The Snowdrops. Chapter 5
Wind of Change
In the morning Dina woke up with that placid and determined mood which happens when something new is about to happen. At breakfast Olga asked her:
“Are you going to come back on Monday morning?”
“No, in the evening of Sunday. I’ll stay there only for one night,” replied Dina, spreading butter on her toast.
“Okay. Do you know Nicklis’s parents?” inquired Olga.
“Yes, I’ve seen them, but it’s been a while,” said Dina. “They are very interesting, as far as I can recollect.”
“Well, I’m sure you will not get bored in their company,” Olga chuckled.
“Nicklis is a nice guy,” stated Igor, accidentally banging with his fork on the plate. His hands were often shaky in the mornings, and he clattered the dishes.
“Yeah,” agreed Dina, chewing.
“Don’t worry, I don’t doubt his honesty, but my duty requires me to make him give me the pledge. Tell him that it’s not because I don’t trust him, but because that’s how it’s done…”
“Dad, I think he understood it long ago,” Dina smiled.
“Well, okay, then I wish you luck,” said Igor, because Dina stood up to take her leave.
“Thank you,” Dina went upstairs.
She climbed into her favorite striped shirt and green breeches, tied the end of her braid with a white ribbon and considered with worry that her outfit would look crazy in the eyes of the elves. She highly doubted that women in Orlind were allowed to wear pants, but she could not find anything more fitting. In addition, she did not have the mood to wear a different type of clothing. Throwing her traveling backpack over the shoulder, Dina said goodbye to her family, for the fiftieth time promised to come back home, and slipped out to the street.
The morning was truly fresh, sparkly with the drops of the cool dew and overflown with the luxuriant sunshine, which promised a sultry day. Dina happily stomped down the steps with her old blue shoes and cheerfully walked to the gate, where Nicklis was awaiting her. He was dressed rather warmly for a human: in a green long-sleeved coat with a standing collar and embroidery on the chest, dark pants, and tall leather boots without a heel.
“Good morning!” exclaimed Dina, opening the gate.
“Ah, hello!” Nicklis turned around and threw his orange locks over the shoulders. He was smiling, but smiling somewhat unusually, almost festively, and was examining Dina with his eyes more fixedly than normally. At the same time, he looked weirdly embarrassedly happy, and a little worried.
“Is it… cold there?” inquired Dina cautiously, also feeling the anxiously quivering sensation of the thought of the journey.
“It should not be too cold, it’s summertime, like here,” said Nicklis. “If you think I’m dressed too warmly for such weather don’t worry, this’s a usual outfit for me and proper for an elf of my position in society. I must be dressed this way according to the etiquette.”
“A-ah, I see,” Dina smiled. “Is it okay, that I’m like this?.. In pants?”
“That’s alright, even though for an elf it might seem strange, probably… It’s fine,” Nicklis shook his head. “Shall we?”
“Yes, let’s go.”
In silence they crossed the road and through the gate penetrated the jungle of the garden by the old house, which Nicklis inhabited. It was shady there because of the thick canopy of branches. Behind the dilapidatedly darkening house among the black tree trunks, overgrown with moss, pastured a tall and beautiful red horse. Her long mane was braided with golden ribbons. Hearing the creak of the gate and the steps, she lifted he head, chewing on whatever small grass she managed to find, and looked with curiosity at her master.
“Well, Dinka is here now,” said Nicklis, stroking her cheek and untying the reins. “You’ll carry both of us. I think you can do it.”
“What’s her name?” asked Dina, walking closer and touching the warm wooly nose.
“Net-net,” replied Nicklis.
“What “net-net”?” Dina was confused.
“Her name is Net-net,” explained Nicklis.
“Oh,” Dina shook her head embarrassedly. “I got it now!..”
“There,” Nicklis tightened the girth. “I went broke, got myself a real saddle. It’s incredibly uncomfortable to ride on bare pants!..”
“I always thought elves ride without a saddle,” noted Dina.
“Elves who are older than seven hundred years ride without saddles, like my father,” explained Nicklis. “He taught me to do so as well, but it’s more comfortable with a saddle. Besides, it looks aesthetical.”
“Maybe,” agreed Dina.
“Well… I hope we will not be too heavy of a load for her,” Nicklis skeptically glanced at his fried. “Forgive me, but how much do you weight?”
“Not more than sixty kilograms,” Dina smiled.
“Hm,” sighed Nicklis thinking. “Perfect. Not more than myself. That’s good.”
“You… cannot weight the same as I do,” noted Dina in confusion.
“I’m an elf,” Nicklis shrug. After watching him lightly and nimbly hop into the saddle, Dina decided that he truly cannot be heavier than she was herself. Apparently, elvish bodies were lightened in some other way than just thinness.
“Here, grab the stirrup,” Nicklis pulled his knee up. “And the saddle and get up behind me.”
Dina decidedly clung to the saddle with both hands, caught the stirrup with her foot and climbed up.
“Great, but you’ll have to hold on to me,” Nicklis faced her. “Give back my stirrup, please.”
“Sure,” Dina leaned forward and hugged him by the waist.
“Hold on tight, this time we don’t need to use our own strength, we have the horse to cross the protective border. Most importantly, don’t fall off and get lost between the realms, so be careful,” Nicklis touched the reins. “Ready?”
