DANCE THE DARKNESS DOWN

Chapter 8

Next morning they set off again, and after a morning’s hard riding up a narrow, dusty path, found themselves at last out on the Plateau. It was surprising, after the last part of the journey had taken them through such steep and comparatively dry areas, to see the vast, flat expanse of rough green grass spreading in all directions. They knew that they must head North-West to reach the Ket’s Camp. Up here, that should be easy enough, for they could see a long way across the Plateau, and, because the air was so clear, further than they had seen before. They could see, far to the West, and some way behind them now, the Western Mountains, where the river rose that watered the Western farmlands, where the Western Fortress, home of Lin’s sister and her husband, stood. To the East they could see the beginning of the shining arc of the Great Bay, where the sea swept in to scoop a large curve out of the coast. Ahead of them stretched the vast grasslands of the Plateau. Gauging by the mountains, and the sun, Lin led them across the Plateau, easy riding after the steep climb. They rested and ate, then carried on, wondering where they might find a place to sleep when all seemed alike, and wide open to the sky. Eventually, however, a long way ahead of them, they saw dark moving dots, which must be some of the Westerners with their horses and herds. Knowing that the Westerners prided themselves on their hospitality, Lin said, “Maybe the herders will give us shelter for the night, Aiel.”

They rode towards these signs of movement, and finally coming up with the herdsmen, confirmed that they were heading in the right direction to reach the Ket’s camp. Lin’s kinship to the Lady of the Western Fortress served as introduction, and the herders were courteous and friendly, gladly offering refreshment and shelter for the night, while Arentha responded with the offer to share their own provisions. Aiel and the maidens, never having met Westerners before, were intrigued by them. The Westerners, it was said, were a proud people – not in any negative way, but in the way they honoured their heritage and way of life. Legend said that they had come, a new race, into Li’is in Brann’s time, arriving with the Lightfriends, out of Ma’al itself, when the followers of Light separated themselves from the Darkness there, and came to save Li’is from that same Darkness. Certainly, with their golden skin and dark hair and eyes, they were distinctive, as was their way of life, but they lived among and had fought alongside and sometimes intermarried with the other peoples of Li’is, and did not hold themselves aloof.

Next morning, they thanked their courteous hosts for their hospitality, and the herders showed them the way to the Ket’s camp. After they had ridden for a while, it grew hot, even up on the airy Plateau. They discarded their cloaks and stopped for a cup of water, then went on. At last they could see, ahead of them, a cluster of what looked like coloured buildings. As they drew nearer, though, they saw that it was a kind of city of large tents, bright and many coloured, but with red, blue and green predominating. At the heart of the camp was a large area of clear grass, like an arena, and in the middle of it a great pavilion with banners and pennants flying from it and decorated with gold coloured fringing – surely the Ket’s tent. As they drew near the camp, they were not surprised to meet two guards on the outskirts. The challenge came, “Who are you, strangers? What do you want in the Camp of the West?” The tone of the challenge was courteous, even though the words were not, yet Aiel Perceived a feeling of underlying hostility, which surprised him. Quietly he answered, “We are travellers from the City and the Fortress, on an urgent journey, and we bring a message for your Lord, the Ket.” The guards conferred for a moment, then one said, “Follow me, strangers.” They dismounted and followed, leading their horses. Between the line of tents a wide pathway led to the Ket’s tent, and the guards led them down it. It was not , perhaps, strange that the Westerners should crowd out of their tents and line the path to see the strangers pass, but the total silence in which they stood was both unnatural and unnerving. As they passed the silent ranks lining the way to the Ket’s pavilion, Aiel knew that something was dreadfully wrong here. The traditional courtesy of the Westerners was nowhere evident; instead, these faces barely concealed suspicion and distrust of them. In his spirit, he knew that Lak had passed this way, and left some evil in his wake.

Inside the great tent, when his eyes accustomed themselves to the change of light, Aiel saw more guards, a group of older men, and, at the far end of the tent, a man sitting in a high-backed seat. “The Ket”, Lin whispered to him. The Ket was a man of great stature, tall, and broad in the shoulders and chest. He wore a robe of blue and green patterened cloth, and a girdle of plaited red and gold cords. A heavy golden open-ended bracelet was on his left wrist, and a circlet of gold round his brow. His long dark hair and his beard were both touched with grey, his strong, stern face impassive. His dark brown eyes were alert and intelligent. He was an impressive man. Behind his chair, at the Ket’s shoulder, stood a young man, about Lin’s age, and, allowing for his youth, shorter hair and lack of beard, so like the Ket that he must be his son. Strangest of all, at the Ket’s feet, on a fur-covered pallet, lay another young man, exactly like the first. He was so like, and lay so still, that it gave Aiel an eerie feeling, glancing from one to the other. For a moment he thought that they had intruded on a funeral, but then he saw that though the man lay death-still, eyes staring vacantly, he was breathing. Aiel looked at the Lord of the Westerners, at the twin young men, and back to the Ket. “Greetings, Lord of the West”, he said, “We seek your aid in a matter that concerns all Li’is.”

