DANCE THE DARKNESS DOWN

Chapter 12

Lady Benika, meanwhile, was conferring with Krystha, both of them bent over Lin, who was lying on a carrying bed made ready for their coming. Arentha was standing close to Aiel, and, as he turned towards her, held out a hand to him. He took it, and found it was trembling a little. He drew her with him towards the two Healers, Tor-Harat following. Lady Benika looked up as they came near, and said, “That was well done, Lightstone-Bearer! You have kept faith with Light, and defeated Darkness.” This time he was not disconcerted by her praise. He was not thinking about himself at all, but Lin. “Aye” he said, rather gruffly, “But how will it be with Lin, Lady?” “Krystha and I will tend him now, then we can tell you. Let you and Arentha come to the Healing Place too. I think it is not only the Swordsman who is wounded, though your hurts are not bodily hurts. It was a hard battle, this Way of the Secret Word, and well fought , Aiel.”

Aiel suddenly realised that there was no sign of the Dancers. He glanced round, but they had gone. “Where are the Dancers?” he asked. Tor-Harat answered “They have returned to the Meeting Place, to hold council. They bade me tell you that when you are rested, they will come for you again. They wish to honour you.” Aiel still did not understand all this talk of honour, and the praise. To him it seemed that he had done only what he had to do, the task laid on him by the Secret Word. As for talk of his service or loyalty to Light, everything he had done, all his life, had been done for love of Light and the joy of Light’s service. He was relieved that he had accomplished his task without failing Light, and glad – very glad – that the Darkness had been turned away from his world. But somehow it seemed to have been hardly his own doing. Arentha was tugging at his hand. “Come” she said gently, “Aiel, come to the Healing Place. There is Lin to tend, and you – you look so tired.” Aiel had not felt it before, but now, following the others to the Healing Place, he realised that Arentha was right. The burden of the Way, its responsibility, stresses and fears, its ultimate climax, and even the ordinary physical strain of the long journey, had taken their toll. Aiel felt exhausted, and he was, not just in body, but also, though he did not know it yet, in mind and soul and spirit. He had used up so much of himself on the Lightstone Way and only now that the dreadful, driving need which had overridden his own needs was gone, was he beginning to feel it.

In the Healing Place the stewards, following the Healers’ instructions, lifted Lin carefully on to a couch. Lady Benika said to Aiel “You may watch if you wish, but it will be slow work.” “I will watch” Aiel said. He felt it would have been, somehow, a betrayal of Lin not to do so. Arentha said, “And I”, and he was grateful to her. The two Healers prepared Lin by causing him to inhale sweetwood powder, taking care not to breathe in the narcotic spice themselves. Then they cut away his blood-stiffened shirt and washed away the blood from his body. They unwrapped Krystha’s bandaging, cautiously easing away the inner bindings that were already crusted with blood. Then they cleansed their hands again, and set to work. Krystha’s herbs and the tight wrappings had done their work and blood no longer pumped out from the wound. There was, though, still a steady, slow ooze. Lady Benika opened a sealed jar containing the wound-pins, kept in a cleansing solution. They were small pins of pure gold, meticulously worked with a screw thread at each end and tiny fasteners which screwed on to them. Speared through the edges of a wound, and tightened, they would bring it together and hold it there until the healing was established, the purity of the gold ensuring no harm. As Lady Benika had said, it was a very slow and painstaking task for Krystha and Lady Benika to seal Lin’s long and ragged wound – for Soom’s strange, wavy-edged knife had left no clean cut behind it. At length, though, they were finished, and the wound washed again with cleansing solution, and healing salve and clean bandages applied. Lady Benika straightened and put her hand to her back, and Krystha gave a long sigh of relief, and touched her fingers softly to Lin’s brow for a moment.

Arentha, used to being, often enough, a second pair of hands for Krystha, had been able to help by handing things and fetching fresh water from the Healer’s bench. For Aiel, though, there had been only the waiting and the watching, and he ached with the tension of it. He asked “Will it go well with Lin?” Krystha and Lady Benika glanced at each other. Then the older Healer answered “It was not a clean cut. We must wait and see how it heals. It may be slow, and he will be in pain, but it will be well, if only…” she broke off, and Aiel knew that she was thinking of the danger of the Wound Fever. Krystha said “The knife was a strange one. Light grant there was no poison in its blade! I did not think of that.” Aiel closed his eyes for a moment, to remember. He had had only a scant glimpse of the knife , and his chief thought had been that it was red with Lin’s blood. Yet it had been so unusual that he found he remembered it quite well ; the strange, wavy blade and the hilt of some black stone, bound with red cord. He opened his eyes and looked at the Healers again. “I think – it was a sacrificial knife,” he said, with a tremor in his voice. Lady Benika called him to her, and he got up from the bench where he had been sitting. Got up too quickly, it seemed, for his head drummed for a moment, and swirled dizzily, and he had to snatch at the bench to stay upright. The moment passed, but left him feeling hot and rather sick,as though he had been running too hard. Lady Benika had been watching him closely, and when he came to her, said, “Aiel, you must rest. Do you think you can sleep?”

