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This is the eleventh chapter in Forest of Flames and the fourth in part two, Forest.

The Ones We Love

"Why are we always the ones who have to talk to the chief?" Iris asked. Together with Sedna and Shimmer she followed Jarilo through the settlement. "Someday it's gonna eb the guys' turn."

"We had no choice with Enki," Sedna reminded her. "And anyway, we are better suited for it than the others. If you don't happen to yell at the chief, that is."

"Won't happen again," Iris mumbled, having almost forgotten the incident. Thanks for the reminder.

"We're going up," Jarilo announced. "Make sure you don't fall off. I can't guarantee that the plants will help you."

He led them to a large, wooden platform that was attached to the top of a branch belonging to the giant trees. It protruded so far down that the platform touched the ground. On it stood a wiry moss-green Elm leaning against a pole, watching them curiously.

Jarilo walked towards him. "Hello, Abu."

"Jarilo! Long time no see." The man smiled at the girls, which was a welcome change to their last stay in a foreign tribe. "Since when do you care for other tribes without ripping off their heads? That's new."

"Maybe I'll do it later," Jarilo said, waiting for everyone to enter the platform. "At least one of them would deserve it. But first I will inform Damara about our visitors - will you take us up?"

"Of course." Abu went to a spot where a part of the branch, a smaller twig, protruded over the platform. He took this branch in both hands - and Iris almost lost her balance as the ground started to move.

In fact, it was the branch that moved and thus brought the whole platform slowly but surely upwards. A whirring noise made Iris aware of a kind of green ball she only now noticed at all. Inconspicuous until now, the creature ran over the platform with excited sounds.

It was a bird, Iris noticed with astonishment.

"Your companion?" Sedna suspected. She also watched the strange animal without visible wings, which was recognizable as a bird only by the long and pointed beak.

"Yep," Abu grinned. "His name is Kiwi. Not very creative, I know - his species is also called that." He laughed and watched the bird as it turned its rounds. "Kiwis cann't fly, so he's always so happy when we use the platform."

A bird that can't fly. Kind of sad, Iris thought, and noticed with amusement how Shimmer's eyes tried to follow the other animal as well.

"You are the first Forest Elm we meet with their companion," Sedna said. "In stark contrast to the other tribes we have been to."

"They don't have a reason to spend the whole day with us," Jarilo said indifferently. "We exist side by side, we aren't as dependent on each other as other tribes."

"Well, Kiwi really isn't right in the head sometimes," Abu remarked. "He does need me, I think."

Then the platform came to a halt; they had reached the treetops.

"See you on your way back!" Abu shouted as they left the platform. Jarilo walked ahead so determined that Iris could hardly stand still and look at the environment. But even at their fast pace, she was astonished at the completely natural leaf dome that covered this upper part of the settlement and dampened the sunlight. Here, too, the buildings consisted of branches that were still connected to the gigantic trees - as if they could be unraveled and they would just be normal branches. In fact, it were even twigs, because the branches - the really big branches - formed the roads and paths between the buildings. Now Iris understood Jarilo's warning from earlier: none of these paths had railings that would protect them from the fall. You had to hope that the plants would take pity and catch you.

This wasn't a problem for Iris, she had spent most of her life balancing on roofs and keeping her balance, no matter what extreme climbing she was doing. Sedna had a lot of trouble however, so Iris supported her as they walked.

Damara's palace was almost a forest in itself. This building was not only surrounded by flowers like Sirona's hut, but also a lot of colorful birds Iris had never seen before, and other animals on it and around it. Numerous branches, too narrow for paths, led to the building. Somewhere she heard rushing water.

"Our water pipes," Jarilo said, looking at the branches. "If anyone gets the idea to start a fire."

Not so dumb, Iris thought. Now she saw all the branches around her with quite different eyes.

Two guards posted at the entrance let Jarilo and the others pass without a word, even if they eyed them suspiciously.

The first thing Iris noticed was that the palace had no roof. Under a clear, open sky, both Elmen and their companions and other animals met.

