So, here it is – the very last chapter of "Return from Inkworld". Thank you everyone who has been reading and reviewing (and hopefully enjoying) this story. It has been a lot of fun to write, and hopefully it has been equally fun to read. Someday I plan on continuing this story, but for now, thank you for reading, and enjoy the last chapter! – SG
Chapter 28: Return to Inkworld
It had been such a long time. One day, two days, ten days that Resa and Dustfinger had been gone, and the others had been gone three days longer. Mo felt fear on his skin like a dark mist, and he closed his eyes and tried to keep the nightmares out of his mind. But they wouldn't stay away.
The helplessness of it all was the worst. At Capricorn's village, he had been there to rescue Meggie from the Black Jackets' prison and read the words to strike down their leader, here he had had a sword and a new name to defend those he loved and the secret of three words to destroy the Adderhead, but now there was nothing. His two children had vanished into another world – a world he had once called home, but now seemed so strange – and his wife had vanished after them. And all he could do was wait. And the waiting seemed like forever.
Even after Resa and Dustfinger had left, he had not been convinced fully that the Fire-Dancer was right. He knew Dustfinger and the loathing the fire-eater had for his world. He had recognized the fear in his eyes as the fear of any parent for a child – his own fear at times – but he had not been convinced that their children were in danger and certainly not from Orpheus. But as the hours trickled by and turned into days, Mo's heart began to sink into doubt and then into fear. What if Dustfinger was right? What if Orpheus was behind this fear? If everything was all right and they had found the children, Elinor, and Darius, then they would have been back by now. At least Dustfinger would have been. He would not still linger in the world he hated if his daughter was safe.
And so he waited in fear and his thoughts whispered mockingly to him. You had to trust the words again, Mo. Why did you trust the stupid words? And your stupid voice.
The first night after Resa and Dustfinger left, he went home, back to the little cottage in the woods, but it was dark and quiet. He lit a single candle and placed it on his bedside table and for a long time lay on his back, staring up at the flickering patterns the light made on the ceiling. He tried to reach out with his heart and sense the man his heart was connected to, but there was nothing, not even the faintest stirring of flame. But why should he expect anything? Dustfinger was gone far, far away. Far away like his children and his wife.
He didn't remember sleeping, but suddenly there was yellow light falling across his face and the candle had gone out. He rolled over, half-expecting Resa to be slumbering there, but the bed was empty beside him. Swinging his long legs over the side of the bed, he sat up, rubbing his eyes with the palms of his hands. His eyes ached deep in the sockets as if he had not slept at all. He stood and gazed out the window, listening, but there was only the sound of birds chirping in the forest and the faint hum of insects. No sound of Resa's laughter. No sound of Alvino playing in the garden with a stray fairy. No sound. No family.
Mo went back to the river – it was too quiet and still in the house.
He came out of the woods slowly, his eyes sweeping the river bank where he had stood with Resa and Dustfinger yesterday and had watched them disappear. He didn't really expect to see them there – it had been less than twenty-four hours and their children might not have been at Elinor's house – but his heart sank all the same to see the bank empty. Even though he had not expected anyone, he had still hoped.
But the bank was not all deserted. A single figure knelt in the long grass amid the spring flowers, and long, black hair fluttered faintly in the breeze like the tattered remnants of a prince's banner. Roxane. Mo approached slowly, wondering if she had been there all night.
She didn't look up as he quietly walked past her and gazed down the river towards Ombra. It was hazy in the distance, wreathed in morning mists, but he could see the castle rising high above the fog. He wondered where Fenoglio was and if he had lost a moment's sleep the previous night. Maybe he should go to him anyway, despite Resa's words. Maybe he should ask for words and read himself after them. What good could he do here?
He turned and looked down at Roxane. She was bent over in the grass, her legs beneath her and hidden by the long skirts she wore. There was dew on her shoulders and in her hair, confirming for Mo that she had not gone home last night. Her face was turned down so he could not see her expression, but he could see what she was looking at.
A flame. Cupped in no container but her hands was a small, straight fire, which Roxane held as if it were made of gold. As Mo stared at it, he saw that not only didn't it burn her flesh, but it was flaring in an odd, continuous rhythm. Out and in, out and in, it pulsed like some strange heart. Mo did not need to guess whose heart the fire pulsed with.
