DANCE THE DARKNESS DOWN

Chapter 7

Aiel was the first to wake, and as soon as he did, was assailed by memories. Too wise not to let them find release, he rolled onto his stomach, laid his head on his arms, and wept for the dead girl and the slaughtered babe. Then, when the first outpouring of his grief began to subside, he sat up and took the Lighstone in his hands, gazing into the peace-filled glow of it, losing his pain and grief in the Presence of Light.

Lin woke slowly, which was not usual for him. He did not realise, at first, that this was because his mind was unwilling to break free of the clinging mists of sleep and face what he had experienced. The memory, though, drove through the lingering sleepiness like a spear, and Lin, unsure for a moment if it were memory, or some dreadful dream, turned towards his friend and cried, “Aiel!” The young Priest laid the Lightstone down and, seeming to Perceive Lin’s thoughts, said, with a sorrowful gentleness, “No, Lin, my brother, it was no nightmare. That was the true face of Darkness.” Lin stared blankly at his friend, aware only of the churning whirlpool of emotions in his heart and mind. Aiel, full of compassion for the Swordsman, said, “Lin, it is time now to feel it all – and then seek peace.” He held out the Lightstone, but before Lin could respond, they heard Lady Saditha’s voice calling to them from outside the door. Aiel answered, and the Healer came in. “Ah, you are both awake. How is it with you now?” “For myself, I have let myself feel all, then found my peace in the Lightstone.” Aiel said. “And I think it will do the same for Lin.” “And the maidens?” Lin asked.

“Arentha – she has also given full expression to her grief, and it will be well with her”, the Healer said, “but Krystha is another matter.” “She is not still unconscious?” Aiel asked, with concern, just as Lin asked, too, “What ails her, Lady?”. “Oh no, she is awake, but still she holds in her grief and pain. It is as if she will not acknowledge them. I spoke to Arentha, who tells me Krystha will never weep. She thinks she is being strong and brave, foolish child. Why can she not understand that if she holds back her grief, it will poison and destroy her? She should know that, she is a Healer. But she will not listen to me, or Arentha.” “She would know it, in any but herself.” Aiel answered. “Her father too told me that she will not reveal her feelings.” Lin said, suddenly, “Lady – she will not listen to you or Arentha, and I think she will not listen to the Priest kind – even Aiel. But to me, perhaps, she may listen, as she did in the Ruins when Aiel could not reach her, because I am her Sword-Brother. Let me try, at least.”

Aiel said, “Lin, you have not yet dealt with your own feelings about this thing. Let the Lightstone aid you first, then go to Krystha.” The Healer seemed about to speak, but Lin said, “Aiel, no. I think that is not the right way about. Let me go first to Krystha and show her how I feel – let her see that I feel the pain and am not afraid to show it before her, that a Swordsman too can grieve. Then, if I succeeed with her, we can both come to you for healing with the Lightstone.” “Yes, you are right, Lin”, said Lady Saditha. “Go to Krystha and show her that it is not unbecoming a brave spirit to weep. I will send Tavis to show you where she is.” The Healer left them, and Lin dressed hastily, anxious for Krystha. When Tavis came, he followed the Priest back to the Healing Place, but past it, along a corridor, to a door on which he tapped, then opened for Lin to enter. The Swordsman closed the door and turned to face Krystha, who was standing by a bench seat in the middle of the room. She returned his gaze without speaking, and Lin saw that she still had that air of tight control, that pale, stony face. At that moment Lin felt more helpless and unsure of himself than ever in his life. “Krystha”, he said, “it is not well with you.” “It is well with me.” she contradicted him. “Are you a Healer, to know?” “I know that last night you lay fainting at my feet with the burden of what had happened. And though I am not a Healer, Lady Saditha is, and she is greatly concerned for you, because you will not admit what you feel.” “How do you know what I feel?” she argued. “Because I feel it too!” he almost shouted. “I am not ashamed to say it, Krystha, so why do you deny it? You must know that if you hold in your grief it will poison your soul – you are a Healer.”

She did not answer that, but stared at him dumbly with wide, dry eyes that were somehow more moving than tears. In that moment, Lin felt as though he could bear no more. He had wanted to help Krystha, he had somehow been so sure that he could reach her, but now, with his own unresolved feelings still battering at his mind, the burden of her need, added to his, was too much for him. He sank down on the bench with a groan. “Lin – Sword-Brother- what is it?” Krystha’s voice was suddenly unsure, as she came to stand in front of him. He looked up at her, but could not see her expression clearly, because she was standing between him and the window, with the light behind her. “Why will you not let me help you?” he asked. “I wanted to help you – I told Lady Saditha I could, because she said you were being poisoned by your wounds. And I know how your wounds feel, because I am your Sword-Brother, and my wounds are the same. Not bodily wounds, no, wounds of the spirit, but still we have both been sorely wounded, Krystha.” Lin felt his own grief and anger rising in him, and did not try to hold them back. “If you say you do not feel it, I do not believe you…how can you say so?” he went on, stumbling over his words, not even sure if he was making sense to her. “Do you not grieve for the little maid, for her terror and pain – oh, Krystha, she was hardly more than a child!” Lin was weeping now, freely and openly giving vent to his grief. “And the babe, the little babe! He was about the same age as my sister’s little one – a few weeks born and then murdered. How terrible Mira’s grief would be, if that were Janir! Can you say you feel nothing for those poor young parents, Krystha?” He could not speak then, for a while, because he was so overcome by the thought of such a precious child torn away from a young couple like his sister and her husband and murdered to feed the Bloodstone, and he almost forgot Krystha in his mourning.

