Warmth was the first thing Natalie felt when she looked at Trober for the first time. They spent the first few moments quietly surveying one another. She noted he was tall, but looked almost as normal as any other man. When her friends had described this Treeman, she'd pictured a giant tree with eyes, arms, and legs.

This man, on the other hand, was actually very handsome. The only thing that distinguished him from herself was dark gray skin that appeared rough in texture. His hair was even normal -- smooth, black, and long. It was pulled back from his face and a headdress of green leaves was woven through the crown of his head.

His facial features were strong and confident, except for his eyes. They were narrowed in unguarded admiration and the deepest blue Natalie had ever seen, almost piercing against his dark skin. She'd seen those eyes before, but couldn't remember where.

"Have we met before?" she asked him, reaching her left hand to him. She knew that this behavior was entirely too forward, but her curiosity overpowered any sense of decency she had and she needed to test him in this manner. He took her hand without question and some of her fears were relieved.

"Yes, I believe we have," answered Trober as Natalie memorized the texture of his skin. The closest thing her mind could compare it to was the naked wood of a tree that had had its bark removed.

"I—I don't remember." She dropped his hand.

"You will."

As she nodded her trust of Trober's resolute words, Natalie heard the grass rustling behind them and Oswald's insistent whispers as her Forest friends tried to make a quiet escape. She knew she was alone with this strange new man, but it did not frighten her. Her mind refused to accept him as a stranger. Instead, Trober seemed to be a person with whom she had been acquainted for a long time.

"Come with me," said Trober, extending his other hand to her. "I will show you where I have come from."

She nodded again and slipped her hand into his.

They strayed from the trail by which Natalie, Mrs. Fox, and Oswald had reached Trober's home, but the walk was still peaceful and smooth.

As the green glow increased in the distance, Trober told Natalie of his origins. He had surfaced from the swamp and was informally adopted by all of the animals of the Forest. He'd wandered from home to home, learning the ways of survival, and allowing the animals to impart bits of wisdom to him.

The Forest King had immediately taken a liking to Trober and became the most influential being on his upbringing. The king, a very tall and wrinkled redwood named Tju Tjenum, was the first tree planted in the Forest, and Trober came to him daily for advice and instruction.

As he grew, Trober would bring a different family rations for the night and stay with them for dinner. After the children became too exhausted to play anymore and went to bed, Trober would discuss important issues with the parents and then retire to the night air until the next day began. His close relationships with each Forest family enabled him to take more of Tju Tjenum's responsibilities as mediator and supreme advice-giver of the Forest.

Eventually, he'd harvested enough material from the Swamp to build his home, and the Forest population officially elected their next king after the wise Tju Tjenum had returned to the dust. However, his duties were put on hold until he could find a suitable bride.

"Which is where I come in," interjected Natalie in a neutral manner, coming to a stop just before the green light would have surrounded them.

"Yes," Trober said, stopping next to her and clapping his hands together. "I have chosen you and when you are ready, you will be my queen."

"How do you know I will ever be ready?" wondered Natalie.

"Because I know you and the love you have for me. You would not be here if you did not know me and love me."

"But I have no idea how I got here, or where I come from, even," admitted Natalie, trying to be as diplomatic as she possibly could. She was still a little bit wary of the Treeman's claims, but somehow she could not deny that the things he said could be true.

Trober told her she had come to him from the human world.

"A herd of Gallopians brought you here because you were ready. They are kind of like upright horses, if you can understand that," he explained when he noticed Natalie's confusion.

It suddenly dawned on her: the Gallopians were the first things she'd seen when she awakened in the forest, she told the Treeman. She'd felt the ground rumbling as their hooves struck the ground, heard their voices, and seen the cloud of dust they left as they galloped away.

"You should hope you never see them again," said Trober with a grim twinge in his voice.

"Why?" asked Natalie, looking around her curiously. Luckily there was not an upright horse in sight, only the inviting green glow.

"If you see them, they only mean to take you back to the human world. They will only come if this – you and me together – is not in their plans."

"Can't you control them?"

Trober shook his head. "Unfortunately they are not in my domain. We creatures of the Forest have learned to ignore them and let them come and go as they please. They have been known for their violent tempers, and bad relations with them would be a terrible thing."

A question burned at Natalie's heart, but she did not have the courage to ask it. Perhaps another time would be more appropriate.

"Let's see the swamp," she suggested instead.

"Yes," agreed Trober. "Let's. If you'll take the crook of my arm, you might have an easier journey." He offered the crook of his arm to Natalie, and after one look at the uneven grounds, she reached up and accepted his arm gratefully.

"Is there anything I should be aware of before we approach the swamp?" Natalie asked, feeling a bit of intimidation. "You know, any woman-eating flowers or Swamp Things or sand traps?"

"They will not harm you as long as you are with me," answered Trober with a solemn look in his eyes.

Natalie's breath caught in her throat and she stopped in her tracks.

"I am only kidding," Trober reassured her, his attempts to conceal his laughter futile.

She yanked her hand from the crook of his arm and crossed her arms across her chest, and stepped away from him, but the wide smile on her face showed she was only pretending.

Trober's lips curved in a slight smile. He was grateful that Natalie was becoming more comfortable around him.

Without a word, Trober guided Natalie to the swamp. It glimmered brightly, bits of sunlight streaming through cracks in the trees overhead and reflecting merrily on their trunks.

This is where the dead go, Natalie thought, remembering Mrs. Fox's words.

"What kind of dead things come here?" she whispered to Trober.

"All kinds of things. They return to the ground and wander here. Or their family members simply bring them here. It's not a sad thing, though. The creatures are proud to fulfill nature's cycle of life."

"Their families don't visit them?"