“Ready,” Dina squeezed his coat with her hands and snuggled her cheek to his warm back.
“Great,” Nicklis carefully spurred Net-net, and she started to trot around the garden in circles, slowly gaining speed. Moving on to gallopade, she suddenly turned, rushed across the garden and soared into the air to jump over the fence right through the thick bushes of lilac. Dina shut her eyes tight, ready to burst into the mishmash of the branches and leaves, when a gust of powerful freezing wind blew her in the face, something like lightning flashed before her eyes and then bright light covered her from head to toe. With a frozen heart, with all her strength, Dina squeezed Nicklis’s coat, pressing her face between his shoulder blades. She thought they were still flying, Net-net had not touched the ground yet, and Dina felt unbearably cold and scared. Something flashed dazzlingly again, and Dina was washed over with fresh cool air, filled with the deep, penetrating to the bottom of the soul and overfilling the lungs to their limits, fragrance of the pine woods. She did not dare open her eyes yet, she was breathing in yearningly the familiar stunning air and the thick smell of the pines.
“It’s alright,” said Nicklis’s voice, and Dina felt velvet vibration of his voice going through her cheek. “We’re in Orlind.”
Dina opened her eyes. Her breath was taken away, and she froze, almost insane, gazing at the huge Orlind’s pines, aspiring up to the heights of the far blue sky. It was morning, and the low sun was beaming through the woods with its yellowish rays. Huge, painted with the growths of the lichen boulders, which came out of the soil here and there, gave the landscape an even greater fantasticness. Dina slowly released her fingers, and calmly hugged Nicklis, no longer clinging to him. Her heart was pounding fast, her chest was hurting from the freshness of the clean morning air, and her head was spinning from of the emotions which overwhelmed her.
Net-net was running through the woods quickly and lightly. The speed interfered with breathing and made the eyes water. Pressing to her friend’s back and gazing at the beautiful world around her, Dina once again felt that magical power of life, the force of friendship and love. Everything around her was filled with that power, she herself was filled with it. But what was it? What was stopping her from fully enjoying this feeling? Dina listened to Nicklis’s quietly beating heart and felt that he was overtaken by a strange uneasiness, filled with worried trembling and agonizing fear and at the same time with the desire to execute whatever was causing that anxiety.
Dina did not dare ask him, in any case, she was not even fully sure she actually felt what she felt, and it is not just her imagination. This worry could have been caused by the upcoming meeting with his parents… Dina was not sure how close Nicklis was with his family. She lowered her head onto his shoulder and sighed happily, hoping to cheer him up and maybe lessen his anxiety, whatever was the cause of it. She silently watched the woods fly by.
* * *
They were riding for a while. From time to time the woods had grown thinner and transformed into swamps, but in other places they had become thicker and overgrown. Then Dina would notice a narrow path which Nicklis followed, and she would get surprised at how he managed to find it on the deserted areas of swamps. A village flashed by, and soon Dina started to notice bridges high in the crowns of the trees. The web of those bridges entangled almost the whole Orlind, though in some places they disappeared. There were especially many bridges, small platforms, and even houses on the trees near the village which they passed.
Finally, the path led them out of the depth of the woods onto a wider road, paved with white stone. It went on through the green haze under the vaults of the emerald tunnel, which was formed by the branches of the mighty pines. Net-net’s hooves started to clatter over the stone, and Dina glanced along the road with excitement, guessing where it will take them. She wanted to ride this road further and further, to learn what it was hiding in its alluring haze, but, after riding for about ten minutes, Net-net turned, and the stomping of her hooves grew smoother once again because of the softness of the forest path. Here Nicklis pulled on the reins and made her slow down.
“We’ll be there in ten minutes,” said he, turning to Dina. “The village where we are going is called “Velte”, it’s located on the shores of a lake. My parents live there. My own house is pretty far away from here, an hour of riding, by the border. It’s also on a lake, but that one is smaller and all of it belongs to me.”
“O-oh,” approved Dina. “So, the village is simply called “The Lake”?”
“Yeah,” Nicklis smiled. “See, you’re already guessing the meanings of the words!”
“Pf!” snorted Dina.
They became silent again.
After a few minutes they crossed a small river, which was lively splattering among the boulders. Its bottom was shiny from the scattering of colorful pebbles. And after another few moments the path led them to the wider road again, which led right into the village. In excitement Dina was examining the aerial, elegant houses, white summer houses, balconies, and terraces, which peeked out of the thick greenness of the bushes, flowers, and fruit trees here and there. The road led through the village and turned, disappearing among the houses and vegetation.
Short white fences, gates with arches over them, twined with ivy, and flowers, which shadowed the paths and fences and the names for which Dina did not know, white summer houses under the canopies of apple trees, cherries and tall pines, small platforms and stairs, encircling the tree trunks and leading to the platforms – it all had the unusual, mysterious atmosphere, the atmosphere of beautiful, unhurried life. Now it was midday, there were not many people on the streets, but Dina notices a few elves, doing their work, and a bunch of boys eight or nine years of age, with sticks in their hands. They were dressed in pants, tied up by the suspenders. The children were running around the street. They were small, perky, and tanned, with disheveled cut hair and burning eyes.