Maybe this isn't a palace. But the guards let her doubt. So she was just glad to finally be in a place where she did not feel like being crushed by the power of a chief.

As if Jarilo could read her mind, he casually pointed to a rather remote part of the building. "Over there are the prison cells. Not very cozy - just so you don't get any stupid ideas."

"Thanks a lot." As if they were the ones who might attack the tribe! "So where is Damara?"

Jarilo kept his reply to himself and led them to a rather shady part of the palace. There, on a very comfortable-looking chair, a woman relaxed, her branch-antlers adorned with flower strands. Her skin was even darker than Jarilo's and her markings were not as white as most Elmen's, but a lighter green than the rest of her skin. And she was beautiful.

But Shimmer kept the most distance to her, and Iris saw why: the animal at her feet was a huge cat of prey, with the same almost black fur and brighter spots on it. Iris had always hated cats - that one of them had destroyed Shimmer's toe was just another reason.

"Your Highness," Jarilo said, bowing more humbly than Iris would ever have expected of him. She and Sedna also bowed slightly when the woman opened her eyes and looked at them. "Jarilo," she finally said, amused. "You know 'Damara' is enough."

She should tell that to our chief. Caelus couldn't be praised enough.

"Of course," Jarilo answered quickly. "I bring intruders."

"Guests," Damara corrected him. "Whoever makes it to this place is always a guest."

Iris and Sedna exchanged a relieved look. At last they had found a chief who was perfectly fine - except for the cat. Hopefully.

"Who are you?" Damara asked. Her eyes sparkled with curiosity. "Tell me everything."

"Everything?" Iris repeated. That was easier than imagined!

Damara nodded, and Iris began to tell. Of her encounter with Geb, of the Ore Tribe, of Sabazios and the Shadows, of the Fire Tribe, and of why they had come here ultimately. "And that is why," she finished, "we hope that you allow Nergal to be helped by your healers."

"Well, that really was everything," Sedna muttered, but sounded impressed by Iris's ability to get things right on point so that only the really important things were mentioned.

"Fascinating," Damara said. "Have you ever thought about writing this down? It would make a good story, really."

"Maybe there'll b ballads about us," Iris joked. There were more than enough about Caelus, at least.

"Why not? I would read them." Jarilo cleared his throat, steering her back to the actual subject. "Right. Your 'friend'."

That's accurate.

"The thing is," she continued. "I do not want to deny that our healers are outstanding in dealing with magic. But our magic is not stronger or weaker than any other tribe's. Fuocith is just as strong as all our forest magic, and thanks to our history she is closer to the light's magig than we'll ever be. I'm sure your friend is aware of that."

Jarilo agreed without hesitation. "He will never take you to Fuocith," he said. "He only used you to get into the heart of the forest so that we can heal him and he can destroy us all."

That suited Nergal, no doubt. And yet she was sure that he believed the Forest Tribe would be the fastest way to lose his Shadow side. If Fuocith could help him, he would have preferred her over this place long ago. Right?

"Could he do that?" Sedna asked instead. "Burn the entire forest by himself?"

"Of course not," Damara assured her. "But he could cause considerable damage if, for example, he systematically destroys our water pipes first."

"But he doesn't have a reason," Iris said. "He never told us why the Fire Tribe should want to wipe you out."

"We were once Impures," Damara said. "Not from the pure blood of individual tribes. Maybe that is the reason."

But Jarilo shook his head. "There is no reason," he said bitterly. "We don't matter to them. It's not about us." He looked at Damara as if he were asking permission to continue. She nodded to him. "I've been there," he told Iris and Sedna. "You were right, there are no birches here. I'm not from here.

No, I come from where our magic is weaker than here. Where the forest is lighter and seasons exist. Where the color of our skin changes with the season. But I'm here, and you know why? Because the Fire Tribe burned down our forest over the years, tree by tree. Because they like to watch things burn, and trees are perfect for that. And then they found us.

My father died there, my mother still coughs from the tree-damned smoke. She, Birch, and I, we are the only ones left from our village. From our forest."

"And Lelya?" Iris asked breathlessly. If she had known this was why Jarilo hated the Fire Tribe this much...

