(A/N: Sorry this took so long, everybody! You have no idea how much work I've had to do in the past few weeks. A story for Honors Lit, three papers, To Kill a Mockingbird stuff, exam stuff, Great Expectations stuff, family stuff… but hey, my birthday was last Thursday—only one more year till I'm street-legal! Woohoo!)

------------------------------------

It was a quiet and solemn journey back the next morning. The cold, hard lump of the crystal in my pocket was a constant reminder of my failure, and my tears stained the back of Arik's tunic more often than not. When someone did speak, it was to inquire as to the length of time remaining, or to comment on a certain pretty landscape they'd spotted below. Any attempt at conversation soon died out of its own accord.

The sun was drifting little by little toward the western horizon when Narengësia banked steeply to the left and began to flap her wings more leisurely "I see them," she said abruptly.

"See who?"

"Your comrades."

"Already?" Arik said in amazement.

"They've avoided Tarplet and gone west," Narengësia replied. "It's about half a league east of here." As she spoke, her great leathery wings shifted and we slowed to an unhurried, almost lazy pace.

"Look!" cried Laela. "Is that them up ahead?"

I couldn't resist the urge to stand partway and look over everyone's heads. Indeed, hardly noticeable in the brown sea of grass below us, was a long stream of horsemen and carts. My heart leaped for joy.

"Oyez!" Narengësia cried, and the stream stopped. I sat immediately, and with a roar of wind, the she-dragon swept towards the large band down below us. We stopped abruptly, and then there was a slight jolt as Narengësia settled all four feet firmly on the ground.

"Do you have them? Do you have them, Narengësia?"

We looked up to see Loravaran hurrying toward us, her dark brown face glistening with sweat. All around us, people had begun pitching tents, and a few began collecting armfuls of twigs and grass for fires.

"I have them, Mother Loravaran," Narengësia replied, and one by one, we slid off her back.

"Is this it?" she asked softly, looking at our rather sorry assemblage.

I nodded slowly, and she came up and patted my hand. "Do not worry, young one. Hana and a great number of water spirits are already here."

"Really?" I brightened at this.

Loravaran nodded. "A few of the more hardy ones are traveling with us, but the others are going along the Dunn River."

"And the other emissaries?"

"Kethe and Devarun are still scaling the Gyrfell Mountains. Kirenestera Covaran and her brother sent word that negotiations with the elves are going well. Hana left some water spirits behind to convince the marsh sprites."

I sighed with relief. "Then not all is lost."

"Far from," Loravaran said with a smile. "Now…you didn't forget Braeden's cure, did you? I have had him placed in a tent and readied for whatever must be done."

I felt the blood rush from my face. "How is he?"

"No better." The wizened old woman shook her head. "But his sister has been by his side day and night. Needless to say, I've taken the opportunity to complete her Seer training. You may now consult her about the future with no misgivings or compunctions whatsoever. She will be very happy, indeed, to have her brother back."

I reached into my pocket and drew out the milky white gem, all that was left of the dragon key. "Loravaran…I tried…"

She took the stone. "Is this from the key, Rayendilyn?"

I nodded sorrowfully. "It just burst into flames when I tried to barter it…"

Without a word, the Seeress folded her fingers around the stone, turned, and walked away back into the main camp.

"Don't cry," Arik said softly. I hadn't been, but at the sound of his voice, my resolve crumbled and I began to cry in earnest. Slightly horrified at what he obviously assumed was his fault, Arik put an arm around my shoulders. "Everyone makes mistakes, Ray."

I wiped my nose on my sleeve and looked through misty eyes at the camp. Hundreds of people, chattering amiably, were building large fires and sharing provisions; horses and several scruffy dogs were welcomed to stand by the fires alongside those who'd made them. "But I'm not supposed to make mistakes. I'm the leader."

Arik gave a short laugh. "You're eighteen! Of course you're going to make mistakes. But look what you've done—Curdasians are actually working together. Do you realize how little they actually cooperate?"

I shrugged. "What is more important, Arik? Think about it—would you be able to choose the greater body over a living creature? Can I sacrifice the life of an individual in favor of a people?"

"I can't tell you the answer to that, Ray," he replied quietly. "It's for you to decide, not me."

