She arrived in much better circumstances than before. The sun was shining this time and no one was dying—here, at least. She closed her eyes for just a moment and breathed the air heavy with memories. Then, with a smile, she dismounted and led her horse toward the big house that had served as her home for such a brief, but sweet time. She reached into one open saddlebag and pulled out her jittery companion for the past few weeks, then swung a second bag over her shoulder. Leaving Condor in the yard, she went up the steps and knocked. A moment passed, then the door swung open and she was greeted by a round, pleasant countenance and surprised, dark eyes. Another moment passed, then Rena let out a shriek and threw her significant weight against Karigan as she embraced her.
"You left!" the woman cried. "You left and I do not see you and I do not know where you go! Do not do that! Do not!"
Karigan pulled away with a smile. "I'm happy to see you too, Rena."
Rena bent to pat the trembling bundle in Karigan's arm, craned her neck to look past her. "Where's my Zachy?"
"He was unable to come, and sends his apologies." Karigan battled back a surge of sudden tears as memories of a different sort came over her. "He is very busy."
"Well, come, come! I fetch others! They all worry and worry." She ushered Karigan into the familiar room, then snatched her shawl from a hook on the wall. "I be back. You stay here."
"I can go—" But Rena was already gone. Karigan sat for a short time, petting her new friend, then driven by impatience and nostalgia, she wandered through the house, reacquainting herself with the familiar rooms and furniture. Nothing had changed. She was lingering in the doorway of the kitchen when the door reopened and many familiar faces burst in.
"Karigan!" a childish voice shrieked. Emmi raced toward her, then halted as her eyes fell on the furry ball the Rider held.
"Zachary couldn't come," Karigan explained, crouching. "But he sent you presents." She held out the wriggling gift. Emmi gaped, then tentatively reached one small hand out to the eagerly sniffing nose that stretched toward her. "A real Hillander terrier," Karigan murmured, setting the puppy on the floor. He immediately tripped and fell his way to Emmi, sniffing her legs and hands, yipping excitedly. A huge grin broke out across the girl's face and she gathered the terrier up in her arms. "And this is very special…" Karigan opened her saddlebag and withdrew the second present. Emmi's eyes bulged and she reached out for it. "This is for you from the Black Shields themselves."
Emmi's hand couldn't reach all the way around the wooden practice sword, but she didn't seem to mind as her eyes drank in the crest carved into the hilt and the black ribbon tied at the base of the 'blade.' Karigan swallowed back tears as she looked at that ribbon. "It belonged to one of my closest friends," she explained, hardly able to keep her voice controlled. "He said to give it to you because he thinks you'll be an even greater Weapon than he was." She closed her eyes against the memory of Fastion seated on the floor of Mara's room, refusing food, refusing drink, refusing sleep, refusing anything resembling comfort—punishing himself and hovering on the edge of death. She shook her head briskly to clear it.
Emmi held the sword precariously in the air with both hands. "I'm going to be the greatest Black Weapon ever!" She looked down at the ecstatic puppy. "Come on, Terrier. We're going to protect the king!" Her mother blocked the doorway, so she bounced around the large front room, dragging the sword behind her and giggling gleefully as the terrier tried his best to jump on her legs.
Karigan stood and smiled warmly at Fedir and Marli. She hugged each of them in turn, then pulled a letter from her saddlebag and handed it to Fedir. "Written in the king's own hand."
Fedir exchanged an apprehensive glance with his wife as he broke the seal and unfolded the paper. They read quickly, shock coming clearly onto their faces. They looked at her for explanation and she said with a smile, "King Zachary was most impressed with your handiwork. Will you accept his invitation?"
"Uh—yes. Yes! King Zachary…?" He cut off with a loud guffaw. "Breyan's gold!"
Karigan nodded at Marli. "Your mending abilities will be greatly appreciated at the castle. Our Master Mender—" She cleared her throat. "There is an opening available and in all honesty, we need all the help we can get."
Karigan turned away from the woman's perceptive gaze. AnnElyse hid safely behind Rena, but stepped forward when the Rider looked at her. "Mickey?" she inquired, anxiety etched into her features. Karigan shook her head and AnnElyse nodded, quickly moving off to calm her wild daughter.
"Are you staying longer?" Rena asked, coming to stand beside Fedir and Marli.
"I'm afraid I can't. I have other messages to deliver, as well as a long-postponed visit to my home." She didn't mention the Eletians who had shown up at the castle, drawn by the magic and bearing tidings of an expedition, which was the real reason Karigan couldn't linger. They had appeared like angels, and despite their obvious contempt of the situation, they had helped willingly, their techniques saving many who would have otherwise perished. Again, Karigan saw Mara's room and the wilting figure occupying the bed. She bowed swiftly to hide her expression. "I must go."
"I am to return as quickly as I can to the castle." After a pause, she embraced her friends once again, murmuring to Fedir and Marli, "I will see you soon." She lingered with Rena, her own sadness banished by laughter as the woman sobbed helplessly into her shoulder.
"You come again, yes?"
"Yes, of course." She pulled away and took up her saddlebag. "Thank you for everything." She pushed through to the outside. The others followed her, Marli coming all the way to Condor's side.
"Karigan…" she murmured. "My family's device?"
Karigan busied herself with the saddle. "It has been taken care of." One piece rested at the base of the ocean, dropped off the side of the ship that carried her to the island. Only she and Zachary knew where it was, and only Zachary and Ty knew where the other part hid.
"I see." Marli watched her. "Karigan…" she repeated. "You and Zachary—the king?"
Karigan's hands gripped the saddlehorn. That was something forbidden to speak of. Everything was so different now. Estora had gone missing in the chaos and her father killed. Amberhill had also disappeared, though he had kept Beryl alive, as he had promised. The Black Shields, the people of Sacor City, the lord-governors who were now being summoned….
She looked at Marli. "I don't know," she said simply, then mounted. She smiled at the small group. "Until next time."
"Wait!" Emmi reached her arms up to her mother, who carried her to Karigan's side. The girl fished something out of her pants and held it out to Karigan. "You left these behind before. I could only carry one. This was my favorite."
A seashell rested in her palm. Karigan half-laughed, half-cried as she took it. "Thank you." Emmi was lowered to the ground. Karigan waved, then paused as the sparkling ocean and the soft, white beach caught her eye. Everything was so different now. With a wistful smile, she turned her horse and urged him back toward the bay.