After a while, though, he realised that Krystha was sitting beside him. Her face, no longer stony, had a look of bewildered hurt, and she said, with a gasp, “Lin – do not – do not say that! That I felt nothing for the babe’s mother. I tried -” she swallowed, and he thought she might weep, then, but she did not. “I tried to do what I could – to hide the ugliness from her – to show her that at the last someone had cared for him in his death. And the girl – oh, Lin, I have seen death before, but never like that – so cruel, so wantonly inflicted. And I could not help her, I could do nothing, not even to ease her dying” Krystha took another deep breath and said, in a rush, “and you – you took me for Sword-Brother, Lin; I did not want to shame you. I wanted to be strong – and I failed you.” He caught her hand, then, and cried in protest, “Ah, Krystha, no! You were strong, and brave. But do you not see that strength lies, not in denying your feelings, but facing them?” She was still, very still, but she did not take her hand from his, When she broke her silence it was to say, so quietly that he thought she almost hoped he would not hear her, “Oh, Sword-Brother, I am afraid.” Lin stared at her, trying to understand. Was it her memories of yesterday, her own emotions, that she feared? No, not those, he felt. Then what, in the Name of Light, made her so afraid to express those feelings? And perhaps it was Light that told him. He looked at her averted face. Then he turned it back to face him, and took her other hand, so that she could not hide her face from him. “Krystha, look at me.” he commanded, then, “What has made you afraid to weep? What has taught you that your tears were valueless? It is not so, Krystha.” She did not answer, but he had felt her give an odd little jump. And then the first slow, cold tears began to ooze from under her tightly closed eyelids. Even then she would have turned her face away from him again, but once more he turned it back. “No, Krystha, do not fear me” he said, his voice more gentle, but still commanding. “I am your Sword-Brother, and I know” – remembering Lady Saditha’s words- “that it is not unbecoming a brave spirit to weep. I will value your tears, Krystha. Let go!”

Even then, he was not sure if she were reassured by his words, or simply too exhausted to fight her own emotions any more. But the red head turned suddenly to thrust into his shoulder, and she leaned against him and began to weep. At first her tears were quiet and restrained, but once those tears had found release, she wept more violently, sobbing out all her held back distress and grief. Lin put an arm round her shoulders to support her, like a wounded comrade, and he too wept a little, quietly, partly because he was still not done with grieving, but mostly with relief because, after all, he had helped Krystha, his Sword-Brother. When at last they had both done with tears, they looked at each other almost shyly. Then Lin said reassuringly, “See, Krystha, we have helped each other weep out the poison. Is it well with you now?” “Yes”, she whispered,”Lin, thank you – for understanding, for letting me weep.” “I am glad ” he said “that I could help you. And that you felt able at the last to trust me with your tears.” “Who should I trust” she said, with an attempt at a smile, “if not my Sword-Brother?” “But why – no, I will not ask. But I am surprised that you could not let yourself weep, knowing what harm it could do to hold back your grief.” “Always I turned my grief to anger” she told him, honestly.” Oh, you know that well enough, Lin. I felt – somehow I felt – I would be more like a Swordsman if I did not weep.” “But now you know that Swordsmen also weep.” he told her. “Perhaps it is a good thing that I have learned that now, Lin – for there may be more tears ahead of us on this Way ,Sword-Brother.” Lin agreed, and thought privately that she seemed softer in her spirit now – not in any weak sense, at all, but as though her strength, which had always seemed unbending, almost brittle, had been tempered by sorrow to a new kind of strength. Perhaps Arentha’s kind of strength, he thought, remembering that Lady Saditha had said of Krystha’s sister, “You will bend and not break, like a reed in the wind.” Arentha had wept, and not broken, while Krystha had collapsed under the weight of her unshed tears.