They noticed the horse and stepped aside, ran to the shoulder, and then, recognizing Nicklis, happily greeted him. They jabbered something in elvish, vying as if they all wanted to know something. By this time Net-net was walking slowly and it was easy to keep up with her. Dina could barely catch the familiar words in the children’s hasty speech. She could only understand that they were saying “house”, “who”, and “a horse”. It seemed like they were also telling about their game and the lake, but Dina was not sure of that.
“They’re wondering whom I brought with me,” said Nicklis to her.
“You know them?”
“Partially,” Nicklis shrugged. “I knew their older brothers.”
Nicklis turned back to the children and told them something, and they all started to gasp courteously, all at once became serious. After that they fell behind. After passing a few more houses, Nicklis stopped the horse.
“Well, we’re here,” said he, letting go of the reins. “Hop off.”
Dina carefully threw her leg over and jumped off to the ground, and Nicklis dismounted next to her. With an amazed eye Dina was examining the garden behind the white fence, along which was planted a row of flowering bushes similar to roses, but still different from real roses by the shape of their leaves and smaller flowers. In the depth of the garden, in the corner Dina noticed bushes of jasmine and a tall lacy summer house. Far behind it, to the right of it stood some other buildings which looked like stables.
Further to the left of the summer house, at the end of a path, laid out with light stones and cased with flowers, in the thick green shadow Dina saw a tall porch with a canopy, twined with ivy and garland of lights. Behind it hid the illusory house.
Dina stepped onto the path and walked forward, to the house. As soon as Nicklis led Net-net into the garden and closed the gate, clicking the lock, sonorous barking came from the farther buildings of the garden.
“Father has dogs,” explained Nicklis, walking Net-net to one of the trees and tying her there. “For hunting.”
“That’s… so cool,” noted Dina, who has still not recovered from all the impressions which she received entering Orlind. “Does he keep them outside?”
“Yes, because they’re big and for hunting,” said Nicklis seriously. “No one keeps a pack of greyhounds in the house.”
“Well, yes,” Dina recollected that to “have dogs” for elves means to have a whole flock.
“Let’s go,” Nicklis gave her his elbow, and she followed him on the path to the house.
Peering at the porch, Dina saw two figures come forth from the twilight of the canopy – one tall and straight, another smaller and lighter in character. By her feet twirled two small thin Italian greyhounds with huge eyes. They were soon ordered to sit and wait. Nicklis led his friend, and they walked onto the porch. With some timidness and at the same time curiosity Dina looked at this unusual couple. She remembered them from the time they came to school in her world, and even then, they amazed her with their youth and remarkable beauty. They had not changed since, but Dina could with certainty tell now that they looked much older than Nicklis. It was especially visible in the depth of their eyes.
“Welcome, Dina, bright sun is shining upon the day of our meeting, we are glad to greet you here. My name is Eldar, and this is my wife, Annuil,” uttered Eldar suddenly, and Dina bravely looked into his pale, calm and always a little sad face. It was a fascinating face. Its traits reminded of Nicklis’s traits, but it looked as if all the colors of it lost their vividness and faded in the sun. Obscure, but still visible freckles and long red eyelashes amazingly came together with the lightly silver shade if his straight, very long grey hair. Eldar made a step forward, bent over, took Dina by the hand with his large narrow palm with long thin fingers and kissed her in the wrist with his dry, cold lips. He did not lift his eyes at her.
Dina froze from this touch. She remembered this gesture, he did it the same way he did then, at school. As soon as this formality was done, Annuil let go of her husband’s elbow and flew forward like a very happy little moth, exclaiming:
“Dinochka, I’m so glad to see you here! I’m so glad you found time to come! You’re so beautiful now!”
She hugged Dina affectionately with her warm, soft arms. Annuil was a bit taller than her and possessed a very well-shaped, thin and elegant body, a small pretty face with large grayish-blue eyes, a small slightly pointed nose, and thin, but expressively bright lips.
“Oh… It’s nice to meet you,” said Dina, when she was released, and did a curtsy. “I’m also glad that… I finally found some time…”
“I hope you will enjoy it here!” Annuil smiled happily.
“I… like it a lot already,” noted Dina, not knowing what else to say.
Annuil laughed joyfully.
“Ah, you’re such cutie! I’m so glad!” exclaimed she. “I hope you’re okay with dogs?”
She pointed to the dogs, which were suspiciously examining the guests.
“I… like dogs,” said Dina smiling.
“Oh, that’s great! I was worried, Nicklis isn’t a big fan of them, I didn’t know how you feel,” Annuil sighed and looked at her son.
“I have nothing against your darlings,” said the latter, squinting in delight. “As long as they don’t bite my ankles.”
“Oh you,” Annuil came closer to him, took his head with her hands, and made him bend over. She softly kissed him in the forehead and quickly and ably fixed the collar of his coat.
“Well, didn’t I teach you how to iron the collars?..”
Nicklis chuckled in reply.
“Come on in! We’ll have lunch in half an hour!” said Annuil and fluttered into the door.
Her dogs stood up right away and jumped to sniff Dina’s shoes and bare ankles. After making sure she was not going to do them any harm, they stared at her with curiosity. Dina bent down and carefully petted one of them on the hard head, covered in very short fur.
“Why don’t you liked them?” inquired Dina, turning to Nicklis, who was waiting for her at the door.
