Warm rays from the late morning sun reached down through the tree branches, casting a dappled pattern of light and shades of gray upon the forest floor. The air was still and peaceful without a single cloud in the vivid blue sky. The sweet fragrance of peach blossoms permeated everything.
And, most importantly, Bai Qian walked by his side.
Shortening his stride when he noticed the small nine-tailed fox having to run to keep up with him, Ye Hua gazed about, glancing her way with a soft smile. He had visited some amazing places in his life but he could think of nowhere else in the world he would rather be than here in the peach tree forest with Bai Qian. His dragon, a restless beast at the best of times, was in full agreement, content to do nothing more than silently watch over Bai Qian and their fox, another example of just how special the white fox was to the black dragon.
You don’t need to keep hiding your presence from Bai Qian. Ye Hua could feel the black dragon listening to the words as he shared them with the beast in his thoughts. She knows you’re there. Ye Hua waited to see if the black dragon would respond but he remained quiet, mulling it over.
The soft touch of one of Bai Qian’s tails brushing up against his robes brought Ye Hua’s attention back to her. Did she know she was walking closer to him? Or was it merely an accident?
Hoping she had chosen to move closer to his side, Ye Hua watched her as she studied their surroundings. He had trouble tearing his eyes away from her, remembering the tantalizing glimpse he had gotten of her human form the night before. Hu Mei was a beautiful sight to behold and Ye Hua couldn’t help but wonder what Bai Qian herself must look like if her animal spirit was so lovely.
He yearned to see the face of the woman who tugged on his heart and soul without even trying; he imagined himself travelling along this same path with Bai Qian’s fingers intertwined with his.
Ye Hua had seen his parents holding hands as they strolled next to each other during private family moments in the Heavens or elsewhere but he had never walked hand in hand with a woman before, had never even had the desire to try it. But now it felt like a simple pleasure that was missing from his life, a pleasure he wanted to experience but only if he could do so with Bai Qian. He would remain patient and wait for that moment with her.
Realizing he had let his thoughts wander away from the purpose behind this walk, Ye Hua forced his eyes to move away from Bai Qian and back to the trail winding through the peach trees. He was looking for the place where he had first sensed Bai Qian’s presence in the forest. There had been enough cover there to provide her an excellent hiding spot and he thought it would be a good place to leave an alert spell she could use since it was next to the main path through the forest.
“Over here, Qian Qian,” Ye Hua murmured to her when he finally spotted the correct location. He stepped off the path and strode over to the area of dense brush and Bai Qian followed, a curious expression on her face. She must recognize this spot as the first place they had encountered each other in the forest. It would be easy for them both to find quickly if needed.
Crouching down near the bush she had hidden behind, Ye Hua placed his palm against the plant and transferred a portion of his cultivation to its branches and leaves, manipulating his magic into the correct formation to create a signal waiting to be activated. When he was finished, he turned to face Bai Qian who was watching him with questioning eyes.
“It’s a way for you to immediately get in touch with me if needed,” he explained to the white fox sitting close to him, much closer than she had yesterday or earlier at the cabin. “All you have to do is touch this spot of brush with your cultivation and I will feel it right away and know where you are.” He gestured to it with his hand. “Go ahead and try it.”
Ye Hua waited patiently for Bai Qian to move closer to the spelled bush and inspect it for herself before she lifted up a dainty paw and placed it on the leaves. He sensed a small pulse of fox magic a split second before the stinging sensation of the spell being activated prickled along his arm; it was an irritating sting strong enough to catch his attention no matter what he might be doing. Ye Hua had planned for the signal to be unpleasant so there was no way he could miss it and he was pleased to find it worked perfectly.
“It works,” he said with a smile. His expression became serious when Bai Qian turned to him and her eyes met his. “I want to set up more of these signals throughout the forest. If you ever see or sense a person or creature that isn’t supposed to be here, activate a signal and tell me. Let me know even if you see nothing but your instincts are telling you something isn’t right. I will be here in seconds if you do. It doesn’t matter what I’m doing at the time, Qian Qian. I will come to your side right away.”
