I ran into Nightshade at your grave the other day.
She was sitting there by herself when I came by. I wasn't expecting her to be there, so I didn't recognize her at first, but once I got closer she jumped up and spun around. You know how hard she is to miss--she probably stands about six feet, really tall for a girl of the Wood, and even without the warpaint her dreadlocks give her dead away. She scared me. I must have done the same to her, because we stood and stared at each other for a good two minutes after I came up. She was dressed in a gray cloak, and under that she was wearing her old Scout's gear. I remember her hand going for the dagger at her thigh. She'd left her staff lying on the ground at her feet.
For a moment, I thought she might attack me, but then she relaxed. When a few moments had passed, she turned and sat back down. She didn't say anything to me. I ended up taking a spot next to her. I was really nervous, so trying to break the ice, I said "Hi."
She looked up at me. "Hey."
"What are you doing here?" It was a stupid question, but it was the only thing I could think of. She waited a few moments before responding. She just sort of bit her lip and shook her head. "Dunno," she said. She was speaking in Eng again. "I was in the area, I guess."
I remember looking around us. The Woods were quiet. "Where are the Alder Guards?" I asked.
She shook her head again. "I told them to go away. They're back at the village. I'm sure there's one or two around here somewhere."
Gods, I can't even tell you how that statement chilled me. Ever since I first saw them at your funeral, everything about them has always creeped me out. The black warpaint, the long hair. I don't know if you ever saw them--their weapons, they're not like ours. They use spears and war-clubs made out of antler. They're meant to kill, not like our staffs and blowguns. For years, I was always afraid of them--just showing up at feasts in the village, demanding tribute from the other Wood-Children. I always thought they were evil, even though the Evergreen are supposed to worship them. But now that Stonewood is gone, Nightshade's the new Alder now. Ever since then, the Guards follow her wherever she goes. They don't talk much, and I don't think Nightshade talks to them either. I wonder what they're really like, away from the villages. I remember having a million questions I wanted to ask her about them, but I guess I thought better of it. I tried to change the subject:
"How are you doing?"
She just frowned and wrinkled her nose. She didn't look up at me, she just stared at your headstone. "Okay, I guess." I remember she started picking at one of her feet. "Haven't seen you around much."
I shrugged. "Song-Kee--I mean--Madeleine's kept me busy." It felt like a weak answer, but I guess she accepted it. She just nodded and kept picking at her toenail. I tried to press her more: "What have you been up to?"
"Stuff," she said. "Harvest is coming up. The Masters keep coming to me with requests about the festivals. Help from the Guards gathering plants and food, blessings from me." She frowned. "I saw Ash-Blade the other day."
This made me feel better. "Yeah?" I must have smiled--she smiled a bit too. "How'd that go?"
She just looked up into the trees and waved a hand. "Alright, I guess." Her lips pursed. "She brought me a gift--some dried sweets in a leather pouch. Said the Scouts found it at the edge of the Wood. Said it was an offering from the Wheel."
"Yeah?" It sounds stupid, but I couldn't help smiling. "Ash-Blade told me about that the other day." I nudged her a bit. "She said the Scouts thought they were traps."
That did the trick--Nightshade actually laughed. She looks so pretty when she smiles, Indigo; if you could just see it, you'd think she was a totally different person. She's actually really pretty, when she's not scowling all the time. We laughed over this for a minute, but then Nightshade got quiet again. She looked down at me and frowned. "So it's true?" she asked. She bit her lip. "The Children don't have to be afraid anymore?"
I smiled and shook my head. "No," I told her. "Ash says that some of her Scouts have been going back up to the coasts during the daytime. Said they ran into a few boys and girls for the Wheel."
Nightshade just nodded. "I heard about that." She gave a sad little smile. "No more ships? No more soldiers?"
I laughed. "Not that I've heard about." For a moment, I couldn't really think of anything else to say, so I just let the matter drop. Then: "It really is over. We're free now. It's okay."