He sat down beside her, but her gaze never turned from the flame in her lap. He felt awkward and stared back at the river, anywhere but at the beautiful woman who reminded him so much of his own loneliness. Already the fogs were rising from the river and the walls of Ombra were becoming clear in the distance. Surely, they'd be back some time today. There couldn't be anything too wrong, nothing that Meggie, Resa, and the others couldn't take care of shortly.
But the day wore on and there was no sign of them. Mo knew that Fenoglio's words would bring them back to the place they had left from. He walked up and down the bank or stood by the river's side, looking out across the lilies and fairies that skimmed over the surface like large dragonflies. Then his legs would grow weary of standing and he would sit again on the soft grass and wait, and Roxane was like a silent shadow close by, making no sound and never taking her eyes off the flame.
Finally, the sun sank behind the trees, and the walls of Ombra fell into black shadow until Mo could only see the lights of the fire that the guards lit on the walls. Nothing. The nocturnal sounds of the river and forest went on, but Mo didn't listen to them. For the first time, true doubt and fear was settling over him. He hadn't dreamed that Dustfinger at least wouldn't be back before this evening, if not all the others with him. But there had been nothing, nothing but his dark thoughts.
He had brought with him only some bread and cheese, which he had eaten at noon. He had offered some to Roxane, but she just shoke her head sadly at him and for a moment glanced up from the flame to give him a quiet "no thank you." He saw the pain in her face when she looked at him, and he turned away. To lose a loved one. How clearly he still remembered the dread of that feeling.
It's all right, he told himself as he watched the moon rise over the black horizon. Maybe they went on a day trip to a nearby town. They weren't going to stay at Elinor's house the whole time. Resa and Dustfinger will be waiting for them when they get back, and they'll all return to Inkworld, and so everything will be fine. But the trip back to the cottage was long and dark, and he desperately missed the sound of Resa's laughter.
That night, he slept, but only to have nightmares.
And in the morning he was back at his post by the river side, and Roxane appeared as though she had not moved since he last saw her.
That day dragged by as slowly as the others. Mo felt as restless as he had the evenings twelve years ago when he had waited with the Black Prince's men before a raid. But this was worse. Then he had been able to grip his sword and know that soon he would be able to release his energy and forget his fear and restlessness in the fight, but now he could only sit or pace. Waiting, always waiting.
He had brought food enough this time that he could stay out on the bank for several days without having to go back to the cottage. If any of the travelers returned, he didn't want to miss them. And he might be needed. Any moment, Resa could appear before him on the bank, saying that it was as Dustfinger had feared and they needed the Bluejay after all. No, he couldn't leave until they came back.
When he wasn't staring at the bank from whence they had vanished, his eyes found a way of wandering towards Ombra. He could see the light glance off the spear tips and the helmets of the guards who paced the walls. Violente had no fear of enemies these days from Argenta, but she still knew it was unwise to let down your guard. So, why had he been so stupid to let down his? Why had he let Alvino go to the other world?
And somewhere behind those walls Fenoglio was writing. It wouldn't be hard, really. All he had to do was go to Fenoglio and ask him to write a few paragraphs to send him to Elinor's house in the other world. He wanted to return so badly. It was almost like a voice calling him, whispering in his ears, convincing him that he must go back. But there was something about the voice that made him shudder, and even though he longed to go, some other voice deep within him told him he mustn't. He turned away from Ombra and stared at the woods instead, trying to remember what Resa's fingers felt like on his cheek.
The day was done and there was no sign of them yet again. Mo wrapped himself in the black cloak that he had worn as the Bluejay and lay on the cold ground. The moon was a half-crescent that let only a small trickle of light fall across Inkworld. Dustfinger was right about this world's nights – the nights here were black, but Mo didn't love the blackness as Dustfinger did. Off to his right, a point of red light in the darkness told Mo where Roxane still knelt at her vigil, but then he closed his eyes and slept uneasily.
When he woke, he found Roxane slumped in the grass asleep, dew covering her dress and beading in her hair. There was more gray than black in those locks nowadays, but Mo still had to admit that she was beautiful. His fingers strayed to his own moleskin-dark hair, which also was flecked with dark gray strands. He wasn't as young as he used to be, and neither was Resa. He found himself worrying about her, and wondering if she would be able to hold up against whatever she might be facing. He looked at Roxane again and wondered what it was like to have a lover who didn't change. There were times when he looked at Dustfinger's unaged face and felt more jealous than the times when Resa still spoke of the Fire-Dancer with love in her voice.