“Who are you?” asked the Ket. His voice was steady and measured. “I am Aiel, son of Arnath, High Priest of the Temple of Light in the City.” Lin stepped forward. “I am Lin, Lord, Swordsman of the City and son of Linnad, Lord of the City Harbour. I am wife’s brother to Barengian, Lord of the Western Fortress, who you know well.” Arentha’s sweet, clear voice spoke next. “Lord Ket, I am Arentha, and this my sister, Krystha. We are the daughters of Merhaun, Lord of the Mountains and the Fortress.” “And what is your journeying, and what would you ask of me?” the Ket continued his questioning. Aiel said, “Lord, my father bade me tell you that the Way of the Secret Word has begun, and the doom of it is upon me. I am the Lightstone-Bearer, and I seek your aid in pursuing the enemy.”

As he spoke, Aiel sensed a change in the atmosphere, a deepening of suspicion into hostility. The young man behind the Ket’s chair cried out “No more of magic stones! Have we not suffered enough ill?” “Indeed!” said the Ket, rising to his feet. “How will you prove that you are what you say you are, and not Shape-Changers, like the other?” “Lak has been here!” Aiel exclaimed. “Lord, you have been harmed by the enemy?” “Behold my son!” the Ket said, pointing at the motionless young man. “The one who came before you – the old Lord from the East – he too said that he carried a stone of power, and sought our aid. But it was death he carried! When Ket-Lai my son grew suspicious of him, the man took his own shape, and struck him down with the stone, and escaped. The Healers can do nothing, and there he lies, neither dead nor alive. Why should I trust you now?”

“But that was the Bloodstone!” Lin exclaimed. “Yes, the evil out of Ma’al” Aiel added. “Lord, you are of the Council. Do you not know the Lightstone? Let me show you…” “No!” the Ket cried in a commanding voice, as Aiel made to draw out the Lightstone. Then, “I am of the Council, but I have never seen the Lightstone. No, we will decide this by the ancient Law of the Westerners. My other son, Ket-Kai, will fight the Sword-Trial – to the death – with the Swordsman, Lin, since you may not take up weapons, if Priest you really are. Light will show who tells the truth. If the Swordsman lives, you shall go free, and we will aid you.” Before Aiel could take in the enormity of this challenge, or answer, Lin bowed to the Ket and said, “Aye, I will fight the Sword-Trial, Lord.” Aiel caught his friend’s arm. “Lin, you cannot! It is to the death!” “Aiel, I must! There is no other way to prove ourselves.” The Ket ordered, “Prepare for the Sword-Trial. Take the maidens away.” “No!” Krystha cried. She stared defiantly at the fierce Ket, though he towered over her. “Lord, Lin is my Sword-Brother! I have the right to be there – you cannot deny me!” “Indeed?” queried the Ket, looking as though he did not believe her. However, since she had called on the historic rights of Sword-Brotherhood, he said, grudgingly, “Very well, but it will not be pretty.” Still she outfaced him, saying “I have seen much that is not pretty on this Way, Lord.” He glared at her, saying “I have said you may stay. Do not wear out my patience.”

Aiel was allowed to go with Lin while he was prepared for the Sword-Trial. The Westerners took the Swordsman’s clothes and gave him a brief leather kilt and, Aiel saw thankfully, his own blade, the True Sword. A twist of cloth was tied round his brow to stop the sweat from running into his eyes and hampering him, but Lin was barefoot, and almost naked. Aiel was afraid that he would be at a great disadvantage. “Lin” he said miserably,”In the Name of Light, be careful!” Lin, seeing that Aiel’s concern for him was very real and deep, said, “Then pray for me, Aiel my brother. Light must be on the side of truth. But I would not kill an innocent man to prove that truth.” Aiel prayed indeed, prayed long and pleadingly for his friend’s safety – and Ket-Kai’s – and the success of their Way, as the guards took him to where the girls stood – Arentha having been included in the Ket’s dispensation – at the front of the watching crowd. The large area of ground had had a circle marked off with ropes, and Lin and Ket-Kai were led into it. At a signal from the Ket the Sword-Trial began, and it was soon obvious that the Swordsmen were equally matched in skill, strength and courage. Aiel watched with horrified, unwilling fascination, and Arentha clung to his hand, her face pale, but Krystha stood, head up, her defiant little chin thrust forward, eyes shining with pride in her Sword-Brother.

