Karigan managed to stay in Menders' Wing almost a full week before she decided she could not bear to stay in the cold stone room for even one more minute. The first several days were easy. Her body wanted nothing but sleep and then food, pretty much in that order. She would wake up from a nap to eat a bowl of soup and just as quickly fall back asleep. More than once, one of the Weapons in her room would have to catch the mug or bowl as she lost her grip on it when she did not realize she was falling asleep again. Occasionally, she was able to have short conversations with the people who came in to check on her. The one time King Zachary came to visit, she was deeply asleep. The Weapons in the room at the time exchanged glances and wordlessly decided to forget the visit ever occurred.
By the fourth day, the Rider was able to stay awake all day and it did not take very long before she was heartily tired of staying in bed. Even with lanterns turned up brightly and a brazier giving off heat, the room remained cold and impersonal. Every time she woke up, she had to convince herself that she was not back in that tomb under the crypts. She didn't think that she woke up crying out, but without fail one of the Weapons in the room with her would make sure the light from a lantern would fall on her face as she sat up gasping for air that she was afraid wasn't there. Each Green Rider and Weapon in the city made a point of stopping in for a least a moment even if she was asleep. The attention soothed her, but she could not help but be embarrassed that she needed it.
The fifth day, Karigan wanted to strangle somebody. Her wrist ached incessantly. She missed Condor more than she thought possible. The thought of having a real bath brought tears to her eyes. She wanted to kill her next visitor. Somehow, Fastion and Brienne got her through that particular day. They gently turned away the people flocking to look in on her, even her father. They brought her food and kept her thoughts off of her injuries. They discussed a training plan to get her back in fighting shape – without consulting a mender. They teased each other mercilessly and entertained the Rider by catching her up on all the Rider and Weapons news. Well, they called it news. She called it gossip. Karigan found herself giggling helplessly at more than one anecdote involving Mara and Donal and their stave training. She marveled at their openness with her, but could not deny the happiness that washed over her when she thought about it. All of the Weapons truly made her feel like the sister-at-arms they called her.
On the sixth day, Karigan slid out of bed and forced herself to stand up straight. "I'm leaving," she announced. She was proud of herself for maintaining a calm demeanor. Fastion eyed her briefly. She cringed inwardly, knowing that he saw her shaking limbs.
"Eat breakfast first," he suggested. His voice was mild and reasonable.
"I know that you think that I'm not ready - wait, what?" That sounded intelligent, Karigan, she thought ruefully. How else can I convince him I have to stay in Menders' another day or so?
Fastion's face remained as stoic as ever, but Karigan had spent enough time with him at this point to see the minute twinkle in his hazel eyes.
"Eat breakfast first," he repeated casually. "You'll have a better chance of convincing Twyla to let you leave if you're steady on your feet."
"You're not going to stop me?" Karigan couldn't quite believe what she was hearing.
The Weapon cast a brief glance up to the ceiling as if asking Aeryc for strength. "I am going to stop you if you don't have permission to leave," he said patiently. "However, if you eat, you will stop trembling. If you stop trembling, you may be able to make Twyla kick you out. If you're kicked out, you can pretty much do what you please. So eat breakfast first."
Almost on cue a distinctive tap on the door signaled Brienne's entrance bearing a tray of food. For a change, there was no broth or porridge in sight. A thick ham steak lay cradled by steaming shredded potatoes, all of which were topped with scrambled eggs. A large mug of strong, hot tea was the perfect complement to wash it all down and Karigan found that she was able to eat everything.
"I had no idea I was that hungry," she sighed in utter content when she was finished. It felt so good to eat real food like normal, but what she really wanted was to start living her life again. With that thought firmly in mind, she set about planning. In no time at all, she managed to cobble together an impressive method of attack designed to convince Twyla that she could be on her own now. It was mostly comprised of misdirection and exaggeration, of course, but surely since Karigan had managed to survive everything else in the last three years she could wheedle her way out of Menders'.