Warmth filled Bai Qian’s chest as she met Ye Hua’s mahogany eyes, the expression in them conveying his earnest intent. He wanted to protect her, wanted to make the forest safer for her, and he was willing to leave behind some of his cultivation to do so. If she were in her human form, Bai Qian knew tears would be streaming down her cheeks. As it was, she could feel her fox eyes welling with unshed tears.
Why? Why was Ye Hua, a powerful dragon god and a son of Heavenly Father, willing to do so much for her? The answer remained just as elusive as the one to her question about why he had bothered to spend so much of his valuable time looking for her to begin with. Bai Qian had the feeling the answer was an important one. She felt like she was missing something crucial in this whole thing when it came to Ye Hua. His presence in the forest felt natural to her now but it still didn’t make any sense given who he was.
And why was he setting up this spell for her now? Was he worried about something happening? The forest was still safe, right? Unease began to settle in the pit of her stomach at the thought that it may not be but she pushed it away. She would know if something were wrong. Wouldn’t she?
Yes, I would know. Ye Hua must have just had the idea and thought it a good one just in case. In case what?
“I won’t be upset if it ends up being nothing.” Ye Hua’s calm voice pulled Bai Qian’s attention back to him. “Will you let me know if something feels wrong and I happen to not be here with you?”
Her heart sank with dread and disappointment. That’s why he’s doing this. Ye Hua must be leaving the forest. Staring down at her paws, Bai Qian struggled to maintain her composure. She had known his visits to the forest were eventually going to come to an end. After all, he was a prince of the Heavens. I didn’t expect it to happen this soon.
“I’m not going anywhere, Bai Qian… not for long.” Her eyes lifted to meet Ye Hua’s gaze when she heard his voice, his tone firm for emphasis. There was a serious expression on his face and Bai Qian wondered if he might be silently urging her to believe his words. Did she believe them? I want to.
“I’m not leaving you alone here for long,” he continued when he seemed sure she was listening. “Not ever. But there will be times I may have to leave the forest for a few hours. I will always come back though.” He sighed. “I don’t want to leave you with no way to get in touch with me if you need anything. If I’m not here, will you let me know right away if something ever feels off about the forest?”
She could see by his intent gaze that her agreement meant a great deal to him so Bai Qian nodded her head in a clear response. Something soft and gentle yet extremely powerful kindled in his eyes as he watched her; it was something even more potent than one of his breathtaking smiles and the nervous fluttering in her stomach returned in full force as she found herself unable to look away from him. She felt an overwhelming urge to move closer to him for reasons still unknown.
A low growl filled the air, startling Bai Qian and breaking that strange connection that always seemed to develop between her and Ye Hua. The fox recognized from its cadence that it was not a threatening sound though many might mistake it as a threat and she quickly reassured Bai Qian that the rumble was Ye Hua’s dragon greeting her.
The black dragon!
Wonder filled Bai Qian as she watched a happy smile appear on Ye Hua’s handsome face, softening his features further and confirming her fox was correct. Bai Qian was reminded of her curiosity as a child. Maybe she would finally get her chance to see a real dragon up close.
Her fox’s memory of the great black dragon flying above her hiding spot under the trunk of a fallen tree filled Bai Qian’s mind when the dragon growled softly again. The first thing that struck Bai Qian was how large and long the beast was, an impressive length of sinew and strong muscle covered with midnight scales. She had failed to comprehend the true power and size of a full grown dragon in her imagination when she was a child.
The second thing that struck Bai Qian from the memory her fox shared and the thing her mind lingered on was how the dragon had not sensed her fox hiding below him. So there had been a time when her fox’s cultivation had been invisible to him as it was supposed to be to everyone other than members of her family. But now, Ye Hua and his dragon could obviously sense her when in the form of her fox. What did that mean? How had they gained that ability when it should still be impossible for them? Bai Qian added the questions to the ever-growing list of mysteries surrounding the man and dragon now turning her life upside down.
If she could ever work up the courage to shift and speak with Ye Hua she would ask him these questions. After she thanked him for the kind things he had shared with her.
