DANCE THE DARKNESS DOWN

Chapter 10

Aiel raised his head, and said “Light has shown me the way. Lak is not so far ahead. We must be careful.” They were beginning to be hungry, but none of them wanted to stop to eat in that dreadful place. As they skirted the bog and set out in the direction Aiel knew now was the right one, Lin suddenly asked, “Aiel, how could Lak know we would come that way? If we were not on the path we should have taken, how could he know?” “I think that might have been part of his enchantment.” Aiel told them. “He would not set the trap in that place if he did not expect us to go there. Yet my Perception was extended – I felt nothing. He is a cunning, deadly enemy, Lin.” They rode for a while in grim silence, each thinking of the Black Piper’s evil trap. Aiel guided them by the few landmarks his Perception had registered on its swift flight, and eventually they found signs that they were riding where others had ridden, though not many or often. “Now we are on the right way!” Aiel sighed. The ground was still rising towards the mountains, and they stopped for a hurried meal in the lee of a small hill, none of them liking to stop too long in open country, with their enemy near. When they started off again, they saw that between them and the next rise lay a shadow. As they came nearer they saw that it was a small wood, which lay either side of the faint track they had been following. Lin said “Must we go through it, Aiel? There may be another trap there . It is a likely place for an ambush.” Aiel sent out his Perception, augmented by the Lightstone, and said, “I Perceive no Darkness there, Lin. It may make a good shelter.”

When they reached the wood, they found it the strangest they had ever seen. It seemed to be all of one kind of tree, very tall and slender, with strange, narrow, grey-green leaves. Under the trees grew rough grass, a tall, feathery bracken, and patches of a plant with long, delicate spires of purple-blue flowers. That was all. No bushes, no other trees, or flowers. It was a strangely austere place, but not unpleasing, and not harbouring any Darkness. Lin said “It might be possible to camp here. There is some shelter from the trees, at least. It is better than open ground.” “What about the beasts?” Aiel asked. Krystha replied “There is grass, Aiel, and we should have enough water for them too.” Arentha added “We have the extra coverings we bought, and bracken makes a soft couch. We shall do well here.” They left the track and rode in under the trees until they felt they were hidden from view. As it happened, they found they would not need to worry about water for the horses. A little way into the wood they came upon a small outcrop of rock, and under it a spring bubbled up. Someone once had built a little kerb of stones around it, but it must have been long ago, for the stones were now worn, and thickly encrusted with moss and lichen. A few water-plants grew around it, the only change in the limited vegetation of the place. Krystha said “See, here is waterbread – it is good to eat, as well as for healing.” They let the horses drink from the spring, then tethered them to the slender tree-trunks, where they stood seeming quite content. Lin, tying Mischief’s reins, brushed against a branch of the tree, bruising some of the leaves, and instantly they were surrounded by a wonderful perfume, sharp and sweet, herbal and fruity together, with a refreshing tang to it that was like a drink of water on a hot day. Curious, Krystha picked a few leaves and rubbed them in her hands, releasing more of the perfume, and inhaled it. Then she said “This is a reviving smell. I wonder if these leaves can be used for healing?” They all agreed that they felt uplifted by the aroma of the leaves, and Krystha cut some sprays and put them in her Healer’s sack.

Next they cut piles of bracken to lie on. They would not be able to make a fire, for fear of being seen, and the bracken would be warm as well as soft, between them and the ground. The sun was descending, and as it sank, the air was growing chillier. Arentha said “We shall be glad we took Varn’s advice about those coverings!” They made a meal, glad of the water-bread which Krystha had gathered to add variety to their travelling rations. It was growing really dark now, and they had no light till the moons rose. Aiel let the Lightstone lie shining on his breast, to lighten the dusk, but the darkness under the scented trees was not unpleasant, and the wind had died to a gentle rustling in the trees. After their meal they talked a while, then wrapped themselves in the new coverings, with their cloaks over all. It was Aiel’s turn for first watch, and while the others lay and slept, he stayed near the little spring, watching the moons, when they rose, shine on the water. Once, feeling sleepy, he went and took a handful of the sweet leaves, and rubbed them, and breathed in the refreshing perfume. He went to where Arentha was lying, and stood looking at her for a while, though he could see little of her face in the dim light. Then he sighed, and lifted his head and sent out his Perception, searching, but all was well. “Tomorrow” he thought, a new resolution growing in him, “we will ride far and fast, and try to catch up with Lak. It was not said that I would not catch him before we reach the Meeting Place, and perhaps I have listened too much to my own fears. I may be able to defeat him before we come there. In any case, it is possible that he may not stop again to feed the Bloodstone, and I dare not rely on his being delayed.”