When Roxane stirred and sat up, Mo was sitting beside her. Even though she had slept, she still looked weary as if her weariness came from somewhere deep in her soul that mere sleep couldn't touch. Immediately, her eyes went to the flame, but it was still pulsing softly on the candle stand where she had put it.
"Roxane," Mo said hesitantly.
The minstrel woman tore her gaze reluctantly from the flame, and she looked into Mo's eyes, her own eyes dull and red-rimmed. He was worried about her. He was glad she had slept, but he didn't think she had eaten since Dustfinger left. He hadn't tried speaking to her, sensing that she desired neither pity nor comfort, but now he felt that he needed to at least make an effort. He held out a slice of bread to her. "Please eat."
She turned her head away. "No, Bluejay," she answered. "I'm not hungry."
"You haven't eaten for a day and two nights at least," he insisted.
She looked at him again, and her eyes were piercing. She was beautiful, but cold, as if someone had carved her out of ice. "You really believe they'll be back, don't you?" she asked, but her voice carried the note of one wise in years scorning the foolish beliefs of a child.
"Yes," he said. But do you? Do you really believe? After this long?
Pain passed over her face. She wasn't as good at concealing her emotions as her husband was. "Yes," she said. "Yes, perhaps you are right. Your wife and your children will come back to you, and everything will be all right… for you. But I know Dustfinger too well, and despite his promises, I cannot tell if I will see him again. Two weeks or ten years, who can tell what shall draw him away and what fancies will take his thoughts. And if his thoughts ever return to me, will he have a daughter to bring back?"
"He's changed," Mo said, and he believed it. "He'll come back to you."
"We shall see," Roxane answered and turned away. Mo left the bread sitting next to her, and an hour later when he looked again, it was gone. He hoped she had eaten it, but he wondered if some bird or fish was enjoying it instead.
That afternoon Mo glanced up to see a rider coming across the plains from Ombra. He jumped to his feet and heard Roxane stirring behind him. At first, Mo could only indistinctly make out the figure that sat on the gray horse's back, but as he came closer, Mo became sure of what he had at first suspected. Fenoglio.
The writer pulled up on the reins, but had to scold angrily at the horse before it stopped. Mo offered him a hand as he began to swing his leg over the horse's broad back, but after some groans, Fenoglio swung off by himself and landed on his feet, rubbing his back and giving the horse a dirty look. When he saw Mo and Roxane standing on the bank waiting however, a large smile broke across his face. "Well, hello, I thought I might find someone here," he said, taking a step towards them. He winced and rubbed a hand over his knees, muttering something unflattering about age, then he straightened, a somewhat forced smile on his face. "Mortimer, so what's the news? Have you seen anything of the others yet?"
He sat down on the large flat rock on the bank, still rubbing his knees and looking at Mo expectantly. Mo shook his head. "Nothing. We've been here the whole time and there's been nothing from them."
"Oh well, I guess that's not surprising," Fenoglio said lightly. "If I had a chance to go back, I'd make the most of it, too. There's an awful lot to see, and Alvino and Miranda will be wanting to see everything. That's children for you. My grandchildren used to run me ragged I remember and that was thirteen years back. They'll be back in another day or two, I imagine – Dustfinger and Resa, I mean. Meggie and the others weren't supposed to be back for another eight days, if I remember correctly."
Mo felt irritated at the light-hearted and dismissive attitude of Fenoglio, but he concealed his irritation the best he could. Roxane, however, didn't try to hide her pain from the writer. "Dustfinger wouldn't still be gone if everything were all right," she said coldly. "They say you are the writer who made everything in this world happen – can't you write something to help them? To protect Dustfinger?"
Fenoglio looked vaguely surprised at the cold way in which Roxane addressed him. "Well, it's not all as easy as that," he blustered. "They're not in this world, and I can't be expected to make things happen when I don't have anything to go by. And Dustfinger knows how to take care of himself. And Resa," he added with a hasty look at Mo.
Roxane didn't reply, but turned her back on Fenoglio.
Fenoglio continued to look at the minstrel woman with consternation, before his gaze switched to Mo. "Did I say something wrong?"