“Will you show me some other areas in the forest to place the alert spell? They should be near places where you like to spend time in the forest. And hidden in spots you can get to easily and as quickly as possible.”
Ye Hua’s question reminded Bai Qian where she was. She had let her mind wander with him sitting right next to her and he had said nothing for the longest time. Where did his seemingly limitless patience with her come from? He never showed any inclination to push her to do something or hurry her along. Was he like that with everybody?
“Only you and I will know where the spells are and what they are for. I will tell nobody about them,” Ye Hua added when her attention returned to him. The warm mahogany color of his eyes had darkened since Bai Qian had heard his dragon growl. Was that a sign the black dragon was more present with her than he had been before? The idea intrigued Bai Qian. “It will be our secret, Qian Qian. Will you show me where to place the other signals?”
Our secret. Something important she and Ye Hua shared with each other and nobody else. A way for her to reach out to him quickly if she ever needed to.
A myriad of emotions and immense gratitude filled Bai Qian as Ye Hua waited for her answer in that patient way of his. Ye Hua and the black dragon are special. Bai Qian now understood that even without understanding anything else about them or what it might mean. She nodded and he smiled at her before standing, waiting for her to guide him through the forest. Bai Qian wanted to spend the day with Ye Hua and didn’t hesitate to share her forest with him even if she still couldn’t manage to take that final step and shift so she could talk to him while they walked.
His eyes never straying away from the lovely white fox in front of him for long, Ye Hua was amazed at how extensive Bai Qian’s network of trails through the forest really was. He had been sure he had uncovered most of them but hadn’t even come close. As she led him from one place after the other, every location connected by a hidden trail she had created, he discovered just how many of her paths he and his dragon had completely missed while walking right over them. The ones his dragon had discovered during his search that day didn’t equal half of the trails that actually existed.
It was incredible. She was incredible. Ye Hua admired her resourcefulness while stepping over well-placed obstacles and pushing his way through or around dense underbrush. While Bai Qian traversed the forest floor effortlessly, he lost count of the number of times he had tripped or had to stop when his robes became tangled up in branches. Even knowing where the trails were now, when he glanced behind him along the path he often couldn’t see evidence of the way he had just traveled. Was she using magic to manipulate the appearance of the trails in some way? He couldn’t sense her cultivation if she was.
When he turned back around to face her, Ye Hua found Bai Qian sitting next to another spot for him to leave an alert spell. The skin of his arm was hurting and he knew there must be a red mark from all the spells he had placed and had her test. But he didn’t think twice before crouching down next to her and placing his hand on the tree trunk she indicated, allowing the spell of his magic to weave through the bark and into the tree.
Despite the growing pain on his arm, he made her activate the spell as he had done with all of the rest of them. He would not risk having one of his spells end up not functioning properly at a time when she needed him. Ye Hua considered the pain a small price to pay for ensuring her safety, one he would gladly accept as many times as he needed to.
Smiling to reassure her when he noticed her watching him with sudden worry in her questioning brown eyes as if she somehow knew his arm hurt, Ye Hua studied her for a moment, his smile fading as he did. There was one place she had not taken him to, a place he considered to be of the utmost importance to his plan to better protect her and the forest, but he wasn’t sure how to broach the subject with her. Finally he decided to be direct about it.
“Do you have a…” Ye Hua paused to decide on the correct word. “… den in the forest somewhere, Qian Qian? A safe place where you live and sleep?”
Wariness crept into her eyes for the first time all day as she looked back at him and considered his question. She hesitated a moment longer before nodding her head at him. Ye Hua could see the tips of her tails twitching, a gesture he was coming to learn meant she was weighing something on her mind. He hated to keep pushing and risk making her more uncomfortable, ruining their pleasant day in the process, but he thought it too important to let go.
“Will you take me there? You don’t have to take me directly to your den,” he hastened to explain, realizing how his question had sounded. “Just someplace near it so I can place a spell there.”
“I don’t want you to get caught near your den at night with no way to reach me,” he added, his voice soft, when she didn’t immediately answer him.