She looked down at her feet. "I guess." She looked up at me again. She frowned. "How's..." she suddenly got all shy. "How's 'Nelia?"
I remember how it hit me like a rock. I didn't want it to show, so I spoke up. "She's good." A pause, and then, like an idiot, I said, "She's moving out of the Governor's villa. She's got a new place now, I hear. Down on the old Grindstone Road."
Nightshade cocked her head at me. "You mean over by my dad's old place."
To be honest, I was kind of hoping she wouldn't pick up on that. She sounded so accusing when I said it. I didn't know what else to say, so I just sort of nodded. We must have sat there for a good five, ten minutes after that. The silence got to me, so I tried going somewhere else with it. I told her: "You should come by the bonfires more. We miss you."
She just snorted. "I come."
"I know," I said, "but you never really talk to anyone. You just sit off by yourself, moping, surrounded by the Alder Guards. I think I saw you talking to Silverseed and Wolfsbane that one time, and that was it."
She cut me off. "And even they treat me differently now."
"What do you mean?"
Nightshade gave me that old glare again. "Alina, don't you get it? I don't fit in anymore. I'm the Alder now. The Alder's a figure, not a person." She looked away. "Everyone around me, they don't talk to me, they bow. The other Children, I walk around the village, and they treat me like a freak. They put me up on a pedestal, ask me for favors and blessings. Nobody even comes by my hut anymore. Even Silverseed and Wolfsbane moved out. Said, 'The Alder doesn't dwell among the Evergreen.' What am I supposed to say to that?"
I have to admit, it kind of caught me off-guard. "I dunno," I said lamely. "You're the Alder. Tell them to relax."
She rolled her eyes. "Yeah, right. And then what? They'll just bow their heads and say, 'Yes Alder,' and go right back to the same old thing. Even the Alder Guards, they never talk to me. They just follow me around and ask what my orders are." She pointed back behind us, toward the village. "You know, I see how they talk about me behind my back. They point, and they whisper, and I can't even sit down to eat a meal with them without them scattering like roaches. They don't even like me. They just follow me around because they have to."
I know you don't like her much, but I just felt so bad hearing this. I tried to lean in and put a hand on her shoulder. "Because you're the Alder. They adore you."
She jerked away. "No, they don't." She snorted and shook her head, and for a minute I thought she was going to cry. "Half of them have gone since Stonewood fell. Not the ones killed in the battle, either. I mean, gone. Vanished. Left."
I got that shivery feeling again. I didn't know what to say, but it turns out I didn't have to chance to worry about it. Nightshade got up and grabbed her staff. She started to walk away. "I have to go. Sorry I intruded. I know you like your time alone with Indigo."
I called out after her. "No," I tried saying. "No... it's alright." She stopped and looked back at me, and so I continued. "I... I like having you here."
She narrowed her eyes. "No you don't."
I stood up and tried to approach her. "I do," I said to her. I remember feeling so tired just then. "Nightshade, you're my friend."
Her shoulders sagged. She looks so lonely, so small these days, Indigo. I don't even know how to tell you. Back before the Reunion, before the Sweat, she may have been stuck-up and mean, but at least she had pride in herself. Ever since she became the Alder, she doesn't even have that anymore. And I feel so bad. I don't know how to say it, but some part of me actually misses the old Nightshade, you know? This... I don't know how to deal with. Nightshade stood there for a minute, not saying anything. After a while, I got awkward, so I tried telling her:
"I miss you, Misha."
She clenched her jaw. I could see her eyes working, and then she sighed, sagging again. "I miss you, too," she told me.
I bit my lip. "I'm going to try to go to the Coasts this week," I offered. "See my mom. Maybe you could come with? I know she'd like to see you?"
She looked up into the trees again. I could hear the leather creak as she tightened the grip on her staff. After a minute, she said, "I'd like that." Then she pulled her cloak back around herself and turned away, walking off toward the Old Court.
I called out after her. "I guess I'll catch you later," I tried.
She never looked back at me. She just walked, her dreadlocks swinging in the breeze. "Later," she said.