sad wolf told me about how you two had no place to go. You should stay with us!’

‘I do not want to intrude,’ said Nelumbella, forcing a smile. Nelumbella did want to stay. Despite how they had met, they were, from what she had seen, the sort of people she liked.

‘Nonsense,’ said Linden, pointing out the obvious. ‘You’ve already intruded. So you should stay with us forever. You liked our home enough to break in, and I like you enough to keep you.’

‘That is exactly why she shouldn’t intrude further,’ said Charter, taking her side. ’She tried to kill me. We don’t know what kind of person she is.′ Dirus whined. ‘But we should keep the wolf,’ he added hastily.

‘Look, Wye,’ said Linden. ’They have the same crazy ideas already, and he likes her pet. It’s only a matter of time before he starts liking her too. You know what they say: Dogs are exactly like their owners.′

‘He’s a wolf,’ said Charter.

‘Nuance,’ dismissed Linden. The difference was vast, but he was not about to admit it. ‘It’s just the three of us anyways. Don’t you think it would be nice to have a feminine touch in the house—even if I don’t get to be an uncle?’

‘You can’t have the wolf without the girl,’ Wye said brusquely, evidently frustrated. He ruffled his hair. Knowing how persistent Linden was, Wye made Nelumbella an offer: ‘You will have to contribute. I don’t want you lazing around. And if you try to kill Charter again, you will be forced to leave.’

Nelumbella hugged the giant. It was perfect—a far better idea than being stranded in the wilderness or in Tarsus with vicious females. She shivered, thinking of how it might be like to live with three sisters instead. Charter was not as pleasant to be around as she preferred, but the elf and giant were very kind. She certainly did not mind living with the two.

‘No!’ objected Charter.

‘Majority rules,’ said Linden. ‘We’re keeping her! Oh, this is so exciting! I promise I will take very good care of you. I once had a pet human. His name was Rumpert. My uncle gave him to me when I was a wee boy—said that he was abandoned. I raised him from when he was a little human pup until he was full-grown. Even though you’re already almost full-grown, I don’t mind. His pups’ puppies visit me from time to time too! One time—′

‘Humans are not pets,’ Wye said, cutting Linden off before he could tell the entire story about his human pet, Rumpert. ‘They’re friends.’

‘Friends who try to kill you,’ grumbled Charter.

‘What’s the difference?’ Linden asked. ‘You look after your friends, and you look after your pets. I look after you too, Charter. I could say that you are my pet.’

Nelumbella was baffled. Her uncle had said elves were wise. This elf had unique befuddling notions, but he certainly was as friendly as her uncle had claimed. She was excited about having a home with such variety.

‘Where is she going to sleep?’ asked Charter. ‘Have you thought this through? Are you ready for the responsibilities of another pet? I mean, you still have me!’

‘Yes, yes, I know exactly what I’m doing,’ Linden assured.

The elf was good on his word. With the aid of elf magic, Linden burrowed further upwards into the tree, situating her room directly above Charter’s. Linden also grew her furniture that was the perfect size, and Wye installed one of the quirky doors. Linden told her that the doors were designed to provide privacy, ease of use, and easy access in case of emergencies. Wye told her that the doors were designed as such because Linden was too weak to open larger doors.

From Wye, Nelumbella learned that Charter was an elf—just not entirely. She also learned that the forest had a place to rest. The brothers owned an inn on the other side of the forest, a good distance away from the gap between the Western Wall and the Eastern Mountains. With the information, Nelumbella reluctantly apologized to Charter, who was more forgiving than she anticipated. He was trying to help her. He had been raised right, for which Linden boastfully took credit.

Nelumbella did not have to devise an identity. Linden had taken the liberty of naming her. According to him, her name was Crumpette. She was his precious crumpet crumble cookie crumb. Wye and Charter did not follow Linden’s lead. Remembering the part of her name she had provided, they appropriately called her Nell.

Wanting his new pet to feel part of the family, Linden made Nelumbella an elf dress. He requested Nelumbella to unbind her feet because elves preferred to wear pointed curl tipped slippers, but she refused, knowing she might destroy them. The shoes Charter and Wye wore seemed much sturdier. To cover what Linden described to be unsightly footwear, he made her a floor length dress much longer than the average elf dress. The dress was a beautiful and comfortable, a combination Nelumbella did not know before. The fabric had been spun by silk worms who lived on their tree.