When it was time to wake Lin, Aiel told the Swordsman his thoughts, and asked his advice. “You know about horses, Lin. Can we make good time in this country without tiring them?” “We should do, Aiel.” Lin answered. “Yesterday you said you would obey me – but do not do as I say if you think it is foolishness, Lin. Then I spoke as I did because I was sure of what I said, but in this chasing of Lak I am not sure, yet it seems the right thing, to me.” “I think you have reason, Aiel. We cannot let him stay too far ahead. If it is Light’s Will that you do not overtake him until we reach the Meeting Place, so it will be, but we can try to catch him before that.” After that, Aiel lay down to sleep. The new covering was warm, but he did not sleep for a while. He was thinking about pursuing Lak. He was too sensible not to fear his enemy, though he no longer shrank away from the thought of him , as he once had. And another thought at least was comforting- that if he defeated Lak before the Meeting Place, Arentha might be safe.

The next thing he knew was Lin shaking him gently awake. It was quite dark still, and at first he thought it was the shade of the trees. Then he realised that it was only just dawn, and a grey and cloudy dawn. Lin said softly, so as not to disturb the maidens yet, “Aiel, it is still early. But the weather is changing, and the horses are nervous. I think a storm is coming.” Aiel sat up and looked around. The trees were swaying in a rough wind, the tops of them tossing against the grey sky. The clouds were moving quickly across the sky, thick soft grey patterned with torn swirls of darker rain-cloud. But behind them, out of the East, a bank of storm cloud rolled quickly on, blotting out the rising sun and making night fall again where it passed. “We had best wake the maidens” he said. While Lin did so, Aiel stood and sent out his Perception, locating the Black Piper. He was a great Darkness in a cloud of other Darkness, and Aiel knew he was among the Children of Night. He shuddered to think of what might have been happening in the night. No doubt Lak had been feeding the foul thing he carried, fuelling it for the assault on the Dancers. But that had delayed him, and he was not so far ahead after all. Aiel withdrew his Perception quickly, before Lak could become aware of him, and said to them all,”Storm or not, we must go on. I mean to catch Lak before the Meeting Place – if Light wills it.”

They splashed their faces with water from the spring and breathed the perfume of the grey-green leaves to refresh and waken them. So urgent was Aiel’s intent to pursue Lak that he almost grudged the time they took to make a quick breakfast, though Krystha told him, tartly, that a hard ride on an empty stomach would do them no good. The horses were a little fidgety and nervous as they set out – all but Aiel’s stolid Greymouse. Aiel said “This storm came suddenly. There was no sign of it when I woke you, Lin.” “Aye” Lin agreed, “The night was clear, then it seemed to boil out of the East with the dawn.” It was not raining yet, but the wind was rough and chill. Once they had left the wood, there was no sign of shelter. Aiel knew by his Perception the direction of the Black Piper, and this time he was not avoiding his enemy, but riding straight towards him. He had warned the others of the Children of Night he had sensed with Lak, but he knew they would not be able to resist the Lightstone’s power. Of Lak he was not sure. There was a temptation to reach out and touch Lak’s mind, to try his enemy’s strength. Yet he knew that would be folly, having once been entrapped in the corrupted horror of that dark entity’s thought.