“Are you ready now to go to the others?” Lin asked her. “Aiel will strengthen us with the Lightstone. ” “Yes” she said “but, Lin, I have drawn strength from you too. It has been a battle for me, and I was glad of my Sword-Brother.” They went to find Aiel and Arentha, looking first in the Healing Place. There was nobody there but a serving maid , who directed them to the Hall of the House, where they found the other two sitting talking quietly with Lady Saditha. Arentha leapt to her feet when she saw her sister, and ran to embrace her. “Oh, Krystha!” she exclaimed, “Is it well with you now?” Krystha reassured her, and Aiel said, “Lin, Krystha, come and let the Lightstone finish the healing of your hurts.” They did as he bade them, first Krystha, then Lin, having the Lightstone touched to their brows and feeling themselves washed, revived and strengthened by the power that came to them through the Stone. Aiel too noticed the change in Krystha, but he sensed also that Lin seemed, like Krystha, to be at once gentler, yet stronger. ‘We are all changing’ he thought ‘Is it the Way, or the Lightstone’s touch, or simply obedience to Light, that makes it so?’ For he knew the changes were for the better,a process of maturing. he himself no longer felt defeated by the evil he had seen, only more determined to overcome it.

Next came what was becoming a familiar routine; breakfast amid a welter of maps which Brath and Tavis brought in. Lady Saditha had gone to have some fresh provisions prepared for their journey, for in the previous day’s turmoil they had not eaten at all, and much of the food Mell had given them was dry or spoiled. Brath said, “It is a good two days’ journey up to the Plateau, and another day before you reach the Ket’s camp.” Aiel asked, “I thought that the Westerners were wanderers, and moved around the Plateau. How do you know that the Ket’s camp will be there?” “The herdsmen – the keepers of horses and cattle- are the wanderers.” Tavis said.”They and their families roam the Plateau to find springs of water and fresh grazing for their animals. But the Ket has a fixed camp. He and his family, his warriors and their families stay in one place on the Summer Pastures, so that he and his elders – who also stay there- are available to decide any problem that may arise among his people.” “I have met some of the Westerners.” Lin said. “My sister is wife to the Lord of the Western Fortress. They move Westward to his Land-Watch and the Western Fortress at harvest time.” Brath nodded. “They move up to their Summer Pastures on the Plateau just before the Night of the Warrior Children, and stay there till First Harvest Horn. Then they move West.” “What is the Night of the Warrior Children?” Krystha asked, forestalling Aiel, who had been about to ask the same question. “As soon as the snows have melted from the lower slopes of the Western Mountains in Spring, the Westerners are off to their Summer Pastures”, explained Tavis, “and the boys just coming to manhood begin their Sword-Training. But because, by Western reckoning, they have been cooped up in the villages and Fortress all winter, they are allowed one night of licence, one last night to be children, to romp or be as foolish as they wish – to do anything they want to do, with no fear of punishment.” “Such a freedom might be misused.” said Lin. “It sometimes is”, Brath answered, “but the Watchers take note. To the Warrior Children they are mysterious, hooded figures who may appear or disappear at any time, but do not interfere. In truth, though, they are the Sword-Trainers, disguised, and they take note of any lad who behaves in a foolish way. When his training begins they will be careful to give him extra training where it is needed, until in time he becomes aware of his own fault and corrects it himself – even makes amends for anything done amiss on that night. There are no dishonourable warriors among the Westerners.”

“Will the Ket welcome us, though?” asked Aiel, returning to the matter in hand,” And will he aid us in this Way?” “The Ket is true to Light,” Brath said,” he will aid you.” “Where shall we find shelter for the nights, if it is a three days’ journey?”asked Lin. “There are some suitable places to camp on the way up” Tavis told him, ” and some hollow places, hardly caves at all, but they give some shelter. Only make sure some beast has not chosen it first.” “On the Plateau it may be more difficult, unless you happen on some of the herders to give you space for the night.” Brath continued, “You may have to sleep in the open. But that will only be for one night, and it should be dry on the Plateau. After that the Ket will give you shelter.” After their discussion, they made ready to go on, but as they mounted their horses, all of them felt some reluctance to leave the Faring House. Lady Saditha even begged them to consider staying a day longer to recover from their painful experiences, but Aiel said, his face set with determination, “Lady, there is no time!” and she did not try again to persuade them . They bade their kind hosts farewell, and rode away. Lin felt that now they were truly alone. Only once before had they had to make camp, and that had been on territory vaguely familiar, at least, to Krystha and Arentha. Now there was no familiar ground, no Faring House, no helpful Priest – though Aiel could, at need, summon aid by the use of the Thought-without-Words. But how long would it be in coming? Then he reminded himself that Aiel bore the Lightstone and he himself the True Sword. Light was with them! Lin felt ashamed of his doubts.