The brothers let her settle in for a few days. She was mentally and physically exhausted. Wye left her alone for the most part, and she liked to think that she and Charter had become friends. He was very kind and served as a translator for Dirus. She saw why Dirus took a liking to him. The wolf trailed him whenever Nelumbella was resting, or otherwise occupied.

When Linden was not working, he was by Nelumbella’s side, yapping away and telling her stories about his first pet, Rumpert. Nelumbella had to admit, that while Wye made the stories sound as if they were to be dreaded, the stories were exciting and full of adventurous mischief. He spoke to her so much that she became accustomed to his nonstop chatter. Charming and the girls in Tarsus were nothing in comparison.

As Wye had said, Nelumbella had to contribute. On her forth day, Linden took her to the inn they owned. Dirus had already been there many times, having followed Charter, and was currently there with him.

On the walk over, Linden and Nelumbella chatted about many topics. For Nelumbella, the walk was more like hobbling. Suffocated under the layers of constraining fabric, her feet were not properly healing. Linden did most of the talking, as he normally did, but he allowed spaces for Nelumbella to speak. Along the way, she asked him, ‘Why are there so many types of trees here?’

‘Because this is the Forest of Old Tarsus,’ answered Linden, picking the daisies that came their way.

‘There is an Old Tarsus?’ she questioned.

‘Of course there’s an Old Tarsus!’ exclaimed Linden. ‘Well, I guess this wasn’t always the Forest of Old Tarsus. You know how the non-humans were forced to leave Tarsus. Well, some of the Old Tarsusians were a bit stubborn, so the King and Queen ended their borders early to build the Western Wall. It wasn’t very pretty for some time after. We are very lucky still to have these imported plants. It feeds the visitors well. From what I hear, vegetations that were not native to Tarsus were uprooted and burned. I wouldn’t know for sure though. No one legally goes there anymore, especially non-humans.’

Nelumbella was not familiar with what Linden told her. She thought Tarsus had always been a kingdom of only humans.

‘We have everything!’ Linden continued, weaving them through the forest, ’At least almost everything. We have at least a dozen species from every country and hundreds of dozens from countries on the continent. We don’t have any talking plants though. They left with the witches. Oh, I know. Elves can sort of talk to plants, but it’s not the same as hearing a voice respond to you. One day I will befriend a witch, and she will plant talking plants for me. I will be their Uncle Linden too!′ He took a breath. ‘Witches don’t even like to be near Tarsus anymore. We get a witch now and then, but they never stay long enough to be my friend. It’s okay. I still have a few thousand years ahead of me. I am sure there will be another upheaval that will bring witches back. All will be well.’

‘I thought it was Charter’s forest,’ said Nelumbella.

’It’s our forest. By ours, I mean my, Wye’s, and Charter’s forest. Wye is an honorary elf,′ explained Linden, leading them into the clearing where their inn was located. ‘I suppose it’s more Charter’s forest. He has been here his entire life, so the animals do have a bias for him. I remember my first forest. It’s North East from here, a little ways from the Land of Giants and Loti. It was a very nice forest, but it only had yellow and blue plants. It’s so much more colourful here.’

In awe of their inn, Nelumbella paused. The inn reminded her of the tree house her uncle had built for her when she was a little girl. House like structures circled several large trees, giving the inn a village like exterior. The external architecture was for travellers to recognize it as a building. Elves did not come to their forest as often as before, and other kinds did not normally burrow into trees.

‘Speaking of animals and forests, where are all the animals?’ asked Nelumbella. She barely saw a critter during her time in the forest.

‘It depends on the time of day and where you are. We’re very busy, so the animals decided to help us. They take shifts, so parts of the forest can be quite empty at times,’ Linden explained, tugging Nelumbella along by the sleeve to the main entrance. He opened the door. ‘We take care of them, and they take care of us. It’s natural instinct. See for yourself.’

Linden let her explore the inn on her own. Nelumbella saw the animals she thought had been missing. She saw that they cooked for the guest and cleaned the quarters. Appropriately, the menu was vegetarian. Nelumbella thought how elves were able to communicate with animals was wonderful.

