Happy reading and thanks for your feedback! So excited to have finally finished this chapter!

~Eleve


~oOoOo~

It came as a relief to be free of the Healing houses and back in his own room. Cadvan was weary of people standing ready to jump should he make even a slight movement. Though he had tried to put those near him at ease in what ways he could, they had been apprehensive about having him there. Only near the end of his stay, two days after Maerad had visited him, had they relaxed a bit, but they still watched him constantly in case he should whisper something they might miss. It unnerved him to be surrounded by people who had no idea what had happened, either at the Meet or in Nenn, and had only vague rumors to supply their curiosity.

Cadvan now paused a moment, his hands moving to run along the base of his neck as the full weight of exhaustion settled over him like stone. His neck and shoulders were stiff and sore from being slouched over, holding his head in his palms as he wept more than he ever had or would ever admit. The shock of what had happened had not fully registered in his mind until Malgorn and Silvia's visit forever ingrained it there, just like today would. He winced at the memory of what the previous day had afforded him.

Today would provide no relief, either. It would crush him down. Batter him. Make his spirit ache in the way his back and neck did.

By the light, he winced, his head pounding.

It was a sound in the main doorway that made him turn, muscles tightening instinctively once again, even before he saw who stood there. He rose and inclined his head in a formal greeting. "Maerad."

"I'm ready if you are," she said quietly, a hint of nervousness evident in her voice.

He sat back down and closed his eyes briefly to regain his composure. He listened intently to the creaking of the closing door, the gentle swish of her dress against the floor as she crossed the room to join him, the soft rhythm her breathing settled into as she sat next to him. He shifted his position, his mouth tightening in a grimace of pain, and Maerad looked to the wound he'd taken to his forearm.

He'd been lucky, Maerad thought, to come through the battle with that his only wound. "Is it not healing? You don't look so well."

"Aye, it is healing well enough." He pulled up his sleeve and unraveled the bandage on his arm, to reveal the healing wound. He touched it lightly, as if testing the strength of the stitches and new skin that was forming there. He didn't bother mentioning his visit with Malgorn and Silvia the previous day; he'd have time to talk to her about it later, after the Council was finished and the stress of it over with. "It hasn't bled or wept any fluid, so I suppose I don't need bandages anymore. I mostly covered it so I didn't have to look at it."

"You should be able to play your lyre in no time, then," she then stated. "That is, if it doesn't hurt your arm too much, moving your muscles."

He nodded absent mindedly.

"I think I miss that the most - hearing music. Laughter." She glared heavily at her feet, transfixed on nothing in particular, deep in thought like he was.

Cadvan allowed himself a half-smile. Their friendship had once again taken up comfortable residence, although both still were healing from wounds unseen. He had been relieved when Anhil visited him the Healing Houses and updated him on Maerad's condition. She was not with child, as Nendir had assumed, and it had been a great relief to hear it. It seemed Maerad was relieved, too, although neither addressed the subject directly.

"I miss hearing your laugh," he said eventually. "You must promise me that after today, whatever happens, that you will learn to laugh again."

"Only if you promise to do it with me," she replied, looking over at him. She finally noticed the wetness on his face and with her sleeve attempted to dry his cheek. The gesture was not expected and at first it didn't seem to register in his expression, but moments later his mouth opened slightly and he averted his eyes. "Do you fear what will happen?" she asked gently when he sat mute for another long moment. "It seems you do not wish to speak with with me."

He shook his head. "You have done nothing wrong. I simply don't expect you to ever forgive me for what I have done; I will never forgive myself."

Maerad sighed. "I killed Ilar out of blind fury when I feared she would attack us, and yet you forgave me of that grave mistake. I would not hesitate in forgiving you of yours, either, Cadvan."

Cadvan remained silent for what seemed like an eternity, staring at her longer than was strictly necessary. He knew better than to relive past faults, and thus chose not to parry words with her. If she forgave him, it was more than he could have hoped for, but it did not change the feeling he had in his own heart. "I told you then that Bards do not kill others unless there is no other option. When you returned in the state you were in, I was angry with myself for letting you go, and I let that anger consume me...you were afraid, you still are. And yet in so many ways, you more courageous than many I've known, even above Oron or Silvia. Certainly above myself..."