Leaving the Second Faring House behind them, they could already see, as they turned Northward, the high, level land for which they were aiming, and the land between rising, falling, but always to rise again towards the Plateau. It seemed a gentle, placid countryside after the mountains, the rough Moor, the evil Red Forest, and the terrors of the Dark City Ruins, the nightmare ride through darkness to the Second Faring House. They did not let themselves feel secure, though, pleasant though the countryside looked. The evil they pursued might still be lurking there. At first they made easy going over the soft, springy turf, and each gentle swell of the ground was only a pleasing break in the smoothness. It was enjoyable riding, and at first Aiel, now so much more used to being on horseback, enjoyed it as much as the others. The sun was pleasantly warm, the sky blue, the crushed grass sent up a fresh, green smell that was refreshing. After the Darkness that had shadowed them since they left the City, it was peace and benison, and if any of them thought of those evil things, they did not mention it, but spoke cheerfully of their pleasant surroundings. Aiel, though, was alert, his Perception extended, ready for any hint of Darkness.

After half a day’s riding, they stopped in a little hollow to eat, and let the tethered horses graze on the fresh grass. When they set off again, they found that the ground was now growing steeper, and where there had been mere rises and dips in the terrain, now there were beginning to be real slopes and valleys. It began to be quite difficult, especially for Aiel, to control their descents, and it was much harder riding. At last they reached the top of the steepest slope they had yet attempted, and saw that it descended again, quite steeply still, into a little valley, through which a stream was running. They looked around them. Ahead, the ground rose yet more steeply towards the Plateau. Far, far to the West rose a range of mountains, so distant that they looked like faint grey and lilac shadows painted on the skyline. To the East, as far away, the horizon dipped into a blue-grey blur that might have been the sea. The valley below them, partly wooded, was not straight, but turned sharply at the Eastern end and disappeared under a mass of vegetation. Westward, it curved more gently, and though the stream mostly ran through a deep channel, just at that point there was a kind of beach, a wide area of pebble-strewn, sandy soil, where it should be possible to obtain water.

Aiel turned to ask Lin, “What do you think, Lin? Shall we make camp here? There is water, and some shelter. I know it is not yet dusk, and we could go further. But for myself, I am tired, and not sure I could manage such another steep slope. And we may not find more water, if we go on.” Lin and the girls nodded agreement, and Lin said, “I think that is wise, Aiel. If we stop now, we can leave earlier in the morning. And this is a good place to stay.” It was actually quite difficult to descend the steep slope, and after Aiel had almost fallen once, they dismounted and walked the horses down the last part. That done, they tethered the beasts, and first built their shelters. After this, Lin said, “I will water the horses – no, you need not come, Aiel, you look tired.” From the bottom of the valley they could not see the little beach, but Lin led the horses round the curve of the valley towards it. Arentha and Krystha were busy preparing food, but they would not let Aiel help either. Krystha said, in her blunt way, “Aiel, Lin is right. You look ready to drop. Lie down and rest, while we make the meal.” So Aiel – not unwillingly, for the riding and the prolonged use of his Perception had made him very weary – lay on his back on the soft grass, and watched them.

He must have drifted into sleep, for he came suddenly awake with a sharp sense of Darkness, of evil, very strong and very close. He made to sit up, so that he could warn Arentha and Krystha, but found that something cold and hard was against his throat. He opened his eyes and looked up to see, momentarily, only a thick cloud of Darkness. Then, within the black mist, he saw a man, and realised that a Child of Night was bent over him, holding a knife to his throat. He knew that Krystha or Arentha would have warned him, if they could, which meant that they must be captive too – or worse. But where was Lin? Quickly he cast out the net of his Perception and felt Lin’s presence, still by the waterside with the horses. Lin did not have Perception, but he was a Way-Sharer, and the Lightstone’s power would aid Aiel. Could it possibly be Light telling him that he might reach Lin’s mind with his Perception? He framed a wordless, urgent call for help, that carried with it a warning for Lin, and concentrated his Perception into sending out that call. All this took only seconds, while he looked up into the face of his captor. The man cursed loudly, and called to some unseen accomplice, “This one is a Priest!” “A Priest?” the other answered, “Bring him here.” Aiel was dragged to his feet and saw that Arentha and Krystha – thankfully unharmed, he realised- were being held captive by two men, each girl with a hand held over her mouth to silence her. A fourth man stood to one side, evidently in command.

“Light grant they know nothing of the Lightstone!” Aiel thought, as he was hustled across to the group. Then he realised that he was Perceiving a response from Lin to his wordless cry for help, and knew, with astonished gratitude, that Lin had received it. Now he concentrated on trying to channel to Lin, through his Perception, a picture of what was happening and felt that Lin received that too. Not only that, but he clearly Perceived Lin’s thought,’I am coming, Aiel! Try to distract them.’ It seemed he was already doing that, simply by being what he was. The Children of Night were perplexed by a Priest without a robe, in company with two maidens. They obviously had not, from their talk, any idea about the Lightstone, or even the Bloodstone, only that something important was stirring in the realm of Darkness. The man with the knife, once he had realised that Aiel was a Priest and could not be carrying weapons, even became less cautious in his handling of his prisoner. As the Children of Night discussed what to do with their captives, Aiel could Perceive Lin’s stealthy approach. Playing for time, he said, “Let us go, and do not harm the maidens. Do you not fear Light?” The leader stared at him, and said, “Fear Light? We serve another master.” “But the Darkness will bring you only loss and pain and harm!” Aiel argued, and now he was not just trying to buy time, but to turn these men from the dark path they were on.