Trober knew she was thinking of cemeteries and told her they were nothing alike. "The families do not mourn here. Their memories are stored near their homes. It is almost bad luck, they feel, to visit the Swamp. But you should not fear this place. And you certainly do not have to whisper."

"Okay. Sorry," said Natalie in her voice's normal volume.

"I have something for you," announced Trober, guiding her to the edge of the Swamp. "Wait."

Without ceremony, he dove into the murky waters. The waters were so dark that Natalie could not see him beneath the surface, but she obeyed him and did not panic. She kept a careful distance from the water and sat down on the moist grass, dipping one of her toes to test the water. Despite its questionable appearance, it was warm with a thin, light consistency.

She drew her other leg beneath her and braced against it as she began to maneuver her foot against the Swamp's surface. She watched as her skin left patterns in the dark water, and screamed abruptly when she felt something rough and slimy close around her foot.

Fighting the creature's firm grasp proved fruitless, and after a few moments of thrashing against it, she allowed it to pull her into the water. Instead of continuing to sink, Natalie bounced against the muddy floor of the Swamp. It was too dark to see anything, but she felt two strong arms pull her against gravity to the surface.

When she reached the open air once more, she was looking into the face of Trober. Instead of being wet and sputtering like a drowning dog, she was dry and breathing normally. Perplexed, she inquired about the strange properties of the Swamp water noting to herself that the tint of Trober's skin was a remarkable match to the Swamp's distinct color.

"It is not water, per se," answered Trober, still balancing her in his arms' firm grip.

"And it was you who pulled me in?" scolded Natalie.

Trober nodded without shame.

"Oh, you'll pay for that," she said, trying unsuccessfully to tackle the one who was much taller than she was. Each of her steps sank as the soft mud seeped between her toes. Knowing her efforts were useless, she decided to surrender and leaned into his waiting arms.

For awhile, the two engaged in deep and genuine laughter. Tears streamed from Natalie's clenched eyes as her whole body shook in silence. When she opened her eyes again, they met Trober's as they had when they'd first met, but this time Natalie felt her heart pound against her ribcage.

She couldn't have fallen in love with him so quickly, she told herself. It was too soon!

Trober nodded, as if reading her thoughts. I did not know she would return my love the first day.

"The owl and the fox will be here in a moment. Go with them and meet me in the clearing tonight. I want to take you somewhere."

Natalie nodded, glad she would have a chance to clear her mind and think about this new development that had changed her life in a matter of hours. "Thank you for showing me where you come from," she told him.

"Tonight will be special," promised Trober. "I have something for you. It will only be a few hours."

As Trober had told her, Mrs. Fox and Oswald the Owl were waiting for them just outside the cluster of trees that surrounded the Swamp. They greeted her warmly and nodded their heads in reverence to Trober, who squeezed her hand and disappeared toward his home.

Her friends' roles had taken drastic changes. Instead of being calm, the older fox grabbed Natalie by the shoulders, unable to quell her excitement while Oswald sat on Mrs. Fox's shoulders, urging his friend to stay out of Natalie's business.

"How was it?" Mrs. Fox asked in a voice that was at least two octaves higher than usual.

"It was a lot of fun…"

"…And where did he take you?"

Natalie's cheeks flushed. "Well, he showed me where he came from and we swam for a little while."

Mrs. Fox squealed when she heard this news. Oswald rolled his eyes and flew from the creature's shoulder.

"You females get excited over the tiniest things," he said, his words punctuated by the flapping of his wings.

"Oh, Oswald! You don't understand! You just don't have the kinds of instincts that we have." Her tone became strange and pinched toward the end of her statement as if she were trying to relay a hidden message.

Oswald seemed to realize the dual meaning. His eyes widened with realization and he breathed a different, more long and soft kind of hoot.

"We have to get you ready for this evening," said Mrs. Fox, snapping into brisk action.

"He said he was going to give me something, but he didn't really say anything else," supplied Natalie.

Mrs. Fox choked back another exclamation and Oswald's yellow eyes enlarged again.

"I just know we have a couple of hours to do whatever it is we're to do before I have to meet him in the clearing."

"Then we have no time to waste! Oswald, call Lucinda and the other ladies to my den. We will need everyone's help," instructed Mrs. Fox. Oswald nodded and flew away with haste, his wings beating hard against the thick air.

Mrs. Fox led Natalie back to the trail, upon which they paced for several minutes before reaching the Foxes' den. A large flock of multi-colored birds had already assembled in the glen between the den and the brook. They seated Natalie on a wooden chair, made hasty introductions, and began working on her hair, face, and fingernails.

A quartet of bluebirds, Bessie, Bonnie, Brenda, and Betty, filled the air with beautiful melodies and poured a bucket of lukewarm water over Natalie's head. She cried out in alarm, but the birds continued to sing as Lucinda Larkspur tended to the girl's hair and the beating of Hilda Hummingbird's beautiful plumage dried her from head to toe in no time.

Mrs. Fox and Oswald watched from inside the den, smiling in pride and admiration as Natalie's face transformed from neutral curiosity to a strong, regal confidence. Part of the change was the result of a soft sheen from the light oils of the birds' feathers but the pleasant pink color of the day's activities and—daresay—the newfound love, made her radiant.

When the birds had finally finished with her, daylight was waning and it was time to meet Trober in the clearing. Natalie had a new sash around the waist of her teal dress that matched the fresh blue ribbon in her sleek auburn hair. Her nails and skin had been shined by the birds' feathers and they had applied the essence of a fragrant flower to her wrists and collarbones. Mrs. Fox had even forced her to rinse her mouth with compote of herbs that would make her breath smell fresh.

With feelings of confidence and anticipation mingled about her middle, Natalie followed the forest trail to the clearing. Trober was waiting for her there, his handsome features illuminated by the white glow of whatever object the dark blue box in his hand contained.