DANCE THE DARKNESS DOWN

Chapter 5

Aiel had slept well; he had been very tired after his night’s Vigil and the stresses, physical, mental and spiritual, of the day. Despite this, he had half-expected to find himself lying awake, concerned about the Way and the possibility of dangers to Krystha and Arentha, but it had not happened. Instead, he had fallen quickly and peacefully asleep. Lin, too, was well-rested. Knowing that he would have watchful nights ahead of him, and secure in the knowledge that he was in the Fortress, he had been able to relax his customary alertness. For more than one reason, though, he had slept with Brann’s sword within reach.

Merhaun’s steward woke them, and told them that breakfast would be ready in the Great Hall. The clothing provided for them by Merhaun was laid out on the clothes chest, and Lin was glad to be rid of his Festival robe, which he had not found comfortable, and back in everyday clothes. Aiel, though, felt strange. Boots, breeches, shirt and jerkin felt odd and constricting after the freedom of his Priest’s robe and light footwear. It was not the robe, though, which made him a Priest, and the slight weight of the Lightstone round his neck was a reassurance and a blessing. Priest and Swordsman joined the Lord of the Mountains at his table, where a simple but substantial morning meal was laid. Krystha and Arentha joined them a little later, Aiel spoke the Meal-blessing, and they began to eat.

“The provisions are ready”, Arentha said, “and Krystha has what she needs. I have four travelling cloaks for us, and Verrin is seeing to the horses.” Aiel marvelled at her quiet efficiency; she spoke as though she were preparing for a pleasant journey, not the dangerous Way. Krystha asked, “Neither of you has any problem tolerating the healing herbs? Some of them are strong, and some folk are over-sensitive to them.” Lin smiled, “When I was a boy, I think I was smeared with every salve for a cut or a bruise that my mother’s Healer could find. I never came to any harm.” Aiel said, more seriously, “Praise Light, I have never been badly hurt or sick – save once”, he added, smiling at Lin as he remembered his friend’s rescue of him on that occasion. “But I have never been given any herb that harmed me.” “Good.” Krystha said.

Merhaun asked, “You are sure of your way now, Aiel? While you are in the Mountains, let the maidens lead you; they know the paths blindfold. But take care on the Moor, and do not stray from the path.” Aiel promised. As the meal finished, Verrin entered, to say, “The Ladies’ horses are ready. Will you come and see the mounts I have chosen for you, Lord Lin, Lord Priest Aiel?”

When they came out into the courtyard they saw two lads holding the horses. One boy held the reins of two intelligent-looking mares, which must be the girls’ horses. They were nearly identical, almost golden in colour with creamy white manes and tails, save that one had a white foot and one a white blaze on her forehead. The other two horses were a sturdy dapple grey and, to Lin’s delight, the lively bay, Mischief. Verrin told Lin, “I was not sure, at first, about Mischief, but he is fast, and brave, and one of the best of the Fortress herd. And you rode him well, and he liked you, so I thought the choice wise, in the end. Lord Priest, this is Greymouse. I know the Priesthood are not great horsemen, but he will do everything for you. He is steady as a rock, but he is not a plodder. He will give you speed when you need it.” Aiel answered, “Thank you, Verrin, we are grateful.” The Horsemaster looked at them with an odd little smile, and said, “I am thinking it is a strange journey you take, Priest and Swordsman, and the Ladies of the Fortress with you – no”, he continued, as Aiel seemed about to speak, “I do not ask. But my prayers go with you.” Aiel said again, moved by the man’s concern, “Thank you, Verrin.” Lin, though, put one hand on the Horsemaster’s shoulder, and said, “I think it is not only horses that you breed well in the Fortress, Verrin.”

Arentha and Krystha came out, followed by their father, and two servants carrying their gear. Both girls wore simpler versions of yesterday’s gowns, without the embroidery and floating panels. Each had her long hair drawn back in one thick plait. The older girl oversaw the distribution of the saddlebags; provisions and spare clothes in some, small flasks of wine and water in others. Krystha had her Healer’s herbs and tools, as well as the little sack and knife on her belt, Aiel the Lightstone Harp slung on his back, Lin the True Sword sheathed at his side. Arentha slung a coil of thin rope among her goods, and handed out the travelling cloaks. They were woven of two kinds of thread, one silky grey, one strong, coarse green, so that they both reflected excessive heat and repelled all but the heaviest rain. The cloaks were also, though not specifically designed to be, excellent camouflage for the grey-green expanse of the Great Moor.

