Aiel woke with a sense of oppression, and the knowledge that his dreams, though he could not remember them, had not been pleasant. For a moment, he could not remember why. Then he opened his eyes, and saw Lin’s green-and-gold livery neatly folded on the clothes chest beside his own blue-and-white robe, and Lin himself asleep on the other bed, tousled blond head resting on one tanned arm. Seeing his friend, Aiel’s memory of the previous day’s events came rushing back, and he gave a little groan. He sat up in bed, and felt a slight, unfamiliar weight slide over his chest. The Lightstone!
Slipping it free of its pouch, Aiel took the softly gleaming stone between his hands and gazed into it, wondering. Once more a thousand conflicting thoughts seemed to be hammering at his mind, and he fought to find in himself the strength to contain them.
The Lightstone was glowing brighter, and the light held him, gently. It was not an imprisonment, for he knew he could have pulled free at any time. It was like sharing his Perception with another, like the Thought-without-Words that ran, at need, between brother Priests. It was as if Aiel’s own Perception meshed with another, far greater and wiser, yet more tenderly loving, than he had ever known. Before that Other, though a man and a Priest, he was like a little child; yet he did not feel ashamed to admit it. He and the Other explored together Aiel’s fears and anxieties, examined them honestly, finding answers to some, admitting that to others there were no answers – yet – and that to have no answers need mean not despair, but a strengthening of hope and faith.
Lin, waking quietly, and instantly alert, remembering, turned to look for Aiel, and saw him gazing raptly into the Lightstone, as if he held some communion with it. The light of the Stone, reflecting on Aiel’s face, seemed to wash out all yesterday’s pain, and he looked very young, and trusting. Lin felt a wave of sorrow at the thought of all his friend must endure, which made him close his eyes and pray silently, fiercely, for Aiel, and for himself, that he would not fail his friend. When Lin opened his eyes again, Aiel had let the Lightstone fall and was sitting quietly. His face was still tranquil, and Lin said softly, “Aiel?”
When the young Priest looked up, the Swordsman asked, “What were you seeing, in the Stone?” Aiel smiled tenderly. “Peace”, he said, then, ” and strength, and love – Lin, I think I saw the Spirit of Light.” He slipped out of bed and came across to Lin, bending over his friend to touch the Lightstone to Lin’s brow. The gentle light enfolded the Swordsman, and, like Aiel, he seemed to find himself in a Presence that encouraged, strengthened, where necessary chastised, but without anger, and, above all, loved him. Lin had loving parents, a devoted sister, good friends and loyal Sword-Brethren, had thought himself in love once or twice. But he had never felt the kind of love that Light offered him through the Lightstone. It was a love true and strong and unfailing. Yet it was a clearsighted, honest love, that knew his faults and failings, did not try to excuse them, but loved him still, despite them.
Lin had been loyal to Light all his life, but he had never known that the relationship could be like this, so personal and intimate. It was as if some great Lord and commander shared his heart with the lowest of his servants. When the light withdrew and the Presence faded, Lin knew a moment of aching loss. Then he realised that something remained with him, and his spirit rejoiced. He felt as if he had been armed for the battle he and Aiel were about to undertake.
The two young men, having washed and dressed, went quietly, with one accord, along the passageway and into the great Temple. It was still very early, and though some of the Priesthood were about, the outer doors had not yet been opened. As Aiel and Lin knelt quietly before the Crucible, each felt a hand gently laid in blessing on his head. Aiel glanced up, expecting to see his father, but found that it was Sulyar. For a moment their Perceptions met, and Aiel became aware that his distant kinsman somehow knew of his Way, and wished him well. He was surprised, too, to find that the other Priest had a far better opinion of him than he could have hoped, and a fondness quite unexpected. Sulyar smiled at him, and turned to go, but Aiel rose and caught his sleeve, “Sulyar…”, and drew out the Lightstone and offered it to Sulyar’s Perception, hardly knowing why, except some inner prompting.
Lin rose too, watching as the older Priest bent over the Stone and let his Perception be drawn to it. There was nothing really to see, but something was happening. Tears gleamed in Sulyar’s eyes, and the Stone glowed brightly. When at last his gaze disengaged from the Lightstone, Sulyar sighed, and looked at Aiel, and said, more quietly and gently than Aiel had ever heard him speak, ” Aiel – Lightstone-Bearer- thank you.” They watched as he turned and walked away, head a little bowed, as if he were quietly pondering his experience of the Lightstone.
