A cool breeze drifted through the mountainside forest and rocked the leaves above us. The air filled with the sound of quivering leaves, the distant calls of songbirds, and our steady footsteps as we ascended the trail. The scents of pine, earth, aspens, and a hint of the ocean all mingled together and brought me back to a simpler time when I was younger.
I’d missed Alfheim.
Being back, even for a little while, relieved so much stress. Seeing my family and old friends that I hadn’t seen in over a year brought a smile to my face. Sitting around the dinner table at the end of the day with my family and sharing laughs while enjoying my mother’s cooking warmed my heart.
Sharing all of this with Sabrina made it all even more wonderful. This was a part of my life I hadn’t been able to share with anyone outside of work since I left. To most of the world, elves and Alfheim were just myths and legends. We elves liked to keep it that way.
This all led to a very interesting talk with Sabrina when I decided to let her in on this little secret. It happened months ago, back when I’d started planning this trip. She thought I was joking. I couldn’t quite blame her. I was an elf from Alfheim working at a distribution center for Santa Claus in the US.
If you didn’t believe in magic, of course, that all sounded far-fetched. Some of my coworkers had warned me about this when I mentioned telling Sabrina about our world. They’d all experienced doubts from their significant others when they told them as well.
“Soren, if you’re an elf, why aren’t your ears pointy?” she asked after I told her that I was an elf. She promptly proceeded to laugh. When I didn’t join her in her mirth, she gave me a hard stare. “Wait, you’re serious? How much Fireball have you had?”
Over the next few days, she continued to ask questions but I could tell she still didn’t really believe me. She asked things like: How did you get to be so tall? Why don’t you have a squeaky voice? Can you fix my shoe for me?
I kept explaining that elves weren't like those in fairy tales. We were just people who lived with magic and had been since the Asgardians were around.
Throughout the last few months, the teasing slowly gave way to genuine questions: How long do elves live? How old are you, really? Did you meet Thor?
Okay, so some of the questions were still mixed with a bit of friendly teasing. The moment I knew she’d accepted what I was saying as true came when I found her snooping through a Norse mythology book at the library. She wasn’t very good at being covert. She sheepishly admitted that she wanted to learn more about my culture before meeting my family.
Upon arrival in my homeland, Sabrina became very reserved, which was something I never really experienced with her. It worried me. She should feel comfortable here. I hoped she could get along with my family like I got along with hers.
Was this how she’d felt when she first introduced me to them?
Turns out, I’d been worried over nothing. As she got used to my family, she relaxed and became more like her normal self. My sister Astra had informed me that everyone loved her. They couldn’t find a wart on her to complain about, which couldn’t have made me happier. I loved her too and had big plans for this trip.
“So, are we going to find any leprechauns?” Sabrina asked, jarring me from my thoughts.
I didn’t need to look over my shoulder to see her smirk. “Those are in Ireland, not Norway.”
She didn’t miss a beat. “Unicorns?”
“No, but maybe a Pegasus.”
There was real excitement in her voice after that. “Really!”
This time I turned to look at her with my own smirk. “No.”
Her emerald eyes narrowed as she stuck her tongue out at me. She then continued in a more normal, curious tone. “Seriously though, are there any magical creatures out here?”
“Besides you?” I asked with a sideways smirk.
She poked my side before taking my hand in hers. “Well played, elf-boy.”
“It’s just normal nature out here. That’s why my ancestors settled here. They wanted to get away from all of the craziness after Ragnarok.”
“I thought that was supposed to be the end of the world.” She stopped and pointed to our left. “Look!”
A family of deer were shading themselves at the far end of a clearing. A few looked our way, but the rest didn’t seem bothered by us. Nor did they seem to mind when Sabrina removed her camera from her backpack to snap a few pictures.
I shrugged and answered her question in a soft voice, not wanting to scare off the subjects of her pictures. “In a way, it was. The old world under the rule of the Asgardians came to an end. Unsurprisingly, just because one city fell to ruin, doesn’t mean the whole world has come to an end.”
She knelt down for a different angle. “Makes sense. People back then didn’t fully grasp how big the world truly was.” She snapped a few more photos before standing and showing me some of the results on the camera’s screen.
“Those came out great,” I commented. Her photography skills far surpassed my own, which was to be expected since she was a professional photographer and I was not.
With sparkling eyes, she put her camera away as she studied our surroundings. “It’s gorgeous here! How could you ever move away from all of this?”
Her hand found mine again and pulled me along the trail with excited enthusiasm. I followed without hesitation. “I wanted to see the world, and working for Nicholas is a great way to do that.”
“But why?” her head swept from side to side as she took in the passing forest. Her free hand swept out in front of her to gesture at all of the greenery. “How does where we live now compare to this? It’s so beautiful here.”
My chest swelled with pride at how she spoke of my homeland. Alfheim truly was beautiful, but it wasn’t perfect. It was small and isolated, and those facts came with their own pros and cons.
“Well, it’s a different kind of beautiful. You’ve seen the town. I know pretty much everyone down there.” I pointed back down the mountain to where I knew the town hid behind the foliage. “But, there was so much I didn’t know and hadn’t experienced out in the world. The most important thing is that I wouldn’t have met you if I stayed here.”
She squeezed my hand and her expression was soft as she held my gaze. “You’re being extra sappy today. What are you up to?”
