When the ‘Sea Rose’ had docked in the Harbour of the City, the one they had begun to call the Black Piper was the first passenger off the ship. The crew and other passengers were glad to see him go, for his sinister appearance and the sense of Darkness that he carries was chilling. It was not that he had done them any harm, nor shown any overt sign of malice. He had, indeed, been polite, if distant, towards his fellow-passengers. Yet all of them felt easier for his being off the ship. As he went, he paused by the side of the ship, looked up at the one or two seamen staring after him, and raised his hand in a sardonic salute of farewell that told them he was well of, and amused by, their feelings towards him.
The two young Swordsmen in the livery of the Harbour Watch, who stood at the Harbour gates to check the incomers, were suspicious of him too, but as his papers were fully in order and there was no good reason to hold him back, they let him pass. Still, they were uneasy.
The man moved through the bustle of the market outside the Harbour walls, drawing questioning glances and not a few superstitious shudders. To begin with, he was so pale, his face a cold white as if he were very sick. Yet it was obvious, from the speed and agility of his movements, that he was far from unwell. His pallor was emphasised by the dull, sooty blackness of his hair, and the black garments he wore. There were only three points of colour about the Black Piper; his bright, intense green eyes, a slim gold pipe on a black cord around his neck, which had earned him the nickname, and a great red stone, set in a heavy gold ring on the middle finger of his left hand, which seemed imbued with a sense of evil all its own. Then, too, there was his bearing; arrogant, cold, aloof, menacing, he was a man obviously used to commanding instant obedience, and whose retribution for disobedience would be terrible.
The Black Piper left the hubbub of the market behind him and began to make his way up one of the long avenues that radiated out from the hill at the top and centre of the City, where stood the Temple of the One Light. The stranger did not even glance up at the great, circular, columned building that was the heart and glory of the City, and all Li’is. He turned into a side road and followed it among the houses of rich merchants and other well-to-do.
At last he came to a fine house, set back among magnificent if gloomy trees. It was surrounded by high walls, and at the ornately worked metal gates stood a tall, muscular man in a black-and-silver livery, who challenged the Black Piper when he paused at the entrance.
“I am Lak of Ma’al”, said the visitor, in an authorative tone, “I seek the Lady Si-Mara.”
The guard was not impressed. “Many seek the Silver Lady”, he answered, “She may not wish to see you. Have you any token to show her?”
For answer, Lak extended his left hand. The stone in his great ring burned darkly red in the morning sun, and the guard’s manner changed instantly. He bowed humbly, and said, “Welcome, Lord! I am Tamat, the Lady’s bodyguard. If you follow me, I will take you to her.” He opened the heavy gate easily, and led the way to the house. Once through the entrance, Lak followed him through some outlying rooms, richly though decadently ornamented, until his guide paused before a door and unlocked it with a massive key.
“The Night Temple”, Tamat said, opening the door. Beyond lay a vast hall, hung all in black. Dim lights burned in it, and here and there small braziers stood, in which burned pieces of a white substance, giving off a sweet, cloying perfume and a dizzying smoke. The floor was covered with large cushions, couches and low tables, on which stood pitchers of wine and dishes of what looked like sweetmeats. At the far end of the room was a dais, and on it stood a huge, roughly hewn slab of black rock, and a silver couch piled with seacat furs. On the back wall of the dais was a black wall-hanging, worked with strange symbols in silver thread. Lak nodded. “Good.”, he pronounced.
Tamat led him on into the house and at length knocked on another door. A husky, Eastern-accented female voice bade them enter. Tamat bowed again to Lak, and opened the door to admit him, and Lak walked past the bodyguard, and into the presence of Si-Mara, the Silver Lady – or Silver Witch, as her many enemies called her.
She was as pale as he, but with a delicate and exquisite, yet chilling, beauty that made her seem like a statue come to life. Her face and body were perfectly moulded as if in translucent white stone. Her lips were the palest of pale rose imaginable, like the faint tint in a pearl. Her eyes were a shining silver-grey. Even her hair was silver, a shimmering white-blonde. She was very, very beautiful – and as evil and deadly as a tree-viper.
She looked at Lak with an air as arrogant as his own, but there was a spark of interest in her eyes. “So”, she said, “Tamat must be sure of you, to admit you. I see that the same world bred us, brother. But who are you?”