Ahead of them now rose a rounded hill, covered with a scrubby growth of bushes and rough tussocks of grass. It was long and steep, next to impossible to ride over, but the only way through was a place where the rise was split, showing raw red banks that rose higher than a man on horseback and overhung the narrow path. Aiel hesitated. It was the only way, but he mistrusted it. His Perception sensed a Darkness near – not Lak, but something Dark. The rain had begun now, too, lashing down in sheets that obscured their view. “Lin” Aiel said, “There is Darkness there. Yet we must go through.” He reached for the Lightstone and laid it gleaming in full view. He Perceived no diminishing of the Darkness, but he was ready for it now. He led the way into the red-walled defile, with Lin, drawn sword in hand, guarding their rear. There was nobody in the entrance, but they might be waiting further ahead, where the defile turned. The rise was deep as well as long. The ground on which they rode was dusty and covered with small stones, and the horses kicked up clouds of dust. Aiel was uneasy, for there was something about the Darkness he sensed that was unusual. They reached the bend and turned it, tense with anticipation of attack, but still there was no one there. The track was wider here, the walls higher. The echo of their hoofbeats sent little trickles of dust running down the sides. The dust was so dry and thick that even the pelting rain seemed to do little to hold it down. Lin said, puzzled, “Aiel, are you sure of the Darkness?” “Yes, I am sure. But there is a strangeness to it…” he paused to send out his Perception again, and gasped as he suddenly realised what it was. “Sweet Light – Lin, they are above us!” “Aiel, where?” Lin asked, quickly, “In front or behind? On both sides, or one?” “In front, and on the left only.” Lin looked, but saw nothing. “They are well hidden” he said “now under the overhang, all of you. If they are armed, they will find us a harder target.” They obeyed him, moving over so that they were under the overhang of the left-hand wall of the defile. It was harder going, for there were more stones scattered along their way. They tried again to see their enemies, but the driving rain obscured their vision.

Suddenly through the air around them came a hail of stones, and they raised their arms to fend them off. One struck Whitefoot, and she danced nervously and stumbled, so that Krystha slid from the saddle. Lin cried her name in alarm, but the Healer was up and remounting in seconds, a little pale, but saying quietly to Lin, “It is well with me, Sword-Brother.” “They cannot have weapons , then” Aiel said, but Krystha replied “A rock will split our skulls as well as a sword, Aiel.” However, there were no more stones. The overhang above them, and a little in front, now revealed a group of figures, misty through the heavy rain, apparently working and struggling at something. Lin exclaimed “They are trying to bring it down!”, realising that the shadowy figures were trying to loosen and make fall the overhang under which they were riding. Aiel said, “Lin, we must get through! If they block the way…” “When I tell you”, Lin broke in, ” gallop! But till then pretend you have seen nothing.” They trotted forward until they were underneath the group. Lin glanced up. The overhang was cracked right across, and a shower of stones and earth was beginning to fall. “Now!” he shouted. As they dug in their heels and urged the horses forward, there was a creaking, groaning sound. Lin looked up again, and saw the mass of earth and stones dropping towards him. Mischief leapt forward at his bidding, and the tons of soil crashed harmlessly down behind him, spilling across the defile and blocking it. Aiel, who was in the lead, turned in his saddle, calling anxiously “Lin – are you hurt?” “It is well with me. Go on, Aiel!” Lin called back. They galloped on, turned another bend, and found themselves on open ground again. They did not slow until they were sure that the Children of Night were well behind them. Then Arentha asked, “How will we get back, if the way is blocked?” “It will be a long time before we need worry about that!” Aiel replied, grimly.
It was useless to try to stop while the rain was lashing down, and there was no prospect of shelter anywhere near, so they decided to make what time they could. They could not see far, or hear much, for the rain. It was as if nothing existed but themselves and the rain. Everything looked the same; the wet, rough grass, the grey sky, the veil of rain. The distant mountains to which they were heading seemed as insubstantial as clouds.