"I will never be whole again and I doubt I am stronger than they are," Maerad admited. "I doubt I will ever be able to forget this pain and learn to love without fear." Maerad took his hands and gripped them tight. "But I promise to try. You are my best friend, Cadvan. I swear to you, I realize now, you would never hurt me. It takes courage to say what you have, and that's more than what I've done so far."

He resisted the urge to press her against him, to hold her tightly. He didn't want to. It felt wrong, and he felt dirty for even thinking it. Instead, he rested his chin atop her head, holding her like he might a sister.

His heart twisted and he whispered, "It's time."

~oOoOo~

When Maerad and Cadvan arrived in the Council Room, she was surprised to see there were a more than a dozen people who were clearly not Bards. She assumed they were the Stewards of Innail, made up of three men and two women, who worked in tandem with the other seven Bards in the First Circle to keep the lands in the Innail Fesse prosperous and governed. There were other Bards also, slightly familiar faces, including Anhil's present, watching them as they crossed the room. Their seats were arranged in a manner that was similar to an oval, with enough space for her and Cadvan to enter into the middle of the circle where there were a few empty seats. Cadvan looked at her as if he questioned the position of the chairs but said nothing as he lead her to those seats.

The people present stood as they entered, and sat as they took their places, all except Malgorn.

Maerad could feel her heart thumping wildly in her chest. "Please tell me we aren't to sit next to him," she asked Cadvan through Mind speech.

"I'm sure that isn't the intent, but I am unsure why he is not already present," he replied. "My Knowing tells me that something has happened."

Malgorn's voice disrupted their private conversation. "Welcome, Chamber of Bards and Stewards of Innail. Thank you for answering my call, as I realize this meeting is of an unusual nature."

He paused and looked slowly around the circle of Bards and stewards, meeting the eyes of each person present. "Bards of the First Circle, you know why I have called you here, as I have talked to all of you privately outside of this hall. What has happened deeply concerns all of us, but most of all those of you from the outlying towns around Innail, including Nenn, and that is why I asked you all to be present. With us today is Anhil of Gent, whom has been present for some time, along with other Bards from surrounding schools."

Maerad drew in a deep breath, nervously, as the people in the room nodded in greeting to one another. She realized quickly that Malgorn, with difficulty, was hiding the depth of his concern, his mouth drawn in a tight line.

"You are all aware now that Maerad was attacked in Nenn." Here Maerad sat up straighter. "It was revealed that she had been violated in this attack by a man named Aiden, and returned here a shade of her former self. She sustained injuries on her way back from Nenn as a result of fleeing from Nenn. Am I correct so far, Maerad?"

She nodded, keeping her eyes fixed on her hands folded in her lap. "Yes."

"Upon hearing of what had happened, Cadvan of Lirigon set up to avenge her, and bring to justice the man who caused this, only to mistakenly attack and kill his Cousin, Cyril."

A few whispers filled the room. Maerad felt her gut wrench and thought she would vomit the further Malgorn's explanation carried on. "Having discussed this matter with Cadvan and with the Healer, it was believed that Maerad was with child, which further fueled Cadvan's rage. However, the Healer has confirmed this is no longer of issue."

There was an audible gasp of dismay from around the room, and Maerad and Cadvan's eyes met. He looked saddened, not shocked, that Malgorn had mentioned this; she suspected he knew this would be said already. As she looked away, she found herself unable to meet the heavy gazes of the people around her. Although she was grateful for having been spared the burden of explaining what happened, she felt like she had been robbed further of her dignity; it had happened to her, and it was her responsibility to share it if she chose. She realized with a heavy conscience, that Malgorn had arranged this in such a way as to prevent her from having to speak, speaking himself so quickly that she had little time to ask Cadvan anything that had been mentioned or to organize her thoughts.

Malgorn continued. "Innail and its lands are all subject to Bardic law, which would now dictate that for their crimes, both Cadvan and Aiden face punishment."

An unknown man with flaming red hair leaped out of his chair, his mouth open and ready to speak, but Silvia held her hand up to indicate Malgorn wasn't finished, and he slowly sat down.