Lin advised Aiel to go first to Greymouse’s head and introduce himself, and Aiel did so, stroking the smooth nose awkwardly, and jumping a little when the beast blew softly down its nostrils at him. He liked horses – at a distance. He thought them elegant, graceful creatures. But he seldom travelled far, and so, as Verrin had rightly observed, had not ridden much. Lin laughed at his friend’s hesitation. “He will not eat you, Aiel!” The Swprdsman turned to look at the two golden mares. “I have never seen two so like!” , he commented. Krystha grinned. “Should not two sisters ride two sisters? Honey and Whitefoot were bred for us; full sisters, and two years apart, just like me and Arentha.” The lightness was not forced, but it was a defence against the thought of the Black Piper, and the Bloodstone, and the reason for the Way – one last chance of normality before they plunged into the dreadful adventure.

Aiel said, “We must go.” Merhaun came forward and embraced them all, his daughters first. To Aiel, he said, ” I entrust them to you Aiel, Lin – my ‘treasures of the Mountains’.” Aiel nodded, and said, “Merhaun, keep in touch with my father. If I can, I will send him word of our progress.” “Will that not be dangerous, Aiel? Your message may fall into the hands of enemies.” “Not my message, Lord of the Mountains.” Aiel answered. “You forget the powers of the Priesthood, Merhaun. I will send the Thought-without-Words through the Priesthood, until it reached Arnath my father.” “Of course!” Merhaun exclaimed. “I had forgotten.” He stood back as the travellers mounted. Aiel was still a little nervous, but Greymouse stood solidly and showed no displeasure at the young Priest’s unpractised horsemanship. Lin leapt nimbly into his saddle and had Mischief under firm control before the horse had time to play any tricks. Arentha and Krystha slid smoothly and gracefully onto the backs of Honey and Whitefoot, and the company was ready to depart. Merhaun lifted his hand in blessing. “Go in Light, all of you ” he said, “Light be with you , Aiel, Lightstone-Bearer!” They rode off across the smooth turf of the Fortress Level, turning, just before entering the trees, to wave farewell once more to the lonely figure standing just outside the high wooden gates. Aiel glanced at the maidens. Arentha’s eyes were bright as if with unshed tears. Krystha’s face showed no emotion, but her grip on the reins was unnecessarily tight.

Since Arentha and Krystha knew these woods well, it was wiser to let them lead the way, though Lin warned them not to ride too far ahead, drawing a scornful comment from Krystha. They were, she then told them, following an ancient hunting trail, old beyond memory, going back, perhaps, even to the time of Brann and Tamorine. This forest was as full of new life and rich earthy smells and the little scufflings of hidden animals and birds as the forest further down the mountain by the White River, but up here it was not so still and humid under the trees. They could still hear the sound of the Falls below them, but when they crossed the River once, as it meandered across their path, it was scarcely more than a stream, for they were near one of its sources, bubbling out of the very rock of the mountain, fed by an underground spring. A food-beast, winter prey of the Fortress’ huntsmen, was drinking by the river; it raised terrified dark eyes and bounded away in panic as they came near, A little further up the mountain they came to a clearing in the forest where a small wooden building stood, a shelter for hunters who might be spending the night on the mountainside. Lin insisted on investigating the building, but it was empty, and, assured that there were no enemies there, he allowed them to ride on.

They had been riding for a long time, always upward, when the trees began to thin and they caught their first glimpse of the Spearcleft Pass, the narrow gash in the mountain range that was the only door to the North. Arentha said, “Let us stop for a little and refresh ourselves.” The others agreed and dismounted, tethering their horses, and she gave them pieces of bread, baked fresh that morning and spread with soft, creamy cheese, and some fruit. They ate peacefully, sitting on the grass in the shade of the trees, but as they were finishing their meal, Lin gave an exclamation. “Lin, what is it?” Aiel asked. “Something moved – there, in the bushes.” Lin answered, quickly rising to his feet and drawing his sword.

They followed his anxious gesture, and saw the bushes stirring, rustling. Aiel’s hand went to the Lightstone, Krystha’s to her little knife. The bushes parted, and they saw no human enemy, but what might be as deadly – the broad, brindled-tawny head of a hill-cat. At second glance, though, they saw that the beast was no danger to them. Its head hung low, its eyes were dull, and it breathed as if it had been running hard. Then, as it came out into the clearing, they saw it was a female, heavily pregnant, flanks heaving. Krystha whispered, fiercely, “Be still, all of you! Do not frighten her!”