“These… are fine,” said he, wincing. “After some experience with hunting dogs that I had in my youth I don’t trust dogs as a whole.”
“What happened?” Dina straightened, looking at him warm-heartedly.
“We… I was sixteen, probably, and Filnara and I used to play with our uncle’s pack of hunting hounds. He had like fifteen of them then… They were playing fetch, and Filnara was mad at me at the time, we managed to disagree about something again, and she made the whole pack attack me. At first, I thought I’d run away, climb up a tree or something of that sort, but that idea came to my mind too late, and I was caught. See?..” Nicklis glanced at his forearms. “All this was torn into pieces, because I was covering my neck with my arms.”
“Oh…” Dina stared at him with genuine horror in her eyes.
“Thankfully, my uncle saw what was happening soon enough and called them off. Now those bitemarks are healed and gone, but… the impression is left there forever, I’m not sure if I will ever be able to trust a dog again. We played with them, they were frolicking, I knew they would not hurt me, and then… they attacked as if they didn’t know me, it was very unpleasant. Besides… I was little,” Nicklis shook his head. “Now I probably would’ve been able to stop them, they would’ve listened, but then… I wasn’t as confident in that and tried to run, which was the worst decision I could’ve made.”
“Yeah… I’ve never been bitten by a dog,” noted Dina.
“Lucky… I don’t mind them, I just don’t trust them, that’s it,” said Nicklis, looking at the greyhounds, which ran into the house. “Shall we go in?”
“Yeah,” Dina walked before him into a small dark corridor. Nicklis closed the door with a beautiful stained-glass window on the level of his head.
There were a few lamps on the walls of the corridor which seemed to rarely be lit. A small bench stood by the wall, and next to it a small stand found its place, where, mostly women’s, boots, shoes and slippers of all sorts and colors were stored. Eldar’s elegant black boots for riding, shined with wax, leaned against the stand. Nicklis put his leather boots without heels next to them and stopped in an arched door into the living room, waiting for his friend. Dina carefully moved her shoes under the bench and followed him.
The living room, lit with warm sunshine, breaking through the tall and narrow windows with colorful glass, breathed with coziness of homely life. This was a house of a couple, whose children had long been grown and away from their parents’ nest, but the atmosphere of a family happiness froze here, as if it fell asleep in the ray of sunshine, waiting to be awaken by a child’s shout. Eldar, who seemed to not be interested in his guest all that much sat down in a large chair in front of the fireplace. Next to his chair was the smaller chair of his wife, as far as Dina could tell, by it stood a couch with gracefully bent legs made from black wood, upholstered with pretty, green brocade and beautifully embroidered. There were a few more chairs made in the same manner. The fireplace, which was on Dina’s right, as she entered the room, was decorated with ivy and green candles, placed on the mantel. Next to it, on the floor, lay a stack of firewood in a wood stand and a basket of wood ships and other materials for starting a fire. At the entrance of the living room Dina found a table with a pile of fashion magazines – according to what she could tell from seeing the covers, and a few letters in colorful envelopes, two – already open, the rest – with unbroken seals.
To the left of the entrance was a dark staircase, along which hung a few candle holders and paintings. Under the stairs, next to a closet, a small reading room was located, with a chair, a few bookshelves, and candles. The same shelves and stillages, packed with books of all forms and sizes, covered the whole back wall of the living room, where was another arched door to the dining room. There, like a cheerful, light and carefree butterfly, Annuil was flying, and her soft song was heard from there. The table in the dining room, not yet prepared for lunch, was covered with a long green tablecloth with dark embroidery and tassels on the edges. Across the tabletop stretched a white lacy runner, and by its sides were placed airy circles of napkins. Ash-grey dogs were sitting in the door and were watching their mistress from a distance.
“If you would like, I can take you around the house,” suggested Nicklis to a slightly lost Dina.
“Yes, that would’ve been nice,” agreed she, looking at him thankfully.
“You can leave your backpack here for now,” said Nicklis. “Let’s go, see the dining room and the kitchen, then we can go upstairs.”
Dina obediently placed her backpack in the chair closest to her and followed her friend, stepping on the soft carpet and then on the shiny planks of the wooden floor. The dining room impressed her to the bottom of her soul. The ceilings here were higher and the walls had a circular shape, and behind the table was a tall glass window, behind which a jungle of trees and plants was hovering over the room, growing in a greenhouse. The sunshine here, oozing through the thick leaves, became pale green in color and spilled over the dining room, lively shadowing the long table. With delight Dina glanced at a vase with flowers which stood in the middle of the runner over the tablecloth. It was surrounded by a few candles and branches of some tree.
Nicklis was standing in silence, with his crossed hands leaning over the back of a chair, while Dina, in a mute amazement, was looking around. Then he slowly and majestically, with true elvish grace, straightened out and silently walked to the greenhouse and opened the glass door.
“Your dad would’ve liked it here,” said Nicklis, turning to his friend and inviting her to come in. Dina walked in.
She stepped into the cool canopy of the trees, standing in the tubs. The wooden floor was covered with mats, and in the far end of the room, where one could see the whole view of the garden and the street, among blooming flowers and hanging curtains of ivy, stood a chair, a coffee table, covered in tubes of paint and different jars, and an easel.
“Mom paints here sometimes,” explained Nicklis, smiling.
