Elaine 24: "Reunion"

        I felt drained, physically and emotionally as Merlin pulled me through the Trump. He said nothing, just squeezed my hand before he let go. I had told him something of the story that led us all to this moment during our weeks of travel, and was grateful for his silence on the matter.
        If only others had the good grace to be so circumspect.
        Justin cast a critical eye over me as I turned away from Merlin, and as his eyes fell on the ring I now bore on my right hand, his concern faded to a faint contempt. "Been jewelry shopping?"
        My hands gripped the saddlehorn as I pulled myself onto my horse, my nails digging deeply into the leather. Justin's dislike of Harlan has been more of an annoying undercurrent in our interactions. But since he had joined us this trip, I had become more and more displeased with the harsh edge to it. It may have been his duty to guard me, but it was neither his duty nor right to call me to task for my personal decisions. And it was about time he was reminded of that.
        I swung into the saddle and pulled my horse around to face him. "It was a gift," I replied, letting my fury ice my voice, "and is none of your concern."

        I returned to Amber four hours after I had left for Glorethien, just in time to have lunch and a lesson with Gillian. She did not comment on my improved skills from our lesson of the morning, and I did not enlighten her, htough my slight disorientation about the time differential likely was a significant clue.
        The next few days passed in quiet, but for a late evening visit from Justin and an invitation to 'my' funeral from Joaquim. It seems that my doppelganger died giving birth 14 years after I left Glorethien. Joaquim's skill in recreating me had been quite impressive, and served to remind me just how dangerous an ally he is. But then again, those sorts of allies are sometimes the best kind. I also wondered what my dear mother thinks of what currently goes on in her beloved former husband's home. I have seen nothing of her since Justin gained Harlan's blade.
       I spent the rest time with my brother, in quiet evening conversation with my stolid guardian Celia, who I had come to know better during that year in Glorethien, and teasing Jero, who has become quite attached to her in a romantic manner that Celia was quite oblivious to. It was a break I needed and appreciated a great deal.
       But my meeting with Kier the third morning after my return ended my vacation rather aruptly.
        "Emma has the stone," he finished, after relating to me the tale of his misadventure on the Primal Pattern.
        I sighed. "Well, Harlan should be warned of the fact he might become a target if Emma is now collecting what stones are known."
       A faintly conspiratorial smile crossed my cousin's face, and he nodded in agreement. "Of course. In fact, I'll make it a royal order..."

        We left Jero with Christoph and the infant, my cousin looking quite befuddled by his fatherhood, and continued on. Harlan's shadow was empty, long abandoned, and we returned to Christoph before picking up the trail the next morning.
       Which led us to the Library at Memnos, where we were met by Kant. Harlan had indeed passed that way, looking for information on Mimeth's Plain and Chaosian geography. I gave Kant my trump when he asked for transport sometime in the near future, and again we went on.
        Justin joined us not much later. I was neither surprised nor pleased to see him. While I greatly enjoy Justin's company, he has made his dislike of Harlan so clear that his involvement in this search made me quite uncomfortable.
        So much so that when we found the Shadow in which Harlan was worshiped as a great hero, Justin and Merlin's mirth frayed my nerved and temper to the quick. I spent as much time away from the party as I could, learning that Harlan now possessed the third missing artifact.
       I was unable to sleep that night. Justin and Merlin made themselves scarce when I returned, and poor Jero was afraid to come near me after my reaction when he came in with that damned statuette. I felt like a fool. It was just before dawn when I finally just gave up on sleep and rose for the day. Like a silent shadow, Celia followed me as I slipped out without waking the others and readied the horses, then went into town for provisions.

        Slung over the shoulder of a large demon, bound and gagged, I had time to consider the folly of having allowed my irritation with my companions to get the best of me.
        A short march and a Trump passage later I was deposited in a chair, a redheaded woman with four fingers on one hand smiling darkly at me. But it was the figure that appeared in the door a short while later that shocked me.
       He did not look much changed, though a subtle shift in the way he held himself, more confident and assured, told me some time had passed for him. Harlan met my eyes for only a moment before turning to Emma.
        "Just as I said," she turned that dark smile upon Harlan. "The artifact for Elaine."
        Even as I willed him to turn and walk back out that door without sealing this idiotic bargain, he slowly deposited a small bag into her hands, and without a word, strode over, picked me up, and slung me over his shoulder, not bothering to release me. Taking Werewindl and my trump case off a nearby table, we left.
        I fumed in silence, and he said nothing until we reached a clearing about a mile away, where his horse grazed. Only then did he set me down, untie me, and finally removed the gag.
       I kept my temper in check, barely. "You shouldn't have given it to her."
       "I thought it a fair trade," he said quietly.
       I sighed, the guilt stabbing through me once again. My tone was much softer this time. "She took mine, Harlan. That's what I was trying to find you and tell you."
        He grimaced, but only said, "Are you coming?" As he mounted his horse and held his hand down to me.
        I let him pull me up behind him.

        We rode for hours in uncomfortable silence, until we reached a ramshackle cabin in the center of a white salt flat that stretched endlessly in every direction.
        The hermit Fagan, who owned the place, nodded to himself as Harlan led me inside. "Are you the girl with the small hands?" he chucked at my confusion before he went off to look for something.
        He came back not long after and handed something to Harlan, who in turn handed it to me. It was a slim ring, wrought of fine twists of spun silver. The craftsmanship was exquisite.
       "It will negate my abilities, and protect you from them," Harlan said softly.
        I slipped it onto my hand. A pefect fit. I could see Fagan eyeing his handiwork with a pleased expression as he sent Harlan father intot he building to get something else.
       "You do beautiful work," I told the mysterious hermit, and he smiled.
       "Why thank you."
        "How long have you known Harlan?" I asked.
        "He came through here notlong ago," the old man chuckled. "Harlan tells me strange things." He added cryptically.
        "What kind of strange things?"
        "Strange things that remind me of even stranger things."
        I gave up on trying to weasel information out of him. Harlan had returned anyway, and making our goodbyes to the hermit, we left.
        Outside, I walked with him to his horse. "I should get back to the others."
        He nodded, staring at the ground. I briefly thought of asking him to come with me, but realizing the reception from at least one party, I thought it better to wait. Instead, I held him close, and kissed him. He held me tightly for a long moment, looking both relieved and saddened, much as I felt.
        "I will be able to contact you...?"
       "Yeah," he looked down at me as he let me go. "If you don't get through, try again later." He paused, then pulled anouther bag from his belt. "This will probably be safest with you."
        Taking it, I pocketed it, and walked away. I paused about ten steps away, Merlin's trump in my hand. "I'm not giving up on you, you know." I didn't wait to see the look on his face before I activated the Trump and let Melin bring me through.