The rest of the day was moderately uneventful. The group steered clear of the forest to avoid contact with the Toscav engineering battalion, but the sound of chopping could be easily heard echoing across the plain. It seemed to Philius that Chrysalism winced with each axe’s report.
Night fell sooner than Philius would’ve liked, and the group was forced to make camp. Fortunately, it was warm enough where the tents were not missed, but he found to his dismay that a bedroll had not been packed for him, so he had to make due with a sheet of canvas. On the other hand, Chrysalism was provided with the only tent in the camp, the general consensus being that it would be improper to have a lady sleep in the open without shelter.
The party had well retired to their bedrolls by the time Philius found what he deemed a comfortable enough spot to bed down. Wrapping himself in the canvas and resting his head against his saddle, he was on the verge of slumber when Chrysalism’s disembodied voice rang in his head.
“Philius, do you have a moment?”
Stifling both a sigh and a yawn, he rose and approached her tent, stopping just outside the flap. He made as if to knock, but realizing the futility of the motion, gently called out.
“You in there, Chrysalism?”
“Where else would I be?” Her thoughts rang back in his head. Lifting the flap, he entered the tent.
“Nice accommodations.” He commented perfunctorily, not waiting to be asked to be seated.
“Unnecessary, but appreciated.” She smiled. Or at least, Philius thought she did. She had removed most of her attire before bed, her head included. She was now simply garbed in little more than a light dressing robe. Fortunately, her telepathic voice seemed to carry enough of her mood where he could imagine her expressions, even if he couldn’t see them.
“So what did you want to talk about?” He asked.
“I know you said you didn’t care about my past, but you were bold enough to share your own situation, so I felt it necessary to share mine.” She said simply.
“Oh.” He returned. He wasn’t sure what he had expected, but the mysterious Chrysalism bringing up her past was far from it. His eyes skimming over her, he noted that contrary to the earth-hued head she usually donned, her skin beneath all her coverings was a woody brown, textured less like skin and more like bark.
“Alright, I’m listening.” Philius nodded, giving her his full attention.
Chrysalism deliberately opened the front of her robes.
The youth reflexively averted his eyes.
“Woah, lady, I like you and all, but not in that way!” He sputtered. “I mean, you shouldn’t just…well…”
“Oh hush up.” Chrysalism scolded. “I’m a plant, as you’re well aware. I don’t have any of the mammary glands your females are so proud of.”
Philius chanced a peek. True to her word, where her bosom would have been were two deep pits, scarred over with a thick, blackened gash that split her bark-like skin from her right shoulder to just below her left armpit.
Philius was too taken aback by the strangeness of the situation to know what to comment on first. Finally, he settled on the simple question; “Who did that to you?”
“Some common ruffian.” She shrugged, not bothering to cover herself up again. “Whoever he was, he’s long since died of old age.”
“That’s rough.” Philius commented. “Still, it’s just a scar. I don’t really see the harm.”
“Naturally, you’re unaware of the biology of my race.” She agreed, resting a hand in one of her chest cavities. “These are my seed pods, where the children I could have sprouted would have germinated.”
“Oh hell.” Philius commented, realization dawning on him.
“Due to the longevity of my race, we have certain traditional restrictions on breeding.” Chrysalism explained. “When one of us is pollinated, we grow a pair of seeds, one male, one female. Thus, our race is always perpetuated, without growing or waning.” She traced the contour of the scar with one finger. “Every five decades or so, all the males in the area release pollen from their stamen, and all the willing females uncover their pistils.”
She accentuated the word by revealing an odd tail-like appendage from under her robe. It looked something like a long flower stem growing from her lower back, ending in a closed bud carefully wrapped in gaily coloured cloth. “In this manner,” she continued “Every pair of twins born is seen as the children of the region itself, containing the lineage of all the citizens at once.”
“You don’t pair off for life?” Philius asked.
“Ours is a solitary race.” She explained. “We live off sun and water, so codependency isn’t required. As such, the pairing born of mutual survivorship seen in other races isn’t a part of ours.”
“So if you’re a plant, is that thing growing out of you like a flower?” Philius continued, curious.
“it’s not “growing out of me”, it’s a part of me.” She explained. “But yes, during mating seasons or when I uncover it, it blooms much like a flower.”
“Can I see it?” He asked.
“I already bared my chest to you, now you want to see down there too?” She asked, a coquettish tone in her voice. “My, my, how bold.”
“Ah, forget I asked.” Philius muttered, silently cursing himself for blushing so fiercely.
“Well, back to my story then.” She continued. “I was something of a wild woman among my tribe. Long after other females my age had borne their children, I was out exploring the world. I always told myself next mating season, I’d settle down and raise my seedlings, but there was always something else over the horizon, somewhere new to visit. I spent over four centuries like that.”