The inn bustled with people of all kinds, and they each dressed uniquely. The guests were primarily male, but a few spritely women were present. Nelumbella explored the common space and the areas where only the brothers, the animals, and she were permitted, familiarizing herself with the place. When she went into a back room past the kitchen, she saw Charter cuddling on the floor with Dirus and a group of rabbits. Dirus greeted her with licks, and Charter smiled. She had learned from observation that he was very affectionate.

Turning away from the sweet scene, leaving Dirus with Charter, Nelumbella crashed into a fortress-like body. ‘Welcome to the Lemon Wafer Cookie Inn,’ greeted Wye.

Nelumbella looked at him questioningly.

‘Mother named it,’ said Wye, in a monotone voice. ’Where do you think Linden gets his naming talents from, Crumpette?′

‘I thought the names were from his homeland,’ Nelumbella said. To her knowledge, Wye and Linden were from different regions.

‘He wanted to name our brother after a pastry. No culture does that,’ said Wye, shaking his head. ‘Charter was a pastry until he turned five. Father had to convince Linden otherwise. Mother wasn’t fond of his pastry name either. Unlike Linden, she was reasonable enough to give her children normal names.’

Wye took her to the dining area and taught her the basics of waitressing. The job was straightforward enough. All she had to do was take orders and make sure that the people received what they wanted. Wye gave her plenty of advice, and he told her that he would be with her the entire day. He needed to trust that she was able before he left her on her own. When he deemed her ready to start her trial, he pointed at the bottom of her dress and said, ‘I hope your feet become sore. Taking off those cursed things will make the experience more pleasant.’

How diabolical, Nelumbella thought. She was being set up, but she was determined to prevail. Revealing her feet to customers, who were possibly from Tarsus, was not an option. She had been able to dance with Charming for hours in her deadly shoes. Waitressing was nothing in comparison.

As she worked, Nelumbella felt uneasy. She looked to Wye, who was stood behind the bar, for his reassurance, but she became more fearful throughout the day. Her task was easy, but citizens of Tarsus were there. Walking back and forth, she overheard the words of the few Tarsusians present. They were conversing about her. They had dubbed her the Ogre Princess, a vicious ugly monster bent on taken over the lands. They said that true love’s first kiss—a notion Nelumbella had already given up on—could not even save her. Sometimes, the men laughed, and discussed ways to slay her. Nelumbella prayed they were joking.

They spoke of how King Talus and Queen Navi were to be the last rulers of Tarsus. The people did not want a monster as their ruler. They loved their King and Queen, but their respect for the monarchy was waning. They wanted normal rulers. They were a normal country of humans. Different was not welcomed. How a thing could lead Tarsus? For Old Tarsus, the men saw no issue with having a monster princess, but Tarsus was no longer that. They questioned how Tarsus, a peaceful nation, could have a violent leader. From what they had heard, the princess had brutally injured many.

Nelumbella worried for her parents. She needed to show her people that she was normal. If she had small feet, she knew the problems would vanish. Her parents and her people would be happier.

A horned man with blue skin, dressed in a manner that they did in the East, joined the conversation. What he said perked her interest: ‘If she is not truly a monster, she should find a powerful witch. We had the Good Witch for many years, and nothing like that ever happened in Loti. Unfortunately, she’s been long gone.’

Nelumbella did not know why she had not considered magic before. She remembered the numerous stories her uncle told her about the Good Witch. She was a woman who did all that she could for her people, but the Good Witch had disappeared according to her uncle. Dejected, Nelumbella did not know who could help her.

A human male, dressed in a way she had never seen before, pitched in. ‘She should go west. We have a very powerful Queen in Kmeria. Perhaps she can turn the monster into a human,’ he laughed. ‘A little magic could be what Tarsus needs. A capable witch can make a beauty out of the ugliest and find a goddess within a beast.’

To search out magic was far better than playing house with the three brothers, Nelumbella reasoned. A witch in Kmeria could help her, and she had always wanted to travel. The forest was not safe for her anyways. There were too many people from Tarsus, and she feared how long she had before she was hunted. She did not want to think about what could happen if someone discovered her identity. A bounty was probably on her head. She was certain her parents would not allow such a thing, but she knew from the conversations that there were people who wanted her dead.