Lak smiled a slow, insolent smile. “I am Lak, whom some have been pleased to call the Black Piper. And yes, I have come out of Ma’al. I am he whom you have awaited, Si-Mara.” And to her, as to Tamat, he extended the blood-red ring.
An unholy joy lit the woman’s face as she gazed exultantly at the stone, and then Si-Mara, the proud and beautiful, slid to the floor at the stranger’s feet and prostrated herself before him. “Rise” Lak said, regally, lifting her to her feet again. “We have work to do, Si-Mara. Tell me of the Night Temple, and the Children of Night.”
“Most are pleasure-seeking fools, easily led, but there are a few who are of use”, she answered him, as he sat down on a couch and indicated that she should join him. Seating herself beside him, she went on, “some who truly serve Darkness, and some who have enjoyed my favours and are either frightened of exposure or anxious to retain my …friendship.”
“I need two men you can trust.” Lak told her. “Tamat will serve for one. Have you another? He must be strong.”
“Soom” Si-Mara answered, “He spies for me, disguised as a beggar.”
“Excellent. There was an old fool from the East on board the ‘Sea Rose’, named Lord Dular. Have them find him and bring him to the Night Temple. He has something I need.”
Si-Mara rose obediently, and went out to give Tamat Lak’s orders. When she returned, she said,”He will find Soom and carry out your orders, Lord. May I fetch you some refreshment?”
Lak shook his head, and signed to her to rejoin him on the couch. When she did so, he reached out to touch her in a caress that was as cold and insolent as himself. “Will you… entertain me, while we wait?” he said, “I do not command, but ask.” Si-Mara eagerly agreed, and the same unholy joy burned in her eyes as she gave herself to his arrogant lips and hands and body.
Meanwhile Shipfather Renn, master of the ‘Sea Rose’, was walking up the hill from the Harbour, heading for the Temple. He had hurried through his duties at the Harbour, being quick, but not careless, for he and all his crew had agreed that he should go to his friend Arnath, the High Priest, at the Temple, and ask that a Priest be sent to make the Cleansing Prayers for the ‘Sea Rose’ before she sailed again. “For I dare swear”, the Shipfather had said, ” that the man Lak was a Child of Night come out of Ma’al, and I would have the ship cleansed of his presence.” And his men had been of like mind.
So it was that, unknowing, Renn followed the same path as his frightening passenger for a while, but where Lak had turned off to Si-Mara’s house, the Shipfather continued up the avenue until he reached the pleasant grounds that surrounded the Temple. For the Temple was not only the centre of faith, but the social and judicial heart of Li’is. In the grounds families strolled, children played, elders sat in the sun and held lengthy discussions. Ahead of Renn rose the beautiful Temple itself, to its right stood the Hall of Records, where records of all kinds, treaties, wills, contracts and all such documents were made and stored, and any disputes over them settled. To the left of the Temple was the Student House, where the sons of the Priesthood learned their duties, for the Priesthood was hereditary – must be so, for the prerequisite of Priesthood was the power of Perception, which was itself hereditary, passed down from the line of the first Lightfriends. Behind the Temple, linked to it by a passageway, was the house of Arnath, the High Priest, and around it the homes of the other Priests of the Temple.
Shipfather Renn began to climb the wide steps that led to the Temple. On the topmost step two young men were sitting, talking. One was average of height and build, though tending to slimness, with fine, unruly black hair, ruffled by the breeze like blown feathers. He wore the blue-and-white robe of the Priesthood, but even without it his piercingly vivid blue eyes, the outward sign of his Perception, would have shown him to be a Priest. He had a fine-boned, sensitive face, saved from femininity by a strong, stubborn chin. His expression was earnest, as if he took life seriously, but when he smiled, as he did now at some remark of his friend’s, his whole face lit and changed. He might have been eighteen or nineteen years old. The other was a Swordsman, in the green-and-gold livery of the Harbour Watch. He looked to be a year or two older than his friend. He was tall and athletic looking, with a fluid grace to his body, even at rest. He had a pleasant, open face, a smiling mouth with an odd but not unpleasing little quirk at one corner, and clear, honest gray eyes. His hair was thick, and straight, and golden as grain at harvest time.
