NB: I don't own the characters...but man, if only I did...

Familiar Stranger…

Maerad lay on the hard ground and dreamed.

She dreamt of music. She dreamt of flowers and light and a place that was free and safe, where she was not the One, where she was simply herself and she could live and dream in this safety.

Ardina swept through her dreams, like a cloud, bringing with her the thoughts of moonlight and scented breezes. She reached with an ivory hand to Maerad.

"It is almost time, daughter," she said in a voice of storms. "Thee must reach the Dark One and bring back the song for us. Thee must be strong within thyself, but thee must also have strength around and outside thee. Thee must be able to be saved by friends. I wonder if thee is ready…if you are both ready…"

Her voice was drifting away slowly when she said, "I shall experiment…"

Cadvan lay on the hard ground and dreamed.

He dreamt of release. He dreamt of a world of Light, and a safe world where he no longer need to run from his shadows. Where the Light was pure and washed him with its pureness. Where Maerad no longer had to be so fated.

Ardina appeared in his visions, shining and beautiful. Her warmth filled Cadvan with an odd sensation like hope. He had forgotten how that felt.

"You are strong," she called to him. "You will be needed, and you will need to be strong. But I wonder…are you ready for the task which was marked upon you at birth? Will you protect my kin like you were destined to?"

She said, "I shall experiment…"

The bubbly sound of drums and hornpipes reached Maerad's ears. Flashes of colour and light filled her mind, and mixed and twisted until she realised they were people in high dress, and that the cheerful music was being produced by a number of musicians on a dais in the centre of the grand hall she and the people were in. She was at a party…

"Maerad?" said a gentle voice. Maerad turned and looked into the face of Milana, her mother, alive and well. She stood proud and tall, in a summer blue dress, with a crystal shining on her forehead and the lily badge of Pellinor on her breast. Her face was soft and warm, and Maerad felt herself sag with relief, though she didn't know why.

"Mother," she said brightly. "I'm sorry, I must have started daydreaming again!"

"You silly girl," smiled her mother, and kissed her on the forehead lightly. "We're holding a Pellinor Meet, remember! And you must stay alert, for I'm sure your father will insist on introducing you to half a dozen boring old men. Come on!" She took Maerad by the hand and led her through the crowds of people, cheerfully waving at and speaking to various people briefly. Maerad glanced down at herself; she was wearing a red dress and had her Pellinor badge on her left. Her lyre, safe and comforting, was in the crook of her arm.

She tried to remember what she had been thinking about in her daydream. Something to do with a quest…and some sort of angel or spirit, talking to her…and a dream of desperation, wishing for a perfect life…

Why would she wish for a perfect life if she had one right here? She lived in Pellinor with her mother, father and brother, she was one of the crowd, as normal as any other person here, a budding scholar. The Light and the Schools of Bards grew and developed and were steadily becoming greater. All were blessed with the Light.

There was no Dark. Maerad was in her home. She had, she realised, truly the perfect life.

"Maerad!" Another voice called her name. She looked up and saw her father, tall and dark haired and in a dark blue to compliment her mother's light blue. He was with some other Bards, and he waved at the two of them enthusiastically, gesturing for them to come over.

"Here we go," Milana grinned at Maerad, and they walked to where he was standing. He began introductions.

"Maerad, this is Ilar of Desor…"

Maerad's attention wandered as she listened to the Bards talking, saying the usual things they said every Meet, about how she and Pellinor were both doing. She had just seen a tall black skinned man in red and golden robes, sporting a strange badge of a many rayed sun, a few metres away, chatting animatedly to other people. He seemed vaguely familiar to her, but she couldn't place where she had seen him before. It was something about his broad grin and the way he tossed back his braided hair that seemed so…

She remembered that odd sensation she had felt, to do with being in desperation…as if she had been in darkness, almost…

The Bards were talking behind her still, as she stared at the man beyond. After a second, she realised her father was mentioning her name,

"Maerad, this is…Maerad?"

Maerad turned back to him and smiled, shaking herself out of her odd trance.

"Yes. Sorry."

Her father rolled his eyes and grinned, gesturing to the right of him.

"I was just saying Maerad…this is Cadvan of Lirigon."

Maerad turned to the right and met a familiar stranger's blue eyes.

Instantly, an inner shock pulsed through her, like a splash of cold water in her face, or a bright light in the darkness. She stared at the stranger as if she had never seen a man before.

He was almost as tall as her father, with dark hair, and dressed in black with a silver sword at his side and a star badge on his shoulder. His face was neutral, but it struck within Maerad almost forcibly. She could have sworn that she had seen that face before…the firm mouth and those blue eyes, icy cold and yet, somehow she knew, full of compassion.

And that name…

That name

Cadvan of Lirigon.

As if she had heard it echoed in a dream, long forgotten and already trapped back behind the Gates, waiting to be released again. As if it had been spoken half a second before she had woken, mixed with the unconscious and the conscious…

To say that Dorn of Pellinor was honoured to meet him, thought Cadvan ironically, was an understatement. He had practically fallen on his knees when he had learnt what Cadvan's name was. Most of the Bards were like that at this School…He could tell Ceredin was having a whale of time because she kept having to leave him to it to go and burst into fits of laughter.