He was weary enough, for certain, and yet he was not sure. The day’s events, the memories of the time before, and his deep concern for Lin, tumbled boiling through his head like the Falls of Vandar. The Healer saw his uncertainty, and said, “Then I will give you a draught, to make sure.” Aiel said, unhappily, “Lady, why was it I did not Perceive the Child of Night? I should have felt his presence, and prevented this harm to Lin.” The Healer’s look was compassionate, but her voice was very firm. “Aiel – you were not expected to bear that burden too! How could you Perceive one Child of Night amid all the Darkness around you, when all your Perception was tied into your task? Do not let yourself feel guilty for what happened to Lin.” Krystha added, “It was his task to see to our physical defence, Aiel. That was his part of the Way, and he knew it. The spiritual battle was burden enough for you, without any other. Lin would not have expected it of you.” Arentha, standing beside him, took his hand in hers, and her presence was a comfort to him. Tenderly she said, “Dear Aiel, they are right. Both you and Lin have fought your battle well, and Lin has the best of care. Listen to Lady Benika, and take the draught, and rest. Let sleep begin to repair the hurts of your soul.”

“Lady, may I stay here, with Lin?” Aiel asked. The Healer smiled, and said “If it will ease your concern for your friend, yes.” She indicated a nearby couch. “Sleep here, then.” Aiel kicked off his sandals and slid beneath the cover, and Krystha brought him the bowl containing the sleeping draught. He took and drank it, and Krystha smiled, and said, “Light bless your sleep, Aiel.” Then she turned away and went to help Lady Benika make Lin more comfortable, but Arentha came close and took his hand again, stroking it gently. Aiel was glad, for he had been feeling just a little lost, as a child put to bed in a strange, though friendly, house might have done. He closed his eyes, and heard her whisper to him, “Sleep, my love, in Light, and wake in Light’s strength.” Sleep was stealing over him and he was glad that at last he could drift away and rest and forget. Just before he finally fell asleep, he felt a softness brush his brow, but whether it were Arentha’s hand, or hair, or kiss, he could not tell.

Tor-Harat came quietly into the Healing Place, and smiled at his wife and the maidens, and their sleeping charges. “Will it be well with the Swordsman and the Lightstone-Bearer?” Lady Benika answered.”The Swordsman’s wound is bad, but not deadly – unless he take the Wound-Fever. It will be well with him, but it will take long to heal. For the Lightstone-Bearer, I cannot tell, yet. His wounds are not bodily wounds, Tor-Harat. Let him sleep, and regain strength, then we shall see.” “The Lightstone sustains him” Krystha said “Yet he has endured more these last days than many would experience in a lifetime. He has used up much of his strength – in all ways, Gatekeeper.” Tor-Harat went and stood at the foot of Aiel’s couch, looking at him. Asleep, Aiel looked hardly more than a boy, and the Gatekeeper said, wonderingly, “He is so young to have done so much, to have so kept faith with Light, and defeated such Darkness.” He turned to Lin’s side, and went on “And the Swordsman would have given his life to save his friend. Songs are made of Brann’s deeds, but it seems to me that here lie two heroes of Li’is as great as Brann.” Krystha answered, “I am proud that Lin is my Sword-Brother, and Aiel my friend.” “Ah, now, you and Arentha have had your part in this Way too” Lady Benika reminded them ” and you too must rest. Come, a room is ready for you. It is time for all the Way-Sharers to rest from their tasks.”

