Disclaimer: All belongs to Alison Croggon, genius writer of the Pellinor series.
Notes: This is the last chapter from The Riddle from Cadvan's POV. Also, this is my first fan fic, so I'm still figuring the system out. Anyway, enjoy!
I felt the decay upon the land long before I saw the signs. Hardly any folks lived in the Fesse of Pellinor, once so populated, once so lively, with plenty a festival and merriment. Now, the land was as dead as the Bards who had once called Pellinor home. The grass was dry, and many a place there was naught but dirt. Rusted, abandoned plows lined the worn gravel road, along with skeletons and bones. Sometimes, the land was scorched from the fires that had consumed the heart of this land.
Worse were the vacant farmhouses, their roofs sunken in, their windows shattered, their former residents long dead. Sometimes, the houses stood still, as if they were waiting for their inhabitants to step back into the lives of the past.
Even rarer were actual people. Indeed, there were farmers that still struggled to make a living on this dead land; but many of them were as dead as the friends they had buried long ago and lived on wearily, simply waiting for the day they starved to death.
It wasn't at all the Pellinor I remembered. I almost wished that I hadn't returned, for I knew that this would all be burnt into my memory. Whenever I remembered Pellinor, it would be this lifeless wasteland that would enter my mind, the ghost of a legacy long gone.
Darsor whinnied as a wolf howled in the distance. In return, I nudged him faster. It seemed he was as eager as I to leave this wasteland. But, what truly drove me forward was the hope that I found find Maerad, whom I had long been seeking, among the ruins of her old home. Likely, she would be as depressed as I by the sights. I could only hope that she chose to return.
No, I told myself. She will come.
Indeed, Ardina herself had appeared before me, telling me that Maerad would return to her birthplace- Pellinor- on Midwinter's Day. I refused to believe that the Elidhu was wrong. My heart wouldn't let me.
I only hoped I could make it there on time. If the Lady was indeed correct, then I would be cutting it close. Midwinter's day was upon me, and I was still a league away from the sacked school.
Darsor, sensing my tension, urged himself faster. Don't worry, my friend, he replied to my unspoken thought. We will make it.
I managed a small smile- a ghost of a once frequent action. Oh, how life had changed since my days. And how I had changed with it! When forced into a dark environment, sometimes the only choice is to resort to darkness. It is those who can retain the Light in such an endless black that are the truly miraculous.
My face clouded, memories from another time rushing forward. I could almost feel the force of her last struggled breath on my cheek, almost taste the smell of death and decay in the air as her heart stopped beating, almost hear the wicked cackling of the Revenant was I stared into his yellow eyes, then back the corpse, the woman I had once loved, that I had been the demise of…
Except, instead of Ceredin, the woman who laid slain on the ground had wild raven hair and ice blue eyes, with a lyre slung beside her, blood soaked into the wood…
Started, I jerked myself away from the memory. Seeing Maerad dead like that was unsettling- more than unsettling. Thankfully, the vision was not part of my Knowing. It was simply an over-imagination. Yes, over-imagination, that was all, and nothing more.
I tried to settle down unsuccessfully as the unchanging landscape passed in a whir. I blamed my restlessness on the landscape, though, deep in my heart, I knew that it was something else. Something that, I confess, frightened me.
I thought that after seeing the Fesse I wouldn't be surprised by anything the actual school could throw at me. I was wrong, very wrong.
The walls were in an irreparable state of being. They were all crumbled, threatening to collapse in the howling wind. I stared at it, hardly believing that it had been barely ten years since it had been a thriving School.
The fires had consumed most of Pellinor. The towers were practically non-existent, a mess of broken bricks and scorched wood. All of the brilliance was worn away in bleakness and ruins. Everything was some shade of grey. Like the Fesse, houses still stood, only the roofs had caved in, and the windows were all shattered.
I touched what once had been the plaza, the gathering place of Pellinor. Here, Dorn, Maerad's father, had fallen. I shuddered once more. It was like being at someone else's grave, uninvited. I wished Maerad would arrive already; I didn't fancy spending the night.
But, night would fall in few hours, and there was no sign of Maerad. Undoubtedly, I would be sleeping the school's ruins. It was a small sacrifice. In fact, I was probably safer here than out in the open. Who would bother wandering here?
For some reason, that simply made me despair even more.
Darsor was waiting for me in the midst of the rubble. I looked at him, then nodded my head with approval. He snorted, impatient to be groomed as reward for choosing the camping sight. With a sigh, I complied to his unspoken request after I finished building a fire and preparing a stew to simmer slowly. I stroked his black coat for a long while.
Finally, I arose to check my stew. Pouring myself a bowl, I tasted it. It wasn't bad, but unsurprisingly, I wasn't very hungry. The death in the air had driven the hunger from me.
