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The Snowdrops. Chapter 5

Chapter 5

The Ancient Orlind

Hugging Nicklis by the waist, Dina was looking around in amazement. They were riding the street of the city now, and the warm summer sun was shining upon them and heating Dina’s back. There were much more people here, than in the village where Eldar and Annuil lived, and these people were dressed much more elegantly and richly.

“Well, we’re here,” said Nicklis, stopping Net-net, jumping off and helping his friend down. “We can walk along the shoreline, and then stop by a coffeeshop – drink a cup of hot chocolate. What do you think?..”

“That works,” Dina noticed the long line of hitching posts, where some twenty horses were already standing. Nicklis tied Net-net to one of the vacant spaces and threw a silver coin into a jar which was nailed to the post. He untied his bag from the saddle, put it over the shoulder, took his friend by the hand, and the walked together down the busy street, somewhere along the four-story houses with red tile roofs, along the stores, coffeeshops, horses and carriages. Usual daily life was happening all around: everyone was hurrying to attend their business; the bakery heavenly smelled of bread and buns; groups of younger elves were gathering here and there, because the afternoon was approaching; the hooves were clattering on the bricks.

Dina could not believe what she saw, everything seemed to be coming from an old fairy tale. Elves, all beautiful and lean, wearing long coats and with their hair down on their shoulders were walking here and there – some were majestic and calm, others – agile and deft. Small shops on the first floors of the buildings, horses, and carriages – all of it was beautiful, but the most magnificent was still ahead.

When they walked down the street in silence, because Dina was looking around, they saw a view worthy of a description. The narrow and tight horizon of the city buildings before them suddenly expanded, giving way for the eyes to slide along the landscape, smoothed down by the distance, and across the calm lake, azure-blue, like the sea in the rays of the high standing sun, spreading across the whole horizon. The water glittered, and over it, like the wings of snow-white seagulls, soared the sails of the boats, singed with the sun. However, the street did not end where the water began. The tall and elegant like a thin arc rose a long bridge over the water, edged with the rows of streetlights. The bridge stretched, bending, and slipped down onto the far island, over which towered the white walls of Old Orlind, the heart of Orlind, the beginning of the history of the whole elvish country. Over the walls rose the towers, crowned with long flags, and over them, even higher, huge Orlind’ pines extended their branches.

Dina stopped in the middle of the road, short of breath. She squeezed her friend’s hand, and her heart was pounding quickly and happily, inspired by the beauty of this view.

“Welcome to Orlind,” said Nicklis, smiling. “Welcome to my homeland.”

Dina glanced at him. His eyes were shining.

“This… is more, than words can express,” noted she. Nicklis laughed genially.

“Let’s go to the water!” suggested he, and they happily strolled down the street, to the shoreline.

Dina ran to the railings, pulling her friend, and stopped, suffocating from excitement and looking far down, where the wall of the street, sheathed with granite, dropped. Transparent, blue water splashed, disturbed by the boats and the wind, and small silver fish glided in packs over the white stones and sand, which covered the bottom of the lake.

“So beautiful!” stated Dina. “So, so beautiful!”

Nicklis was smiling. Dina turned around, her eyes glittering, and her smile was forming small dimples on her cheeks.

“You’re unbelievably adorable when you smile like that,” said Nicklis.

“Thanks…” Dina blushed and lowered her gaze. They walked on by the shoreline, among the hurrying people, happy from the presence of each other and from the splendor of the world around them. Sometimes they would notice elves who were also taking walks along the lake, they were not running. A few humans passed by. They were different because of their stockiness and specific types of clothing, even though Dina noticed a human whose wrinkles and round ears were the only indications of his race. His outfit and his long hair, tied in a ponytail looked very elvish. Altogether, the elvish city was surprisingly diverse as far as the number of nationalities, populating it.

“Listen, how old is this city?” asked Dina, facing her friend.

“O-oh, several thousands years,” replied Nicklis proudly. “The year of its foundation is considered eleven forty-seven. Its first house was built there, on the island. At first a small fisherman’s village was located there, then it was surrounded by a palisade, then the strategical position of that island was taken into consideration and on its shores the ancestors of these citizens began building the fortress. It passed through several stages. The first one was wooden, but during one of the wars of our noble past it was burned down. The brick fortress also stood only for a dozen of hundreds of years, and then the white walls were made, and everyone especially liked that look. The next few times it was rebuilt in white stone – there’s a lot of it on the bottom of the lake. However, these specific walls are around two thousand seven hundred seventy-five or seventy-six years old.”