Aiel slept long, though it had been only early evening when he lay down. Exhausted, and with the sleeping draught suppressing the turmoil of emotions that would have kept him awake, he slept heavily, and did not wake till the morning was almost gone. When he did wake, he was still dazed from sleep, and unsure where he was, though vaguely conscious that some great burden had lifted from him. Opening his eyes, he saw, through the window, the dark mountains rising above the Gatehouse Gardens, and memory rushed back. He sat up, and looked round for Lin. The Swordsman was lying just as he had the night before, sedated by more sweetwood that Lady Benika had given him. Aiel left his couch and went to stand by Lin’s. It was dreadful to him to see Lin lie so pale and still, when he was usually so active and healthy. Aiel recalled the words he had said to Lin, so many years before, “Rescuing me begins to be a habit with you, Lin!” But this time the rescue had almost cost Lin his life, and Aiel looked down at his friend and wept. “Lin, True Sword, true friend” he whispered, “do not die!” In his concern for his friend he had not heard the door open, nor known that Krystha was in the Healing Place, till her voice came from behind him, gentle and reassuring. “Aiel, Lin will not die. Do not think it.” He turned to look at her, relieved to have her there. “Krystha” he said “Are you sure?” “The wound will not kill him” Krystha said, prosaically, “and surely Light kept Soom’s blade from his heart. Aiel, do not fear for him. Come now, you are weary still, though you slept deeply. I will give you a draught to strengthen you, and you must go and eat.” She gave him a bowl of a bitter-sweet drink that did revive him, as she had promised. Then she said. “I will tend to Lin, now. Arentha is waiting for you.” She told him how to get to the Hall of the Gatehouse, where he would find her sister, and Aiel said, “I will go – but Krystha, you must promise to call me if Lin wakes.” “I will” she replied.

Aiel found his way to the Hall, where Arentha was waiting for him, as Krystha had said. There was food on the table, but that was not what he felt the need for. He went straight to Arentha’s arms and clung to her as she held him tightly. For a long while he simply stood, embracing her and being embraced, and it was all he needed. His tumbled thoughts began to grow calmer and stiller. He had defeated the Darkness, he thought, and though Lin was badly hurt, he was not in danger of death. He felt himself to be spent out, in body, soul and spirit, which was probably why he was so emotional, and so afraid for Lin. But now there was time to rest, and recover, time to be with Arentha, his love, time to consolidate all the new things he had learned of Light, and about himself – a breathing space. He was so grateful for Arentha, for her loving tenderness, her quiet understanding, for the comfort of her arms around him, the coolness of her hair against his cheek. He sighed, and raised his head, and smiled into her sweet, anxious face. “Arentha” he said, “you are truly my Gift-of-Light! You do me more good than all the Healers’ draughts.” “Oh, Aiel!” she answered, her face lighting with relief, “Is it well with you now, my dear?” He drew her with him to the table and sat down, and she sat beside him. He said “I cannot tell yet, Arentha. We have been through so much, and there has been no time to deal with it, to make it part of me, or understand my own feelings. I need time with Light – and with you, my heart. I am very glad that I have done what Light bade me do, and defeated Lak. Yet even that was not my own doing, but Light’s. I think I will not be fully at rest, either, until I know that Lin is safe and well. But I have not asked how it is with you. It was a fearful thing that happened to you on the Meeting Place, yesterday. There are no ill effects from it, still, for you?”

She said “No, not now…” yet through their linked hands he felt her shudder, and asked, “Arentha, what is it? Something still frightens you, my heart.” “I was so afraid” she whispered, “Aiel, when the Bloodstone struck me, I felt it threw my spirit from my body, and it was as if I were dying, on my way to touch Light. And I could see myself, Aiel! There was a brightness met me – I think perhaps it was a Spirit-in-Light – and I knew it protected my spirit, as the Dancer protected my body, and I knew it was Light’s Will that I return to you, and that I would not touch Light – not yet. But still I was afraid – Oh, Aiel, it is a terrible thing to see your own body lie still and untenanted! But also, I was afraid for you, that I was not there to aid you in the battle – I was afraid you would be defeated after all. But then you overcame Lak, and called me back with the Lightstone.” “Arentha!” he exclaimed “Why did you say nothing? My love, I would not have had you bear the fear of this alone.” “Lin’s need, and yours, were greater.” she said, simply. He reached for the Lightstone, took it out, and touched it to her brow. “Here is the Healing for your fear.” he told her. The light enfolded her, and then withdrew, and he asked, “Is it well with you now, Arentha?” “It is well” she told him, quietly, and he knew she would say no more, now or ever.

