Thursday, May 19, 2016

Into the Land of the Elves: Meetings and Magic

The Diary of Miss Aidyn Hall, reforming traitor
August 31
5:36 PM

Meetings and Magic

       Katie anxiously fiddled with the wire-wrapped tag around her neck as I guided her through the thick brush and shrubbery that I had faced on my first visit to the Greenwood, which felt so much longer than only a month and a half ago. The events of the summer seemed to span a year or even longer, and it was the kind of summer meant for stories. I honestly cannot imagine life without Apple Blossom, the Greenwood, and the Jadeites anymore.
       We paused frequently so that I could help Hannah and Janelle past low-hanging vines, out of thickets that snagged at their pants and shoes, and over branches resting in our way. At one point, Janelle fell into my back, and I thought that she had tripped over another branch. When I whirled around to catch her, her eyes were wide with terror and she said, “I just saw this huge black spider, with long, spindly legs. Which spider was that, Aidyn?” She spoke rapidly, as she was apt to do when something scared her. I had warned them about the spiders, but that made no difference to Janelle. Nothing in this world would make Janelle okay with spiders. “I don't know every spider in the Greenwood, Janelle,” I said, patting her on the shoulder, “but the really big ones are usually Elder Guardians. In that case, you'd better be on your best behavior, kid. The guardians command respect, especially the elders.”
       “Why do they have to be spiders?” lamented Janelle, clearly troubled over the idea of having to show respect to a spider.
       “Because most people react to them the same way that you do,” I said with a cheeky grin.
       “This is the part with the spiders,” Katie warned as we neared the collection of webs that served as the gates to the Greenwood. “Janelle, you'd better get behind me and Hannah...oh! There's that really big one that Aidyn calls the Grand Elder Guardian. My goodness, it startled me!”
       “He startled you,” I corrected her. I peered through the threads of the web, which was lowered as I had expected it to be. Apple Blossom had requested for the guardians to allow my friends through, stating that any friends of mine were also friends of hers, but even requests from the princess had their limits—one human was more than enough. “You all wait right here,” I told my friends. “Don't touch anything, don't move, and if you see a spider, for heaven's sake, just leave it alone!”
       “I see a great many spiders,” Janelle remarked anxiously. I got down on my hands and knees and crawled under the Grand Elder Guardian's web. “I'm sorry about this,” I said, nodding to the spider once I got on my feet. “I'm just looking for the princess, that's all. Apple Blossom! We're here, Apple Blossom! We're all waiting for you!”
       “You're crazy, Aidyn!” said Hannah, but I ignored her and continued to call out. Soon I was answered by the sound of swift little footsteps making their way towards us. Apple Blossom emerged, her grass-green ponytails flying out wildly behind her. I heard an audible gasp from both Hannah and Janelle as they laid eyes on her for the first time. She was so very human, and yet distinctly not. She flashed her iconic sunshine smile at the three of them, and then, bouncing on her toes, she cried, “Katie! Hello, Katie! Welcome back! I missed you!”
       “You did?” Katie asked in astonishment.
       “I did!” Apple Blossom chirped. “I really, really did! And oh, these must be your, I've forgotten their names!” She turned to me, plainly embarrassed to have forgotten, and asked, “What are their names again?”
       “Hannah and Janelle,” I told her, knowing they were too stunned to answer for themselves. They looked less like they had seen an elf and more like they had seen a ghost; they were rigid, with wide eyes and tight lips, and Janelle was even paler than she had been when she found the spiders. “Come on, you two,” I taunted them, “you aren't actually scared of this little fox, are you?”
       “,” Hannah choked out, “not scared, just...” But she wouldn't say anything beyond that. Slowly, as if in a dream, she knelt down to Apple Blossom's level. “Stay on your side of the web,” I warned her as Apple Blossom scampered over to her. “I'm real,” she assured them, extending a hand that held a rounded, polished deep green jade stone—a tag. Hannah accepted the tag and turned it over in her hand, before holding it out in front of her eyes as if to make sure it was actually there. “What...what is this for?” she stammered.
