The blackened bark of the sundered faetree accused Alathea. She denied nothing. She knelt at its dead roots and wept.
Parthenos placed a hand on her shoulder. “Tell me,” his deep voice intoned.
“I danced,” she choked out between sobs. “I danced and the thunder danced with me. I laughed. And then the thunder went to dance here.” She placed her hands against the rough bark. Alathea looked up among the darkened branches. “They’re all gone now, aren’t they?”
Parthenos did not answer. The comforting weight of his hand lifted from her shoulder. His robes swished the long green grass as he circled the tree. “Fae do not continue to reside in a dead tree.”
“And without the guardians, this forest will die.”
“Should the fae leave, yes, the woods will wither.”
Alathea drew a deep breath. “What must I do?”
“I did this. My reckless dance. I need to fix it.”
Parthenos smiled at the girl. “You can do nothing.”
“You’re training me to be a paladin! We fight for justice! I have to be able to do something!”
The old man shook his head with a chuckle. “We do not fight for justice, and be glad of it. If we fought for justice, what would happen to you?”
Alathea sank back to her knees.
Parthenos nodded. “Justice sounds good when you can do something to right your wrongs and balance the scales yourself. But if you indeed slew the fae here… there is nothing you can do. And a soul for a soul would leave you very dead indeed.” He paused. “And Alathea, it is what you have earned.” His voice grew very quiet in the still glade. “You should die.”
A tear trickled down her cheek. “I can’t do anything?”
Parthenos shook his shaggy head.
“It’s my fault.”
“What will my punishment be?”
The old man groaned as he knelt down beside the young girl. “It will be more than you can bear.”
Alathea drew a shuddering breath.
“Your punishment has already been given.” Parthenos drew his breath in quickly, peering at the girl for a beat, and then hurled a hearty roar of laughter to the sky.
“No! I should be punished! I did something wrong! I did something horrible!”
“Of course you did, girl. Of course you did! And you can never fix it! Why do you think our God came?” He couldn’t keep the mirth in.
“I killed the woods!”
Parthenos offered a shallow nod. “Perhaps. You have done damage that cannot be undone. The faetree will likely never grow again. But look!”
A door in the bark split open toward Alathea. Fae flooded out of it, their green dresses and vests blackened by soot. They flowed from the tree, fluttering on translucent wings.
And then came the dead. So many dead, carried on charred leaves. The faeries set the dead at Alathea’s knees, looked up at her, and darted away, forming a great sphere of fluttering shapes around her. She counted the dead. Twenty-four lives snuffed out by her carelessness. By her joy. Her joy had led to death.
A fae in a marred snow-white dress darted toward her face and placed a miniscule hand on Alathea’s nose. It hovered for a moment, and then shot away. The entire circle vanished into the wood.
“I… I don’t understand.”
“The fae serve the Creator, Alathea. They know what grace is. They have shown you the weight of your guilt, and forgiven you.”
“They should be mad at me! They should punish me!”
“Of course, if they followed the ways of the world. I say it again: They serve the Creator.”
“How can they forgive?”
“Long ago, these fae would prey on every human riding through the woods. It was a dark time. Then, a paladin rode forth to defend the humans. He captured every single fae. All of them. He discovered their tree. He held aloft a torch, ready to burn it down. But he set aside the flame. He showed them what forgiveness is. It changed them.” Parthenos grinned. “Grace always changes a person, Alathea, once they grasp what it is.”
Alathea rubbed her tears with her wrist. “So that’s it? No punishment?”
“No. Your punishment, like your guilt, is gone.” Parthenos gestured to the assembled dead. “But, if you would honor your sin, honor these dead. Do you know the burial rites of the fae?”
“Then sing them and dance them in honor. Do not let your sin end your dance. Let grace lift you up and move to its rhythm, Alathea. And learn from the fae. Let grace change you.”
Here’s a fifteen-minute write about Alathea long before the events of The Graveyard at the Bottom of the World.