Suddenly it seemed that he was hungry, after all, and he reached for the food and began to eat, while Arentha watched him, smiling. He pressed her to eat too, but she said she had already eaten. When he had finished his meal, she said, “Aiel, go and bathe and refresh yourself, it will help you feel better. I will ask Lady Benika to have clothes brought for you.” “I will, Arentha – but ask her for a Priest’s robe. There is no need, now, to pretend not to be what I am.” Once bathed, and dressed in the fresh Priestly robe, Aiel did feel better – more like himself than he had felt for many days. And yet, he knew, he would never again be the old Aiel. He felt he had aged as many years as days on this Way. When he came from the Bathing Place, Tor-Harat met him, and told him, “Aiel, the Dancers are waiting for you.” “The Dancers?” Aiel asked, not understanding. He had forgotten the Dancers’ message in all the turmoil of the previous day. The Gatekeeper gently reminded him “Do you remember that they wanted to honour you in their own way, Aiel? They are waiting for you. One of them has come to carry you to the Meeting Place.” “Do you come too?” Aiel asked, a little nervous at the thought of ‘travelling’ again with the Dancer. “No, it is you alone they honour.” Tor-Harat answered. “Will you tell the others where I have gone?” Aiel requested. “Surely” Tor-Harat promised. “Come now, Aiel.” Out in the courtyard, one Dancer was waiting to take him to the Meeting Place. Aiel said to the Gatekeeper “I hope the Dancer will not think me discourteous if I close my eyes when we – travel.” Tor-Harat laughed. “I doubt it.” he said, “I have travelled with them many times now, and I could never yet bear to keep my eyes open, Aiel!”

Aiel stepped forward to meet the Dancer, closed his eyes, and waited. Again he was not aware of movement, but suddenly felt rough ground beneath his feet. He opened his eyes and found himself on the Meeting Place, encircled by the Dancers. He did not know if the thought that quietly entered into his Perception came from one Dancer, or many, but he knew that it spoke for them all. “Welcome Aiel, Lightstone-Bearer, Lightfriend. We honour you.” Aiel said aloud, in humble protest, “Dancers, why honour me? It was Light worked through me, using me only as a channel. Honour Light.” The gentle thought came, ” Aiel, it is Light’s Will that we honour you. Men honour strength and courage, and that is good. Yet Light honours humility and obedience, and that is better. Do not be afraid that the honour we do you will make you proud, for it will make you more aware of Light and of your own smallness before Light than you have ever been. Though no man in Li’is will ever have seen what you will see.” Before Aiel could begin to understand, the thought of the Dancer came again. “It is time. Come, Lightstone-Bearer, we must travel again.” Obediently Aiel closed his eyes and waited. It seemed a longer wait this time before the Dancer ‘said’ “Look now, Aiel! Behold the wonders of Light!”

Aiel looked, as he was bidden, and almost immediately cried out in mingled terror and wonder. He stood on a harsh, colourless landscape of blazing whites and silvers, and sombre greys, and impenetrable black. The horizon curved incredibly, toothed with impossibly high and jagged mountains. The ground beneath his feet was bare and dusty and pock-marked. The sky above was black, and blazing with stars, and nearby hung one moon, many times the size of any he had ever seen. He knew, by his own shadow, that the sun was behind him, and knew also, though not how he knew, that in this place it burned so bright that if he had turned and looked into it, it would have burned out his eyes. And then, beyond the impossibly huge and shining moon, he saw a globe, mostly blue, but with patches of colour, and veiled in parts with purest white, like swirling gauze. He could understand none of this ; he was overcome with beauty and dread, and fell to his knees, covering his eyes. As he did so, he felt something yield around him. Extending his arms, he felt as though a tough skin encircled him in an elastic globe. It was like being in a water-bubble. He cried out to the Dancers, wherever they might be, “Oh, what is this place? Dancers, I am afraid! Where am I?” Their thought came again.”Aiel, do not be afraid. We will not bring you where harm can touch you. Stand, and look, and do not fear.” Slowly he obeyed, and opened his eyes, rising to his feet. He looked around him and felt the wonder and terrible beauty of the place enter into his Perception. He asked again, “Where is this place?”

The Dancers ‘said’ “You are standing on the Shield, Aiel. That moon is the Hound, and the world beneath your feet – that is your Li’is.” Now indeed Aiel was ready to fall, from very fear, yet the thought that he was seeing what no man had ever seen before, and the awesome beauty of it, and the smallness of his own world in all the vastness, held him fascinated. At last he managed to gasp “But why is the sky so black? Is it the work of Darkness?” “No” the Dancers replied. “There is no air here, Aiel, and that is why the sky is black. It is why we have enclosed you in a globe of air, also. Else you would die here in seconds.” “Now I know what you meant” Aiel exclaimed, “when you said that when you honoured me, it would make me small and humble! I have seen my own world like a pebble in the universe of Light.” “It is not finished yet” came the response. “The honour decreed for you by Light, and the Dancers, is that you Dance with the Dancers, out among the stars. This is only the first step, Aiel.” Suddenly, he was surrounded by Dancers, and, as suddenly, the air bubble lifted from the surface of his moon, and, in the midst of the Dancers, soared out towards the blackness and the stars. It happened before Aiel had time to close his eyes, and this time the terror overcame him.