Lin asked, suddenly, “Aiel, what is it like, to have Perception?” Aiel smiled. “How can I say? What is it like to have sight, Lin, or hearing? When a sense is born with you, how can you say what it is like?” “But does it never scare you, to know the power of it? My father said that if ever it were turned to evil, it could burn out a man’s mind. Perhaps that is the Black Piper’s power, Aiel, a kind of – of Dark Perception.”
Aiel said thoughtfully, “You may be right in that. The Shipfather said his eyes burned, and he destroyed Lord Dular’s mind. But Perception is meant to help, and heal. You know that the Priesthood do not step into another’s mind without permission, nor try to mould another’s will to ours. The Gift makes us servants, not masters.” “And yet your father told me that Perception is the Priesthood’s weapon, that the reason you are forbidden arms is to cause you to rely on Light.” “On Light, yes, not Perception. To draw Light’s strength into you, and move in Light’s power, not your own. For only the power of Light is a power untouched by Darkness, or partiality, or injustice. The best we may do, of ourselves, is only Darkness, compared to the perfection of Light.” He smiled at his friend, and added, “But I think, Lin, you felt something of that power yourself, in the Lightstone.” Lin said, a little ruefully, “Aye, As a Swordsman, I prided myself that I was a man of skill, and honour, and integrity. When I looked into the Lightstone, I felt like-like a grubby little boy again, playing at honourable deeds with a sword of sticks!” “But still, that Light loved you?” Aiel asked. “As I have never known love.” Lin agreed.
The two friends returned to the High Priest’s house in thoughtful silence. They found Arnath and Linnad waiting at the breakfast table and joined them. The High Priest flashed a glance at his son, their Perceptions meshed for a moment, and Arnath seemed satisfied. Linnad, not having Perception, asked gently, “how is it with you, Aiel?” “It is better”, Aiel said. “Already I draw strength from the Lightstone, Linnad. I cannot say that I am not afraid, but I trust Light.” “Good lad!” Linnad said approvingly. They ate their meal quickly and quietly, and Lin was glad to see that Aiel seemed to have regained some of his appetite. When they had eaten they resumed their planning, going over the first part of the journey in more detail.
“Lin”, Arnath began, “It is a long time since your Forest training. Do you remember your way in the Forest?” “As far as the Axehead Rock, no further.” Lin said, pointing out to Aiel on the more detailed map Arnath had produced. The huge rock, named for its curious shape, split the White River in two where it ran through the Forest beneath the Falls of Vandar. Lin went on, “But need we touch the Forest? The road to the Fortress…” His father cut in, “You will not use the road, Lin. You will be on foot. You cannot take horses, or provisions. You must get those from Merhaun at the Fortress. Lin looked dismayed. “Not take Shadow?” For his own beloved, intelligent, mist-grey stallion was the only horse he would ride, given the choice. Linnad said, “You will find his equal at the Fortress, I promise you.”
Arnath explained, “We cannot risk the Way, Lin. We do not believe that the Dark Ones know of the Secret Word. But if they should come to know of it, they will realise that Aiel must be the Lightstone-Bearer. That is also why we have delayed your setting out. It is safer if you go out, on foot, with the crowds for the Spring Festival. The Plain of Blossoms will be full of people, and you will be able to slip into the Forest unseen.” “Once past the Rock, follow the White River, then you must take Tamran’s Stairway, up by the Falls of Vandar.” Linnad continued, one finger on the map to point the way. “That will take you up to the Fortress level, though it is a difficult climb.”
“You will of course be challenged by the Watchward”, Arnath said, “I will give you a letter to carry to Merhaun. Show the Watchward my seal, and it should suffice. ” “How will you know the Fortress Watch?” Linnad demanded of Lin, “What is their livery, Lin?” “Rust-red, the colour of autumn leaves.” Lin responded promptly, and Linnad gave a grunt of satisfaction and said, “Well remembered!”