“Wow,” approved Dina. “Is there really no one in this city who would have seen its history from the beginning of days to today? You’re elves, you live long.”

“Well, however long elves can live,” Nicklis went into explaining. “Their generations still shift. Wars and diseases take away the lives of many, think of it, when you fight in battles in several hundreds of wars, the chances of getting killed rise pretty high. However, I have a relative, I think he is my great-uncle, who is almost seven thousand years old. I don’t see him often, he lives alone, and so do the elves of his age and older. Their world is in the past, they don’t want to accept the new one. Though, that great-uncle of mine is the commander-in-chief of the Orlind armies, so in case of a war he will have to come out of his solitude. Also in our family we have an even more ancient relative, lady Uillil Keteroe, the mother of my great-uncle. I don’t know how old she is, but she is one of the elves whose only parent was the Blue Bird. She woke up on the shores of the Great Starry Sea, in the Pure Hills, but I’ve never seen her in real life. After the death of her husband, lord Niriel the Copper, she went back to the Pure Hills, and we don’t know what happened to her.”

“All those numbers and dates sound so unreal,” noted Dina. “Especially the ages of your relatives…”

“Yeah, our family is not the most usual one,” Nicklis chuckled.

“So, all the elves “woke up” at some point in those lands and came here?”

“Sounds about right. The Great Starry Sea is a cold sea, not many know where its waters lie. However, the love for open water and the northern winds burns in our hearts since those old days. The elves wandered around the lands of Elvia for many-many centuries. My people, I mean the group of elves, mostly red-haired, who woke up about the same time and in the same place and were alike in faces and manners, gathered together to explore the lands of Elvia. In those dark days, because of inexperience and deceit they ended up surrendering to the evil will of Hekere – the greatest enemy of the Blue Bird – and because of that they were deprived of their wings. That’s why among the red-haired elves there’re almost no Winged ones…”

“There’re winged elves?” Dina interrupted her friend, staring at him.

“Oh yes,” Nicklis’s eyes sparkled mysteriously. “It’s just that the wings can be hidden in special hollows on the level of the shoulder blades. Elves rarely wear their wings open.”

“Unbelievable…” stated Dina.

“My people were freed from the influence of Hekere by the actions of my ancestor Niriel the Copper. However, the continuation of the history of the red-haired elves lies in the deeds of my grandfather, lord Neidol. The elves went through many wars with the powers of Hekere, who, in anger to their escape, tried to erase them from the face of the earth. He worked well, and by the end of the war there weren’t many red-haired families left, from the number of those who started on the journey. They’re few now as well. My grandfather Neidol, who was the leader of the red-haired elves at the time, led those who survived in the wars with Hekere to the territories of Orlind, which was starting to form then, and king Ehel ruled over it, but he did not pay much attention to the Orlind’s domain and its people. My honorable grandfather found it most important to inform him of that when his people settled down in Orlind and started to suffer levies and famine. It all ended with a palace coup, the murder of king Ehel and the taking of the throne by a different king, Neinihel. This one was the prudent relative of the previous king, but he did not rule long until he also started to rob people and wallow in money. Then my grandfather took care of changing this as well. That year the Winged Queen Nerl took over the throne of Orlind. Her father was Neinihel’s son, and her husband – a courtier. Sadly, her husband died during the palace coup, and her only son was lost. After less than a night after this change took place, my grandfather, his wife and three of his youngest daughters were killed in the cruelest way in front of my father. King Neinihel’s followers did not want to agree with the change of the government and decided to free the world from such revolutionary-spirited lord Neidol.”

“What a story,” said Dina. “Your ancestors really were reformers.”

“My grandfather wanted a good, healthy life in a free country, and he achieved it. At least for his children. I deeply admire him for his courage. My father never talks of him, but I would’ve wanted to know more of him than I can from the book of Orlind’s legends. Even my father’s brothers and sisters would not tell me anything of lord Neidol, and I understand why,” Nicklis sighed. “Am I talking too much?..”

