"Still no sign?"
Startled, Darian looked up and saw his sister standing above him, her eyes open wide with worry. He sighed and looked out the stone window again, his feet resting on the mason-worked sill, arms braced across his chest. "No, nothing yet. She should be back by now."
Illyria set a gentle hand on his shoulder, sisterly comfort beating against stubborn frustration. "She told you she had no way of knowing how long this would take. Time works in strange ways when she travels between our worlds."
"I know that, damn it!" Darian stood, roughly pushing the chair away from the wall, the wood of the legs making a harsh sound against the stone of the floor. "I know what she said, but it's been two full moons! Surely something must have gone wrong for her to be away for this long! Even Morning Star is getting agitated."
"Well of course she is, she misses her just as much as we do. But all three of us know that there is nothing we can do to help her from here. This is something she needs to do. This is something she has always needed to do. She needs the closure."
Darian shook his head, trying to come up with a reasonable argument as to why they had to intervene, scouring his mind, as he had been for days, trying to find some reason to force Micula to send her magic after the woman he loved, but Illyria knew her brother too well and placed both her hands on his shoulders, dipping her head to force him to meet her in the eyes. "She is not of our world, Darian. We knew this when we welcomed her into our ranks, and you knew this when you fell in love with her. She has a life here, a good life, one which I honestly believe she enjoys and wishes to maintain...but she never got the chance to say goodbye to her old life. She needed that."
"I know, but-"
"Brother, if you had the chance to go back in time and say good bye to Mother and Father, even if that was all you got to say, just 'goodbye' or 'I love you'...would you turn down that opportunity?"
"Yes!" he hissed, closing his eyes.
"Brother? Truly? Do you truly wish me to believe that you do not wish another moment with our parents? That you have no wish to see them again? No desire to say goodbye at long last, as we were denied by Dynasian before?"
Darian's head dropped, his breath caught in his throat. That was precisely what Sheila had said to convince him that she needed to do this. He squeezed his eyes more tightly shut and let his body fall forward to rest against the broad shoulders of his elder sister. He couldn't lie a second time, not to her or to Sheila; he knew that he would go to them, would pay almost any price to be able to see them one last time. For one last, brief glimpse of his beloved parents, he would give so very much...
Just as Sheila now could, and had.
"Oh, Darian." Illyria wrapped her arms around her brother and held onto him, enfolding him in the loving embrace of someone who also knows the pain of separation from their beloved, possibly even better than he did. She never lied to him about how he would feel when Sheila inevitably returned to her home, even if only for a short time. She was the only one who never tried to lessen the pain of the truth, or coat it in honey to make it easier for him to swallow. She and Laric had been kept apart for years, and Darian had no choice now but to accept Sheila's absence and to wait for her return, however long it might take.
He wasn't sure how long they stood like that, but finally, and with one last shuddering, dry-eyed breath, he parted from his sister, pressing a soft kiss to her brow. "Thank you."
She smiled up at him. As tall as she had always been, Darian's final youthful growth spurt had eventually put his head above hers. "Always, little brother," she promised.
Finally she drew back, nodded firmly once and rubbed her hands together (a habit that always amused Darian, as he knew for a fact she had learned it from Sheila). "Now, we both have much work to do, and keeping your mind occupied is the only remedy I can offer for your worries. There are new recruits to train, guards to discipline, and unicorns to tend to."
He smiled and nodded. "And an unlimited supply of foolish pages who think they are ready to save a kingdom single handedly from whatever foes might attack."
She smiled widely, and after her now many years of practice as Princess Consort, it didn't even look forced. "Indeed a truth. And a sadly high number of diplomats who don't know how to act their title, and even more messengers who are sent by their masters with orders to speak to no one but the king, no matter how trivial the matter. We both have much work to do, and never the time to do it in."
He nodded and walked over to his weapons chest to take down his favorite sword, strapping it to his side before removing a second, barely sharpened practice sword which he held loosely in his right hand.
"She will be back," Illyria said from the doorway.
Darian didn't bother looking away from the locker. "I know." He listened as she left the quarters he shared with Sheila, no longer able to contain the sigh that rose within him. "I only wish I had faith my own words, sister, but I am not as strong as her...and I am not sure that I would have the strength to leave our parents a second time."
"No! Look, if you don't get that left arm up, your opponent is always going to be able to come in from under and slice you open." Darian let the flat of his blade swing hard against the recruit's side, making sure it was hard enough that he would feel it for a few hours. "In case you haven't figured it out yet, dying is not the point of these exercises."
"Yes, Training Master." The student was quick to snap to attention after that, as were the others watching.
Darian sighed. "All right, rank up, we'll take this from the beginning. Again." He watched as the students (most hardly more than boys) fell in, spaced themselves apart, and raised their practice-weapons in readiness. Half of them had their weapons held too low, and another few had them raised far too high. The urge to scream with frustration rose inside him, but he forced it back down, knowing it would do no good. He knew that he had no one to blame but himself for much of the errors these boys were making; he had grown more and more distracted with each day that passed in Sheila's absence, and as he looked at the struggling students before him he could no longer ignore the issue.