Aiel reached out his Perception. He found the Black Piper easily now, he was becoming attuned to his enemy’s presence. And now the other was not so far ahead, and only one other was with him. Not wanting to draw Lak’s attention to himself, Aiel concentrated on the Black Piper’s companion. It was Soom, the ‘beggar’, and Aiel found that, by using the Lightstone to help him, he could Perceive Soom. He knew enough now to shield himself from the dark thoughts, lusts and memories he found in the Children of Night, and seek only the information he needed. Aiel learned that Lak was very confident that one of his traps would succeed, so confident that he had decided to turn aside to a village for shelter from the bad weather. Aiel let the Lightstone fall and relayed this information to the others. “If we go on we will catch him” the Lightstone-Bearer told them “but he has set traps. We must be wary of them.” Now, though, Aiel was concerned what to do. “If I follow him to the village and confront him there, he may do harm to the villagers” he said, “to force me to let him go on.” Arentha said, “Aiel, can we not wait till he has left the village? He may do them no harm then.” “It is his nature to do harm.” Lin argued “They may need our protection, Aiel.” “We are not near the village yet.” Krystha said calmly.”Let us go on, and let Aiel try his Perception again in a while, and see what is happening. If they need us, we can go there. If they are unharmed, we will not go near and cause them trouble with Lak.” “That is sensible.” Aiel agreed. “That is what we will do, Krystha.” A break appeared in the clouds to the East, and the rain slowed. Aiel was able to see further now, and as they mounted a ridge he could faintly see, across a valley and lying off to the East, the small village where he knew his enemy was sheltering. Descending the slope with great care, for the ground was slippery from the rain, they rode in the direction of the village. The rain was stopping now, and as the dark clouds rolled away Westwards, the sky above them cleared to blue, and the sun broke through. The sight of the sun cheered them, but the cold wind was blowing still, and they were chilled, for despite their protective cloaks the driving rain had soaked them through. They must find some shelter, Aiel thought, somewhere to warm themselves and put on dry clothes.

Next moment, though, every thought was driven from his mind. They had crossed the narrow dale which lay between the ridge they had left and another, up which they were now riding. As they reached the top, Aiel was dazzled for a moment by a shimmering wall of light, which he thought at first was the sun reflecting off water. When his eyes grew accustomed to it, though, he saw the most unbelievable sight, so that he closed his eyes for a moment, and opened them again. It was still there, though – a long line of horsemen, silent, black-clad, the brightness caused by the sun glinting off their swords and spears. They reined in their horses and sat staring down. “Swordsmen of Darkness!” whispered Lin. “Lak’s followers. Aiel, what can we do? It is death to go forward!” Aiel shook his head. “Lin, is it possible that so many horsemen could be assembled and brought here without some rumour of it reaching the Priesthood?” “They might have come in secret, over the Eastern sea, and landed at some solitary place.” Krystha suggested. “But the Lord of the East learnt of Lak’s coming, and sent word. This would not have escaped his notice.” Aiel answered. “I Perceived Soom’s thought, and it was of traps set. This is one, but are these horsemen flesh and blood, or is it another enchantment?” “Lak’s last enchantment hid real peril also.” Arentha reminded them, soberly. Aiel reached out his Perception, cautiously, towards the black horsemen. They had shown no sign of seeing the Way-Sharers, though they must be visible up on the ridge. They had made no move to attack. Aiel was sure they were as insubstantial as the lakeside village had been. He was right. There was the same blankness about the dark riders, the same sense of overshadowing evil. Aiel knew it was another of Lak’s enchantments, and a sudden anger overcame him. He was weary of this! The anger burning in him drove him like a clean, pure fire, and he felt it was not his anger alone, but Light’s. He found Lak,and, unafraid, touched the darkness that was his enemy’s mind. And this time the Black Piper did not attack his Perception as before, but withdrew, retreating into a deeper Darkness, where everything told Aiel not to follow. He withdrew his Perception and looked down onto the plain again. The black-clad horsemen were gone.

