Tarkamin's fortress fell shortly after the shadows were banished. With their leader dead and the bulk of their force decimated, the fairy lords that had supported him surrendered to the combined army of the rulers of Lastille. The fortress was swept by their forces and Montimious, my mother and me were found in the grand hall, waiting for them to come. I clung tight to my mother and a fairy knelt by me, putting the butt of his spear against the ground. He asked softly if he could take me from here, to where I could be tended to by the selkies. And my mother nodded and I let go of her and let him help me stand and walk me away, out of this place.
I remembered how in the days that passed units split off from the army as they were able to and started the journey home to wherever they had come from. Sir Rinnin and his unit of kelpies came and bid me farewell. Others that I did not know came as well and paid their respects. Sir Myri and his company came and saw me and remarked again on how much I looked like my mother and then went and saw my mother and talked for a very long time with her before leaving. Even Sir Éamonn came.
"I wish I could stay with you longer," he said, sitting by my side. I was still very tired and hurt and spent most of my time lying down. "But we need to bring news of the victory back to where I'm from and my people are tired and ready to be done with this. After some time has passed I'll see to it that I can pass into your world and you into mine and we'll continue your training as my squire."
"I was afraid of that," I said weakly.
"Regretting your choice?" he asked, raising an eyebrow, "You can return the spurs."
I smiled and shook my head.
"They gave me courage," I said, "I wouldn't give that up."
"You gave yourself courage. But that's something you'll learn for yourself in time. Take care, Bailey. I need to go be lectured by your mother now as to how I'm supposed to be training you. I'll be ignoring her advice after, just so you know."
He gripped my shoulder and I sat up and hugged him. The knight seemed surprised for a moment and then he awkwardly returned the gesture and I lay down again. Then he backed away, gave me a small bow, and left to find my mother.
The last forces to split apart were those of the forest, the sky, and the sea. I bid farewell to Queen Majest of the mountains and sky. The sea-king let me get in one formal bow before he grabbed my shoulder and picked me off the ground in a hug. I yelped in surprise.
"Visit us," he said, putting me down again and ruffling my hair into a mess, "The hall of the ocean is always welcome to you. Besides, if you don't, I'll have one of my subjects bring you to me."
"I'm never going swimming again," I muttered and he laughed and turned to my mother. She was with me for our farewells.
"Still rebelling against the formality of the crown, I see," she said to him. The kelpie shrugged but I saw a twinkle in his eyes.
"It's in our nature," he replied mildly, "But I've gotten a lot better. It is good to see you safe, Sir Julie."
"And I thank you for protecting my daughter."
She bowed to him, he nodded at her and all that was left then was King Lahmarr of the forest and the Silver Rose.
"I look forward to the day you stand before me to be knighted," he said, "It will come sooner than you expect, I'm sure."
"Far sooner than I'd want," my mother said, "They grow up too quickly."
Lahmarr looked pained at that comment and met my mother's eyes.
"I am sorry for your pain, my lady," he said and my mother bowed.
"Few people are fortunate enough to lead a quiet life," she said, "I am just thankful I got her back."
The three forces split apart and I remained with my mother and my own court. The three animals had told me that they would stay by my side until we returned to our own world. I hadn't quite brought up that question just yet with my mother.
"So," I finally hinted, "What now?"
She gazed out at the procession of the armies streaming down the road towards their homes.
"Passing between our worlds is fairly simple," she said, "There are gates and they all lead to the old path and the old path will take you to another gate you wish for in the other world. There is one I know of not too far from here. We'll go there and then return home. I honestly dread trying to explain our absence to your principal."
"Oh no," I breathed. I had not even considered how I was going to deal with a prolonged absence. Even worse, I had scars now on my shoulder and arm that would also require a bit of explaining. In fact, now that I considered it, there was just too much of me that had changed to ignore.
"We'll figure something out," she said, "I simply told your grandparents the truth and they went in and talked to the principal but I have no idea what they said. I suppose I'll call them and ask when we get back. Now, let's head for the gate. It's about a day's travel."
"Wait," I said, "Can… can we spend a bit more time here? There's one more place I want to visit. It's not far either."
My mother hesitated and then nodded her head. Montimious bowed his, as did Bils'thar and Valshare. They knew the place I was referring to.