“No! It’s all super interesting! You promised me history, and here’s the history! But now, what about the coffeeshop?” asked Dina, glancing around the number of houses on the other side of the read, the ground floors of which were occupied by coffeeshops and stores. “To which one of these did you want to take me?”

“Over there start squares, the docks for the boats and coffeeshops right on the shoreline. They’re small and open-air, they’re open only in summer, but it’s especially nice to sit there now, not as hot,” Nicklis lifted his head and stared at the sun, squinting. “It’ll be very nice there.”

“Listen, does your skin get sunburns in summer?” inquired Dina, examining his face which had the color of ivory, sprinkled with bright freckles.

“It does,” Nicklis chuckled. “It’s okay now, it’ll be July soon, I already got somewhat tan. It was a pain for me to live in the kingdom of Taere, where we went for a few years, to help my mom get rid of her cough. They don’t have snow in winters, and in summers it’s so hot that even the elves of Taere get burnt, and their skin is much darker than ours. I got sunburnt the first day we were there, my face, my back and shoulders – the skin was peeling off everywhere. We went swimming in the sea and I carelessly spent a whole day wearing only shorts. So, I had to pay the price. It was horrible.”

“Yeah,” sighed Dina. “It’s just, your skin has such a light color, that’s why I asked.”

“Yes,” Nicklis rubbed his check with two fingers. “It’s all because of red hair.”

“Well, yes,” agreed Dina. “And I find it quite nice.”

Nicklis smiled delightedly.

“Well, I think we should stop by to get hot chocolate a little later, when it’ll be cooler, now it would not be as appealing,” said he.

“Let’s go down here,” Dina pointed to a staircase, which led down to the water, where a small square was located, and a few pines and birch trees created a cozy green shadow. “My head is already heated in this sun of yours!”

“Sure. There’s a bench there, we can sit down,” agreed Nicklis.

They walked down the steps and stopped there, in this little square, where the branches of a young pine and a few birch trees were mirrored in the clear water. Dina leaned on the railings and with a smile watched the small fish play in the water, in the shadow of the trees, right by the shore, which dropped down to the seemingly blue rocks of the lake’s bottom. Nicklis was standing next to her, holding her hand.

“You think it’s still a dream?” asked he with his eyes squinted, looking at the glorious island glittering in the sunshine.

“I don’t know,” confessed Dina. “It’s all so beautiful and amazing, and I don’t really trust my own eyes…”

“It’s all here… or we’re both dreaming,” Nicklis glanced at her. “But, honestly, I’m not against such a beautiful dream…”

Dina did not take her eyes off the water, but her burning ears gave away her feelings.

“I’m holding your hand, remember?” continued Nicklis, embarrassed because she did not support the conversation. “I feel you…”

“That’s true,” Dina squeezed his hand harder. “I feel you too… I feel a lot right now… I wanted to ask you about all this, can I?”

Nicklis lifted his eyebrows in surprise:

“I’m listening.”

“You see, there’s something strange happening to me, it never took place before, it’s such an unexplainable feeling… From that very day when you jumped to the river to save Nastya, something woke up in me, something incomprehensible. It’s like I’m knowing what you feel, you know? It was especially strong when you were hurt, and then it suddenly changed, and I started to feel your joy too… and then, it hurts so much every time I let go of your hand, every time we need to part, and when you’re away I feel so lonely and afraid… but I still feel you, even when you’re afar… It’s so strange…” Dina was blushing in embracement; she lifted her eyes. Nicklis was thoughtful, smiling uncertainly.

“I know why it is so,” said he finally.

“Will you tell me?”

“I will,” Nicklis glanced around, bent down, and picked up a clover leaf, which had been growing at the roots of the pine. “Look here. You see, it’s alive. Can I have your hand?”

Dina stretched out her hand, mesmerized, watching him put the clover onto her palm. The leaf was cool and so light, that its touch was barely noticeable.

“Feel its life. Close your eyes, understand it,” Nicklis covered her eyes with his hand. Dina lowered her eyelids. At the same moment here senses became sharper, she felt the clover on her hand, but she could feel Nicklis’s fingers, touching her eyelids much better.

“Everything in this world is alive,” explained Nicklis quietly. “The sun shines, it warms the ground and the rocks, the grass and the trees, the animals and us as well. It gives us its energy; it gives life and happiness. Life is in everything surrounding us. Do you feel the clover?”

