‘I can’t believe we had to bargain for her life!’ Hans growled angrily. ‘Ascalonian mutts.’ He hissed under his breath. The human turned to me, ‘come, let’s go now.’ He reached down to help me, but I pushed his hand away.
‘I feel better now. I can walk.’
Hans only nodded, but as we trudged through the jungle, he hovered close to me. Everything ached, but it was like floating on clouds compared to my desperate and painful dash only hours earlier.
My festered leg slowed me down considerably, and the group seemed to be dawdling as I limped and stumbled through the thick undergrowth.
‘How long until we get to Bay Haven?’ Lurk snapped, swatting bugs out of the air.
‘Don’t worry friend,’ Hans said, pulling back a large jungle leaf. ‘We’ve arrived’
As the tropical leaf curled back, I got my first glimpse of Bay Haven. The stone fort was perched upon a small hill, surrounded by a sandy shore that seeped into Ventry Bay. I could hear the gentle lapping of waves on the shore, and the soft squawks of seagulls on the wind. As we drew closer to the fort, it became evident that the stronghold was in disrepair. The large flickering braziers illuminated crumbling walls and rusted metal spikes.
‘The Lionguard have seen better days,’ Lurk said, his eye brows rising up his forehead.
‘My friend, all of Tyria has seen better days since the dragons awoke,’ Hans said with a deep sigh.
It was a slow, steady climb to the top of the hill. My head swum from the exertion, and I dug my fingers into Stalk’s leafy fur for support. By the time we reached the Haven, I was dripping in sap and sweat. Two human Lionguards were stationed at the gate. They were relatively unalarmed by our presence, until their inferior eyes finally focused on me in the flickering torchlight.
Their jaws hung in shock.
‘Stop catching spark-flies bookahs and get some help!’ Lurk snapped, smacking their shins with his gnarled stick. The two guards ran into the fort, their urgent yells being carried off by the cool sea breeze.
A dark haze washed over me as the exhaustion overwhelmed me. I collapsed, and Hans caught me. He hoisted me up easily, and whisked me through the outpost. The previously dormant camp had started to stir, and through my hazy vision I saw a large female figure stride towards me. She was covered head to toe in gleaming Lionguard heavy armor.
‘Who’s causing this uproar in my outpost?’ she barked, stalking forward.
‘Sheriff Nora,’ the Lionguard saluted. ‘They come with an injured sylvari woman.’
The sheriff’s eyes fell on me.
‘Call a sylvari mender immediately,’ she ordered. ‘Lead them to the hospice and make sure they are attended.’
‘Thank you Sheriff,’ Hans said, relief in his voice.
Her dark gaze lingered on me momentarily, then she nodded and strode away.
The Lionguard solider lead us through the stone walls into a hospice. Everything was dark, but I could see sleeping forms in cotton cots. Somehow I lost sight of the charr and asura, and the next moment the Lionguard had led us into a small stone room. It had a simple wooden bed against the wall, and a colorful stained-glass window shedding moonlight.
Hans set me down, and the solider lit candles. As the Lionguard left , a sylvari mender hurried past him into the room, Lurk snapping at his heels.
The mender’s eyes fell on me. His whole body recoiled, and his nose wrinkled with distaste.
‘What are you waiting for cabbage?!’ Lurk barked. The mender flinched and moved into action. He pulled a basin of water off a small side table and began to sponge the puss and grime away from my body.
‘What happened to you?’ he asked,horrified. His arms were outstretched so he could do his work at the furthest distance his body would allow him.
I couldn’t answer.
‘She mentioned something about the Nightmare…’ Hans started. I shot him a glare, and he stopped abruptly. The mender nodded absently and finished sponging my body, exposing disgusting withered skin. The mender pulled back, and his lips curled as he surveyed the extent of my wounds.
That moment another sylvari flew through the door.
‘I’m here Ceoir,’ she said, slightly flustered. The male mender stood up, and without a word fled through the doors. The female sylvari was shocked, but quickly regained her composure.
‘I’m sorry about him. He’s only new at this,’ she said with a kind smile. She quickly moved forward. ‘I’m Faire, and don’t worry sapling. I’ll have you healed in no time.’