The combatants circled the arena, testing each other’s strength, striking and parrying blows, now a quick flurry of strokes, a pause as each sought to find the other’s weakness, then a lunge and another parry. To Aiel it was all confusion, though Lin and Ket-Kai were fighting skilfully and methodically. First blood was to Lin, a cut across his opponent’s upper arm. A little later, a quick lunge, from which he twisted away not quite fast enough, left a small gash on Lin’s own arm. The two Swordsmen fought on, and Aiel felt that it was an unending nightmare. It was not just fear for his friend that harried him, but the thought that while they were thus delayed, the Black Piper grew ever further ahead.

And then it seemed as though the Sword-Trial took a turn against Lin, for to Aiel it seemed that his friend was in a position from which there was no escape. But as Ket-Kai moved to make the stroke that surely, surely must end Lin’s life and all their hopes, suddenly Lin leapt and turned and twisted in the air like a hill-cat, so that his opponent found the place where he had been, empty. Caught off-balance, Ket-Kai went sprawling, and tried to turn in the air as Lin had, and failed. And found himself on his back on the grass, with Lin’s sword at his throat. Aiel, still stunned by the speed and fluidity of Lin’s movement and the relief of his friend’s escape, wondered wildly what Lin could do now. By the Law of the Westerners, the combat was to the death, yet for Lin to slay his helpless opponent now would be an affront to Light and to honour.

The crowd was still and silent as stone; the Ket, who had been seated at the arenaside, had come to his feet, but gave no word or signal to show Lin what to do. The tension in the air was almost tangible; everything hung on the turn of Lin’s sword hand. Lin moved the point of his sword down so that it lay on the join of Ket-Kai’s collarbones. Then, with a very slow, deliberate, delicate movement, he drew the sword down the length of the man’s body to his navel, exerting just enough pressure to break the skin. It was a thing which took the greatest skill, and a thing which spoke to the heart of every Swordsman present. For in symbol Lin slew his opponent, while in mercy he let Ket-Kai live. It was as if Lin had said to them all, “I have won, and if I choose, I could let out his life from here to here – but I do not choose.” The silence held, but a sigh and a settling went over the crowd. Then Lin reached down and took Ket-Kai’s hand, and pulled him to his feet, and having released Ket-Kai, extended his arm towards him again. Ket-Kai’s arm came up to meet Lin’s, and as the two men joined in the Swordsmen’s handclasp, a great roar of approval filled the air.

Arentha sighed and swayed against Aiel, momentarily dizzy with relief. Krystha turned to them, her face alight with joy. “I knew Lin would win, Aiel! Oh, I am proud of my Sword-Brother!” Arentha straightened again, and smiled at her younger sister’s impetuous exclamation of loyalty. The combatants were being led away to the tent where they had prepared for the Sword-Trial, and as Aiel turned to follow, Krystha handed him a little wooden pot from her Healer’s sack. “Give Lin this to salve his wound, Aiel, and tell him what I said – I am very proud of my Sword-Brother.” In the tent, attendants were washing the blood and dust from Lin and Ket-Kai, and Aiel gave Krystha’s salve and message to Lin, who grinned broadly and said, “Aye, I am proud of Krystha too, Aiel. How she stood up to the Ket!”

He offered the salve to Ket-Kai, who took it smilingly and thoughtfully rubbed the clean-smelling ointment the length of the cut Lin had made. Lin, watching him, said, almost apologetically, “You know I could not kill you. Your life was not mine to take. But I could not let you go unscathed either, or the victory was not mine. And I had to prove the truth of what we said.” “I understand that.” Ket-Kai agreed, then smiled again. “Lin, you may not come this way again, but in case you should – will you be my Sword-Brother?” “Gladly!” Lin answered, “I shall be honoured, Ket-Kai. You are a Swordsman of skill and courage.” “I thought my skill equalled yours”, Ket-Kai said, “until you caught me so, Lin. I thought I had you, but you slipped away like the wind.” Aiel, who had been listening, and thinking how strange were the ways of Swordsmen, when two erstwhile enemies could become brothers, exclaimed, “Then – was it only a trick, Lin? You were not in danger of your life?” “I might have been, if my feint had failed.” Lin said, then, realising what Aiel meant, said, “Aiel, were you thinking I would be killed, maybe?” “Aye” Aiel said, carefully, not wanting to betray the fear Lin’s actions had caused him, “I was thinking you would be killed, maybe. I am not a Swordsman, Lin.”

