NB: New fic! I do seem to churn them out, don't I? This is the story of the end, and the last choice that Maerad needs to make. I don't own anyone or anything or any ideas. This annoys me, so please take pity on me and review so that I feel better…(smiles ingratiatingly)

THERE IS ALWAYS A CHOICE

What goes around will come around,

Don't deny your fears.

So let them go and fade into light.

Give up the fight here.

- Chasing The Dragon, Epica

And so it was over.

The Song had been sung, Sharma defeated, the Hulls overthrown and Edil-Amarandh once more in balance. The great hall of the Iron Tower was filled with the golden light of a new, hopeful dawn, light that streamed through the cracked and half fallen walls and spilled dizzily onto the faces of Maerad, Cadvan, Hem and Saliman; four lone survivors standing amongst the rubble and ashes of the Hulls, watching as Arkan, Ardina and Nyanar approached from the other end of the hall, through the dust and smoke and shining golden light.

The Elidhu bore a strong contrast to the Bards even in this effortless ethereal light; they seemed perfect, untouched by the grime and exhaustion that lay heavy in the air, radiant with the starlight that the Song had once more awoken in them, striding like newly born angels through the silvery-gold room. The Bards were the antithesis of such beauty; they were filthy, and so weary that their faces were pale even under the grey-green mixture of ash and dust that smothered their skin. Cadvan had a large cut to his arm – a parting gift from Imank, Sharma's favourite Hull – and was clutching a dirty rag to it, blood falling in great, steady crimson drops to the dust-smothered floor. Hem was so exhausted that he had to lean against Saliman to stay upright.

But it was over. It was over now. And no matter how wearied they were, all four Bards stood proudly in the face of this realisation.

The three Elidhu stopped ten feet away from the Bards and bowed as one to the trembling, dust-streaked Maerad.

"We thank you, daughter," Ardina said with proper authority. "You have restored the Balance to Edil-Amarandh and the Song to the Elidhu. You have worked hard to save both Bards and Elidhu from their own short-sightedness, and we shall be forever in your debt."

Maerad managed an answering bow despite her limbs shaking with strain and shock.

"I thank you also," she murmured. "If the three of you had not arrived when you did and had not lent me your powers, I would definitely have died. I am glad you have your Song back."

She did not look over to the dais at the far end of the room, where the broken shards of her lyre now lay dull and dust and useless. She knew she would not be able to keep her composure if she did.

"Ah, my daughter." Ardina, momentarily dropping the formality, closed the distance between them and took Maerad's hands, pressing a kiss to her pale forehead with shining silver lips.

You did well, she said privately in Maerad's head. But I think you have one more trial ahead of you.

Maerad blinked in confusion and stared silently up at Ardina, the question arrested on her lips. Ardina smiled gently, radiant in her own silver moonlight.

The trial of the heart, my daughter, she said. The Way of the Heart.

She let go of Maerad's loose hands and bowed past her to the other three Bards whilst Maerad dithered, confused by her words.

"I thank you for the courage that you and your people showed in this final battle," Ardina said with all the royalty of a queen. "I shall never forget it. You would be welcomed in Rachida any time."

"We are grateful for your thanks, Ardina, Child of the Moon," Cadvan replied with proper respect. "Such an honour will forever lighten our hearts. But what will you do now?"

"I shall return to Rachida," Ardina answered promptly. "There is much work to be done; a town to be rebuilt and beliefs to be challenged. Perhaps it is not such a good idea to keep Rachida so hidden from the world any longer. Perhaps my people need more freedom, as beautiful as the place is. The world is stronger now. The world is brighter now. My people deserve the chance to discover it for themselves, as I have."

She paused.

"Whatever is decided, I will stay there," she said, then added more quietly, "It is my home." She glanced sharply at Maerad with deep fey eyes. "Home is very important, my daughter. It would be as well for you to remember that."

Maerad opened her mouth, but found she had nothing to say to that riddle-filled speech. Ardina smiled at her for the last time and moved away into the empty space between Bard and Elidhu.

"All you need do is call, my daughter," she finalised. "This is not goodbye. Never goodbye."

And then she was gone, in a flash of startling silver starlight, leaving Maerad with a strange sense of loneliness and unease at the Elidhu's words.