She tended over me tirelessly, and I stared at the ceiling. She dabbed ointments and medications on my wounds, making them sting. I could do nothing but take out my pain on my bottom lip.
After a while, Lurk wandered out, but Hans sat on a small stool in the corner of the room, waiting patiently.
‘I’ve seen these types of wounds before. They’re from the Nightmare Court, but normally they kill their victims before…’ she looked over me and sighed. I turned my head to the wall, avoiding her prying eyes.
She worked unwaveringly through the night until the first lights of the new morning crested over the hills and flooded through the colored windowpane. I was exhausted, and the only thing that kept me awake was the sharp pain as the mender poked and prodded my body, particularly my leg. I groaned in pain as she tried to clean out the puss with a hard sea sponge.
Faire sighed and dropped another sap and puss soaked sponge into the basin. Dark rings encircled her eyes, and she wiped a bead of sweat from her forehead. Hans had fallen asleep with his head propped precariously on his hand.
‘I’m done,’ she said with a deep sigh.
Han’s head slipped off his hand, and he jerked awake.
I tried to sit up, but Faire pushed me down.
‘Am I fixed or not?’ I asked sharply.
‘You’re healed, but…’ she hesitated. ‘Your wounds were too deep. I doubt the scars will ever fade.’
I glanced down at my booked and quickly looked away.
‘At least you’re alive,’ Hans said quietly from his corner. Faire nodded.
‘I don’t know what happened while you were captured by the Nightmare Court, but they did something horrible to you. I can feel your fear and hate,’ she said softly. ‘Please don’t worry, we can heal your wounds beyond the flesh. For now, you must rest.’
The mender wearily left the room, and my gaze fell on the human.
He stood up.
‘I suppose you would like your privacy, but before I go sylvari, what is your name?’
I hesitated, but I reminded myself that his kindness had proven his worth.
‘My name is Azalea,’ I said, my voice cracking from fatigue.
‘Very well Azalea,’ he said walking towards the door. ‘I’ll return when you awake.’
I don’t know how many days I had slept, but I sensed the sun had dipped beyond the horizon a few times since I last opened my eyes. I sat up groggily. Stalk whimpered and rested his muzzle on my bedsheets, his big black eyes staring up at me with concern. I gently stroked his head, but stopped when I noticed food and water laid out beside the bed. I guzzled it down hungrily. I feasted on fresh bread and cheese, even a few ripe fruits. I picked up the peach and stared at it momentarily as the memories whirled in my head. The last time I had eaten a fresh fruit was when Ralith had smuggled it into the jail cell for me. As the soft sweet tastes passed through my lips and dribbled down my chin, emotions welled in my eyes. For the first time in what felt an eternity, I was full.
With my thirst and appetite sated, I looked to the thing I dreaded the most; my body. They had ripped the ruined leafy attire I had been wearing and replaced it with underclothes made from the woven fibers of cotton. It felt rough and uncomfortable. I stood up slowly. My body was stiff and with each movement I feared my skin would break from my body like old bark. My feet fell upon the cold stone floor, and I shivered. At the end of the bed was another cotton gown. I picked up the tattered garment and pulled it around my shoulders, but as I did I glimpsed a reflection in the mirror.
A strange creature stared back at me from the reflective glass. Its withered skin hung on thin bones and gaunt cheeks. Dark scars streaked its body and deep gashes sunk into its skin. Black dots littered one side of its neck, the result of badly healed drill marks. A scar ran from its lip to chin, and another on the left temple, spanning the length of its face. A few pink leaves were tinged purple from malnutrition. I bit my lip. No wonder the mender had recoiled at the sight of me.
A knocked rapped impatiently at the door, and frantically I pulled the gown tightly around me, despite the uncomfortable fabric. I opened my mouth to snap at who ever it was. However, before a word could pass through my lip the door swung open and a female sylvari burst in. I panicked and hissed, stepping backwards and fumbling into the bed. Stalk lifted his head, alarmed at first, but he only blinked t the sylvari and dropped his head again.