"All right, weapons down." Thankfully they knew enough by now to obey immediately, even when an order confused them. Darian pointed off the edge of the field to the young page who always remained near in case a doctor or officer needed to be fetched. "Find Alriton, bring him here."
The page nodded eagerly. Darian's classes were notoriously boring for the pages on this duty; he was a strict master, but careful, and no matter how green or foolish a new student might be, it was rare that any of them would be injured while under his watchful eye. He didn't bother watching the boy as he ran off; the pages in Laric's castle were well taught and always loyal to their king. Instead he returned his gaze to the students before him and couldn't help but sigh again.
"Apprentice Alriton will be taking over your training." He saw a few confused looks among the students, but also some that looked strangely smug, and he made a mental note to watch them. Every king had detractors in his court, and many of those detractors had children in the guard. Darian often found that he could learn the politics of the parent by watching the child. "My mind is focused elsewhere, and as your Training Master, I can not allow your lives to be put into danger because of it. And make no mistake, your lives will be put in danger. That is why you are here. You are to be Royal Guardsmen." He fixed them all with a stern glare, letting his voice carry the power of the title through to them. "It is your duty and your honor to place your lives on the line to protect the men and women who serve in this castle, and as long as I serve my brother and king, only the best and most highly trusted of you will hold this honor. I will not risk the lives of others because you are half-trained."
He shook his head. "However, I can not place your lives in danger because you are half-trained by me, either." Out of the corner of his eye he could see the page returning, Alriton's long-legged stride nearly surpassing the boy's near-running pace. "Alriton will now be leading your training, but I will be watching carefully as well. Do not for a moment let yourselves think that this is a reprieve. In fact..." Darian let a small smile slip though. "Quite the opposite, I'd think. It is clear that I have been less than attentive in your studies, as your lackluster performances today have proven, but Alriton will not be so easy on you. You will be exhausted, you will be sore, and by the Gods, when you leave here today, you will at least have begun to truly train!"
"Yes, Training Master!" That sharp response from all, along with their stick-straight spines, made Darian feel at least slightly more satisfied with the situation.
"Alriton, please, resume their training. From the beginning, I think, is best."
Alriton smiled widely, showing off a fine, straight row of frighteningly sharp teeth against the striking darkness of his skin. "Gladly, Training Master."
Darian couldn't help but grin in return. Alriton came from further south than most of these students had probably ever heard of, from a land with a long history of grand wars and proud deaths in battle, and had come here following the stories of the Unicorn Queen and her band. Someday he would replace Darian as Training Master after Darian replaced the current Guards Master, but for now he was one of the fiercest fighters Darian had ever met outside of his family of Unicorn Warriors, and for the rest of these student's training, he was going to be their worst nightmare.
It was nearly sunset by the time Darian returned to his quarters, and he could feel his muscles aching with protest as he climbed the stairs to his rooms. He had definitely made the right decision by calling Alriton in to replace him; the students had made far more progress in a single day under the tutelage of his apprentice than they had during a week of training under Darian. In many ways, he supposed, he should have started doing this a year ago when he'd first decided to take Alriton on, as all the other Masters had told him to do, but Darian had attained his rank so early in his life, and still felt like such a student himself, that it felt distinctly odd to have an apprentice of his very own. But seeing Alriton so eager to please, and so clearly enjoying the chance to prove himself, made Darian realize that he'd be doing both of them a grand disservice. Alriton's talents were not being used to their full potential by simply acting as a sparring partner for Darian's demonstrations or as a mentor to the youngest of the students within their ranks.
No, it was far past time that Darian lived up to his own position as Alriton's Master. Alriton was a wonder with the students, driving them hard, but still moving slowly enough for them to learn and begin to master each new move. This left Darian free to single out the students most in need of extra attention, or to give extra training to those who were learning more quickly than their peers.
Mind made up, Darian pushed his exhausted legs into a bound up the final flight of stairs and had only just laid his hand against the smooth-hued wood of his door when he felt the world drop from beneath him. His lungs strained to regain the air which felt suddenly, wrenchingly empty and he fell painfully to his knees. He gasped in pain as the blow of sound and light finally rushed back into his skull and let his head hang limply from his shoulders, trying not to vomit. He took several quick and desperate breaths before throwing himself up and against the doorway, pushing into the room before his perceptions of the world had returned to normal. Only a few times had he felt sensations even close to this: while Sheila had been practicing her magic to return to her home, and finally when she had made the leap two moons ago. But never had it been this bad, this gut-wrenching.
As soon as he made it through the doorway, though, he had to fight to remain standing. His knees wanted to give out and crumple him to the floor, but his eyes were riveted to the person in the center of the room, and his heart screamed at him to go to her. His beloved Sheila was finally back. After two long months of waiting, she was back and standing before him. But her pain and anguish was palpable, seeming to rise up from her body like heatwaves on a desert plain.
Darian pushed himself to get to her side, but wasn't quick enough to catch her before her knees hit the ground. He did, however, get there in time to pull her into his arms, catching her before she collapsed completely. But even as he held her there, her head buried in his chest, she didn't seem to notice. Her tears spilled down her face and quickly soaked his tunic, yet she made little sound. He rocked her, murmuring soft nonsense that he would spend his life trying to remember, but it did little good. She just knelt there before him with her head bowed and her arms wrapped tightly around a large metal square that she clutched desperately to her chest.