There was a moment’s almost embarrassed silence, then Ket-Kai said, “No, but, I think, a loyal friend – loyal as Sword-Brother, Aiel.” Aiel smiled. “Come, make your vow.” he told them. Lin took up his sword for them to swear on, and when they had made the vow of Sword-Brotherhood, Ket-Kai, after asking Lin’s permission, took the weapon and examined it, and weighed it in his hand. “This is a strange and wonderful sword, Lin” he said “I was defeated by a skilful Swordsman and a good blade.” “The best blade in Li’is” Aiel said “Ket-Kai, this is Brann’s blade, the True Sword,as Lin is the True Sword of the Secret Word.” “Then I am twice honoured.” Ket-Kai told them. They went back to the Ket’s presence, once Lin and Ket-Kai were clothed again. The maidens were already there, and Krystha had evidently been examining Ket-Kai’s twin, Ket-Lai. She looked up as Aiel and the others came in. “Here is your son’s Healer, Lord, not I.” she said “For only the Lightstone can undo the work of the Bloodstone.” Aiel went and knelt beside the pallet, and drew out the Lightstone. Ket-Kai hovered anxiously over his unconscious brother, and Aiel looked up at him, saying, “Do not be afraid for him, Ket-Kai, the Lighststone will heal him.” “How shall I not be afraid for him, Lightstone-Bearer,” the Westerner answered, “when we are one in blood and bone?”

Aiel laid the Lightstone to Ket-Lai’s brow, and the light swept over him like a wave. For a moment there was total stillness, as Ket-Kai still watched anxiously. Then Ket-Lai’s chest heaved with a great sigh, and his eyes lost their fixed expression and looked up at his twin. In a puzzled, rather husky voice, he said, “Oh, my brother, I have been where it was very dark – and you were not there.” Ket-Kai gave a sob of relief and dropped to his knees to embrace his twin. The Ket said, “Truly, Aiel, you are the Lightstone-Bearer and the bringer of healing for my son. And Lin is the noblest of Swordsmen. Let Light forgive me for doubting you, and making Lin undergo the Sword-Trial.” “It is forgiven, Lord Ket. You had suffered much, and your doubts were understandable.” Aiel answered.

Now the Ket could not do enough for them, ordering food brought for them that was a veritable feast after their travelling rations, replenishing their provisions, and promising an escort to the borders of his land. He gave them, too, a talisman for safe conduct on their journey. “There are two ways to show you are a friend of the Western People” he told them “The first is this”, he touched the gold bracelet on his wrist, “but this is our secret sign of friendship.” He held out, on the palm of his hand, four bands of fine plaited cords, red, yellow, blue and green, woven in a particular pattern. “Tie them around your left wrist, each of you” he instructed them “hidden under your sleeve. If you need help from a Westerner, show them this band. They will know you are a friend of the West.” Ket-Kai said to Lin “I too would give a gift to my Sword-Brother.” He went behind one of the hangings of the Ket’s pavilion, and returned carrying a short but powerful-looking bow and a quiver of stubby arrows. “I know you are a Swordsman, Lin, and not a bowman, but you may find this useful on your Way. It is designed for use from horseback.” Lin took the weapon and looked at it with interest. It was true that he was trained mainly as a Swordsman, but being of the Harbour Watch, he had trained with the bow too, and was competent in its use He had never seen a bow like this one, though, and was impressed by its practicality. “I thank you, Sword-Brother” he said “This will be a useful addition to our defence.”

Now the Ket told them what he could about the next stage of their journey. He did not know the country well, for he seldom left his own lands, but he too gave them warning of the Merchant Town. “There are those who wish to avoid the City Harbour and its Watch,” he said “those who are willing to risk slipping ashore in the fishing villages and travelling there to do their trading. Of course, most of the people there are honest folk who live too far away from the City to travel there without a strong reason. But be cautious, Aiel. And the Third Faring House operates in a different way from the others. There are many who come to the Town for the day only, and do not want a place to stay, but a place to eat that is not an inn. So the Faring House is divided. There is the main Faring House,and there is the Eating House, where everyone eats except the Priests, whether they are staying for the night, or just one meal. It is also the most open of the Faring Houses, being in the midst of the Town. If your enemy is aware of you, and knows you must pass that way, he may lay an ambush for you, so take care, Aiel.” “I will”, Aiel promised.