Nyanar bowed to the company.

"I must take my leave of you also," he stated. "But I shall see you again, Hem. Deep in your dreams."

"Yes," Hem croaked through dust-lined lungs. "Yes." And then Nyanar, too, had vanished.

And so now only Arkan was left.

Maerad looked up at him, at his young face with its ancient gaze, at his sensual mouth, and realised that her own was completely dry. She suddenly had no idea what to say; she could only stare into his ice-blue gaze as if he had just fallen out of the sky like snow.

He jerked his head at an angle, indicating that they should walk a little way apart from the rest of the Bards, and she obeyed, following him to the other end of the hall.

She could feel Cadvan's eyes on her, but he did nothing to stop her.

They reached the end of the hall, where Arkan paused, then turned abruptly to look at her, surveying her with his wild gripping gaze.

"That was an honourable thing you did, Elednor," he said, her Name flowing like mountain spring water across his tongue. She felt the faint, familiar pull of his magic on hers, and swallowed, trying to fight down her desire.

"I did what I had to," she responded quietly.

He nodded over to the dais.

"I know that your lyre was precious to you."

Maerad felt tears spring to her eyes and could only nod to this, overwhelmed by her own emotion.

His hands moved forward and clasped hers, colder than the deepest artic ice, both thrilling and numbing her veins with his touch.

"I must return to the Ice Palace," he said. "I have been away for too long. But before I do so, I wish to make a request of you."

Maerad looked up at him soundlessly, suddenly fearing what she might hear next.

"Come with me," he said. "Come with me to the Ice Palace and be my queen, just as I wanted before. Come with me and be my love."

Maerad stared, her heart pounding, her pulse throbbing in her throat, her hands cold, oh so cold, in his. She was now quite unable to say a word; she simply gawked at Arkan in complete astonishment.

He took in her shock with ease.

"I love you," he said simply. "You are the Fire that thaws the Ice in me. You are the day to my night. Come to the Ice Palace and be my queen, and I shall honour you as a goddess. Nothing – not even the snow or the feel of the mountain breeze – shall have precedence over you. I shall show you sights that you could never have imagined, I shall make you feel what you never thought you could feel. Your every wish shall be my command, your every word shall be a drop of water in a desert for me."

His tone turned into a seductive growl, as smooth as snow falling onto her enchanted, upturned face. "Caves of light," he tempted silkily. "Whole cities of ice, brighter than the brightest diamonds, reflecting the winter sun in a thousand million tiny rainbows. The song of the winter breeze, the eternal groan of age-old mountain caves, the whisper of the deepest ice. The pulse of the glaciers, the rhythm of the snow, the poetry of the frost. The smell of the dawn breaking over the highest mountain tops, the taste of the true immortality of the winter sky. I can show all of this to you, Elednor, and more – and so much more – oh, how much more I could show you - if you consent to stay with me for all eternity and be my love."

Maerad stood, entranced by his words, her blue eyes glassy with desire as she stared into his deep fey gaze, her hands now blocks of ice, trapped in the clasp of his own white, spider-like fingers. A billion images moved through her head as she spoke at each second, each image more hauntingly beautiful than the last, until the sights were so truly magnificent that she thought she would cry for the ache they released inside her.

But Arkan refused to stop there.

"I shall make you feel lust like you have never felt before," he continued, and let go of one of her hands to trail one long, slender finger down her jaw line, passing it across her trembling lips and dropping it down the curve of her ivory neck. She felt herself arching towards him, struck by her passion, the Elidhu part of her both singing and wailing at his touch, her throat raw and dry.

"I shall make you feel – so much," he murmured, drawing his finger along her shoulder and across the nape of her neck. "I shall make you feel more than you could ever feel with a mortal. I can drown you in desire, I can create images within you that can become reality and make you forget entirely what you are. I can bring you to the brink of madness and wrap you in my cold passion as you teeter on its edge. You know I can do it, Elednor Edil-Amarandh na."