Darian wasn't sure how much time passed before the door behind him was thrown open again. He turned his head to look and saw his sister and her husband both standing there, faces pale and chests heaving.
"I'm sorry, I felt her return but I was down in the city. I flew back as quickly as I could." Laric was the first one to enter the room, Illyria following closely behind him. "I summoned my healer, he should be here--"
"Right now. I apologize, my king, I came as quickly as I could gather what I might need." Farouz, the Chief Royal Physician, passed carefully around his king and queen and knelt beside Darian. "Has she said anything?"
He shook his head and gently brushed Sheila's hair from her face. "No. She just collapsed against me and cried."
Farouz pressed two fingers against Sheila's neck and Darian was surprised to realize that she was no longer crying. In fact, it appeared that she was no longer awake at all.
"Is she all right?" Illyria's quiet words seamed loud to everyone's ears, and they all gave a momentary jump.
"I can't be sure yet," Farouz replied, shaking his head. "I'll need to examine her more closely before I can commit to any diagnosis. Is there somewhere we can lay her down?"
"Yes, through here." Illyria took charge, for which her brother was eternally grateful. He wasn't sure he was capable of making decisions at the moment, all of his thoughts were focused entirely on the woman in his arms.
"All right, you," the doctor looked directly into Darian's eyes, "take her shoulders and hold onto her tightly. You," he glanced at the king, "take her legs above her knees, you must support her hips and back as much as possible. I'll guide her head and neck. Try not to let any of her bend or twist."
Darian immediately began to shift around so as to take her weight, but when Laric didn't move, everyone in the room turned to look at him. It was Farouz who was the first to realize his mistake. "Uh, I mean, if you would be so good, my king? I realize how important she is to you and your family, I thought you would want to--"
"Laric, take her legs." Illyria's voice was strong and commanding, and Laric had the decency to look a little abashed by his delay.
With the three of them working in careful unison and moving slowly they managed to navigate their way from the floor of the sitting room into the bedroom. Illyria removed the rumpled blankets and all but one of the pillows from the bed, so that the others could lay Sheila flat upon the sheets.
To Darian's surprise, she unfolded completely, stretched out limp on the bed they shared. She'd been curled so tightly against him that her muscles had almost seemed locked in place; he'd been half afraid that she would do the same thing as soon as they released her. But no, it was obvious now that she was unconscious and showing no signs of recovery, which sent a jolt of cold fear through his blood. He knew very little about magic, but he'd seen enough of it to know that it didn't always work in favor of the wielder.
"All right then..." Farouz set his medical bag down on the floor and laid a hand against Sheila's cheek, then her forehead before running his hands down her jaw and along her neck. "Her skin is cold, but I see no external injuries so far. She cast a spell, correct?"
Darian was so lost in contemplation of Sheila's face, in the memory of the terrible anguish he'd seen there, that for a moment he didn't even realize he'd been spoken to until his sister answered for him again.
"Yes." Illyria's face was lined with concern, and she glanced quickly at Laric. "A spell that's never been attempted before."
Farouz nodded, now running his hands along Sheila's left arm, but had to stop when he reached the object still clutched tightly in her hands.
"I need to examine her fully, can you...?" Farouz trailed off as Darian immediately began to ease the object away, but even unconscious, it was clear Sheila did not want to part with it. Darian didn't want to hurt her, but no matter what he did, she just clutched it tighter. Each time he lifted a hand, the other shifted to keep holding on.
Illyria leaned in and began to gently run her fingers through Sheila's tousled hair, whispering to her gently: "We're here with you, Sheila. No one is going to take anything away from you, but the physician needs to examine you. Please, let Darian keep it safe. You know that you can trust him with whatever it is. He would never let anything happen to anything so precious to you."
Sheila's head shifted, leaning towards Illyria's voice, and her arm relaxed a fraction. Encouraged, Illyria pressed on. "It's all right, child. You are back amongst family, now. We protect our own. You trust us. Trust us now. Let Darian keep it safe for you, as he always will. Trust him. Trust him as much as you love him."
A deep sigh escaped from her and finally her arms went lax around the object. Darian gently, reverently ran his hands across both of her arms and leaned forward to kiss the backs of her hands before taking the object away, replacing it with his own hand slid into hers.
"Good, good." Illyria continued her quiet, one-sided conversation as Farouz took the opportunity to continue his exam. "You are safe," she whispered. "You are home and you are with ones who love you. We shall let no harm befall you, Sheila. You're home now."
Darian focused entirely on Sheila while Farouz checked her over for broken bones, pressed on her abdomen checking for injuries hidden by her skin, and seemed to examine every inch of her. Through it all, Laric remained at a distance, his arms crossed and a scowl on his face. Darian had all but forgotten his presence entirely until he spoke.
"What is it?"
Darian looked up, surprised.
Laric raised one eyebrow. "What is it that is so precious to her that she carries it across worlds?"
