Chapter 22 Such a strange sensation, fainting is. Like tumbling through darkness, permanently falling. I couldn’t recall the ground greeting my body in the hard and painful thud my fall ended in, or the painful pricks of the pointed rocks that surely jabbed into my skin. Only a sense of floating on air, drifting weightlessly down. A loud scream pierced my ears and soul. The only sound that came to me, as though it sounded from a distance. The darkness was too thick to see through, like a blanket covered my head and blotted out all light. Then, the sound faded, echoing listlessly into the dark. Slowly, things came back to me. Sensations. Things like the sound of the wind blowing through the trees. The scent of dirt and wood. The aroma of grass and the tangy scent of leather. And him . . . Marren. The woodsy scent of his body. My eyes were sealed shut. I forced them apart, desperate to set my eyes on him as I remembered my overwhelming fear of him fighting Jiren in my form. At first, things blurred together, as if being viewed from underwater. But then focus came to me with each blink, and the sight of Marren crouching at my side, his eyes full of worry. The baby flipped inside me, my stomach growled a reminder I hadn’t eaten in quite some time, and my head spun with the dizziness that still clung to my body. “Marren!” I breathed through the dizziness and sat up as quickly as I could, wrapping my arms around his shoulders and tucking my nose into his neck. “You’re alright.” “Relena,” he whispered into my hair, wrapping his arms tightly around me. “I thought you would never awake again.” My voice cracked, but I didn’t care. Shush, uwoduhi. Shush. I’m here. I’m here. His voice spoke to my mind as his body trembled. Tears spilled down my face as I pulled away from him. I poured out everything inside me that I had bottled up, kept safe until we were together again. “I’m so sorry for everything, for being stubborn, for not listening, for being jealous and selfish, and not—” Marren stopped my downpour of emotional babble by placing both hands on either side of my face and forcing me to look at him. “Shush. Everything is all right. Gvgeyu.” His lips pressed firmly into my forehead, burning my skin with the heat I thought I’d lost forever. “You don’t understand, Marren, I—” “I don’t need an apology or a reason for your behavior. I should have taken the time to explain things better to you. I am the one that should be sorry. I’m the one that thought pushing you away or keeping you at a distance would keep you safe. I’ve only done things to hurt you worse.” I forced myself to pause, experiencing fear rising within him. “What do you mean?” He hid something, albeit not that well, from me. “Relena, Danst was injured. You should go to him while he’s still clinging to this world.” My breath escaped me and failed to return. My lungs contracted, restricting the air from entering. My best friend, the one who helped me through all of those horrible nights after finding me in the woods, the one who taught me how to fight and sent my life in a chaotic tumble when I thought he betrayed me in order to save himself from the pain and torment that would kill him. My friend. My closest, dearest friend. No one could ever come close to him in my heart, not even Marren. Though Marren had my heart, a space would always remain in a place no one else could touch besides Danst. Danst was my only real family. He was all I had. My eyes began to burn as tears stung them, yet they didn’t seem content to fall. I sat suspended in guilt and disbelief. No, he can’t die. He can’t. Can’t you save him? Can’t the elves? Marren’s eyes darkened. My heart sank further. He was injured protecting you and the elves. There’s nothing they can do. I’m so sorry. We need to go before we’re too late. I couldn’t make sense of that. How can Danst die? How did Marren know? He stood up and held his hand out to help me up. I stood, deep in my thoughts. So deep, the muscles kinked in my forehead. I was aware you were protected by Tobias. I didn’t think he would betray me to get to Jiren. I woke and fought my way toward you. On the way, Danst was stabbed by Jiren. I tried to make sense of what Marren explained to me. He discovered this before he found me? We started walking as Marren continued to explain. I stopped to help him, understanding how much he means to you. But had I been aware of what Tobias was up to . . . I don’t blame Tobias. I understood. Given the circumstances, I may have done the same thing. I’m not sure if my defending him helped Marren. Though, he gave a gentle squeeze to my hand, continuing out of the trees and into the tall grassy field, now covered with blood, acrid green ooze that steamed, and masses of bodies strewn all about. All the blood. The bodies . . . Marren stopped walking and pulled me into him, sensing I was no longer sure of all this death being worth the means to an end. People lost their lives. Because of me. Don’t think about them, his thoughts whispered in my head. You’re safe, and that is what’s important. These people understood the consequences of fighting. I nodded and pulled away from him. He gazed into my eyes as he rubbed my arms gently up and down, filling me with his warmth; warmth I missed so much. His eyes smiled at me once more then we turned toward the edge of the trees, to the boundaries of the elves. *** Two tall elves, dressed in white robes, stood at the entrance between two trees. They lowered their heads in respect and allowed us through without a word. My heart palpitated anxiously. I held my breath waiting for them to tell Marren only he could pass. But none stopped me. As soon as we stepped through, I couldn’t help but focus on the center of what took up my vision. The ground was carved out hollow, tapering down to a level platform. Trees arched above in a surrounding protective barrier. In the center, stood dwarves, elves, and werewolves. They stood solemnly with their heads bowed. Their arms hung slack at their sides or crossed at the wrists in