His voice roused every atom of Elidhu within Maerad, electrifying every part of her, bringing her into a new life, a new life, she thought, a new, strange, passionate life...if he stayed touching her for a moment more, she was going to forget all she ever discovered about herself, she knew. She was going to fall forever into that dark ice…

But he moved away. His hands moved away from her, leaving her skin screaming for his touch, and he took one step back, letting her recover herself whilst his eyes sparked alight with dark fire. She stood, breathing heavily, unable to match his powerful gaze, her whole body trembling with desire and her mouth completely dry.

"What do you choose, Elednor?" he asked in a clear voice, each syllable ringing with finality. "What is your choice?"

For a moment, Maerad's only desire was to fling herself at him, to fall, to drown in that icy electric touch. But then, quite unbidden, the faces of Cadvan, of Hem, of Saliman, of all those she loved and who loved her back, rose in her mind like a blooming flower and quelled her instinct almost effortlessly. She caught her breath in shock, her mind whirling the images round and round and round in a black tornado of confusion, and stood very, very still.

She remembered what Ardina had said: you have one more trial ahead of you. And here it was. The final trial, and it was the trial of her future. She had separate selves, and they all wanted a different future. The Elidhu self wanted to go with the Winterking, to be his queen, to burn at his cold touch. The Bard self wanted to go to a School, to be properly educated, to learn in safety and security for the rest of her days. And the human self…

The human self just wanted to go home.

But I have no home, she thought. I am as free and as wild as an Elidhu. Would home only be a cage for me? But Ardina has Rachida as a home, even Arkan has his Ice Palace as a home. Even the Elidhu, the most wild creatures in this land, need a home.

Everyone has a home but me.

Quite on instinct, she found herself glancing sidelong down to the hall, and to where the three wearied Bards stood, watching in silence. She found herself staring at Cadvan's face, once more studying the familiar angles of his features, those high cheek bones, those firm, full lips, those dark caring eyes. She stared and stared at his pale, exhausted, grave face and thought: I do have a home. There is my home.

And then her eyes met Cadvan's – blue, like Arkan's, but warm, protective, tender – and she realised that he knew exactly what she was thinking, he knew the choice she was now faced with. And she knew that he would not hinder her choice in any way, he would do nothing to stop her making her decision, he would not influence her, he would not make it harder for her. If she wanted to go with the Winterking then he would let her go. But he still could not stop his yearning from showing in his gaze, like a hot blue flame in the centre of each eyes, nor his fear, blazing dark in the background.

And then there was Hem. There was Hem – her brother, her kin, her own flesh and blood – and Saliman, and Silvia, and Malgorn, and all those friends she had made throughout the entire struggle. If she went with Arkan, she would never see any of them again. She would never see anyone again. It would just be Arkan and the mountains and the cold and the passion. She would be in that Palace for eternity, lost in her desire, until she died, or worse, became immortal, and watched everything else fritter freely away into death before her.

If she went with Arkan, she would have a life filled with wonders and desires that many people spent their entire lives longing for and never obtained by even a quarter. If she did not go with Arkan, then she would have normality. She would have an ordinary life, a dull, comfortable, loved life. Yes, she thought. She would have a life filled with love. Not a life of desire, of pure, roaring lust, but a life of steady, loyal, plain love.

And all she had ever wanted…throughout all of this…was a normal life.

Home is very important, Ardina had said. And now it was time for Maerad to choose her home.

She looked away from Cadvan, and back at Arkan, but strangely the scorching cold eyes sent no thrill up her spine this time. They looked suddenly alien, remote, distant. Really not very much to do with her at all.

She made her choice. She overcame her final trial.

"I cannot go with you, Arkan," she said steadily. "I cannot be your queen."

His face showed no reaction, but the cold fire in his eyes dimmed slightly, and she thought she saw the tiniest hint of loneliness there, the loneliness that she would abandon him to, the loneliness of spending eternity upon eternity encased in pure, unfeeling ice.

"Why not?" he asked easily.

She took a deep breath, searching for the words to explain her feelings.

"I am Elednor," she said. "But I am also Maerad. I am Bardic as well as Elidhu. You have forgotten that. I have the wildness of an Elidhu as well as the timidity of a human. I have both a longing for freedom and a longing for home. I am both and so I am neither. And I want to go home." She felt a deep sorrow push against her throat, and swallowed it down, continuing her speech.