To Aiel and Lin’s astonishment, the great beast crept, trembling and panting, across the grass to Krystha, and rested her head, with a moan, against the girl’s knee. Lin began to protest as Krystha leaned to run sensitive Healer’s hands along the beast’s sides, and was silenced by a hiss from Krystha, a low, impotent snarl from the hill-cat, and two pairs of blazing, tawny eyes. Aiel, feeling there was no danger from the exhausted beast, was somewhat amused by Lin’s discomfiture. Krystha was speaking to the animal in a low, gentle voice. “Hush, mountain-sister, I will help you. Ah – it is twin cubs, and a difficult birthing.” The hill-cat moved, unsteadily, a few steps away from the Healer, then turned her head, as if asking Krystha to follow. The girl rose to her feet, and seeing Lin about to protest once more, said softly, “Swordsman, follow if you must – but at a distance. And, unless I am in peril, do not interfere!” She turned and followed the hill-cat into the trees, and Lin looked at Aiel, with a lift to his eyebrow that betokened puzzlement and resignation. Aiel nodded, and Lin followed the pair at a discreet distance. Aiel looked at Arentha and said, in amazement, “I have heard of such things, but always thought them only legend – that a sick beast, at need, will recognise a Healer, and come for aid.” Arentha answered, musingly, “Did not Light form the beasts and birds, as well as men, and Dancers, and spirits of various kinds? Surely everything Light has made has some small measure of Light’s wisdom.”

Lin had followed Krystha and the hill-cat into the trees, and saw them plunge into a tangled mass of bushes. Glancing in, he saw the hill-cat sink down by a fallen log, and Krystha bend over her, so he turned away again and took his stand outside the bushes, drawn sword in hand, alert for any sound of danger, whether from the hill-cat, from enemies in the woods, or any sound that might tell him that Aiel and Arentha, left alone , were in peril. He heard many and strange sounds from the bushes, but nothing that sounded dangerous, and was growing weary of his watch, when the bushes stirred, and Krystha appeared, signalling silence, and beckoning him to follow with a hand that was streaked with red. Moving quietly after her, he saw the hill-cat lying in the shelter of the fallen log, contentedly curled round two blind, damp, squeaking cubs that were already making determined efforts to suckle. Krystha bent and stroked the huge, brindled head, and to Lin’s surprise the hill-cat’s big, rough tongue came out and licked the girl’s hand. Krystha turned a smiling face to Lin and signalled him again to retreat quietly, leaving the hill-cat and her cubs in peace. When they were far enough away, she stopped and wiped her bloody hands with rags from her Healer’s sack. Lin said, softly, “That is one of the most amazing things I have ever seen. The beast knew you, and came to you for help. How did she know you were a Healer?” Krystha shook her head. “I do not know. I have heard of such things before – old Harik told me it has happened several times to him. I have had small beasts, tame beasts, come to me once or twice – but never a hill-cat!” “Were you not afraid?” The Healer shook her head again. “She was too exhausted to do me any harm. She must have been struggling to birth those cubs for hours – perhaps days.” “But how does a beast know a Healer?” Lin wondered again. “Old Harik said that perhaps a beast, with its keener sense of smell, can scent the healing herbs on our hands, and know us by that. It may be true.” They had continued on their way, and Lin said, smiling, “When the beast came to you, and I was about to stop her, and you prevented me – I think I was not sure which was the hill-cat!” He spoke jestingly, not thinking, as to a friend, and a moment later was sorry for his words, afraid that she might take offence – she was so volatile. But to his surprised relief, Krystha only laughed.

They rejoined Aiel and Arentha, and Krystha poured a little water over her hands, washing them as she and Lin told about the hill-cat. Krystha seemed amused by Lin’s wonder over the incident, and teased him that City-dwellers might know much about horses and hounds, but little enough of other beasts. “No?” Lin asked, “You have your hill-cats, Krystha, but have you ever seen a sea-cat?” They had remounted by now, and when Krystha answered, “No”, Lin amused them as they rode by telling of the night he had been taken out on a small ship from the Harbour by a friend of his father’s, to watch those rare and beautiful animals. He described their beauty, their sinuous grace, the gleam of their glossy blue-grey fur in the moonlit water, their soft cries, their huge, dark, almost human eyes, and described them in a gentle, almost poetical way that was most unusual for him. It was evident that the sight had made a great impression on him, though, as he said, he had been only a boy at the time. “Such gentle, beautiful creatures”, he concluded, “yet there are those who hunt and kill them for their fur, and others who pay well for it. My father has tried to outlaw the trade, but it still goes on.”
Krystha said, “I would not have thought that you could care so much for simple beasts, Swordsman.” For once, it was neither a challenge nor a jibe. Lin made her some pleasant, half-joking answer, and they rode on in companionable silence, the girls still leading. Lin drew his horse alongside Aiel’s and said, quietly, “I am glad the hill-cat came. Krystha may be hot-tempered and sharp-tongued, but there is no doubt in me now of her courage, or her Healing skills.” “She is certainly brave”, Aiel agreed, “but a hot temper and a brave spirit may lead her into foolishness. Let us hope she is able to discipline herself, at need.” Arentha turned her head to call to them, “We should be through the Pass by nightfall. Then we can camp on the other side of the mountain. The descent can be dangerous at night.”