I rode on Bils'thar's back. Montimious wasn't strong enough to carry me yet and my mother could walk fast enough to keep up. We talked during the trip. I told her all of what had happened to me, starting from when I was kidnapped by the kelpie in the pond and woke up at the sea-king's feet.
"Oh dear," my mother laughed, "I should have warned you a bit more."
"You should have told me that was a kelpie's pond to begin with!" I cried.
She just smiled and rolled her eyes upwards. I told her about my first meeting with Montimious and he chimed in with how I was swinging the sword around with no clue how to use it. And then I told her about meeting Nahan for the first time, fighting the spirit of Solus, and my journey to the Fallen Sanctuary. The battle where Nahan had died and I had routed the shadows with the help of the kelpies. There weren't any more jokes for that.
On evening of the first day of travel we arrived at the place I wanted to visit one last time. There, in a grove of trees, was a small stone that had been erected and then carved with the runes of Lastille. I knelt by it and touched the flowers that were growing at its base.
"This is his grave," I said softly, "Nahan mac Kilm. The greatest of all the bards of Lastille."
My mother walked to stand behind me but did not come any closer. I took the sword off my back and carefully lay it down on the soft earth.
"You saved me," I whispered, "In so many ways. Thank you for letting me use this."
I felt warmth in my heart. I stayed still, feeling it, listening to what it was telling me. This would hurt for a very long time to come, I knew, and some days I would wake up and feel the pain like it had just happened yesterday. And some days I would feel peace and laugh at all the times he had scared me and all the things he had told me. It was just part of life. I reached down and wrapped my hand back around the sword.
"I'm to keep it," I said, "It's a gift."
I stood and my mother put her arm around my shoulders. I held the sword close to my heart.
"I think… he really was beside me at the end," I sniffled, "In his own way, I guess."
And my mother didn't say anything because there wasn't anything she could really say. This was something I would have to carry myself, just as I had carried the Sword of Solus.
We spent the night not too far from Nahan's grave. In the morning we made our way to the gate that would take us back to our world and I didn't look back as I walked. Nahan's sword was on my back and it didn't feel so heavy anymore. The gate itself was just a standing stone, inscribed with runes and hidden away among the hills. I turned towards my court to bid them goodbye.
"Oh Bailey," Montimious said, "Don't start crying. This isn't a forever goodbye, after all. Would you get all upset at saying goodbye to one of your friends as they left your house for the evening?"
I shook my head. "But this is the end of something…" I whispered.
"And the beginning of something better."
He walked up to me and I knelt and gently hugged him. He nuzzled my neck in return and licked my ear.
"Come visit us in the mountains," he said, "I'll introduce you to my family."
"Lots of brothers and sisters!" he said gleefully, "You'll love them. The sky protect you, Bailey. I'll see you again."
Valshare was next. He came up and started to bow but I interrupted him and knelt and gave him a hug. He purred a bit, a very rough sort of growl.
"I'll come see you when you finish your training at the Silver Rose," I said, "Thank you for everything you've taught me."
"You were an interesting student," he rumbled.
Then Bils'thar. The bear just looked at me for a moment and then flung one large paw over my shoulder and drew me close.
"I'll see you again, sister," he said and that was it. I swelled with pride at those words. Sister. Bils'thar considered me one of his own now – a warrior.
Then we turned and my mother put her hand to the standing stone. I did the same and felt its surface grow hot beneath my hand and the world around us melted away. I saw a ghost path beneath us and a starless void beyond.
"Where to?" I asked.
"We just follow the path to the end," she said, "and then we'll be home. I really want to see your dad and Daniel again."
"So do I," I whispered, "Hey! I'm going to be bigger and stronger than him now. First dibs on the video games from here out!"
"That's not knightly conduct," my mother replied calmly, "if anything you should be letting him go first."
I was quiet and thought about this for a moment as we walked. Somehow, my mother's words did not sit easy in my mind.
"You're going to use knightly conduct on a lot of things, aren't you," I said.
"Oh yes. Keeping your room clean, doing the dishes, not beating up the bullies at school just because you can now and so on."
Up ahead the path widened into a circle. I hesitated and my mother took my hand.
"Almost there," she said and I recognized an object in the center of the circle. The Japanese maple from our front yard. Together we walked into the circle and then the old path faded away around us and we were left standing in our front yard. I broke away from my mother and ran up to the front door. It was unlocked and I threw it open.