“I will ask Merhaun to supply you with horses, provisions, and spare clothing. It will be well if you do not wear your robe to travel after you leave the Fortress, Aiel. You cannot disguise your eyes, of course, but from a distance you will not be recognised as a Priest.” “Why is it necessary?” Aiel asked, as reluctant to surrender his Priestly robe as Lin his horse. “Whether the Secret Word is known to them or not, you will be sure to meet with Children of Night, and to need to use the Lightstone. And once the presence of the Lightstone-Bearer is realised, they will be watching for you. You know that there are few wandering Priests, my son, and none of them as young as you.” “Now”, said Linnad, bending over the map. “We will go over your route again, once you leave the Fortress.”
The whole morning passed in memorising all that the older men could tell them concerning their journey. They memorised maps and places and names, where friends – or enemies- were likely to be found. They listened to advice and warnings, for Linnad and Arnath were anxious that they should have every scrap of information that might help them on their Way. And of course, there was the whole of the Secret Word, with its cryptic meaning, to be memorised too. It was very tiring, mentally, and after several hours of it, both Aiel and Lin were flagging. Linnad advised, “Arnath, these lads are weary. Let them go out in the air for a while.” To his son, he said, “Did you not have some errand to carry out today?” Lin answered, “I meant to choose a Naming Day gift for Mira’s babe.” He sighed, “It does not seem important, now.”
“It will be important to Mira.” Linnad said, “She will not know, yet, about the Way. She will be hurt if she thinks you have forgotten.” “For all of Li’is, life goes on.” Arnath added. He smiled a strange smile. “There will not be many who know what is happening, though it is for their sakes that you are going. And if you succeed, though you save all Li’is, there will be no public rejoicing. They will be unaware of what you have done.”
Aiel thought of the people in the House of Records yesterday – was it really only yesterday? The young couple with their baby, the elderly woman, the anxious merchants. The Way was as real as that – not some mystical crusade, but the means of preventing the enslavement of a world and its people. Its aim, and its reward were one and the same. “Come,” Aiel said to Lin, “Let us go and find a gift for the babe.”
As the two friends walked down towards the market, their path lay close to the House of Healing, and Aiel said, on an impulse, “Lin, let us go and see Lord Dular.” “But why?”, Lin asked. “I wish to – to know, to satisfy myself, how closely the other resembled him.” So they turned aside and went in. Aiel said to Handar, the Healer, “May I see the old Lord from the East? He was brought in while my father was here yesterday.” Handar said, “You may see him, but we have had to give him sweetwood, to calm him. He is sleeping.”
The Healer led them to the chamber where the old man lay, and left them. Priest and Swordsman bent over the sleeping figure, and carefully examined his appearance. Aiel even pulled back the covers gently, to look at the falcon birthmark. Replacing them, he stared into Lin’s face. “Lin, it is the same man! There is no difference at all.”
“Sweet Light, Aiel, what is this Black Piper, that he can steal a man’s mind, and his form?” “A Shape-Changer, my father said.”, Aiel answered, “Therefore a Dark Lord of great power, and both more and less than man. But still I must defeat him, Lin.” The figure on the bed, perhaps disturbed by their talking despite the narcotic spice whose sweet scent lingered on his breath, began to move a little, moaning fretfully. Aiel, moved by pity, drew out the Lightstone, and, seeing Lin’s questioning gaze, said, “It may ease him. Should not the Lightstone undo what the Bloodstone has done?” Without waiting for an answer, he slipped the Lightstone from concealment and laid it to Dular’s brow. The light grew, spilling out of the stone to surround the old man, and when it subsided he lay peacefully sleeping. Aiel hid the Lightstone in its pouch again, and they left the room, bade Handar farewell, and went on their way.
As they passed the Harbour Gate, where two Swordsmen in the green-and-gold of the Harbour Watch stood guard, Aiel asked, “Lin, will not your Sword-Brethren miss you and ask where you are?” “They will be told I have been sent elsewhere, on my Lord’s command. They will not ask further.” Lin said, then sighed, “Still, I wish I could have bidden them farewell, since I do not know when – or if – I may see them again.” Aiel said, regretfully, “Lin, I am sorry I must take you away from all you care for.” His friend told him, “Nothing a man holds dear, whether family, friends, or possessions, should become more important to him than Light. Otherwise they will become a hindrance, not a blessing to him. Does not the Book of Light tell us this? I would not put anything above the command of Light.” And Aiel was comforted by his words. Then Lin added, with just a hint of mischief in his smile and voice, “And, laying aside that I would go in any case for Light’s sake and yours, what Swordsman, save Brann himself, was ever on such a Way, Aiel?” And Aiel smiled back.