He had mingled, as you should do at Meets, and picked up gossip which either interested him greatly or was tedious. He saw Saliman, whom he waved to brightly, and a thousand other people. Ilar of Desor had cornered him effectively, and had spoken for almost an hour about how he had grown and how she had always known he was destined for greatness, and how she had loved his latest works…and then insisted on dragging him around with her. With no Ceredin to protect him (she was still off somewhere collecting herself), he had weakly given in.

That was how he had met Dorn of Pellinor. Apart from his obvious awe of Cadvan, Dorn turned out to be the most informative man he had met all night. They spoke for a long while, and after Cadvan had turned to get a drink, he noticed Dorn had managed to summon up his wife and daughter to greet everyone.

Milana, the wife, seemed proud and stately, and less cowed than Dorn by his so-called 'greatness'. She had greeted him courteously.

And then he had met their daughter, Maerad of Pellinor…

Maerad of Pellinor…

"Maerad…" Dorn had said. "This is Cadvan of Lirigon."

Their eyes had met and a strange feeling of familiarity had fled up the entirety of Cadvan's spine. He stood numbly, looking at this girl he had never before seen in his life…but who had suddenly seemed so strikingly familiar to him. Every part of her beautiful face, her dark hair, the look in her eyes…it had all struck his deeply in his soul, as if she had reached forward and plucked a chord inside him, a chord of recognition…

Maerad of Pellinor…

It was as if he had known her name before it had been spoken.


They stared at each other for what felt like an astonishing long while, whilst the other Bards talked amongst themselves, ignoring them. Then, Cadvan said in a voice which seemed both unfamiliar and familiar to Maerad,

"Hello, Maerad of Pellinor."

Something about the way he said her name was just so...

He held out a hand. Maerad hesitated, then took it.

Even his touch felt familiar. Even more familiar than his face had, in fact…

"Hello," she said faintly.

The sounds of the party, which had somehow faded into the background, came back with an abrupt thwack of air. Cadvan's grip gently lessened and the two pulled away from each other, suddenly self-conscious.

"I - uh - I have read your works," Maerad whispered, feeling stupid. She had no idea why she felt so foolish in front of a man she had only just met.

"Yes, I - " said Cadvan, also sounding embarrassed, then stopped. He regarded her with an intense closeness. "Have I - " he started, and then stopped. He said again, "Have I…met you before? You seem familiar…"

So he felt it also. Maerad was suddenly lost for words.

"I don't think so," she replied almost indistinctly. "I don't…think…so…"

Their eyes met again, and again there was that same look of confusion…mixed with familiarity…mixed with understanding. Maerad felt something stir in her memory, something lost in time, lost in the dark…something about that face and a song, and a living dream…and that face, that face above it all…

"Maerad!" For the third time her name was called out, and for the third time she jumped and looked around at the source of the call. Hem, twelve years old and annoying and much loved, was running up to her.

"They're holding the banquet, Maerad! Come on, let's get some food before the old ones get there first!"

He waved at her impatiently and vanished into the crowd. Maerad turned, smiling embarrassedly, back to this Cadvan of Lirigon.

"He likes to eat," she said by way of explanation.

"Yes, I know," Cadvan said. Maerad cocked an eyebrow at him, slightly confused, and he replied hastily,

"I mean, of course I don't know in the literal term, but I - that is - I have no idea why I said that…!"

He laughed, flustered, and Maerad laughed to, in the way that people who have only just met each other laugh to keep up the light façade.

There was an awkward silence that followed.

"I should probably…" Maerad gestured at where Hem had been, and Cadvan nodded quickly.

"Yes, of course. Yes. Yes. Of course."

Cadvan watched Maerad steadily make her way across the hall, touching the hand she had shaken almost absent-mindedly. She was halfway across the hall when the song being played changed.

The lyrics were well known.

Speak to me, fair maid!

Speak and do not go!

It was The Lay of Andomian and Beruldh. Cadvan knew it well, but it had never seemed so suddenly and strangely significant as just at this moment. Again, the noise of the crowds lessened, until all he could hear was the song, and all he see was that Maerad of Pellinor, such a familiar stranger…

A familiar stranger…

What sorrows have your eyes inlaid

With such black woe?

Maerad ground to a halt. The rising image of trees, birch trees, in a circle, suddenly fluttered like a nesting bird into her mind. She had never seen those trees before, and yet she knew they were a safe haven, a respite. And that song…sung within those trees…and that man who had sung those words…and that face…

My dam is buried deep

Dark are my father's halls

Maerad turned on her heel as the crowd seemed to melt into slow motion, mere shadows passing through her real world, until all she could see clearly was Cadvan.

And carrion fowl and wolves now keep

Their ruined walls.

Their eyes met again, and this time Maerad walked back to the place where Cadvan stood, and he waited. For a second they simply stood, staring, watching, remembering. Then Maerad said distantly,

"A song."

"Split," Cadvan replied just as vaguely. "A Split Song."

