Justin sat on Moorland beach, staring out at the inky-black ocean that reflected the stars. It was a little further down from the barges, near the picnic tables. Still not as far away from Dark Core as he’d like to be, but they just wouldn’t leave the beach. He dragged a hand through the sand, the feeling of the white grains soothing him. Just as the sound of the waves did. Jorvik only had small waves and tides in this area. Which was part of what made it such a popular tourist attraction, and such a good place to raise horses.
He hadn’t been able to sleep. That was normal lately. He hadn’t really slept since he’d come home, when he’d passed out for approximately twenty-four hours. It wasn’t that he wasn’t tired, because he was. He was exhausted. But the silence of the stables after the noise of the oil rig was deafening. It just didn’t feel right, to join the happy little family there. The new riders happily chatted with their friends day in and day out, but Justin could never imagine being that happy. Sometimes, he didn’t leave his room for the whole day. Other days, he took one of the horses out for a ride. He had a… something. His memory was patchy now, fuzzy.
The crunchy sound of hoofsteps on the beach made him drop the sand that he’d been sifting through his hand.
“Who’s there?” asked Justin, turning around faster than his tired body wanted to. He was always on edge lately.
“It’s just me,” said a girl, riding towards him. She had a light in her hand, and for a moment, Justin thought of the legend of Aideen. But this girl had short black hair, not long red hair, and her horse was a shiny black Friesian.
“Oh, hi, Zelda,” said Justin. He sank back down to the sand, trying to hide the trembling in his hands.
“Couldn’t sleep?” asked Zelda, dismounting her horse and walking to sit beside him. Justin was relieved to have another presence beside him. He relaxed, not having realised how tense he’d been. Zelda’s presence beside him was reassuring. Her hand on his was warm.
“It’s hard to get used to the quiet,” said Justin.
“If you feel guilty-“ Zelda began, but Justin cut her off.
“That’s not what’s keeping me up at night,” said Justin. “It’s just...” He sighed. “It’s not like you’d understand. There’s nobody that I can talk to about this.”
“You can talk to me,” said Zelda. “Or talk at me. I might not be able to understand, but I will listen.” She squeezed his hand, and Justin smiled. Just a little, but it was there.
“I was going to- I tried to-“ Justin couldn’t bring himself to say it.
“You were brainwashed, Justin,” said Zelda.
“Did you want to hurt my horse? Did you want to put me in chains and- what were they going to do to me, anyway?” asked Zelda.
“I don’t remember,” said Justin. “I don’t really remember anything about my time there.”
“Do you remember seeing me?” asked Zelda.
“I… I think I do,” said Justin. “Even when they tried to make me forget about my own home, I remembered you.” Zelda grinned.
“Glad to hear it,” said Zelda. “Go on, tell me all your problems. I’m all ears.” She laid back on the sand, and Justin joined her there. It might take a while to get all the sand out of his hair, but that was okay. This was more comfortable anyway.
And Justin talked, staring up at the stars mostly but occasionally turning to look at Zelda. He talked about his fears, about his worries that he’d ruined everything, about how he wasn’t sure whether or not Mr Sands was a good guy, and what that meant for him, being the grandson of one.
“He helped me save you, you know,” said Zelda. “I mean, he didn’t give my horse wings, but he set off the alarm that distracted the Generals.”
“Really?” asked Justin.
“Yeah,” said Zelda. “I was surprised too but he does care about you, Justin.”
“Even though I’m not what he wanted me to be?” asked Justin. “He must be so disappointed in me.”
“He probably was, but he seemed more… upset with himself, I guess,” said Zelda. “Anyway, the point is, he didn’t want you to die.”
“Wow,” said Justin. He sighed. “Now I feel kinda bad for not thanking him.”