"Lelya was born here," he explained. "Her companion is also from here. She coughs as well, sometimes, but the rainforest is good for her. That is why she is outside so often."

"Even if our rules actually forbid that," Damara nodded, then she looked at Jarilo proudly. "He really settled in well over the years. You know, our magic is not given to us at all. It comes and goes - some of us have it since they were children, some of us never receive it. Which, of course, makes one doubt the person and push them to the lower end of our ranking."

"I have my magic since our flight," Jarilo said. "Since then, it has never left me." He lowered his head respectfully. "Still ... thank you for everything, Damara."

She smiled at him before turning back to Iris and Sedna. "As you can see, it is hard for us to trust Nergal."

"What are you going to do?" Sedna asked. Iris didn't miss her unusually interested glance at Jarilo, and thought of herself and Caw. Did she look the same when he was standing in front of her? "Shall we leave your tribe again?"

"No, no," Damara said quickly. "Nothing like that. I propose an agreement: We free him from the Shadow magic, and he promises us, let's say... ten years of immunity from attacks by the Fire Tribe." "Twenty," Jarilo corrected.

Damara hesitated. "Fifteen. Fifteen years of peace for the healing of Nergal."

"It won't be that easy," Sedna thought. "His tribe knows nothing about all this."

"Then he will have to tell them," Damara replied with a hint of rage. "He is the son of the chief. Someone like him cannot be cured without a corresponding consideration."

"We can talk to Nergal," Iris suggested. "He'll know what we can ask of Gerra."

"Do that. Let me know when you have come to a conclusion. Until then: Feel welcome in our tribe. And greet your other friends from me."

"We will," Sedna said before Iris had the chance. Did she still not trust Iris's manners? "Thank you, Chief Damara."

The woman smiled. "Of course. Jarilo, take them back down. I think we are done for today."

"Yes. See you soon, Damara." He looked at the two girls. "You heard her. Let's go."

They also said goodbye before they followed Jarilo. And still, Sedna only had eyes for him.

Iris nudged her gently into the side. "And you thought I was in love." "That's not what this is," Sedna contradicted irritably, which made Iris smile even more. "I was impressed by his story, that's all."

"Just tell him. You match, you're both grumpy."

Sedna rolled her eyes, then accelerated her pace to catch up with Jarilo. First Iris wanted to give her this freedom... but as always her curiosity won. So she also walked a few steps faster.

"...I can understand," she heard Sedna say. "The tribes are simply terrible in some matters."

"I will protect Ani from the Fire Tribe as best as I can. That I may marry her is a great honor for me."

Now Iris had to interfere. "Honor?" She asked. "Don't you marry her for love?" Her tribe might be vain, but no one was married off except for Caelus's family and other nobles. Luckily.

Even Jarilo seemed a little unhappy that she had interrupted the conversation. "Most of them," he explained. "However, like Damara already said, I have had my magic for years. Ani since birth, Sirona says. With such a good connection to nature, they hope to pass it on to the next generation - so we get married.

Don't get me wrong now. I've known Ani since I've been here, and since then the matter has been settled. I don't love her ... but I will protect her. From all dangers of this world. From Nergal especially."

---

It was Nergal who first greeted them on their return. If one could call it a greeting. "And? What did she say? How long will it take?"

Iris searched the room and quickly found who she was looking for: a Forest Elmin her age. She was just a little taller than Iris, which was a welcome change - and it seemed as if she was not afraid of Nergal at all. Was that good or bad?

"You can stay," Jarilo replied, his gaze always trailing back to Ani. "But only if you promise something to our tribe in exchange. Peace, for example."

Nergal laughed, but without humor. "Peace, then? Alright. Too bad that's hardly up to me to decide."

"What did you expect? Healing completely without consideration? Sure." Jarilo glared at him. "Someday, you have to go back to your father. I know what happened in the last few days. You cannot hide that from him."

Nergal hesitated... and nodded, as if he had an idea. "Very well. I will talk about it with Gerra. And make sure that your tribe isn't attacked anymore. I owe you something, after all."