They had entered the market area now, and went about the business of choosing suitable gifts for Lin’s sister and her babe. It was while Lin was considering a toy horse of stuffed leather with as much care as he would have given to the purchase of a real mount, that Aiel noticed a man in a tattered black cloak, hunched up on the corner of a street, a begging bowl beside him. Aiel had seen the man many times before; he was a fixture in the market area. But this time Aiel saw, around the man, a kind of dark mist. He shook his head and closed his eyes, thinking the sun was in them. Yet when he opened them again, the same darkness clung around the black-cloaked beggar. Aiel glanced round him, then back to the man. He saw the darkness nowhere but there, and the young Priest realised that, through the power of the Lightstone, he was Perceiving the Darkness in which this man walked, that the beggar was not just a Child of Night, but a devoted servant of Darkness.
Lin hade made his purchase and was regarding his friend curiously. “Aiel, what is it?” Aiel explained as best he could, and Lin exclaimed, “Why, I have passed the beggar many times – even dropped a coin in his bowl now and then – and never guessed him to be a Child of Night! It is a clever disguise, Aiel. Who notices a beggar in the street? What better way to spy for the Children of Night?” Aiel said, “I am glad to know that the Lightstone enables us to recognise our enemies, Lin. I think we shall have need of that gift.”
At that moment there was a disturbance on the edge of the market crowd, which parted to make way for a litter hung with black curtains, carried by two men in black and silver livery. It was preceded by a tall man with a cruel, handsome face, wearing the same livery, a sword at his side. Aiel looked, and was assailed by a clamour of spiritual impressions. It was not just that the same darkness clung to the whole party as to the beggar on the street corner. The aura that came with the black litter was a stench in the air he beathed, a poison that churned in his stomach.
The curtains of the litter parted, and a woman leaned out, very pale, as silver against the black cloth as the trimmings on her servants’ liveries. She extended a languid hand and dropped a coin in the beggar’s bowl, saying something in a quick undertone as she did so. Then, as if she felt Aiel’s gaze, she swung her head like a snake to look at him. Her eyes were hostile, the silver of them hard, like metal shields to hold her thoughts from his Perception. And over all the Darkness and evil Aiel felt in her there was another darkness; a strangeness about her that set his teeth on edge and his neck-hairs on end, as if she were utterly alien to him and all he believed in.
Lin, who had also turned to look at the group, had not seen the effect that it had had on Aiel. He whispered to his friend, “It is Si-Mara. The Silver Witch.” Aiel tried to anser, but he was so shaken by the impressions that he was receiving that his voice came out as an odd grunt, and Lin turned to look at him with concern. Aiel recovered himself with an effort, and said, a little shakily, “Lin, she is so evil! I have never felt such Darkness!” “Aiel, it is not well with you. Let us go now.”, Lin urged, but Aiel straightened, holding his head high, and said, “No! I am a Priest of Light, and the Lightstone-Bearer. Shall I falter at the first true Darkness I meet? I shall have far worse than this to face before the Way ends.” He gave a slight smile. “When you trained as a Swordsman, Lin, did you give up the first time your sword hand slipped? I too must learn to face an enemy now.” Then he added, rather sadly, Lin thought, “I did not think I had any enemies, till yesterday.”
The black litter and its entourage were swinging out of the market. The beggar stayed where he was, and Aiel and Lin resumed their tour of the market. They kept an unobtrusive watch, though, on the beggar, and saw him, after a while, pick up his bowl, lurch to his feet, and shuffle away. They had no doubt that he was carrying out some order of Si-Mara’s – or perhaps the Black Piper’s. Lin found a necklace of filigree metalwork and sea jewels for his sister – “It will remind her of the Harbour and the Sea”, he said – and a small chest of carved sweetwood for the babe’s clothes. Their task completed, they made their way back to Aiel’s home.
Arnath and Linnad were waiting for them, and listened with interest as Aiel told of his experiences in the market place. When he had finished, Linnad promised to set a careful watch on the activities of the beggar, and the High Priest said, “Aiel, my son, it is good that the Lightstone enables you to Perceive the true servants of Darkness. But you must set your spirit to lodge in Light, so that you can withstand the Darkness in them.” “I was not – I do not think I was – afraid.” Aiel answered, “The Darkness in Si-Mara was like – like a sickness to me.” “Aye, because it is out of tune with Light, and all who follow Light.” Linnad said.
