The other races believe that plants can’t cry. These thousand tears I have shed would prove them wrong.
Of course, it is wrong of me to call myself ‘plant’. Caelan always berated me for it, even when I meant it in jest. “We are so much more than that,” he would tell me, wagging one finger. “We are living, feeling beings; we are sylvari.”
That last, I would echo with him, half-teasing and half-serious. Caelan always thought I was laughing at him, but sometimes I needed to prove him right – that we are more than the others races see us, that we are indeed not just walking, talking plants.
Living, feeling beings. I wasn’t certain that applied to me any more. With Caelan gone, I had become nothing more than a dry, withered husk. Not even a plant, just the desiccated remains of one.
“You’re brooding again, Erith.” Phaenin had come up behind me, silent as the wind over rippling grass. “What have I told you about brooding?”
I didn’t turn to look at him. Phaenin was just a sprout, a warrior barely two months out of the Dream, but he’d taken to following me around at the most inconvenient of times. Two months. I pushed to my feet, mentally counting off the days. Had it really been so long since I lost Caelan?
Phaenin came to my side, fronds of hair rustling against his collar. He stopped at the graveside, offering it a deep and respectful bow. “He’s sleeping peacefully, I’m sure of it,” he said, as he straightened.
I scowled at him. “And how would you know that? You’d not even left the Dream when he-” Died. Even now, I couldn’t bring myself to say it.
“I never knew Caelan, it’s true.” Phaenin’s clear amber gaze settled on me. “But I have heard many firstborn tell of him. And I know, too, that you could never love anyone so deeply who didn’t carry peace in their heart.”
I had had just about enough of ‘peace’. I snarled and raised a hand. Phaenin didn’t even flinch and, suddenly ashamed, I turned away. “By the Pale Tree,” I muttered, not really knowing who I was so angry with – or why.
“Come away with me.” Phaenin paced round the grave to stand before me again. His hand was held out toward me. “Please.”
I didn’t want his pity, or his sympathy. I turned my back a second time, folding my arms across my chest. As I stared down at Caelan’s grave, I heard Phaenin’s faltering steps fade. It was only as they disappeared entirely that I realised I was crying.
There was a basket of food waiting for me by the door when I returned home. I sighed and picked it up, taking it inside with me. The interior of the house, shadowed as it was by the higher levels of the Grove, was dark, without any of the pretty coloured lamps Caelan had been so fond of. I hadn’t been able to bring myself to light them, no matter how many bruised shins and sore elbows I got from walking into furniture in the gloom.
I shoved the basket onto a table without looking at its contents. Ever since his emergence from the Dream, Phaenin had been doting on me, bringing me food, trying to tempt me out of the house, even going so far as to tend Caelen’s grave when I wasn’t there. I’d found his presence irritating at first – who wanted to be pestered by a newly emerged and over-eager sprout? – but I had to admit I’d found his ministrations almost soothing in recent days.
The thought angered me, and with an abrupt cry, I shoved the basket off the table. There was an almighty clatter and fruit burst against the floor, filling the air with a ripe, succulent smell. I glowered in the fallen basket’s general direction. Who was Phaenin to try to drag me out of my misery? I wasn’t wallowing, no matter what he thought, and it wasn’t his place anyway. I would grieve for Caelan in my own way, and no impudent stalk was going to stop me.
With a sigh, I turned away. It didn’t matter, in the end, whether I appreciated Phaenin’s efforts or not. I had loved – still did love – Caelan more deeply than Phaenin could ever imagine, and my sorrow was one that no tender words or thoughtful gestures would assuage. The sooner Phaenin realised that, and left me to my own devices, the better.
“What is that?” I glared at the sheet of parchment Phaenin was unrolling across the table, each corner weighed down with some abandoned object I’d meant to tidy away but hadn’t quite managed to.
“It’s a map, of course.” Phaenin’s smile was infuriatingly bright. “Of the lands north of Caledon Forest. There are places were the asura live, and then beyond that skritt, and more sylvari.”
That caught my interest, though I didn’t want to show it. “More sylvari?”
Phaenin’s finger traced a pattern across the map. “There used to be a human city here, centuries ago. There’s nothing left now but a small sylvari village. It’s beautiful. You’ll love it.”