The Shipfather knew both of them well, had known them from childhood, for they were the sons of two of his friends. In fact the young Priest was Aiel, the son of Arnath, whom Renn was seeking. The Swordsman was Lin, whose father was Linnad, the Lord of the Harbour. Renn hailed them, and they returned his greeting. To the Priest, he began, “Aiel…”, then, “Oh, your pardon! I must call you ‘Lord Priest Aiel’ now>” For the young Priest had fairly recently completed his final training and taken up his Priestly duties. Aiel flushed at this gentle teasing and said, “Oh no, it…it would not seem right to me, Shipfather” “Is your father in the Temple, or at home, Aiel? I wished to speak to him.”
“He has gone to visit the Old One in the House of Healing, Shipfather. I doubt he will be back till late.” The Shipfather grinned. He knew the Old One, a very ancient Priest whose fragile body kept him confined to the House of Healing, but whose mind was still quick and strong and lucid. Many came to seek his advice, and if he had a congenial visitor, one with whom he could discuss and debate, he would talk on until his carers forbade it.
“Can I help you in any way, Shipfather?” Aiel asked.
“I came to ask if one would come to the Harbour and say the Cleansing Prayers for the ‘Sea Rose'”, Renn replied, “We had a passenger this voyage, and if he was not a Child of Night, no man ever was. His passage was booked by some agent of his, or I never would have carried him. Ugh! A face dead fish-belly white, and poisonous green eyes, like some hunting animal. He carried a gold pipe round his neck, that I never heard him play. For that, and that he was dressed all in black, the men called him the Black Piper. And he wore a ring, with a great red stone to it – you may laugh at me, Aiel, Lin, but it looked to me as though it were full of the blood of good men foully murdered. I swear I would rather be out on the open sea in the Two-Moon Tide than carry that man on the ‘Sea Rose’ ever again!”
Impressed by Renn’s vehemence, Aiel promised to speak to Sulyar, the Priest who had charge of the Temple today, about the matter. The Shipfather thanked him and went about his business, and Aiel rose. “I had best find Sulyar now, for I must be in the House of Records soon”, he said.
The young Swordsman glanced sypathetically at his friend. Aiel’s usual duties were in the Temple, in the leading of worship and prayer, or , by Perception, the guidance if those burdened or troubled. He was also a musician, making music for and playing the small harp that accompanied the daily worship, and the greater number of instruments at the Festivals. Today, though, through a chain of coincidences involving his father’s absence, the need for Sulyar to replace him, an unfortunate accident which had befallen Sulyar’s own replacement, and the necessity of many of the Priesthood being involved in preparing for the Spring Festival, Aiel found himself in charge of the Hall of Records. Lin knew that the prospect worried him. Sulyar, a strong-minded distant cousin of Aiel’s, was a kind-hearted but nevertheless none too gentle man, who regarded the House of Records as very much his own province, and was not inclined to suffer fools gladly. Aiel was afraid that he might make some error and bring Sulyar’s wrath down upon his head.
Lin went with Aiel to find Sulyar, who received the message from Renn and promised to deal with it. Aiel was surprised when the other Priest, a tall, raw boned man with grizzled brown hair and bear said, “Aiel, do not worry about the House of Records. If you do not know what to do, do nothing. Ask them to come back tomorrow. I had rather have twice the work to do tomorrow, than spend a week unravelling your mistakes!” He sounded fierce, but Aiel knew that he was trying to be kind. “Thank you, Sulyar”, he said, and meant it.
Lin, having the afternoon free, had volunteered to spend it with Aiel in the House of Records, feeling that Aiel might need his moral support, though he had not said so. “I am afraid you will find it dull, Lin” Aiel said, as they walked through the corridor that joined the House of Records to the Temple. “Maybe not”, said Lin, “so many things happen there. What are your tasks today?” Aiel glanced at the list of definte appointments Sulyar had given him, with other comers in between. “A babe to be named”, he smiled, ” a pleasant task! And a pass to the Dancers’ Gate to be collected.” “The Dancers!”, Lin said, thoughtfully, “Aiel, I would like one day to travel to the Gatehouse, and go up to the Meeting Place.”