"Oh..." Darian carefully withdrew his hand from Sheila's and turned the item over. This he would have recognized anywhere. There was only one other item like it in the entire world, currently residing with a tribe of painted warriors to the south. This was one of the near-magical still images her people used instead of painted portraits. Photographs, she called them, and this one was unlike any he'd ever seen before. It showed three people lit by a warm and welcoming sun, with the greens of a healthy landscape framing the trio. And sitting in between the two adults was Sheila as she had been many years ago. It was a Sheila as he remembered from when they'd first met, from when she'd first come to their world. But the other two, an older man and woman...they had to be her mother and father. The resemblance, especially between the women, was too obvious for anyone to ignore.
"It's...her family," he finally managed, his throat tight against the words.
Laric finally moved, coming forward to lay his hand on Darian's shoulder. "We are her family as well. You know this to be true, or she never would have returned to us." He squeezed Darian's shoulder, and Darian nodded, but he wasn't so sure. Sheila's return didn't feel like that of a person who had come back by choice.
"Well, she's exhausted, but I can find no physical cause for her condition, which means I can only believe that it has been caused by her exertions with magic." Farouz shook his head and settled the strap of his bag more firmly over his shoulder. "The only prescription I can give is the same as I'd give to any person who has so deeply over-extended themselves." He looked Illyria in the eye. "When she wakes it is very important that you have her drink as much water as she can hold. She probably won't want to, but her body is badly depleted and it will probably be some few days before she can keep food down easily."
"Then there's nothing else you can do?" Laric's voice was strong and oddly aggravated.
Farouz shook his head. "Not from my end, at least not until she wakes and can talk to me about what her body is feeling. I'm afraid you'll need a magician to help with the rest of her case, Your Majesty." He looked back to Illyria. "Send for me when she can stay awake for at least a quarter candle mark at a time."
Illyria and Laric both opened their mouths to speak, but Farouz cut them off. "Unless, of course, something happens before then, in which case send for me at any time."
"Thank you, Doctor. We'll send for you if there is any true change," Illyria assured him before seeing him out the door with a final round of her thanks.
Laric sighed and shook his head again. "A lot of good it's done. What use was it to start all of those collegiums if they can't even tend to one girl?"
Illyria stood at the door, her back still to her husband. "He did well, Laric."
"He did nothing but touch her skin and tell us to let her sleep. Cam could have done that much."
Illyria's hand tightened on the door frame. "Cam is a good and trusted man, but he has not spent his life training in the healing arts. And you started the collegiums because your people were in need of advanced education centers and the capitol city was the most logical place to house them."
"But if they can't even cure one person--"
Illyria spun and for the first time Laric realized that his wife was not simply distraught, but truly furious. "That 'one person' is a member of my family, and her injuries are caused by magic, something that your collegiums do not teach their doctors about, so how, in the name of all the Gods, do you expect that man to be able to treat her past what he has already done? He did everything in his power to help, and in doing so he helped me and my brother, if no one else." Her eyes narrowed and her voice dropped in cold fury. "If you are so certain that she needs better care, you are a mage, go in there and treat her yourself!" She pushed away from the door and stalked past him towards the doorway that led into the bedroom.
"And why is this suddenly my fault?" Laric spun on his heel to keep her in sight. "I came as soon as I felt her return, didn't I? And at some high magical cost to myself, I might add! Why is it that I am now--"
"Because you rank your future sister's health in what it costs you, Laric." She didn't turn to face him, but her voice carried. "Because where you once would have dropped everything, done anything, to aid a person in need, no matter who they were or what was wrong with them, you now moan and complain when it can't be done by someone else." She finally did turn her head, but not far enough to look at him, instead gazing out the window that overlooked the palace grounds. "And because the man I love and the man I married are now two very different people...and I'm not sure I care for what either one has become."
Laric didn't know what to say. He just stood in the center of the room, jaw gaping as he stared at his wife. "Why are you saying this, Illyria?" he finally managed.
"Because it's the truth, Laric. And because I am exhausted." She sighed at the window and turned to face the bedroom again. "I'm going to return to my brother, and sit by his side while we wait for our loved one to heal. I believe you are needed in the Courts today, perhaps your time could be more valuably spent there."
"Illyria..." But she wasn't listening anymore, she continued on to the bedroom and the door closed behind her, cutting off any further thought he might have had.
"Is everything all right?"
Illyria wasn't sure how long she had been standing there, her back pressed to the door now closed behind her. She blinked several times before the room came back into focus and she realized it was her brother speaking so softly to her, not her husband.
"L'ria? Is everything all right?" he asked again.
Illyria shook her head slowly back and forth a few times. "No, brother, I don't think it is." She couldn't help a sardonic smile from curving her lips. "But then, I don't believe things have been quite right for awhile now, have they?"
Darian slid slowly from his beloved's side and came over to his sister. "Illyria?"
She gave a hiccuping laugh and shook her head again."He can just be...such an ass lately."
"Well," Darian grinned at her, "I always did say he shook his feathered tail at you a few too many times..."
She couldn't help it, the laughs just bubbled up from inside of her. It wasn't until she felt her brother's arms around her, heard him murmuring something into her hair, that she realized she had started crying instead.