Dina nodded. Green forests rose in her mind’s eye, where in the deep shadow flittered small yellow light bugs; grass, dotted with drops of iridescent dew; gigantic Orlind’s pine with its large warm bark that looked like human skin; then villages, cities, multitudes of living creatures, which breathed, moved, lived their lives in this huge incredible world. On her palm lay a clover leaf, and she already knew what it looked like: small, with three parts, bright green, slightly transparent in the sunlight…

“The clover is alive, you’re alive, and I’m alive too,” Nicklis covered her hands with his own. “And every living creature capable of love is intertwined with the threads of this magical feeling, Dinka. The plants love the sun, we love the plants. We eat the plants, we grow them. We love them, they love us. Feel how it’s all bound together, how the powers of Good and Evil move together, the powers of Love and Hatred…”

Dina was feeling. She was feeling so much that she thought her heart was unable to bear the understanding of all this, and her head – unable to comprehend. She felt the movement of the Forces unknown to her, powerful, fearful. She felt the bonds of everything living, and Nicklis’s stories about the life of this city, about the life of his family twined with this bondage. Past, present, future, so many felt this before her, so many feel it now. Oh, how giant and how magnificent was the world! The interweaving of all living creatures created one mysterious web of connections, of invisible threads. They were transparent, but strong enough to hold it all together. If one of those connections was torn apart, horrible pain hit both ends. And every such parting fed the power of Evil, the power of Hatred. Dina knew they could destroy anyone in their way.

And then, realizing all this around her, Dina started to seek what she herself was bound to. And the strongest bound let her to all her family and… to Nicklis. She opened her eyes. He was standing right in front of her, his eyes were shining. He set his feeling free, and Dina understood that that same feeling was burning in her own heart.

“Why is it so?..” whispered she, even though she knew the answer. “Why, Nick?..”

“Because, Dinka… because I love you,” Nicklis pulled her slightly closer. “Din, ni laere nin…

With a soft movement lifting her face up with his warm hand, he kissed her with tenderness Dina thought he was incapable of. She froze, her eyes were wide open. Right in front of her she saw the freckled eyelids, the red lowered eyelashes, and the slightly lifted furry triangular eyebrows. Her body was pierced with the unexplainable fiery but pleasant warmth, and she also closed her eyes and surrendered to such wonderful, inconceivable, but such important moment in her life.

When Nicklis let her go, she could barely breath, she was filled with so many emotions that she almost fell. Nicklis silently invited her to sit down, and they settled on the bench next to the pine tree. For a long while Dina did not take her gaze away from the slowly moving surface of the lake, then a thought touched her conscious. She turned around, growing pale, and in fear stared at Nicklis.

“But… Nick, this’s all magical, and I’m ready to answer to your feelings, but… but you’re an elf,” said she. “And I’m just a mortal…”

Nicklis glanced at her with a smile.

“Don’t worry about me,” replied he. “Don’t worry now. We’ll deal with it later.”

“Okay…” Dina lowered her head onto his shoulder, and everything in her heart was trembling and fluttering from happiness, everything was so uplifted and good, she wanted to sing or fly.

“Do all those in love experience this?” inquired she. “Or is it another one of your elvish peculiarities?”

“I don’t think humans have it. And even I have never felt anything like this, until I saw you,” said Nicklis quietly. “I didn’t really believe that such understanding of one another was possible. Mom and father taught us that we would know real love right away, would feel it right away, but I always considered those things just words… but apparently, it’s not just words. I’ve always felt the powers of life and the connections of this whole world, but I didn’t believe in the bondage of love…”

“Then why do I feel the same thing?” asked Dina.

“Because, when I came to your world, I brought those feelings with me. I waited for you to respond to them, to feel them too, and you understood me… Maybe, you never would’ve known about all this, if you would’ve fallen in love with another human,” explained Nicklis. Dina looked at him with anxiety.

“You said you’ve always felt everything happening in this world?”

“Yes, every elf from young age learns to understand this world. That is the reason why we love and care about our nature. Who is an elf without his woods and lakes, whose life is clear to him like his own? Without them he is destroyed by despair.” Nicklis shook his head.

“Why don’t humans feel it?..” wondered Dina aloud.