Aiel looked at his friend in surprise. “I would not have expected you to be interested in the Dancers, Lin.” “How could any man not be fascinated by them?” Lin asked, “Beings of light and energy, singers of the worlds, Dancers among the stars! Are they closer to Light than we are, Aiel – more kin to the Spirits-in-Light?” “Maybe close to Light in a different way, Lin. There are some who would worship them – or the Shining Ones. Yet all these are created beings too, made, like us, to serve Light. Light asks a different service of them, that is all. We have not their abilities, nor they ours. And they too- even the highest of them,as the Book of Light shows – are corruptible.” “I still would like to see the Dancers, Aiel.” Aiel suddenly smiled, “And what reason would a Swordsman of the City give the Temple Elders, that they might grant him a pass to the Dancers’ Gate?” “Ah”, Lin laughed ruefully, “Little enough but idle curiosity, I fear, which would not suffice!”
They reached the House of Records and went in, to be greeted by the two record-keepers. The majority of the building was given over to rows and rows of shelving containing the scrolls of record systematically arranged. These were the record-keepers’ domain. The public part of the building was a large, airy hall, with comfortable padded benches informally arranged, where people might stand chatting, or stroll about, while waiting their turn. Between the shelves of records and the hall was a low platform, on which stood a table and a high-backed chair, flanked by a smaller table covered with writing materials. A small, merry-faced man was already seated at the smaller table, and smiled at Aiel. He was Barit, the Recorder, who would write down all transactions in the Hall of Records.
There were a few chairs scattered near the platform, as well as the benches, and Lin arranged himself comfortably cross-legged in one of these as Aiel conferred with Barit. One of the record-keepers went to open the doors to the public hall, and Lin glanced covertly at his friend as Aiel took the chair behind the larger table. Aiel, though, showed no sign of the nervousness he had confided to Lin. He sat straight and dignified behind the table, every inch a Priest of Light, and Lin was reminded, as he seldom was, of Aiel’s heritage and power.
The first-comers were the young couple with a babe to be named and listed in the records. They were touchingly proud and happy, and Aiel, sensitive to them, managed somehow to turn the simple fact of registering the babe’s name and parentage into joyous ceremony. There were others waiting, but when the young mother asked it, Aiel came down unhurriedly from his seat, and took the babe, and prayed Light’s blessing on the child, and did all without rushing, wanting this to be a happy, memorable moment for them. Lin approved of his friend’s actions, and so, apparently, did others, for there were smiles and pleased murmurs, and one elderly woman wiped away a tear. Aiel himself was inclined to believe that Light smiled on his inexperience, for nothing had arisen that, with the wise advice of Barit and the record-keepers, he could not handle. He was certainly not too proud to ask their advice, rather than disappoint Sulyar, and his willingness to defer to their experience made a good impression on them, though he did not know it. Time passed quickly, and he was surprised when it was time to pause for refreshment. One of the record-keepers brought cups of wine-and-water and little honey-cakes for Aiel and Barit. Aiel did not realise that he endeared himself further to those present by asking, hesitantly, if it was permitted that some refreshment might also be taken to that same elderly lady, who had been waiting some time while the records were searched for her, and looked a little tired. Aiel always had shared what he had, thought Lin, smiling at his friend as the record-keeper went to revive the old woman with wine-and-water. Aiel had relaxed, and , like a cloak, laid aside his air of dignity. He smiled back at Lin, and said, leaning towrads him, “I am sorry, Lin, I had all but forgotten you! Have you been bored?” “Not at all.” Lin answered, truthfully, for he had been too interested by what he was learning about his friend, simply by watching him at his duties.