"But I can't," I said, almost to myself.

"It's good to see you two again," someone said softly. We looked up to see Brynna coming toward us, her face pallid and thinner than I'd remembered it.

"And you, Brynna," I replied. Her flaming red hair and green eyes hadn't faded in the least bit. "How…how is Braeden?"

She managed a flicker of a smile. "He has a broken arm and a few tender ribs." With a sharp laugh, she knotted her fingers in front of her and looked at us with bitter eyes. "Oh, have I forgotten to mention? He hasn't been able to say so much as my name since he was hurt. Every time I go to watch him, he's either sleeping or unconscious. The latter most often, as you may imagine."

I felt the sting of her words deep in my heart, and I looked at the ground.

"You haven't met our friends, yet, have you?" Arik said quickly, motioning towards Laela, Dalkir, Ruun, and Ulgurel.

"No, I haven't," Brynna replied in her usual gentle voice.

"Well, Brynna, this is Laela and Dalkir…er…"

"a'Perestria," Dalkir said quickly. "Dalkir and Laela a'Perestria, madam, at your service."

"Brynna Pehndresson," she replied, dropping a half-hearted curtsy.

"Brynna Pehndresson? Whatever happened to Ananduine?" Arik asked.

She gave him a cold look. "Let me put it this way, Arik: if your wife ran off and betrayed you to your worst enemy, whom in turn wounded your only brother, would you be expected to remain wed to that particular person?"

He cleared his throat. "Er…no."

"There you have it, then," she said briskly. "Besides—I made a show of caring for him just to make my life easier. Arranged marriage," she added when she saw my blank look.

I nodded knowingly. "Ah."

"Anyways," Arik said, "this is Ulgurel…Axe-render, I believe, and Ruun Ironfist, of the dwarves of Terris En."

"Pleased to meet you, ma'am," Ruun said.

"Likewise," Ulgurel put in.

Narengësia bent her tapered green head towards the slight, freckled young woman. "And I am Narengësia un'Shartillesnegahren. I…I meant your brother no intentional harm."

Brynna swallowed visibly. "Night draws near," she said, looking away from the she-dragon. "Come sit around a fire before you all freeze to death."

We followed her to a roaring beacon of a fire and huddled as close as we dared, holding our hands out to the snapping flame. It had been too long—far too long—since I'd been this warm.

I must have slipped into a drowse, for I came to around to find myself curled up in a warm ball under my cloak. Arik, Mirra, and Narengësia sat a short distance away and were speaking in low voices. Dusk was upon us now, and the fire cast long, strangely orange shadows on their faces, making the two humans look hundreds of years old.

"How are you feeling?"

I looked up at the voice, but saw no one. The sudden fear of insanity tore at my mind, my stomach twisting and knotting—until I heard the voice again. It was small, and quiet, and drew my eyes downward, where I finally saw the speaker.

"Scampertoes! How are you?"

"Very well, thank you," the mouse replied in his shrill voice. "And you?"

"Much better, now," I said with a smile. "Sleep mends the darkest of tempers."

"Well, that is indeed very good to hear. I shouldn't want you tired, especially when such an important person is making his way here right now." Scampertoes nibbled gently at my fingers, so I stroked his soft fur.

"Who is it?"

A hush had fallen over our bit of the camp, and Arik and Mirra and Narengësia were both looking over my shoulder at someone. "Turn around," Scampertoes replied with a grin.

So I did. And to my utter astonishment, whom did I see there, leaning heavily on Loravaran's arm, but Braeden! He was pale and drawn, and his arm was bound up in a sling, but the grin on his face was sincerely happy.

"How are you feeling, Braeden?" I asked finally, my own face breaking into a smile.

"Not bad," he replied, still beaming, and—before I knew it, a purely delighted laugh was bubbling out from somewhere deep inside.

It's very, very difficult to remain somber or serious when one's laughed for the first time in what seems like an age. With that single laugh, all the weight of this reckless undertaking fell from my shoulders, and I felt like a new person—no longer could I remain bleak and despondent. And the instant I realized this, I knew that not all was lost.

As long as the Aederanons had joy, we had hope. And as long as hope survived, I there was no end to what we could do, including finishing the tasks we'd begun—even the reckless ones.