“Humans see the world differently, understand it differently. For some part our insight is our curse. It is hard to live having the map of the feelings of the whole world in your head!” Nicklis smiled sadly. “Though, I opened this for you, and I never would’ve done it, if I wasn’t sure, you would understand me and love it all as well…”

“But what’s now?.. I’m still a human…” Dina repeated her worrying question.

“That is our fate,” Nicklis shrugged. “There’s however, a solution. It will fully depend on you. I have no right to intervene in your decision… We’re now bound together, and every couple of elves in this forest is also bound by those threads of love. The further, the stronger the bond, the harder it is to tear it apart, the harder to live through this parting. Even for us it would’ve been hard to break up… However, there’s one way out of this, and that is what depends on you. You have a chance to choose: to remain human or to become part of the elvish race…”

Dina was frightened. She felt unmeasurable loneliness. How has she deserved this? How did she end up here, why is she facing these choices?.. How is she to live on? What is he going to say? A few moments, and he will put before her an even more serious and grand choice… Her heart was pounding fast and painful, she wanted to cry. She knew she will not be able to live without him, but in her world he will not be able to live. Everything around them seemed so beautiful and wonderful, and Dina was looking into Nicklis’s youthful face, into his worried green eyes and his slightly lifted eyebrows.

“Nick… You mean…” breathed she, unable to take her eyes off him.

“Yes, Din, I would like to ask you,” Nicklis was afraid to blink, Dina felt that he was tense, like a tight string, she noticed his fingers quivering over her hand. “Din, I know this will sound like absolute madness… Din, would you like to share with me all the joys and storms of this life?”

Dina kept staring into his eyes, she was almost out of breath. He said it. And what?.. And how?.. Will she wake up or is this all real? What will happened if she says “no”?.. What will happen if she says “yes”?… If no, there will be nothing left, her life will fall into a pit, into the black valleys of a long-lost memory, nothing will be left… There will be no life…

“N-nick, it really is madness,” breathed Dina, shaking, like a leaf in the wind. “But… b-but I love you… and I would take that madness…”

Nicklis, pale from anxiety, jumped off the bench, like the spring of his straightened out.

“Dinka!” yelled he, pulling his friend by the hands. “Dinka! Dinka! Oh, how much I love you, Dinka!”
He burst out laughing, as if he truly went crazy. Dina was weeping. The tears rolled down her cheeks, and through them she was also laughing. She had never been happier in her life. Something incredible and incomprehensible was happening to her, but she was ready to believe in that incomprehensibility.

“Dinka, I almost died! You kill me and you bring me back to life! Dinka! Dinka, my darling! Mine! My Dinka!” Nicklis grabbed her by the waist and lifted her up, breathless from laughter, and whirled around the square. Dina, yelping in surprise, clinged to his sleeves. Finally, he lowered her to the ground and pressed her to his chest.

“Gosh…” sobbed Dina. “My God… what is happening to me?”

“You’re crying?!” Nicklis was terrified.

“Yes!” Dina hid her face in his coat, grabbed it with her hands. “But I’m so happy… so happy… I’ve never been this happy…”

“Din, there’re two of us,” Nicklis tried to look into her blushing face, which was wet from tears. “We’re together! Nothing is scary to us, no one can touch us! Dinka, we’re together!”

“I’m afraid… I’m ready to marry you, I’m ready to become an elf-maiden to keep our love for the centuries to come, but… but, Nick, what if they wouldn’t let me?.. What if it’s impossible?.. What if I can’t live in this world, it all sounds too well! I’m so frightened, it feels like all this is just a dream, and I will soon wake up and you won’t be there!.. Nick, tell me that it’s not a dream, that I’m alive, that this is all for real!” Dina lifted her head. Her bangs were disheveled, and the hairs started to stick to her wet cheeks.

“Here I am,” Nicklis squeezed her hands. “I’m alive. I’m breathing. I’m holding your hands. We’re both here. You can touch the pine, the water, we’re both here. You’ve learned to believe. You believed me that day when I told you I’m an elf, remember? You believed, and if you didn’t then, none of this would’ve happened. But it happened because you believe. And I believe too, because I love you! I lived through these ninety-five years without you just so that we could be together here now! The queen did not want to give me the permission to come back to you, because she was afraid our love was not deep enough, and it will just torture both of us and make many unnecessary issues between our worlds, but she was mistaken, and after all these years, after all these trials we’re together! Our love is truly so great, that you were given the choice to become part of the elvish race, only the queen is able to allow that and to perform that. Such changing of race happened only once in our history, and it is possible only when love is so strong that it cannot be stopped by time, it has to exist for the world to exist! Dinka, isn’t that beautiful? It’s so amazing, oh, how happy I am, there’s no one in this world better than you, no one, and we proved it! Both of us! And we’re both alive. And life is wonderful!”