"I'm sorry. I'm sorry, it's Sheila we should be looking after, not me, I'm sorry, I just--"
"No, it's all right." Darian rubbed her shoulders and let her go far enough for her to wipe her eyes. "He is a bit of an ass lately." She gave another hiccuping laugh at that but just shook her head again. Darian sighed. "He's a good king, but we both know that his life has changed him."
She sighed. "And not for the best, I don't think." She looked up at him. "I am sorry, I don't know why this has come to a head now, when there are more important matters to be dealt with."
"It's all right. She's resting, and for now there is little else we can do." Darian guided her over to a small couch sitting below a second window beside the bed. There they sat down and, still holding hands, began the long wait for Sheila to come back to them yet again.
The trio in the photograph were looking up at him almost mockingly in their blind happiness. Darian wanted to feel happy for them, wanted desperately to feel happy that they had gotten to share in that moment, and that through this picture they got to keep it alive for all eternity. But instead all he could feel was anger, anger at this other life, anger at this other world and family that wanted to take Sheila away from him, wanted to keep her for their own.
And then came the guilt, guilt over feeling this way, guilt over some part of him not wanting Sheila to share in happiness without him. Guilt over wanting to be the reason she was happy, not anyone else. If she had been happy here, with him and their life together, then why had she gone back there? And if she was happy there, with parents that loved her, why had she returned here again?
Darian sighed. There were simply too many questions and without Sheila's input, no way of gathering the answers he so desired.
Their rooms were empty now; Illyria had finally left to get some sleep, and Laric hadn't bothered to show his face again. Not that Darian was missing his brother-in-law too much at the moment. Laric had once be the grandest man Darian had ever known, and he had spent years looking up to him, wanting to be just like him. But time, power, and a court full of questionably moraled sycophants had worn heavily on his shoulders, and those that loved him had watched in helplessness as Laric's values and sense of justice had started to flag, weighed down by new responsibilities and endless duties. He still tried, though, and with Illyria guiding him had never truly strayed from the righteous path...but that path was wandering more and more as Illyria's duties began to take her away from her husband's side. And, not being a member of the court himself, all Darian could do was work hard and train his guardsmen the best that he could to protect those values that they had all once fought so hard for.
In the beginning, Illyria and Laric had often spoken of starting a family, of how they wanted to be able to share their love for each other with the world. Over time, however, it became talk of how the people of their kingdom would find the blessing of the family line a wonderful inspiration, but how their duties as rulers would keep them away from a child so much that it wouldn't be fair to the babe. Finally it was decided that it would probably be best to wait until the kingdom was a little more settled under Laric's rule. Now the only time Darian heard either of them speak of children was when Illyria broached the subject of the kingdom's many children orphaned by the Dynasian's tyranny, or when Laric proposed building new schools in the poorest sections of his city. He had once thought to have each graduate of his collegiums spend a year teaching in such schools, so that all might benefit from their advanced learning, but that idea had fallen though the cracks of taxes and diplomatic bluster.
With how things stood now, Darian supposed it was a good thing they hadn't conceived so early in their reign. As hard as this currently was on Illyria, he'd hate to think of how wretched she'd feel trying to protect a child from feeling its effects.
He wondered if Sheila's parents ever had such concerns. They looked so happy in the photograph, it seemed impossible that they would have any such problems in their life together. But even just a handful of years ago he never would have predicted the troubles now appearing in Illyria and Laric's marriage. With how happy they had been in the beginning, how could he? How could anyone?
He wished he had a way of knowing, though. Would he and Sheila remain as happy as her parents in the photograph? Or would they become despondent by their duties, and distant, like his sister and her husband? Or where there new, impossible to predict problems in store for them? What if there were new traps that no one could yet imagine in store for them?
What if Sheila didn't even want to marry him when she awoke? He had never truly asked her. Everyone had always just...assumed. They had been together for so long...
Darian couldn't imagine his life without her, at least not a life in which he was happy, but what if going home had changed her mind? What if this escapade had only served to remind her of how different they were from each other? Their lives had so little in common before she had been dragged into this world against her will. She now had a way to go back, a way to return to her own life for good...what if she chose to take it? At this point, with Sheila still unconscious and no clues past the picture in his hands, he had no way of knowing how long she intended to stay. No way of knowing if she was willing to stay for the rest of their lives, or if she had only returned to say goodbye.
And for now he had no way of asking her. He wasn't even sure that he would have the courage to do so once she was awake and able to look into his eyes again.
He sighed and looked out the window, seeking answers, perhaps, in the stars. But he was denied comfort yet again as the light of the stars had already begun to fade, the sky painted with the cheery brightness of false dawn. It seemed to Darian that even the heavens themselves were refusing to aid his introspections, leaving his mind trapped inside the dark wanderings of the night while all the rest of the world was granted entrance into the light's wisdom.
Darian shook his head and looked at the photograph again, allowing himself to become lost for a few moments as he traced the lines of Sheila's so-young face. So much time had passed...How long it had been for her parents, he wondered? Had she even been gone long enough for them to notice her absence? Were they just now beginning to search? Or had they long since given up all hope of her return? What if they had continued without her, going on about their lives and having new children to replace the one so long-ago lost? Was that why she had come back, because she was no longer the child they needed? Or had they even recognized her as she now was? Could they recognize the adult she had become in her nine years here in Campora, as he could forever recognize her as the youthful child in the picture?