"Moreover, given the degree of the crime committed by Aiden upon Maerad, it would be the duty of this council to decide whether or not he has forfeit his life. However…" Malgorn paused and both he and Silvia met Maerad's faltering gaze, "Upon scrying him, his mind unraveled. He was found this morning, dead in the cell in which he was placed."

The final statement nearly caused a riot. Almost everyone in the room stood up and started shouting, both cheers of victory against the attacker and against the lack of action against Cadvan for Cyril's death. The only two who remained seated were Cadvan and Maerad who sat in shocked silence, both comtemplating what the man's death meant.

"He is dead?" Maerad exclaimed. Cadvan did not answer.

Silvia again raised her hand, and her voice rang out over the room. "It is impossible to try a dead man or to discern any further information from those most involved in this situation. Malgorn, myself, as well as other members of this Council were present during this man's scrying; there is little doubt about the sickness we found in the dark recesses of his mind. As for Cadvan, he agreed yesterday to allow Malgorn to scry him as well, to fully understand the events that unfolded. We have little doubt in our minds that Cadvan is guilty of a tragic accident, but has suffered enough from those actions."

Maerad felt tendrils of sympathy stretch around her chest. She knew the pain that scrying caused, and wondered if that was why Cadvan had been so distant in their conversation earlier. She longed to reach out to him, so that he would know she understood why he was so distant, that she understood why he was so quiet, but she realized that it probably caused him additional pain when she touched his mind with hers. Even her own mind was reeling, hearing the news of Adian's death. A darkness in her own mind relished in the knowledge of his demise, but another part pitied the man - he had obviously been very sick.

Frowing she listened to the wrathful murmur around the table. The red haired man stood again, his eyes flashing. He was mid-aged at most, a dark, barrel-chested man with a heavy-jawed face shadowed by a stubble beard and a small, piercing dark eyes. "If Cadvan is Maerad's mentor, surely there is Bardic law that dictates the punishment for his actions."

Malgorn nodded. He was about to speak when Anhil raised his voice. "Prior to the events that unfolded with Cadvan, I agreed to help teach her, effectively making me her mentor and not Cadvan."

"You swore no oath as her teacher," the man retorted. "Cadvan did. At least this is what the members of the First Circle have informed me."

"Indeed he did, Steward, but when Maerad was instated as a full Bard, his responsibility over her was no longer binding. It was out of friendship and in the interests of the Light that he continued to teach her, just as I have chosen to do. Therefore, he cannot face punishment as her sole mentor or any law that pertains to it."

Everyone sat in tense silence. Maerad stared at the man steadily. She ignored Cadvan's request to keep silent. "I know Cadvan better than you. I have traveled with him for the past year; he has saved many lives, including my own. I would not be alive without him, nor would I have been rescued from Gilman's Cot. The Singing would not have happened, and Sharma would still rule these lands."

The man's manner was stiff, as though he spoke respectfully with an effort, "My lady, I mean you no insult. We all know you have seen much in your short life and fought nobly in the name of the Light. But it's in the name of the Light that he must be punished, since he quite clearly sides with the Dark more often that not!" He sat down truculently, having banged his fist against the arm of his chair. "You were not even a thought when he commited a similar offense. He was granted forgiveness then, and look what it has lead to - the death of an innocent man, one whom brought Nenn income. He has harmed many by his actions, and we cannot afford for this to happen again."

Cadvan and Anhil stood simultaenously; Cadvan was able to mask his anger quite well, Maerad thought, but Anhil glared at the man with obvious disdain. "I would advise, master Thendel, that you realize that accusation you have just laid out."

Maerad forced herself to sit still, telling herself that she would jeopardize the fragile case her friends were constructing in her and Cadvan's favor. She had drawn all eyes to her in the previous public setting, and didn't want that embarrassment again nor did she think she could speak to Cadvan's previous crime. The man was right, she hadn't been there. And you weren't there, either, when he killed Cyril, she reminded herself.