Dina was smiling through her tears, looking into his face, shining with happiness.

“But it’s so strange… Oh, gosh… I hope they’ll let me marry an elf…” whispered she, lowering her gaze again and pressing her cheek to her friend’s warm chest.

“I’ll talk to your dad as soon as we get back,” promised Nicklis. “And I assure you, it’ll all be alright.”

“Oh, gosh, oh gosh… what about your parents?” Dina stared at her friend with her wet eyes once again.

“They have nothing against you,” said Nicklis. “I told them a lot about you in my letters, but they were slightly worried and asked me to bring you to visit before I’d do the proposal… But when they saw you all their uncertainties vanished, trust me. They like you a lot. Father asked you to leave before me because he wanted to give me his permission for the continuation of our relationship, but you didn’t know anything about my plans, so he left it between us. You’re to his liking, and mom simply loves you.”

Dina blushed even more and hid her face again.

“Tell me, Nick,” whispered she. “Will it always be so painful to let go of your hand?..”

“No. When our marriage will be confirmed before the face of the Blue Bird this pain will disappear. There will be a deep understanding of each other’s feelings, like now, but sharper,” explained Nicklis. “Such little action as parting of hands will not be able to affect us. That’s the law.”

“Oh, that’s great…”

“I agree,” Nicklis carefully took her hands and, pressing his chin to her head, started to sing something calm and happy. He slowly rocked to the rhythm of the song, and Dina felt her soul calm down. The worry, which bothered Nicklis since the very hour of their arrival was solved and gone, and nothing burdened him. Only the worry about her parents slightly disturbed Dina’s peace, but she was so warm and so comfortable under the protection of her friend’s strong arms, that all her anxiety stepped away. His soft velvet voice covered Dina from head to toe, and she drowned in these sounds with delight.

‘Shall we go?” suggested Nicklis, interrupting his song. “Somewhere? I want you to get to know Orlind better, to see all its beauties!”

“Let’s,” agreed Dina quietly, even though at that moment she did not care about where she was, she only needed to feel Nicklis’s warm hand. She knew all the truth about his relationship with her and felt such spacious and unbelievable love for him and for all that lived that she did not need anything else.

They walked through the square, ran up the light staircase to the street, brightly lit with the sunlight, and moved on by the shoreline, almost skipping in happiness. The sun was glittering on the transparent water, light wind from the lake touched Dina’s bangs, and she surrendered herself fully to this moment, washed away with gladness and submerged to this inebriating feeling. She knew Nicklis was not less winged with life and love, and now he became playful like a boy, so excited and so lively. He showed Dina houses of some famous people, the theaters, the art gallery, where she could exhibit her work, if she will be working and studying in Orlind, some beautiful coffeeshops and fashion houses. They walked around the streets of the city until evening, and at the end of the day Dina was so tired that she was almost falling off her feet. Nicklis, on the other hand, was tireless, his steps were still silent, and all his movements gave away the power of the feeling, which was filling him.

Finally, around six o’clock in the afternoon, when the sun slightly lowered from the sky and started to give golden shine to the rare summer clouds, and covered the sky with peach paint, the two stopped at a small coffeeshop on the shore of the lake. There was almost nobody there as there were no places to sit. There were only five tables and three of them were already occupied. Nicklis nodded towards a table by the railings, from where they could view the water, and Dina obediently slipped there, sat down with her back to the sun, and took her backpack off the shoulders.

“This’s magical,” stated she. “Thank you for the walk.”

“I’m glad you liked it,” replied Nicklis. “Would you be able to live here?”

“With you I can live anywhere,” Dina smiled.

“I think I can do so too,” said Nicklis, and his foot softly touched hers under the table, so they could part their hands.

“Not all elves in Orlind know the common language, so I can order for the both of us, if you don’t mind,” added he, opening the menu.

“Oder for me something you think I would like,” stated Dina, squinting slyly.