       “If any humans come around here,” Apple Blossom explained, “my mother, the queen, likes to make sure to keep track of them. So she has them tagged, and then we know just how many humans have come by, and we know to keep an eye out for them. If any of them come back, bearing a tag, then we know that they have been here before. So far, eight humans—including the two of you—have come around the Greenwood, but Aidyn was the first to ever make it past the Grand Elder Guardian upon her return.”
       “Thanks to you,” I told her.
       “And that would make you the second, third, and fourth!” she said merrily, passing Janelle her tag. “They say 'seven' and 'eight' in tree elven,” she told them when they squinted their eyes at the strange carved lines.
       “Where are the taggers?” I asked, though I was glad that they hadn't shown up. “I called them off,” Apple Blossom answered. “I wanted to see your friends before anybody else got a chance to!”
       Hannah and Janelle didn't know what to say. They looked at the tags, at eachother, at me, at Apple Blossom, and at the massive web that kept them from taking a step further. Finally Katie asked, “May we go in?”
       “You may,” Apple Blossom said politely, “but I promised that I wouldn't bring you past the bridge today. But that's just fine, you'll get to see my village and my castle some other time.”        She took a few steps forward, so that she stood directly under the arrangement of webs spun by the guardians. “Oh, guardians of the Greenwood,” she said with the reverence of a priest, “I, the Princess of the Greenwood, would appreciate it very much if you would allow my new friends to come into our lands. I know that they are human, and that it is not our custom to allow humans into the Greenwood, but I also know that not every human means any harm—in fact, I have yet to meet any that do. These are friends of Aidyn, and you know her well. I know that Aidyn would never bring anyone in who meant to cause trouble or harm to the Greenwood. As the princess, it is my duty to protect the Greenwood and its people, so if I thought these humans meant any harm, I would not be asking for them to be allowed in at all. Do you trust me? Do you trust Aidyn?”
       That girl never, ever ceases to amaze me. She can go from silly little girl to solemn future queen to reverent monk and back again with zero effort. I looked at my friends, who were all as stunned as I was to see a ten-year-old girl carry on like that. But when the Grand Elder Guardian actually began to disassemble his web, adjusting and twisting and pulling at the threads in order to comply with the princess' request, it was like watching something out of a movie, only it was happening right before our eyes! Thread by thread, the web fell away and left a reasonably-sized space for my friends to duck their heads through. The other guardians followed, dismantling their own webs to begin reassembling them in higher positions on the branches. Janelle squeaked and hid her face in her hands, and I pitied her. She cared more about the movement of spindly spider legs than the real magic that was unfolding right in front of her.
       “Come on in,” Apple Blossom said cordially, as the Grand Elder Guardian worked at reassembling his web. I took Hannah and Janelle by the hand and the five of us started off together. “But how did you do it?” Hannah asked breathlessly. “How did you do it? They...spiders don't just do that!”
       “They do if their princess asks them to,” Apple Blossom said with a bit of a smug grin. I had a feeling there was just a little bit more to it than that; surely, the jade stone around her neck had something to do with it.
       On the way to the bridge, the haze that my friends had fallen into faded away. They were full of the same kind of questions that I had asked on my first day: “Are you really an elf? “What is a Jadeite?” “What is the Greenwood?” “What are the jade essences?” “What happened to the humans that came by before Aidyn?” “Why don't your people like humans?” Apple Blossom answered each one with the patience of a proper princess, but this time around she had answers that she had not had for me—such as the Jadeites' connection to humans, and how it contributed to her own inherent humanity. A couple of times, the girls had to pause to take it all in. “I feel like I'm in a fairy tale,” Hannah said at one point, and Janelle asked, “Are you sure I'm not dreaming?”
       “Oh, no,” Apple Blossom had told them, “I'm very real.”
       At the bridge, we found that Apple Blossom had set up a picnic for us, and that a row of spears lined up as a makeshift gate along the Bell's Rush dared us to go any further into the Greenwood. It felt so wrong to see the Greenwood blocked off like that, and I couldn't help but feel resentful towards my friends for inadvertently causing it. Apple Blossom, however, carried on as if the spears were just another part of the scenery. She motioned for us to take our seats. I squealed when I spotted the bowl of deep red cranberry pudding sitting in the middle of the blanket. “Oh my goodness, Apple Blossom! Did Raindrop's mother make this again?”