Still, she gritted her teeth and clenched her hands, listening and watching Anhil's eyes, almost golden in the light of the Council chamber, sweep across the room like those of a falcon or hawk. "You claim that Cadvan sides with the Dark and yet you eagerly overlook Maerad's rescue her from imprisonment. Did he not school her and did he not protect the First Bards of this school from the Hulls that took the life of my brother? He has reunited Maerad with the only member of her family left living, and traveled with her for the last year in an attempt to destroy the very master of the Dark you claim he follows. Tell me, Thendel, were you there, when Maerad and her brother destroyed Sharma? It does not do well to speak of someone who delivered you from almost certain peril."

The hall erupted in conversation and Thendel raised his voice. "Who are you to speak, Anhil? You are not even a member of this Council. You have no say here."

"Nay, but my brother was. And in his stead, and in vouching for my own friends, I am here. I recognize the truth for what it is, and as a member of this council," he paused for emphasis, "so should you. Cadvan did commit a crime, but only in defense of the person he cares for most, the person who deserves that kind of protection. Would you do any different in his place?"

"Why does the lady say nothing?" a broad shouldered woman squawked. A few others nodded in agreement.

"Why must you speak for Cadvan? Why can he not answer for his own crimes?" another man asked.

Maerad's head was spinning with the chaos of the council. She saw Cadvan turn his gaze to a tall, gaunt man with a ring of wispy white hair around the base of his knobby skull. "Steward Callais, I do not believe that I have any words that would enhance what is already known regarding what happened in Nenn, nor do I wish Maerad to relive those moments," he said. "You have been told of what happened, and Malgorn has agreed to tell any of the people present here what was seen in my scrying. If you wish to bandy words, then hear this - perhaps if those governing Nenn took positive actions, people like Aiden wouldn't be in a position to cause such trouble".

The tall man lost what little color he had to begin with. "You dare accuse us of being at fault?"

Cadvan shrugged. "Your town has had peace and unity through this Council and the Bardic laws, despite this war against the Dark. While Maerad was away fighting for you and your people, you threw that unity aside for ambition, for naked greed. It was agreed upon that with the help of the Bards, you would maintain your village, and be prosperous. Had you kept your word, my cousin would not have been forced to pay a lowly wage to an even lower man so that he could travel elsewhere in order to maintain his household."

Before the Bard could retort, Silvia cut him off sharply. "This council was not called to discuss the affairs of Nenn and Innail's outlying lands, nor was it called to discuss matters already settled." Maeard was stunned by the serious tone of Silvia's voice. "Cadvan, the members of this council are aware that you went to Nenn and likely understand why you traveled there. However, for the purposes of this council, I want you to tell the members present one thing - why did you not come first to see Malgorn or myself? As First Bards, this matter could have been dealt with in an entirely different manner that would not have resulted in your cousin's death."

Maerad sat silently, wishing herself away from the room but knowing she needed to stay focused, even if the council itself was not. She felt Cadvan look upon her for a moment and then lifted his eyes towards Silvia. "I doubt that anyone, in a similar situation, would be able to let another fight in their stead for the person they love."

Maerad's heart skipped a beat. She felt her cheeks flush red as Malgorn looked at her, a certain look in his eyes that pitied her for having to stand through this questioning.

"So you claim that love blinded your reasoning?" Silvia asked.

She heard Cadvan swallow. "It was my own failure at protecting someone I love that blinded my reasoning. I spent the last year of my life traveling with this woman, protecting her from far more fearsome foes. If I had traveled with Maerad to Nenn, none of this would have happened. But alas, I did not, and I accept whatever decision this council comes to in regards to the punishment for the crime I have committed. I only ask that Maerad not be pitied for what has happened; she does not deserve that. She deserves respect and admiration for her courage and strength that many other Bards lack."

Overwhelmed and speechless, Maerad could feel the warning of tears filling her eyes. She knew that Cadvan cared for her, but loved her? Even after everything she had put him through?

Silence filled the hall for a long moment and Silvia seemed to digest what Cadvan had said. She leaned towards Malgorn and began talking to each other.

"What then becomes of him?" woman of the First Circle spoke up. The woman had sat silently throughout the noisy meeting, but now twisted around to better view of Council, Anhil in particular, whom sat to her left. "Surely we have been given enough evidence to judge this matter. Since you clearly have words in mind for us, brother of Dernhil, what are your thoughts?"

