Author note: I apologize that I neglected this story for so long; life has had a way of pulling me away from writing and back into reality. However, I did find the time to write this chapter, so for those of you who still read this story, this is for you - enjoy, and as always, I love to hear your feedback!
-From the Ashes-
Dernhil couldn't remember how long he'd carried Maerad before his body forced him to a halt.
He could barely breathe; his lungs were gasping for air, drinking it in. Sweat poured down his face in rivulets, stinging his eyes that were already straining in the darkness. At least the Imead had abandoned their chase; he imagined they were likely feasting on their fallen comrades.
He shivered unconsciously; death had lingered uncomfortably close for far too long. It was a feeling he was sure Maerad could sympathize with, were she conscious.
He put an ear to her chest, listening for a heartbeat. At first there seemed to be nothing, but then he felt her pulse, faint and irregular, and breathed out with relief. His hands began to glow as he summoned a mage-light and cast it up through the trees and into the sky, hoping someone - his friend Amgor - in particular, would see its brightness and come to assist him. He didn't want to think of what else would see it. Or if Amgor isn't watching...
He waited in that place for what seemed a very long time. He took a moment to check the makeshift bandage he'd placed over Maerad's leg; it was soaked with blood. He cursed and checked his own wound. It, too, still bled, though he only cared because it limited his ability to fight and carry Maerad. Of course, none of this would have happened if you hadn't set those traps in the first place, he reminded himself.
"Dernhil?" he heard a familiar voice call out. The sound of snapping twigs and shuffling drawing closer livened the forest with welcome sound.
"Amgor, walk to your right, and keep quiet!" he replied through mind speech.
A few moments later, Dernhil could make out the tall, dark outline of the man working his way towards him through the underbrush. "Perhaps you should stay close at night, instead of daring to trap vile things," Amgor grumbled as he pushed branches aside to join Dernhil in the forest opening. "Though I can't say I - "
He stopped when he saw Maerad. He looked to Dernhil with questioning eyes, his brows arched. "Who is she? What happened?"
Dernhil could think of a thousand answers to Amgor's questions, but decided on the simplest. "Maerad of Pellinor," he said. "And I need help carrying her; we're both injured."
"Here in this universe? Or here in Imlan at this particular moment? Be more specific."
The words were hushed; Maerad could barely hear them as she drifted in and out of consciousness.
"If you can answer the universe one, go right ahead. But I meant here, in this wood, alone," a different, raspier voice replied. She could feel pressure around her ankle, accompanied by a dull, throbbing pain."Why would she come here? Did she know you were here?"
"Give this to her; I'm at the worst of it and I don't want to risk her waking."
In the blackness, something came forward. She thought it felt like a finger, poking into her mouth. "Swallow this."
Maerad writhed as the pain doubled in severity and spread like fire throughout her leg.
"Swallow! Do you hear me? Swallow!"
Making a sour face, she did as commanded. The finger pushed more of the dry things into her mouth. "Swallow again!"
She swallowed, hoping the voice would leave her alone, that the pain would stop.
"Do you think it, enough?" a feminine voice chimed in. "She is still conscious!"
She saw a shadow appear above her. She recognized the feel of a cool cloth as it was placed on her forehead. "Maerad, if you can still hear me, listen to my voice – focus on it. Ignore the pain and let sleep take you."
That voice. The same voice she'd heard in her dreams, she was hearing now, for real, speak into her mind. He was touching her...
He lifted her head gently and held a goblet of water to her lips. "Drink; it should help."
She drank sparingly at first, allowing the cool, tangy liquid to ease its way down her parched throat. She coughed as a swirling began in her belly, but she managed to quell it. "What -" she croaked.
But before hearing a reply, she allowed the medicine to sink her into a tingling void. She drifted in a nowhere place, unaware. She had no concept of time, no idea how long she floated. When she woke, she blinked at the dim sunlight that fell through a window casement. She didn't recognize the room she was in: she lay in a simple wooden bed, in a room by herself. The walls were painted in a pale blue wash, and her sheets smelled of lemon. By her bed was a jug of water and a cup. She was very thirsty, but she wondered if she had the strength to lift anything, including her body.
After a few minutes, with a great deal of effort, she sat up. For the moment, that was all that she could do, and she sat where she was, leaning against her pillow, frightened by her body's weakness and the aching in her leg, longing for the water. She worked her tongue, trying to wet her dry mouth. She was awake, really awake, for the first time in as long as she could remember. It seemed like she had forgotten what it was like, how vibrant it felt. She did not move, afraid the blackness would return. How long have I been asleep?
"Ah, you're awake."
She looked over towards the source of the voice. She still didn't believe it; it could be, he couldn't be. But there he was, tall and slender, his brown hair falling carelessly over his forehead, his expression intelligent and mobile. He wasn't wearing the dark robes he had worn as Innail's librarian; instead he wore a loose white tunic and tan breeches, covered by a dark cloak intricately embroidered along its edges in gold thread. He was, she realized, very handsome. She hadn't really noticed that when they had met; she hadn't wanted to.
He slowly crossed the threshold into the room and sat down next to her on the bed. "How do you feel?"
"My leg is sore, but doesn't really hurt at the moment," she replied.
He nodded. "You were given you enough medicine to prevent that; I'm glad it's helping."
There was a brief pause, one filled with tension and anticipation. "Dernhil, I've missed you...I- I never thought I'd see you again. I saw you in a dream and I saw you die."
Tears threatened her eyes. Without thinking, she leaned into him, embracing him as if to confirm he was a real, living being before her. He returned the hug, though he only touched her lightly, as if she were an eggshell that might break if touched too carelessly.
"I'm sorry that I had to deceive you, Maerad; I had no other choice but to keep you and Cadvan safe."
And then, because he was holding her, because he had risked his life for her, she told him all of it, quite simply: how she and Cadvan had fled from Norloch, how she'd nearly lost Cadvan in the Gwalhain Pass, and her escape from Arkan. She explained the finding of her brother, the battle in Innail and the loss of Oron, the fall of Turbansk, the Singing, and the undoing of the Nameless One. And she hadn't recovered, not nearly, for her heart was small and shivering, and it seemed that she couldn't stop crying despite unburdening herself of what had been won and lost.
He listened, quietly, growing more and more amazed; and when she finished he was silent for some time. He pulled back and considered her and her maimed hand with something of a helpless expression.
"I was insufferable to you the last we met. I've never forgiven myself. But it seems you have been through much hurt in the past year and a half, and you are a stronger person for it."
It was the last thing Maerad had expected him to say.
"I'm sorry for your trials," he continued, an amused expression lighting the shadows on his face. "I am glad you were not alone. You must keep Cadvan around – he's really quite useful isn't he?"
At that she smiled, almost laughed.
He gave her hands back to her, carefully, as if he were afraid they might drop and shatter. He smiled at her softly.
"You never used to look at me straight, but now you do," she said, because she remembered it, and was curious.
He shrugged. "I can think of no reason to distance myself from anyone any longer."
She blinked, surprised into silence.
It was one that didn't last long. "Come," he stood and offered his hand. "I'm sure you are hungry. I'll help you up. If you wish a bath, Aryella can help you afterwards."
She nodded. She was ravenous with hunger and thirst; perhaps after cleaning herself, she could find answers to her questions. For the time being, she focused on the task at hand: getting up from her bed.