“This is a magical place,” replied Dina. “How can one not paint in here?”
Nicklis shrugged, and some uncertainty and embarrassment slipped into his movement. Dina still felt like he was bothered by something, so she looked at him, caught the gaze of his green eyes, which possessed such expressive and bright color in these surroundings.
“Are you worried about something?” asked Dina so straight forward, that she herself got scared of it. In some surprise Nicklis blinked, then his surprise changed to that unexplainable joy in the depth of his eyes, which Dina already happened to see, but which she could not comprehend.
“It’s nothing serious, nothing,” said he, twisting his hand in the air.
“Your parents aren’t behaving the way they should?..”
“Oh, no,” Nicklis smiled uneasily. “No-no, it’s alright. I can’t tell you of it right now… later…”
“Okay,” Dina looked at him surprisedly and cautiously. Later?.. But if not the parents, then what can worry him on such a beautiful day?.. This thought made Dina scared and at the same time interested. How will it all end?..
“Let’s go. I think, mom is starting lunch already,” noted Nicklis. “And after that I want to take you around the city.”
“Where coffeeshops and history dwell?” Dina laughed.
“Yes, exactly,” Nicklis carefully touched her elbow, inviting her to follow him back to the dining room, and she unconsciously caught his palm, which made him sigh. Dina lifted her eyes. She knew it will give them both pain again, when they will be bound to part their hands, but she could not resist it.
Thus, hand in hand they walked into the kitchen. Annuil, with the sleeves of her beautiful floor-length light-blue dress fixed up, and in an apron, was flying around the house. On the warmed-up stove bubbled a big pot of soup, everything for baking was placed on shelves along the walls. With delight Dina inhaled the aroma of fish soup and cinnamon, and, smiling, examined the multitude of shelves, drawers, and hooks, which filled the space of the kitchen. The ceiling here was curtained with bunches of herbs, which also exuded the unusual, medical smell. In a separate cupboard, carefully set inside the wall under the window, stood the bottles with wine. Everything here was beautiful and neat. Measuring cups and spoons, colorful whisks, plates, bowls and other dishes made from clay with glazing gave the whole atmosphere of the kitchen and cooking a special style. Annuil, busy with lunch and her song, did not pay attention to the guests, and so Nicklis and Dina silently left her and through the living room returned to the stairs.
They walked to the second floor. The steps of the staircase were covered in dark carpet, and to Dina’s astonishment and excitement, she discovered that only one of them was a creaky one. In her own house it was impossible to walk down the stairs to get some water from the kitchen without waking somebody up. A plain corridor at the end of the staircase led to the door to the balcony, and its walls were decorated with candle holders, and the floor was covered with a carpet runner.
“Here’s the parent’s bedroom,” explained Nicklis in a low voice and, slyly looking back to the stair to make sure Eldar was busy with his newspaper, he silently opened the door. “Father doesn’t let anyone in here, and by the rules of the elvish etiquette it’s improper to look into the host’s bedrooms, but I’ll let you look, that’s okay on this occasion. I myself have rarely visited it. It’s his hideout, he guards it from strangers’ eyes.”
Dina, who remembered his stories of Eldar and who now saw and confirmed the weirdness of his behavior, cautiously glanced into the bedroom. By its look this bedroom reminded Dina of a cozy bird’s nest, twined using multitudes of carpets, furs and pillows. The floor from wall to wall was closed over with fur with long hairs and carpets of all the different styles. A tall bed, the linens of which fell all the way to the floor, was covered in pillows, most of which had tassels and thrum. It was obscured with plaids, and a long canopy partially hid its shape, surrounding this sleeping space with magnificent folds of the velvet curtain. All this, the canopy, the large curtains, the pillows, the furs, the carpets had a special appearance of an artificial shelter, a cozy hideout, as Nicklis called it.
Closing the door, he led his friend to the room across the corridor, where the doors were open. The room was thoroughly tidied up, all the things laid on certain places. With surprise Dina looked around and realized that she entered the nursery. However, this was a nursery where no one played for a long while – it was too clean. Two small desks stood by the wall on the right, and across from them on the floor lay a carpet, stood baskets with toys, a doll house, and a small soft couch. Two large windows in the far wall revealed the view to the greenhouse and the beautiful landscape of the forest lake, which peeked out from the patterned silhouettes of the tree branches.
With a smiled Dina examined children’s drawings hanging on the walls, four portraits, which were placed on the partition between the windows, came closer to the windows and sat down on the windowsill. It had flat pillows on it specifically for the purpose of sitting on them. Nicklis was compelled to place himself next to her, since they have not let go of each other’s hands yet.
“I grew up here,” said he quietly, smiling nostalgically. “We had school here and games. Our parents decided to leave the room as it is, they said, they’ll wait for the grandkids to come and play.”
“The lake is so beautiful,” noted Dina, looking through the window with an absent-minded expression on her face. Nicklis turned around and also gazed at the lake, which mysteriously glittered with its smooth surface among the trees. In some places they leaned all the way to the water, and in others tall stone banks with sloping sides took their place. Then the elf looked away, and Dina realized that he was gazing at her with unrest and at the same time with care.
“You are tired, aren’t you?” asked he, slightly pressing on her hand.
