A cacophonous bell tolled in the yard and echoed through the slaves' quarters. It was the onset of another tiresome day, complete with a thunderous rainstorm shrouding Gilman's Cot from the sun. During the night, the dirt floor of the lean-to had morphed into a sea of mud. Maerad had awoken to set her feet down into the cold concoction of earth, and grumbled. She couldn't remember the last time she had been clean. With what little energy she could muster, Maerad trudged out of the ramshackle hut to find even more filth as she made her towards the barn. She stopped momentarily outside its hinged doors, to watch the fresh rain water collect in a nearby trough. She looked around; no one stirred in the barnyard. Taking her chances, she approached the box. She cupped the cold water with her small, worn hands, and splashed it over her face. Rivulets of itchy grime slid from her cheeks into the browning liquid below. If she had had the time, Maerad would've jumped into the basin and washed herself clean, but personal time was never given to the workers.

"One day I will be free of this place," she told herself. "Even if its through my own death- I will not be stuck here forever." Straightening her back, Maerad entered the cow byre, unaware that her freedom waited in the hands of a stranger that lurked there.

"Time to wake up, dear," someone's voice filtered into perception.

Maerad realized she had been dreaming when she opened her eyes and beheld the whitewashed ceilings. The smell of the lupine spikes outside her window bathed her cheeks with a delightful aroma. She sighed with great relief, and didn't bother to sit up. She was perfectly content to lay there, and waste the day away.

"Didn't sleep well, did you?" A soft voice echoed across the room. Maerad watched the dark haired woman pull on the fabric shades, and mumbled a faint protest when light flooded into the dark room.

"It's still early, Silvia. Let me sleep a bit longer," Maerad said, tugging a misplaced sheet over her face.

"Maerad, it's nearly noon!" Silvia exclaimed. "Besides, I'm sure you would like to make the most of it. It is gorgeous outside!"

Maerad rolled her eyes, and blinked before sitting up. "It hasn't been this warm in a long time," she observed.

"Indeed it hasn't. Here are your clothes, Maerad. I'll meet you downstairs."

Maerad made no movement to fix the thin nightgown that had fallen off her shoulder during her aggravated sleep. Instead, she waited for Silvia to leave before changing into a blue dress set aside for her. She savored the perfumed air as she braided her hair back, disheartened when she opened the door and left her refuge.

It didn't take Maerad long to navigate her way to the kitchens. She had been in Innail for over two moons, studying and learning, while Cadvan had been away. During that time, she had mentally noted the quickest routes through the winding corridors. It certainly helped being timely; Indik was rather displeased when she arrived belated to her fighting lessons. Even though the worst threat to Annar and the Seven Kingdoms had been defeated, Indik counted it wise to continue learning. "You never know when you might have to use your sword, and it'll be in that moment that you'll thank me for continuing your lessons, young mage."

Luckily she didn't have lessons today; the entire school was in a frenzy, readying for the Meet. She passed many Bards in the hallways before she beheld Hem eating, Irk perched faithfully on his shoulder. Maerad roughed her brother's messy hair, and sat down beside him. His devotion to his meal made her grin, even more so when she watched Irk try to steal it.

"Nothing would stop you two from eating, would it Hem?" she laughed. Hem snickered at the comment but did not dwell on her words. He continued to eat his tangerine, placing a few pieces aside for Irk to peck at.

Maerad turned to Silvia who seemed disinterested in the conversation of her husband and Saliman. "Perhaps you and I could go to the market?" she asked, seeing a spark of interest catch in Silvia's warm eyes.

"Yes, that would be lovely!" Silvia replied. "But first, you need to eat something." She poured a glass of Innail's finest wine and offered it to her.

"No thank you," Maerad waved her hands. "I'm not exactly desiring wine, but thank you nonetheless."

A look of curiosity flashed across Silvia's face until she shrugged and replaced the glass on the table. "As you wish."

Maerad reached over and grabbed a piece of fruit from the bowl Hem had confiscated. She ate it gingerly, savoring its taste as she watched him eat his own fare. After a lifetime in an orphanage, full of empty hopes and promises, the boy seemed content. He was no longer they whimpering child Cadvan and she had found. Instead, he was growing quickly into a young man, one that had already displayed his courage and valor. "Do you want to come to the market with us, Hem?"

He shook his head no. "I am to help Saliman prepare for the Meet." The grin on his face made Maerad wonder what he was really up to, but she didn't ask. Whatever he decided to do, she knew he wouldn't be a foolish.

o-0-o

The market was an entity in itself; it thrived off the people who frequented it, becoming busier as the days grew longer and the nights grew warmer. It was located in the very heart of Innail, constantly beating to the tune of the Bards who sold their crafts there. To Maerad, it represented the best of life, in all its puzzling thoughts, tastes, and smells; of people coming together to celebrate bountiful harvests.