It was true that the years had been as kind to Sheila's beauty as they could be for any woman in her prime: her hair was more golden now than it was in the photo, and her skin darker, but her eyes were so clear and sparked with such life...But for her, each year of adulthood had been hard fought for and won. She had spent many months in seclusion with Micula studying the craft of Magic, and she had ridden into battle many more times to rid the kingdom of the last of Dynasian's supporters. Even now, years after Laric had been crowned, the Unicorn Queen and her band had never truly been disbanded or retired. They still fought on, always at the beck and call of their Queen, who, no matter what their problems privately, was forever loyal to her King.
Had it been worth it? To Darian it had, he would gladly fight again, and a thousand times over, if it gave his sister the years of happiness in Laric's arms that it already had. But did Sheila feel the same? He had never thought to ask her, he had always just...assumed. Yet another assumption he was finally beginning to question.
But she was back now, for good or ill, she was returned to this world and to him. And with this light of a new day, perhaps he might finally learn the answers he sought. If he was only brave enough to ask the questions...or strong enough to survive the truth.
A night and day and yet another night passed before Sheila did more than mutter and turn in her sleep, and through it all, Darian, Illyria, or Pelu remained at her side. That had been Laric's form of apology, Darian believed, to send for a healer that he knew would comfort both he and his sister, as well as be able to tend to Sheila in both magical and physical healing. Pelu had been on a circuit through the kingdom with several of the Riders, going from village to village teaching other healers new techniques and methods of treating the ill or injured. It was something she did as often as her own duties as court healer allowed. And while she still had no magics of her own, she had enough experience with magics to understand how they worked, and after years of riding with Sheila, and several journeys with Micula, she had learned much about how to treat magical ailments. And truthfully, Darian was grateful to his brother-in-law for sending for her. She was as much family to him as Sheila was, as all the riders were. Pelu had been one of the first riders to join their cause, and so had been a part of Darian's life since he was too young to do much more than ride.
The three took turns sitting with Sheila upon or near the bed, with the other two passing the time quietly in the sitting room. They played endless games of cards and bones and dice to pass the time. Every blade in Darian and Sheila's quarters was sharpened and shined to within an inch of its life, every bit of armor was mended, and even the random bits of magical odds and ends that had accumulated over the years were dusted and cleaned and organized, tucked away into their proper places around Sheila's work alter.
In truth, Sheila, who didn't believe in Gods so much as proof of their power, was never one to remember to place fresh offerings on the little alter. It didn't represent an alter of a god to her, but an alter to magic and a place of peace and concentration to safely rest or work. But with nothing else to take up their minds, the alter now fairly overflowed with flowers and milk and honey and tokens of love and prayer left by the rest of the Riders who had passed through, one by one, over these past few days.
On the third day, Sheila began to rouse enough that they were able to feed her mouthfuls of clear broths, and by the third night she was able to open her eyes, see where she was, and start to cry again.
It wasn't until the fifth day that she seemed to have cried herself out and was able to stay awake long enough to sit up while she was fed. She didn't like it, she hated to feel weak or invalid, but with her body still drained beyond measure, she was unable to do so much as hold the bowl, let alone feed herself.
Twice a day Farouz came to check on her, and to check in with Pelu, whom without Laric there to intimidate him, he often deferred to. Each time he declared Sheila stronger than the last, and was quick to assure Darian that she would soon be back to her full strength again. But even as her strength did return, her spirit did not. She no longer cried, but she did remain far more quiet than Darian had ever known her to be, and spent long hours either gazing out the window or staring blankly at the photograph on the bedside table.
The one time Darian had tried to ask her what had happened, she had simply looked at the picture and told him that it was over. Nothing more, no explanation, no emotion, just a simple statement of fact.
By the end of two weeks, there wasn't enough space on the alter to light incense without the risk of lighting someone else's offering ablaze.
"I don't know what to do," he finally confessed. He and Pelu were sitting on the bench beneath the sitting room window, a blade and polishing cloth in Darian's lap, and a plate of herbs Pelu was stripping and braiding together in hers. It was Illyria's turn to sit with Sheila, who was once again sleeping, and the last of the visitors had left for the evening not long before.
Pelu shook her head, not unkindly. "I do not believe there is much we can do, Darian. Not yet. She has just experienced a terrible loss, something beyond our ken." Darian looked up at her sharply, nearly cutting his finger on the blade in his haste, but Pelu only shook her head again, gently. "No, she did not speak to me of it, but I do recognize the signs. She acts as someone who has just lost everything she holds dear, like someone who has just lost a sibling or a lover to death." She sighed. "In these times, there is little anyone can do to hurry the process but offer comfort and support where she will let you. In this case I believe the healing must be done on her own. All we can do is help to ease her body, as her spirit works to ease her heart."
