He couldn’t remember anymore.
The sound of her voice could no longer be conjured in his mind, and the touch of her hand no longer existed in his thoughts. He couldn’t remember the exact shade of her eyes anymore, and the texture of her hair had been lost. He tried to sketch her again, as he had done so many times, but the slope of her cheek looked wrong and he couldn’t fix it. The drawings he’d made of her when he still had her to reference had crumbled to dust over the long centuries since her death, and he no longer remembered what she looked like.
It tore a hole in his chest wider and more ragged even than the one he’d had when he realized that his people had not thrived in his absence, that the Veil had taken all that they were from them. He’d made a promise to her that he would never forget yet he sat in a tent with his sketchbook and charcoal and he could not even draw her face.
But he remembered her heart. Var lath vir suledin! She’d meant every word with every fiber of her being, and she had loved him to the end. She’d taken her final breath in his arms, warm and safe and loved. He remembered her sorrow as she touched his face one last time and whispered, I don’t want to leave you alone. But she’d had no choice as the Beyond called her away.
He returned to her grave once more because he had forgotten once again. He could not bear to see it but once every millennia when he forgot the sound of her voice because it hurt too much to be reminded of all that he would never have again. He dropped his pack and sat in the embrace of the large roots of the ancient willow tree to wait.
“You’ve returned,” a voice whispered across the breeze, and he shuddered with the memory of its previous owner. “You come back to me so rarely and it has been so long, I did not think to see you again.”
He turned to find the source of the voice and saw the spirit hovering above him, veiled by trailing branches. He stood to greet her properly and said, “Will you come down and show her to me again?”
“Why?” the spirit asked, remaining where it was. “This doesn’t help you. You come here so infrequently and ask to see, but it only causes you pain. It hurts you to come here, to see what has become of her, yet you keep coming back anyway. Why?”
“I made a promise,” he told the spirit.
“A promise to hurt yourself with a memory you would be happier without?”
“Don’t say that,” he snapped, then cringed as the spirit began to retreat. “I apologize for my rudeness. I am in pain only because I no longer have her at my side. But I need the memory of her or it will hurt worse to know that I have broken my word.”
“She would understand,” the spirit cooed, drifting from the branches but not solidifying into the form he needed to see. “She never wanted you to linger like this, trapped in the past.”
He was quiet for a moment, knowing the spirit was right but not knowing how he could possibly move on. “She was everything to me,” he whispered at last.
The spirit sighed and he could sense its disapproval, but its form wavered, shivered, and then coalesced into the woman he’d loved for so long. She was exquisite, all cheeks and big violet eyes, pale hair falling like waves of silk down her shoulders and back. He smiled at her and cupped her cheek to feel the softness of her skin, then drew her into his arms to feel her against him, to smell the roses and lavender in her hair. He’d tried many times to recreate the scent, to keep her with him in some small way, but there was something about it that he couldn’t copy, some scent of her skin that he couldn’t synthesize. Her arms came around him in return and they stood there holding each other in silence for a long while. When at last he released her she put her hands on his face to smile at him.
“There you are, vhenan,” she said, as though greeting him after an afternoon apart. “I’ve missed you.”
“I have missed you more than you could know, ma sa’lath,” he replied, his voice breaking. Fingers combed through her hair, traced the shape of her full lips, trembling all the while. “My Lyna, you are so beautiful.”
Her smile widened, pleased. “You always say that,” she told him, laughter in her tone.
“It will always be true.” They stood there a while longer, indulging in little touches. His heart soared to see her once more, even if it wasn’t real, even if she couldn’t stay.
When reality hit him once more with the knowledge that she was dead, that even her body no longer existed, she wiped his tears and sang a lullaby that she’d learned from her Dalish clan. Even that song had been lost to time and she was the only one who still knew it.
“I’m here, I’m here,” she crooned to him when the tears would not slow.
He held her gently, kept her close, and shook his head. “You are not. I loved you more than anything I have ever known, but you exist now as a memory and a tree. You asked me to bury you as the custom of your people dictated and I thought it would bring me comfort to know that you endure here, in this beautiful tree. But it does not. You haunt me still. But I cannot, I will not leave you behind.”
She sighed, sorrow on her face, and wiped at his tears with her thumbs. “Oh, vhenan. I never left,” she sighed to him. “I am here in every step you take in this world I helped to build. I am in every spirit you greet, in every sapling that grows healthy and strong. I am in our people, who thrive at last because of us. And I am in you.” She pressed her hand over his heart. “You endure because I asked it of you, because I wanted you to find happiness again. But now you linger in agony and your face has been forgotten by our people. A wanderer now, they do not know what you have done for them. Isn’t it time to rest, my love? You don’t need to do this to yourself any longer.” She stepped back and gestured at the great forest that surrounded the tree her body had grown. “Look at this place. Each of these trees holds my memory, a forest grown from me. I am here in this wood and I am in this world. My memory will never fade to nothing.” She stepped into his embrace once more. “But you, my love. You are fading. You are so tired.” Her hands cupped his face, thumbs stroking the dark circles under his eyes. “It’s time to rest.”
The hikers found a secret place within a forest older than time itself, where the spirits spoke languages they didn’t know and peered at the strangers from the branches of trees that twined together like lovers. At the heart of the forest was the largest willow that they had ever seen, a stream passing beneath its roots to keep the forest fed.
Lovingly embraced by the roots of the willow, which grew around it but caused no damage, was a stone coffin where an elder slept, body untended and likely dead. The hikers approached, curious but cautious, and a spirit smiled at them from the branches of the willow just above the ancient tomb.
There was no debris of the forest upon the surface and the carving was as clear to the eye as the day it was set in its place. The effigy was of an elven man who held in his arms an elven woman. The man was carved at rest, eyes closed and deeds done, but the woman seemed to meet their eyes with a kind smile as she watched over her lover. The coffin was big enough only for one.
A hiker found the text on the side of the coffin and alerted her companion, but they couldn’t read it. The dialect was so old that they couldn’t decipher it until the spirit in the branches above them floated gracefully down. It sat on the edge of the effigy and lovingly stroked the stone face of the man. Suddenly the text was perfectly legible.
“He promised he would not forget her, and she promised their love would endure. She exists in every tree of this forest, in every breath you take, and he lost himself to her, but he did not die alone. Here lies Solas in the embrace of his lover Lyna, once of Clan Lavellan. May they find each other’s souls in the Beyond and never be parted again.”
In silence, and not understanding the tears of mourning they shed, the hikers left the lovers to their embrace. It was not a thing meant to be witnessed by the living, and it left a mark upon their hearts.