Though Linnad and Arnath were friends, and Aiel and Lin had sometimes played together as children, they had not really been close friends. Then had come the dreadful day that was still etched on Aiel’s heart and mind as if with acid, though ot was now some seven or eight years past. He had been a child still, waiting, impatiently, for news of his new baby brother or sister. He had waited and waited, until his father had come to hold him tight and tell him, weeping , that now he had neither brother nor mother, for both had died in the long birth-struggle. In the terrible few days that followed, Aiel had been put into the care of Janira, Lin’s mother. She and her ladies had fussed over him, crying and cuddling him. Aiel had known that they meant it to comfort him, but he did not want the fuss. He wanted to be alone, for his grief was too new and raw and private to share. It was Lin who had saved Aiel from their smothering kindness, Lin who, unknown to Aiel, had interpreted the younger boy’s feelings, gone to his mother, and told her that she was going the wrong way about helping the bereaved child. “Let me take him out to the gardens, and give him space to weep.” Lin had said, and Janira had agreed. LIn had taken Aiel out to the farthest part of Linnad’s grounds, where he had a play-hut built by the lake, and “They will not bother you here”, he had said, then, “I will come back for you in a while. If you do not want me, I will go away again.” Aiel had never been so desperately grateful to anyone as he was to Lin that day. When Lin had gone, he had crept into the play-hut and wept his bottled-up tears, wept and wept until the tight knot of grief in him began to loosen a little, until he began to be able to relinquish his loved ones to the care of Light. When Lin had returned, Aiel had been able to share with the older boy some of his grief and loneliness and fear. It was Lin who had comforted him, and Lin who, much more than Aiel’s equally grief-stricken father, had supported the white-faced boy through the ordeal of the funeral ceremonies.
Lin had appointed himself a kind of honourary elder brother to Aiel after that, and Aiel was glad of his friendship, though for a while the friends had lost touch, during the time that Lin was undergoing his Swordsman’s training and Aiel studying in the Students’ House. One night, though, Aiel, returning from an errand for his father late at night, had unwisely taken a short cut through an alleyway and had been set on by attackers, either thieves or Children of Night, he did not know. He was unable to defend himself, as his vows forbade him weapons, and no match for his attackers. After one desperate, silent plea to Light, Aiel had resolved that he would not give them, should they be Children of Night, the satisfaction of hearing him plead for mercy, however much they hurt him, and was enduring a savage beating, when rescue came. It seemed his plea to Light had been heard, for three figures appeared in the mouth of the alleyway, and Aiel heard a familiar voice demanding to know what was happening. “Lin!”, he cried, and heard his friend answer, “Aiel! Sweet Light, is that you? The cowards! Baregian, Karil, come on!”
Lin, Barengian his sister’s betrothed, and their fellow Swordsman of the Harbour Watch had swept away Aiel’s attackers with the fury of a winter storm, and after a few confused few minutes Aiel, who had slumped half-conscious to the ground, found Lin bending anxiously over him, examining him by the light of a lantern begged from a neighbouring inn. Lin had looked so worried that Aiel, to reassure him, had ignored the dizzy swirling in his head, tried to smile despite his bruised and battered face, and said, painfully, ” Rescuing me…begins to be …a habit with you, Lin!” And, even as his friend smiled back at him in relief, had lost consciousness.
Lin, and his Sword-Brethren, had carried Aiel home, Lin had come to enquire after him next day, and the old friendship had been rekindled. It was a blessing to both of them, for they learned from each other, and from each other’s worlds. Lin still thought of Aiel as a kind of younger brother, admiring his devotion to Light, his sensitivity and empathy with all kinds of people, as evidenced by this morning’s work in the House of Records, while Aiel admired Lin’s courage, honesty, and Swordsmanship.
The break over, Aiel resumed his place at the table, and encountered his first problem. Two merchants appeared, haggling over the interpretation of some obscure clause in a contract. Aiel studied the document and leant to consult with Barit. There was some headshaking, for it was a complicated document, and Lin, watching interestedly, caught the name ‘Sulyar’ as they pondered. Aiel reached a decision, bearing in mind that formidable Priest’s advice, and turned back to the merchants. They too had been muttering together, and their expressions showed that they had little faith in Aiel’s ability to solve their problem. “Sirs”, Aiel asked, “Is the contract an urgent matter?” The older merchant said, “It must be settled by the time the moons rise.” That meant the time of the Two-Moon Tide, giving Aiel about eight days’ grace, thought Lin.
“You may see”, went on Aiel, “That I am young, and inexperienced in matters of commerce. The contract is clearly important, and needs careful consideration by one much wiser than I. Will you be pleased, gentlemen, to let Barit make a copy of the contract, that I may give the lord Priest Sulyar for his consideration, and to return tomorrow for his answer. He smiled at them with the sudden smile that lit his whole face, as he added, “If Sulyar cannot solve it, no one can!”