“You’re over four hundred?” Philius breathed.
“If you must know, I’m 423.” She replied. “Now hush up.”
“Yes’m.” He replied.
“Well, not much else to tell, I suppose.” She sighed. “I got held up and attacked by bandits on the way back to my village, ironically enough as I was hurrying back in time for mating season. They sliced my chest, robbed me blind, and left me for dead, not four kilometers from my last chance at being a mother. I was lucky enough to recover from the cut, but my seed pods were damaged beyond salvation. Faced with the grim truth that I would never conceive, that I was now a “dead end”, travelling lost its appeal. I had run out of ‘next time’s, and now I had only the slow approach of death awaiting me.”
“So you decided if you were going to die, it might as well be sooner, not later, and in the time and place of your choosing.” Philius summarized. “Sorry, it was pretty thoughtless of me to say all those things, after all.”
“Thoughtless though it may have been, your words were not untrue.” Chrysalism admitted, slipping her tail back under her robe and tying it closed again. “I spent my life selfishly and without regard for the future, I might at least try to die a different way.”
Philius smiled. “For my part, I’m just glad that when my time runs out, I’ll at least be in good company. Maybe there is a god out there looking out for me, ensuring me a happy death.”
“Getting a bit ahead of ourselves, are we?” Chrysalism chuckled. “Last I checked, you’re still very much alive.”
They both shared in a soft, subdued laugh as they contemplated the upcoming battle.
“Well, I’d better get going.” Philius excused himself eventually. “We’ve got a long ride ahead of us tomorrow.”
“Unless you’re terribly attached to your canvas-and-saddle accommodations, you could always sleep here, you know.” Chrysalism offered.
“Somehow I feel that wouldn’t be entirely proper.” Philius returned.
“I’ve already bared myself to you, how much more improper can we get?” Chrysalism laughed mischievously.
“You make a good point.” He nodded. “Move over.”
And so they lay side by side, one over four centuries into her life, one not five days left in his; and for the first time in the life of either, they were finally at peace with their fate.
“Hey Chrys.” Philius whispered. “Thanks.”
“You’re quite welcome.” She returned. She didn’t have to ask what for. “Good night, Phil.”
The warm light of dawn was only just brushing Philius and Chrysalism’s tent when general sounds of confusion rung out, rousing the pair.
“You’re not terribly soft, are you?” Philius complained, working a kink out of his neck.
“That is the nature of wood.” Chrysalism admitted nonchalantly. “Besides, nobody suggested you use me as a pillow.”
Another exclamation of surprise split the air, drawing the pair’s attention.
“What is going on out there?” Chrysalism questioned.
“I’ll go check it out. “Philius offered, opening the tent and stepping into the forest clearing. “What’s the hubbub, General?” He called out, noting Brogan hurrying by.
“There you are lad, I…” he paused, raising an eyebrow at Philius’ emergence from Chrysalism’s tent. However, he held his tongue. “Ahem.” He cleared his throat. “Look around you lad, and tell me what you see.”
“What kind of game is this?” Philius yawned. “I see… well, just trees, really. You seem to have a thing for camping in clearings.”
“Open your eyes, lad.” Brogan’s mustache quivered with agitation. “When we set up for the night, this was an open plain!”
The realization stuck the young Chronian like a blow. “It… it was, wasn’t it?” He commented lamely.
“Not just that,” The General continued, “But this is the exact clearing where we used to make camp!” he gestured to a big tree next to them. “Look, this tree still has Melhewm’s initials carved in it! He died three years back!”
“You’re in fine voice this morning.” Chrysalism commented, striding out from her tent, her conjured head firmly set on her shoulders. Seeing the trees, she immediately stopped in her tracks, as her eyes grew distant. “What are you doing here, big sister?’ She asked finally.
“Good morning, little sister.” The forest answered back. “Did you sleep well?”
“Tolerably.” She threw a meaningful glance at Philius, which he promptly ignored. “Now that we have that out of the way, answer the question, sister mine.”
“I thought you’d be happier to see me.” The World-Gardener smiled playfully, emerging out of the ground between the three of them. “I came all this way to see you and your new family, after all.”
“So… you came to us?” The General asked, sweating with confusion. “I thought somehow we’d ended up back where we started.”
“Not a bit of it.” The giantess smiled. “I control the forest as part of my own body. While you all rested, I tunneled through the soil after you. Worry not, this is only about one third of Eldarth, I cut the rest off from my connection and left it behind so that the animals will survive, and the foresters won’t notice anything for some time.”
“Very touching, but you don’t belong here, big sister.” Chrysalism cut in flatly. “Have you forgotten your pacifist vow? We go to wage war.”