Suddenly, Lin erupted into their midst, True Sword in hand. Aiel did not even see where he came from. All four men were momentarily shocked into stillness, then everything became a storm of motion. The man with the knife, and the leader, drawing his sword, turned on Lin, ignoring Aiel, from whom they thought they had nothing to fear. Aiel pulled out the Lightstone, which blazed as he freed it from its hiding place. Lin was fighting off the two men. Krystha bit the hand that was over her mouth, hard, and kicked out at the shins of the man who held her sister. Arentha, finding the man’s hold loosened, jerked herself free, turned, and gave him a surprisingly violent push that overbalanced him. Aiel cried out,”Stop! I command you, in the Name of Light!” Startled by his loud, authoritative tone, the Children of Night glanced round at him. Krystha pulled one arm free, tugged viciously at her captor’s hair, and, as he loosed his hold, picked up one of the fallen branches they had gathered to make a fire, and struck the knife from the other man’s hand, as Lin disarmed the man with the sword. But all fight left the men as the Lightstone took them in its hold. Aiel made the men line up before him, and searched them with his Perception and the Lightstone’s power. Three of the four were wholly evil, wholly given to Darkness. He saw their evil thoughts, the plans they had had for the maidens, and was sickened. Still, though, knowing it was not for him to judge, but Light, he offered them the Choice of Light, but even in the face of the Lightstone’s power they sneeringly rejected it. So one by one, he bound them by the Lightstone’s power to their own places, and sent them away.

The fourth man, though, was different. Sensing this, Aiel left him till last, till the others were gone. There had been something in the way he had stared at the Lightstone…and he was younger, much younger than the others, nearer Aiel’s own age. Aiel set his Perception on this young Child of Night, hoping that he was young enough to be rescued from the Darkness. The first thing that surprised him was that the man – it was the one who had held Krystha captive, and his hair was till rough and tousled by her pulling it – did not resist his Perception. Rather, it seemed almost a relief to him. The second thing was that the man, whose name, Aiel Perceived, was Parin, had been secretly appalled by many of the things he had been expected to do as a Child of Night. Then why, Aiel’s Perception gently questioned, had he gone on? For a moment there was a barrier there, but suddenly it disintegrated, and Aiel saw the pain at the heart of the man. Rejection, abuse, appalling uncertainty and loneliness, no sense of ever loving or being loved, had all heaped up in him from childhood. How could he accept the truth about Light from the example of parents who paid lip-service to Light, but whose cruelty and neglect towards this unwanted child were more of Darkness? This was the first time that Parin had truly encountered Light, and Aiel felt his bitter shame and longing. The Lightstone-Bearer felt a deep compassion for the unhappy young man, and knew that Light’s compassion mingled with his own. He withdrew his Perception and saw that Parin’s eyes were filling with tears. The young man gave a wail of despair and dropped to his knees at Aiel’s feet. His body curled over as if in pain, he wrapped his arms around himself as though to find some comfort, and he wept like a lost, frightened child.

Sweet-natured Arentha, always sensitive to pain or grief in others, cried, “Aiel, what have you done to him?” “I have done nothing.” Aiel answered. “It is his own need and grief, his pain and shame, that makes him weep.” He bent over the unhappy Child of Night, and said, “Parin, I can give you the Choice of Light.” The other’s reply was muffled, so that Aiel had to lean to hear it. “I did not know – and now it is too late!” “It is not too late.” Aiel said firmly. “Light is merciful, and loves you, Parin.” That brought the sorrowful face up, staring at him. “How should Light love me, when I have walked in Darkness? I have been an enemy of Light!” “Perhaps.” Aiel said, “But Light has always loved you, and Light will forgive you, by the Sacrifice of Light.” “I did not know” Parin said again, wistfully, ” what Light was like. I thought it was only laws to keep. There was no law in Darkness, and I was accepted. But there was cruelty there too, worse than I had known before. There was no true place for me to belong, in Darkness or Light.” “Light has made laws” Aiel said “to be obeyed, but they are for our own good and protection, Parin. Surely, now that you have stepped outside those laws, you can see that?” “I can. But what is left to me now, Priest?” “The Choice of Light is left to you. Choose to serve Light from now on, and the Darkness will be washed out of you.” “As easily as that?” “Yes – and no. The Choice of Light is easy. But after that you will have to make choices every day, to do the good and not the evil. Light will change you. But you must also, with Light’s aid, change yourself. Do you understand?” “Yes.” “Then will you take the Choice of Light?” “Yes” Parin said again, and gave a deep sigh of surrender. Aiel held the Lightstone to his brow and watched the light wash over him, watching the changes in his face as Light worked, then set his Perception on Parin and gently led him through the renunciations he must make, and into understanding and acceptance of what was now his, in Light.