"A quest," whispered Maerad. "And trees…"

"A song," said Cadvan. "And trees."

"A Treesong," hissed Maerad.

Stay and heal your hurt

Lay down that brow of stone

"A cowbyre," said Maerad. The image rose warily in her mind. A dirty cowbyre, and the feeling of loneliness…pressing down on her…

"The unseen seen," replied Cadvan. "And a lifelong…a lifelong…friendship…"
"More than that," said Maerad.

From this day forth my hidden heart

Will be your own.

"I am Cadvan, of the School of Lirigon," said Cadvan tonelessly, as if he were merely repeating lines set before him. "Now, mistress, how do they name you?"

"Maerad," she whispered, confused.

"Maerad of the Mountains?"

There was a long pause, a shocked pause, a pause of remembrance.

From this day forth my hidden heart

Will be your own.

"I've managed before," Maerad said, in the same tones that Cadvan had used. "I might do better if I'm not travelling with a Hull in the first place."

A silence. Cadvan spoke in the Speech this time.

"By all we have suffered together, by the sworn bond you owe me as your teacher, and by the deeper bond you owe me as your friend, I bid you tell me now: what has happened to you, Maerad of Pellinor?"

Again, that dead silence, that silence as memories were pulled from another time, another place, another past.

From this day forth my hidden heart

Will be your own.

"Your hair looked silver in the moonlight," muttered Cadvan. "So it is not as ridiculous as it might sound."

"And she is beautiful," Maerad said softly.

"Yes," whispered Cadvan. "She is."

More memories, more and more and more, not from this time, from another…another world…

From this day forth my hidden heart

Will be your own.

"I understand enough," said Maerad harshly but vaguely. "I understand that I'm on my own. Well, that's no different from how it's always been."

"You're not alone," said Cadvan.

From this day forth my hidden heart

Will be your own.

"Be Maerad," whispered Maerad, soft again. "Be Me."

"I suppose," Cadvan said, almost laughing, "That you would still like some stew?"

From this day forth my hidden heart

Will be your own.

"I missed this," Maerad said gently.

"What?" Cadvan replied.

"When we were separated, I missed this," Maerad said. "Us. Just us, together. This…"

From this day forth my hidden heart

Will be your own.

"I will not let you do it, Maerad!" Cadvan said, suddenly furious.

"You can't stop me!" Maerad answered.

"Oh yes, I can," he said in the same threatening voice. "And I will."

"I thought you'd understand!" she exclaimed. "I'm doing this for Innail!"

"I understand," he replied softly. "That doesn't mean I'll let you go."

"Then you have sentenced every person in Innail to death!" Maerad cried. "If I don't go and face the Dark, Innail falls and they all die, all of them, all dead!"

"Then so be it!" shouted Cadvan. "I don't care so long as you are safe!"

A pause.

"Maerad…" whispered Cadvan. "I would rip the world into shreds to keep you with me."

From this day forth my hidden heart

Will be your own.

"I wanted to tell you," Maerad said, and now she was crying, "Before I left forever, I just wanted to say…"

"I wanted to also," Cadvan whispered.

"That I…"

"That I…"

"Love you," they said in soft unison.

From this day forth my hidden heart

Will be your own.

Will be your own.

The world melted and twisted and formed, and then slowly fell away, with all the gentleness of new life. The fine dresses, the comfort of the secure world, the family and the home that Maerad so longed for, all of it, it all vanished into dreams of smoke and dust and blackness and finality.

"I see," said Ardina. "Yes, now I see…"

Maerad awoke, softly, on the hard ground and into reality. Her bones ached. The pain of loneliness, of no return to the life she wanted, and had had for such a short time, came back, a throbbing pulse in her mind.

She sat up quietly, and saw Cadvan sitting up also, with the same look on his face that she fancied she had on hers. They stared at each other over the dying embers of their fire, and through the moonlight above. Each knew, with one look, that the other had had the same dream. It was written in their eyes and in their minds.

"What…?" whispered Maerad.

"A visit," said Cadvan, sounding hoarse. "A visit to everything we wanted - for you, your home and family, for me…" He trailed off and silently remembered Ceredin, and his fame for something good, not for his skirmishes with the Dark.

"All we wanted. All we ever hoped for, and wished for. And yet," said Maerad numbly. "And yet, we still remembered…this time."

"And we returned to it," replied Cadvan. "We came back here, rather than living in the world of our dreams, the world of our happiness. Because of our duty to the Treesong and to this world and because of…"

"Our need for each other," Maerad answered.

Their eyes met over the fire again, blank and tender.

"Ardina gave us a choice," said Cadvan. "We have the ideal world and lose this world, with these changes…this world with the two of us. Or…we come back here, and lose all we ever wanted…for each other."

"And we chose to lose it all," answered Maerad. "To gain each other."

If they had looked upwards at that moment, they would have noticed the moon flicker for a split second, and may have tasted the sweet smelling breeze on their lips, and may have even heard Ardina's Elidhu voice whisper in the trees,

"So…you are both ready for the last."

They noticed none of these things, however. They were too wrapped up in each other.

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