front of them. My heart picked up in pace. Are we too late? Marren didn’t answer. He continued leading me, instead, toward the center where Danst lay, taking his last few numbered breaths. How I clung to the hope he held on long enough for me to arrive at his side to say one last goodbye, but the silence was too thick. Not even the breathing of the races taking up the center of the elves home broke through the thick air. Marren released my hand and my body took over, gently pushing through those standing around to find the one I needed to see, one final time. I nearly collapsed when the base of the bed he lay on came into view. It was covered in white cloth that shimmered with a pale effervescence and had a green border of ivy and leaves that delicately wove along the edge. My eyes slowly moved up to Danst’s feet, covered in smooth layers of light gray cloth that appeared to be as soft as flower petals. A white robe with silver trim stretched to his mid-calf, bound at his waist with a silver clasp adorned with pearls. His hands rested on his stomach, one on top of the other. He appeared as though he slept. His jaw was relaxed and smooth, the battle long gone from his face. His green eyes hid beyond the lids that made his eyebrows more pronounced. And above them, a silver band encircled his forehead with his stringy brown hair woven through. My heart took on the weight of what everyone else already knew. Danst was gone. I was too late. I approached his side, resting my hand on his, the warmth gone from his pale skin. I slapped a tear that fell down my cheek. My heart broke into so many pieces. Those fragments would forever miss his presence. Miss his laughter and the warmth in his smile. The way he showed patience when he first taught me to fight, the care and protection he gave me when he saved me so many years ago. He shouldn’t have needed to give his life. A movement caught my attention out of the corner of my eye. Joe’n approached, stopping at Danst’s head. She peered down at him, the corners of her lips turned down, which caused me to question her sadness for his loss of life. Her eyes rose to mine, and as if she heard my thoughts she said, “Danst was my grandson.” Her words held no disgrace, no hate. I almost expected a murmur of shock through the crowd. How had I not known this? How could I have possibly been the last to learn this? “As is custom with my people, Danst will be sent to his next life in our tradition. He meant a lot to you, as you did him. I’m giving you the chance to send him on his final journey.” I stared for a long moment, processing her words. She spoke them with grace and calm, though clearly torn about losing her grandson. The whites of her eyes were red. Even the lower lid was puffy, as though she had been crying until she approached. Realizing she waited for a response, I numbly nodded my head. I removed my hand from Danst’s, leaving part of me behind with him. “Relena, I need you to follow me, alone. This is a private ceremony. You may join your friends after the send-off.” I nodded and glanced toward Marren at the back of the crowd. His voice echoed into my mind, Go, I’ll be waiting for you. I know. Gvgeyu. You too. I wanted to experience the emotion that would fill me with Marren’s words. Instead, emptiness and lifelessness filled me. Joe’n turned then moved down a dark path in between some trees and stop as she waited for me to follow. The four elves picked up the bed Danst lay on, waiting to carry him. I quickly followed behind the Ancient, sensing the others in close proximity with Danst. *** I was wrong when I thought Danst lay on a bed. He lay on a raft. A small one built to accommodate him to his next journey. I understood nothing of the ways of the elves, of which Joe’n realized, and quietly told me of the ceremony. This sort of funeral was given only to those who deserved the highest honor. Danst gave his life protecting others and made difficult decisions to protect his people and his home. She told him long ago that because he was half human, he would have to prove himself to her. She didn’t realize what she asked of him at the time and wished she had shown him her affections. This was her way of remedying that. Not only was this the highest honor she could bestow on her grandson, he was of the Ancient bloodline. It was his birthright. Hearing the emotion in the words Joe’n spoke pulled at my heart. I thought she outcaste him because he didn’t fit in with the rest of the full-blooded elves. Being new to this realm had given me a fresh perspective on things. His life wasn’t the way it was because he was on the outside, but because he had to prove himself worthy of his lineage. Just like I had, and likely still will have, to prove I’m worthy of Marren’s love—regardless of our heart song. The races of this world had taken extreme measures to protect themselves and in doing so had procured such high levels of fear and suspicion over outsiders. I understood why they were so protective over themselves. Being different created a risk the races of the immortal realm had to be leery of in order to extend their lives and protect those they loved. A means of survival. We approached the head of the river, flowing away from us toward the horizon. Where the river ended, no one knew. The living wasn’t meant to know. Only the dead could see, and even then they had to be worthy of what waited at the other side. The elves stepped into the water and rested the raft carefully on the surface. As instructed, I stepped toward Danst then placed my hands at the foot of the raft. Before pushing him off, I said, “Whatever waits for you at the other end of this river, know that until we meet again, you have always been my closest friend. You were the only real family I’d ever had. Until the end, I love you.” A hot tear fell down my cheek. I gently pushed the raft into the current that pulled it along the river's length and waited until the fading light made it too difficult to make out his shape before walking out of the water.