“Yes, there’s so much new,” Dina shook her head. “I’m simply shocked.”
“When I first got into your world, the first few days I was also shocked,” Nicklis sighed.
“But it’s so pretty here,” confessed Dina. “It’s so… to my liking. As if I’m in my own dream, as if I’m in heaven, as if I’m where I would’ve wanted to stay…”
Nicklis looked at her, and there was that joyful fire burning in his eyes, but he tried to hide it with all his might, afraid to show those feelings, and Dina understood him.
“Sometimes I think it’s impossible,” said she, glancing into his face seriously.
“So do I,” agreed Nicklis, slowly shaking his head. “I also think it’s just a beautiful dream…”
“Really?..” Dina looked straight into his face, he was so close to her, her fingers were squeezing his large and narrow warm hand. That unspoken anxiety still flickered in his eyes, this anxiety of waiting and impatience, but he did not say anything, did not do anything, and Dina felt disappointed once again. In the back of her mind, she understood that it was too early. The time to tell what he wanted to say has not come yet, they needed to wait, and this waiting burdened Dina even more.
She thought of what he could have looked like when he was small. There were portraits of him and of his sisters, made by Annuil. He was just a boy there, around seventeen or eighteen years there, not older, but Dina knew him at that age. Not exactly then, but very similar. Now he was much more mature compared to the image of the younger him, but what did he look like as a child? When did he become the person, he was now? Maybe he always was this way?.. This attentive and kind being?.. Dina kept looking into his worried freckled face and felt that she needed to break this silence.
“Well, should we go on?” suggested she worldly, pulling them both out of this state of frozen silence in front of each other.
“We should,” replied Nicklis mechanically and followed her hand, which pushed him off the windowsill. Soon he pulled himself together and this transient dreaminess passed.
They walked through the rooms of Nicklis’s sister, which still held some things, even though they all lived by themselves now. Then they peeked into Nicklis’s own room. There was almost nothing in it, except for a mattress on the floor. Over it lay a striped pillow and an orange velvet toy fox. A few boxes, a dresser and the curtains made up the rest of the setting of the room. The toy, though, seemed like it has lived through many years, since its velvet was rather worn out, and one of the paws apparently was torn off and replaced with a new one, which was darker.
“I brought all my stuff to my house,” explained Nicklis guiltily. “So, it’s very empty. I’ll sleep here tonight.”
He nodded towards the mattress. Dina smiled.
“Maybe, tomorrow, we can pass by my house, before we’ll return to your world,” suggested Nicklis timidly. “If you don’t mind, of course. Mom and father wanted to go and have lunch there tomorrow, because it’s a really nice location…”
“Sure, let’s do that, I don’t mind seeing how you live,” reassured him Dina. Nicklis’s face brightened.
“Well, then there’s nothing for us to do in here,” and they walked back into the corridor, where the aroma of lunch floated in the air. Nicklis opened the door to the balcony, and they came out into the fresh air.
It was a picturesque and a romantic place. A canopy over the balcony was decorated with lights, and the ivy twined around the railings. Colorful petunias blossomed in the lean hanged pots. In the far end of the balcony stood a coffee table and two elegant chairs. Dina walked to the railings and, leaning over them, let the weak wind from the lake wash over her face.
“I remember when we were little, we loved playing here,” said Nicklis, looking into the woods melancholically. “We weren’t always allowed here, because mom and father had coffee here in the mornings, and we couldn’t come while they did that. But this’s such a mysterious place, how can one not come out!.. Though, father was always rather strict about his rules, so if we weren’t allowed, we didn’t do it…”
“He’s rather cold,” noted Dina quietly. Nicklis glanced at her with worry.
“He… he’s just very sensitive,” said the elf, as if he was defending his father. “And he doesn’t want to show it. It’s just a mask, he doesn’t want others to know how vulnerable he is. Don’t judge him too harsh…”
Dina lifted her eyes.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t meant to…”
“No-no, it’s alright,” Nicklis smiled. “I just wanted to explain…”
“I got it,” Dina squeezed his hand encouragingly. Nicklis suddenly turned around, and after half a minute Eldar himself appeared on the balcony to call them to come and have lunch. All three of them went through the corridor and down the stairs. The living room was filled with the smell of cream soup and warm rye bread. Annuil was placing the last plates on the table, along with the cutlery, the number of which scared Dina. It came in all different shapes and sizes.
Eldar majestically and fluently walked through the dining room and silently placed himself at the head of the table, unfolded a white napkin over his lap. Annuil fluttered to her spot at his left hand, Nicklis sat down on his right, and Dina was asked to take the place next to him. They still had not separated their hands, and Dina was forefeeling the pain, because they could not have sat down without two free hands, it would have even looked weird. But suddenly her problem was solved: Nicklis softly touched her foot under the table, which allowed them to part their hands without the horrible pain. Before the meal, Eldar interlaced his fingers, bowed his head and quietly, with his deep voice said a prayer to the Blue Bird, blessing the food, and only after that everyone started eating.
“Where do I start?” whispered Dina to her friend, placing her hands over the cutlery.
“From the sides,” suggested Nicklis and took a deep oval spoon with a long heavy handle, which was meant for the soup. Dina followed his example and with delight scooped some of the pinkish-beige salmon soup with cream. Never in her life had she eaten anything this tasty! The expression of her bewildered face excited Annuil incredibly, and the elf-maiden smiled with a genuine, happy smile.