"Fantastic," Jarilo said, but didn't sound convinced.

"We don't have more than the hope of truth," Sirona agreed with him, equally unimpressed. "In other words, no choice. We'll heal him." She looked around the group. "But first we should eat. You haven't eaten since this morning. Ani?"

"Coming!" The girl rose and followed Sirona out of the room - her mother, as Jarilo had told them on the way back. Iris didn't escape how she smiled at Nergal when she passed him.

"And another thing," Jarilo said to Nergal, even before Ani was out of earshot. "If you dare touch her at all, I will personally kill you."

---

A few hours later Iris lay on one of the beds in Sirona's hut and stared at the ceiling of roots and leaves. The good thing about this place was that Sirona had a lot of free beds as a healer and nobody had to spend the night on the floor. Iris didn't know what time it was, but it was definitely quieter outside. But she didn't feel very tired; she simply had nothing to do.

Something brushed against the wall next to her from outside. Repeatedly, as if to attract her attention. The others, who were also resting, didn't seem to have noticed.

She sat up. "I'll go outside for a bit."

"Do that," Geb yawned. She chuckled. He was, of course, exhausted, unlike her. Even though she had done much more than him today.

Iris sneaked through the back door that existed so that Sirona's private rooms were not always full of Elmen. It was actually late, but not yet dark enough to be night... and yet the person leaning against the outer wall was familiar to her.

She had to make an effort to keep her voice low. "Caw!"

"I know, I know." He grinned. "'You here? In the middle of a settlement full of Elmen?' Well, looks like it."

"Did something happen?", she asked, looking around. "Where's Midnight?"

"Two of us would have really been too obvious. She's alright. I just thought we had... well, spent too little time together. We should change that, don't you think?"

She looked at him with excitement that was hard to conceal. "And what do you suggest?"

"Just come along. And hurry."

He walked away with big strides - she knew running would only attract attention. So she followed him; and still did when he climbed a ladder that led to one of the lower branches of the gigantic trees. This branch was actually just a branch, no path or building. Caw sat on the edge and let his legs dangle. A little further and he would fall - but that was the risk that Iris liked. She did the same.

"And now?"

"Now look at this."

Just a few seconds later, just as it grew darker and Iris feared not seeing anything at all, the forest began to glow. From all sides, from the depths of the forest, appeared small, bright dots that danced in the air. Most moved up into the tree tops, but some also stayed on the roots and huts among them.

"Fireflies," Iris recognized, but then she paused. These weren't fireflies. They were bigger and brighter and... more magical. "What... what are they?"

"No idea," Caw confessed. "But is that so important? They're some wisps of light. And they're beautiful, aren't they?"

Iris still couldn't get enough of this sight. "How did you know?"

"I saw them in the forest... and I could tell they were on their way here. So I went ahead to get you here in time."

"Thank you," Iris said. "They are really beautiful." What would he reply? 'You too'?

Not quite.

"That's why I'm here. To thank you."

"Me? For what?"

"The world considers me a monster, just because I was born at the wrong time of day. But you don't, Iris. With you I can be myself without being hated. Thank you."

"No problem," she replied. There were actually quite a lot of people who didn't hate him for what he was - her friends, for one - but they didn't matter now. If he thought she was special, she wouldn't try to convince him otherwise. Come on, she thought to herself. You can come up with something more romantic than that!

But her head was frustratingly empty, and he, too, said nothing more. So they just sat there in silence and enjoyed the night of the dancing lights.

Forest of Flames Chapters
 Prologue  Prologue
 One: Fire  1: Into the Unknown2: The Gift3: Travel by Snake4: Scorch Lines5: Wars to Be Won6: Impure Business7: Dark Fire
 Two: Forest  8: Smoke and Feathers9: Midnight10: Heart of the Forest11: The Ones We Love12: Shadow Dance13: Makeshift Solution14: A New Beginning15: Eye of the Storm16: Traitors17: The Return18: Wildfire Hill
 Three: Water  19: Answers20: Ancamna Falls21: Against the Flow22: Starry Night
 Epilogue  Epilogue