“Aiel, Linnad’s words remind me that you must be at the music practice for the Festival.” Arnath told his son. “Remember, everything must be as normal. The Temple Elders know of your Way, but not your Brothers-in-Light. But take the Lightstone Harp. It is as well to accustom yourself to it now.” “But will not my friends be curious about it, and ask me?” Aiel wondered. “What shall I say? I cannot lie to them.” Arnath smiled. “Say that I gave it to you, which is true. They will think it is a Festival gift.” “And – am I to keep the Festival vigil tonight?” Aiel asked. “Oh, yes; it would seem strange beyond understanding if you of all the Temple priesthood were missing.” Arnath told him. “I am glad.” Aiel said thoughtfully, “For it is a good beginning to such a Way. Only, I wish that Lin might join me.” Arnath answered, gently, “Aiel, you know that is not possible. This night is to the Priesthood alone.” Lin said, “Do not be sorry for it, Aiel. I shall keep my own vigil tonight. It is good to wait before Light with your brothers. Yet sometimes it is good, too, for a man to be alone with Light, and his own heart.” “You speak wisely, Lin.”, the High Priest told him, “I will arrange for you to use the Prayer Room.”
When Aiel had collected the Lightstone Harp and gone to the Students’ House for the music practice, Arnath said to the Swordsman, “Lin, come with me to the Temple.” Lin glanced at his father and then followed the High Priest,thinking that they were going to make the arrangements about the Prayer Room. Arnath, though, led him into the main Temple. There were, as always, Priests about the business of the Temple, some counselling the troubled, some praying with worshippers, some preparing for the night’s solemn vigil. There were visitors to the Temple too, people of the City and all Li’is, Children of Light. Arnath took no notice of the others in the Temple, though, but led Lin down to the Crucible. Then, turning to the Swordsman, he said, “I bring you here because I have a thing to ask you, and I wish you to think about it deeply, before Light. Lin, when I asked you to defend Aiel on this Way, if physical danger threatened him, you answered me, ‘with my life, if need be’. Now, here before Light, search your heart, and be sure that this is true; that you spoke from your devotion to Light and you honour as a Swordsman, and not just as you felt you should answer.” He paused, and Lin would have spoken then, but the High Priest signed him to silence, and went on, “I do not doubt you, Lin, that I ask this. I know your honour and integrity. But you are young, and life is sweet, and much of it you have not tasted yet. Do not make the vow lightly.” He paused again and smiled gently, even tenderly, at the young Swordsman. “I do not ask this for Aiel my son, dearly as I love him”, Arnath continued, “but for the Lightstone-Bearer, and the sake of the Lightstone Way. Do not think it is easy for me to say this to you, Lin. If you were to give your life for the Way, I would grieve deeply. No, do not answer yet. Consider, and then speak.”
Lin bowed his head. Arnath watched him with affectionate concern, wondering, since it would have been Trespass to use his Perception, what thoughts were passing through the bent blond head on which the Crucible flame threw its golden light. Lin was considering, as Arnath had said, the question he had asked. The love and joy and power he had felt in the Lightsone that morning, when Aiel had touched him with the holy thing, filled his memory. He did not doubt his own commitment to Light, to the Way, and to Aiel. But – to the death? Lin’s plans for his own life had been simple; to give honourable service to his Lord and to Light, to be, by Light’s mercy, the best man he could, some day to find a maiden to love and marry and have children to follow him, and eventually – but not for a very long time, he hoped, for he loved his father – to succeed Linnad as Lord of the Harbour.
Arnath’s question opened a new dimension before him. As the High Priest had said, Lin was young, and the matter of death had not yet concerned him much. Though he was a Swordsman, his duties were more those of a guardian than a warrior. There were no real battles in Li’is nowadays, no present threat of danger. Attacks by thieves or Children of Night, such as had once befallen Aiel, were his only experience of true violence. But now, he knew, with a leader and a hope to spur them on, the Children of Darkness might rise up against the innocent. As for that leader, all that he had learned of the Black Piper so far showed him to be truly evil, unmoved by suffering, delighting in Darkness. If his plans succeeded, the peace Lin had known might well be nearing its end. Lin knew, like every Child of Light, that to die was to touch Light; he might be afraid of the moment of death, but not its consequences. To die was to be with Light in the Joyous Place, which was better than life. And yet, if he died, he would grieve, not for himself, but for those he left behind, family and friends. he would be sad for duties unfulfilled, for promises not kept, for the love unfound and the children unborn.
