"Excuse me," a hand tapped her gently on the shoulder. She stiffened noticeably, all of the muscles in her body tensing up, but then relaxed. Upon realizing that she had no weapons with her, she knew that trying to fight was useless, except if she could somehow manage to use some of the limited martial arts skills that she knew. "I-I'm sorry if I startled you, but you're in our territory." The girl turned to look into the face of a young man who could have been no more than a year older than she.
"I apologize, sir," she said, speaking in proper English as she had been instructed to do. "I did not mean to intrude." Her hands were clasped gently behind her back, a typical standing position for her that was meant to be non-threatening. She studied the man closely. He was a few inches taller than she and had darker hair and eyes. Other than the difference in coloring, they could have easily passed as brother and sister.
"You will have to come with me," he said, grabbing her arm and jerking her body towards him. He lead her deeper and deeper into what seemed to be a forest. They were walking through small groves of trees and shrubbery until they came upon a tree that was much larger than the others. He let go of her arm and entered a small hut at the base of the tree, but she waited outside. Her sharp ears could hear him speaking in a language that she did not understand. She could hear the voice of an older male reply in the same language the youth had spoken in. After five minutes, the young man returned.
"You will come with me," he ordered. He walked into the hut and she followed without saying a word. She was not accustomed to all of the cultures and people in Northern Almendrim, but she realized fairly quickly that she was probably in the dwelling of the Half-Breeds somewhere in the western Cherry Forest.
Inside the hut, a man who appeared to be in his late forties was seated on a wooden stool. He had the same eyes as the youth possessed, but his face was softer and much more experienced. He wore a dark purple tunic and black leggings, along with a dark green cloak, much like the youth.
"Thank you, Damien," the man said, holding up one of his hands. "You may leave now." With that, the youth bowed slightly and left the hut. The man turned towards the girl and looked her deep in the eyes. "You have no family, is that not correct?"
She was quiet, carefully weighing the potential consequences of choosing to remain silent. "My family is not from here, sir," she replied.
"Why did my son find you in the woods? These are the woods of the Half-Breeds," he replied. "Are you a half-breed?"
She nodded. "I am three-quarters human," she answered, looking the older man in the eyes. It was a good thing she had been taught how to behave in such a situation when she was still back at the Academy. "In the most precise definition of the term, I am not; yet I am of mixed races, as this is what I believe you are asking."
The man nodded thoughtfully and there was an awkward silence. The girl was mentally chiding herself for speaking so formally, yet she nearly always did when presented into an unknown situation. The man broke the silence. "It has just occurred to me that I have not properly introduced myself," he said, standing up. "I am Osric and my wife is Kaliyah. You have already met our son, Damien. What is your name?"
"I am called Elizabeth," she answered. She did not give her last name because she remembered that it was not a custom of these people to have surnames.
Osric clicked his tongue in disapproval. "Your name is foreign," he declared. "We will have to name you according to the laws of our people." He laid a hand on her shoulder and she had to force herself not to stiffen. "You may go to the living quarters my wife has prepared for you. She will show you the way." Elizabeth glanced towards the doorway of the hut and noticed a slightly younger woman standing in the entrance.
"Come," the woman beckoned, holding out her hand. She had the same dark hair that Damien had, but also very pale skin and green eyes. Elizabeth supposed that she was more Elvish than not. "I will show you to your quarters." Elizabeth nodded and followed her out of the hut and away from the small grove of trees. She was nearly silent and was busy taking in information about this place. After all, this was her assignment.
Presently, they came to a tree, which had a ladder hanging from it. Kaliyah, as she was called amongst her people, began to climb nimbly up the rope and Elizabeth followed suit, never once looking down. She had never been fond of high places, especially not after nearly falling out of a climbing tree at school as a child. She shuddered at the memory. They reached the top of the tree and there was a small, one-room hut.
"Your house is in here. Everything you will need is in your house. There is a stream to wash up in if you walk away from the morning sun for a hundred meters," Kaliyah pointed out the window away from the setting sun. Elizabeth nodded and bowed her head slightly. "Once you have settled in, please join my husband and me for a short time to get better acquainted with one another." She laid a hand gently on Elizabeth's shoulder and the girl stiffened. Although she had been warned by one of her instructors at the Academy, it still bothered her that the Elves' way of greeting was placing a hand on the shoulder of the other.
"Thank you," she replied, bowing her head slightly. "You are very kind." There was a long silence and Elizabeth looked down at Kaliyah's hand.
"My daughter, you needn't worry," she said. These words took Elizabeth aback. She had studied enough about the half-breeds of Almendrim to know that family connections were important and that those without a family of his or her own were often adopted into an already existing family. But she had never thought that she would be taken into the Osric's family.
"Then I should like to get cleaned up and meet you in your home this evening, if it pleases you," she said. Kaliyah nodded and smiled. Then, she was on her way down the ladder.
Instead of cleaning herself up immediately, Elizabeth took a moment to look around. Everything that Professor Kryten had told her before coming on the trip was beginning to sink in and she was finally starting to realize that no amount of preparation would be sufficient in preparing one for the unknown. And that was what this place was in relation to the Academy.
As she glanced out the window, she had never seen trees more beautiful. She was certain that these trees were larger than those on Earth, as she was easily twenty-five meters above the ground, perhaps more. In addition to this, it seemed to her that many of the half-breeds slept in the trees. There were other houses built in the trees and connecting bridges between one house and the next. These houses were made of wood, but unlike the wood of regular trees. This wood was a hybrid between wood and metallic elements with a definite orange hue.
She removed her bag from her side and placed it on the blanket that was supposed to be her bed, careful not to let the contents spill out. She reached a hand into the leather sack and pulled out a hard-covered, well-worn notebook. She opened it up carefully and glanced down at the small writing that was written in her script. These were notes that she had taken during her course preparation at the Academy and occasional words, phrases and sometimes, even full sentences, had been added by Professor Kryten. She sighed, missing her friends at the Academy and her family back home more than ever.
But it had been her choice to attend the Academy to begin with and her parents had made no attempt whatsoever to persuade her otherwise. And so, here she was, completing what Professor Kryten had called "a semester of field study abroad" and what she called a punishment.
To Be Continued...