Lin whispered “What did you do, Aiel? They just vanished!” Aiel said “I challenged Lak’s Dark Perception – and he withdrew. He went into a great Darkness, where I could not follow.” “Then he fears you, Aiel!” Lin said. “He fears Light.” Aiel answered. “We will go to the village, Lin. I think he will not stay there now.” As they continued on their way, Aiel kept his Perception extended, and, as he had expected, found that as they drew nearer to the village, the Black Piper made his escape, though he waited until the last minute, as if he could not decide whether to make a stand against the Lightstone-Bearer now, or not. In the end, though, Aiel Perceived him, and Soom, actually riding out of the village as the Way-Sharers rode in – they were that close behind Lak. They needed dry clothes, though, and food, and Aiel felt they could afford to stop for a while. In the village they found a small inn,and a kindly innkeeper, who prepared them a warming meal while his wife gladly gave them the use of rooms to change their wet clothing. While they ate, Aiel asked the innkeeper “Is it far from here to the Gatehouse?” The innkeeper smiled. “This is unusual. For a long time we have had no visitors to the Gatehouse, and now there are six in one day.” “Six?” asked Lin, with an air of innocent enquiry.”Who then were the other two?” “Oh, an old Lord from the East and his servant.” the man replied. Lin and Aiel exchanged glances as the innkeeper went on.”It is about two days’ ride yet to the Gatehouse. Do you wish to stay here tonight?” “we have not yet decided.” Aiel answered “We may try to catch up with the old Lord – I think we are acquainted with him. Is his name not Lord Dular?” “Aye, that was the name.” the innkeeper told them. When the innkeeper had taken away the dishes and left them in private, Aiel said “Now I do not know what to do! This is a safe place to stay, and we rose early. Yet while we delay we lose what we have gained, and Lak will be desperate to reach the Meeting Place before us.” “He too must rest sometime.” Krystha observed. “Perhaps” Aiel said. “Aiel, he is a man. He must sleep!” the Healer said. “No, he is more – or less- than man.” Aiel replied.”He has given himself as lodging to a Lord of Darkness. His needs may not be as other men’s- or the dark spirit in him may override his needs.” “Man or spirit, his body is flesh and blood” Krystha said,”but if you feel it wisest to go on, we shall.” “How long to nightfall?” Lin asked “And what risk that we shall meet with more danger if we go on in the dark, Aiel?”

Before Aiel could reply, the door of the inn banged open, and a young man rushed in. His hair was dishevelled, and he looked round him wildly. Then his eyes fixed on the Way-Sharers, and he ran to them , stopping in front of Krystha. “I heard there was a Healer here” he said, breathlessly, as though he had run far and fast, “Lady, please- our babe is very sick!” Krystha reached instinctively for her Healer’s sack, but then she paused, and said, as if it were a question, “Aiel…?” Aiel had flashed his Perception towards the young man as he entered the inn, and found no Darkness, only his need, and his fear for his child. The Lightstone-Bearer nodded, “Aye, Krystha,go. Lin, go with her. It is well.” As they hurried out with the young man, Aiel turned to Arentha and said “It seems the choice has been made for us. Krystha must tend the babe.” “It is not another trap?” “No, unless Lak set the sickness on the child to delay us. I doubt that, though. And there was no Darkness about the child’s father.”

Krystha and Lin had followed the anxious father down the village street to his neat little cottage. He led them in and called for his wife, a fair-haired girl who came hurrying from another room to ask, “Have you found the Healer?” “Yes, she is here.” the man said, indicating Krystha, and at the sight of her his wife exclaimed with relief. “Where is the babe?” Krystha asked “What ails the child?” “He has a bad cough and a fever, and is hardly able to breathe” explained the young mother. They crowded into the little sleeping room where the babe lay in a cradle, flushed with fever and drawing gasping, rattling breaths. Krystha carefully examined him, nodded, and sent the child’s father for water. She asked for cup, spoon and bowl, and when the water was brought, measured and mixed a powder from one of her Healer’s vials and carefully, patiently, fed it spoonful by spoonful to the child, all the time murmuring gentle reassurance to both the babe and his parents. Then she took a cloth and the bowl and sat with the child in her lap, rubbing and gently tapping his back, until suddenly he coughed violently and vomited into the bowl, which she carefully inspected. “Good” Krystha said “That has cleared him. Now a fever drink.” The mother took the child while Krystha mixed another draught and gave it to him. “Now let him sleep” the Healer said, and laid the child back in the cradle. “I will give you the herbs to use and tell you what to do. Five days, and he should be well.” The young couple listened carefully to Krystha’s instructions, and took the precious healing herbs. Then the man said, “Light be praised that you came this way, Lady. Else we would have had to take him to the Gatehouse, to Lady Benika, and it is a two-day journey.” “Then it might have been too late.” Krystha said, seriously, “Babes sicken quickly. But do as I have told you and it will be well with the child.”

