The claw descended to mangle and tear Valstann’s vulnerable flesh. Rejaxx jerked his arms wide, pulling the injured night elf into pieces. Blood splattered at the general’s feet as Fandral swayed where he stood, a thin moan mingling with the hum of the insect swarm.
The meaty rip, the buzzing song, the sound of hope dying.
Xavius was relentless. Hour after hour, night after night, he forced the arch-druid to relive his greatest failure. “Why?” asked his satyrs, but the demon lord only shrugged and smiled. Staghelm was marked for greatness if Xavius could break him; the kaldorei were long-lived and he was patient.
“Anan’da, Anan’da!” Istaria whooped, bounding past her mother with the speed of a jackrabbit and racing towards the approaching druid. Without breaking his stride, Fandral bent down to scoop up his giggling granddaughter, tossing her high into the air. Leyara watched them play with satisfaction, though the shards of her heart ground together to see echoes of Valstann mirroring themselves in Fandral’s face and Istaria’s eyes. Always, she thought, Now I am beyond mourning my husband, now I love my daughter for her own sake, but every so often, grief would creep up on her with the swiftness of night falling. The late afternoon sun limned Fandral and Istaria together against the sparkling curve of the lake, creating such a perfect moment that she locked the memory deep in her heart before letting Valstann go again.
Fandral lowered Istaria to the ground, her little legs churning, so that she bolted off into the weedy grass around the lakeshore as soon as she touched down. He shook his shaggy head, a small smile touching his lips, as he watched her run.
“She grows,” Leyara said, her eyes following her daughter.
“They never stay young as long as you like,” Fandral agreed. His tone made it clear Valstann was not far from his mind either. Like a cat shaking off water, he gave himself a brief shake and took her arm. Together they walked in comfortable silence to the chairs she had set out in front of her little house in anticipation of his visit. A bucket full of fresh lake water held bottles of her acorn beer. She uncorked one, handing it to Fandral. She did not like the gray cast to his skin, nor the lines under his eyes.
“Another bad night?” she asked softly.
He took a long draught of the beer. “This is good, Leyara. Your best batch this season.”
“Yes. It’s bad.” With a sigh, he set the bottle down in the grass between his feet. He moved like an injured man, careful of every bone and muscle, and she felt tears prick her eyes. She sipped her beer to cover her anxiety. He didn’t look at her as he spoke. “I cannot sleep for fear of it…” he began, but then he paused.
Silence loosened more tongues than endless questions, Leyara knew. She waited, aware he must remember teaching her that lesson himself. After a small sigh of irritation, he spoke again. “I see him. My son. Each night, I dream about how I saw him for the last time.” Every word was heavy with pain, dropping like stones from Fandral’s mouth to bruise Leyara’s tender flesh.
“Will you tell them to me?”
“No,” said Fandral gently. “Even if I could speak of it, I would not share it with you. Let him live in Istaria, not as I remember him.” He seemed to want to continue, but thought better of it and only took a sip of his ale.
She dropped her head low over her lap, trying to hide her spilling tears. How could she admit she, too, dreamed of Valstann? Of their nightly swims together, how he knew the exact way she took her tea, the time he felt Istaria kick as he cuddled her pregnant body close? Sweet memories, bitter only because they were gone. She felt their different sorrows divide them.
Neither elf spoke for a long time. The only sounds were Istaria’s thin piping voice and the cry of the gulls as they wheeled above. The pain of losing her husband was fresh as it had been five years ago. What was five years to an immortal? Only her daughter, shooting up like a blade of grass, marked the passage of time.
This time, Leyara broke the silence. “I should begin teaching my daughter what it means to be kaldorei, don’t you think, an’dalah?”
“Now more than ever. We will have need of strong elves.”
Fear prickled the hair at the nape of her neck. “What are you saying?”
To her surprise, Fandral chuckled. It made him look years younger than he had when he arrived. “Nothing portentous, Leyara. Only that as a people, we need to be diligent and train our youth to be proud kaldorei. To replace those we lost in the war against the silithid.”
She reached out to hold his hand, their fingers slippery and cold from the beer’s condensation.
“Nothing can replace what we lost there, Fandral.”
He nodded, his golden eyes on her face but jerked his gaze away as a splash and a shriek bounced off the water. In three quick strides, he’d crossed to the dock before Leyara could even stand. He knelt to fish among the reeds for a few heart-stopping moments, before lifting her dripping, squirming daughter up and out. His smile was rueful as he deposited Istaria into her mother’s arms.
“Best start with teaching her to swim,” was all he said.