That evening, Nelumbella feigned sickness. She left with Dirus, back to the house in the tree, to say goodbye to what she had hoped would be her new home. She took nothing but the clothes she wore, not wanting to take more from the brothers than she already had. She would miss them. She wished her people were as kind and understanding as they were.

When she entered the foyer to leave for Kmeria, Charter stood before her, obstructing the exit. ‘Nell, stop,’ he said. ‘You thought Dirus wouldn’t say something to me?’

Nelumbella ignored his words and tried to walk past him, but he caught her by the waist. ‘Let me go,’ she said, trying to wiggle out of his hold.

‘No,’ he said firmly. ‘You’ve proved yourself to be incapable on your own.’

Nelumbella huffed and stopped squirming. She took note of the body that was holding her. He was the ideal height to dance with, even if she wore her diamond shoes. ‘I can take care of myself,’ she defended. ‘I know how to start a fire, I know how to—’

‘It doesn’t matter what you know how to do,’ he said. ‘You move like a cripple.’ His hold on her loosened.

‘I have to go,’ she said. Taking advantage of his lax grasp, she moved for the door.

Effortlessly, he stilled her again. ‘No, you don’t,’ he insisted.

‘Yes, I do. I need to be fixed,’ she asserted, grunting as she pushed his arm to no avail.

Charter shook his head. Dirus had told him about her feet and what she thought of them. ‘Nothing is wrong with you. You’re just a bit dense in the head.’

‘If someone out there can make me normal then I am going to get fixed,’ she said.

He stared at her, and she ceased her struggles. He knew all too well about how it was like to have large feet, having grown up with an unbalanced and unusual build due to his heritage; but he saw no issue with being disproportioned. ‘It’s not safe, Nell. You might get hurt.’

‘Then come with me,’ she blurted impulsively. Her eyes dodged downwards, avoiding his. Someone with his abilities could help her. Elves always knew where they were going. Animals guided them.

Charter’s posture stiffened, causing her to feel more constricted. He reasoned with himself that she was Linden’s pet, and Linden would not like it if he did not help his pet. To add, Wye might scold him for not aiding a damsel in distress. Giants were supposed to be heroic. Embarking on quests was typical for their kind. The elf in him was also overly helpful. In that moment, Charter begrudged his instinct. He swept her off her feet and into his arms.

‘What do you think you are doing?’ she screamed into his ears, which were slightly longer and pointier than the average human’s was. He cringed.

‘If I’m coming with you, I’m not letting you slow me down,’ he said. ‘I know tortoises who move faster than you. Besides, this might change your mind.’ She continued to yell at him as he carried her up the stairs. Not wanting her to damage his sensitive hearing, he flipped her onto his shoulder so that she hung over his back. She cursed him, but he ignored her. ‘With the state your feet are in, you are a nuisance for travel.’ He shouldered his bathroom door open and sat her on the edge of the bathtub.

‘Oh, let me go, Charter,’ Nelumbella cried, her hands shakily grabbing the fabric of her dress.

‘I can’t,’ he said ‘I’m doing what elves do. This is my forest, and I care for those within it—that includes you.’

Dirus followed them and sat down, waiting for Charter to fix Nelumbella’s silly feet.

Kneeling, Charter reached for Nelumbella’s feet, but as he did so, she kicked him in the chest, albeit much gentler than she had the people at the ball. He remained firm. ‘Do not touch me,’ she sniffled.

‘Hold still,’ he said, grabbing her left foot.

‘Stop!’ Her voice cracked, and she kicked him again, harder than before.

He grunted and rubbed the aching spot.

‘I’m sorry,’ she sobbed.

He took her foot in his hand. ‘Nell, stay still.’ Carefully, he removed the bandages. ‘The women who did this trained since childhood. You’re hurting yourself more than they were.’

‘I am hideous,’ she said, tears falling. He was the last person she wanted to see her feet.

‘You’re bleeding,’ he said. The bones were not in their appropriate positions either; her treatment had deformed them. ‘Lift your skirt a little and turn around. Allow me to wash your feet.’

