NB: I don't own these characters

NB: I don't own these characters. I only own the books…which are my bibles…

I

ESCAPE

Cadvan couldn't remember a time when he had been more tired, more wasted than he was now. He had literally staggered across the lands away from the Landrost's dungeons, and now that he was in this strange cot all he wanted to do was find a place to sleep.

The cot was like most others he had been in - small, cramped and miserable. But at least it was safe enough for him to rest in. He had enough magic left inside him to summon up a glimmerspell, but even that, his most favourite of charms, was weak and flickered desperately within him. He trudged through the cot, listening vaguely to voices echoing around him in the grey daylight. There were several mentions of Gilman's Cot - he supposed that was what the place was called - but the rest of the words flicked past him like stray breezes - he was simply too tired to listen.

He allowed his instincts to lead him to a place of safety and soon found himself on the threshold of an old cowbyre near the far edge of the cot. He couldn't understand why he had made his way to this place when there had been many other secure shelters on the path to it. It was just that something seemed different about this one…

He poked his head through the open doorway. The byre was abandoned apart from a thin, young girl sitting on a stool and milking a cow. It was safe, he reckoned. She seemed to be almost nodding off, and anyway he had his glimmerspell around him. She would not see him. He could chance it.

He stepped into the byre and as he did so, the cow reared and shifted, feeling the sudden presence of magic. The girl started awake and tried to calm the animal; Cadvan froze, trying not to make a sound. He would be all right…the glimmerspell…

The girl stiffened, then turned abruptly and looked directly at him. He caught the flash of intense blue eyes in a white face and tried to stand as still as possible. They stared at each other for a brief moment. He expected her to turn away, dismissing her wariness as fancy. She did not. She continued to stare at him.

After a second, she reached for a lamp nearby.

"Who are you?" she asked in a deep, strange voice.

Cadvan's nerve almost failed him. He stared at her - how could she see him? Was it possible that his glimmerspell had died of exhaustion? Surely she couldn't be a Bard? Not in a place like this…

But there was something about her, an odd aura…

"Who are you?" she demanded once more. Her voice, Cadvan realised suddenly, did not befit this place. It was too…But she was speaking again. "Avaunt, black spirit!"

She was frightened. She thought he was a ghost. He would have laughed, had he been in a different situation, but the atmosphere was too intense now. He could feel the hairs pricking on the back of his neck. Perhaps it was better not to speak…But then she might raise the alarm…

"Nay," he managed. "Nay, I am no black spirit. No wer in a man's skin. No. Forgive me." He sighed - the exhaustion was getting to him and he could feel his iron will failing. "I am tired and I am wounded. I am not quite - myself."

That much is right, he thought sardonically. He allowed himself a private moan: why do I always get stuck in new situations when I'm already exhausted from the last one? Well…it wasn't exactly this girl's fault. He smiled at her and she lifted up the lamp - the light illuminated both their faces. He could see her properly; her too-thin pale face, her straggly dark hair…and her eyes. They were intense, he had noted that immediately, but he hadn't realised just how powerful this intensity was. Her gaze seemed to beam directly into him. That stare wasn't a normal stare, he thought. There was no slave-like nature about her. She was higher than that, she was more than that.

A Bard? She must be…But even that description didn't seem to fit her.

He had to know who she was.

"And who are you, young witch-maiden? It takes sharp eyes to see the likes of me, though perhaps my art fails me." It better not have, he added to himself grimly. I still have to get out here. "Name yourself."

"Who are you, to ask me?" she asked boldly. All right…so she definitely wasn't a simple slave girl. She had too much courage. He stared at her - what in all the heavens and beyond was she doing here?

His exhaustion hit him again sharply and he reeled, clutching at his inner iron will almost immediately. He smiled so as not to frighten the girl, though he secretly suspected it would take more than a fainting stranger to scare the likes of her. She eyed him with misgiving and he sensed an apprehension under her boldness, which she must've learnt from life here, he supposed. Perhaps he should be more courteous - he wasn't used to dealing with young girls, that was for sure, but surely kindliness was the best approach right now.

"I am Cadvan, of the School of Lirigon. Now, mistress, how do they name you?"

Her apprehension lessened slightly.

"Maerad," she whispered.

A name…

"Maerad of the Mountains?" He smiled at her again, trying to hide his true curiosity about her heritage. Where had she come from?

"Of - of Gilman's fastness. I'm a slave here…"

"A slave?" So she was a slave. But she seemed nothing like it.

A burly man approached the door and said a few insults at this Maerad, who shakily but defiantly returned them back, covering her shock well. The man did not notice Cadvan (so the glimmerspell was working after all…), and Maerad said nothing about him. She seemed as curious about Cadvan as Cadvan was about her, though she was trying to hide it as much as he.

She sat down and resumed milking, and the burly man left. Cadvan watched her milking, his trepidation growing. Could she possibly be some sort of Dark creature of the Landrost's - coming to befuddle him and drag him back to those dungeons? She seemed too real for that…she was too intense. But then, the Dark was cunning…

His head was pulsing - he was in serious danger of falling where he stood.