Mo shook his head wearily. Fenoglio would never change. "No, she's just worried about Dustfinger, that's all. And you can't really blame her – she's lost him twice already."
Fenoglio's brows creased. "Well, I can't be blamed for either of those times. Alright, I did write his death in the book, but that didn't happen, did it? So, I can't be blamed. It wasn't my fault that he was trapped in our world for ten years or that he gave his life for that boy…or that he went after his daughter this time. I may have written the words that sent him there, but it was not my idea. No, indeed. This isn't like one of my stories at all."
Mo looked out across the river. "No, Signor Fenoglio, no one blames you for this. We're just worried about our families, that's all."
Fenoglio rose and clapped him on the back. "Heavens, don't be! Just wait, the story never goes too wrong. Your voice is a gift."
He returned to the horse and with difficulty mounted. "Ugh, I need to be getting back to Minerva's before sundown. Those dratted armorers had me up at eight-thirty this morning. Eight-thirty, I tell you! And Rosenquartz will probably have forgotten that I need three new parchments laid out for Balbalus before tomorrow morning. Let me know when they get back – they'll have fabulous stories to tell, I shouldn't wonder. I'll have to see about writing them down."
Mo watched until the black shape of horse and rider disappeared through the gates of Ombra, and the waiting continued. There was nothing for the rest of that day, and the next day brought no changes.
The sun was getting low on the horizon on the fourth day since Resa had left, the seventh day since Meggie and Alvino had left, and Mo was beginning to feel a deep weariness in his very bones, when suddenly a heart-rending sound cut across the evening. At first, Mo didn't know where it had come from, but as he sat up and looked around startled, his hand automatically going to his side where he had worn a sword many years ago, he realized what the source of the sound was.
Roxane was kneeling in the grass, bent almost double and a wailing, unending cry, like that of an injured animal, was coming from her. Mo quickly knelt beside her, thinking she had just woken from a nightmare, but then he noticed what was wrong.
The flame had gone out.
Dustfinger's heart had stopped beating.
Mo's heart sank into a final despair. If Dustfinger was dead, then how much hope was there that Resa was still alive? Or their children? He looked around desperately, as if he might find the flame escaped from its candle and flickering in the air like a firefly. But the sun was hanging low on the horizon, and there was no fire.
In his own panic at the thought of what this meant for Resa and his children, he had almost forgotten Roxane. As he stood, his heart throbbing with fear, her sobs rose again, this time mingled with words. "He will never come back. Didn't I tell you? Why did you have to go? And now I do not even have a body to go to at night. Never, never, never!" She hugged herself wretchedly, rocking back and forth, and Dustfinger's name came from her lips again and again in a despairing chant.
Mo tried to wrench his thoughts away from Resa, Meggie, and Alvino so as to comfort Roxane. The disappearance of the flame didn't necessarily signal the deaths of any of his own family, but there was no doubt that Roxane had just lost her husband yet again. He tried to put a hand on her shoulder, but she flung it off with a force that surprised him. She staggered to her feet, stumbling back and blinded by tears, and he could see a dangerous madness in her eyes. "Roxane," he called, standing and following her.
"No!" she cried. "Do not comfort me, Bluejay! It is over. My daughter is lost and he is dead, as I knew he would be if he left me again. I have outlived him too many times. There is no joy in life left to me. I will find my grave, and it will be a cold grave with no fire. No fire."
Fear rose in Mo's chest. He could see that Roxane wasn't in her right mind, and he was afraid of what might happen. He didn't know if she was desperate enough to end her own life, but he wouldn't have been surprised to see her collapse before him then and there, slain by her own broken heart. He tried to hold her flailing arms, but she struck him away and he released her again, afraid of hurting her.
She staggered a few steps then fell to her knees again, her hair streaming around her. And suddenly to his horror, Mo saw that there was a knife in her hand. Without waiting to see what would happen next, he snatched his food pack from the ground and swung it at Roxane. It caught her on the back of her head, and she crumpled underneath his blow.
Mo was shaking as he rolled her over and laid her gently out on the grass until she looked like she was peacefully sleeping. "I'm sorry," he whispered to her. "I really am." He took the knife from the grass where it lay, shuddered, and tossed it in the river.
