The Golmore Jungle is as it has ever been, paths that loop and twine like the hanging liana, dark undergrowth filled with darker beasts. Balthier goes forward slowly, the bright light of the Ozmone swallowed into shadow and green at his back.
“You never used to be so heavy, Fran.”
Her body carries more scars, but she looks only a fraction older than when he’d met her. Soft and warm, the tips of her ears brush the side of his face as her head rolls back against his shoulder, her hair bunching, gathering, then cascading over his arm.
When the panthers find them, he sets her on the ground and stands over her, until his gun clicks hollow on an empty chamber, and the panthers’ blue blood soaks the rich loam. When the path is clear, he lifts her again, and follows it deeper. Panthers give way to gargoyles, who bring still more panthers in their train. When he can no longer reload fast enough, Balthier sighs at the spectacle of it all, and reaches for his sword. It becomes harder to lift Fran again each time. The edges of her thigh armour dig into his left arm, but the strain is greater on his right, struggling to keep her head upright, though his collar keeps the reassurance of her breath from his skin. He might almost be grateful for the appearance of the malboros - their presence means he is nearing the centre of the jungle - if he’d had any time to breathe between fending them off and fumbling left-handed for a remedy. Verminous vegetation. That your best?
Balthier pants numbly as the malboro’s airbourne poison evaporates, stench fading back into the natural humidity of the Golmore. White magic sings along his nerves, but it is only seeing his fingers braced in the dirt, feeling the track hard beneath his knee that Balthier realises he must have fallen. He pivots, staggering, but Fran is untouched, still behind him. He pulls himself straight and turns to face their rescuer.
The traditional garb of a wood-warder greets him, open-toed heeled boots, leggings, armour and helm. This one's weapon is a bow, with a dark-feathered arrow still notched, but at her side. "The Wood told me - " Balthier blinks, and uses two fingers to nudge his glasses back to the top of his nose. The voice is familiar.
And no wonder. The way she stands, suddenly unsure, Balthier can still see the girl-child they'd rescued from the mines. Balthier smiles at her, and dusts off his knees. "Wood-warder." The viera pronunciation does not come naturally to his tongue, but practice has eventually eroded his accent to the point of understanding. "Will you defend our path?"
With the afterburn of Mjrn's healing magic still coursing though him, it is easier to lift Fran again and follow. Mjrn knows the hidden ways of this Wood, and is the most sympathetic guide he might have hoped for. Yet something in Balthier's chest twists itself tighter, and will not loosen, for the interval has given him space to know the body in his arms no longer draws breath.
They cut left from the stone path at a platform he'd thought to be a dead end, then proceed sideways along a meshwork of fallen trees and mossy ledges. Perhaps this path's primary concealment is its disuse. Or perhaps there is some more subtle enchantment, for the only large creatures they pass on their way are the quiet, slow moving treants. Mjrn leads him onward without speaking more than directions, sometimes turning to watch his progress, waiting, and then going on. Balthier's steps slow, for the moss makes a slippery and uncertain footing. At one bend in this trail, Balthier looks up to see the stonework of the main path above them, trailing living vines and suspension cables. Small creatures chitter in the shadows, but the movements are always in the corners of his vision.
The hunter's trail widens into a small clearing, and Mjrn stops between two trees, even more heavily vine-hung and moss-strewn than the rest. Balthier wrinkles his nose, but his spectacles have slipped down too far to retrieve that way. Even squinting, he cannot make out the gestures of her fingers, only the flickering of tiny coloured lights. Then Mjrn cups both hands and blows between the elegant tips of her nails, and the hidden path explodes into being in an effusion of scent as sweet and horrible as narcissus. Branches appear. They twine over and against each other, bend, mate themselves to the vines, the moss, the jungle flowers. Balthier swallows as the smell catches in his throat and tightens his grip beneath Fran's body, feeling the burn in his biceps and wrists.
The new path leads upward, through a meshwork of hanging leaves, and it is only in passing through it that there comes a glow, and Balthier feels the pressure of the hidden barrier closing behind them. Ahead the trees are less dense, more forest than jungle, and broad shafts of light shine down between the great trunks. Beneath their feet, the living path shifts to one of wood planking, and winds its way upward in circles and half-circles and bridges between the trees.
"Is there a rule to this place?" There are no markings Balthier can see on any of the outlying platforms, or the biers they bore, and each was separate unto itself.
"For many viera, it matters not where the body lies. The Wood is all, and all those who lie here are within Her, and return to Her."
Balthier looks at the unmarked mounds, moss over dead wood under shadowy trees. "Then let Fran be near the sky."
They climb. Many of the open niches they pass are empty. Some are not. Once, to his right, Balthier catches the gleam of white bone beneath its enveloping blanket of moss-green. He turns his eyes forward, and does not look again. The muscles of his thighs burn in concert with his arms. At the summit of the path, one platform swings out from the great tree trunk into a void in the forest canopy. Green lies at its back, and beneath it, but above is the sky, and the rich, warm sunlight of the afternoon streams now full upon it.
