"Guardian of my death,
preserve my absence. I am alive."
— Mark Strand, "The Guardian"

One step more, she told herself, just one more.

The woman pushed on into the hot night, forcing her battered body to do as her mind commanded. Every step was a struggle, every movement a knife-thrust into her spine. She grimaced as fatigue toyed with her weakened limbs but she didn't relent. In a few moments she knew her jailers would discover her disappearance. When they did the alarm would be raised and it would be impossible to escape the city. The Hulls and other Dark things would find her, and she would be taken back.

Back to that dank chamber and to the pain and the nightmares and to him.

Cadvan, her mind's voice cried. The name was at once both a plea and a prayer. If only he could help her now, if only he could find her. If only, if only. She knew he of all people would know what to do.

Barely managing to suppress a jagged sob, the wraithlike woman crept down the black city's dirty streets. The road was deserted and the scene before her, illuminated as it was by the light of a troubled moon, was eerie and disquieting. High stone walls loomed resolute and grim above the woman's head: sentinels and spies carved of living rock. She approached them with caution. The city's main gate wavered before her, locked and barred behind the mist of her exhaustion. It was a black scar in the otherwise smooth and menacing wall.

Looking at that scar now as it gleamed faint in the ill light of the moon, she felt fear begin to latch on. The gate was her only viable means of escape, and though she was so close, the empty plains and rocky desert that lay beyond the wall seemed unattainable.

The woman checked her defenses, slowing as she gathered strength from the corners of her mind. Her glimmerspell appeared to be intact, and with any luck it would hold for just a few more minutes. Yet she wondered if her desperately cast magery would even be sufficient to fool the guards. Fear moved along her spine and bile rose in her throat. Shivers wracked her frame, but she hoped they wouldn't be noticeable in the dim light; indeed, the pale irascible face of the gate warden was nearly invisible to her own eyes. But the woman knew better than anyone that in this city, the senses could all too easily be enhanced. There was no limit to the power of Black sorcery.

Suppose it had all been for naught?

There was no other choice left open to her, however, and with effort she approached the gate.

"What business do you have outside the city after dark?" asked the warden. His voice was gruff and unpleasant, like nails scratching across stone. He moved his body between the woman and a brief, tantalizing view of the world beyond. "You'd better have a good reason—isn't within regulation, you know."

"I'm a courier, appointed by the master of the Iron Tower." There was a slight wobble in the woman's voice as she tested the dark waters with her claim but the warden didn't seem to notice.

The air that hung between the two cloaked and shadowed figures was tense. The woman muttered breathless prayers—Cadvan's name: a makeshift litany of desperation and terror. She knew her trembling legs could not support her body, slight as it was, for much longer. If she were to collapse so close to regaining her liberty, she knew she would die before they took her back. A second sojourn in the Iron Tower, even for a minute, was unthinkable. She could already feel the taste of freedom on her tongue; to take it away now would be worse than death.

She needed the gate warden to believe her story. Her very life depended on it.

But in spite of his rough exterior, the man had been well trained. Suspicion colored his voice when he spoke again. "Prove it," he said. The snarl in his challenge didn't bode well for the woman, but still she pressed on. There was no option; if she backed out now, it would be certain death.

She sucked in air, heart pounding. In truth, she had not counted on such diligence from the gate warden; nevertheless, she had made such preparations as she was able for this contingency, even with her limited means. Straightening her shoulders, the woman threw back her hood.

The warden gasped.

Though the darkness would not allow much visibility, she knew that when he looked upon her face he saw the disfigured features of a Hull. Very few in the city dared oppose a Dark Bard. For a moment, the woman was thankful. The visage of a Hull was not an easy one to bear, but it was worth it if it bought her freedom.

The warden, whose face was ashen, nearly fell to the ground as he bowed. "Forgive, master," he said, groveling. "Forgive."

The woman made no answer. She attempted to slow her beating heart and stay calm. Only half-believing her luck, she moved past the prostrated man and through the gate.

As soon as she was through the portal, she breathed easier, for though the dangers of her situation had not at all lessened, the shadowed aura of the city had eased. A weight had been lifted off her shoulders; it had been there so long she'd forgotten what it felt like to be without it. Her body, though unspeakably weary, was invigorated, and her mind moved quicker and with greater clarity.

She knew all this was not enough. She knew she had to get as far away from the city as possible. She knew her absence would not go unnoticed. She knew they would come for her.

There could be no delay.