Aiel felt a stirring in his Perception. Lifting his head, he cast out the net of his Priestly sense, but could find no definite source. Still, he was sure enough of what he felt to call the others round him, and warn them, “We must be careful. My Perception says there is Darkness on the mountain.” “The Black Piper?” Krystha asked. “I think not. I am sure I would know him, if I Perceived him.” “Do you know what it is?” said Lin, hand hovering above his sword-hilt. “I have no clear impression”, Aiel answered, “Only a sense of Darkness – but strong.”

They rode on warily and quietly, especially cautious since the trees and bushes were thinning fast, leaving them little cover. The last stretch of the mountainside was steep, boulder-strewn, covered with short, rough grass and low-growing, tough-stemmed plants, more suited to the nimble food-beasts than riders on horseback. The going was slow and Lin was uneasy. Up ahead lay the beginnings of the Pass, at first a mere crease in the rock, but gradually deepening to a gully and then a high-walled, narrow col, that twisted out of sight into the depth of the mountain top. It was too good an ambush-place. “Maidens, between us, now!” the Swordsman ordered. “Here, if anywhere, will be where danger lies. Aiel, do you Perceive anything?” Aiel sent out his Perception once more, and knew that Lin was right. The mouth of the Pass swam in misty darkness, and at the heart of it he felt one being, one single Child of Night, but laden with dark power. Not Lak, though, he was sure of that, though why he was so sure he could not say.

“You were right, Lin”, he told his friend, “There is an enemy ahead – powerful in Darkness, but not the Black Piper.” Lin drew his sword and said, “Maybe the maidens should wait while we see what lies ahead.” Krystha spoke, “Swordsman, I think that would not be wise. There is danger ahead, yes, but there may be danger around or behind also. Safer that we stay together.” Lin considered this, then said, “Aye, you reason well, Krystha. A divided company is twice at risk. Come, then, but be on guard.” Aield drew out the Lightstone, but left it concealed in its pouch, and said to Lin, “If the danger is Darkness, your sword will not overcome it. Leave it to the Lightstone.” Lin agreed, but his unease increased as they neared the Pass, though he rode with the True Sword in his hand. He had no way of knowing how Aiel, who had never been trained for combat of any kind, might fare in the confrontation that lay ahead.

Cautiously they crept up the deepening approach to the Spearcleft Pass, turned the concealing bend, and checked their horses. In front of them, at the very mouth of the Pass, stood a solitary figure, blocking their way. It was a woman, dressed all in black, her fall of pale hair touched with glints of red by the dying sunlight – Si-Mara, the Silver Witch. In one hand she held a long staff of polished black wood, topped with a strange ornament of silver metal, like a crescent moon on its back. Now she lifted and held out the staff before her, turned sideways across their path, and looked at Aiel with her pale eyes that were like silver shields. Seeing her close to, Aiel was surprised that she should be so young. Knowing her reputation, he had expected her to be older, but he doubted, now, if she were more than seven or eight years older than himself. He returned her gaze, his blue eyes challenging, but she resisted his Perception.

“Go back. Aiel!” she said. Her voice was sweet, reasonable, but Aiel heard, not the honeyed tones, but the menace and evil that lurked behind them. “Only danger and death lie ahead! See!” She moved the staff in a sweeping arc, and dark shapes leapt up at her shoulder, menacing phantoms that moved through scenes of conflict and torture, fire and death, falling mountains and stricken earth. The movement of her staff painted nightmare on the empty air, confusing reality with a dark world where monstrous, raging beasts tore at them and dark spirits howled with inhuman glee. Aiel heard Arentha give a cry of fear, and realised that the hallucination gripped them all. With an effort, he overcame the nightmare long enough to reach up and slip the Lightstone free of concealment. It blazed with white fire, and Si-Mara’s staff shattered in her hands. She gave a scream that was as much of fury as fear, and made to run, but Lin, freed from the thrall of her dark enchantment, rode down on her and plucked her off her feet and rode back to Aiel with the woman struggling and cursing on his horse’s neck.

