This is dedicated to all those who reviewed my other works - Icelands, DWMG, Ingu, Frogster, PJC! Sorry if I missed anyone out, but thank you for reviewing too!! :)
NB: No, I don't own the characters!! Also, this is unfinished and will most probably stay that way…so if that annoys you, I'm sorry! Ducks from flying vegetables...
NO WAY OUT
A choice, the leader of the Hulls - Imank - had said. I give Til Amon the choice.
I know Maerad of Pellinor dwells within your walls. I have been sent by the Great One to bring her and the Treesong to Den Raven. I could do that easily by tearing down Til Amon. But instead I give you a choice.
Give me Maerad of Pellinor and the Treesong, and I will leave Til Amon quite alone. Refuse, and we shall attack.
You have until sunrise tomorrow.
A hasty meeting was called, which all who were important to the battle attended. Saliman and Soron sat at the head of the table, answering or deflecting questions from other officials, trying unsuccessfully to stop a huge argument. Hem and Irc communicated quietly. Cadvan joined in when was possible. Maerad sat silently throughout the whole thing, her face to the floor.
"We don't have the resources to defend Til Amon against those many Hulls!" Élan - the main leader of the battle - cried out against the rabble, drowning out most of the other arguments. "Their weapons, their magic, their sheer numbers far outweigh anything that Innail can drag up!"
"We healers are already stretched to breaking point as it is," agreed Gelma, the head of the healers. "And the full weight of the attack hasn't even begun yet."
"Then we should evacuate," someone said.
"Too late," argued Élan. "The Hulls have surrounded Innail's walls. There's no way out."
His last sentence seemed to chill the rest of the arguments and a heavy silence fell.
"How many Hulls are out there?" said a voice in the crowd suddenly.
"We estimate around a million," Élan replied in his harsh, blunt voice.
There was a collective sharp intake of breath around the table.
"Then we have no choice," Saliman said firmly. "We must fight."
A gloomy mumble of agreement, halted abruptly by a new voice.
It was Maerad; she had finally glanced up from the floor and now was rising to her feet, a pink blush spreading on her cheeks but her eyes determined.
"You've forgotten," she said. "You do have a choice."
"Maerad - " started Cadvan.
"Imank gave you a choice!" Maerad continued, ignoring Cadvan completely. "Me or Innail, that was the choice he gave you! You know you have a choice, so you can't just say - "
"Maerad, no one is going to make the choice to give you to the Dark," Soron interrupted abruptly. "That is not what people of the Light do - we don't just sacrifice our people to the enemy!"
"But you'll be sacrificing even more people if you don't let me go!"
There was another numb, now slightly awkward, silence.
"Maerad," Saliman said quietly. "We need you to see this. You are the Chosen One. Giving you and the Treesong to the Dark would be a greater defeat for the Light than if Innail was razed to the ground completely. Then the Nameless One would have nothing to stop him taking over the whole of Edil-Amarandh."
"No," argued Maerad, "They would. They think that I'm the only one needed to play the Song - that if I am there and the Song is there then it will work. Well we know that's not true, don't we? Hem is needed as well! But as far as we know, they know nothing about Hem at all."
A murmuring followed this, in which Maerad and Hem swapped a quick glance of agreement.
"Still," Soron said persistently. "We would be giving you to the Dark. They would have the upper hand."
"I thought we were going to go to Den Raven anyway," Maerad retorted cleverly. "In that case, what is the problem with me going a little early?"
"Because we don't know yet!" Saliman answered. "We don't know how the Song works, how exactly it is meant to bring down Sharma. We can't just let you go off to the Nameless One's dungeons, he could - "
"He could imprison you for months," Cadvan interrupted quietly. "At the very least. Or he could torture you. Or he could just outright kill you, and solve all his problems."
Maerad stared down at Cadvan, who paused, then looked up and met her eyes stubbornly. She knew, quite suddenly, that she did not have his vote in her decision. There was nothing in the world that would make him give her to the Dark, nothing, not even the ruin of an entire city. She felt both touched and furious by this.
She tore her gaze away from him and continued her argument.
"Look," she said firmly. "As far as I'm concerned, this isn't even your choice to make. It involves me, it's about me, therefore it's my choice. And I choose to go to them and to save Til Amon doing so. You all agree that Til Amon wouldn't be able to defend itself against what's out there, so I'm giving you the easy way out. I'm going to the Dark, because I know that if I didn't and Til Amon fell, I would never be able to stop blaming myself. It's one life or many. I might be the Chosen One, but I am not any more important than anyone else here in this city."
"You are to the Light," Cadvan said simply. There was a silence, in which everyone knew he was adding in his mind: And to me.
