Sharra sighed deeply as she exited the room. Such a shameful thing, to use a child like that!

"Fender!" The guard snapped to attention. "Get Mellana and tell her to prepare to tend to the child's injuries. She is to be moved to the infirmary. You are released from guarding duty at the moment. After Mellana, report to the Steward in an hour. Bring those with you who found the girl and brought her here." She held his gaze with her own, making sure he knew what she meant, and smiled slightly when he paled and nodded vigorously. He left quickly, and Sharra turned back to the dark room.

"Come out, dear, we will go to the infirmary. The medic there will take care of your injuries." She held out her hand to Nelka and beckoned encouragingly. Nelka hung back uncertainly, glancing at the other two women.

"It's all right. The guard has gone, and will not hurt you again. He will be reprimanded for hitting you, Nelka."

"But if it's my fault that the Master is gone…" She began, tears splashing onto her tunic.

"You did nothing wrong, Nelka." Menolly patted the girl's thin shoulder. "He is found now, and I'm sure-" her voice faltered a moment before continuing bravely, "he'll be well. I am so glad my Master had someone like you to serve him. You sound like you took great care of him." Sharra and Lessa shared a glance over Nelka's head as the girl brightened up.

"I tried! I tried so hard to do everything right… Do you think Zair minded the sauce?" Menolly blinked at the anxious question.

"Well, I don't think he did. You see, my firelizards will eat anything if they're hungry enough. I've never fed them raw meat with sauce before, but I dare say they'd consider it a delicacy." She grinned at the child, who smiled back.

"Your firelizards? You have more than one?" They had come into the upper levels of the Hold by now and Menolly, after a glance at Sharra, launched into an account of how she had aquired nine firelizards when only a little older than Nelka herself was. The girl was delighted and reassured by the attention, and was soon raptly listening to Master Menolly.

"You'd think she would take more reassurance after such an ordeal, wouldn't you?" Sharra murmured to Lessa, as the led the way.

"She has a simple heart, Sharra. You can tell she has no idea of the terrible trouble she caused. Children are remarkable… their ability to bounce back has always amazed me."

"Yes. I want to keep it that way, too. I mean," Sharra continued after Lessa's questioning glance. "I mean I want her to stay ignorant of the poisoning. Resilient as she is, I do not know if she would be able to handle the knowledge that she almost killed-" she choked up again.

"Quite, quite. I agree." The Weyrwoman assented hastily. "Let her keep her innocence as long as can be."

Nelka was settled in the infirmary and Mellana was left with strict instructions not to let her charge know of her part in the near disaster of Robinton's abduction. The girl healed quickly and was soon able to take up duties in the kitchens, where she spent most of her time caring for the spit dogs, and training them to be more obedient. She seemed to be in no hurry to go home, after being reassured that her family was well, and her flock was fine. The Headwoman, under Lady Sharra's orders, treated her especially well, and grew to be very fond of the openhearted girl.

The time came, however, when it was deemed right that Nelka be returned to her beloved hills, and an escort was sent to accompany her home. She went happily, looking forward to her dogs and goats the most, and proud that she had done her duty by her Lord well. The little purse she carried contained more than had been promised, and she was certain her contribution to the family's welfare would be happily received. Most of all, however, she was glad that Master Robinton had sent for her and thanked her again for her service, and assured her that he would be well very soon. He had looked tired, but his eyes were as kind as ever, and he had told her that she was not to blame for his troubles. So it was with a light heart that she alighted from the runner at her door, and embraced Heat and Shadow.

"I've had adventures, my friends, that you cannot imagine." She murmured into their fur. "But I am so glad to be back with you." She lifted her eyes to the hills and smiled. She was home.

The End