When he came to himself, he was lying on soft grass. There was no bubble around him, and he was breathing pure air. He thought to himself “It is a dream. It was all a dream.” He opened his eyes, and immediately found himself looking at a Dancer. “Well, then,” he thought ” they have brought me home to Li’is, knowing I could bear no more.” “Lightstone-Bearer, this is not Li’is” came the Dancer’s thought.”Look around you.” Aiel took a deep breath of the sweet air, sat up, and was at once conscious of the strangeness of the place. There was hot sunlight around him, but it was greenish-gold. The grass on which he sat was the vivid blue of his own eyes. The flowers that were strewn across the grass were small, and delicate, and of colours that he could not even name, but so exquisite that their beauty was almost painful. He looked up and saw that the sky above was the source of the greenish-golden light, for in it burned two suns, one golden as his own, one green. And looking up he also saw the trees, many and beautiful, not green-leaved as in Li’is, but with foliage of many hues, gold and rose and violet and more of the strange , unnameable colours. Something was singing in the forest, more sweetly than Aiel had ever heard a bird sing before. The awesomeness and coldness of the Shield had been terrifying; this world, though utterly strange, had a sweetness and richness that held no fear. Somehow Aiel knew that nothing evil had ever come there, and no danger could threaten him. He asked “It is not – the Joyous Place?” “No” came the answer “The Joyous Place could not be constrained within one world, one time. This is but a world of the star you call Torvine.” “Where are its people?” Aiel asked eagerly.”Am I permitted to meet them? They must be very wise and fair, in such a world as this.” “There are no people. Only birds and beasts live here” replied the Dancer, then “Aiel, you are thinking that is a waste, but it is how Light ordained it. There are and will be no men in this world, and that is not a mistake. Do you know better than Light?” “No” Aiel said, and bowed his head. He would have liked to taste the fruit that hung from the trees of this strange and lovely world, but did not ask, for he thought “If that is how Light has ordained it, they were never meant to be eaten by men.”

“We will go now” ‘said’ the Dancer. Forewarned, he closed his eyes, and waited for the next place. From planet to planet, star to star, the Dancers swept him. He saw worlds that were vast balls of ice, huge globes of roaring, raging gases, places where the very air froze and lay like snow on the ground, others where metals melted and ran over the burning landscape like water. He saw worlds with many moons, or one, or none, worlds of total darkness, thrown away from their sun to wander through dark space, and worlds of eternal daylight, where several suns shone. He saw strange or beautiful or terrifying places, but nowhere did he see men. Last of all they brought him, so he thought, back to where he had begun, and he stood on the moon he had stood on before, and saw the same nearby moon, the same planet swim beneath his feet. But now the world was shrouded in a murky mist, and it seemed to Aiel that it burned with black fire, like some rogue sun that sent out coldness and death and darkness instead of warmth and life and light. The Dancers ‘said’ “Nearer than this we cannot go, Aiel. For now we are on the other side of Light and time, and there before you lies Ma’al, the Dark World, the mirror image of your own Li’is.” Aiel stared at the distant world, and said, “Will the Darkness ever leave Ma’al, Dancers?” “There will be an end of Darkness here” the Dancers replied “and you will see it, Aiel. But not on this part of the Way. Come, we will take you home now.”

“I must have been a long time among the worlds, Dancers” Aiel said. “Has it been well with my friends? What of Lin?” “Time spent with the Dancers is no time at all.” he was answered. “We do not need to move in your time. You will return no later than you left.” And indeed, when the Dancers set him down again in the courtyard of the Gatehouse, Tor-Harat was still standing there, and smiled at him. “There, it was not so terrible, Aiel!” “Oh, it was, Gatekeeper!” Aiel exclaimed, “Terrible, and beautiful, and – oh, there are no words!” When he explained to the Gatekeeper what he meant, and where he had been, and in what way the Dancers had honoured him, Tor-Harat said, “Aiel, the Dancers have honoured you indeed!” “Yet they said the way they honoured me would not make me proud, but humbler and closer to Light, and so it is.” Aiel said. “For I have seen my own smallness, and the smallness of my world, and how lonely we would be in Light’s great universe without the love of Light. And I have seen Ma’al, and the Darkness Li’is has been delivered from, through the Lightstone, and if ever I had thought it, I know now that I could never have defeated that Darkness in my own strength.” Now Aiel wanted nothing but to be alone with Light, to use his Perception and the Lightstone to understand all that he had experienced, to accept it and make it a part of himself, so that none of it was a thing outside himself to hurt or harry him. He said, knowing that Tor-Harat, a Priest himself, would understand. “Gatekeeper, I will go to the Prayer Room now. I must be alone with Light for a while.” “Go” Tor-Harat smiled “I will keep distractions from you.” “Unless it is Lin” Aiel said, as he turned towards the Gatehouse door. “Tor-Harat, let you call me at once if Lin wakes!” “I will call you” Tor-Harat promised.