Aiel had dismounted, and now said, “Set her down, Lin.” Lin obeye, and Aiel looked full into the face of the Silver Witch. She could not now resist his Perception, for the power of the Lightstone lay behind it, and her shielded silver eyes were forced to give way before Aiel’s blue gaze. One last moment of resistance, and then his Perception was through the barrier and into her mind. Never had Aiel experienced Perception like this. Normally the Priesthood set their Perception on willing minds and souls, those who had appealed to them for help or searching or cleansing. Aiel had never Perceived anyone who was not welcoming of his Perception. To have to force his Perception on Si-Mara, though necessary, was against all Aiel’s training and instincts.

Entering into her thoughts, he experienced not only her hatred and contempt for him, and her enmity to Light, but also the Darkness she delighted in. Thoughts, plans and memories, so evil and depraved that he could not have imagined such things existed, lay open to his Perception. Yet he persisted in his searching of her thoughts, though it felt to him like drinking poison, for he needed to know as much as he could of the Black Piper’s plans. Still Si-Mara tried to resist, to conceal from Aiel what she knew of Lak’s intentions, but the Lightstone-Bearer sought and found the knowledge he needed. One thing, though, puzzled Aiel. In all of the Darkness in Si-Mara there seemed one tiny part he could not reach, something that seemed part yet not part of the Silver Witch. It had a strange neutrality,as though given neither to Light or Darkness, or, as strangely, given equally to both. Stranger yet, he felt as though Light reached through the Lightstone, through his own Perception, and touched the strangeness in Si-Mara. Somehow, though he was assured that this odd occurrence was nothing that affected his present Way.

Having the information he had sought, Aiel withdrew his Perception, glad to leave behind the Darkness in the Silver Witch, but held her still with his eyes and the Lightstone, staring at her. She was as cold and cruel as bitter snow, yet she was beautiful. He wondered how anything so dark and evil at the core could be so outwardly fair. “Si-Mara”, he said, his voice full of authority, though he was inwardly shaken,” by the power of the Lightstone and the Name of Light, I command you to return to the City and not to leave it, nor communicate in any way with Lak.” For a moment the Lightstone blazed, and then its light withdrew. Si-Mara stared at him for a moment and then, like an animal released from a trap, turned from him and fled away down the mountain path. Aiel felt nausea rise in him, a reaction to the evil he had experienced in Si-Mara. He turned away from the others and was horribly sick, and afterwards found he was trembling and sweating like a terrified horse. Krystha had come to his side and was gently wiping his face with a cool, damp cloth, for which he was very grateful. Lin asked anxiously, “Aiel, what ails you? Is it some evil enchantment?”

“No!” Aiel gasped, ” I – had need of her knowledge about Lak – that is why I had to set my Perception on her. And her mind was – like poison, Lin, so dark and foul and delighting in evil. It made me sick to my stomach!” Krystha, meanwhile, had filled one of her little wooden cups with water, crumbling dried herbs in it, and handed it to Aiel, commanding him to, “Drink, and settle your stomach, Aiel.” Aiel did as she told him, and felt the inner churning begin to ease. More calmly, he said, “I have always known of the existence of Darkness and evil. Sometimes I have seen a little of it in those I have helped in the Temple. But never before have I looked it full in the face and seen its true horror.” “It may be no bad thing”, Lin said thoughtfully, “My main doubt about this Way was that you were too innocent of Darkness, but now you will know your enemy.” “But now they know of me too.” Aiel said. “How Si-Mara learned of my Way I do not know, for I could not Perceive it. I think Lak does not know -yet. But Si-Mara has already sent him word. And my father was right, he is not so far ahead of us, for he has paused to feed the Bloodstone. Si-Mara did not reckon with the power of the Lightstone, though, so perhaps Lak too is overconfident, wielding the Bloodstone. Still, we may have lost the advantage of surprise. Lin, you are the strategist, not I. What is your advice?” “That is difficult, Aiel! We must now be doubly watchful and careful of ambush, yet we cannot afford to lose time. I think our most important aim is to maintain unity. Whatever needs to be done, we must all be in agreement, and do it instantly. For now we must cross the mountain with caution. The Pass is narrow, and more Children of Night might lie in wait.” “I Perceive no more Darkness there.” Aiel said, after a moment’s pause, “but you are right, Lin, we must be cautious.”