Lin, Arentha and Krystha, who had been watching – and praying – all this time, were swift to welcome Parin into Light, as soon as the thing was done. Parin found their forgiveness almost harder to believe than Light’s. That Light could forgive him was an awesome miracle. That these people he had wronged were rejoicing with him, forgiving him, welcoming him as a brother in Light, Krystha countering his desperate apologies for how he had handled her with her own for biting him, even tending the wound her own teeth had made- that seemed to overwhelm him, so that he wept again. When they had all grown less emotional, Parin asked, “May I come with you?” Sadly, Aiel shook his head. “We have our feet set on a Way you cannot take, Parin. I am sorry.” Parin accepted this, but asked, “Then where shall I go to learn more of Light?” “To Brath and Tavis at the Second Faring House.” Aiel answered. “Do you know it?” “I know it. It is about a day’s ride from here.” “Good. Then go there, and tell the Priests what has happened – that you have been in Darkness, but that you met me, and were offered the Choice of Light, and have accepted it. Brath and Tavis will show you the way of Light.” “Who are you, though? You can be no ordinary Priest, unrobed, and with that blessed Stone.” “I am Aiel, the Lightstone-Bearer.” the young Priest answered. “Tell my Brothers-in-Light that you were sent to them by the Lightstone-Bearer.” “The Lightstone! ” Parin exclaimed. “I thought it was only a legend.” “So did I -once!” Aiel told him. Before they sent him on his way, they gave Parin a few provisions, and he told them what he could of the activities of the Children of Night,though the group he had been attached too were not involved-yet, at any rate- with Lak, but had been up to mischief on their own account. Then they prayed for him, and blessed him, and watched him scramble up the slope of the valley with a joyous step. At the top he turned, waved, and called his thanks and blessings, then disappeared down the other side.

There had been no time yet to think about what had been happening, since there had been first, the need of dealing with their attackers, and, second, the need of freeing Parin from the Darkness that held him. Now, though, they began to discuss what had happened, and Lin asked, “Aiel, I heard you – I did hear you – call to me, not with your voice, but your Perception. And I do not have Perception! How was it that I heard you?” Aiel shook his head. “I cannot tell, only that it seemed Light told me to call you so, and I had the Lightstone to aid me – and I so badly needed you to hear me.” He looked round at them in some embarrassment, and added, “The need might not have been there, if I had not fallen asleep.” “Do not blame yourself for that.” Krystha told him. “They were fast, and quiet, and upon us before we knew it. You could not have fought them, Aiel.” “No, but I would have Perceived them” he said,”You are sure you were not harmed?” “I was frightened” Arentha said, “and perhaps Krystha’s pride was hurt…” with a smile at her sister,”Nothing worse.” Lin, when they questioned him, explained his sudden appearance among the Children of Night. With no other cover, he had ridden Mischief along the stream-bed until he heard voices, and so risen up apparently from the depths of the earth to surprise their enemies. “And Krystha, I have not thanked you for disarming the knifeman”, he said. She nodded, and said, “He was the danger to you. A Swordsman may hold off a swordsman, but a man with a knife might slip under his guard.” Lin grinned at her, “You think like a Swordsman, Krystha”, and she smiled back. Arentha said, “And after all, Aiel, there is no harm done. No one is hurt. Parin – praise Light- has been turned from Darkness to Light. The Children of Night are banished from here, and cannot join Lak’s followers. All is well.”

They returned to their tasks. The girls had to prepare more food, for the other had been trampled and scattered in the fight. Lin collected Mischief – who, belying his name, was still waiting patiently in the stream, nibbling at the grass he could reach – and went back to retrieve the other horses. Aiel made a small fire – it was safe enough here, where they might, if seen, be taken for some of the outlying Westerners. Soon, with the horses tied nearby, and the sky rapidly darkening overhead, they sat around the fire and ate their simple meal, and talked about what lay ahead. At last they retired to the shelters they had made, leaving Lin on guard, and he promised to wake Aiel to take his turn on watch. Aiel, remembering what had happened on the night he had kept watch before, and had his encounter with Lak, hoped that Lin would not be tempted to let him sleep on, out of fear for his safety. However, Lin woke him at the promised time, telling him that all was quiet. Aiel must have slept very deeply, for he felt quite rested and alert, and went out to his place by the fire. He saw that Lin had found a fallen log and rolled it near the fire for use as a seat, and having looked at the horses and stroked their smooth necks in greeting, he went back and seated himself by the fire. He sent out his Perception, and found nothing untoward. No darkness threatened them, for now, and he relaxed, enjoying the quiet beauty of the night. The Shield had risen now and was being pursued by the swift little Hound. The light of the two moons mingled with the firelight and made soft light around him. Further over, under the little copse, were dappled patterns on the grass where the moonlight sifted through the leaves. The fresh smell and quiet murmur of the stream rose to him from where it ran in its hidden channel, and mingled with the green smell and soft rustling of grass and trees. It was a rare moment of peace.

