Ash (noun): (1) the remains of something destroyed; ruins; (2) something that symbolizes grief, repentance, or humiliation; (3) a tree with silver-gray bark and compound leaves, which forms forests in north temperate regions.
The loneliness came on slowly. Ash was right, their night together in the woods had broken her mother’s curse—Sidhean had felt it, lodged hot and sharp and painful against the ragged edges of his soul, and he had felt it unravel, not with a snap but with a sigh, like leaves falling off a tree in the fall, slowly and painlessly.
And he told himself he was satisfied; he returned to the forest revels and tried to pretend he never left. Tried to pretend he hadn’t spent years on years wandering the human side of the woods. But nothing was the same as Before—or everything was the same, and he was different.
He had told himself for years that it was simply the curse that left him empty and uncomfortable in the fairy realm. But Elinor’s curse was gone, shattered, unraveled. And still the colors were too bright, the faces of his old acquaintances too false, and most of all it was the humans that got under his skin—humans as pets or baubles, with their faces mad and nothing at all behind their blank eyes, humans trapped like flies in the amber of time, voices stopped, humans lost and pale-faced, unable to leave or even think of leaving. And it still bothered him, even though the curse was broken, as it had bothered him since the night he’d found Ash dancing in a fairy circle, her eyes going glassy as she twirled. To the other fairy folk, the humans might as well have not been there. Sidhean thought of long walks on the forest paths, friendly conversations by moonlight, a hand on his shoulder, and felt something cold and pointy settle into his gut. But these were his people. If he didn’t belong here, then he belonged nowhere—he would be nothing and no one. He pushed down his unease and resolved to forget Ash entirely.
If Sidhean could push away thoughts of humans in his conscious world, he could not control his dreams. Sidhean did not need to sleep often, but when he slept, he walked the woodland paths with a friend at his side, who vanished every time he looked at her. He dreamt of a girl weeping on her mother’s grave, dreamt of wandering through human cities and towns. As a bird, he alighted in a little wooden cottage in a clearing, heard the sound of two womens’ voices raised in laughter. That laughter, strangely familiar, followed him out of his dreams into the waking world, echoing inside his head. As a hunter, he ran down a white stag. He pierced its heart with a spear just as it turned to face him, and it pleaded with him with Ash’s face, in Ash’s voice, as it died, and as he woke up again.
He felt like a rope about to snap. He searched out old friends. They told him the same stories that they’d been telling for centuries, of life in the glory days of magic--and asked him nothing of himself. Had he been that self-centered too, Before? Nobody touched him, not with friendly intent, nor aggression, not even the casual brush of shoulders of two friends walking down the same paths.
Sidhean went back to wandering. The paths had shifted some, his restlessness found them comforting just the same. The little trails led him back to the grave where he had first seen Ash. It was summer, and the small mound was covered with wildflowers—primroses and bluebells and a straggling wild strawberry plant. The headstone was slightly weathered, but well cared for, and last year’s dead weeds had been cleared away. At the headstone base—a few shards of shattered glass, black ash, a mostly-burnt candle stub, a wreath of spring wildflowers, only about a month old. Sidhean felt almost as if he had intruded on something private. He dropped to his knees in the grass before the grave.
“Elinor, I’m sorry,” he started, and paused. Because how could he explain to the almost-greenwitch who cursed him that he used her daughter, and her daughter used him, and for years they were something almost like friends, if he discounted the secrecy and desperation, and the curse twisting like a knife in his chest. That he thought it was the curse making him different, as it sensed its completion closing in, but the curse was gone and he was still changed, that he wanted to hear a friendly voice and wanted to feel a friendly touch, wanted to claw his way out of his own skin, wanted to lie in a clearing with Ash in the moonlight and talk about nothing. Was the new silver-sharp feeling in his chest a human emotion? He missed Ash—he didn’t want her, not as a lover as a human might, not as a plaything as a fairy might, not as the curse had demanded as it twisted itself around his heart—but he missed her smile, and her laughter, her courage, the way she had constantly gone looking for him in the forest, despite the danger, and how in the woods they had made each other feel seen, and real.
How long Sidhean knelt at the foot of the grave, deep in thought, he didn’t know. But he rose with a clearer head than he’d had since he went to that first fairy revel after Ash broke his curse and was struck by the feeling he didn’t belong. He didn’t really know what true friendship was, but he could, he would, set out with the aim to learn and to honor that first taste of almost-friendship he had had with Ash, to remember that first time he’d had a relationship where each party saw the other as a person and not solely an obstacle to be removed or a tool to be used. He walked back into the forest, letting his feet carry him where they liked, lost in thought.
He was not conscious of where his wanderings had taken him until he stepped off a deer trail into a little green clearing on the edge of the woods. The late afternoon sun painted the grasses golden and struck off the sides of a familiar little wooden cabin. This was the cabin he’d been dreaming about, it was real. A thin plume of smoke rose from the chimney, and as Sidhean approached the door he smelt stew cooking and wood burning. As in his dream, he heard voices raised in laughter. But this time, they were real, not echoing endlessly in the loneliness of his own head. He hesitated for a second, then knocked lightly on the door. A woman answered it, and though the years had added some small wrinkles to her face, Sidhean would have recognized Ash anywhere. She looked happy, and though she gave a little oh of shock to see him, above the hand which covered her mouth her eyes were shining.
“Hello, Ash,” said Sidhean, “I came to find you.”