Subdued by their experiences, they remounted, and continued through the narrow Pass. Though Aiel had Perceived no more Darkness near, Lin was still on edge until they had passed through, and found themselves on the Northern side of the mountain. Lin and Aiel had never come here, and Krystha and Arentha only rarely. The trees and bushes lower down this side of the mountain were not as thick and strong of growth as on the Fortress side, for, as Merhaun had said, they were stunted and twisted by the cold wind that swept down periodically from the sharp-toothed Seacoast Mountains to the East. By the time they had reached the tree-line it was growing dark. They did not need to search for a camp-site, for the girls knew of a little spring, almost dry in high summer but full-flowing now in Spring, where they could water the horses, which decided their resting place. Lin, as he had been taught during his Forest training, began to make two withy shelters, tying down young, supple, low-growing branches for a framework and weaving gathered greenery into them. Krystha assisted him, obviously well-used to the task, while Arentha prepared a simple meal and Aiel led the horses to drink, then tethered them where they could graze on patches of new spring grass and wildflowers.

There might be other Children of Night in the area, though beyond reach of Aiel’s Perception, they knew. It was necessary to keep watch, and Aiel insisted that he should take turn with Lin. The Swordsman could not be expected, he argued, to ride all day and watch all night. Krystha and Arentha would have been willing to take a turn, also, but Lin vetoed that. The danger to a maiden, alone in the night, from any Children of Night, was too great. He was uneasy even about Aiel, but realised the wisdom of his friend’s words. Lin’s half of the watch passed uneventfully, and he was indeed beginning to feel weary towards the end of it, and almost envious of Aiel and the maidens, curled up inside their cloaks, asleep in their respective shelters. He was not sorry when it was time to waken Aiel. Lin ducked into the shelter and woke Aiel quietly, whispering, as his friend came awake, “Aiel, are you sure? I can easily watch…” “All night?” the young Priest asked, “No, Lin. Each of us will have need of strength, and neither should watch all night.” He stood up, huddling into his cloak, and smiled at the Swordsman reassuringly. “Do not be fearful for me, Lin. I have the Lightstone.”

As Aiel left the shelter, Lin, realising the sense of his comments, curled up in his own cloak and tried to sleep, but he was still uneasy. Aiel went out into the cool air. There was no fire, for that would have betrayed their presence, and he went and stood near the horses, for warmth and, if he were truthful, for company. Greymouse, grown used to him through the day’s riding, nuzzled gently against him, and he felt somehow comforted by the beast’s friendliness. Below, the Moor lay like a dark sea, the wind that blew across it making it sound, too, like the sea. Far across it gleamed a few small lights, some yellow, like lamplight, some red,like fire. Aiel wondered which of these, if any, might be the lights of the First Faring House. He slid out the Lightstone and gazed into its gentle glow, shielding its light in his hands, wondering anew what unrevealed powers it might have. Again his thoughts strayed to the lights on the Moor, and suddenly his Perception soared, as though lifted and thrown, out over the dark expanse. Aiel gasped. It was like flying, as his thought and vision swept out across that dark, empty plain. Not, though, towards the yellow light of homes and houses, but to the red firelight it drew him. Then Aiel knew why the Lightstone called him here, for he saw, in the dim red glow, the Children of Night at their unholy revels, and behind them houses burned, making the firelight in which they cavorted and coupled. To one side stood a man, dressed all in black, tall and pale, and on his hand a red stone glittered, that seemed to pulse and glow in the light of the burning homes. And Aiel knew his enemy.

The pale face lifted suddenly, as if he were aware of Aiel’s Perception, the burning green eyes challenging. To Aiel’s horror the green gaze locked with his Perception, and he looked straight into the mind of the Black Piper. Then he knew that if to look into Si-Mara’s mind had been like drinking poison, to Perceive the Black Piper was to come face with face with death, a death slow and horrible, like drowning in thick, stinking, sucking mud. Unable to free himself, Aiel threw all of his being into a desperate appeal to Light. For long moments he drowned slowly in Lak’s evil, then he was aware of something Other with him. Something Light-sent and bright and powerful, before which the Darkness in the Black Piper quailed, something that snatched him from the Piper’s thrall, and hurled his naked, bleeding soul back across the miles into his body again. Aiel gave a great and terrible cry, and fell senseless to the ground.