I poured the stew out and started poking the fire absent-mindedly. It was then I noticed the wolf.
It was a strange creature. Its silvery mane was pure, and although it looked thin with hunger, there was life in its yellow eyes. The wolf was staring at me. Gently, I stood from my crouching position, almost willing it forward.
Hesitantly, it inched forward, sniffing the air. Clearly, my stew had attracted it. Oh, well, at least someone could appreciate my cooking.
Soon, we stood hardly a dozen paces apart. It could have attacked at any moment. Instead, it stayed still, staring at me, and at the pot, intently.
Samandalamë, ursi, I greeted gently, trying to sound welcoming, as if not to provoke an attack. "Welcome, wolf. You look hungry."
It simply stared at me, looking, in human terms, shocked. Then, without warning, it bolted towards me, its fangs born, its claws sharp.
I whipped my sword out at lightning speed. Seeing the blade, it swerved at the last second, avoiding it narrowly by tumbling down onto the paving stones. It rolled a few paces, still staring at me, confused almost.
I do not wish to harm you, I said, keeping my voice calm. You need not kill me for food.
Realization seemed to strike the wolf's eyes. Pulling itself up, its eyes narrowed in concentration. I stared back at it, unsure to its motive.
And then, suddenly, there was Maerad, knelt on the ground where the wolf had just been, her blue eyes staring back up at me in bliss, tears shining within them.
I wasn't quite sure how to react. There were so many emotions I felt in that moment: startled, of course, exuberant, confused, but above all, relieved. She was alive. She was here.
We both stared at each other for a few moments, taking in the situation before I broke the silence.
"I suppose," I said, clearing my throat, "that you would still like some stew?"
Maerad laughed, throwing her pack to the ground and racing towards me once more, pure bliss in her eyes. In an instant, her arms were flung around me, squeezing tight. Without thinking, I hugged her back, too ecstatic to even think properly. Maerad had returned, and that was all that mattered.
We simply stayed that way for a while, content to watch the world go by. Finally, we broke apart. I examined her carefully. Much had changed since I had last seen here, too much to notice in one glance.
"I thought you were dead," Maerad said after a moment. "Why aren't you dead?"
Her voice sounded a tad strange, as if she hadn't used it in months. I could sense her glee all the same.
"I'll tell you after you've eaten, of course," I answered, studying her once more. "You're almost as thin as when we first met."
"And what are you doing here?" she persisted.
"I was waiting for you, of course," I explained not impatiently. "I had no idea you would turn up as a wolf. I should have guessed that Maerad the Unpredictable would not choose something conventional. I hope you will forgive me for my discourtesy. It was merely a misunderstanding."
I noticed that her mouth twitched at her nickname, widening even more as I spoke. She bowed at the end. "I might forgive you, if the stew tastes as good as it smells. And if your explanations are sufficiently entertaining."
"I doubt they'll measure up to yours," I replied sincerely. Then, I caught sight of her left hand, my eyes widening in shock and sorrow. "Maerad! Your hand…"
Ashamed, she shoved it in her cloak, sadness in her eyes. "I'll probably not play again," she mumbled almost inaudibly. "It doesn't matter…"
But, in both of our hearts, we knew it mattered a great deal. I took her maimed hand, stroking it gently. Her last two fingers and half of her middle one were cut off, leaving raw scars. As I traced them, I felt myself frown, saddened by the loss of her fingers but more importantly, the loss of the ability to play her lyre.
"Maerad," I said finally. The time had come to make my confession, and yet, the words seemed hidden from me. I was unsure what to say, how to best relay my message. "I have had much time to think over the past weeks. I am sorry for my unkindness, before we lost each other. I have rued it often and deeply, and often I have wished I could tell you so, and feared that I would never be able to."
I could see the words touched her. To me, they had seemed so pale in comparison to what I was feeling. Eloquent, even well-rehearsed words could never portray anything close to my pain.
"I've regretted many things as well," Maerad said softly. Then, she brightened, trying a small smile. "But, look! We're alive."
And indeed we were. I smiled back. "We are. That you are here seems a miracle beyond hope."
"And, Cadvan, I've found the Treesong." She sounded so proud, hoping to please me with her accomplishments. "Or half of it. It was on my lyre all the time."
I stared at her, proud, yet sober. "That is great news," I finally stated. "But I should have been as glad to see you if you had not found it."
She looked at me, confused at my reaction at first. Then, recollection seemed to hit her, and she shrank back slightly, ashamed of the night she had accused me of using her as a tool of the Light and not caring for her, but for the powers she possessed. I saw that we both remembered that night, though tried to forget. Maerad seemed speechless, so I filled in the silence for her.