A whirlwind of confused thoughts raced through Bai Qian’s mind as she considered Ye Hua’s request. She was surprised by his words though she shouldn’t have been because she knew he was right. His reasons for wanting this information were sound and she saw nothing but a sincere desire to help her in his eyes. She trusted him. She did. But did she trust him to the extent of revealing the area of her den to him? It was the one place in the forest she had always thought of as being completely safe. And she had always gone out of her way to ensure it stayed hidden in case anyone visited the peach trees.
Her gaze wandered to the spot on Ye Hua’s forearm she had caught him rubbing through the sleeve of his robe a few minutes earlier. She wasn’t sure he even realized he had done so but the action told Bai Qian the spells he was leaving all over her forest hurt him in some way when she activated them. And she knew he was depleting his energy a little bit every time he left a part of his cultivation behind. He was powerful and could spare the magic. But it still indicated there was a cost to his plan, a cost he seemed more than willing to pay since he had given no indication there was a limit to how many alert spells he would set up in the forest for her.
The safest place in the forest is next to the black dragon.
The thought came from Bai Qian’s fox, who had been quiet most of the day other than nudging Bai Qian closer to Ye Hua while they walked next to him. It was an unusually clear thought too. And with it finally came the revelation of why her fox had sought Ye Hua’s company at the cabin last night, the memory of a warning sounding through the forest clear this time. Somebody other than Ye Hua may have been in the forest! Why had her fox kept this from her?!
Panic threatened to rise within Bai Qian but then her fox recounted the way Ye Hua and his dragon had been assessing the night when she approached them. They had been guarding the forest; she had sensed them patrolling from the air above her as she ran to the cabin. And if somebody had been there, they had not lingered long because of it. Bai Qian’s fear never turned into outright panic as she realized what her fox was telling her. Ye Hua and the black dragon make the forest safer. I can trust Ye Hua.
Feeling the truth of her fox’s thoughts and better understanding why Ye Hua was so determined to leave bits of his cultivation all over the place today, Bai Qian’s indecision vanished. She nodded at Ye Hua, her face solemn, to let him know she would take him near her den.
Her heart raced with nervous energy but her steps were sure as she led Ye Hua down the path leading to the grassy glade and the outcropping of granite rock beyond it. She experienced none of the dread she usually did as she crept out into the tall grass and stopped to watch as Ye Hua looked around the wild meadow. His expression seemed puzzled as it had several times throughout the day as he studied the area.
Bai Qian tilted her head thoughtfully as she watched him. Was something wrong?
Fascinated with the changing expressions on his face, Bai Qian watched him shrug off his confused expression with a small shake of his head. He turned to look at her and she moved closer to him with the ridiculous thought she could make him feel better about whatever it was that was bothering him. As if Ye Hua and his powerful dragon needed her to make him feel better about something. Still, she continued to move closer to him.
“Is your den somewhere in those rocks over there?”
Without hesitation, Bai Qian nodded and led him over to the large pieces of granite reaching up out of the ground toward the sky. She showed Ye Hua a good place to leave his spell near her den, watching as he took extra care while leaving it this time, his palm lingering where it pressed against the sun-warmed rock. When he was satisfied the spell was in place, he gestured for Bai Qian to test it.
Placing her paw on the same spot where his hand had just been, Bai Qian looked at him with worry and didn’t pulse her cultivation to activate it. How could she when she now knew it was going to cause him pain?
“Go ahead, Qian Qian,” he said, his tone encouraging. “It’s not that bad. I want to make sure it works.”
Sighing, Bai Qian touched her cultivation to the rock, watching as he tensed slightly. It must hurt more now that it had been happening all day since his reaction was more noticeable. Before she could stop herself, she whined softly in sympathy and her ears drooped.
“It’s okay,” he murmured, reaching out to touch her muzzle, running his fingers against it in a gentle caress as he guided her head up. “Please don’t look so sad, Qian Qian.”