Then he sat and stared at the empty candle stand as the sun went down, his heart heavy. He was saddened to think of Dustfinger dead yet again, but his worry was more for his wife who had been with him. What had happened? He no longer had any doubt that Dustfinger had been right. The fire-eater had survived for ten years in that world before, and Mo could not believe he had died from a careless accident. No, someone must have caused his death, and the only person that could have been was Orpheus.
Mo didn't know how long he sat there, his mind in a turmoil. He kept glancing over at Roxane, wondering what would happen when she woke. Would the madness have passed? But even if she was no longer crazed by her grief, he didn't doubt that she would fade in her sorrow. He knew of nothing he could do to ease her pain, so he simply waited.
His eyelids were drooping when he suddenly became aware of a red light on his left cheek. Sleepily, he opened his eyes and took in the fact that a flame was burning in the candle stand again. His drowsy thoughts didn't register the significance of that fact for a moment, but then he came wide awake. The flame was burning again, pulsing as if it had never gone out. Dustfinger's heart was beating again. Consternation filled him for a moment, but then the truth struck him. Of course, Dustfinger could leave his body. He had seen him do it in the Castle on the Lake when the Nightmare had attacked him. He had appeared in every way to be dead. His heart could stop beating, but Dustfinger was not so easy to kill as he once had been.
He looked at Roxane, his heart swelling again. Now he hoped she would wake soon so he could tell her the good news. But how good was the news? Yes, Dustfinger was still alive, but he had felt the need to leave his body. Why? Had he been threatened? Mo knew the dangers associated with Dustfinger's power, and he knew the Fire-Dancer would not risk losing himself for any trivial matter. It seemed that even if Dustfinger was alive, there was still some sort of trouble.
Once again, he found himself looking at Ombra. He could reach Fenoglio in less than two hours. And what then, Mo? He asked himself. What then? You don't know where they are, and how would you find them? You must stay here, here where they can find you if they need you. Oh, but how hard it was to wait.
Roxane came around within the next hour. He heard her moan slightly, and as she sat up, he offered her water. She drank, still groggy, looking around with a blank expression on her face. But then he saw her remembrance – pain etched itself across her face and her lips parted in a half-cry, but then she stopped. He held out the candle stand to her, and the beating flame reflected off her eyes. Her hands trembled as she took the stand. "How…?" she whispered.
"His heart's beating again," Mo answered. "He must have left his body, but now he's come back."
Roxane stared at the flame as if she would devour it, but then anger flashed across her face, an anger that comes from fear. "He knows it's dangerous," she said. "Why would he do it? And he knew I would be watching. Why? Why would he give me a reassurance, only to stop his own heart?" She began to sob again, but Mo couldn't tell if it was from anger, the terror and agony she had just gone through, or weariness.
"Whatever his reason, I'm sure it was a good one," he said, thinking that not so long ago, he would not have said those words and believed them. "I'm sure he knew what he was doing."
"He had better," was all Roxane said, and the coldness returned to her face. Mo was glad in that moment that he was not Dustfinger, even with an unaged body.
"You should try to get some sleep," he said to her awkwardly.
Her eyes flashed in the dark. "Yes, perhaps," she replied. "But I have just been sleeping, I believe, Bluejay. Why did you strike me?"
"You had a knife," Mo said slowly. "I wasn't sure if you were in your right mind and I feared what you would do. I'm sorry."
She stared at her own hands. "A knife?" She shuddered. "I don't remember, nothing but the pain. I told him I would die if I lost him again." She turned away and lay down on the grass, but Mo stood watch over her a while, still afraid that she was not herself. But he grew satisfied that she was sleeping peacefully and lay down himself at last.
And so the days passed until Mo didn't know how long he had waited there on the bank of the river, staring across the empty land and the pale, gurgling water. Each morning that he rose and looked around to see himself and Roxane still alone brought him closer and closer to despair himself. When Resa and Dustfinger had been gone a full week, he no longer had even the faintest doubts that something was wrong. The flame in Roxane's keeping still burned, but Dustfinger's heart could still be beating in some black pit or in a snare of Orpheus's design. And he could not be sure of anything that might be happening to Resa, Meggie, Alvino, and the others. When Mo couldn't sleep at night, he closed his eyes and pictured their faces in his mind and tried to see them laughing and smiling. He whispered their names, but they still didn't come. Come home, he thought, please come back home.