Lin found that as he could not separate his duty to Aiel, the Lightstone-Bearer, from his loyalty to Aiel, his friend, no more could he separate his spirit’s loyalty and love for Light from his human fears and failings. He lifted troubled grey eyes to Arnath’s blue ones, offering himself to the other’s Perception, and speaking, not as to his friend’s father and his father’s friend, but to the High Priest of Light. “Friend of Light, help me to carry this thing before Light, for truly, I cannot tell. I think I will not fail the Lightstone-Bearer, but let Light tell me so. I dare not trust my own thoughts.”
To his surprise, Arnath smiled at him, and said, “Good, Lin! That is the right answer. If you were sure of yourself, you would be self-reliant, and might fail. But knowing your weakness, you will lean on Light.” Taking Lin’s face between gentle hands, the High Priest set his Perception on the Swordsman, and felt how Lin laid himself open, putting aside anything that might hinder, leaving his thought, his emotions, his very soul, transparent to Arnath’s Light-guided Perception. Lin had never asked others how they experienced Perception; that too would have been a kind of Trespass. But for him, the blue gaze seemed always to flow, like a cooling, cleansing stream, into his mind. Now, feeling the flow of Arnath’s Perception, Lin felt also the loving Presence that he had felt in the Lightstone, and knowing Light’s care for him, found his problem resolved. He must simply, as Arnath had said, trust not in his own strength, but Light’s.
When Arnath withdrew his Perception, he rested his hands on Lin’s shoulders,and exclaimed, “Well does the Secret Word call you a’ True Sword’ Lin. For Light knew you fully, your loyalty and love, and ordained you to this Way, before ever you came to be.” Lin said, quietly, “May Light grant me the faith I need, to be true.” He glanced round the Temple at the ranks of benches, the Priests and people who were going about their tasks all unknowing of the doom which threatened their ordered world. Nearby some of the Priesthood were preparing for the Festival Night Vigil, and as Lin watched they carried in a stand, and set on it the Book of Light, from which they would read throughout the night. Lin thought about the Book, and about the Secret Word, and Arnath was silent as the Swordsman pondered, respecting his meditations.
The Book of Light – the truths of Light, some gathered and some written by the first Lightfriends – contained many things to feed the soul and spirit. There were words of wisdom, of guidance and comfort, encouragement, prophecy and warning. Above all, there was set forth in it all that Light required of men, and Light’s great Promise. For knowing all things, and that Darkness would enter into what Light had made and attempt its destruction, Light had forewarned the earliest Lightfriends that it would come to be impossible that men might keep the Rule of Light. For those that chose deliberately to forsake Light and follow Darkness, for the Children of Night who delighted in evil, there was no pardon – unless, offered the Choice of Light, they took it, and turned from Darkness to Light. Then for them, as for all Children of Light, there was forgiveness and pardon, for Light is merciful. Yet Light, also, is bound by the Rule of Light, and must be, to be constant. So, because the Rule of Light demands just punishment for evil done, Light had promised that all would fall on one great Sacrifice. In the day that Sacrifice was made, its effects would reach far back to the beginning of time, and forward to the end, and that day itself would be an end and a beginning of time. Meanwhile, all mankind might plead mercy and cleansing by the Sacrifice of Light. Yet when and where that Sacrifice would be made, and what it might be, none knew but Light.