"You have paid a great price for the knowledge," I said sincerely, hoping the words were right. I ran my hand through her remaining fingers once more. "We have much to tell each other. But," I added, turning towards the bubbling stew, "even the best stories go better after eating."
"Yes," she agreed. "But I must speak to Darsor first."
She turned to the horse to say her words. I turned away to give her the semblance of privacy. I couldn't listen anyway; my heart was beating to loudly in my chest. I poured two bowls of the rabbit stew, one for me and one for her. After seeing her, my appetite had quickly returned.
We talked for hours. Sometimes, the talk was serious, the telling of our stories, discussing the Treesong, and such. And, at others, the more pleasant times, we joked around, chatting idly, with not a care in the world.
And so it went. Our reunion was a happy one. For once, for the first time since our separation, all was well.
We fell into another serious talk, discussing our plans for the future.
"I suppose now we storm the Iron tower or something," Maerad said. "But, we can think on that tomorrow."
"Well, if you escaped this Ice Palace, why not the Iron Tower?" I asked with a wry smile.
"I almost didn't escape," she admitted. Looking down at her stew, fiddling with her silverware, "I- I almost didn't want to."
She paused. A blush rose on her cheeks, and she hurriedly blurted, "I think I fell in love with the Winterking."
Setting my bowl down, I studied her for the millionth time that day. Leaning forward, I spoke, "Love is one of the truest mysteries. The truest and deepest of all. One thing, Maerad; to love is never wrong. It may be disastrous; it may never be possible; it may be the deepest agony. But it is never wrong."
As I spoke, I felt the wind calm and the night became still. Once more, my mind flashed to the past, to Ceredin's death. And again, there was Maerad…
"He is cruel and ruthless, and he desires power," Maerad whispered, raw emotion in her voice. "But by his own lights, he was kind to me. Sometimes I even felt that I understood him. But all the same, I feel- ashamed."
"I doubt whether the Winterking would have given you the meaning of the runes had he not known you loved him," I replied gently.
"Yes," she said, staring at the ground. Despite the darkness, I could see the tears gathering in her eyes. "But I think he was right. The Treesong belongs to the Elidhu, not to the Light or to the Dark, and we have to give it back to them. It is not something that the Light should have. But, then, you see, I betrayed him. Although, if I had stayed, I would have betrayed everyone else…" Maerad trailed off. The night was silent.
I leaned towards her, brushing away the hair that sheltered her eyes. "Look at me, Maerad."
Reluctantly, she raised her head, her eyes meeting mine. In that moment, I understood her. Completely. Just for that moment. But it was enough.
"I had already begun to think that this is a matter of undoing what Light or Dark should never have done," I stated. "If that is so, then that is what we must do. And you could not complete that quest while you were bound in the Ice Palace. Perhaps you have not betrayed the Winterking, after all. Perhaps you have helped him not betray himself."
She nodded, her eyes still locked on mine. For a moment, she looked so defenseless, as if she needed me. She looked up to me. And I was there.
"Never be ashamed of your love," I whispered to her. "The only thing to be ashamed of is denying your love. That is what makes the shadow grow within your heart; that is the darkness of the Light. And we all have many loves."
The words, the right words, finally. They rang in my mind long after I had finished speaking, for they were true. They meant something, and, for once, they summed up my feelings.
"I remembered the other people I love," Maerad said in a rough voice. "I remember Hem most of all. And I dreamed of you, even though I thought you were dead. It gave me hope. But it was still almost the worst pain I had ever felt in my life, leaving the Winterking."
Finally, the sobs she had been holding inside for so long broke, and she collapsed forwards, her head somehow ending up on my shoulder. I stroked her hair, comforted her, in a way I never had before. Not like a child, for she was no child anymore. Like something else, something deeper.
After a while, her sobs slowed, and she wiped her eyes with her sleeve.
"I want to find Hem," she said suddenly. Her eyes, red, burned strong with desire now. Her moment of weakness was over now, and her vibrant personality, her strength had completely returned.
I nodded, smiling. "We'll start tomorrow," I replied, knowing better than to go against her Knowing. "In my heart, I, too, think we must find him. But right now I feel as tired as I ever have in my life."
She gave me a weary smile. "Tomorrow, then."
As we stood up, I glanced at the fire, only fading embers. It was dying, as was this one moment in time. Somehow, I knew this moment would stay with both of us for the rest of our lives, no matter how short they might turn out to be. If I wanted to do anything, it had to be now, before the moment passed.
Instead, I doused the fire, watching the embers turn to darkness. Satisfied, I turned away.
This wasn't over, I was certain. But now that we were together, anything was possible. We were alive. We were together.
And, besides, tomorrow was another day. The world hadn't ended yet. There would still be time. And another moment.
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