“Nicklis told us that you do art, Dina,” said she, taking a piece of warm fragrant bread from the basket which stood in the middle of the table over the serviette.
“Yes, I do,” Dina lowered her spoon.
“Have you brought any of your works with you?’ inquired Annuil.
“Yes, I have,” replied Dina sincerely.
“I am also fond of drawing,” confessed Annuil, beaming. “And as a colleague I would have been greatly pleased to see your works, if, of course, you do not mind it. And lord Eldar is a great connoisseur of art, I believe, he would be interested as well.”
“How amazing! I would love to show you my works,” said Dina. “Can I see yours as well?”
“Yes, of course! Some of my works are on our walls,” Annuil turned around and looked up at the wall. “That one I painted five years ago. It’s called “The August’ Sun”. I really like to paint landscapes. But honestly, I mostly make sketches and studies of my household. I did especially many of those when they were little.”
She funnily nodded towards Nicklis, who was concentrated on eating his soup and clearly did not hear her. He was deep into his thought, and Dina still felt his uneasiness.
“So interesting,” said she, examining “The August’ Sun” – a bright and lively painting made with oils.
“Eldar collects works of different modern artists. We also have ancient works. We even have some old miniature from a book of ballads from forty-sixth century! It’s passed on to the lovers of art in our family,” explained Annuil proudly.
“Which century?” asked Dina.
“Forty-sixth. It’s fifty-first right now,” noted Annuil. “What century is it in your world?”
“Twenty-first,” murmured Dina.
“Well, we have different timelines,” Annuil laughed. “Has Nicklis shown you my studio?”
“Yes, we visited it,” replied Dina.
“Sometimes I paint at night. It’s so nice to paint stars at night, from observation! You get the best look exactly when you paint them in the moon light. The painting almost looks alive!” Annuil continued talking lively. “And the paint submits to the power of the moon and goes onto the canvas better, than if you were to paint them during the day. The atmosphere in work is incredibly important, how is one to recreate an atmosphere which they have never felt?”
“Yes, surely,” agreed Dina. She never even thought of painting stars at night. Her vision was too bad to paint without light.
Annuil happily kept talking about painting, then moved on to drawing with a silver pencil. Dina could barely keep up with her and make short comments from time to time. Eldar listened to his wife in silence and seemed absolutely calm, just sometimes he would notice Dina’s confusion of communicating with such talkative and loving creature like Annuil, and the corners of his mouth would be touched by a kind understanding smile.
When they were done with the soup and the salad, which was arranged in the bowl so beautifully that it was hard to believe one could eat such work of art, Annuil brought cookies, tea in an elegant ceramic teapot, and round cups with saucers. She also added water to a glass pitcher on the table. The cups she placed on the table were deep green with white glaze on the inside. Everyone poured their own tea, and then Dina looked around to see how to hold the cup correctly. Nicklis enfolded his cup with the palm of his hand, like he always did. Eldar did the same. His large hand with sharp knuckles was covered in pale freckles and could hide the whole cup. Annuil on the other hand took the cup by the handle, gracefully keeping her little finger separated from the other.
Dina sighed quietly and decided not to worry on that subject. She took the cup by the holder, without separating anything. Thankfully, no one paid attention to it. Annuil continued the conversation, which consisted of her speeches about art, even though she managed to include everyone into the discussion and thus Dina did not have time to get bored. Finally, tea was gone. Dina stood up to take her dishes to the kitchen, and her heart was pierced with pain. She forgot… But now it was too late, their hands were parted, and both winced in pain. Dina also took her friend’s cup.
“Dinochka, don’t worry!” talked Annuil. “Where are you going?..”
Dina glanced at Nicklis, fearing she was not to help with the dishes, being the guest, but his look was showing complacent approval concerning her action, and she grew braver.
“It’s not hard for me to take two cups,” she smiled. “I see no problem in it.”
She walked into the kitchen and places the cups on the tabletop next to the sink.
“Ah, Dinochka, thank you,” Annuil looked her in the face gratefully with her beautiful, but strikingly deep blue eyes. The power of this look made Dina freeze in place. She found it so strange that in such unconcerned creature could hide such wisdom and such experience in life.
“You seem like a good girl to me,” said Annuil, clearly realizing she ensorcelled Dina and trying to be even warmer, even though it seemed impossible for her to be kinder and gentler. “I’ll bring some of my sketchbooks, and you would bring yours, would you?”
This question, asked with almost childish heartiness bewildered Dina even more, but she quickly gathered herself. She felt like she already fell in love with this small and affectionate woman, as if she was her own mother. She wanted to cuddle close to her, to trust her with all her hidden fears – Annuil’s whole character breathed with such friendly love.
“I would,” Dina smiled and went out of the kitchen into the living room, where she had left her backpack. She found her watercolor notebook and her regular sketchbook and, on return to the dining room, sat down next to her friend. Nicklis’s hand slipped down under the tablecloth and covered Dina’s hand. She smiled; her body was washed over with calming warmth. Satisfied by that, Nicklis took the notebook, which Dina had just placed on her napkin, and peeked into it, as if he wanted to check something. Dina could not see what he was checking, but by the look of his heartly squinted green eyes and the pleased smile she understood that he found what he was seeking.
