It was no secret where the King might be found every starbright night. His advisors and close friends knew not to seek him in his chambers, but rather climbed the winding stairs to the observatory. Every clear night, winter or summer, he spent at least one hour there. Sometimes he brought work. Sometimes he gazed at the stars. Sometimes he merely stood watching over the distance spread beneath him, a faithful terrier resting at his feet.
They all knew who he was waiting for.
Karigan G'ladheon had left almost a year ago astride her messenger horse. Her time of return was unknown and neither captain nor king deceived themselves into thinking that she was safe. A Green Rider brought their message through dangers untold if needed. Karigan faced more of them than most. To hope seemed almost a foolish delusion.
In the meanwhile, the world kept moving. The ramifications of the broken wedding, the uprising of the lords, and the rise of conservative forces within the kingdom demanded answers and actions. To Mapstone's eyes, the King was aging rapidly -- even more so than since he had taken the throne. The grey strands in his hair were rivalling hers in thickness and the sorrow in his eyes had turned to haunted grief. Under him, the kingdom had faltered. Under him, it had almost splintered. For someone who loved his country as well as the King did, the tattered remnants tore at his heart.
The first day of summer, the rains ceased after a month-long hold over the country. The roads were muddy and heavy, caravans slowly working into the capital complaining about the shape of the roads and poorly upheld safety. The northern caravans had ceased to arrive at all. Green Riders were sent to investigate the matter, but Zachary feared the merchants had simply found better markets. The north had simply not been safe for far too long.
With the latest caravan from the sea came news: a few days back they had passed a horseless Green Rider traveling on foot. Or rather: they believed the individual was a Green Rider. At the sight of them, the person had departed from the road. Truly, that was the reason the incident was remembered at all.
Something in Zachary's heart wrenched at the thought. It whispered to him: It's now or never. If this is not her, Kari will never return. He could not resist the call to investigate in person. It had been a long time since he last led a hunt along the once-again shores of the Mirror of the Moon and this seemed a fine day to indulge.
A company of nobles were gathered, along with a suitable number of Weapons and Riders. Lady Estora in her newly-wedded bliss participated astride a steady mare, closely attended by her husband. Zachary wished them all well and felt a deep relief that the broken engagement had not hindered the blossoming love between the two. Lady Estora was among his dearest friends and he would not like to have caused her to lose yet another love.
They descended the city hill at a slow pace, Finder leading his flock of terriers at point. Zachary found his thoughts straying towards the road, his eyes straining to see across the waters to the forest lining the other shore. Not even his sharp eyes could see that distance, however, and he found himself nudging his horse into a quicker trot. The merchants professed to have seen her four or five days back. At a fast clip -- and would a Rider travel at another rate? -- a person would reach the city late in the day. Should she come, he would be there.
"It's not certain the Rider is Karigan." Captain Mapstone rode at his side, face lined with compassion and sadness. "Don't gather hopes that will only be crushed."
At her words, Zachary remembered her efforts to keep them apart and felt a stab of anger. Would she take even this hope from him? Then he remembered their friendship and companionship. She would not do something for him that did not need to be done. While in this instance, she had been wrong to do so, he did understand her reason. He relented.
"I believe in her," he said and found himself feeling the emotion he spoke. Something within him knew even when there were no certainties. "Karigan will return." To me.
"I wish I could share your optimism."
"Faith, rather." He looked into the distance, remembered her face as she stood before him that last time to accept the missive. She had known then that she might not return. Her eyes had told him everything. It had been hard not to grab her and envelop her in his arms. Shut her within the palace and never let her go. But it would be to fetter a wild-born falcon and that he could never do.
The hunt proceeded around him. In the old days, Zachary would have been at the very front, chasing the freedom he could not have. This day, he rode at the back, confusing his dogs but not his companions. The Weapons rode in wide patterns around him, searching as much as they guarded.
A flock of birds rose from the trees to the south. Without thinking, Zachary spurred his horse into a gallop, bending low over his neck as he urged him on. His heart pounded, rising almost to his throat to threaten his breath. Karigan, his heart thumped. Kari.
The thick undergrowth parted for him as if bidden to do so by the masters of the forest, no longer wandering within the boundaries of the country. He did not falter, did not hesitate. His heart led him and it would not let him lose the way.
A shape clad in green so dirty it was almost brown, resting against a tree. Leaning awkwardly, as if wounded and weary. A sword rested at its side, carrying the visible markings of a swordmaster. When Zachary passed through the last wall of bushes, it looked up. The eyes that met him had haunted him in his dreams ever since he'd met her.
"Karigan," he breathed, sliding to the ground. "It is you."
She attempted to straighten, then gave up and simply hobbled towards him. Her face was hungry as if a year had been far too long for her as much as it had for Zachary. There was no time for pretense, for decorum. He threw his arms around her and she clung to him hard, burying her face against his neck as he held her tight. Skin and bones, he thought desperately to himself before all thought disappeared. Only skin and bone.
He did not know how long they stood there. Did not notice when the Weapons surrounded them and kept all away, granting their King and their Swordsister the time they might not otherwise have. Karigan was home. With her by his side, the future and the hard work of rebuilding the kingdom did not seem half as hard. He knew that until the Calling gave her up she would ride for him, but he could wait and he had been waiting. Until their time came, he would always have this.
They parted and Karigan's hand went to his face, resting along his cheek as she gazed into his eyes. I'm home, it said. You're here.
Yes, he thought back. Then he bent and kissed her. She tangled her fingers into his hair and reached up to be meet him. The world faded.