The duo passed a line of stalls containing over-ripe melons from the Suderain, and fresh meats chilled with ice blocks that had been inserted into the cut out holes beneath the tops of the wooden stands. Others held live chickens in small cages, and the best crops in heaping tiers of thatched baskets.

It became increasingly apparent to Maerad that each vendor had a unique product that no other carried. She wondered how it was possible, as the market contained hundreds of sellers from every region of Edil-Amarandh. She guessed that it was a fair trade rule governing the market, but she didn't ask Silvia about it.

Finally, they reached a new brand of goods from far away lands, said to be enchanted with spells beyond common knowledge. The idea of such goods fascinated Maerad; she fondled the knickknacks she came across, intrigued by their foreign markings.

"You have a touch of destiny about you," a tall woman noted. Maerad looked up into the woman's eyes. "I see you like my goods."

Maerad paused in her response; the woman looked strangely familiar."Yes, I do. How are such things made?" Maerad asked curiously, thumbing a smooth pendant that had been fashioned into a necklace.

"That which you hold is made of whale bone," she spoke in a thick accent. "The whale is harvested and then the bone is sanded into this." She motioned to the other necklaces on display.

"Whale," Maerad repeated, curious as to what a whale looked like. She had seen many creatures in the time since escaping the Cot, but never a whale. She had to figure they were a strange animal, one from great lore or the sort by the way the woman spoke.

"I must prepare for the Meet tonight, Maerad. I'll meet you back inside," Silvia said, bidding the two women farewell.

"A meet? I thought Cadvan left for a Meet in Norloch?" Maerad questioned.

"Yes, but we've decided to throw politics aside and rejoice. He should be arriving later this afternoon. Have you received no correspondence from him?" Silvia asked, setting her hands on her hips in candid disapproval.

"No, I have not."

"Well, I shall make it a point to tell him just how rude that is!" Silvia exclaimed, shaking her head. She left Maerad standing with the shopkeeper. Maerad went to tell Silvia not to mention anything, but the woman broke in.

"I knew it was you," she said with such depth that it frightened Maerad. "The foretold," the woman said in a hushed voice, so that none would overhear. "Please come with me." The woman grabbed Maerad's wrist and led her behind the stand and into a tent made of rich linens.

Inside the pavilion burned sticks of incense, spicy aromas that enticed one's senses. "Sit down," the woman said, and offered a chair.

"What do you want?" Maerad tried to remain polite.

"Calm down, I am not going to hurt you," the woman clicking her tongue as she found her own seat. "I must ask you a great favor."

"A favor of me?" Maerad wondered she could possibly offer the woman.

She took Maerad's hand and placed it on her stomach. "I have heard you are a woman of great wonder. Stories of your feats have travelled even to the southern most of Islands in the Western Sea. I wish for you to bless the twins I carry."

Maerad felt uneasy talking so intimately with this stranger; as if reading her mind, the woman cleared her throat. "You are young, but I know this- you shall find a man, I can feel it, if you have not found 'im already. You will understand things when you grow older."

A thousand thoughts raced through her head as Maerad contemplated the woman. She didn't even know her name, yet had a strange effect on her. It was as if the woman knew things that even Maerad did not know about herself. She drew her hand away, tracing the scar where her fingers once existed. "Are you a fortune teller?" she asked finally.

"I am many things," the woman narrowed her eyes. "I shall read you your future, if you bless my children," she offered.

"I don't…I don't want to know my future," Maerad said honestly. "There are things that I would rather not see. I shall bless your children, though I do not know how."

"The man from Lirigon is on your mind," she said, shifting her weight in the small chair. The light reflected off her dark skin, and Maerad mirrored the motion in discomfort. "Perhaps after you see him again, you can help me, hmm?"

"How do you know my thoughts?" Maerad shouted, standing up. "Stop scrying me!" she demanded, her anger overcoming her rational self.

"I am not scrying you. I can see it in your face," the woman said calmly, no trace of displeasure in her voice. "You should learn to control your emotions, young Bard. Perhaps then you could see clearly." She reached for a leather bag in the corner of the small enclosure. "This is for you. Open it only after you know what you must do."

"What?" Maerad asked hurriedly, annoyed at the woman's riddles. "I do not want a gift."

The woman eyed her for a moment. "But you have a gift, nonetheless," the woman replied. "One day you will you understand it."

Maerad hesitantly took the bag, wondering what treasure lay beneath the thick cloth. The woman opened the door flap, allowing Maerad to step back into the streets where the sun nearly blinded her. Before leaving Maerad turned to the woman, who was already busy reorganizing her display.

"What is it like?" she asked quietly.

"It is a wonderful feelin'," the woman answered, smiling brightly.

o-0-o

Maerad exited the market, thankful to escaping its chaos, although within her heart, she pondered what the woman had said. What must I do?Shaking her head, she ignored the cries for help floating from the kitchen where dozens of Bards slaved over dinner. She made her way to the main gate, and perched herself there, waiting patiently until she spotted a dark rider on the horizon. Smiling, she ran towards him.