The Ket asked, since the Way-Sharers would be staying with them for the night, if Aiel would lead the nightly prayers for the Camp. “Of course!” Aiel agreed, then asked, “I am curious, Lord Ket. Do you have no Priests or places of prayer, you of the West? I have never seen a Westerner in the Temple.” The Ket smiled. “We go to the Priest where we happen to be.” he said. “At the Western Fortress during the winter, or perhaps we may send word to Mell or Brath if we have need. As for the Temple…” he rose from his seat and beckoned them, “Come” he said. It had grown dark while they were speaking together, and he led them out of his tent, away from the firelight and lamplight of the Camp, over the silent grass. Then he stopped, and threw up one arm, pointing. “Behold!” he said”What need have we here of a Temple made with hands, when we have Light’s own Temple, Lightstone-Bearer?” The Way-Sharers tilted their heads back and stared, in awe and wonder, at the sky overhead. Up here on the high Plateau, where the air was clear and pure, the stars above them burned with a bright, frosty radiance, littered thickly across the high-arching dark dome of sky. It was the time of the Two-Moon Tide, when the Shield swung in at her closest to Li’is, and the Hound, instead of overtaking her, hung side by side with her midway along her path. This Spring conjunction was the most beautiful, when both moons were full, and a glorious double moonlight poured down, making strange twice-cast shadows, and bathing everything in silvery light that poured like milk across the world. Far to the East and West, the seas would be piled high and threatening by the twin pull of the moons, and no ship would venture out. Up here, though, on the quiet Plateau, there was only the blaze of the stars and the glory of the moons, and they gazed up into the magnificent sky, and thought on Light. Out there, Aiel thought, the Dancers were at home, using the worlds as stepping-stones, Dancing among the stars. Out there, somewhere, lay Ma’al, the Otherworld, the dark twin of his own world, from which the Darkness threatened. Out there too – maybe not even among the stars, but somewhere other, and holy, and mystical -was the Joyous Place, where the Spirits-in-Light and those who had touched Light served Light together in joyful accord. He felt comforted by the vastness and glory of it, strange as it seemed, for all wisdom would say that he should feel scared and overawed. Yet, feeling his own smallness,he felt too the greatness of Light, and the Presence of Light in Light’s creation,and so was comforted, Aiel had heard Arentha gasp at the beauty of the skies, and he saw wonder on Lin’s face, and on Krystha’s. In a soft, reverent voice, Aiel said “Truly, Lord Ket, this is Light’s own Temple, and more beautiful than any man could make.”

Aiel had brought his Priestly robe with him, for he was determined to wear it when the time came to stand against Lak. Now he put it on and, as the Ket had asked, led the evening prayers for the people of the Ket’s Camp, who had gathered on the space outside the Ket’s pavilion. He looked at these people and felt Light’s love for them, and especially he looked at the children; solemn, dark-eyed little girls and boys, babes in arms, mischievous toddlers, young maidens, and the older boys who were just about to begin their Sword-Training, just crossing the line from boyhood to manhood.. “It is their future, the future of their world, that I am carrying” Aiel thought, and the thought renewed his determination. And when the prayers were over, he felt led of Light to call the children to him, and bless them, one by one, with the Lightstone. When he drew out the Lightstone, there was an awe-filled silence among the people, and it continued as Aiel moved with it among the children, from the smallest babe to the tallest youth. The children though were not overawed; the little ones crowed and chuckled and reached for the bright Stone, the older ones laughed or shouted for joy at the Lightstone’s touch, and the youths – the ‘Warrior Children’- were awed, but excited and delighted too, all at once.

One boy, though, when Aiel called him, came obediently, but stood looking at Aiel with misery in his eyes. Aiel felt such a pull in him towards the boy that he knew it was not his own feeling, but the heart of Light. To the lad he said quietly,”You have hurts that Light would heal. Are you among the Warrior Children?” The pain in the boy’s eyes was like a sword that leapt out at Aiel. He answered, in a dull voice, “Lord Priest, I shall never be among the Warrior Children”, and for explanation, he held out to Aiel a right arm that ended in a hand that twisted in upon the wrist, curled and useless. Aiel felt pity, but also a sense of imminent joy. He knew that Light meant good to the boy, and told him, “Nevertheless, Light blesses you.” He laid the Lightstone to the boy’s brow. With the other children it had glowed softly and gently, but now it blazed so that he could hardly see the lad. From within the light came a cry so strange that a man in the crowd, obviously the boy’s father, cried, “Taran!” and would have run to him, but stopped at a signal from the Ket. The light faded and the boy stood there, staring at Aiel. He cried out again, and in the cry there seemed to be pain and fear – and joy. Taran held out his right arm again, and now everyone was crying out. The curled, twisted hand was slowly, slowly uncurling, untwisting, straightening as they watched. Krystha , the Healer, turned to Aiel, wide-eyed, and gasped, ” Aiel – that is a birth-wound! It is impossible that it should be healed!” “Not impossible to Light!” Aiel laughed. He was full of joy. Here was one darkness undone, at least. Taran stretched out the impossibly straight hand, flexed it, moved the fingers. He stared at Aiel with eyes full of wonder. Krystha, still astonished, went to him and made him move the hand, pick up a stone, lift it, throw it. At last she said, “Aiel – the hand works perfectly – as if it had never been damaged!”