Another two weeks passed, and Illyria had taken to sleeping in her own quarters again after someone at court started to spread wicked gossip about her denying her husband over some perceived insult within her own head. Laric hadn't spoken of it, but it was clear he'd heard the whispers as his patience with his wife's absence grew thinner and thinner. Rather than argue, and not wanting to deal with the gossip directly, she had simply moved back into her usual rooms after each sunset, though she still spent far less time in court at her husband's side than she used to. Pelu, however, not sharing her rooms with any sort of regular company, felt no need to listen to whispers about where she slept, and insisted she was quite happy on the sitting room couch.
Darian had been in with Sheila since dinner (soft, over cooked foods now, as well as the endless broth) and at some point he was unaware of, had fallen asleep draped across the bed next to her, his legs still clinging to the chair and feet akimbo on the floor. The position was awkward and once he began to wake, quite painful. He dreaded actually moving, knowing that as soon as he did, the angry protests of his muscles would quickly become furious shouts. So instead he simply held his position and tried to keep his breathing level and even, slowly tensing each muscle group one at a time, trying to get the blood flowing again without actually moving any part of himself.
It wasn't until he felt someone else move that he remembered what had woken him. Cracking his eyes open, he peered through the darkness. The candles had long since burnt out, and the only light visible came from the full moon shining in through the open windows. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, they focused on the source of the movement.
It was Sheila. She had managed to throw back the covers and was nearly off the bed, her feet on the ground and body twisted for support. Even as Darian's eyes widened in surprise, she pushed herself up off the bed and stood, for the first time in days, on her own two feet. And even as he sat up (with his back yelling at him just as he had predicted), Sheila started to fall.
"Sheila!" he gasped, and pushed himself up and around the bed as quickly as his protesting body would allow.
Sheila had managed to catch herself against the nightstand, and she shook her head, refusing to look at him. Darian froze, afraid to move, afraid to even breathe, lest the wind knock her to the floor. They remained like that for some time, Sheila panting and Darian holding his breath, watching. As his eyes more fully adjusted to the lack of light, he couldn't help but feel desperate at what he saw. The shadowy darkness of the room had rendered her eyes almost black and her long, disheveled hair nearly the same. He'd always equated Sheila's coloring with strength, with fire, and this strange alteration made her seem far more frail than he'd ever known her to be. She looked like some sort of wraith hunched there beside their bed, frail and nearly broken.
When she made no further effort to walk, he took one step closer to her. "Are you all right?"
She didn't answer, but shook her head, still looking out towards the moon.
"Can I help? Can I get you--" he trailed off as she shook her head again. "Shei--" He broke off as she pushed away from the nightstand and took a handful of rushed, unsteady steps towards the window. Darian couldn't hold himself back and rushed to her side, getting there just as her knees gave out. "Sheila!"
"Sheila..." he started again, but she just shook hear head.
"Window," she repeated softly. "Please."
Her voice was so quiet, so calm, that it broke his heart to say no. This was the first time she'd actually asked for something, anything since she had first woken up, and Darian couldn't find the strength within himself to deny her. With a painful release of breath he'd been holding tight inside, he gently pulled her more firmly into his arms and, step by step, inch by fought-for inch, guided her over to the window. There weren't any chairs here like there usually were, they'd all been moved over beside the bed for Sheila's watchers and caretakers to use, but Darian didn't believe she had the strength to stand, and judging by the firm set to her jaw, he doubted he could convince her to turn around and go back to bed now. He knew he could just simply pick her up and carry her and damn what she wanted, but that would only do more harm than good. The entire time she'd been back, she hadn't asked for anything, not even once: not for food, nor water, nor even aid in using the hated chamberpot. And now that she finally had the energy to ask for something, anything, he couldn't ignore that small step forward by forcing her back to bed.
With a sigh, and without any other ideas, Darian let go of her long enough to settle himself down onto the floor facing the window. Sheila quickly got the idea, and once he was down, she moved to sit with him. Taking her once again into his arms, he settled her into his lap, sitting between his legs so the light gently fell upon them both. His back was not happy; it was already hurting from his unexpected nap, and sitting with the weight of another body against him, with nothing for support was only going to make things worse. But he refused to let her go long enough to get one of the chairs. She had not welcomed physical touch while she was awake, though she seemed to crave it while she slept, so this was truly the first time he had held her like this in nearly three months.
They sat like that for a long time, Sheila staring up at the naked face of the moon, Darian staring at the open and pain filled face of his beloved.
He couldn't be sure how long they spent like that, but where the moon had hung fully in the window when he had woken, now only the edge remained visible from where they were sitting, the rest swallowed up by the walls of the castle. Just as the last sliver of its light was still visible, he felt Sheila take a breath. "I never should have gone back."
He was afraid to say anything, for fear his words might push her into silence again. Finally, when she said no more, he risked a breathy, "Sheila..."
"I never should have gone back. Living in ignorance was a thousand times kinder than knowing the truth." As the last of the moon disappeared from sight, her head dropped. "I had a good life here. I was happy here. But now I'll spend the rest of my life knowing that I'm here because I'm simply not wanted there."
Darian wrapped his arms more tightly around her as she began to shake. He tried to interrupt her, to reassure her that she was wanted here, desperately so, but she rushed on before he could speak. "Now I'm going to spend the rest of my life here knowing that I'm no longer welcome in my own home, by my own family! How can anyone live like that?"