Lin, who had been only half-asleep, woke fully at that cry, knowing his friend in danger, and ran outside. Looking round, he could at first see no sign of Aiel, but then glimpsed a dim light where the horses were, and hurried towards it. Drawing near, he realised that it was the Lightstone, unshielded, lying on Aiel’s breast as the young Priest lay on the ground. “Aiel!” he cried, kneeling at his friend’s side. For a dreadful moment he thought that Aiel was dead, for his eyes were wide open, staring fixedly upward. Then Lin saw his friend’s chest rise and fall as he breathed, and tried to waken him, but failed. Leaping to his feet, he ran to the maidens’ shelter and called for Krystha. He heard her answer almost immediately, and in a few moments she came out of the shelter, Arentha stumbling sleepily behind. “What is it, Lin?”, she asked. “Aiel.” he answered, briefly. “Some harm has befallen him. Krystha,come, he needs your skills.” He hurried her back to where Aiel lay, and Krystha carefully examined him, then shook her head. “Lin, this is a shock of the spirit. I can do nothing unless we can rouse him.” In his fear for Aiel, Lin snapped at her,”They said you were the best Healer in the Fortress! And you can do nothing?” If he had thought about it, he might have expected her to return his anger. Instead she said, very gently, “Lin, it is an ill of the soul. You are his friend. Tell me how to reach him.” Her quiet words were calming. He stared at Aiel. “Let me try”, he said, and knelt, and called to his friend.

Aiel did not wish to waken. He wanted to curl into the farthest corner of himself, and forget the fear and pain and Darkness. He could hear a voice, a voice dear to him, which he would have answered, but for his longing to lose himself. Lin, looking at Aiel’s unresponsive face, felt that he could weep, or scream. The Way could not end like this. Suddenly a thought came to him, seemingly from outside his own mind. Obeying it he reached out slowly, unsure if he were doing right or wrong, and touched the Lightstone. No harm befell him at the touch, and so he lifted the Stone and laid it to Aiel’s brow. A gentle light ran over Aiel, pouring out of the Stone. Then into Aiel’s spirit came Light, and his fear of the great Darkness he had seen fled away before it. The Light enfolded, healed and comforted him, and in his thought the words of the Book echoed; ” The weakest of Light is stronger than the strongest of Darkness”. Aiel knew the words well,but only now did he realise their full meaning; that though body might weaken and soul despair, the spirit that clung to Light must overcome Darkness. Ready, now, to return to the task appointed to him, full of awe and gratitude at what Light had done, he heard Lin’s voice call his name again, and focussed his eyes on his friend’s worried face.

“Aiel!” Lin exclaimed, slipping his arm beneath the young Priest’s shoulders and lifting him up. “What has happened? Is it well with you now?” Krystha appeared at their side and said, still so gently that it seemed a different maiden spoke, “Hush, Lin! First let Aiel drink this draught and regain his strength. And you also, Swordsman!” Lin gave one of the proffered cups into Aiel’s hands and was about to protest that he himself needed no reviving draught, until he realised that his own hands were trembling with the after-shock of his fear for Aiel. He took the second cup and drained it. The taste was strong, though not unpleasant, and after a few minutes he felt warmth and new strength in him. Lin helped Aiel to his feet, and they gathered round him with concerned questions. The Lightstone- Bearer raised his arms and said, “First , let us praise Light, for Light alone has saved me, and the Way.” After this, he told them what had happened, and how he had become entrapped, With awe at the thought, he said, “Light sent me aid – a Shining One, a Spirit-in-Light, it must have been- to free me and to send me back.”

The others instinctively glanced around them, as if they expected to see some great burning presence hovering near. But there was nothing on the quiet mountainside. Lin said, “I should not have let you watch alone, Aiel!” “No, Lin, you are wrong. The danger was not here. Our enemy is far across the Moor. I went out to meet him, and Light permitted it – even drew me to him. I suffered in the meeting, but it has strengthened me in Light. And it would have been the same were I on watch, or lying in the shelter. Lin, I know the promise you made to my father, but from some things you cannot protect me, nor, perhaps, should you. There are pains we must experience that are meant to make us grow.” This Lin accepted, and turned to Krystha. “Krystha, I owe you my apology. I spoke to you harshly and most ungraciously, and was angry with you without cause, when you were trying to help Aiel. Will you forgive me?” The Healer laid a hand on his arm. “Lin, you were moved by fear and care for your friend. There is little enough to forgive in that, but what there may be, I will forgive you.” Again, Lin was surprised at her new gentleness.