The man who had stepped from the crowd looked pleadingly at the Ket, who nodded. At the signal the man ran to his son, examined his hand, hugged him, then dropped to one knee before Aiel, exclaiming with joy and uttering barely coherent thanks. Aiel, somewhat embarrassed by this, bade him rise, and said, “It was Light healed him, through the Lightstone, not I.” All around people were exclaiming, laughing, shouting, jostling; a happy, excited noise surrounded them. Above it all, though, suddenly rose Taran’s voice, clear and loud and excited. “Then – I shall be a Swordsman after all, like you, my father!” Lin smiled at the boy. “Aye, you will be a Swordsman, Taran, and a good one, for you have learned early to be courageous in the face of disaster. Come”, he slipped the True Sword from its sheath, and said, “let this be the first sword you ever held in your right hand – for blessing.” Taran reached out unhesitatingly and took the hilt of the proferred sword in a firm, strong grip. His father, grinning with happiness and pride, still only half-believing the miracle that had happened to his son, looked at the sword, and said, “That is the strangest blade I have ever seen, Swordsman, and the fairest.” “And the best” Lin said. “Be proud that you have held it, Taran, for this is the True Sword, Brann’s blade, come down to me from the First Days of Li’is, to bear on this Lightstone Way.” Taran’s dark eyes shone with pride, and he moved the sword through the air, showing how strong his hand and wrist had become. Then he returned it to Lin, and went to Aiel. “Lord Priest, Lightstone-Bearer” he said “I thank Light and you that I am healed, and yet I think I have received something more important even than that.” “What is that?” Aiel asked, impressed by the boy’s grave sincerity. Taran looked up at him. “There have been times when I was angry with Light, because of my hand, and doubted Light’s love for me. But now I know that Light loves me well. And Lord Priest, I would make my peace with Light.” “Come then” Aiel said, and set his Perception on the uplifted dark brown eyes. There was silence around them as he helped the boy make his peace with Light, and felt him grow in Light. When he withdrew his Perception, he said, “Taran, you will always love and be loved by Light, and you will be a noble man and Swordsman”, and he knew Light spoke through him.

Now the Ket came across to them, smiling at the boy. He held in his hand one of the coloured plaited bands, and he took Taran’s left wrist and carefully tied the band round it. Aiel saw the boy’s beaming face, but did not understand the significance of the Ket’s act until the Lord of the Westerners said, “Go then, and join your brothers, Taran.” The boy ran across to the group of Warrior Children, who welcomed him gladly, and Aiel saw, then, that they all wore the plaited band on their left wrists. “It was good that you brought the Lightstone among us, Aiel.” the Ket said. “It has been hard for Taran, these last months. His friends were all to go to the Sword-Training, and he could only become a herder. It was lonely for him. And also, his father here is one of the Sword-Trainers. That made it harder still.” “Poor lad!” Lin exclaimed, understanding perfectly. He realised he was still holding the sword which Taran had returned to him and sheathed it, saying, “I am glad too that we came this way, Aiel.” Taran’s father said, “This has been a wonderful night, for Taran and for me. To be healed by the Lightstone, and hold Brann’s sword in his hand – I thank you for that, Swordsman, it was a kind thought – and to be able to join the Warrior Children. He is so happy. Light is merciful. If only his mother were here to see it, but she is bearing a child, and near to birthing, and could not come with us.” “And that child too will be a blessing to you.” Aiel said, knowing the word came from Light. Tonight it seemed to him as though he was an open channel through which Light poured blessing on this people, and he rejoiced.

That night they slept in the Ket’s own tent, behind embroidered curtains, on the low pallets used by the Westerners, spread with hides and cushions and beautifully woven coverings. It was a long time before Aiel slept, though, not because of his strange surroundings, but because the evening’s events had so thrilled his spirit that for some time he lay and meditated on them, and lifted silent praise to Light. Eventually, though, he drifted into a sleep that was the deepest and sweetest he had had in many days. Next morning, they bade a regretful farewell to the Ket and his people. Ket-Kai, Lin’s new Sword-Brother, and his twin Ket-Lai, were to accompany them across the Plateau, and they were glad of the guidance. At the last moment, as they were about to set off, Taran came rushing, hot and breathless, to stand at Aiel’s stirrup. “What”, Lin teased him, “not at your Sword-Training, Taran?” The boy smiled. “I have a message for the Lightstone-Bearer” he said “from my mother and my father. First I am to tell you that my mother sends you her love and thanks and her praise to Light, for what Light has done for me through you and the Lightstone. And second” he beamed suddenly ” I am to tell you that the babe was born last night, and it is a boy-child, and we will remember the word you spoke for him. And for myself, I wanted to thank you again, and to say go in Light, Lightstone-Bearer. May Light guard and guide you in this Way.” “Thank you, Taran” Aiel said, moved by the boy’s blessing. “Light be with you also, and your parents – and the new babe.”