Not wanting to alert the notice of any who might be watching from atop the city wall, she remained on the road for the next several miles. Time passed and she fell her glimmerspell weaken before it disappeared altogether. Small beads of sweet slid down the back of her neck and pooled above her collarbones. Each step was a danger, each step was one more moment she still breathed.

Once she was sure there was no one to see, the woman left the well-traveled road and turned in a northeasterly direction. As far as she knew, north was the surest way to safety. And to Cadvan, if he yet lived.

For many long hours, the woman continued her trek. Her leaden feet stumbled on the ground, and lifting them became more of an effort with each second. It felt as if the very weight of her tattered clothes would pull her down and keep her there. It was all more than she could bear. Once, strenuous labor had been the sum of her existence, but weeks of starvations and abuse had left her weaker than a newborn kit. Before her imprisonment she would have been able to keep a driving pace for days without rest of food; now she could only manage a tired, shuffling stride. And even so, her steps were slowing.

One foot in front of the other: a progression of pain and exhaustion repeated again and again without count or hope of termination.

How long this endless cycle carried on, the woman did not know. She drove herself forward relentlessly, urged on by the quaking fear of recapture, the fear of him. She couldn't go back to that, not ever. She would rather kill herself than be taken back to that place a second time. It had been a stroke of luck that she had survived imprisonment; she knew a second incarceration would not prove to be the same.

Yet as she waded through the fog of overwhelming pain and fatigue, the woman could not help but feel that her aching feet were taking her back to the hated place of nightmares and torture rather than away. One patch of sharp rocks looked much the same as the next. Surely she could not be walking in circles…

At last, her frail body could take no more punishment and surrendered to the onslaught of weakness. A rush of dizzying pain consumed her, and she fell, crying out as her knees struck rough stones. Though her head reeled and her body convulsed, she somehow managed to pull her body up and huddle against a large boulder, the only shelter available.

She was going to die. She could no longer delude herself with visions of freedom. She felt death inside her, moving up her nerves and into her bones. No one was going to save her; no one could. Not Cadvan, not anyone. She looked death in the eye now, and she couldn't escape its glare.

At least I die free, she thought, but her proud declaration brought no comfort in the face of her despair.

Time passed, and she slipped in and out of delirium. Darkness hovered on the edges of her vision, and the patient tentacles of death began to grasp her. The cold touch was feather-light, gentle. The end was near now. The was the end.

She had no regrets. As she lay dying, her only thought was of Cadvan: a vague faceless figure whose memory had seen her this far, but no further. Weeks of starvation and torture and erased everything of her past life; everything but this one name. She knew that whoever this Cadvan was, he had represented everything that was good and noble in a decrepit and crumbling world. Without him she would have been lost to death's caresses long before this night.

"Cadvan," she whispered. The single, nearly inaudible word was carried away by the harsh desert wind, never to be heard. "Cadvan." She wanted to shout it—shout it so that perhaps, wherever he was, the faceless memory would hear. But even as she struggled against death's sweet chokehold, the woman knew it was foolishness. Yet still she said his name, repeating it over and over and over. She wanted to die with a piece of her past life still on her lips.

Her mumbling became a chant, a chant born out of hopeless desperation. Each utterance of the name drained her strength a little more but she didn't care. She knew death was but a heartbeat away from defeating what was left of her. Why delay what was certainly inevitable?

As she whispered, the woman's body seemed to float, suspended above the earth. Some moments, the sharp rocks beneath her back seemed to be the softest of feather pillows. What is real? she wondered briefly. The mental effort was too much and she resumed her meaningless chant.

Gentle, soothing hands traced her dirtied features and a low voice murmured in her ear. It was death, death at last, come to take her beyond the Gates. She'd always imagined that the end would be worse somehow—frightening and black and cold. Yet she found no fault in this tender caress, this sweet embrace.

If this was death, she welcomed it.

A/N: Once upon a time, a 13 year-old girl decided she wanted to write a story. In a forum far away, Laramie posted a prompt in which Maerad told Cadvan she was pregnant. Thus was a story born. Years later, the girl, no longer 13, is still attached to this story. She doesn't promise to post all of it, to update regularly, or to do much of anything. She promised to make an effort, simply because this story still means something to her in spite of its flaws.

It should also be noted that I have not read these books since I was 15 or so. This will most likely not be accurate. In fact, I can promise you that it's very much out of character. I will most definitely be disregarding The Singing, as I wasn't able to finish it due to its cop-out plot and utterly unsatisfying nature. I do not apologize for this. If you do not like this, do not read.

Blanket warning for rape, violence, abuse, sexual content, language, etc. Rating is subject to change.

This story was formerly titled Secrets and Pain.