The merchants too were smiling now. The older said, “Young Lord Priest, you are wise. I will abide by that. You?” , he asked , turning to his companion. The younger merchant nodded, “I agree. It takes wisdom – and courage- to admit to what you cannot do, that another may do better”, he said to Aiel, who flushed self-consciously at this little speech of praise. “Meanwhile”, the merchant continued hurriedly, seeing Aiel’s discomfort, “I too will abide Sulyar’s decision.”
Among the documents neatly piled on Barit’s table in the House of Records lay a metal tube containing a scroll sealed by Arnath the High Priest and the Temple Elders, a pass to the Dancers’ Gate made out to the name of the Lord Dular. While Aiel wrestled with the problem of the merchants’ contract, that same old Eastern Lord was struggling, but uselessly, with the two strong, black-cloaked men who had caught him alone in the street and dragged him to this house, to this frightening, black-hung hall whose air was poisonous with burning drugs. His indignant demands for freedom and explanation were ignored. The old man, though trying hard to retain his dignity, was really very frightened.
Two people entered the hall, a man and a woman. As they came nearer he saw that they were both so pale that they might have been corpses. They terrified him, and he tried harder to pull away. The man came close and said, “Be still, old fool”, and Dular recognised the cold, white face, the burning green eyes. “You!” the old man gasped, seeing the frightening Black Piper from the ‘Sea Rose’. “Yes, old man, it is I” Lak said, smiling mirthlessly. He reached out a hard, bony hand and took the old man’s chin in a painful grasp. His green eyes burned into Dular’s watery brown ones with a devouring, painful intensity. Dular’s mind seemed to burn. He screamed, and tried to pull away from the pain, the other mind that gnawed at his. Eventually, the screaming stopped. When Lak had drained the old man’s mind, he withdrew his burning gaze and looked contemptuously at the babbling shell of a man at his feet.
“His mind has broken”,the Black Piper said, “Old fool! He should not have tried to fight me.” Then, to Tamat and Soom, “Take him out and leave him in some back street.” “Should we not kill him, Lord?” Tamat asked. Lak sighed, and said, as if explaining to an idiot, “A body would cause comment, and investigation. A sick old man found wandering in the street will simply be taken to the House of Healing. “
When the two men had taken away the shambling, broken figure, Si-Mara asked eagerly, “Did you get what you needed, before his mind broke?” He grinned triumphantly, “Aye. Now we are ready to begin.” Anxiously she asked, “Are you sure that Sulyar will not Perceive you, Lord?” Again he grinned. “Sulyar might. But today it is Aiel, Arnath’s cub, who serves in the House of Records. And he is young and inexperienced.”
Lak extended his left hand. The blood-red stone in his ring began to glow balefully. “Now” he breathed, his brow furrowed in concentration. As Si-Mara watched, the tall, black-robed figure began to waver and melt, shrinking, broadening. Colour began to run through the black, swirling, then steadying to a pattern. The black hair turned white, the face grew lined and jowled. Finally, the fiery green eyes turned faded brown. In place of the Black Piper stood the bowed figure of the old Lord Dular in his brocaded robe. “One more detail”, said the Shape-Changer, pulling open the breast of the robe. He touched a bony finger to his left breast, and a purple mark appeared, growing into the semblance of a bird’s head. He closed the robe, took up, from the top of the black stone altar, the documents that had been rifled from the real Lord Dular, smiled at Si-Mara, and, with an old man’s careful gait, left the Night Temple.
In the House of Recotds, Aiel was noting, with relief, that it was not long before his duties would be finished. Considering, he concluded that he had not, perhaps, fared as badly as he had feared. There was the matter of the contract, but he had followed Sulyar’s advice, and the merchants had been content. Looking up, he was surprised to see that the hall was now empty, save for Lin. He said to Barit, “The old Lord from the East is late. The ‘Sea Rose’ docked early this morning.” As he spoke, a figure appeared in the doorway and shuffled rapidly up to the dais, breathlessly offering profuse apologies. “Lord Priest…so sorry….I was visiting friends in the City….forgot the time…”
“I am afraid you have tired yourself with hurrying”, said Aiel, with grave courtesy, “Will you take a seat, and rest?” “No, no, it will be well with me”, said the old man, in his heavy Eastern accent,”Here are my documents, Lord Priest.” Aiel took the papers, and passed them to Barit, studying the old Lord while Barit perused the documents. He was a heavy-set old man in a richly coloured brocaded robe that was typically Eastern, a harmless-looking old scholar. Yet something about him made Aiel uneasy. It was not that he Perceived anything about the old man, it was nothing that he could pin down. Just that he was uncomfortable about the man. He stared at the sun-browned old face. For a moment he thought he saw a spark of fiery green in the watery brown eyes, and then he found that his head was momentarily swimming, and when his brief dizziness passed, so too did his feelings about the old man. “I must have sat too long in the sun with Lin”, he thought. Lord Dular was regarding him quizzically. “Is something wrong, young Lord Priest?” Aiel shook his head, “I am sorry. My thoughts were wandering. Barit?”