One pale morning in early dawn as the sun was just sending out tendrils over the fields, he woke to the sound of voices close by. Opening his eyes, he saw two figures standing on the river bank close together, murmuring so quietly that their voices sounded like part of the stream's sounds. Roxane stood to one side and the other stood facing away from Mo, so that he saw red hair in the dim light. He lifted himself up on his elbow in a quick movement, for a moment glancing around anxiously for Resa, but then he realized it wasn't Dustfinger, but Brianna, who was there. He settled back down, his head on his pack, but he couldn't hear what either of the women said.
Brianna left before the sun was fully up, but she had left a full sack of food. The food Mo had brought from his cottage had dwindled, and he hadn't wanted to return for fear of missing the return of his family. Roxane had only eaten a few times since they started their watch on the bank, but she gave him the sack when he finally got up. "I'm not hungry now, Bluejay," was all she said when he tried to insist that she keep it.
Two evenings later, Mo looked across the fields towards Ombra and saw what appeared like large fireflies dotted across the surrounding plain. Campfires. Even from this distance, at times Mo caught the sound of the Motley Folk instruments. It was not a large group – there were only three or four campfires – but Mo watched them curiously from a distance, wondering if there were any Players he knew. He thought about walking across the plain and among the fires and tents, drowning his worry for an hour in the entertainment that the Motley Folk could provide. It had been a long time since he had listened to the minstrels singing new songs, the tightrope-walkers and acrobats performing their amazing feats, or the fire-eaters turning the night to flame. But no, he didn't want to see the last group at least, and he didn't want to stir from his vigil. Roxane didn't even give the distant camp a glance.
Mo might have not wanted to see fire-eaters, but his desire was not granted. The sun had been down perhaps two hours and he was sitting with his back to Ombra and the camp, his face to the river, when he heard a voice suddenly raised not far off. "Well, where is he then? He's not at the cottage, and Brianna said I'd find you and Silvertongue here. I want to talk to Dustfinger!"
"Well, he's not here," Roxane's cold voice reached him.
Mo stood up and turned to look at the newcomer. He barely recognized the young man who stood before him, clad in the red and black of a fire-eater. Farid's dark hair was longer than it used to be, but the unruly curls still didn't quite reach his shoulders. His skin was dark in the night, and his dark eyes flashed angrily with an inner firelight. He looked strangely like Dustfinger and yet unlike him also.
When the young fire-eater saw Mo stand, he stopped glaring at Roxane – obviously their relationship hadn't improved much over twelve years – and stepped towards him. When he looked at Mo, there was still anger in his face, but also confusion and a hint of pain. Mo wondered if he still thought of Meggie when he looked at him. "I want to talk to Dustfinger, but she won't tell me where he is," Farid said, casting Roxane a scornful look. "Will you tell me where to find him, Silvertongue?"
Mo rubbed his brow. "I'm sorry, Farid, he's not here. He's gone back to my world."
The confusion in Farid's face increased for a moment, but then his eyebrows knitted together. He opened his mouth as if to make some angry accusation, but then he stopped and continued staring at Mo. Mo smiled grimly to himself – Farid knew that his face was an open book, and that it didn't lie the way Dustfinger's did.
"Why?" Farid breathed after a moment. "He hates that world. Why would he ever go back? It took him ten years to escape before. I was with him and I saw his pain."
"He had to," Mo answered. "I'm sorry, it's a long story, and I don't know the end of it yet. There's trouble with Orpheus."
Farid started at that well-remembered name, and his dark face contorted in hate and anger. "Has he hurt Dustfinger? I'll kill him if he's done anything to him." The Arabian accent that used to be so strong in Farid's voice was all but gone now. "Why didn't anyone tell me? I would have gone with Dustfinger to help him. He can't have left again!"
"That is what he does." Roxane was looking coldly at Farid. "He leaves, and if he tells you that he is going and where he is bound, then you are lucky. Do you think he would have qualms about leaving you, when he leaves his wife without a second thought? I told you once before that he doesn't need you or any other. You say you know him, but how little you know him, Fire-Dancer's apprentice."
Farid clamped his lips shut and turned his back on her, but Mo saw the pain on his face. "He had to go to save Miranda…and to help my children," he said, speaking to Roxane as much as to Farid. He didn't know why he was defending Dustfinger like this. Maybe it was for all the times the Fire-Dancer had protected his daughter, and his wife. Maybe it was because he knew what Dustfinger's heart felt like now, or because he himself now knew something of bitter longing and desire for adventure.