Arentha, who had been quiet most of the time, as was her way, spoke now. “Should we try to sleep again, or make ready for our journey? The dawn winds are stirring, and the sun will rise soon.” “The Children of Night are on the Moor”, Lin reminded them, “and their Dark Leader.” “But by what Aiel says, they are far to the West of the Faring House”, Krystha argued, “and the Fortress horses are swift. This may be our chance to overtake them.” Aiel said, “I would make what speed we can, but I am loath indeed to bring you, maidens, near to the Children of Night.” Krystha had half-turned away, looking towards the East, towards the Seacoast Mountains. Above them, at the highest arch of the sky, the larger and slower-moving of the two moons of Li’is, that was called the Shield, shone brightly and was nearly full. Midway between it and the horizon was the smaller, faster moon, which was called the Hound, because it pursued and overtook the Shield twice for each of the Shield’s journeys. The Hound was only half-full now, but in a few days time it would be full and level with the Shield, also full. That would be the time of the Two-Moon Tide, when both moons tugged at the waters of the seas, and tides were high and perilous, and no ship would venture out. Now, though, dark veils of cloud were beginning to slide across both moons, and low in the East a great mass of storm-cloud was already streaked an angry red by the yet invisible sun. Krystha said, “Look! A storm is hatching in the East. I smell rain in the air. We shall have need of speed.”

None of them disagreed with her, knowing that in weather-lore as in herb-lore, the Healers of Li’is were the wisest. So their choice was decided for them by the threatening weather, and they paused only briefly for a quick breakfast before they gathered up their little baggage for departure. Lin, though, unmade the withy shelters, with Krystha’s help, in case they should betray their passing. They could not hurry the first part of their journey, for the stunted, twisted trees on this side of the mountain, though not so thick, had roots that in places arched bare and twisting out of the ground, and could have tripped an unwary horse and rider. So they had perforce to ride slowly and carefully, and when Lin made some remark about the slowness of their going, Krystha flashed back, “Would you, then, break your neck and end your Way so soon, Swordsman?:” It was as if the gentle Healer of the night’s perils had never been. Once on the Moor itself, they made better progress, though there were still rough places and tussocks where a horse might stumble. Lin, though, and the maidens of the Fortress, were skilful riders, and Aiel, though a novice, could rely on the steady, sturdy Greymouse to avoid the dangerous places. They had not ridden far when, as Krystha had foretold, the first drops of rain began to fall. At first it was only a shower, but then the drops grew thicker and heavier, and a chilling wind blew with them out of the East, taking all the warmth of Spring from the day. The travellers raised the hoods of their cloaks against the weather, but found themselves slowed by the rain, for the spongy surface of the Moor soaked up the wet and became in places slippery and treacherous, and at times the path almost disappeared.

It was a gloomy place, and a gloomy day, and Aiel dared not even bring out the Lightstone to hearten them, in case the spies of the Children of Night should be near, and see. Soon, despite the travelling cloaks, they were sodden through and through with rain, and not one of them spoke, riding steadily on in the face of the rain. Lin could not help but feel admiration for the staunchness of Arentha and Krystha, as they rode on, uncomplaining. They did not – could not – stop to rest or eat, but rode the day through – a seemingly endless, dreary day. At last Aiel sent out his Perception, and found the First Faring House, for he was afraid that they might have strayed in the storm. Their way, though, was straight, and the Faring House lay not far ahead. To Mell, though, the Priest-in-Charge, Aiel did not extend his Perception, not knowing what other guests Mell might have, “It is not far now”, he said, ” It has been a long riding.” “A long riding, and well ridden!” Lin said, smiling at Arentha and Krystha. He meant it for a compliment, and Arentha smiled wearily back at him. Krystha, though, raised her head and glared at him. Her hair was dark red with the wet, but the amber eyes burned like fire, and she chided him for ‘patronising’ her. Lin forbore to answer, but wondered if he might ever be at peace with her, who was sometimes so mature, yet at other times acted like a spoilt child. They trotted silently on through the rain and the gathering gloom, until, as they reached the crest of a small rise, Aiel gave a little cry of triumph and relief. Below them, set in its stone-walled tree-garth, windows bright with welcoming yellow lamplight, lay the First Faring House.

Published by afaithbasedfantasytrilogy

I'm first and foremost a Christian. I'm also a widow, mother of 5, grandmother of 9, and a retired school librarian.

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