“All in order, Aiel”, the Recorder answered. Aiel smiled at the old man, and said, “There is, then, just the matter of the formal identification, Lord Dular.” The old man smiled too, and opened the breast of his robe. “This is the identification agreed with the Council of Elders. A birthmark shaped like a bird’s head, for which reason my father named me Dular, which is, Falcon, in the Old Tongue.”
Aiel nodded, and as the old man closed his robe again, the young Priest weighed in his hand the cylindrical container that held the Pass. He still felt strangely reluctant about it, but broke the seal, tipped out the little sealed scroll, and handed it to the old man. “Safe journey, Lord Dular. Go in Light.” The old man, smiling, thanked him, gathered up his papers, together with the precious Pass, and walked out of the House of Records. Lin asked Aiel, “Aiel, why did you stare at the old Lord so?” Aiel flushed again, as he did so easily when embarrassed or angry. “Did I? I hope I was not discourteous. I just felt …something I was uneasy about.” “Did you Perceive anything amiss?” his friend enquired. “No, it was not Perception. Just – a feeling.” Aiel gave a half-smile. “I felt dizzy, just for a moment, and then the feeling went. Perhaps I sat in the sun too long, Lin.” “Perhaps.” his friend agreed, “It can be hotter than you think, in the Spring, when the breeze is off the mountains.”
Barit had already gone, and the record-keepers were closing the doors. Lin and Aiel walked back together through the corridor to the Temple, Aiel carrying the copy of the merchants’ contract for Sulyar. “You did well, Aiel”, Lin commented, as they went into the Temple in search of the older Priest. “Let us hope Sulyar agrees with you!”, whispered Aiel, seeing the rangy figure of the other Priest standing by the Crucible with its steady, man-high, golden flame. Sulyar turned as they approached. “Ah, Aiel! How did you fare in the House of Records? No problems?” “Just one” said Aiel, and Sulyar’s face grew anxious, but lightened a little as Aiel explained, ending “I really think the merchants were relieved, Sulyar. I am sure it was you they wanted to see.” “So where is this troublesome contract?” Sulyar demanded. Aiel held out the scroll. “I asked Barit to make a copy. Here it is.”
The older Priest scanned the document, frowning a little in concentration, while Aiel watched anxiously. Sulyar reached the end, and looked up, smiling at Aiel. “Well done, Aiel! You acted wisely. This will take me some thought. If you had foolishly meddled with it, you could have lost the merchants a considerable sum. I am glad you remembered my advice, and were not too proud to follow it.” Aiel gave an audible sigh of relief. Sulyar said, “Come, you have made a good beginning. Humility is a virtue – but do not underestimate yourself either, Aiel.” And there was something like a twinkle in his eye as he bade them farewell and fell to studying the scroll again. Aiel felt quite light-hearted as they walked away. The merchants, and Lin, and now – amazingly – Sulyar, had all praised him, and he did not think that any of them would have done so without cause. Aiel’s natural modesty,as Sulyar had said, did sometimes lead him to underestimate his own abilities. Lin asked, “You will be able to come with me tomorrow, to choose a gift for the little one?” Lin’s sister Mira, now Lady to Barengian, the young Lord of the Western Fortress, had recently borne a son, and Lin was taking his duties as an uncle very seriously. It was soon to be the babe’s Naming Day, and Lin was anxious to find a suitable gift. Aiel answered, “Yes, I will come, as long as it is not too late. I must be back to practice with the musicians for the Spring Festival. What will they name him?” “He is to be Janir, after my mother.” Lin said.