He continued talking about his memory problems, his struggle fitting in, his nightmares that had him waking up with a pounding heart and sweaty palms and shaking limbs. The fact that being near the ocean terrified him after he’d nearly drowned, but it was the only thing that made him feel better. How he could doze on this beach, but he would inevitably be awoken by the fishermen (and women) heading out to fish early in the morning, or the cats that followed in their wake. How he wished that the Dark Core people would just go away so he wouldn’t have that constant reminder. How he hated himself, and how stupid he’d been to just blindly follow Sabine and his grandfather. Zelda stroked the back of his hand with her thumb as his tears soaked into his hair and the sand.
And, eventually, Justin’s words ran out and he closed his eyes. He dimly felt a pair of lips brush his forehead before he finally fell into a peaceful sleep.
When he woke up, he discovered that he was lying on the beach wrapped up in his old leather jacket. He hadn’t seen it in ages, since before he’d been kidnapped. It had just disappeared one day, after he’d taken it off and lain it on the fence of the small paddock just outside the stables.
“Hey, sleepy head,” said Zelda, riding up to the edge of the sand. “Sleep well?”
“Yes,” said Justin, getting up with a grin. His scalp immediately felt itchy with sand. “I’ll probably feel better after a shower, though.”
“Yeah, well, make it quick,” said Zelda. “I’m taking you somewhere.”
“Will I need anything?” asked Justin.
“Just your handsome self,” said Zelda. Justin blushed slightly, then headed into the stable house.
One quick shower later, Zelda invited Justin up onto the back of her horse. He wrapped his arms around her, just knowing that she was grinning ear to ear.
“Where are we going?” asked Justin, quite enjoying the warmth and closeness of her body.
“Well, I dunno about you, but I just never feel right without a horse under me,” said Zelda.
“So are we going to buy a horse for me?” asked Justin. “But I don’t know how to ride. Or do I?”
“You taught me how to jump,” said Zelda. “With my horse, I mean.”
“I wish I could remember,” said Justin.
“Maybe riding again will bring back your memories,” said Zelda.
“Yeah, maybe,” said Justin.
Memories or not, though, the ride was cheering him up. Maybe it was the sunlight warming his back through the old leather jacket, or the presence and steady stream of chatter coming from Zelda, or the fresh air, or just… being home. Justin felta lump in his throat, but not from sadness this time. From happiness.
“I’m home,” said Justin. “I’m really, finally home.”
“Has it changed much?” asked Zelda.
“I dunno,” said Justin. “It looks greener.”
“Not where we’re headed,” said Zelda with a laugh.
“What does that mean?” asked Justin. Zelda only smiled.
“You’ll see,” said Zelda.
“My other grandfather lives there,” Justin suddenly blurted as they passed the pumpkin farm just into Golden Hills.
“I’m sure he’d love to see you again, when you’re feeling up to it,” said Zelda.
“I’d like that,” said Justin. He was surprised that the wolves in the hills didn’t try to attack Zelda or her horse. Instead, they howled at her in greeting.
And then, after they passed through the gates, Justin saw him. Standing in front of a swamp, nibbling at the orange-tinted grass.
“Maxy,” said Justin. Zelda stopped her horse, and Justin climbed down and slowly approached the dapple grey horse. Memories were coming back to him in flashes. Raising the horse from a foal, riding him around Jorvik, teaching Zelda to jump. And then he touched the horse’s nose, and Justin felt more right than he’d felt in weeks.
“I guess it works like that for you too,” said Zelda, smiling at the sight. Justin felt tears on his cheeks, but he didn’t wipe them away. Instead, he rubbed Maxy’s neck, pressing his forehead to Maxy’s.
“I really missed you, boy,” said Justin, his voice husky. Then, he turned to look at Zelda, grinning. “Thank you, Z. Thank you so much. I think this is exactly what I needed.”
“Thought so,” said Zelda, smiling. Justin walked around to Maxy’s side, glad to see that at least he was tacked up and ready to go. Whoever had been looking after him had been doing a pretty good job. Justin didn’t want to ask, though. For now, he was just happy to be reunited with his best friend in all of Jorvik. And it was all thanks to the girl who was his shining light in the darkness.