Fragile Hope

Author's Note: No, the characters used here do not belong to me but to Alison Croggon.

He stumbled down the steep side of the mountain, surprising himself by not tripping…yet. Rocks were dislodged as he made his clumsy, slurred way to the bottom of the pass, not really caring immensely if he fell and died. It didn't matter if he died because most people he had ever known or loved were already dead, had died a brutal, garish death, and the whole world, his world, would soon be dead along with them. There was no hope; there was no nothing but this steep, craggy mountain pass that refused to give him an easy death. He could simply stumble, purposefully, and enjoy a death much simpler than the one most people he'd known had been forced to suffer…

The idea was very appealing. All responsibilities would be hoisted monumentally from his weakening shoulders. He would no longer have to worry every day about the future of the whole world, and saving the world would no longer be his mission. He would no longer have to worry about who would die next, whose death he would mourn next, or whose death he could prevent. He would no longer have to fret over his fitful past, no longer be forced to 'look toward the future' as everyone had always told him he should. There would simply be…nothing. Ever again. And right now that was all that he wanted. But before he died, before he stumbled stupidly, tripped and got killed, there was something he must check at all costs. Only then could he die a peaceful death that he himself chose, not one inflicted on him by Him.

Finally he was at the bottom of the pass, his legs rubbery and useless, eyelids sagging, mouth slightly open and panting, nose clogged, head battered, mind foggy, limbs limp, bruised knees, possibly broken legs, probably dislocated elbow. Cadvan of Lirigon was in a sorry state. But still he pushed himself, still he persisted. It was as though a bell was ringing sharply and harshly in his mind, trying to alert him to something. Feeling like a dog, Cadvan sniffed the air and thought he detected something; the smell of blood, perhaps? He dragged his sorry body over to a rock wall, and faintly his mind registered that there were crimson drops of blood staining the snow and the rocky wall above it. So was she dead, then? Was all hope really lost?

Something inside of him, some strong and persevering part of him, called out, weakly, "No, she is not dead! Look, it is but a little blood. And there are some dents in the snow, some tracks, and some footprints. Perhaps there is still hope." But Cadvan didn't want to believe there was still some hope left for the dwindling world. It would all be so much simpler if the Fire Lily, his Elednor of Edil Amarandh, was dead. Then he could die too, knowing there was nothing he could have done, nothing else he could do to help her. Then he could join her. He could see again the laughing face of his Fire Lily, see her angry, see her sad, see her joyful…

But if she was not dead, if he died while she still lived…then he would not see her for a long time. The thought hurt him inside like a burning arrow tip piercing his frost-bitten skin, and something inside him answered the painful thought. "If she is not dead, then it is your duty to find her. If she is not dead then you can still help her, help her help the world. And if she is not dead you can see her living smile, her living tears, her living scowl…You must find her."

He didn't want to. It would be so much simpler to just die, then and there. Everything would be so much simpler for him…but for the world? Would the world really be doomed if he died right now? Perhaps Maerad was facing some unspeakable danger, was in terror, and was wishing for him to find her. New strength seemed to fill Cadvan as he pulled his sorry body into a standing position and made his decision: he would not die. Not then, at least. He would do his best to find Maerad, and he would continue with the journey of life. The unforgiving journey of life that he sometimes so despised. But he could always go back and die some other time. And now was not, he knew, the right time to die. If he died now…he couldn't die now. The decision was already made for him. He would persevere. Little did he know that his Maerad, the Fire Lily in question, had faced this same decision mere days before.

Cadvan hauled his body up the steep, craggy cliff-side and helped his faithful, loyal horse, the magnificent Darsor, to descend after him. It was because of Darsor that he was alive now, Cadvan realized with a mixture of gratitude and resentment. Should he be thanking his friend or should he feel disappointed? "Of course you should be thanking him," the internal, guiding voice scolded. "You must live. For now." And so, weary and battered, Cadvan mounted Darsor and softly told his horse, using the Speech, "We're off again, Old Friend. This time all we have to do is find Maerad."

Darsor snorted derisively. "'All we have to do is find Maerad'?" he asked disbelievingly. "Knowing that little one, she could be all the way to the Winterking's palace by now, challenging him verbally. I can just imagine." Cadvan smiled and patted his horse, then winced at both actions as his lips cracked and bled and his frost-bitten hand throbbed. It didn't matter if Maerad were being held prisoner by the Nameless One Himself, he would still go look for her and he would still go and try to free her. With a pang, Cadvan realized his feelings for the stubborn, head-strong and sometimes indecisive young Bard went deeper than he had previously known. "With Maerad, things often go deeper than you realize at first," he commented to himself, amused. And so, with a few more comforting words to Darsor, he set off on the long quest to find Maerad, the Fire Lily, Elednor of Edil Amarandh, who was said, would save his dwindling candle-of-a-world.