Bai Qian met his intense eyes when she felt the soft touch, soothed by the feel of his warm fingers against her sensitive fox whiskers as he continued to speak in that deep voice of his, a voice that had quickly become familiar and comforting. “If you ever need help I don’t want to miss the signal. It has to be strong enough to get my attention. That’s why it hurts but it’s not doing any damage. I promise.”
Ye Hua suddenly pulled his hand away and Bai Qian wanted to ask him not to stop, enjoying the simple connection with him. But to do that she would need to shift into her human form and talk to him. Before she could convince herself to do that, Ye Hua stood and stepped away from her, the fingers he had touched her with now clenched into a fist.
“Is there anywhere else you need me to place a spell?” he asked her after a moment of awkward silence, glancing her way again briefly before staring back out over the grass of the meadow. Was he avoiding her eyes for some reason? Why did he seem nervous and tense? “Please tell me if there is.”
The grove of ancient peach trees appeared in Bai Qian’s mind along with the urge to share that special spot in the forest with Ye Hua. Not because she wanted him to place a spell there but because it was the ideal place for her to give him the gift she had picked for him earlier. She needed to give them to him today as the peaches may not taste quite as good tomorrow. And she was determined to hand them to him in person. The grove of trees was a place in the forest where she always felt calm. If she was ever going to work up the nerve to show him her human form, that would be the place to do it.
Nervous anticipation drove her steps as Bai Qian led Ye Hua back across the meadow and deeper into the forest. She could feel him struggling to keep up with her fast pace as it was much easier to move through the underbrush as a fox compared to a human. She made the effort to slow down, remembering the way he had adjusted his own steps earlier in the day so she could keep up with him.
The tranquility of the ancient peach tree grove did not settle her nerves this time as she stepped into the oldest part of the forest and stared up at the blossom laden canopy created by the giant trees towering over her. The air always smelled sweeter here and the atmosphere was always more peaceful when compared to the rest of the forest though Bai Qian didn’t stop to savor these things as she typically did. Her heart continued to beat at a fast pace and her stomach clenched with the fluttering of the nervous butterflies as they went wild and crazy inside her.
Waiting for Ye Hua to join her, Bai Qian’s eyes never left him as he walked around the secluded spot, gazing up in awe at the trees surrounding them. Her eyes followed him as she gathered her cultivation around her, her fox encouraging her to shift. With one last deep breath for courage, the small white nine-tailed fox disappeared and a slender woman stood in her place.
Bai Qian now stood behind Ye Hua on bare feet, willing him to turn around and look at her while a part of her hoped he would continue to look only at the trees and would never see her. Why was she still so conflicted about this? Why was it so difficult to do something that should be simple?
The peaches appeared in her hands and her heart jumped with anxiety when she heard herself whisper his name, wondering where her bravery had come from.
The hushed sound of her voice was slight, barely noticeable, but Ye Hua whirled around with a harsh intake of breath, the masculine sound making her jump slightly. Their eyes met and Bai Qian felt that intense gaze of his capture hers and he refused to let go; the intense effect of his eyes was so much more potent now that she was no longer hiding behind the form of her fox.
She stepped toward him on weak, trembling legs, her gaze still locked with his, determined to give him the gift. He said nothing and Bai Qian felt her cheeks grow pink with embarrassment as he continued to stare at her face intently, silence surrounding them.
“I have…” Her voice failed her and frustration filled her. Bai Qian cleared her suddenly tight throat to try again. She had spoken clearly in her den not that long ago; she could do so again if she tried.
“I have these peaches for you,” she continued, her voice cracking from weakness. Bai Qian’s cheeks grew warmer as she forced herself to keep going despite her weak voice. And still Ye Hua did nothing more than stare at her. “They’re a gift from the trees. Um, I mean, I picked them for you to say… They’re the oldest in the forest. The trees are, I mean. These trees. Not the peaches. The peaches are fresh…” Her voice gave out, her throat sore after speaking so much after so many years of disuse. The need to try and keep talking deserted her; she wasn’t making sense and couldn’t speak clearly.