"Maerad," he said as calmly as possible. "I wish you no harm. I am tired, and I need to sleep. That's why I'm here." He leaned against the byre wall, the scene blurring slightly before his eyes. If she was one of the Dark, she would be able to overcome him easily…

"He didn't see you," she whispered.

"No, it is a small thing," he said foggily. "A mere glimmerspell." He tried to pull himself together. "What is interesting is that - you saw me."

Their eyes met again and this time he looked more deeply at her. Yes, she definitely had that Bard glow. It was quite strong in her, in fact…

There was something about her, something apart from her magic. As if she were special…and not just in a powerful way, but as a person…

He looked away and sat down heavily. He had to be getting tired. Imagining her as - ! He had only just met this girl. He didn't even know her heritage.

Too many questions…

"I wish I were not so tired." That was an understatement. "You were not always a slave?"

Maerad spoke haltingly. "My mother wasn't a slave. Gilman brought her and kept her here, when I was very little. I think he wanted to ransom her, but none came to ransom. And then she died." She turned suddenly, bursting with rage. "What business is it of yours? Who are you to ask me?"

She was very defensive. But it was only to be expected in a place like this. She probably hadn't even mourned for her mother properly. And she was stubborn, almost as much as he…

Cadvan summoned up enough of his power to do some Truthtelling tricks; he had to know exactly who she was and this was the only solution he could think of at the moment.

"What was your mother's name?" he asked as offhandedly as he could.

"Milana. Milana of Pellinor, Singer of the Gift, Daughter of the First Circle. My father…" She froze, then flung her hands to her mouth. "Oh!"

Pellinor? Impossible…

"Oh, indeed," he said wryly. The girl Maerad stuttered, obviously not used to this sort of magic - if any at all.

"I mean, my mother was called Milana and that's all I remember…She, she died when I was seven years old…"

So she was an orphan. So she was alone here. It surprised himself by feeling vaguely pitying towards her, a young girl alone in a place like this…"Did you make me say that?" she asked.

"Make? No, I can't make you say anything." He told her about the sack of Pellinor, though really he was just repeating his thoughts out loud to himself.

She couldn't be of Pellinor. Everyone had died…

She seemed just as bemused as he did. Just as exhausted as he did. Just as lost as he did. And now, just as homeless as he was. They were, oddly, the same.

"By what right do you come in here and say…and say such things…I could call the Thane's men…" Her voice trailed off, and he knew that she wouldn't. She had enough trust in him not to do that…And, come to think of it, he had enough trust in her to know that she wouldn't…

Hang on. Trust? But they had only just met. And Cadvan was not the sort of person who automatically trusted people, in fact he was the complete opposite, he went out of his way not to trust anyone, let alone strangers…

What was this feeling? Again, returning to him? That she was important in some way - not just to the world, but to him…

So much for her being one of the Dark. He would never have such an innate feeling of trust for one of the Dark - that he was sure of.

He put his face in his hands, his mind whirring. Maerad glared at him, then started to milk another cow, but he didn't look up.

Should he bring her out of the cot? What was he going to do with her if he did? What was he going to do if he didn't? Somehow he couldn't imagine just leaving her here. She is alone…like me…

It would be dangerous for her and for him if he did so. But she was a Bard. A Bard could not stay in this place. He did not want to see her get hurt because of his weakness. But then…she would die if she stayed here.

He decided to vocalise his thoughts; if she refused it would make the choice easy. Perhaps she still had some reason to stay, though he couldn't guess what it would be.

"You can't stay here if you are of Pellinor," he said. He noted Maerad's sudden shift on her stool, felt the alarm and excitement in her. So she wasn't adverse to the idea of escape then…

First things first, he told himself strictly. I'm thirsty and tired. She has spent many years here, she can wait one more day. And I'm no use to anyone like this.

He glanced up. "Could you - perhaps - spare some milk?"

She didn't even pause - she gave him the drink and took his thanks without appearing to notice what she was doing. She seemed quite captivated by him, which was fine because he felt just the same about her.

"Will you have to come to the byre again?" he asked. "Today, I mean."

She glared at him, but he didn't miss the spark of hope in her eyes. "Yes, I am sectioned here today. I'll be milking in the evening. Why?"

"Good." He stretched vaguely, spoke a few more words to her, then lay down in the hay. His thoughts was already blurring with exhaustion, but just before he fell into sleep troubled by the usual dreams, he saw her standing above him like a thin, sharp, watchful angel. Her quick face was suspicious, but she also seemed to trust him. She didn't run for the guards. And she let him lie there and rest. She cared, in an odd way. Cared about a stranger whom she had just met...perhaps that was just as baffling to her as it was to him…

His last thought, as he was whisked away into sleep, was that something was coming, something bigger than before, and that he had just got out of one adventure just to fall into another one.

Another struggle coming up. Typical, Cadvan!

He had no idea, not then, just how big this struggle was going to be. If he had, he might not have slept as soundly as he did.

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