It was early in the day, and the fresh air of the Plateau was invigorating. As they rode together across the grassy plain that topped the Plateau, Aiel wondered anew at the amazing likeness of Ket-Kai and Ket-Lai. There were few twins born in Li’is, and Aiel did not recall ever having seen identical twins before. Even the horses they rode were almost identical, the strong, fast, light-footed Western breed. Aiel could not have told the twins apart, save that the open neck of Ket-Kai’s garment showed the start of the cut Lin had inflicted on him in the Sword-Trial. Lin and the twins had much to talk about, since Barengian, Lin’s brother by marriage and Lord of the Western Fortress, was a friend and Sword-Brother to them both, and they served on the Westward Watch during the winter months. Both brothers knew Lin’s sister well, too. Aiel was content to ride with them and listen to their talk, and the girls also, raised in the Mountain Fortress, seemed happy to listen to Lin’s and the twins’ tales of the Western Fortress. They passed several groups of the Westerners and their beasts, who gave due deference to the Ket’s sons, and glanced with courteously concealed curiosity at their companions. The Western Mountains had fallen away behind them now, but to their East the Great Bay curved in towards them. It was another clear, bright day and the sea was as blue as Aiel’s eyes, sparkling and laced with foam; nearer the shore it was greener, and showed the shadows of shoals and sandbanks, and the waves roared up, high from the Two-Moon Tide. A few small boats pulled well up on shore and a huddle of simple houses showed where one of the fishing villages lay. They rode on, and at last came to two pillars built of white stones, carefully fitted together, the height of a man on horseback. Beyond the pillars, the Plateau descended in a steep curve into a wide plain, across which a small river meandered lazily. The plain was farmland, divide into fields of various crops, or tree-garths in which the fruit trees were already dropping their spring blossoms. A trail led down from the two pillars, crossing the farmlands and heading towards the misty outlines of the Merchant Town. Ket-Kai said, “There is your path, Lightstone-Bearer. These pillars mark the end of the Ket’s lands.”

They said farewell to their companions and began to descend the slope. Part-way down, Aiel looked back and saw the twins still by the two pillars, watching them. Aiel waved another farewell, and Ket-Kai cupped his hands to his mouth, and called, “Go in Light ,Lightstone-Bearer! Go in Light, Sword-Brother!” Aiel had resumed his everyday garments, his Priest’s robe again hidden in his saddlebag, and rode with head slightly bowed to hide the vivid blue eyes that would have betrayed him. If he were not recognised for a Priest, there was nothing strange about their party; two men and two maidens heading for the Merchant Town, perhaps to make some purchases or meet friends. They stopped at a curve of the river, where the track forded it, to water the horses and make a hasty meal. Aiel said to Lin, “Do you think we shall reach the Town tonight?” Lin shaded his eyes and looked across the plain, then said, “I think so, Aiel. That haze makes the Town look further away than it is. We should be there by nightfall.” Lin’s prediction proved correct. They reached the Town gates by nightfall, but only just in time, for the sun was dipping below the horizon, and no sooner were they through the gates than the Watchwards barred them behind them. Lin asked one of the Watchwards the way to the Faring House, and having received directions, they rode down the stone-paved street he had indicated. They had travelled so long through mountains and forest and open country that they had almost forgotten how it was to be in the City. Now, though, the lamplit windows and cooking smells, the merchants’ booths and the paving beneath their horses’ hooves, the buildings, gardens, streets, people passing, made Lin and Aiel feel quite homesick.

They reached the Faring House and its attendant Eating House, which lay on either side of the street, and rode round into the courtyard of the Faring House, where they gathered up their gear and left the horses with a groom. He showed them the entrance to the Faring House and they went in, but nobody came to greet them. This was unusual in a Faring House, but since the Third Faring House was so different from the others, they did not think much of it at first. However, when they had set down their gear and called out, and still nobody came, they looked at each other and began to think it strange. Then, gradually, they became aware of some kind of disturbance behind a partly-open door to their left, a hubbub of faintly heard but worried voices. Aiel lifted his head and sent out his Perception. The first thing he felt was panic, the kind of panic that might affect a disturbed insects’ nest, with the creatures running round in aimless flight. The second thing he felt was a turmoil of fear and loss, pain and bewilderment, darkness and hopelessness. Yet he knew he touched the mind of a brother Priest, and tried to make the links of the Thought-without-Words, but the other was too distracted. “Come” Aiel told the others, striding through the door, “There is some mischief here- I think Lak has passed through this place.” The door led to a corridor, and at the end of it, a Healing Place. Aiel did not pause, but went boldly in, with the others behind him. A dark-haired man in Priest’s robes was lying on one of the couches, and a group of people were gathered about him, arguing and gesticulating. By the Healer’s bench stood another Priest, older, with grey hair. He looked up as Aiel and the others entered, and said, sharply, “You cannot come in here.” Aiel’s Perception went out to him immediately. “I am Aiel, the Lightstone-Bearer. What has happened here?” He felt the other Priest’s momentary inability to grasp his thought, and then his mingled emotions- hope, fear, helplessness. “A Child of Night came here”, the reply came eventually , “with a fearsome weapon. When Varn perceived the Darkness in him, he struck him down.” Aiel quickly told his friends what he had learned, then said to the Healer-Priest, “The Lightstone can undo whatever has been done.”