Bai Qian really wanted to disappear. She was messing this all up. She no longer knew how to talk to another person. And why wasn’t Ye Hua saying anything to her? She could feel the burning in her cheeks intensify until her entire face felt hot and flushed, embarrassing her further. She took another shaky step toward Ye Hua, tossing the peaches at him. He caught them without taking his eyes off of her face.
“The peaches are to thank you.” Bai Qian managed to get that last sentence out in a raspy voice, her throat aching with the effort to speak the words. Then she took a hasty step back from him.
“Qian Qian.” Ye Hua’s voice was hoarse, deeper than normal, and the sound of it washed over Bai Qian and wrapped around her like an embrace. A shiver tingled down her spine and Bai Qian felt the prickle of chill bumps forming along her arms and the nape of her neck, the sensation alarming her though she realized it wasn’t fear she was feeling. What was wrong with her? All she knew for certain was she had wanted to give him the peaches and had messed everything up in the process.
Turning from him to escape her confusion and embarrassment, Bai Qian cringed when she tripped over the hem of her dress before she sprinted for the forest beyond the grove.
She couldn’t get out of there fast enough. The sound of Ye Hua’s voice behind her made Bai Qian run faster and she shifted back into her fox when she tripped over her dress again, gaining extra speed as she did.
“Wait, Qian Qian!” Ye Hua called after her once more, watching her vanish from his sight in a frantic blur of white fur and long fox tails. He followed behind her a few steps before forcing himself to stop. He wasn’t going to chase her again, not when he knew it would only make things worse.
“Damn.” Ye Hua frowned when he realized she wasn’t coming back. What in all the Heavens was wrong with him?! Bai Qian had finally revealed her human side to him and what had he done? Stared at her like a besotted fool who had never laid eyes on a woman before, making her more uncomfortable in the process when she had already obviously been nervous. He couldn’t have handled the situation worse if he had tried yet he wasn’t certain he could have reacted any differently.
An irritated rumble filled the air in the grove as the black dragon growled his displeasure with what had just happened, reminding Ye Hua everything with Bai Qian and her fox had been going well until he had managed to make a mess of things again.
“I know,” Ye Hua muttered in agreement with his dragon, sighing when he realized he was now talking aloud to his spirit beast. His eyes fixated on the spot where Bai Qian had been standing before she ran away from him.
Bai Qian had really shocked him; hearing her whisper-soft voice speak his name out of the blue had caught him off guard. And the woman standing before him when Ye Hua turned to look her way had left him not only incapable of speech or coherent thought but also unable to breathe properly. Her fox spirit was beautiful but Bai Qian herself was something else entirely.
He could still see her long flowing tresses of dark hair, left unbound and free to cascade down her slight shoulders and back. Bai Qian’s every movement was made with simple feminine grace. Her eyes were captivating and the delicate features of her face were exquisite, enhanced even more by the soft pink blush coloring her pale skin. Hers was an untamed ethereal beauty unmatched by any woman Ye Hua had ever met and would ever meet in the future.
And yet it wasn’t just her outward beauty that had Ye Hua caught in an unbreakable bond with her. Even without her speaking a word to him, he had learned so much about Bai Qian over the last two days just by spending time with her. She was cautious but genuinely curious about the things around her when she felt safe enough to relax her guard. She had endured so much sad loneliness in her life; he still remembered how strongly it had pervaded her soul when their cultivations had connected. Yet, she seemed to find a way to enjoy simple things in life when given the chance.
Her actions over the last two days told Ye Hua Bai Qian was a caring person. She had shown a willingness and desire to help him around the cabin when she could even though Ye Hua never would have asked her for it. And today with his arm; he had seen how worried Bai Qian had been when she noticed that by activating the spell she was causing him pain. He had seen her reluctance to continue testing the signals when they had been near her den; she had been concerned it was harming him in some way. There had been sympathy in her eyes that last time.
Looking down at the peaches still in his arms, Ye Hua sighed with regret when he pictured her running away from him again. Bai Qian had given him a gift, managing to overcome what must have been a tremendous amount of anxiety long enough to shift into her human form in order to thank him, something else he never would have asked of her. It spoke volumes about who Bai Qian was as a person; unmatched in beauty both inside and out.