Annuil, who ran upstairs, waved her bright skirt over the dark staircase and returned with a stack of old books in her hands. She placed them on the table in front of her and said:
“Dinochka, you should go first.”
Dina nodded. She was slightly worried about what these respectable elves will think of the works of her young imagination. She pushed her sketchbook to the middle of the table and opened it on the first page. This sketchbook consisted of many different sketches, mainly from observation, for example the branches of the apple tree, which had been put in a glass and had sprouted little roots; Igor in his thick glasses, with a pencil behind his large ear and a lock of fair hair; brushes in the light of the lamp… Finally, Dina flipped to the sketches she did at school, during the breaks. Those were mainly drawings of Nicklis, because his well-shaped and lean, muscular body excited Dina’s imagination, especially when she saw him among the rest of the students, who had not possessed such noble posture.
Annuil, who had been twittering, commenting on Dina’s drawings and praising her well-trained hand and the feeling of the shadows, stopped at those sketches and lifted her eyebrows in surprise.
“Oh, Golte Evere, what in the world are you wearing?” she lifted her head and cast such rebuking look at her son that Dina felt ashamed for him, even though she could barely hold back laughter.
“Forgive me, mom, I couldn’t have dressed differently. In their world all proper students wear that,” replied Nicklis, chuckling.
“Well, you look fabulous in that, but I think it’s unworthy of you,” stated Annuil.
“Mom, I did not have another choice,” Nicklis grew serious.
“Alright-alright,” Annuil sighed. “But the drawings are really great! Dinochka, you have such a lively style…”
Dina was bewildered about her style being lively. She could see the paint becoming almost alive, but just the style… Annuil was very interested in the little sketch Dina did because she liked the ray of sunlight which fell on Nicklis’s tiepin. The round faceted pin of emerald color glittered beautifully, and Dina could not have resisted drawing it.
Finally, they moved on to her watercolor notebook. Nicklis was smiling mysteriously while they were flipping through the pages, and Dina tried to listen to his feelings. What was he finding so amusing? The drawing of a little blue bird that Dina came up with one night, already laying in bed; the branches of the apple tree, which always inspired Dina, the portrait of Nicklis in his green plaid shirt. Annuil inhaled admiringly.
“Ah, Dinochka!” she touched the sheet of paper with her thin fingers with even oval fingernails. “You caught him so well… as if you poured your whole heart into this painting…”
“I think that’s how it was,” confessed Dina and glanced at her friend. Nicklis was smiling, squinting, and two dark spots of happy shadow lay under his eyes.
“You place shading very neatly,” said Eldra suddenly. His quiet but strong voice moved Dina’s heart.
“Thank you,” she murmured.
“You also catch the color palettes very beautifully, not everyone can do it that well,” continued Eldar, and Dina could not reply, she smiled shyly, pierced with the elf’s penetrating, deep voice.
Annuil’s sketchbooks looked very professional. There was not a single spot of white paper left in them, everything was covered in drawings. Dina was wondering how one was to sort out all this mess of lines and shades. Mostly those were drawings of her household, birds, dogs, flowers, and imaginary creatures. She loved the body shapes of all living creatures, so she drew them and their movements in eternal multitudes.
When they were done with looking through the art, Nicklis stood up and said:
“I promised Dina, I would take her around the city, to see the lake. We’ll be back by dinner.”
“Alright, we always have tea at five, if you would want to come back earlier,” noted Annuil, also standing up.
“Well, we’ll probably stop by one of the coffeeshops for tea,” Nicklis smiled.
“Ah, that is great,” Annuil started to stack her sketchbooks and her hands became shaky.
“Dina, allow us to have a moment of privacy,” said Eldar suddenly. “Would you, please, wait for Nicklis on the porch?”
Dina, slightly scared, glanced at Nicklis, and he sorely squeezed her hand.
“I’m sorry, it won’t be long,” said he, and Dina, freeing her hand from his fingers, shrinking from pain, quietly left the dining room. While she was tying her shoes and taking her backpack the house was silent, and all three elves were watching her from a distance. Then she walked outside and closed the door. One of Annuil’s dogs came with her to the porch and started to jump, trying to sniff on her hands. Dina lowered to her knees and petted the dog, started to scratch it behind the ear. She was about to weep from the anxiety that washed over her. Why did they ask her to leave?.. Has she done something wrong? Or was she behaving in some unacceptable way?.. Dina scratched the dog’s head desperately, and it rolled its eyes in delight. This anxiety was also caused by Nicklis’s worry ever since they arrived. How is she to understand all this? There was so much new, beautiful, and surprising, it was almost scary. She pushed her face into the dog’s short fur, looking right in front of her with her dry, wide-open eyes.
Suddenly the door opened, Dina turned around and stared at Nicklis. There was a smile on his lips, his eyes were shining, and his freckles became golden in the sunlight. He seemed absolutely happy now, even though a much more reduced anxiety remained deep in his heart – Dina could still feel it.
 The confusion here was caused by the different way Nicklis pronounced sound “e”, because of his elvish accent. In Russian “net” means “no”, and since Nicklis almost always said “no (net)” with a hard “e”, Dina could not tell the difference between his softer “e” in “no (net)” and harder “e” in “Net-net”.