Aiel heard a deeper rustle in the grass, and a shadow fell across his knees. Looking up, he saw Arentha there, though for a moment the dim light made her almost unrecognisable; her face a pale mask floating above the darkness of her gown, beneath the dark cloud of her hair; her eyes black pools, impenetrable. But then she smiled her sweet gentle smile, and stepped past his feet to seat herself beside him, and was instantly herself again. “Arentha?” he said, questioningly, “It is late, and we have far to travel tomorrow. You should be sleeping.” “I woke when I heard Lin call you.” she answered. “I tried to sleep again, but I thought of you, alone out here, and I could not. Aiel, never in my life have I questioned the Will of Light. But I think of you and the burden you bear and the task that is laid on you, and it seems so – so unfair! If you had deliberately wronged Light – then I would understand. But you were innocent.” “You speak as if I were being punished” he said, as if he had never felt that way himself. “And are you not?” “No!” he exclaimed. “Arentha, all that there is of justice lies in Light. Therefore, what Light has decreed for me must be just. I do not understand much of what has happened to me yet. But I shall. And yes”, he admitted, ” for a time I too felt that I was being punished for something I had not done, but it is not so. There is a purpose for me in this, and it will prove to be for my good – even were I to die, I believe that, Arentha. The Lightstone is not just a weapon. It teaches and sustains me.” “Oh, AIel!” she said sadly, “I wish I could understand better. I see only that you are burdened, and I want to help you, to make your task easier. Yet I cannot, because I do not know what to do.” Aiel was moved by her care for him. Softly he said, “It does ease me, to know that you are so concerned for me. Arentha, if you wish to help me, trust Light fully, and pray for me, lifting me to Light.” “I will” she said, simply. “Are you not also anxious for yourself, and your sister?” he asked. “I am anxious for all of us, Aiel. This Way is a fearsome thing. But we do not bear the responsibility and the – the loneliness of your task.” Aiel looked into her sympathetic face and, not knowing why, lifted his hand to touch her cheek. “Thank you, Arentha, for understanding so well.” he said.

He was indeed grateful. Her kindness and concern seemed to lighten his load. She smiled at him, and suddenly he felt as though something constricted his breathing, as though his heart would burst. For a dizzying moment he thought he had fallen to some sudden sickness, for even his thoughts would not obey him. Then he was back to normal, though he felt the pulses drumming in his temples and throat. Aiel knew then, though he had never felt such an emotion before, that he was falling in love with Arentha, and the knowledge was joy and terror together. He dared not let his feelings for her affect the Lightstone Way, and he was afraid that when the time came when he must use her as a weapon in the battle for the Dancers, his will might fail. “Oh, Sweet Light, help me!” he prayed quickly, inwardly. Arentha, it seemed, had not noticed his sudden emotion, and he was careful not to show it. He chatted with her a little longer, just for the pleasure of keeping her there with him, of letting himself delight in the way he felt for her, even though he must bear in mind that it could be a stumbling-block for him, unless he took great care. After a while, though, he said, “Arentha, it was kind of you to come and comfort me, but you should go and sleep now. It will be well with me.” She obeyed him, bidding him a smiling “Goodnight”, and went back to the shelter. Aiel, left alone with the moonlight and the firelight, sat gazing into the red heart of the fire, watching the little leaps of flame, the bright sparks, and curls of smoke. For the first time he let himself consider what might lie beyond the end of this Way. If he won through and defeated the Black Piper, and if he were not killed in the doing of it – nor Arentha, he thought with a shudder- then perhaps she might come to love him too – when there was time for love. But he must not let his dreams for the future distract him from his path. The Way of the Secret Word was his, until it ended in victory, or death. For in one of those ways it must end, Aiel knew. There was no other possibility for him.