No sooner did she finish that thought than her door swung open and a Weapon ushered in Twyla. The Mender took one look at Karigan's face and threw her hands up in the air. "Why did I even expect anything else?" she asked the ceiling. "Aeryc and Aeryon preserve me." She scribbled something in a file and tossed it over to the counter. "Fine, Rider, you're officially released to your quarters. Light duty only, and keep that wrist splinted and immobile no matter what happens, or so help me..." she let words trail off ominously and fixed a fierce glare on the Rider.
Karigan felt her mouth hanging open in shock. "But..." she just barely managed to get out before Twyla ran right over her.
"Oh, don't look so shocked. You've been chomping at the bit for days. Destarion used to tell me that you Riders were the worst patients to step foot in Menders' Wing and so far I've yet to see anything to contradict him. Now go bother someone else." Still muttering under her breath about Riders that were more stubborn than their horses, the Mender turned and stalked out of the room.
Karigan didn't waste any time in hopping out of bed and scrambling into the loose-fitting clothing that Brienne had brought her along with breakfast. For a change, it was neither Rider Green nor Weapon Black. To her surprise, Fastion and Brienne trailed her out of the room and down the corridor.
"Are you going back to your quarters?" she asked suspiciously.
"No," they answered simultaneously.
"Are you going to go guard the King?" she asked.
The question seemed to merit some thought and a quick glance between the two Weapons before Fastion shrugged slightly and Brienne replied with another decisive no. "It's not our shift yet," she added after another half a minute.
Karigan mulled that over as she approached the Rider quarters with the two Weapons at her heels. When they still dogged her footsteps she had a sinking feeling she knew what was happening. "Then why are you still following me?"
Their answer was washed away in the cheers of welcome that greeted Karigan as she entered the Green Riders' common area in their quarters of the castle. The room was warm and brightly lit despite its interior position in the building. Over the last six months, the Riders had managed to add enough personal touches that it no longer felt cold and unwelcoming and Karigan smiled in spite of herself as Riders leaped over each other to greet her and make sure she was okay. Garth leapt up from the chair closest to the fire and urged her to sit. Mara pressed a cup of tea on her. Even Captain Mapstone was present and saluted her cheerfully in between moves of the game she was playing.
Karigan sat numbly and drank her tea in a futile effort to stave off the tears welling up in her eyes. Her smile felt wider than her face though, and she finally set aside her teacup to scrub at her face with her sleeve. The other Riders casually ignored her blatant emotions and made her feel like she was finally home. They teased her and comforted her all without asking questions she couldn't or wouldn't answer. After so long floating in between worlds, their love and care for her was the balm she needed to heal the last of her lingering doubts about where she truly belonged.
Through all this Fastion and Brienne stood casually by the common room door leading to the castle proper. It only took a glance for Karigan to realize they were as relaxed as Weapons ever got and not formally on duty, but after the third uneasy look from the newest recruit – was Loren his name? - she made a point of pulling them into the conversation. After another thirty minutes of casual talk, the others didn't even remember the two were Weapons and not Riders. In the middle of a spirited discussion about the quickest ways into and out of the city proper, Captain Mapstone leaned against the armchair Karigan was sitting in. She gave every evidence of being interested in the conversation, but after a few pertinent observations she pitched her voice for Karigan alone.
"You did a good job there, Karigan. By including the Weapons in our gathering," she elaborated after a blank look. "It's more important than ever for Sacoridians to stick together and you seem to have a talent for inspiring just that."
Karigan bit her tongue and glanced away into the fire to prevent her irritation from getting away from her. I inspire anything but solidarity, she thought bitterly before she could stop herself, thinking of King Zachary and Queen Estora. That quickly, her good mood was gone. I wish Condor was here. I would do anything for a quick ride around the paddock with him. Or even to just brush him down in the stables. Instead, she forced her lips into a semblance of a smile and thanked the Captain for her compliment.
Captain Mapstone flashed a quick, unhappy smile at her Rider that told Karigan more than words that her resentment was noticed. "I managed to get you off the hook for tonight on the grounds of exhaustion, but the King and Council will want to see you tomorrow morning first thing." The Captain looked away from Karigan into the fire. "I could not persuade them to wait another day, although I tried."
