I thought it was…
Cute, in a way.
She stood with her shoulders back, braced for anything. Ready to get hit with rejection, to get hit by a gust of wind, to get hit with a tree that I conjured from the ground.
In that moment, she was ready for anything.
“For now,” I say, leaning over my boulder, elbow resting against the rock as my palm props up my face. “You may be my apprentice.”
And so it began.
Our spiraling stars.
Giving all that it can give.
Giving all that I can give. An exhale in the dark. A whisper that tapers into echoes. A single word given.
And it’s all that I am.
What a glorious night.
“Don’t step there.”
“Why not?” she asks, obeying before the words began leaving her mouth.
Willing, obviously. Trusting of me. But, also:
Curious. Wanting to know. To gain more.
I appreciate it.
Like it, in fact.
Quite a lot.
She’s a great apprentice.
“That’s a wallow burrow. Wallows are nasty, pesky things. They’ll follow you home to sow your eyes shut in your sleep. Mean bastards,” I tell her.
“What do they look like?” she ponders.
And so I show her.
I show her everything I can. Anything I can. I give all these festering secrets to her. Casting moonlight in even the darkest of places. Eager for someone to see, for someone to know.
For my forest to be known.
For it to be known before…
Before it’s gone.
A season passes. I can feel the waning of the moon. The way the stars stutter above us in that tearful way, the weight of knowing hanging heavy over their glow. Trees that were taller wilt against the season, wilt in the summer.
Finally, finally fading.
I can feel the wind whisper against my skin, alerting me that the residents are no more. That they’re leaving. Finding a place with life left in it. Finding a new forest to enchant. Finding a new guardian, a new well to drink from.
Finding a new “me”.
A hundred years ago, they all flocked to me for refuge. For shelter. And, without hesitation, I gave it to them. Opened up my forest. Tied myself to their magics, their loyalties.
And now that they’re breaking?
These bonds? These magics? These pillars of strength?
She’s saying something, I catch just the tail end of it.
“…and that’s why I won’t ever go into the ocean,” she finishes.
I nod at her.
I didn’t catch her reason—I curse myself internally for that—but, I agree wholeheartedly.
“No one should ever go in the ocean. Not without steel beneath their feet,” I tell her.
There’s too much there.
So much life brimming beneath the surface. So many strange things. The ocean isn’t just vast, it’s magical.
A forest that is always teeming.
That will never die.
We sit, gazing at the night sky in silence. Letting it take us under its wings. Sweep us away into the dark, the peace of the heavens.
She says it so suddenly, and so unexpectedly, that I don’t realize she’s talking to me for a minute.
“What?” I ask.
She nods, affirming her question. “You seem so… distant tonight.”
She’s so, so observant.
And I absolutely adore that about her.
If only we had longer…
She’d make an excellent Lady of the Forest.
If I had more in me, I could make it happen. Give her the magic she needs. Give her the knowledge and the care and the—
But I can’t.
“We’re out of time,” I tell her sadly. Smiling, in spite of the cold seeping from my bones.
It’s a magical occasion.
The fact that I can even say that to someone. That someone is there, with me, listening. Catching those words as they come from my mouth.
Mourning their meaning.
“What do you mean?” she asks, alarmed.
Something in my heart squeezes. Pinches. Her tone is too dark for the stars. Spiraling down so far, so fast, that she won’t ever reach the heavens. Won’t ever bask in their glow.
Instinctively, I scoot closer to her. Earnest. Trying to catch the starlight against my face so she can see for herself how honest I am. How sincere.
“This forest… it’s dying. I am dying. This forest and I—we’re tied together. Bound by magic and blood and oaths older than you, my friend. Much, much older. No—don’t look sad. Don’t. My only sadness is that I wasn’t able to give you more. That I wasn’t able to teach you more fully, share my magic with you. My only regret is that all I’ve taught you, you must take with you to someone else. To some other forest. It won’t do you any good here, in this place. They’re all clearing out—they can feel it as much as I can. The magic—
“It’s leaving us.
For a moment, I’ve shocked her. Stunned her. A processing emotion. One that is only a placeholder for what comes next. For the impact of what I’ve done to hit, to strike.
I’ve broken her.
She sobs, tears tossing away the starlight that tries to take them from her. Rejecting the comfort of the heavens, the softness of night, the soothing stillness.
She doesn’t reject my hold. Doesn’t push away my arms as they circle her. Doesn’t hate my shushing sounds, my quiet, useless reassurances. She doesn’t stop me when I pull her into my lap, or when I wrap her completely against my chest, arms firmly binding her to me.
Instead, when I pull her against me, she cries harder. More openly. Planting her face firmly into my chest, she sobs louder. Mourns in fits and bursts. Her breaths slamming out of her in painful starts, cracking at my chest.