Now, thinking on these things, Lin asked Arnath – asked in a whisper, because the idea was too dreadful to speak aloud- “Arnath, it is not possible – that Aiel might be the Sacrifice of Light?” Arnath replied, “No, Lin. That Sacrifice, whether it be spirit or Dancer, man or beast, must be the purest thing that ever lived, on which Darkness has not even breathed-pure as Light. It is not Aiel.” Lin asked again, “Yet why should Light let such thing be? Why is there Darkness in the worlds at all, that the Sacrifice need be made?” “Because all living things that Light made were made free, with wills of their own. Light made all things to rejoice in Light’s service, not to servitude. Light wills not slaves, but Children. Yet of the Great Spirits set to serve Light, one fell into pride of his own beauty and power, and thence to disobedience, and willed to rule the world himself. Thus he created in himself the Great Rebel, and with his Darkness tainted many Spirits-in-Light, so that they became Lords of Darkness. And they went down into Otherworld and corrupted its Dancers, and set them to rule Ma’al as the Night Lords, and the men of Ma’al – Otherworld- became Children of Night, save those Lightfriends and those faithful to Light who escaped through the Gate that the loyal Dancers made, bringing the Rule of Light and the Lightstone into Li’is, to save it from the fate of Ma’al. The truths of this are written in the Book of Light, for those who will gather their meaning.”
“And that is what the Great Rebel wills to do in Li’is?” “Yes. And once, as you know, he almost succeeded, setting a Dark Lord in man’s shape as ruler here, empowered by a Bloodstone, but he was defeated by Brann and Tamorine and Rafel the first Lightsone-Bearer.” “Then Aiel’s foe is not a man at all?” Lin asked, remembering that Aiel had said of his enemy ‘both more and less than a man’. Arnath answered, “He is a man, a man of Ma’al. But he is more than man, because he has given lodging to a fallen spirit, willingly, and become a Lord of Darkness. Yet still this unholy alliance cannot stand against the Lightstone.” “Does Aiel truly understand what his foe is?” Lin demanded, fearful that his friend might have vowed to defeat an enemy more evil and powerful than he knew. “Oh yes, he understands.” Arnath replied. “That is why he grieved so bitterly that this enemy deceived him and that, unwitting, he has aided the Dark One’s plans.” Lin said, “And he told me, Arnath, that he wished for more courage. If he took up the Lightstone Way, knowing the full power of his enemy, then he is braver than any Swordsman I know.” “He is strong in Light.” Arnath said, and would say no more, but turned their conversation to the preparations for Lin’s own vigil.
Aiel had been making a new music for the Spring Festival, but the final shaping of it had eluded him. Now, though, as he practised the ancient Festival songs with the others, the theme he had sought came to him, and when that part of the practice was finished, he stood and played his new music as it had completed itself in his head. And amid the sweetness and joy of Spring in the melody was twined a thread of tender melancholy for the beauty that would soon be past, yet also a lift of hope, onlooking to the fullness of summer and harvest. The Lightstone Harp, too, had the purest tone he had ever heard, and the music flowed from the strings as though the instrument played of itself. When Aiel ceased playing, there was a moment of breathless silence, and then his friends gathered round with applause and congratulations. Though those did not move him as they would have done so short a time ago, he was glad that he had made one lovely thing that might endure, before he began the Way. For though he had spoken words of courage and comfort to Lin, and though he had no doubt of fulfilling the Way, still he felt that at the end of it, in defeating his enemy he might himself be killed, and go out of Li’is into the Joyous Place. He knew well enough,as Arnath had told Lin, that his enemy was more than man, and evil beyond man’s thought.
His fellow musicians took up his new melody and played it over and over, and he with them, until it was ready for the next day. Then the Music-Master said, “Aiel, we will play this new music of yours tomorrow. Shall you lead us?” Aiel, though, made his excuses, and because his friends knew that he was modest and perhaps a little shy, they did not press him. However, he was thinking that he and Lin must be able to slip away into the Forest, and he could not be in a position near the head of the procession, where all eyes would be on him. Aiel thought to himself that a few short days ago his only concerns had been his service in the Temple, and his music. Now he was overridden by the doom of the Lightstone Way, and though these were his brother musicians and Priests, even among them he felt lonely, set apart. He was deeply grateful that Light permitted him a companion on the Way, and that it was to be Lin. Otherwise, he felt, the loneliness would have been harder to bear than any danger he might encounter. After the practice his fellow musicians crowded round him again to renew their praise for his music, and, as he had expected, to admire and question him about the Lightstone Harp. Obedient to Arnath’s advice, he said what his father had told him to say, but felt sick at heart that he must tell half-truths to his Brothers-in-Light, even for the most compelling of reasons.