In the familiar surroundings of the Prayer Room, Aiel took out the Lightstone and gazed into it, using it to make the most dangerous journey of all, into his own thoughts and emotions. He was not aware of the outward signs of his progress, though he smiled and wept, groaned and sighed and trembled, without knowing it. He knew that there was much to unravel and lay before Light, many experiences to work through and understand, but he knew also that his strength was depleted, and his own resources, though not Light’s, were limited. At last he understood that he could do no more, for now. There was still a great deal of unresolved emotion in him, and he knew it must be dealt with, but he was too weary, and Light’s wisdom seemed to tell him he had done enough, for the time being. As he left the Prayer Room he met Tor-Harat, who said “Aiel, I was coming to fetch you. The Swordsman is awake.” Thanking him, Aiel hurried to the Healing Place, where Krystha was waiting for him. She said, “Aiel, he has been waking and dozing again for a while, but he is awake now. He is in pain, and does not look himself, of course. Let you not be afraid for him, though. He is strong. Now go, and show him you are alive and well. He is afraid for you, for in his pain and with the draughts we had to give him, he could not remember well, and he has been asking for you, to be sure you are unharmed.” She held open the door of the Healing Place, and Aiel went in and crossed to the couch where Lin lay, now propped up on cushions. He was very pale still, but his arm had been freshly dressed and made more comfortable in a sling of soft material, to ease the weight on the wounded part. Though Krystha had said he was awake, Lin’s eyes were closed, his breathing quiet. Aiel bent over Lin, not sure, despite Krystha’s assurances, if his friend were awake. “Lin” he whispered, knowing that the Swordsman, if he were awake, would hear. And if he slept, Aiel’s voice was not loud enough to waken him.

Lin’s eyes opened, and he looked up at his friend. “Aiel.” he said. There was relief in his voice. “Praise Light! I thought I remembered that you were not harmed – but it was all so confused. Krystha told me you were safe – but I was not sure. Not till I could see you.” Aiel gazed at him anxiously. The Swordsman was pale, with a greyish tinge to his skin that worried Aiel, and a shadow in his usually clear grey eyes. Lin gave a faint, lopsided smile. “Do not look so grave, Aiel. It is well with me.” “It is not well with you!” Aiel contradicted him. “Lin – you knew you could not save me, and avoid Soom’s knife yourself!” His voice was almost accusing. “I did not have time to think that far.” Lin answered, but they both knew that was not true. “Your life for mine” Aiel said, very carefully, lest his voice betray him with a tremor, “would have seemed to me too high a price, Lin.” “It seemed a fair price to me.” Lin said equably. “I made a promise to your father, Aiel.” “To protect me till the Lightstone Way was ended. And it was ended, Lin, before Soom struck.” For the first time, Lin showed emotion. “Do you think it was only for a vow made to your father that I protected you, Aiel? You are my friend and bond-brother – as dear to me as my own kin. Should I have let you die? If I had not saved you, I could not have lived with the pain and shame of it!” Aiel laid a gentle hand on his friend’s uninjured shoulder. “I know it, Lin! But if you had died in saving me, I would have felt the same, my brother.” Again Lin gave that faint smile. “We are wounding ourselves with shadows, Aiel. You are alive, and I am alive, and the Darkness is defeated. Light is merciful.” He looked into Aiel’s face and said, with an air of command, “Do not worry! I have Krystha to tend me, and I am strong. A few days, a week or two – I shall be well.” ” Praise Light!” Aiel agreed “And Light protect you, Lin. Rest now, and grow strong again.” Lin settled back against his cushions with a sigh, and Aiel slipped quietly out of the room.