The sun was setting as Lin and Krystha walked back to the inn. Lin said “Light surely meant us to be here, Krystha. Would the child really have died without your aid?” “Not for certain” she said ” but more likely than not, Lin.” “It is a great thing that you do, Krystha” he said, for he had never seriously considered it before “to help and heal and save from death.” “Not always” she said quietly “Some sicknesses are beyond healing, and sometimes- sometimes it seems that a person simply does not wish to fight any longer to live. Oh, I have seen death, Sword-Brother.” He glanced at her sideways and said, softly, “I would that you never had to see evil, Krystha.” “That is a strange thought, Lin” she answered him, but not mockingly.”If there were no evil in Li’is, we should not need to be aware of it. But since there is evil, better to know it than not. Is it not a wise thing, to be aware of your enemy?” “Aye” he answered, briefly, and smiled at her, but said no more. He had come perilously close to revealing his feelings for her, just then, but he knew at heart it was not the right time.

Aiel and Arentha, meanwhile, had been talking with the innkeeper, who had provided some useful information about the way to the Gatehouse, and where they might find some caves to sleep in the next night. When Lin and Krystha rejoined them, the innkeeper asked after the babe, and after hearing the child was recovering, and expressing his own thanks to Krystha for her help, he went off to see to some villagers who had come in, and the Way-Sharers withdrew to a quiet corner to discuss their plans. It was too early to sleep yet, but Aiel proposed that they should retire early and rise as soon as possible, to be off after Lak. He had accepted, now, that it was likely he would not overtake his enemy before the Gatehouse. “But we must be as close on his heels as may be.” he told them.

The innkeeper woke them , as they had requested, very early the next morning, but despite the early hour there was a good breakfast waiting for them. Aiel, though, impatient to be off, his nerves taut-strung, could hardly bear to eat, though Krystha insisted he did. Having cast out his Perception to seek Lak, he realised that the Black Piper must have had to stop to rest after all, and had not gained as much ground as Aiel had feared. When they were ready to leave, they thanked the innkeeper and his wife, and Krystha in turn was thanked for helping the sick child. Obviously this small community was close-knit and its members shared each other’s joys and woes. Krystha smiled, and said “Mind, the babe should be well in five days. But if he shows signs of sickening again, they must take him to another Healer.” The innkeeper promised to pass on the message, but as they rode away, Aiel, in strange and sombre mood, said to the Healer “Krystha, if I fail the Way, they do not have five days left!” Krystha glanced at his pale, set face and said, very firmly and with a touch of fire, “Aiel, you will not fail the Way!” Lin looked at her; he knew she had spoken fiercely only to try to stir Aiel from his strange mood. Her eyes met Lin’s and he read her concern for Aiel in them; her expression asked what they could do for the Lightstone-Bearer, and Lin shook his head slightly and lifted his shoulders, for he could not tell.

Aiel had woken with a sense of oppression and Darkness pressing in on him, and knew it was an attack by the Darkness, trying to make him fail in his task. Though his spirit trusted Light, he still felt an intense pressure, and did not know how to explain it to his companions. Now he said “Lak is not so far ahead, but he moves onward also. It seems my doom is that I shall not overtake him before the Meeting Place. ” “Aiel, are you afraid?” Lin asked, directly. “Only that I might fail Light.” Aiel answered. “I am not afraid, but I feel so alone! Oh, my friends and Way-Sharers, I am grateful for your fellowship and your love, and I have been so glad to have you with me. But on me is the Doom of Dark’s Passing, and I am the Lightstone-Bearer, and mine is the Way of the Secret Word, though you share it with me.” He looked round at them, and for a moment his face was awful, not with fear, but with an iron and holy resolve. “I had known it, but now I feel it, the burden of this Way. I am carrying the weight of my world, for if I fail the Lightstone and the Way, all Li’is goes down to Darkness. And it is lonely – so lonely – even with all of you here.” “Aiel” Lin said, “Aiel, my brother…” and stopped, because he could not find any words to comfort his friend. Aiel smiled at them, with a gentle, sad smile. “I know.” he said “I Perceive your concern for me, your care – and it does ease my burden. And we are on the side of Light, and that means everything.” He laughed a little then, but Lin thought it was a forced laugh. “It will be well with me, my friends.” the young Priest said. “I have let my thoughts run in the wrong channels. I am wiser now. Come.” They had slowed their horses as they talked, but now Aiel urged Greymouse on, and they followed him. They were not convinced, though, by Aiel’s pretended recovery of his spirits. Lin and Krystha exchanged anxious glances, and Arentha blinked back tears of pity for him.