Shame welled up in Karigan. It's not the Captain's fault, she told herself fiercely upon seeing the expression on Captain Mapstone's face. Don't take it out on her. She glanced almost involuntarily at the Weapons and Fastion gave her an almost imperceptible nod of encouragement. The exchange gave her enough strength that she managed a genuine smile. "Thank you, Captain," she said softly. "I appreciate the extra night of rest. Almost everyone told me I shouldn't leave Menders' yet, but I couldn't bear to spend another night in that room."
"I know exactly what you mean," Captain Mapstone said wryly, touching her scar by way of emphasis. "I wish I could have bought you more time, but we really need to hear your account of things since no one else encountered Mornhavon quite the same way you did."
"I'll see you first thing in the morning, then," Karigan said.
"You might want to visit with your father first." Without explaining her last statement, the Captain casually made her goodbyes and strode out of the common room. Karigan rubbed absently at the lingering itch in her leg and remembered ruefully how futile it was to get the last word in a conversation with Captain Mapstone.
Stevic G'ladheon regarded the unlit fireplace in his guest suite moodily, tapping at the arm of the overstuffed chair he reclined in. Time seemed to creep by more and more slowly with each day he was forced to wait on his daughter's recovery. Each day, his patience for the unaccustomed action waned even further. He was arguably the most successful merchant in Sacoridia. He did not come by his wealth by simply waiting for opportunities to drop in his lap. However, he acknowledged that there was a time and place for everything and that this was one of those very rare instances where he could do nothing to help accelerate the situation. Knowing a thing and accepting a thing were two very different actions, however, and he could no more help but chafe at the bit, so to speak, than he could help Karigan heal more quickly.
The first several days after Somial had healed Karigan of the worst of her injuries, Stevic was able to distract himself quite profitably by mingling with the courtiers of King Zachary's court and hammering out alliance-pacts with a select few of the fellow merchants currently trading in Sacor City. He took the time to spend one entire morning quite handily pulling the ground out from underneath one of his biggest rivals as she attempted to gain support from Queen Estora to overturn a decision made by King Zachary – with Karigan's advice – a year and some ago. That was singularly satisfying, but if only the rest of the interminable days would go by so quickly!
In the evenings, a Weapon would generally drop by with a carefully neutral report on his daughter's health and activities. He knew that this was as much for Karigan's benefit as for his own, but he recognized the courtesy behind the otherwise unnecessary action and made it clear that he deeply appreciated the updates. While he did not truly understand the bond between Karigan and the Black Shields, he knew that it was extraordinary. That sense was confirmed when Fastion quite casually mentioned last night that she was well into her swordmaster training before the expedition into Blackveil Forest and praised her progress and tenacity. The clan chief managed to stammer out a couple of pleasant-sounding statements by way of recognition before retiring in almost complete confusion.
"Everyone seems to know more about my daughter than I do," he observed glumly to his cargo master that night. "Where did I go wrong?"
Sevano shrugged, a sardonic grin crossing his face lightning-quick. "I daresay every father says that about his children at one point or the other, Chief." He seemed to sense his Clan Chief's melancholy mood went deeper than the words indicated and stood to place his hand supportively on Stevic's shoulder. "The fact is that all children grow up, Stevic. You should take pride that you've raised Kari as well as you have. She's a credit to you and to the Clan, and aye, to Sacoridia as well. Maybe she's hidden some things from you, but you've hidden some things from her too. Are you proud of her?"
"Of course I am!" Stevic snorted dismissively.
"Then show it, by all the gods! She thinks you don't approve of her accomplishments because of that magic the Greenie's – uh, Riders - have." Sevano's face twisted in discomfort, but he pushed past it gamely. "You don't have to like the magic to like her accomplishments. She may have some mystical help but it's her own brains and her own courage that's gotten her this far."
Stevic thought about this for a long time in silence, never noticing when Sevano patted his shoulder gently and took himself off to his bed.
Now, staring at the empty fireplace in the middle of the day, Stevic remembered the same despairing thoughts crossing his mind as he listened to Somial's reasons for desiring to heal Karigan and made a decision. Karigan had been discharged earlier in the day to return to her quarters in the Green Riders' Wing. Regardless of Sevano's comforting words last night, he knew that he had made a fundamental error in allowing his native distrust in magic to cloud his judgment in regards to his only child. He could only pray that he was not too late to start rectifying his mistakes. He would listen to her with an open mind if it was the last thing he did. Kariny, I wish you were here, he thought mournfully, as he did at least two or three times a day. How you would laugh at the mess I find myself in!