The rest of the night was peaceful, and he used the time wisely, in meditation and prayer, in using the Lightstone to strengthen himself, and in cataloguing his own emotions – including his new feelings for Arentha – and making sure he had them in hand, so that they would not distract him, and thus imperil the Way. At last the night began to lighten, and he looked up and saw the sky, at first softly pearled with faint misty lilacs and pinks, grow gradually lighter and more golden-bright with sunrise. The morning was still and cool. A single bird flew overhead and cried plaintively, the stream still murmured, the horses snuffled, the dying fire gave a few faint crackles. Aiel stood, and stretched, and drew in a deep breath of the fresh morning air, laced with the bitter-sweet tang of burning wood. He felt he had finished a night’s Vigil, strengthened, calmed and refreshed by Light. Aiel put more wood on the fire and stirred it back to life, wondering if he should go to fetch water. He decided against it, since he was on watch, but not long after that Lin emerged from his shelter, stretched, and gave a mighty yawn. “Aiel”, he greeted his friend, “The night has been quiet?” “Quiet and peaceful” Aiel replied.”Will you watch here while I fetch water, Lin?” At his friend’s nod of assent he collected the water-bottles and went down to the little beach to fill them. At the same time,he scooped up a drink in his hands, and splashed the cool water on his face to refresh himself.

When he returned, Lin was moving the horses to fresh grazing. When their tasks were accomplished, Lin looked at Aiel and said, “So, the night was quiet. But still, something has happened to you in the night.” Aiel was startled, especially after the events of yesterday. Lin had caught the call of Aiel’s Perception then. Was he beginning, by constant nearness to the Lightstone, to have a kind of Perception himself? Then he smiled at his imaginings. No, Lin would be the first to notice any change in him, for they were bond-brothers if not true brothers, and Lin knew Aiel better than any. Aiel, seeing that his friend was still regarding him with a look of enquiry, said, “Yes, something happened…” And though he flushed a little to explain his feelings for Arentha, he told Lin of their night-time conversation, and how he had realised how he felt towards her. He told Lin, too, of the fears he had felt, that he might not, when the time came, be willing to let Arentha risk danger. “You will not fail, Aiel.” Lin said. “I have seen you grow so much, since we began this Way, and to lean more and more on Light. I think when the time comes, you will trust to Light, and give Arentha into Light’s keeping.” “I have never cared for a maiden before” Aiel said, as if he were somewhat bewildered by it all, “but you have, Lin. How shall I know if I love her truly? I will not offer her a love that is half-hearted.” Lin smiled. “You and I are different, Aiel. Yes, I have thought myself in love once or twice. I have known maidens that I was fond of. But not, when I thought deeply about it, enough to share my whole life with them. And so we parted friends. I think perhaps it is the maiden one cannot live without, rather than the maiden one could live with, who is the one to wed. But you, Aiel – when you love, I think it will be once and for always.” “When I know I cannot live without her.” Aiel murmured. “That is a true saying, Lin. Thank you.”

Just then , they heard the girls stirring too, and soon they came out of their shelter, smiling good-morning to Lin and Aiel. They went to wash at the little beach, then, with Aiel’s help, busied themselves with preparing breakfast, while Lin watered the horses. When Lin returned, they sat on the grass to eat their meal. It was growing warmer, and it looked to be a clear, bright day. Aiel said, “I wonder how far ahead Lak is? He too must cross the Plateau.” “The Ket is wise” Lin answered, ” and may not be deceived. He may hold the Dark One.” “Wisdom may not do well against Darkness, and sorcery.” commented Krystha. “Krystha is right.” Aiel told them. “Lak is more than man, and he carries the Bloodstone. The Ket cannot stand aginst that. Nothing can, but the Lightstone.” “And the Lightstone-Bearer.” Arentha added. “I do not think” Aiel went on “that anything will stop Lak, until we reach the Meeting Place. Else what need would I have of this” – he touched the Lightstone Harp that lay beside him – “or of Arentha’s singing? Once the Spirit-in-Light tore me out of Lak’s grasp, because the time for that battle had not yet come. The next time I face him, it will be time for the battle.” “Aiel” Lin said, hopefully, “if Light sent a Shining One to help and protect you before, perhaps, when it comes to the time for you to face Lak, there will be such help again.” But Aiel shook his head. “No, Lin, I do not think that is the way it will be. I have the Lightstone for weapon, and surely the Secret Word would have spoken of the Shining Ones, if they were to play a part. They have their own tasks to perform, and their own way of making war on Darkness. This task, though, is laid on me.” Krystha said, “It is hard, sometimes, to understand the ways of Light. The Shining Ones could have defeated Lak and saved Li’is, without need of your carrying the burden of this Way, Aiel. Why did it not happen?” “Because that is not the way Light meant it to be. This Way is a task for men, not Dancers, nor Spirits-in-Light. And we know from the Book that Light may allow things which seem to cause us only pain and suffering at the time. Yet afterwards, we find that because of what we have suffered, we have grown in Light, and are stronger.”

Meal, and discussion, ended, they packed up their gear and set off again, riding through country that rose ever more steeply towards the Plateau. It was an uneventful day, but they were still alert for danger, since on each part of the Way thus far, it seemed that something had happened to them. This day, though, wore into evening with no worse thing than the steep uphill riding, and they found one of the shallow caves that Tavis had told them of, to rest in for the night.

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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