It was dusk now, and Aiel returned to his home, not to eat, for the Vigil was kept fasting, but to prepare himself. His father, Lin and Linnad were waiting there for him, but Lin’s father must now return to the Harbour, having already been absent far longer than was usual. He enveloped his son, then Aiel, in his massive embrace, and said, huskily, “Light go with you both. All Li’is is in your hands!” Lin asked, “You will send my gifts to Mira and the babe? And my love to my mother?” “Aye, lad”, Linnad answered, ” though how to explain your going to her – Lin, take care! And guard Aiel well!” He hugged his son again, and Lin promised, “I will, Father. You shall have no cause to be ashamed of your son.” “Dear lad, I know!”, Linnad answered, and bade them again, “Go in Light!”, and turned, and went out, shaking his head a little as he went, because there were tears in his eyes and he did not want Lin to see him wipe them away. Lin said, forlornly, “I wonder if I ever shall see Mira’s babe, Aiel?” “For Mira’s babe, and all the babes of Li’is”, Aiel said, thinking of the child he had named yesterday, “we must succeed, Lin. Else what will they inherit but Darkness and slavery?”
Lin, since he kept his own vigil, would not eat either, and so they went each to their vigil, Aiel with the Priesthood in the Temple, and Lin alone in the Prayer Room. Each of them, through that night, wrestled with fears and forebodings, and laid themselves inwardly naked in surrender to Light, and fought to hold fast to faith and obedience. Each, though they did not know it, upheld the other in his struggles, through prayer. And both shed tears. Yet by morning, both of them were strengthened and comforted and blessed of Light, and when their vigils were over and they returned to Arnath’s house to put on their Festival clothing, they looked into each other’s faces, and each saw the change in the other. “Light has prepared us for our going, Lin”, Aiel said, “and the first steps of the Way will be the hardest.”
Because of the journey that lay before them, they ate and drank then, though it was not customary to break the fast till after the Festival gathering. Aiel was wearing his Priest’s robe, with the Lightstone and Arnath’s letter to Merhaun concealed beneath, and the Lightstone Harp slung on his back. Lin wore a Festival robe in shades of green, chosen so that it might not show up among the greenery of the Forest. As they swallowed the last of their hasty meal, they heard the horns sounding for the rising of the sun and the start of the Spring Festival. They joined the throng as Arnath led out the Priesthood, the musicians in their midst. Aiel took a place near the back, while Lin slipped into the forefront of the following crowd, staying as close as he could to Aiel. The young Priest uncased his harp and waited for the signal to play, and when it came, moved forward with the others, hardly knowing or caring that it was his music they were playing.
The joyous procession wound through the streets of the City, down to the North Gate, which had been opened ready, and out onto the beautiful Plain of Blossoms. The Plain had come to be almost by accident, when in building the City in the First Days of Li’is, Brann and his fellows had caused many ditches to be dug to drain the disease-ridden marshes around the mouth of the White River and the Harbour. Once drained, the soil was fertile, but because of the criss-crossing ditches it was difficult to cultivate, and the farmers preferred the clearer lands of the West. So the Plain had been left to whatever wild things might grow there, and in summer it was a blaze of vivid colour. Now, in the spring, starred with the more delicate shades of the season, it was a fitting and lovely place to celebrate the Spring Festival, the time of rejoicing and thanksgiving at Light’s goodness in making all things new and bringing life again after the cold emptiness of winter.
Lin, though, was looking up at the Mountains that rose beyond the Plain of Blossoms. They were covered in forest almost to the tops, and somewhere among the trees, high up, was concealed the Fortress Level. Above the trees the Spearcleft Pass opened like a great gash in the otherwise unbroken wall of rock, but these mountains at least were smooth and rounded by centuries of gentle rains, unlike the Seacoast Mountains of the Eastern coast, which ran jagged and cruel, capped with bitter snow in winter, for great lengths of the coastline.
Arnath led the Festival throng as near the Forest as he dared, then gathered them around him. Once only he glanced at Aiel, but in that glance the High Priest’s Perception flashed instructions, farewell, and blessing to his son. Aiel, turning towards Lin, who had managed to keep at his elbow, whispered, under cover of stowing away his harp, “When my father calls the people to prayer, we are to slip into the Forest.” Lin nodded. Arnath raised his hands, and the people stood, heads bowed, eyes closed, for blessing. Aiel and Lin had already contrived to arrange themselves on the outer edge of the crowd, and now they edged silently into the cover of the trees. Behind them, they could hear Arnath’s voice, raised in the Festival Blessing.