Anhil spoke up. "I would respectfully suggest, then, that judgment not be given by the members of this Council."

The woman raised her eyebrows. "By whom then should it be given?"

"By the person most affected by this entire ordeal, the one whom we all owe allegiance and trust. I believe she has earned the right to pardon someone whom she considers a dear friend after everything she has done in favor of the Light."

Everyone in the room turned towards her, their eyes stabbing her like tiny pins. Her heart raced and her mind went blank for a long moment, to a place where she thought she would never be able to leave - a place of silence and safety, far away from the judging eyes of the council. And then she heard again what Cadvan had said to her: What I hope you will heed, what I pray will carry you through this decision, is my counsel to listen to your heart.

Silvia spoke up gently. "You've been very quiet, my dearest Maerad. Think not that this is how most Council meetings commence, for many more words have been said today than necessary. We all agree to hear your opinion, should you wish to give it."

Time slowed. She heard the heavy breathing of the people around her, the scents of fear, annoyance, triumph, and grief mingled together in the close proximity of the room. She was vaguely aware of the hum of magery around her, and the tingling it sent up her spine with its knowledge.

"There is nothing to judge," she spoke finally. The entire room was still, the air tense. She turned to Cadvan, "You have committed no crime that you haven't already been punished for. You retained your honor by returning to Innail with your cousin and..." she hesistated. "And a criminal. You could have lied or been weak. But you were strong, stronger than I could ever hope to be. If the decision were to lie with me, Cadvan would be forgiven of his faults, just as I have been forgiven of all of mine." She took a deep breath to steady herself and bring back her composure. Surprisingly, she felt exhilarated; Cadvan had been right - the truth had set her free.

Cadvan searched her eyes as Malgorn addressed the other Council members, his words lost to both of their ears. In a single instant, a thousand moments were shared silently and Maerad remembered what she liked most about Cadvan - his smile, his kindness, his selflessness - all the things that she thought were impossible to receive from anyone, let alone a man. She knew then, that she would heal, and that as before, since the day they had met, he would help her and stand by her side, even if it meant harm to himself. She knew then that she didn't just like him. She loved him.

"Alas then, we come to it. It appears most are in favor of amnesty for Cadvan. Since Maerad is now a Full Bard, he cannot be held under Bardic Laws involving Mentoring. He is also Cyril's only family member left, so there is no one whom Cadvan could pay any service of debt to. Lastly..." he paused looking at them both. "I believe enough suffering has occurred because of this situation, and no good would come from punishing one whom has saved so many from almost certain death."

"What is his punishment to be then?" Thendel asked, visibly upset. A few other bards agreed. "As a steward of Nenn, I expect that my imput be weighed into consideration; we did not come here for nothing."

"I have agreed to swear before this Council that I will not take violent action against another individual...on pain of death," Cadvan stood, walking towards Silvia and Malgorn. "And I take this oath, as all of you bear witness."

His face seemed closed and Maerad wondered why as a light began to radiate around him. A moment of silence passed as Cadvan looked upon the pair, and she assumed they were communicating through Mind Speech. A moment later, she saw that he raised his hand, as did Silvia and Malgorn, and a brief flash of light filled the room as their hands met, blinding everyone watching. She heard Cadvan take a gasp, and she blinked furiously to clear her vision so she could better see what was happening.

"It is done," Silvia said softly into her Mind. "You and Cadvan may leave, dear one; I'll come see you later."

Cadvan returned to his place next to her, but did not sit. He remained standing and offered his hand. "Penance has been paid. Our presence here is no longer required; Malgorn will find us after it has ended"

"What happened?" she asked him. "What did they do?"

"I will tell you when we are alone. For now, I wish to leave this place." He bowed low to the Bards of the chamber, and Maerad copied the gesture. She briefly met the gaze of the man who had been against them the whole council, thinking to be met with a look of hatred, but saw his face was void of any expression, as if his mind had been cleared.

She had no time to look further as Cadvan led her quickly from the room, her mind full of questions.