Nelumbella did as requested. The warm water felt marvellous, and he definitely had the nimble hands of an elf. He pressed out her feet, and pushed her bones into place. Her feet hurt as her joints popped into place, but with her bones realigned, she hurt much less than before.

Nelumbella wanted to soak her feet forever, but he drained the tub when he was done. He dried her clean feet, but the skin was still broken. He rotated her away from the tub and took out a roll of bandages from the drawer beneath the sink. He wrapped her feet loosely, bandages serving as a means of protection, rather than a means for constriction.

‘Much better,’ he said.

She groaned. ’I cannot believe you touched my feet.′

‘Your feet are not so bad,’ he said. ‘Have you seen Wye’s feet?’

She shook her head.

’The feet of a giant are much worst,′ he chuckled. ‘Yours are refreshing in comparison. When you are healed, I am sure they will be as lovely as the rest of you.’

Her cheeks flushed. What he thought did not matter when it weighed against the opinion of Tarsus.

‘One more thing,’ said Charter, taking out a pair of scissors from the drawer. ‘I don’t want you tripping over you skirt. Don’t worry. I won’t take it above the knee. It wouldn’t be proper for a lady.’

‘How much did you tell him, Dirus?’ she asked her patiently waiting wolf.

‘We talk about you a quite a bit,’ Charter admitted as he raised the hem of her skirt.

When he finished, Nelumbella leaned on him, and he helped her up. She felt better, but she realized how much time was wasted. ‘We better get going before Linden and Wye return.’

‘You still want to go,’ he said, baffled. He did not understand why she wanted to shrink her feet. From his perspective, although not as nice as Linden’s, her feet were not bad. ‘Where exactly is it that you want to go?’

‘Kmeria,’ she informed him.

Travellers did not go there often, but the place was safe from what he had heard. Many of the passing guests had told him that mutts were not bothered there. The Kmeri were mostly human, but they had a variety of races. Their Queen was questionable, but she kept to herself.

Charter decided to leave with her. He was sure that with a little more time, he could convince her that her feet were fine, and she would return with him to their tree. When she realized how nonsensical she was being, she would integrate into their family, just as Linden wanted.

Nelumbella, Charter, and Dirus left the burrow. On their way out of the Forest of Old Tarsus, they spotted Linden twirling a buttercup and skipping towards them. If not for the condition of Nelumbella’s feet, Charter sensed that she would run. He held her hand in an attempt to keep her from being rash and further damaging her feet.

‘Oh, good, you two are going on a date!’ chirped Linden. ‘I remember when Mother first met Father. I was so worried about what sort of dates giants went on that I didn’t let them go on their own! I sat between them as they watched the sunset. It was so romantic. I don’t know why Mother kept apologizing to Father during the date. Father said that I’m an absolute delight. You’ll let me join, wont you? It’s only right. I must chaperone my two pets!’

As Linden yapped, trailing off into his own little world, Charter lifted Nelumbella onto Dirus, who slowly backed away from the perky elf. ‘I’m sorry, Linny,’ said Charter. ‘We’re not going on a date. We’re going on a little trip, just the two of us, but as friends. If this were a date, I don’t think it would be appropriate for you to come along. At least, Wye says to never let you do such a thing.’

‘But we’re supposed to be together forever. That’s what Mother said,’ Linden pouted, twiddling his buttercup.

Charter knew Linden was not going to let them leave. Without another option, he yelled, ‘Run!’ He and Dirus dashed into the woods, taking Nelumbella with them.

‘Run where?’ Linden called after, bouncing along as he attempted to keep up for a short distance. ‘Wait! Don’t go!’ Linden cried, waving his buttercup. ‘I haven’t got a picture of you to put up on the bulletin board in the lost pets section! Don’t worry, Charter! I only need one for her!’ Linden’s lower lip quivered. They did not stop, not even to give him a picture for his bulletin board. Dropping his buttercup in the dirt, Linden gave up. He stood in the middle of the forest as a squirrel climbed up to the top of his head, comforting him. They were running away without him. A glowing mushroom in Linden’s head flicked on. They were running away together. ‘Does this mean I’m going to be an uncle?’

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