For the next two days, it seemed that Lin was right. Each time that Aiel went to visit his friend, having first prayed long for Lin in the Prayer Room, the Swordsman seemed stronger. On the third day it even seemed to Aiel that there was a more healthy colour in his friend’s face. The next morning, though, when he went at his usual time to visit Lin, he was met at the door by Krystha. Her expression was grave, and Aiel felt that a stony fist seized his heart. “Lin!” he exclaimed. “Oh, Krystha, what is it?” “Aiel, he has the Wound Fever” she replied. “But yesterday he looked so well – even his colour was better -” Krystha shook her head. “He was flushed with the beginnings of the Fever. I noticed it when I went to tend him. The wound had become infected. Lady Benika and I have opened it again, and stripped and cleansed it. We will not pin it again, but leave it to drain thoroughly. But the poison is in his blood, Aiel, and he has the Fever.” Aiel stared at her numbly. He felt so helpless. As the Lightstone-Bearer he had defeated an evil, a Darkness, that threatened his whole world. Yet now, though he had saved a world, he could do nothing to save one man, as dear as that man was to him. “Oh, Lin, my brother!” he said unhappily. “I told him, Krystha, that to have my life at the cost of his seemed to me too high a price – and he promised me that he would be well again, soon!” Aiel knew it was a foolish, a childish thing to say – as though Lin, by falling victim to the Wound Fever, had broken some vow to him. He looked at the Healer with pleading eyes. “Krystha, save him! He is my brother as surely – more surely- than if we were born of one blood.” Aiel did not know if he were even making sense to her, not knowing that Lin had told Krystha about the deep bond of friendship that lay between them. Krystha, though, surely understood, for to Aiel’s surprise she came to him and gently embraced him, speaking softly and encouragingly. “I know, Aiel! Do not fear for him. The Wound Fever is a serious sickness, but Lin is young and strong, and his body is a fine-tuned thing. He will be very sick, but I think he will defeat the sickness in the end – and he will keep his promise to you, his bond-brother.”

Aiel bowed his head onto Krystha’s shoulder, feeling suddenly weak and tired. She glanced at him with concern, and her hand softly stroked his neck with a soothing movement,as she said, “I know you feel you can do nothing for Lin, Aiel, but you can. You are closer to Light than any of us, and Light is merciful. Let you lift Lin up before Light, for strengthening and healing.” Aiel felt a sudden sting of tears in his eyes. His overwhelming concern for Lin, Krystha’s kindness, and his own slow recovery from the rigours of the Lightstone Way, made his emotions almost ungovernable. Though at core his trust in Light was rock-firm, his surface feelings were almost out of his control. Krystha, seeing this, lifted his face between gentle hands, and said, “Dear Aiel, remember that you too are not yet back to your full strength. It will not help Lin if you become sick. Come.” She led him into the Healing Place and made him drink a draught she prepared for him, which made him feel stronger. He asked, “May I see Lin?” “You may see him, but he is still drugged. We had to give him a strong draught of sweetwood, so that we could cleanse the wound without causing him pain.” Krystha stood by Aiel’s side as he looked down at the still figure on the couch. Lin’s face was flushed, as Krystha had said, with fever, his brow damp, his lips dry. he lay very still, held deeply unconscious by the drug he had been given. His wounded arm was wrapped in strips of bandage that were already darkly sticky with the ooze of blood and fluid from the reopened wound. “I must change those dressings” Krystha said. “Aiel, go now. Do not distress yourself. I will tell you if there is any change – for good or ill. I promise.” She looked again into his face and continued, “You need tending, Aiel. Go to Arentha, and tell her how you feel. I can love you as a friend, a sister – but Arentha is your love. It is her you need – and Light. The love of Light, and Arentha’s love. Those will uphold you.” Aiel nodded, accepting her advice, knowing by now how Krystha seemed to change into another, wiser, more mature maiden when she was at her Healing work. “I will” he said. “Thank you, Krystha. I trust Lin to you.”

When the young Priest had gone, Krystha bent to her task, carefully unwrapping the soiled bandages. When she and Lady Benika had inspected Lin’s wound that morning it had been red and puffy, hot to the touch, and, where it strained at the healing pins, beaded with pus. They had unsealed the wound, as Krystha had told Aiel, and stripped and cleansed it, leaving it open to drain of fresh poisons. The skin was not as tautly red and shiny now, but, as Krystha had said, the infection was in Lin’s blood. The Wound Fever was his body’s reaction as it fought against the toxins in itself. Krystha sighed heavily. She had told Aiel that Lin was young and strong, his body fine-tuned, and that was true. But other strong young men, before this, had died of the Wound Fever, either in the Fever Dream itself, or from infection settling in some vital part of the body. A Healer’s skills could go far to fight the sickness, but it was the victim’s will to fight, to live, that was the important thing. So as she worked, Krystha spoke to Lin, for though he was unconscious, somehow her words might enter in at a deeper level and do some good. “Lin, Sword-Brother, hear me! You must fight this sickness – it is your deadly foe. Fight, Sword-Brother, as though you stood sword in hand against the Darkness. Fight, fight, and live!”