"Miranda." Mo heard a tenderness in Farid's voice, but also fear. Apparently, Farid's relationship with Dustfinger's youngest daughter was better than his relationship with Dustfinger's wife. "Please, Silvertongue, tell me what's going on."
So Mo told him, but Roxane walked away and stood with her back to them, a cold, straight figure in the dark.
When he was finished, Farid passed a hand across his brow. There was still a hint of anger and scorn in his tone when he spoke. "I knew Cheeseface would be back sooner or later. There was something dark in him, worse than in Basta or in Capricorn or in the thieves in my story. I didn't trust him from the moment I saw him, and I learned to trust him even less when I served under him. He's dangerous, Silvertongue. You shouldn't have let Dustfinger go. I could have helped."
"Could you have?" Mo replied. "Perhaps, but there's nothing we can do now. They're beyond our help. We can't agonize over what we could have done. Believe me, I spent many years doing that and it doesn't help."
"You can read me after him, Silvertongue. You and I can go together." Farid's eyes shone in the dark.
How tempting it was. He had an excuse now to leave his post and follow his wife and children into his own world. Perhaps together they could indeed help. Neither of them was powerless. The Bluejay and the Fire-Dancer's apprentice.
But he shook his head finally. "No," he said. "I can't send you there alone, and I can't leave. Even if we could find them, what could we do? And what hope do we have of finding them? Resa was right – I have to stay here and wait for them."
Farid looked helplessly around, as if another reader might be standing nearby whom he could convince to read him there. When he turned back to Mo, he glared at him as angrily as he glared at Roxane and sparks fell from his fingers. "I should be there with Dustfinger," he grated. "I'm not a boy that needs watching after anymore. Fine, Silvertongue, keep me here, but if anything happens to him, fire will be your enemy for evermore."
He spun around and strode off, back towards the camp by Ombra, and the speed with which he did it made Mo suspect that there were tears on his cheeks that the fire-eater didn't want him to see. Mo felt sick at the despair and anger in Farid's voice, but what could he have done? Fenoglio would have had to write more words, and Mo couldn't have sent him to the other world alone in good conscience.
The tents were still there the next day, but they saw nothing more of Farid, and Roxane didn't mention his visit. In fact, she said nothing that day as the morning wore on. Mo tried to count out on his fingers how long he had been waiting. It has been ten days since Resa and Dustfinger left, and thirteen days since the others has departed. Almost two weeks. Tomorrow was the day that they had planned on coming back. Who knew? Maybe after all, they would appear tomorrow, smiling and laughing, with stories of everything they'd seen and done. Maybe Resa and Dustfinger had found them, but had decided to stay with them until the two weeks were up. Resa probably wouldn't mind seeing that world again and showing her son the reality of the stories she told him, and perhaps Dustfinger had stayed to keep on eye on Miranda. Or maybe they wouldn't come at all, and no one would ever know what had become of them. No! As soon as Mo thought that, he made up his mind. No matter what Resa had said, if they weren't back by the evening of the next day, he would follow them into the other world. And if the tents were still raised by Ombra, he would take Farid with him. He had waited long enough.
The sun was rising high towards its zenith. It was a warm day, and the birds were singing loudly from the rushes and the grass. Normally, Mo would have enjoyed the beautiful day. He would have brought his tools out onto the grass and done what work he could under the beaming sun, enjoying the light breeze and the sounds of spring. Alvino would probably have been racing around the cottage, pursued perhaps by Miranda, or would have plopped down beside him on the grass to ask him questions or simply to watch him work. And about this time, the smells of lunch that Resa and Elinor were cooking in the cottage would have been drifting out the open windows. Mo closed his eyes and sighed.
Roxane was sitting with her back to the bent aspen that grew up from the river bank. Her eyes were closed, and her chest rose and fell to a regular pattern. She had been sleeping lightly for half an hour or so, and Mo didn't disturb her. He suspected that she hadn't been sleeping well at night. If he had to leave, he would feel bad about leaving her alone again, but there was nothing he could do about it. He had to go to his family.
And then it happened – the miracle.