I wanted to study the map, but drew back instead, shaking my head. “Why do you want to go on such an expedition? Are you doing this just for my benefit?”
“Well, I do want to see the wildlands…” Phaenin gave a guilty grin. “But this is really for you, Erith. You need to get out of the Grove, even out of Caledon Forest. You need to stop brooding.”
Anger was building like an ember nestled amongst dry leaves in my chest. Phaenin was meddling, again. “I’m not brooding,” I said.
He didn’t seem to hear me. His arms began to wave wildly, as if taking in the whole of the outside world. “You need to see what’s out there, Erith. It’ll help you forget.”
My slap snapped Phaenin’s head back as sharply as a twig breaking under a careless footstep. He staggered away, reaching for the edge of the table and missing as he slumped back against the wall.
“I don’t want to forget,” I hissed. I advanced around the table, fury building to a raging pyre. “How could you even suggest that I would?”
Phaenin managed to drag himself upright, though his eyes were wide and shocked. “I just thought-”
I was too angry to listen. “You thought I could ‘forget’ the love of my life just to be with you on a bloody picnic, of all things.” I jabbed a finger into his chest. “How could you be so stupid? Why would I ever forget about Caelan for such a puny little weed?”
Phaenin cowered in the face of my rage. His hands crept up as if to cover his face and I drew back, but my anger didn’t abate. Slowly, Phaenin began to creep towards the door.
“That’s it, run!” I screamed, heedless of the tears that streaked my face. “Get out of here and don’t come back!”
The door whispered open and snicked shut again with Phaenin’s passing. I stared after him, suddenly sober, but I couldn’t bring myself to go after him. Instead I folded my arms and sniffed in disdain. “Good riddance.” My words sounded hollow in the empty house, and I knew, even as I ripped the map off the table, that I didn’t mean them in the slightest.
Sleep wouldn’t come to me that night. I huddled in a corner of my bedroom, staring out of a window at the moonlit depths of the Grove. So peaceful, so serene, but there wasn’t a trace of that tranquillity in my own heart.
I was furious with Phaenin, still, that he could ever suggest I forget Caelan, but as I brooded, a fresh anger came to me, one I had so far avoided. Phaenin was naïve and foolish, but he wasn’t the one who had taken my love from me. I had been too scared, I realised, to seek revenge before, but abruptly I wanted nothing more than to raze the whole forest to the ground, if it would flush out the ones who had harmed Caelan.
I left the Grove by a secret way, unguarded and unwatched. There were still sylvari coming and going around the city, those who were children of the night and the stars, but none saw me as I ran, and soon I left even the most ardent moon-lover behind. The forest swallowed me, nothing more than a shadow with the glint of a blade in my hand.
The Nightmare Count had half a dozen haunts in the forest, even so close to the Grove, and I didn’t care which I burned. I slowed only when I heard voices beyond the crest of a ridge: courtiers, sylvari lost to madness and darkness, out in the forest when all sensible creatures were safe in their homes. Except me; I grinned at the thought.
I followed the courtiers as they left the silvered lakeside and took a path leading into the hills. Soon, thorns began to coil in great masses around the trail, and the earth grew parched. Wherever the Nightmare Court flourished, only the strangest and least hospitable plants could grow. Perhaps that went for the courtiers themselves, too.
The sylvari I had been following vanished round an outcrop of rock. When I had passed it, I found myself in a narrow valley, little culverts and gulleys forming the only shelter for the sleeping courtiers, and cells of briar and iron, mostly empty, marking both walls. There was a smell of rotting vegetation, of moss and damp, decaying things. Small this enclave might be, but there were dozens of the Nightmare Court here – up ahead, hidden behind another bank of thorns, I could hear high-pitched laughter rising into the night.
My own laughter, just as manic, rose in my throat. I tightened the grip of my left hand on my dagger, drawing a jewelled scepter with my right. At the movement, flame burst into life in my palms, rippling along both weapons. In the glow, I laughed again, raised my hands to the sky, and called down fire from the heavens.
Ash and soot surrounded me, briar and sylvari alike reduced to little more than cinders. Only a trickle of flame still touched my fingertips, barely enough to warm my flesh on a cold day. Yet now, I found, was the time I needed my magic most. Now, when the surge of my anger had burnt itself out, but that of the Nightmare Court had only just been kindled.