“I am well aware, little sister.” She nodded grimly. “And in that, I am forbidden to assist. But!” She locked eyes with the General “At least until the day of battle, let me shelter your men at night, and provide them with fresh fruit by day! In this way, I pledge my allegiance to you, O General.” She knelt before him, head bowed deeply.
“Erm, ahem, raise you head, World-Gardener.” Brogan coughed uncomfortably. “I and my men have always been in your debt, and would more than welcome your continued nurturing presence.”
“You flatter me, dear little brother.” She smiled. “And you, little sister?” She turned to Chrysalism. “Are you put out with me?”
“That’s putting it mildly.” She scowled. “All of us are risking out lives for you, and here you are following us into danger!” She sighed. “But as long as you’re here, you might as well make yourself useful.”
The giant beamed. “Thank you, little sister.”
“And we will have words.” She threatened.
“I look forward to it.” She bowed, and turned to Philius. “And you, little brother?” She asked. “What say you?’
“Don’t ask me for permission.” Philius shrugged. “I certainly didn’t when I joined.”
“No, you didn’t at that!” Brogan laughed.
“But if you’re gonna join us lady, we need a name for you.” He continued. “I’m tired of calling you “lady”, and I’m sure not calling you “big sis”.”
“Even though I was so looking forward to you calling me big sis?” She smiled back. “Well, if you really must know, my first name is “She-Who-Is-Most-Fair,-Above-All-Last-Autumn’s-Fallen-Raindrops.”
Philius’ eyes widened. “All that’s your first name? Damn, that’s pretentious. Any other names?”
“I have over 4,000 names, actually.” She admitted. “Which one would you prefer?”
“Four-thousand?!?” Philius echoed.
“It was a custom to receive a new name every year of our lives.” The World-Gardener explained. “Although I will admit, I let several decades slip by now and again where I forgot to come up with new names.”
“Anything… a littler shorter?” Philius offered.
“Well, some centuries back, a dear friend of mine named Eldarth took the first letters of my first name and used them to make a nickname for me.” She smiled nostalgically. “He called me “Swimfa’alafr.”
“Swimfa’alafr it is then.” Philius nodded. “Or Swim for short. That’s much better.”
“I thought “Swimfa’alafr" already was short.” She objected.
“Well then,” The General harrumphed, ignoring her comment and extending a hand warmly to the World-Gardener. “Welcome to the team, my dear Swimfa’alafr!”
Once the unexpected appearance of the grove was explained to the rank-and-file bandits and Swimfa’alafr was introduced, the group set to preparing breakfast, generously supplemented by ripe fruit from the World-Gardener’s boughs. After their brief respite however, it was time to ride on again.
“Do you want us to leave some kind of markers for you?” Philius offered Swimfa’alafr, as he mounted his horse.
“I appreciate the sentiment, but I could follow the telepathic “voice” of my little sister, even in the dark.” She smiled. “Besides, I’ll be right behind you.”
“I’ll admit, I’m very curious as to what that would look like.” Philius returned. “Are your trees going to sprout legs and walk?”
“No, they shall burrow.” She returned. At her word, the forest began to shake, as if in a stiff wind. One by one, all the leaves on the trees shrivelled up and vanished, as if absorbed back into their branches. Then, like writhing tentacles, all the trees split into worm-like roots and slunk into the dirt, closing the earth behind them as they went. Where once a grove of trees had stood, now there was nothing but grass again.
“Amazing!” Philius breathed, turning to his friend. Then he paused. “Um… you’ve grown.”
She sure had.
Since Philius had last looked at her not three minutes ago, she had almost doubled in size, now roughly 18 feet in height. “I’ll need a long stride length if I’m to keep up with the rest of you.” She smiled innocently. “Come now, let us run!”
And with that she took off, making long, graceful strides as she loped after the dust cloud denoting the rest of the group.
Shaking his head in bemusement, Philius followed.
However, the longer they rode, the surer Philius became of one simple fact.
Swimfa’alafr ran in the damnedest way!
The tedium of the passing prairie had turned Philius’s attention to his giant friend, and specifically, her method of locomotion.
Despite her great, loping strides, she never truly left the ground. One foot would slam down as the other rose up, then right as it looked like the other had left the ground, Philius caught a snake-like root connecting her foot to the earth like an umbilical cord. Then as her other foot fell towards the ground, with perfect timing another root would plunge out of the dirt below her, fastening to the sole of her foot, even as the root on her other foot detached, ensuring that, if only by a single root, their mysterious friend was always joined to the earth.
Although he couldn’t fathom the meaning, Philius stored the info away in his mind to contemplate later, because at last they had arrived; the outskirts of Bryke!ns184.108.40.206da2