Mjrn's footsteps stop. "Here."
Balthier goes forward to the edge, to the empty bier. He lies Fran on it, and has to catch himself on its edge as his knees threaten to yield beneath him. There will be no lifting her again. He looks to her face, and though her eyes are closed, her lips are faintly parted. He clenches his hands, forcing the feeling to return to them in sparks of pain. His fingers have been gripping tightly for too long.
"Fran was a little sketchy on the details here. Anything else I ought to know about this?"
Mjrn leaves her bow and quiver against the bole of the tree with her helm. There are tears welling at the corners of her eyes as she explains.
Nothing so complex as a hume funeral or garif pyre, the viera simply return their dead to the Wood in the same state in which they'd entered Her, unadorned and unencumbered. Her armour slipping free under his hands, Balthier reminds himself that Fran wanted this. Her face seems naked without the frame of her helm's cheekguards, her feet more naked still without the constraint of her heeled sandals. Her body's nudity feels merely familiar by comparison.
He supports Fran's head and shoulders while Mjrn loosens the mystletainn clip confining her hair. It goes on top of the pile of armour, which Mjrn will take back to the village. Perhaps it will be re-melted. Balthier asks instead about the moss. Mjrn tells him it flourishes here, and he sees the spores in his mind's eye, hanging in the air, waiting to strike, to grow. Which prompts another question. The monsters.
Mjrn's look of horror stirs chivalric guilt, and he pulls her down to sit beside him on the wooden planking of the platform's floor. But she shakes her head at the notion. "This place is protected. The Wood draws us back to Herself, and -" her breath hitches like a child's - "those who lie here are beyond the reach of scavengers."
Balthier bottles his relief, presses his handkerchief into Mjrn's trembling hands. He pushes his glasses up the bridge of his nose again, and the motion distracts Mjrn from her tears. "I had never seen a hume grow old before… Is it really so quick? Your hair is greyed now. And you cannot see? When she said she had become like you… I did not think it would be this way."
Balthier rests a hand on her armoured shoulder, and he can see the veins and lines ageing it as she must see them. Mjrn is still impossibly young, nearly as beautiful as her sister. He looks away into the green. "Nor did I"
The moment hangs, then passes away. Mjrn draws her feet beneath her, and rises. "I must return to the village."
"Of course. So you must."
"She… other viera will come. Jote. Nera. Perhaps others."
"Have no fear. Before you and Jote return, I will have taken my leave."
"You have been as a sister to my sister." Mjrn's dark eyes are bright, but the tears are once more in check. "May the Wood give you safe passage."
Balthier stands once more to face Mjrn, and bows. It is in perfect court form, right hand flat over his heart, if deeper than current fashion would dictate. His fatigue renders it less smooth than he would have preferred. Mjrn has deserved their thanks.
He steps backward as Mjrn departs, subsiding against the edge of the bier. The wind is strong just beyond the outer branches, blowing coldly westward from the rift, though the trees block the greater part of its power. Below them, to the left, the hidden barrier flares as Mjrn passes through. Balthier examines the dirt beneath a corner of one fingernail, flicks at it with the nail of his thumb.
"I should remind you that I was right, you know. No self-respecting Wood could refuse to have you back." The dirt is stubborn, and the heat behind his eyes building intolerably. He pulls his spectacles off and presses the heels of his hands hard against his eyelids. "Listen to me. You'd think a leading man would welcome taking the stage alone."
His spectacles fold easily back into their pouch, and he stows them away. Mjrn will not hurry. There is time. Let the Wood think what it will. He swings his feet up onto the bier, and curls along the length of his partner's body. Head pillowed on her shoulder, face buried in her hair, Balthier simply speaks to Fran, telling her, for once, all the things he is thinking of. He reminds her of the time they realised she was dying, and of the time he realised why, and broke his hand open on the shards of their auxiliary skystone, cursing his father. Of the first time that he loved her. And of the first time they met.
And the last time they spoke.
He had sat beside her, just inside the edge of the Wood. The Strahl lay cloaked behind them, waiting beyond the trees. His infernal curiosity had driven him to ask what she could hear, and her familiar silent glare had made him laugh. But then she'd glanced up, away from him, ears perked, whole body listening for something beyond his ken. Fern fronds and leaves swirled up around them on an unfelt wind, and sparks ran along the nerves of his hands.
Her smile then had made him want to howl, to shake her, yell at her, but she'd looked so happy that all he could bear to do was hold her more tightly. When her eyes closed, he caught her up in his arms and pushed himself to his feet, following the path deeper. He was no longer young, and the effort made his breathing too loud to hear hers.
The wind stirs Fran's hair against his cheek. The heat of her life has not yet fled. How many times have they lain like this, over the years? He breathes in her scent, holds that air in his lungs. From where they hang, suspended at the height of the canopy, he can look up and see only the sun and the open sky above them.
"Just a little longer, Fran. I'm sorry."