The weather did nothing to lift their spirits; the previous day’s heavy rain had passed, but today the sky was dull and grey, and they longed for the sun to break through. Lin, for the first time since they had set foot on this Way, was feeling distanced from Aiel by the burden his friend carried. He had, so far, been able to help and support Aiel, but Lin was neither Priest nor Lightstone-Bearer, and could have very little understanding of the spiritual battles Aiel must face. The Swordsman felt helpless in the face of his friend’s need, and it hurt him – almost angered him – that he could do nothing for Aiel. When they stopped for their midday meal, Aiel would not eat at all. He took just a cup of water, then retreated from the others, and sat on a large boulder, cupping the Lightstone in his hands and gazing into it. They were glad when the light overflowed from it and gently surrounded him. He would gain strength from the Lightstone, if they could offer him none. Lin said softly to the Healer “Will it be well with him, Krystha?” She nodded. “Yes, Lin, I believe it will. He is drawing into himself, but it is not a retreat. He is gaining strength, drawing nearer to Light. And he would not eat, not, I am sure, because he was too nervous, but because he wishes it so – to fast for spiritual strength.” Arentha exclaimed, “Oh, Krystha, watch him well!” “I am watching, dearest.” Krystha reassured her. It was the first time Lin had heard her use an endearment to her sister, and showed, he thought, Krystha’s awareness of Arentha’s feelings and concern for Aiel.

As they rode on again, the sky began to clear and brighten, but the Way-Sharers were still subdued, speaking little and quietly, and Aiel barely at all. They were riding steeply upwards into the foothills, and in places the rocky bones of the country broke through the rough turf and ling in rocky outcrops and scattered boulders. The mountains ahead were clearly visible now, dark and towering and very old – the barrier at the end of their world. “About two days’ ride to the Gatehouse” the innkeeper had said, but they had started early and ridden fast, and it was not till after sunset that they found the caves they had been told of, where they could rest. Lin doubted if they were now more than half a day’s ride from the Gatehouse and the Meeting Place. They lit a fire and prepared their sleeping places around it. There were signs that others had used the cave for shelter, but not recently. Arentha prepared a meal, and this time Aiel joined them. Krystha asked him, gently, if he needed anything to soothe him or help him sleep, but though he thanked her, he courteously refused her offer.

All day Aiel had been battling inwardly, drawing on the power of Light and the Priestly disciplines to fight the forebodings that overshadowed him. He knew it was more than his own natural fears that he felt; he was under spiritual attack from the Black Piper and Lak’s Dark allies, and he could feel intense pressure on and around him. Aiel did not know if he could explain, even to Lin, the Swordsman, the kind of battle he had been fighting that day, but he felt he owed it to his loyal friends to try. He smiled at them – a strange smile, Lin thought, a smile such as a dying man might give his loved ones, and the Swordsman hurriedly pushed the thought away . Aiel said “Forgive me, all of you, if I have seemed aloof from you today. For I am under siege, and the Darkness presses in on me, and I must fight it. And it takes so much of my strength and concentration, I have little to spare for other things.” “Oh, Aiel, we understand!” Arentha told him, laying her hand on his arm, and Krystha echoed “Of course!” Lin said sadly “Aiel, if only I could help you in this thing – but in the battle you are fighting my sword is useless to you.” “Your sword, yes – but not your prayers.” Aiel answered” Pray with me and for me, all of you, that Light will give me strength to keep the evil at bay.” They did as he asked, and he felt the pressure ease somewhat, but still he was restless and laden with the burden of his Way. He felt as though he wanted to run or stamp or kick, for the restlessness manifested itself in a compulsive stretching and arching of his feet, until he stood, and said, “I must walk, and be alone for a while.” He walked out of the shelter of the cave, and the others watched him go, unable to offer him any aid. It was something he must struggle with himself.

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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