“There’s no need to mourn, it’s alright. The forest is my home. I am its guardian. It’s a pleasure to have been tethered here for so many years. To be the magic that gives this place life—”
“Then why?” she demands. Words fumbling out of her through her tears, through her sobs. “Why are you dying?”
She lets me wipe tears from her face, and I’m honored. Thrilled to give her comfort. To be trusted with the proximity, the closeness.
She’s so small compared to me.
A strange, mythical beast.
Yet, here she is. Small. In my arms. Unafraid of me.
Mourning the loss of me.
I’m so undeserving.
She’s so brave. So courageous. That’s why I was never hesitant with her. Why I wanted her to know, to learn.
Why I don’t shy away from telling her the truth.
“Magic is fueled by belief. The humans… they’ve all but forgotten me. Forgotten this place, this forest. These myths that lie beneath the surface—they’re gone. My name hasn’t been whispered against the wind in what feels like a whole lifetime. My magic is fading. And, because of that, so is this forest. My magic—all of it is gone now. And soon, I will be, too.”
I nod, allowing myself a bit more selfishness than I ought to.
I rest my forehead against hers. Close my eyes.
Be still for a moment atop that rock, on the side of that mountain, under the gaze of heaven.
And I allow myself to indulge.
“I wish it were different,” I tell her honestly. “It’s been too long since I’ve met a soul like yours. I’ve enjoyed our time together. I’ve enjoyed teaching you. Learning from you. I’ve enjoyed every moment we’ve spent together. It’s been centuries since I’ve met someone like you. Centuries. Just the thought of that—of what I’m losing now that I’ve met you—makes me ache. Finally makes me wish that it weren’t so. It’s the biggest regret I’ll have: not being able to spend more time with you. I find myself in upheaval. Wishing that I could stay longer.”
Much to my surprise, I find her arms reaching up around my neck.
It’s a whimper. A whine. A plea, not to me, but to some higher power. Begging the heavens, the forest—whoever will listen.
Don’t let him go.
I hug her more tightly—more properly, now that she’s also hugging me.
And I stand.
With her in my arms, I stand.
And I turn.
And I put her down, let her get her bearings on the rock as I release my hold.
As I release all of her, except her hands. Back to the forest, to the moonlight.
I smile then.
Because I feel like it, and because she deserves it, and because I want her to feel how true it is when I say:
“I’ve enjoyed our time together. If there’s one thing I’m allowed to miss in the next life, I can assure you that it will be you. It will always be you.”
Her breath hitches again, and she has to tuck in her lower lip to keep from crying again.
She’s holding it back for me.
For my sake.
I’m struck again by how brave she is. How kind.
“So courageous,” I whisper, unable to keep myself from tucking a strand of her hair away.
“If I can get the people to believe again—will you come back?” she asks suddenly.
A strange question.
One that I don’t think I can answer honestly.
I shrug at her, uncertain. “I don’t know,” I tell her truthfully. “But, should you garner belief in me, it ought to rally behind my name. Or the ‘me’ as you know me—and as I know you—will not return. In order for there to be any hope, you must tell them my name.”
“What is it?” she asks.
Desperate for some semblance of hope. Aching for a chance. For some small glimmering in the heavens. For the stars to rally to her. For the sky to open up and give her one small thing, a tiny morsel.
Just one wish.
So I tell her.
Despite never having spoken my name in centuries, I speak it now, to her.
I tell her.
I whisper my name against her ear. Give the forbidden words, the promise of my being. A name is a powerful thing for my kind. Binding, unbreakable. I give her just the one word, and it’s more than a name.
It’s an oath.
I give her my name in the dead of night, on the cusp of my collapse, beneath the gaze of a dying star. I give her my name silhouetted in moonlight, bathing in the dark. I give it in spite of the sliver of silver behind us and the muggy summer wind, hot and unforgiving.
Against the waning night, I give her my oath.
I tell her my name.
And then, that’s it.
All the magic I have left.
I can feel it.
I begin to fade.
Her sobbing starts up again as the magic begins to shatter me. As I break away into dust. I smile at her, press a kiss to her forehead, and hold her hands for as long as I can. But soon—
I am nothing.
She sobs for a while after that.
I don’t know how I know that, but I do. I know that for sure. I know that she collapses there, on that rock, for a good while. Sobbing and holding her stomach as if she’s lost something. As if something has been torn from her. She sits there until sunrise.
Head held high, for some reason. Walking steadily along the paths I’ve taught her. Moving with certainty through the bushes, eyes hard.
And as she goes, I can feel the glimmer of hope. The way moonlight speaks, even in the midst of morning, in the glaring wake of day. I can feel it, because she gives it life.
She says it.
A promise carried by the wind. Beckoning to the stars. Heralding their return.
She says it.
And, somewhere in the woods, a flower blooms.
A tree sprouts.
A bush begins to give berries.
I can feel it in the bones of my forest.
That sleeping magic stirs.
It begins to rise.