Suddenly full of energy and purpose, he got up to go find his willful, impossible daughter. He was reasonably certain at this point that one of the Weapons would agree to direct his steps to the Riders' Wing. He reminded himself firmly of the need to remain calm no matter what happened. He took a deep breath to steady himself and pulled open the door to his suite - only to encounter a healthy-looking Karigan on the other side of it, hand raised to knock. He stared at her, too startled to say anything at first. Instead, he just drank in the sight of her.
His daughter was dressed in plain brown trousers and a loose linen shirt. The clothes hung on her too-thin frame, a silent witness to the weight lost during her convalescence. Her wrist was tightly splinted and wrapped with fresh bandages. Her hair was clean and shone in the lamplight though, and while she still looked tired, no pain twisted her features. Her eyes started to cloud over in apprehension at Stevic's surprised silence and he just strode forward and pulled her into his arms.
"Karigan, thank the gods you're alive and well," he breathed into her hair. To his consternation, tears welled up in his eyes, but he made no move to hide them. He pushed her away so he could study her at arms' length. "I thought you were lost to me," he murmured. "I thought I would never have the chance to tell you how much I love you, and how proud of you I am."
The shadows left her eyes at that and she darted into his arms again, clearly suppressing her own tears. After a moment, she pulled back and swiped at her tears with her sleeve. "Do you think we could go outside?" she asked hesitantly. "I think we should get out of the hallway and I'm tired of being cooped up inside all day."
Stevic chuckled. "You've never liked being inside anyway," he said, amused. "Is there a place we can talk in some privacy?"
Karigan linked her arm in her father's and led him slowly through the castle. Their route took them through several wings of the castle, all fairly heavily populated. Each time they passed someone, the Rider took care to nod pleasantly at them before resuming the polite surface conversation she maintained with her father. Eventually, they reached the pastures behind the castle and Karigan let go of Stevic's arm with an explosive sigh of exasperation. "At last!" she muttered fervently. She settled down on a bench underneath the spreading arms of an old oak tree and turned her face up into the dappled summer sunlight.
"Well, at least we'll see anyone close enough to hear us," she said eventually. She looked up at her father as he stood next to the bench. "It's about as close to privacy as you can get on the castle grounds, I'm afraid."
Stevic nodded easily and leaned up against the tree trunk. After several moments of companionable silence, he spoke. "You scared me to death, you know," he said. He remembered his own injunction to remain calm and took a deep breath, smoothing the remembered emotions away from his features. "All I could do was stand there and watch. It reminded me very strongly of the night Kariny died giving birth to you," he said softly. "All I could do then was watch, as well."
Karigan bit her lip and cast her gaze down to the bench. "I never meant to upset you so much," she said, so softly that he had to lean in a little closer to hear her clearly.
He found himself nodding, marveling at how easy everything was going to be after all. "I never gave you a chance to explain things to me," he replied, still oddly calm and appreciating the simple gift of being able to talk to his daughter once again when he had thought time had run out for them.
"Is it something you really want to know about? I understand if you don't." Her voice was wary, still full of remembered apprehension of his hatred of magic and underlying the cautious note was some remembered heartache.
Stevic didn't answer right away. He looked out over the pasture with the horses grazing along the fence and let the breeze ruffle his hair. Eventually, he turned and took the seat next to Karigan, reaching over to hold her left hand firmly with his own. "I think I have done both of us and your mother's memory a great disservice," he said firmly. "I think that I miss my daughter and knowing what is going on in her life. And I think that it's my fault if I have a hard time accepting magic and not your own. You have never done anything to cause me or any other of the Clan harm and you have done many things to bring us pride. Sevano reminded me of that last night. If you can accept my apology and tell me what has really happened over the last four years, I will do my best to listen with an open mind and not let my prejudices get in the way of our relationship any longer."