As they reached the main gate of the Temple, Aiel was surprised to encounter his father Arnath, the High Priest, coming hurriedly into the building. He had thought, as he had told Shipfather Renn, that Arnath would be delayed with the Old One until quite late. Father and son were much alike, black-haired, though Arnath’s was touched with grey, and, of course, with the striking blue eyes of the Priesthood. Arnath, though, was stockier and squarer-faced than Aiel, who had inherited his mother’s smaller-boned build and features. Now Arnath said, “Ah, Aiel, good! I was looking for you. An urgent matter has arisen. Were you in the House of Records, as arranged?” “Yes. Is something wrong, Father?” “We cannot talk here. Was Lin with you?” “Yes”, the Swordsman answered, and Arnath said, “Then come with me, both of you.” “But- I am due on watch!” Lin protested. “I will send word to Linnad your father”, the High Priest said, “He will be needed here, in any case.”
Aiel and Lin exchanged questioning glances as they followed Arnath along the passageway to the High Priest’s house. He moved with a sense of urgency, and Aiel had a dim feeling of foreboding. Once indoors, Arnath took the friends into his Quiet Room, his place of study and prayer. There he turned to Aiel and asked, “Aiel, today you had a Pass to the Dancers’ Gate to be collected. Was it issued?” “Yes, to the old Lord Dular.” “Aah!” Arnath breathed, and it was half a sigh, “Was there anyone with him?” “No, though he said he had been visiting friends in the City. Father, what is wrong?” “While I was visiting the Old One in the House of healing, Dular was brought in. He had been found wandering in the City, his mind broken-” “Oh”, Aiel cut in, “that must have been what I sensed – Lin, you remember?” “Yes, you said you Perceived something strange about the old man.” “No, it was not Perception”, Aiel said, “Just a sense of something wrong. Not enough to cause me to withhold the Pass, but – something. It must have been the onset of his illness that I felt.”
“Perhaps not”, Arnath said, “For it was not sickness that broke Dular’s mind. I Perceived that his mind had been subjected to another, very strong, and evil. And he had no Pass, or other papers, when he was found.” Lin told him, “Shipfather Renn came to see you, Arnath, about a passenger on the ‘Sea Rose’ – a man he swore was a Child of Night. Did not Dular too come on the ‘Sea Rose’. Perhaps he fell foul of this man.” “Renn’s ‘Black Piper’? He could have followed Dular”, Aiel said, “But why wait so long? The ‘Sea Rose’ docked early this morning. Why should he pursue the old man all day?” “If he knew he was collecting the Pass, and wanted to steal it, he might”, Lin argued, “Or if Dular were visiting friends, as he said , the other might bide his time. “”Wait!” Arnath said, having heard all this, so commandingly that they ceased their conjecture and waited silently. “Aiel”, the High Priest continued, turning to his son, “At what time did Dular collect the Pass?” “It was late”, Aiel answered, “Near time for the House of Records to close. He said he had been with friends and forgotten the time. He was quite breathless with hurrying – that is why I thought some sickness…” The young Priest’s voice tailed off as he saw his father’s expression.
“Dular”, said Arnath, slowly, was found wandering in the mid-afternoon. He was lying in the House of Healing at the time you say he came for the Pass.” Aiel stared at his father. “But- then who was it who came for the Pass? Father, his papers, everything- oh, they might have been stolen, but the identification – the falcon birthmark-” “Dye…” murmured Lin, but Aiel said, “Lin. it was not dye! I would swear it!” “Aiel, Lin, let me Perceive your memories of this”, Arnath asked, “I must see what you saw, and also what Shipfather Renn said.” The two friends readily agreed, and Arnath set his Perception first on his son, then on Lin. When he had finished, and released from his blue gaze, he pored, frowning, over what he had learned. Aiel and Lin exchanged anxious glances, afraid to interrupt Arnath’s considerations, but sorely puzzled by what he had said.
“Aiel”, his father said at last, and his tone made Aiel stare. Arnath was speaking to him with hushed compassion, as to someone newly bereaved – or fatally sick. “Oh, my son, have you not heard it all your life? Have you not read and spoken it to others? Yet it has failed you now!” “What? What has failed me?” Aiel demanded wildly, beset by a growing sense of doom, while Lin, at his side, gazed grim-faced at the High Priest and his hand hovered above his sword-hilt as though ready in an instant to protect his friend from whatever threatened him.
And Arnath said, “The Warning.”