"My home is not with you, Arkan. I do not doubt that life with you would be exciting, and thrilling, and wondrous, but I find I do not desire a life like that. I know many would, but I do not. I want a life of learning, of boredom, of responsibilities, of frustration. My yearning for home is tied into the Bardic part of me, and the Bard wants a School, and friends, and love."

"I can offer you love," Arkan pointed out.

"Yes, but an Elidhu love," she said, smiling a little sadly. "A love of deep passions and overwhelming desires. A love that one falls into like a cold, raging river and has equally as much chance of escaping. I'm sure it is a love that many would die for. But I need a normal love, a human love. A steady, warm, tender love. The sort of love that is a bridge across that wild, raging river. And you cannot give me that."

She instinctively glanced across at Cadvan, who stood as still as tree, and Arkan caught the quick look.

"I see," he said, slightly coldly. "You have another love." He paused, then added thoughtfully, "Perhaps a deeper love than I could offer."

She gazed back at him pain in her eyes.

"It's not just him," she said. "It's Hem. It's my friends. I have duties, I have things I want to do, I have people I want to see every day. I do not wish to stay in your Palace. It would be a cage – a marvellous, dream-like cage, a cage full of passions – but still a cage. And so…and so I cannot go with you."

He nodded slowly, pensively. She finished off her Speech as steadily as she could, though the Elidhu within her was weeping tears as bitter as poison.

"I cannot say that I will not regret my decision sometimes, at some moments, because I will. And I shall miss you – the Elidhu part of me shall always ache for you. But I have made my choice. I will not unmake it. I choose a normal life. A life without you."

Arkan nodded again, his blue gaze still thoughtful…and still lonely.

"I cannot say that it does not grieve me," he said at last. "Because it does. I cannot say that I understand your choice, because I do not. For me, nothing is more wonderful than the song of the snow and the thrill of the ice. Yet I still feel that somehow you make the right choice." He looked over to where Cadvan was standing and said quietly, almost mournfully, "He will love you as I could not."

He turned his alien gaze back to Maerad again, eyes once more aflame with a deep desire.

"I shall wait for you," he said. "And if ever you change your mind, if ever the Elidhu within you yearns for the delights of the Ice Palace, all you need do is call, and my heart shall hear you. I shall always listen for your call, Elednor. I have an eternity to listen." He blinked once, and again she saw that deep loneliness, and it seemed to scrape at a raw place inside her. Then it was gone, and he bowed.

"But for now, Elednor Edil-Amarandh na, I leave you to your normal life. And live it well in remembering this – it is the one thing I could never have."

And then he melted from her sight, like ice before a determined fire, leaving only golden light and her alone, the Elidhu inside her crying out with pure, deep grief.

The dawn sunlight had grown stronger in its brilliance, mixing with the dust in the air to create a haze of glittering gold. Maerad stood at the end of the hall amongst the ruins, bowed down with the weight of her sadness, the light gilding the edges of her profile so that she seemed to pulsate with a deep, steady aura, and the tears on her cheeks pooling down her face like molten gold drops.

There was a long silence, a silence in which nobody made a sound, in which the world forgot to be.

And then she heard footsteps. Cadvan's footsteps in fact, soft and slow, echoing around the silvery-gold hall as he approached her. She waited for him, for her new future, with her face still downcast.

He reached her and took her hands, and they were human; his touch on her fingers was more substantial than the Winterking's had been, and chased away the remnants of their icy encounter with his warmth. She raised her head to meet his gaze and saw tenderness there, and pity, and an indescribable light of joy that seemed almost as golden as the surrounding dawn itself.

"Home now?" he asked gently.

And suddenly, quite suddenly, at the sound of those that question, Maerad was certain that she had made the right choice. A quiet life, she thought. A normal, blissful life. With my friends. With my brother. With him. A life that I have earned.

A life with Cadvan.

She flashed him a full, shining, purely human smile.

"Home," she agreed. "Let's go home."

He reflected her illuminating smile like a mirror, and then led her by the hands away from the spot, away from Arkan, away from his pain, through the hall in all its natural golden finery and into a brand new, utterly normal and completely wonderful future.

And so it was over. Finally, quite, quite finally…all over.

END


I hope you liked it. I hope it made you wonder. Who would you have chosen, Arkan and his life of sensation or Cadvan and his life of normality?