       “She did,” Apple Blossom said, beaming. “I asked her for it.” I helped myself to two big spoonfuls and passed the rest around to my friends, who eyed it skeptically. “You have got to try this pudding!” I told them. “You will never have tasted anything better in your life!” They inspected the rest of the food: venison, pork loaf, fresh berries, buttery yellow peaches, and the light, fluffy bread that the Jadeites call “silk bread.” I wished that I had thought to bring grapes. These were foods that I had eaten and learned to appreciate at our lunches and dinners throughout the summer, but of course my friends chose the familiar fruits and dainty cuts of the pork. I caught Hannah prodding at her pudding like a skeptical three-year-old, and I sighed.
       “Do you have any more questions for me?” Apple Blossom asked. “Aidyn and Katie had a lot of questions when we met.”
       “Well...” Janelle looked up at the leaves on the trees as if searching for a question up there. Finally, she said, “Why did you want us to come here?”
       Apple Blossom gave her a solemn smile. “I've told you that the first Jadeite was the child of a human and a tree elf,” she said in her most queenly way. “That means that there has been an alliance before, and so there can be one again.”
       “That's why we're here,” I told my friends. I stopped myself from saying, “So don't mess it up.”
       Apple Blossom had brought a few of her toys with her—a little wooden ball, three long, colorful painted sticks, and four shiny wooden rings—and after we ate she coaxed us into playing a few games. Katie and I were perfectly willing to play catch, roll rings down the little bumps and slopes along the Bell's Rush, kick off our shoes to wade, and chase eachother through the woods like squirrels. But Hannah and Janelle had returned to their original state of hazy bewilderment. They kept to themselves, wandering around and regarding everything with the confusion of Alice after a tumble down the rabbit hole. Apple Blossom scurried over to them and asked, “Don't you want to play with us?”
       “Not right now,” Hannah replied somberly.
       “Maybe later on,” Janelle tacked on.
       “Just give them a few moments, Apple Blossom,” I said in response to her disappointment. “You know that this is very new to them.”
       But it took more than just a few moments. When Apple Blossom realized that they weren't going to open up anytime today, she took a seat between the two of them and took their hands. “I'm sorry you don't want to play with us,” she said in a voice that would have melted the heart of anybody who had one. “What would you like to do, then?”
       “I'd like to know, once and for all, if this is real or if this is all just a dream or an elaborate prank,” Janelle said. I could have slapped her! She had watched spiders disassemble and reassemble their webs at the command of a little girl, for heaven's sake! How much more proof did she need? If Apple Blossom hadn't been right there, I would've gone off on her. But then an idea struck me. “Hey, Apple Blossom,” I said, “why don't you show them some of your magic?”
       “Oh, yes!” Katie piped up. “I'd like to see some magic!” I grinned at Hannah and Janelle, whose faces still reminded me of two stupid does who had been wandering around on the highway for too long. “Go ahead, Apple Blossom,” I coaxed her.
       “What should I do?” she asked, looking at Katie and I for approval.
       “Hmm...” I tapped my finger against my chin in thought. Any sort of magic would be enough to blow their minds, so I settled for something simple. I broke off a few boughs of a nearby shrub of inkberry and handed them to her. “Make these change colors,” I said, “like you did to those cranberry greens down at the bog! Can you do that?”
       “I can!” Apple Blossom said merrily. Immediately, she began sorting the boughs aside, mentally deeming certain ones as the most worthy of color-changing. She gathered a small handful and ran her fingers over them in the same way she had done for the cranberry greens. It was such simple magic with no real purpose behind it other than amusement, and yet it was enough to have my friends completely captivated. Katie watched with her mouth wide open and eyes like an owl's, and Hannah and Janelle's eyes widened as each leaf turned from forest green to pink, gold, red, blue, or purple in the girl's fingers. Apple Blossom was enjoying herself and didn't seem to notice just how much she had amazed her audience. She smiled contentedly as she worked each leaf, and when she finished she began bending them into colorful crowns.
       I turned to my friends and flashed them my smuggest grin. “How real is it now?” I asked.
        After a few moments, Janelle answered breathlessly, “ is real. And it's magic!”