He crossed to the couch, and his bearing of authority was such that the group around it parted to let him through. He bent over the stricken Priest and said, “Varn, my Brother-in-Light, hear me. I am the Lightstone-Bearer, and the harm that was done you by the Bloodstone, I can undo with the Lightstone’s aid. Where is the hurt?” The other Priest moaned softly, and the Healer spoke behind them, “It is his eyes.” Varn echoed him then, moaning, “My eyes, my eyes!” and his eyes, which had been tightly shut, opened, and stared sightlessly up at Aiel, for their blue had turned to an opaque whiteness. Aiel gave a little gasp of pity. He had never heard of a blind Priest, nor could he imagine what torment it would be to have his own eyes darkened. For to the Priesthood the eyes were more than sight; they were the doors of Perception. A Priest without the use of his eyes would be like a Swordsman with his sword hand cut off. Aiel felt fury rise in him at the cruelty of the Black Piper. For it was an obvious and deliberate cruelty, not to slay Varn, but to torment him by robbing him of his most valuable senses. As cruel as it had been to sever the link between Ket-Kai and Ket-Lai, not by clean death, but by death-in-life for both of them, though only one was stricken.

Aiel took out the Lightstone and laid it to Varn’s brow, feeling the apprehensive stillness that settled in the room about him as the Lightstone did its work. Warm light hid Varn from view for a long few moments, and when it withdrew, his eyes were clear and vivid blue again. The Healer-Priest gave a little cry of praise to Light, and smiled, and said gently to Varn, “You see again, my Brother-in-Light. It will be well with you now.” Varn sat up, and looked around him, wonderingly. He looked at Aiel, and at the Lightstone which lay softly glowing on Aiel’s breast. He looked at his friends, who were exclaiming now with wonder and joy, and around him, at the Healing Place. Aiel reached out his Perception, to touch Varn’s and test it, and the Thought-without-Words formed easily, and through it Varn poured wonder and thanks and eager questions into Aiel’s mind. Aiel answered as much as he could, then said aloud, “We seek shelter for the night, and food, and a place to talk with the Priest-in-Charge. Varn said “I am the Priest-in-Charge, Lightstone-Bearer.” The Healer said, “Varn, you should rest awhile. You have experienced a terrible thing.” But Varn told him, “It is well with me, Denar. I have been touched by the Lightstone!” He rose from the couch and smiled at them. Lin asked, “Where did the Dark One go, Varn?” One of the servants answered, “He fled from here, but we were too concerned with the Lord Priest Varn to follow.” Aiel stood still, and looked into the Lightstone, and used its power to send his Perception winging out over the Town. He found places of Darkness, here and there, and Children of Night, a few, but not the great Darkness that he sought. He withdrew his Perception, let the Lightstone fall, and said to the others, “It is safe, for now. Lak is no longer in the Town, though some few of his followers may be.” “Come” Varn said “I will show you the rooms, and the Bathing Places, and if you need somewhere to talk with me, and make your plans, we shall use my Quiet Room.”

Varn would not let them discuss anything until they had bathed and relaxed a little after their day’s journey, and, he said, for himself he needed time to gather his thoughts after all that had happened to him that day. So it was a good hour later that they joined him in the Quiet Room, and Aiel explained about the Black Piper, and the danger to the Dancers, and the Lightstone, and the Way of the Secret Word. Varn promised to help them all he could, though, he warned them, the most perilous part of their journey might lie ahead, with little shelter in their travelling, their enemy just ahead, and no aid until they reached the Gatehouse. A servant came to say that the evening meal was about to be served in the Eating House, and Varn said, “Aiel, let the maidens go across, under the protection of my steward. We will Perceive if anything dark comes near, and I wish to speak to you.” Aiel agreed, though a little unwillingly, and made sure that he first sent out his Perception to ensure it was safe. When the girls had gone,Varn asked, “Aiel, is it really necessary to take those maidens into such danger?” “Varn, do you think I would have brought them this far, if it were not necessary?” Lin said, “If you only wish to speak to Aiel, Varn, perhaps I should go across to make sure they are safe.” Varn answered, “No, Aiel is your charge, Lin. The maidens will be safe with my people.” Aiel asked if Varn knew the Secret Word, and finding he did not, explained how Arentha and Krystha were specifically mentioned in the Secret Word and ordained to the Way. Then Varn seemed satisfied, and said, “Your pardon, Lightstone-Bearer, if I have questioned you too much. But it seems hard to me that Arentha and Krystha must take this Way with you.” “To me also” Aiel said , softly, “but that is how Light wills it, Varn.” They left Varn , to join the maidens, and as they crossed the street, Aiel said “Varn is very sure that his people will keep the girls safe. Yet though Lak is gone from here, still I sense Darkness near, Lin.” Lin said “Then be watchful, Aiel – for yourself, as well as the maidens.

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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