Aiel had done as Krystha told him, and gone to find Arentha. He was feeling as though a cold, heavy weight lay in his stomach. He must, he would, trust Light in all things, but what if Light chose to take from him his dearest friend, his bond-brother? He had almost lost Arentha to the Darkness and now Lin too was in deadly peril. He found her sitting in a chair, stitching at some piece of work with which she was helping Lady Benika. When she saw Aiel’s expression, though, Arentha laid aside her needlework and asked anxiously “Aiel, what is it? Lin?” Aiel said “He has the Wound Fever.” Arentha answered, “That is evil news, Aiel! But Krystha will tend him, and she will save him.” He went to her and knelt in front of her chair, leaning forward to rest his head against her, his arms clinging to her as if for refuge. Arentha’s arms gently circled him. Aiel said, with quiet anger “Arentha, why does the Darkness touch all I hold dear? It snatched away my mother, and my little brother unborn. It has threatened my whole world. It nearly took you from me, and now it hangs over Lin. Yet I love and serve Light, as best I may. And I have completed the task Light gave me to do.” “Aiel, that is why the Darkness attacks you! You are like – like a Swordsman of Light. You are a threat to the Darkness, otherwise it would not fear and threaten you. And knowing that you are true to Light and would not fear for your own life in serving Light, the Darkness seeks to pull you from the Path of Light by threatening those you love.”

“That is true” Aiel admitted. “You are wise, Arentha. It is true that I would willingly have given my own life for the Lightstone Way, but yours, or Lin’s, or Krystha’s – then I might feel the price too high.” “Never!” she said, so fiercely that he was startled. “Aiel, if Lin and I and Krystha lay dead at your feet – if the Fortress and the City and the Temple lay in ruins – what matter, if it denied the rule of Li’is to Darkness? We are only one small part of the story, Aiel. We live, and die, and touch Light, but the world goes on, and the rule of Light goes on, and the purposes of Light must be fulfilled.” At heart, Aiel knew and felt as she did, but to hear her speak again these truths strengthened and comforted him. “Krystha told me to come to you.” he told her, “She said that I needed your love and counsel, and she was rights. My Arentha, you are still as a deep pool, and your thoughts, though you seldom speak them, as deep as its waters, where I can drink, and be refreshed. Yes, you are my refreshing-place.” “As you are mine” she said quickly, “Aiel, if I have any wisdom, I learned it of Light, and of you.” She stroked his black hair gently, and he said “We will go to the Prayer Room and lift Lin before Light.” “We will” she agreed, “and after, we will go to the Gardens, and you shall rest in their beauty, and praise Light.”

The day was drawing towards evening before Lin emerged from his drugged sleep. Krystha, who had been in the Healing Place most of the day, heard the change in his breathing, his little murmurs and moans, and came to his side. He might waken fully conscious and lucid, he might lapse back into unconsciousness or the delirium of the fever dream. The Wound Fever was unpredictable; that was one of its dangers. When Lin’s grey eyes opened, though, they were as yet unclouded by fever. “Krystha?” he whispered. “Hush, Lin, drink this” the Healer said, bending to slip an arm under his head to help him swallow the fever drink she had prepared. When he had obeyed her, he said, “My arm burns like fire, and my head is burning too. And I feel so weak!” “I know. Lin, you are very sick, but you must fight this sickness – like your bitterest enemy.” “Is it the Wound Fever, Krystha?” “Yes, Lin.” “Will I die?” he asked, with such simplicity that she had to fight back the tears and struggle to answer with her usual asperity. “Oh, Lin, of course you will not die- not if you wish to live! But you must fight, Sword-Brother- fight against the sickness and the Fever Dream, for your life.” His eyes were beginning to look glazed as the fever mounted, despite the fever drink she had given him. Krystha laid her hand on his brow to feel how hot he was, and he reached up with his good arm and grasped her wrist. “Krystha, I will fight – if you stay with me. Fight with me, Krystha, as you have sworn to your Sword-Brother!” “I will, Lin! I will fight with you, Sword-Brother!” she cried, seeing that he was on the edge of the Fever Dream, fearful that he might not hear her. But he tried to smile at her, and his hand tightened for a moment on her wrist, and she knew that he had heard.

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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