Panic raced through me. I couldn’t let her know what I was up to, or why we were going on this hike. I had to play it cool. “Being back home has just got me reminiscing is all, and I’m so happy to share all of this with you.”
She squeezed my hand again. “I’m happy I’m here too.”
We continued up the trail which grew steeper and steeper as it ascended the mountain. The further we went, the more often we had to stop. While Sabrina was in great shape, she still needed to catch her breath and drink down water.
Sabrina huffed as she hunched forward with her hands on her knees. “How are you not out of breath?”
“I’m an elf who used to walk this trail all the time and still walks to work daily. Meanwhile, you’re a human who sits around all day prefers bacon on her burgers.” After the last few months of teasing, I couldn’t help but tease her a little.
Her arm shot out to point at me. “It’s delicious and you know it!” She wasn’t wrong. She straightened up and her brow furrowed. “You’re lucky I’m saving my energy otherwise I’d kick your ass off of this mountain.” She tried to take a drink of water, but her shoulders slumped when she discovered that it was empty.
I removed my own bottle from my pack and handed it over. “You’d have to catch me first.” As she drank, I added. “We’ll have to get your water bottle enchanted before we leave.” I really should have thought of that before this hike. My own bottle had been enchanted long ago to hold a lot more water than it physically could and without getting too heavy. It made hiking a lot nicer.
She panted as she removed the bottle from her lips and handed it back. “Yes, please.”
I tucked it back in its pocket and waited for her to make the first move. “We’re almost there.” I’d hiked this trail so many times over the years, I forgot how difficult it really was. Had we bitten off more than we could chew with this one? Maybe I should have tried taking her somewhere else. “We can rest as long as you need. There’s no rush.”
“Ha! Like I’m going to let this mountain beat me.” she put her hands on her hips and puffed out her chest. Then she let out the breath she’d been holding and hunched forward again. “But first a little break.”
We found a nice boulder to sit on and had a quick snack. We talked about the trip, about my family, about not wanting to go back home just yet. She pulled out her camera and snapped some photos of the woods. Whenever she got one that she was especially proud of, she’d lean over and show it to me.
I marveled at the pictures she took, finding new angles I never would have thought of and finding ways to play with the light that truly made this place feel magical. Seeing her smile and listening to her gush about how well everything seemed to photograph here just confirmed what I already knew.
I loved this woman.
After a half-hour, she slipped her camera back into her bag and stood with a deep breath.
“You promise the view at the top is worth it?”
“Would I lie to you?”
She tapped her cheek and pretended to think about that.
I placed a hand on my chest and let my mouth fall open. “You have to think about it?”
She smirked and ruffled my hair before pulling on my arm. “Come on, let’s get moving. I want to see this ‘life-changing’ view of yours.”
“It will be worth it, I promise.” The view was beautiful, but that wasn’t the only thing that awaited us at the outlook.
At least I hoped.
The closer we got to our destination, the more my stomach twisted into knots. I’d never felt so nauseous in my life. I’d only told Astra about my plan up here and how nervous I was. True to form, my little sister had no pity for me. She also said that I was worrying too much, which I thought was a bit unfair. I was worrying the right amount about something as important as this.
Before I knew it, we’d arrived at the outlook. The exposed cliff looked out over the varying shades of green across the valley. The great gray mountains towered over the world. Even in the middle of summer, some of the tallest peaks still were capped with snow. The melt from those caps fed into the local rivers and lakes. Further down the valley, we could see the entirety of my home town. The square buildings of Alfheim stood out against the forest as it rested against the sea.
It was a sight I hadn’t seen in a few years. Seeing it again helped slow my heart to a more normal level.
My eyes drifted from the view to the woman standing beside me. I studied her as she took it all in. With unblinking eyes and her mouth parted, Sabrina’s gaze slowly swept across the land. Beads of sweat collected on her forehead and her shoulders rose and fell at a slower and slower pace as she caught her breath.
The wind ruffled her ponytail as it stuck out of the back of her cap. The crisp mountain sunlight reflected off of her hair, making it seem as though it were made of gold. A hand rested against her chest as she remained motionless.
I shrugged off my backpack and stepped up behind her. “Here, let me get that for you.” I pulled at the straps of her own pack, and she shrugged them off.
I set it beside mine against a rock. My heart began to race anew as I prepared for my next move. The little box in my pocket felt heavier than ever before. I tugged at my shirt collar, hoping to convince some of the cool breeze to rush down my shirt.
“I’m going to need my camera.” She looked over her shoulder at me, her face glowing. “This is amazing!”
I flashed a smile back at her. “Glad you like it.”
She returned to her study of the valley and pointed to the north. “What’s that?” she asked. I followed her arm and saw the giant wooden hall that sat isolated in the woods several miles inland, away from town.
“That is Vidar’s Hall,” I said, not fully paying attention. This trip was about so much more than getting away for a while. I wanted to show her every part of my life. I wanted her to meet my family, and for them to meet her. I’d spent so many sleepless nights worrying about what would happen if they didn’t like her. I didn’t want to live my life without her and came to the conclusion that I wouldn’t. I valued my family's opinions, but I knew in my heart that we were meant for each other. Thankfully, my family agreed.
The next thing I knew, Sabrina was staring at me awaiting an answer to a question I hadn’t heard. “What’s got that pretty blonde head of yours all worked up?” she asked, a smile dancing across her lips.
I took a deep breath. I’d practiced my speech. I knew what I had to do.
Getting down on one knee, I removed the box from my pocket.