There was no sound, no tingle of magic in the air. As once Capricorn, Basta, and Dustfinger had appeared in his living room without warning, suddenly two figures were standing on the bank, looking around dazedly. Mo leapt to his feet.
Resa turned to look at him, and a happy cry sprang from her. She rushed to him, and Mo caught her in his arms, pulling her close, pressing his face into her hair – it was cropped as short as a boy's, but he didn't care – and savoring her warmth, the feel of her breath on his neck, and the touch of her fingers. He kissed her, long and gently, before pulling away from her to look into her eyes. She was crying, but she drew a hand across her cheek, clearing it of tears. When she stroked his cheek however, her fingers were still wet. "Oh, Mo," she whispered.
Mo stared at her, feeling as if he would drown in his love and happiness, but then he heard a cry from behind him, a sound that seemed to express emotions so similar to those rushing through his own heart, that for a moment, he thought it might have come from him. He looked around. Roxane.
Roxane had been dreaming of fire. It licked through her dreams, but it was far away and she couldn't quite grasp at it. Figures flitted about in it, familiar figures, but she couldn't make them out or remember where she had seen them before. And when she reached out to touch them, they vanished and became nothing but shapeless smoke that drifted away on a harsh breeze.
The voice came from somewhere close by and there was soft heat on her face. The fire around her flickered, wavering, and dimmed. The shadow figures tugged at her, but the voice sent them flying away into the dark recesses of her dreams. "Roxane, I'm back."
She opened her eyes. She was still leaning against the aspen, but her head had lolled to the side. A dark shape, black against the bright light behind him, knelt before her, and his hand was laid on her cheek and from it she could feel the gentle, pulsing heat. She stared into his eyes, trying to comprehend what new dream she had stumbled into.
He smiled and nodded, leaning forward to kiss her lips, but she pulled away from him. As surprise crossed his face, she drew back her hand and slapped him across his cheek. A muffled grunt came from him. "That was for leaving me and scaring me almost to death," she said to him, but then she pulled him in and gave him his kiss. "And that was for coming back," she said when she had pulled away again.
He lifted a hand and ruefully rubbed his cheek, looking a little indignant, but then he just laughed and shrugged, before hugging her again. "I love you too, Roxane," he whispered in her ear before he kissed her again.
She wrapped her arms around his neck and cried. The wait had been so long, but he was back now, and suddenly her doubt in him seemed foolish. She sobbed his name, remembering the darkness and her fear, assuring herself that it was truly her husband who held her in his arms. Her eyes met his again. "And Miranda?" she asked. "Where's Miranda, Dustfinger?"
It was only when Mo looked heard Roxane's question that he realized no one else had arrived on the bank. Sudden fear took his heart again, and he opened his mouth to ask Resa about Meggie, Alvino, and the others, but before the first words came out, from out of nowhere five more figures appeared on the bank.
Meggie was still holding the paper she had been reading from, and Alvino and Miranda were standing on either side of her, both of them wet. Standing a few paces away from them were Elinor and Darius, who could hardly be seen behind the stacks of books that they were balancing. "Well, I never," Elinor's voice came from behind one of the stacks. "Here we are home once again, and I must say it I won't be leaving again in a hurry. How delightful!"
Alvino caught sight of his parents almost immediately and ran to them, flinging his arms around Mo's middle. Despite the fact that his son was completely soaked and water droplets were spraying from his tangled locks, Mo caught him up and hugged him back, laughing. "Mo!" Alvino shouted down his ear, "you'll never guess what happened to us. We were captured and put in a dungeon, and Miranda can use fire, and Orpheus… but then Resa was there and I thought she was a guard, and I rode a dragon!"
Nearby, Miranda was hugging her parents and babbling in a smiliar fashion to Alvino while Roxane held her close, and Dustfinger stood with his arms around them both, a smile flickering over his face. They looked happy. So happy.
Mo glanced around, as another arm slipped around him, and he gazed into Meggie's face. She was smiling. "Hello, Mo," she said.
How tall she was, such a beautiful, young woman now. Mo brushed her gold hair back behind her ear, smiling back at her. "It sounds like you've had quite an adventure. You'll have to tell me all about it."
The noise of happy crying, talking, and laughing was all around him. There was obviously a grand story to tell, but it could wait. The danger was passed, the waiting was over, and Mo had a family again. And that meant that everything was very well.