“Well, alright, you want to test me,” Nicklis was too keen for her idea to confuse him even slightly. “You gave me chocolate once and then you always have it in your drawer in the desk, where you have notebooks, so, you probably like chocolate, dark chocolate, to be precise. I wonder what you think of cheesecake and souffle… Once you said you like blueberries… chocolate and blueberries…”

Nicklis was talking to himself, cunningly squinting, and glancing at his friend from the upheld menu with his glittering green eyes in the halo of his red eyelashes. Dina was smiling with a slightly embarrassed and surprised smile and was waiting for him to come to a conclusion. He ordered in elvish, and she could not understand almost anything, but when they each received a cup of hot chocolate and a glass of something that looked like blueberry tiramisu, Dina was so surprised and excited by Nicklis’s attentiveness that all she could do was glance at him with a defeated look. She could not have thought of a better dessert.

“Din, I have something for you,” Nicklis leaned over the tabletop, resting his body on his arms. “On the occasion of our engagement.”

Dina was looking into his transparent, clear green eyes with a playfully brave smile. Nicklis pulled one of his hands out and placed on the table in front of her a small green velvet box. Dina gasped, she knew perfectly well the meaning of such boxes, and her heart pounded quickly. So, they also have this tradition… Her fingers swiftly opened the lid and a small golden ring in the shape of two intertwined branches, beautifully inlaid with green chrysolites, shone in the light of the warm evening sun. Dina carefully took it off its little pillow and admiringly brought it close to her face to examine it better. Nicklis was mindfully watching her, and the same green sparks were glittering in his eyes as were in the chrysolites.

“It’s fabulous,” said Dina, touching the ring with her fingers. “Plainly amazing…”

She offered the ring to Nicklis, and he lifted his eyebrows in surprise and horror, but Dina elegantly gave him her hand, and he understood what she wanted of him. With a gentle movement he put the ring on her finger.

“Thank you,” whispered Dina.

“I researched how to do proposals in your world, and I found the thing about the rings. We also have this tradition, but we use the same ring at the wedding. We make two of them right away, and only at the wedding the groom receives his ring. Yours will stay with you since the day of our engagement. I don’t know why it’s this way,” said Nicklis.

Dina was looking him in the face, stroking her ring, and then she leaned forward and softly kissed him. She could not show her happiness and her thankfulness in full in any other way, and Nicklis understood her. Dina recoiled, smiling, and sighed. Nicklis’s ears were blushing in delight. He took his cup and said:

“Thank you, Dinka, thank you for coming into my life.”

“Thank you,” replied Dina quietly.

* * *

They stayed at the coffeeshop for a while. It was around six in the afternoon, and the sky grew pink, but the sun was still high. In summer in Orlind it almost never sat, it lowered all the way to the horizon and then rose again, shining upon another day. Dina was not surprised by this strangeness, because in her world she lived in the northern latitude, and in summers the nights were very similar to these. The number of people on the streets grew, and the bustling of the daily life quietened. Everyone was coming out for a walk once the working day was done and once one could enjoy the cool splendor of the summer evening. Even though it was rather light, the coffeeshops and small stores turned on the lamps and garlands of lanterns.

The transparent water of the lake mirrored the peach skies, the white walls and the towers of the Island, the red and blue flags on them. The boats, goldened by the sun, were cutting with their sharp bows the smooth surface of the water, and it seemed impossible that such huge lake may be so calm. Dina gazed at the gorgeous mirror and mused that it looked like a giant beast in a peaceful sleep by the feet of its master. She felt the deceptiveness of the quietness of the water, and she liked feeling it. Nicklis was gently holding her hand, and Dina thought herself to be the happiest creature in all these worlds. Her heart pounded gladly and quickly.

Net-net, who started to chew on the wood from boredom, was waiting for them by the hitching posts. Once she felt her master’s hand on her shoulder, she lifted her head and neighed happily. Nicklis gave her a piece of sugar, untied her, and nimbly hopped into the saddle. Then he helped Dina climb up behind himself. She twined her arms around his waist to avoid falling, and even though her position was very uncomfortable, she felt very good. Nicklis touched the reins, and they flew through the forest, which was enveloped in the light foggy twilight, and the trunks of the pines looked like bronze statues, glowing in the light of the evening sun.

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