They advanced on me with measured steps, eyes and luminescent limbs gleaming in the darkness. There had been far more of them in the enclave than I had imagined. Even when I had destroyed half the valley, their numbers were still great. Great enough to tear me limb from limb if they got close enough.
I sent a fresh spurt of fire to the ground between myself and the courtiers, but it sputtered out as it hit the scorched ground. Nothing left to burn. With a flash of concentration, I sparked lightning in my hand, then sent it streaking between the courtiers. A few cried out in pain and dropped away, but others kept coming – better armoured, better armed, more fiercely determined than those I had yet faced.
I sank to my knees, all strength deserting me. I had no more magic left, not even a scrap. Let the Nightmare Court take me, if they would. I would die as Caelan had, and I would find him again in the Dream. Yet, as I knelt there, it wasn’t Caelan’s image that came to me, and I suddenly found I very much wanted to live.
The arrows had found their targets before I realised I was no longer alone. Three courtiers slumped soundlessly to the the ground, and a murmur of consternation rose up from their midst. More arrows fell, these ones tipped with flame, illuminating the sudden fear on the upraised faces of the courtiers. A scream rang out as more arrows hit, and suddenly the spell-bound anticipation that had been holding the Nightmare Court broke.
A handful flung themselves at me with wordless cries of fury. I hadn’t even made it to my feet when someone tumbled into them, axes whirling in a blur that thrust them back. My breath caught as the image from my head was suddenly there in the flesh before me. Axes? A bow? Phaenin.
He worked silently, axes rising and the Nightmare Court falling back before him. Their own weapons clanged against Phaenin’s, but either his skill or his determination won through. Except, beyond the fight, I could see the courtiers massing, preparing themselves for a renewed push.
They threw themselves on Phaenin and with a shout he went down, vanished beneath their mass. With a cry of sheer terror, not for myself but for Phaenin, I hurled myself into the fray. In my exhaustion, I could conjure only fragments of magic, but I slashed and hacked with my dagger, ramming my scepter into the face of any courtier who stood in my way.
Finally, they fell back, and Phaenin surged to his feet. He was bruised and bleeding, battered by a thousand strikes, but there was a grin on his face. “This is what I saw,” he panted, whirling one axe as if to prove how unharmed he really was. “In my Dream: you and me, together. Protecting one another.”
I thought, for a moment, my heart might break a second time. Phaenin had been struggling, all this time, toward the future the Pale Tree had shown him. What must he have thought, when I had pushed him away so many times?
There was no more time for words, though. The courtiers were massing in the shadows, so I grabbed Phaenin by the arm, ignoring the slick of blood beneath my fingers, and pulled him away.
Dawn found me beside Caelan’s graveside a second time. I felt I needed to apologise to him, though I wasn’t sure what for. For putting myself in danger, perhaps? Or for refusing to see that I might have a life without him, when he only ever wanted me to be happy.
Slow footsteps drew my head. Phaenin was clambering up the knoll, wincing at every step. Bandages covered his arms, his chest, half his head. He’d joked about his ‘light’ injuries all the way back through the forest, until he’d finally lost too much blood and collapsed before the very gates of the Grove.
He could see my worry. “It’s nothing,” he said, giving his usual grin and flexing one arm. The movement made him wince again. “Well, okay, maybe it’s a little something.”
Surprising us both, I hugged him, realising too late I was pressing on his wounds. I stepped back sheepishly with a muttered apology. “I… wanted to thank you. You came to save me when I needed you most.”
“What are friends for?” His grin faltered a little. Friends? But Phaenin had always wanted more than that, hadn’t he, though he’d been subtle about it. Too subtle, when I had been so consumed by sorrow.
I sighed, and looked down at Caelan’s grave again. How could I walk away, even in death, from a man I had loved so much?
“You don’t have to forget him.” Phaenin’s words were almost a whisper. “You’ll always love Caelan – I understand that – but that doesn’t mean you have to grieve forever.”
I turned to Phaenin – to a man who had almost died to save me from my own rage and stupidity. A man who had been there, patiently, always giving and getting only spite in return, when for all those weeks I had been too blind to appreciate his presence. A man I might, just maybe, feel more for than I had been able to admit.
He reached for me, tentative. “Come away with me. Please.”
This time, I smiled, and took his hand.