The house smelled funny, that same smell that it got when you have been on vacation for a long time and forgotten what it was like to live in your own home. I stood in the entryway and my mother came up behind me and shut the door behind her. The clock on the entryway wall read 4:52.
"Hello?" I called.
There was the sound of footsteps flying down the stairs. Daniel came tearing out into the entryway and hit my mother in a sobbing mess. A few seconds later my father appeared out from the kitchen and I ran for him, leaping and he caught me up in his arms in a hug. Then he grunted and quickly put me down.
"Good grief, Bailey," he cried, "How much weight did you gain?"
And I laughed and pulled the tabard off to show my shirt of plated armor. Daniel let out a shriek.
"She gets armor?! And a sword!?"
My mother just patted him on the head and ignored his protests. She walked over to my father and the two embraced and then started kissing. I winced and turned away. My brother was still staring at my sword.
"Two swords!" he finally said, "Can I see one?"
"Sure," I said and drew the Sword of Solus, "But be careful with it. It likes me best and I'll want it back."
"Dad told the school that you'd gotten really sick," he said as he stared at it, "and that you and mom had taken off to take you to a specialist in another state. Your friends left you cards and balloons and stuff. They're in your room. How come you get all the attention?"
"It wasn't all good attention," I said, "I'll show you all the scars I got later… from you know, people trying to kill me."
"You have scars," he said with a strong note of awe in his voice, "I have the coolest sister ever."
It was good to be home again. All my friends at school were so happy to have me back and I tried to sound nonchalant about my supposed illness. I told them the scar on my shoulder was from a surgery. And I noticed about a week after I got back that I was now the first one being picked for teams during gym class on account of being so much faster and stronger than everyone now. The biggest difference was that I didn't even have to resist the temptation of beating up the school bullies, as my mother had warned against, because they simply left me alone. I stood in the mirror a long time and looked and realized that I too carried this aura of veiled danger in me, the sense that I was no longer just an ordinary human girl and that I had done some great deed in my past. This was why they left me alone.
I found other things had changed as well. It was no longer as easy to get along with the other kids my age and I started to think of us as different. There was me and then there were all of them. My teachers were easier to talk to than my classmates and I started to drift away from all but my closest friends. Part of this bothered me and I told my mother about it and she said that the same thing had happened to her. That I had grown up far faster than any of them and so there was a difference between myself and the rest of the kids my age. It was a mark of Lastille and carrying the Sword of Solus.
I kept the sword in my room. My mother put up hooks that I could hang it from and then more underneath it to hang up Nahan's sword. I would stare at them each night before falling asleep in my bed. My armor went in my closet and part of my duties as a squire was to take it out once a week and clean it really well. Same for the swords. I also received a gift from Sir Éamonn next time I saw him – a wooden sword that I was supposed to go out in the backyard and practice with once a day or else he'd find some horrible way to punish me for neglecting my studies. I was also given some books and told to read them. My mother started sitting me down each evening after that and teaching me the language of Lastille.
There was one last thing that had changed and this one was something that I didn't talk about. I had not told any of the fairies what exactly I had done to Tarkamin and no one had asked. For my part my mother kept silent about it as well, letting it remain between us what had happened. I still ventured into the woods, often carrying my wooden sword, and I was no longer afraid of the dark places that resided within them. I had seen things far darker. But I did notice a creature following me, on my forays, and one day I stopped and called it closer. A gray wolf slunk out, its belly low to the ground, and I saw the word traitor branded on his forehead. I didn't say anything to him, just gestured that he could follow, and after that I was never alone when I went into the forest. The wolf followed me, keeping a distance between us but always keeping me within his sight. I didn't know if this was his way of apologizing for all that had happened or if he just didn't want to be alone. Whatever it was, he could not harm me anymore, and so I would roam the forest with a wolf by my side that had once sworn to kill me. I pitied him.
Things were not the same as they were before. My mother asked me once if this bothered me and I told that sometimes it did and sometimes I woke up crying at night but overall, I did not regret what had happened. She said that this was the same for her, when she had carried the Sword of Solus. Things were very different. I knew things no one else knew and had done things no one else could have done. But overall I did not wish that things had happened differently. After all, now, when my mother had odd guests with strange accents that kept their appearance hidden they were not just her guests. They were my guests as well.