Karigan's eyes filled with tears again and she squeezed his hand once before pulling away and wrapping her arms around her waist. She stared off into the distance. For a moment, Stevic was concerned that he had pressed things too far, too fast, but then she spoke in the same soft voice she had used before. "When I decided to run away from Selium..."
The tale spilling from her lips was much more candid than her heavily edited letters had been. More than once, Stevic had to physically prevent himself from showing some bodily reaction. Sometimes he wanted to shake his head in sheer incredulity. It was like she was a bard spinning some bizarre combination of folklore and history with a hefty dose of fanciful impossibility. Sometimes he had to hold back tears as he empathized with some of the situations she had faced alone and the losses she shared with the other Riders. Most of the time, he just wanted to tremble in fear at all of the dangers that surrounded her. Not pulling her into his arms during these times proved to be the hardest for him to do, but he knew somewhere deep inside that if he ruined this chance, she might never speak of it again. They were too similar and their wounds too fresh.
"So now Mornhavon, our own ancestor's Lord, roves Blackveil freely, aided by a necromancer of some power and no one knows quite what to do about it," she finished finally. "Except that both the Eletians and the Sacoridians think I might be able to do something. Although no one seems to know what that something is supposed to be."
Out of long habit from his sea-faring days, Stevic tipped his head meditatively toward the sky as he pondered everything he learned. Darkness had long since fallen as she spoke and the hot, still air of late summer lay around them like a muffling blanket. The city lights were far too bright for him to make out the stars, though. He felt a little bit adrift without any guiding pattern to lead his way. This is all far beyond my ken, he thought heavily. But then, how much worse must Karigan feel? How much more pressure?
"I think I should like to read Hadriax's journal," he murmured at length, not having any other response to give his daughter right away. It would take a long time to process everything and decide how to best deal with it.
He felt more than saw her nod. "I have a copy in my room," she replied as quietly. "I've pretty much memorized it at this point. It was meant for the Clan as a whole anyway; a gift from Estral and her father." A pained note entered her voice at the mention of her best friend.
"It's not her fault, you know," Stevic offered gently as he remembered the story of their strained parting at the Wall. "She can't help who she fell in love with."
"No," Karigan whispered. "I know that. That's...that's not it. At least, not really." She sniffed back the tears that her father could hear in her voice. He reached out and grasped her hand again, letting her know without words that he was there for her. "I didn't really love Alton. At least, not like that. I know that now. And I know deep inside I wasn't very fair to him. But they hid it from me and that hurt. I could have forgiven that," she continued brokenly, "but she took my feelings and my deepest secret and shared them with him after she swore on her honor that she would never share them with anybody. She's a Bard and she broke her word. I don't know what to do anymore. I'll never get away from it now and it's so wrong and it's so impossible and it doesn't even matter anymore." The last words dissolved into open tears and she finally leaned into him, accepting a father's comfort for his child's broken heart.
His heart broke for her and he held her wordlessly, rocking her gently and smoothing back her long hair. "Ah, Kari, lass. I know it hurts." In that moment, he felt connected to every parent that had ever grieved for their child's heartache. Karigan's tears eventually subsided into occasional sniffles although she made no move to extract herself from his arms. He was still staring at the sky as information fell together as neatly as putting the pieces of a puzzle together.
"You can't help you fall in love with," he remembered telling his daughter. "No, I know that," she had said. "...it's so wrong and it's so impossible and it doesn't even matter anymore," regarding her secret.
King Zachary had more than once called Karigan by name, not title, and his expression had been one that Stevic had seen in his own face after his Kariny had died. "Thank you for allowing the Eletians to look at Karigan," the King had said, too low for anyone else to overhear. He swallowed convulsively and his gaze turned just a little bit distant, as if trying to make out something too far away to easily see. "She is so important." At the time, Stevic had been too stunned to take the words as anything other than more praise for his daughter and a polite desire to conserve a valuable resource. Looking back at it, it seemed to be so much more personal than that.
The way Queen Estora seemed genuinely concerned over Karigan's health one moment, then aloof and distant the next.
The way King Zachary had fiercely negotiated terms acceptable to both the Sacoridian court as well as the Eletians, all the while making sure Stevic was included in the decision making.