Ye Hua had already accepted that he and Bai Qian were fated to love and take care of one another as his dragon had been insisting from the very beginning, had even come to think of her as someone he would always cherish. But, standing here with the precious gift she had just given to him in his arms, he finally understood why fate had brought them together and what it really meant to be soul mates. After his last two days with her, Ye Hua now knew why Bai Qian was the one person chosen to share a life with him.
He didn’t know how much he may have messed things up between him and Bai Qian just now or how much time it would take for Bai Qian to feel comfortable being around him again. No matter how long it took, he would be patient and give her all the time she needed. And he would do everything in his power to keep her safe while he waited for her.
His desire to keep Bai Qian safe no matter what it took reminded Ye Hua why she had brought him to this secluded grove in the forest to begin with. Tucking the peaches carefully into the hidden pocket in his robes to enjoy later when he was back at the cabin, Ye Hua forced his attention away from what had just happened and back to his immediate surroundings. He stared up at the canopy above him, that sense of wonder and awe filling him again as he looked up at the giant trees. He had never seen peach trees so tall before. There was powerful magic in this spot; he could feel it all around him.
What had Bai Qian been trying to tell him earlier? These trees are the oldest in the forest. Ye Hua had no trouble believing it. These trees felt ancient to him, as if they were almost as old as the Heavens. How was that possible? Who had planted them?
Looking around him some more before approaching the nearest tree, Ye Hua placed his palm against its broad trunk. He could feel the warmth of the wild magic running through it under the bark. The forest magic was strongest here; this was the true heart of the forest, the place where all its natural magic emanated from. The peach trees in this grove were the first. The rest of the trees in the forest must have grown from their magic.
Now realizing the significance of the special place, Ye Hua didn’t dare try to place a spell there.
Walking from one tree to the next, Ye Hua wondered how he could have missed finding this grove when wandering through the forest.
Up until his excursion with Bai Qian today, Ye Hua wouldn’t have hesitated to tell anyone who asked that he had found and explored every inch of the peach tree forest. So how had he and his dragon missed this group of ancient trees? And how had they missed Bai Qian’s meadow with its granite outcropping? He knew without a doubt he must have walked right by it several times because he had recognized the area of trees surrounding her glade. Unless the forest helped keep Bai Qian’s secret locations hidden from view… was it possible?
He couldn’t deny many of the trails had seemed to change in appearance when he looked behind him, even when he had just walked along them. Maybe Bai Qian’s undeniable talent and skill for hiding had been aided by the forest? It seemed impossible. Yet, Bai Qian had evaded discovery even when she had been very young. Ye Hua knew both his father and Zhe Yan’s had sent soldiers into the forest at different times in the past to search for her. Large groups of skilled trackers had been unable to find her. Why? Because Bai Qian and her fox hadn’t wanted to be found, had been scared of what might happen if they were, and the trees had known this.
Stopping when he reached the middle of the grove, Ye Hua looked back up at the canopy of leaves and peach blossoms far above him. There was respect and reverence in his voice when he spoke to the ancient trees around him. “You protect her, don’t you? Bai Qian. You hide many of her trails and the location of her den from others? Nobody can find her when she’s in your grove. You help her disappear from sight when she runs.”
The soft swish of leaves brushing against each other was their answer for Ye Hua, the branches of the trees swaying gently when there were no breeze or other air currents to explain their movements. Their ancient magic swirled around Ye Hua for a brief moment, bringing the scent of peach blossoms with it, before all fell still and silent again. And Ye Hua understood the trees accepted his presence in the forest now and would allow him to find places others could not. When Bai Qian chose to accept him as a friend, the forest followed along with her.
“Thank you for keeping her safe,” Ye Hua murmured, bowing to the trees as he spoke. “Thank you for looking after her when she had nobody else. You have my eternal gratitude for that.”
⇛ Next part: Ch 25: The Love of a Dragon
⇚ Previous part: Ch 23: Gentle Understanding