The sylvari’s wide doe-like eyes blinked in bewilderment. I stared at her momentarily, and while I saw no threat in her eyes, I saw something else; beauty. The sylvari was mesmerizing. For the first fleeting moments that my gaze wandered over her was a pleasure, but then my own broken image shattered through my thoughts. Jealousy plunged painfully into my chest like a dagger.
‘Get out of here,’ I snapped angrily, pulling my gown even tighter around my body. The sylvari only stared at me, her eyes traveling over the scars that deformed my face, and then dropping to the side of my neck. I flinched.
‘My name is Eilidh, and I need your help,’ she said finally. ‘Where is the Nightmare Court you escaped from?’
How did this stranger know? I felt venerable, and reflexively anger flushed through my bark.
‘Go away!’ I snapped again. ‘I don’t care who you are or what you want! Go away!’
Eilidh cocked her head quizzically.
‘A friend of mine has been taken…’ She continued, undeterred. ‘And I don’t want him to be dead, or like you. So can you please tell me where the base is?’
end up like you…
The harsh words punched the wind from my chest, and I collapsed backwards onto the bed as the word reverberated throughout my body. I stared lumpy back mangled mass that was my arms, as the raw emotions swirled within me.
Stalk whimpered and brushed against my leg, lending me strength. I grasped his leafy fur tightly, desperate to hold back my emotions.
‘’I can’t remember,’ I managed to mutter quietly. Oh how I wished she would leave!
Eilidh paused for a moment, then stepping forward, she said ‘Oh! Can I see? I’m a mesmer, I could search your mind.’
I instinctively sprang off the bed, my eyes searching desperately for a weapon, but there was none. I hated being weaponless. I swore to myself when I obtained another, I’d never let it go. Stalk stood in front of me, his fur bristling. I summoned my courage, despite my weak body.
‘You touch me little girl, and I will break you!’ I hissed.
‘Eilidh simply scratched her head, unfazed, and looked around thoughtfully.
‘I’m a warden,’ she announced after a few moments. ‘And my friend is in trouble. He needs your help, and I don’t have time to search all of the Nightmare Court’s usual haunts, so please… try to remember,’ the girl sounded level, but there was a merciless determination slithering beneath her tones.
‘My muscles were already aching from the tense battle stance, and I was forced to relax slightly. I discretely propped myself against the side table. I was trying to hide my weakness, but somehow I felt that she was not being fooled.
‘You won’t make it to your friend alive,’ I said finally. ‘The cave is deep, and you are small. Even if you do survive, the Nightmare Court will make you wish you were dead.’
I was angry at her, and I wanted my words to hurt her.
Something about my words did bother the girl, but I did not see fear in her eyes.
‘Well, I can’t just leave Caelan there. And I’m not going alone, so don’t worry,’ she said perkily. ‘I can come back tomorrow, if you like and tell you about it.’
Every time she mentioned her friend, I felt the words painfully embed themselves deep in my chest and weigh on my heart. If I told the sylvari where the Nightmare Court base was, would she come back alive with her friend, or would the girl’s death be on my hands? She had come with such confidence and determination to find her friend. Deep in my heart I was jealous. Had anyone tried looking for me? Did they even miss me in the Grove?
I looked to Eilidh, who stared at me expectantly. I swallowed and summoned my memories. My skin crawled, and I couldn’t help shuddering slightly.
‘West,’ I said after a moment. ‘We came from the west. It wasn’t very far… I remember there were so many prisoners.’
‘Thanks so much!’ Eilidh beamed. ‘I’ll do what I can for everyone. You have probably just saved a lot of lives, so… smile! Everyone is prettier when they smile. I hope you get well soon – I’ll be back tomorrow.’ She strode briskly out the door. I desperately hoped I hadn’t sent her to her grave. I sunk deep into my own thoughts.
The conversation had shown me the bitter truth. I was not the same sylvari that had left the Grove so many moons ago. The mender’s and Eilidh’s reaction scared me. I feared the horror mingled with distaste as they gazed upon me. If I were to return to the Grove, would they react in the same way? Ralith’s distant voice whispered in my ear.
‘…they’ll shun you. They’ll fear you, fear to be like you, jaded.’
I shivered and turned away from the empty doorway, my decision was made. If Eilidh did indeed return tomorrow, I had no intention of being here.