Captain Mapstone's look of guilt when she looked at the king.
Karigan's continual avoidance of mentioning either the king or queen outside of relating specific events pertinent to one of the rulers.
The many, many rumors that the king was reluctant to marry because of a common woman.
Karigan loves Zachary. Or Zachary loves her. Or both, he thought, stunned beyond disbelief. But how did this even happen? After another moment he bowed his head over hers and tightened his arms around her unconsciously. His grief for his daughter's heartache came back a thousandfold, for surely there was no happy ending to this story.
"Kari," he began hesitantly. He searched for the words to express his thoughts. It was normally an easy task, but this was almost too much for him to encompass, let alone talk about. "Kari, he's married," he settled for finally, as gently as possible.
Karigan didn't pull away from him the way he half-expected her to, but sank deeper into his arms. "I said it was impossible," she reminded him. Her voice was muffled by his shirt, but the resignation in it still came across clearly. She did not pretend ignorance or try to deflect him, as he also half-expected.
"You know I would never disgrace the Clan, right? Not like that."
Stevic nodded silently into her hair, stroking it softly.
"I didn't even know, until Estral forced me to put it into words," Karigan sat up and rubbed her cast in a quick, nervous gesture. "And she swore never to tell, which obviously did not matter for long." Oh, the bitterness in her voice, quickly suppressed.
"I was friends with her, until the marriage contract," she whispered harshly, her words somehow making it clear that she was no longer talking about Estral but about the queen instead. "And now I can no longer bring myself to talk to her, because I feel so guilty. So I throw myself into being a Green Rider and my weapons training so I can try and forget about – everything - for a little while. Even when I saved her from those bandits, it was more because of guilt than any kind of civic duty. And also for him, because I did not want him to hurt.
"Until recently, you didn't understand my association with the Riders. The Riders don't understand my association with the Weapons. Knowing them and training with them makes my guilt so much worse because they are so devoted to the crown by nature and no one at all understands my brooch or the abilities it gives me. Not the Riders and not myself.
"Every time I am injured, I want nothing so much as to be declared fit for duty again so I can get back on Condor and gallop away from everything that I don't want to deal with. I get away with it in the name of service to king and country. All around me darkness is rising and people are dying. And yet, I still live and am hailed as a hero for it!"
"Stop this!" The rest of her words died under the harsh weight of Stevic's words. He thought quickly, not wanting to push her away after she had finally opened up to him.
"Karigan, listen to me." He captured her hand again in both of his and stared at the pale oval of her face just barely visible in the night. "I want you to listen to me for a moment. If you can't accept what I say, that's fine, but I want you to remember the words for another night when you can.
"You are a bright, brilliant young woman that happens to be extremely good at the job you have chosen to take on. You are recognized for this and for no other reason. You seem to have this expectation that you need to be perfect; well, I can say with some certainty that you are a mortal and not Sevelon. Flesh and blood, Karigan. You feel things. You sometimes get angry. You're often impatient. You laugh, you make friends, you love. That's all a part of life and you cannot feel guilty about it. You make mistakes, but I know I've taught you to accept your mistakes and their consequences and then move on, having learned your lesson. So long as you do that and acknowledge even the unpleasant truths about yourself that you'd rather not know about if you had the choice, then you can't hold yourself responsible for every little thing that happens in life.
"You're a G'ladheon, heir to this Clan and everything I have built. You will never disgrace our name, no matter its' origins. You have proven yourself over and over again and I'm so proud of you. My one regret is that I had to almost lose you to tell you any of this. I love you more than I can possibly express." He gave her another fierce hug and then tugged her up. "Come on. It's nigh midnight and Sevano will be clucking like a mother hen pretty soon."
Karigan gave a slightly watery chuckle and let him pull her to her feet. She was hot, her eyes were scratchy and dry and her head felt like an over-stuffed ball due to the congestion from crying so much, but she felt better than she ever remembered. Even encountering the king and queen returning from a social engagement could not dampen the joy and relief she felt in regaining the closeness she had always associated with her love for her father.
I sincerely hope this chapter was worth the wait, as I struggled quite a bit with it. Don't worry, the plot will advance a bit in the next chapter.