The shaking grew stronger and he held on as tight as he dared. "I'm sure it wasn't like that. They're your parents. There is nothing a child can do that would make a good and honest parent stop loving them. Nothing!"
She shook her head viciously, spitting the words out from somewhere deep inside her throat. "No. No, they made it clear. They don't care. They don't want me and they don't care and I am no longer welcome anywhere they are. I'm not even welcome in their world anymore. Oh God, Darian, I'm not even welcome in their world!"
He could hear the tears in her voice now, but still she refused to look at him. He buried his head against her neck. "I know that can't be so. I know it must have been bad, Sheila, but I don't believe that anyone, anyone could not want you! I love you with all my heart, and I promise you, it's impossible to not want you, to not love you. No one could ever stop loving you. I'm sure they just didn't understand." She shook her head and tried to pull away from him, but he wouldn't let her, keeping her pressed tightly to his chest. "I'm sure you looked very different to them, strange to them, even your voice has changed over the last nine years. I'm sure they just didn't understand and acted out of fear! They couldn't have turned you away had they known the truth."
When he felt her stop struggling he loosened his arms enough so that she could turn to face him, and he lost his breath when he finally saw her eyes. Before they had looked darker than any night to him, but now they seemed to swallow up the very last of the light itself, leaving only empty darkness in its place, the shine of her tears reflecting his own image back to him mockingly. Her skin was pale and more translucent looking than it had been even during the first unconscious days of her return, and when she spoke, her voice was quiet, cracking even as she pressed through the thickness of her tears. She shook her head again, slowly, looking him directly in the eye to make sure he understood her. "No, Darian, they didn't turn me away because they didn't recognize me. They knew who I was, I could see it in their eyes, they knew exactly who I was."
A solemn light returned to her eyes now, easing away the darkness in them, but only to reveal a depth of pain Darian had never before imagined. "They knew who I was," she repeated. "They just didn't want me."
Darian didn't say anything, there wasn't anything he could say. Instead he used his strength and turned her, pulling her legs across his and turning her to face him. She seemed to crumple once the words were out of her, and the tears came back. He eased one hand into her hair, the other sliding tight around her back, and pulled her into him. She collapsed against him and this time, finally, the tears were no longer silent.
The room echoed with the wrenching of her sobs, the cries of a child lost. Darian could feel tears racing down his own cheeks and he could do nothing but hold her, rock her, and swear his love to her with every breath.
As dawn finally approached, the sobs quieted back down to simple tears, and both of them were left silent, voices long since robbed from them. When the first rays of the sun bled into the sky, even the tears had stopped, and by the time Pelu stepped into the doorway, arms laden with a tray of Sheila's breakfast, Sheila had fallen asleep, resting safe in Darian's arms, and Darian was left watching over her, holding her until she could return to him yet again.
"I, Darian, swear to my beloved, Sheila, to honor her for my all days. To protect her as ever I can. To guide and to aid--"
Sheila slapped him playfully across the shoulder. "You don't have to keep practicing anymore. The damn thing is already over!"
Darian looked over at her from across Wildwing's back and grinned. "I know. I just like to keep saying it."
Sheila laughed again. "Well, I suppose that's fair." She looked down at Morning Star's braided and beflowered main and blushed. "I kinda like hearing it."
Darian grinned and sat up straighter, raising his voice to a near shout. "I, Darian, swear to my beloved--!"
They both doubled over laughing before he could get much further, the two unicorns giving each other knowing but amused glances that spoke volumes about their opinions of their rider's current moods.
It continued on like that for the rest of the evening. Periodically during the ride up into the mountains, Sheila would hear Darian murmuring the words beneath his breath, half the time seeming to be unaware that he was even do so. Once they reached the winter retreat tucked away between towering pines and perched over a vast, life-filled valley, Darian whispered the words as they opened the windows to let the fresh mountain air inside. As they stood side-by-side, unwrapping the food they brought with them for dinner, Darian leaned gently against her shoulder and murmured the words lovingly into her ear.
And that night, wrapped around each other, skin to skin and heart to heart, he watched her break beneath him, and whispered the words against her throat. "I, Darian, swear to my beloved, Sheila, to honor her for all my days. To protect her as ever I can. To guide and to aid her for as long as I draw breath. To love and to trust her, for all of my days."
As the moonlight drifted down through the windows, Sheila rested her head upon her husband's chest and thought back over her life. It had been 10 years ago to the day that she had found herself unable to return to Earth. Ten years ago, a young girl had found herself in a mystical valley full of magic and unicorns, unable to use any of her own powers to get back to the life she once had lived.
She had never stopped trying, though. Always she thought of Earth, and with each new spell she learned, she tried to find a way to use it to send her back. It was constantly in her thoughts, even as she did her best to live the life now before her.
But then she had gone back, and found it not a world she wanted to be in at all. Earth remained the world where her parents were, but it was not the home of her family. It was not her home.
Turning to press a kiss to Darian's chest, she smiled as she found herself already at home. Resting her cheek softly against him, she closed her eyes and whispered, "I, Sheila, swear to my beloved..."