Maerad paused, but didn't look at him, instead glowering at the table in thought. Eventually she spoke, glancing back up at them all around the table with tears glistening in her sky blue eyes.
"I'm not just doing this for Til Amon," she said. "I'm doing this for me. I'm being selfish and I'm doing the noble thing because it makes me feel better. I don't want any more deaths on my behalf. There have been enough, and I want to put an end to it now." She bit her lip, then finished. "I've made your choice for you. I'm going to the Dark. Nothing you can say will change my mind."
Maerad missed dinner that evening, mostly to pack but actually to avoid all those downstairs who she knew loved her and so would endeavour to stop her doing what she knew she must. She had said at the meeting nothing you can say will change my mind…but she knew truly that there were things that could be said which would…After all, she was just like everyone else in one thing - she did not want to die.
She sat in her room and stared at her reflection in the mirror blankly.
I don't have to do this.
"You don't have to do this."
The voice came from behind; Maerad glanced up at the mirror and saw the reflected image of Cadvan in the doorway. She refused to turn around, instead demurely lowering her eyes to the desk in front of her, fiddling with her hairbrush. She tried to keep her mind in order, though her heart was thumping; how had he known exactly what she was thinking?
"But I do," she said eventually, in a calm tone, waiting for him to start shouting.
There was silence.
She heard him take a soft step into the room, then three more, then felt his hand, very gently, touch her shoulder. She looked back up into the mirror and saw him there, just standing, just standing with his hand on her shoulder, his face lined with sadness and worry. An enormous affection overwhelmed her, washing out the previous fury, and she spun around on her stool and stood up to face him.
"You needn't think I'm not scared," she found herself crying. "Because I am, I am - "
Cadvan leaned forward and drew her into a tight, soundless embrace, and for a moment they stood there silently, Maerad burying her face into his shirt, Cadvan holding onto her with his eyes closed and the terrible sadness still written on his face.
"I just wish," Maerad said finally, her voice muffled, "That you understood."
"I do," he answered. "I do understand. That doesn't mean I like it."
He drew back and took her by the shoulders and looked her straight in the eyes.
"You don't have to do this," he said again, more firmly this time, but still with his gentle tone that he always used when talking to Maerad. "Every person in Til Amon would be glad to fight for the Light - they would die for the Light if need be. And they all want to protect you - you're the best hope for the Light, the Chosen One - "
"I know, I know!" Maerad broke away and turned her back on him, for a moment biting her lip in agony. There was a small pause, then she said in a cracked voice, "But what kind of Chosen One would I be if I didn't help the people who believe in the very thing I'm trying to save? If I just stood back and let them die? How is that helping the Light really?"
She turned fiercely back around with tears in her eyes to see his reaction, expecting him to come back with another argument, but his face had changed; the sadness had deepened but there was a small resigned air about it also.
"I just don't want to lose you again," he said simply.
"As far as I can see it, there's no other way," Maerad answered just as plainly. "There's no choice for me to make. There's no way out."
They stared at each other silently, hopelessly; there must have been only two feet between them, yet Maerad felt as though it was two leagues. He understood, she knew, but he just did not want to lose her again - not like he had before. And she could understand that because she was feeling exactly the same thing herself. It was just that her desire to the do the right thing for once far outweighed this feeling. It must have been like this for Cadvan when he left Nerili that first time, she thought involuntarily. He didn't want to leave her but he had a higher duty to perform.
But I don't think he loved her as much as I love him.
She said nothing of this; she could not, she would probably never. Instead she said a little unsteadily,
"I don't want any more deaths. They - they blacken me."
"I know," he answered quietly.
"And - and - " She was filled now with the desperate desire to explain herself, to explain her choice, even though he'd said he understood. "And I need to do this, I need to, I couldn't bear the guilt if I didn't - "
There was another small, sad silence. Maerad could see on his face that Cadvan had given up, and it shot like an arrow straight through her heart.
"I'm sorry," she whispered.
"Don't be," he answered firmly. "You are making this decision because it is who you are. And if you weren't who you are, I wouldn't - love you."
She glanced up; their gazes met. A twisting, tightening lump formed in Maerad's throat, choking out the response which she longed to utter. She could not speak - there was too much emotion inside her for her to drag out the words - so instead she stepped forward, closing the gap between them, and lightly laid her head to rest on his shoulder. She felt him shift and in turn rest his chin on the top of her head.
"Oh, Maerad," he whispered into her hair, and then neither spoke a word more.
I know, I know, it's dreadful to leave it there! If you have any suggestions about how I could further it, I'll gladly take them into consideration!! (Hint, hint) :P