DANCE THE DARKNESS DOWN

Chapter 13

For a week Lin lay in the Fever Dream and the dread of it was heavy on them all. Aiel came hopefully and laid the Lightstone to Lin’s brow, but the Swordsman was not healed. “Why?” Aiel groaned to Krystha, turning the glowing Stone in his hands. “It healed Varn’s eyes, and brought Arentha and Ket-Lai back to us.” “Those were the works of the Bloodstone.” Krystha reminded him. “It healed Taran’s twisted hand. That was not the work of the Bloodstone.” Aiel said. Krystha replied, “Aiel, we cannot question the ways of Light. You, above all, should know that.” “I do.” he said, “And I trust Light.” He stared at Lin, who was tossing and muttering in delirium, and said, “But still , I do not understand what purpose there may be in Lin’s suffering so.” “Let me tend to his body’s needs” Krystha said “Go you, Aiel, and pray for him. Light will hear you.” So Aiel went, but with a heavy heart.

As well as Lin, they were concerned for Krystha, for she had vowed not to leave Lin, and she would not go back on her word. She left his side only to tend to her own most urgent needs. She would not eat with them, but took her meals in the Healing Place, and it was little enough she ate. She slept in snatches in a chair at Lin’s side, and would not allow Lady Benika to watch beside Lin for a while so that she might rest. She grew thinner, and paler, and her eyes were like purple smudges in her face, but to every remonstration she gave the same reply. “I promised Lin to stay and fight with him. How if I should leave him, and he should waken and find me gone, and give up the fight because his Sword-Brother was not there to fight with him?” To Aiel, she said, also, “Do not worry over me, Aiel. I am a Healer. I know how much I can bear, and how to strengthen myself. If I grow weary now, I know how to rest later. Do not be so concerned.”

On the eighth day, when Aiel and Arentha came, they found Lady Benika with Krystha, both of them bent over Lin. They had dampened pieces of cloth and wrapped him in them, but the Swordsman was still burning hot. “Krystha, is it very bad?” Arentha asked her sister, who glanced at the other Healer, then said, “The fever is still not falling. We shall know tonight.” “What will you know?” Aiel asked, fearful for his friend. Lady Benika’s face was serious, her voice sombre, as she replied “The fever must break now – or Lin is like to die.” “Oh, no!” Aiel gasped. Krystha said quickly “Aiel, do not give up. Lin has fought hard thus far. Many would have been dead by now. Aiel, you must fight too. Pray for Lin – make a prayer vigil for him. All sickness comes of Darkness. Let us fight the sickness, and do you fight the Darkness.” Aiel bent his head, dumbly. Then he leant and laid the Lightstone to Lin’s brow. The light surrounded Lin, then withdrew, and Aiel said “I know it will not heal him, Krystha. But it may give him strength to fight.” and she nodded. All day Aiel and Arentha, with Tor-Harat joining them too for a while, spent in their prayer vigil for Lin, but no word came from Krystha and Lady Benika. They went to their evening meal with heavy hearts and little appetite, and Lady Benika came to join them. “No change, for good or ill” she answered their anxious enquiries. “Go to your beds now and try to rest, and we shall call you if anything happens.”

Aiel, though, was quite unable to sleep. He tossed and turned on his bed, knowing that Lin was fighting for his life. At last he rose and dressed and went back to the Prayer Room to resume his vigil. Now, though, there seemed to be an opposition, something striving against him. He fell to his knees before the Crucible, drawing out the Lightstone and holding it in his hands to draw strength from it. He felt that he was fighting another battle with Darkness, this time for the life of his friend. With intense prayers and tears he struggled against the encroaching Darkness, striving to push it back. A little before sunrise, he suddenly felt release, a shift in the spiritual balance, a withdrawing of Darkness, the dawn of hope. In that moment he was sure that Light had touched Lin in some way, and all would be well with his friend. Aiel rose to his feet, a little stiffly, for he had knelt a long time in prayer, and raised his arms in quiet praise before the flame that stood for the far greater reality of Light. Then he turned, sensing someone near, and saw a quiet figure seated on the bench behind him. “Arentha!” he exclaimed “How long have you been here?” “I woke, and could not sleep again” she explained “I was so burdened for Lin. I came here to pray for him again, and saw you, and knew you were praying for him too, so I did not wish to disturb you.” “I think Light called us again to prayer for him.” Aiel told her, and recounted how he had battled in prayer for Lin, and how he had felt that sudden assurance that all, now, would be well with his friend. Then he said “Krystha has been so devoted in her care for him. If Healer’s care counts for anything, she has saved him. Arentha, she is your sister, and you know her best. Do you think she could care for Lin – as more than a friend, and a Sword-Brother?” “I cannot tell, truly, Aiel. Krystha hides her feelings well, even from me. She fell in love once, when she was very young, and was badly hurt. Since then she has set a guard on her heart. But why are you so concerned for Krystha? Are you afraid that she might care for Lin, and not he for her?” “Not at all, Arentha. It is the other way about. Lin has told me he loves Krystha, very deeply. But I know he fears she will never learn to love him too.” Arentha sighed. “I do not know what Krystha feels for Lin. But I have never known her trust anyone, give so much of herself, as she has to him -except to me.” She smiled at him. “I hope she may learn to love him. He is a good, brave, honest man, and true. And Krystha is very like him – when she lets herself be. I think they could be good for each other, Aiel, if they loved.” “As you are good for me, my Gift-of-Light” he told her.

That same night, as the two Healers had watched Lin, Lady Benika had said to Krystha, with a wry smile, “I suppose it is no use, to offer to watch Lin part of the night for you?” “No use at all” Krystha had replied. The older Healer laid a gentle hand on Krystha’s arm, and said, “Light guard you both, child. Call me if you need me, whatever the time.” Krystha, left to her self-appointed vigil, gathered what she might need through the night. Lady Benika had had some food sent for her, and though she had little appetite, she made herself eat something, lest hunger make her less efficient at her work. After a while she went to Lin’s couch and laid her hand on the Swordsman’s brow. Did it seem cooler? She removed the cloths that had been damp but were now dried by the heat of his body. Yes, he was a little less hot. She seated herself in the chair at his side and prayed hard that the fever was breaking. She must have dozed, for she woke with a start, and rose again to feel his brow. Thankfully she realised that the raging fever seemed at last to have burnt itself out, but now the pallor and clamminess of his skin, and the harshness of his breathing, alarmed her. She felt so tired, death-weary, but she must be there to help Lin when he needed her. Krystha went to the Healer’s bench and reached for a small phial of sooty powder, dispassionately considering the trembling of her own hand. For several days now she had been taking blackbark to stay awake and alert, the Healer in her carefully balancing Lin’s needs and her own strength. She knew that now she was near the edge of danger to herself ; one, or at the most two, more draughts of the stimulant were all she could allow herself without harm. But Lin’s need was paramount. She prepared the draught, but before she could drink it, she heard Lin’s breathing quicken to a hoarse, fast, loud panting, as if he were running hard. She turned in alarm, and as she did so he called her name in a low, cracked voice, She ran to him, but suddenly all sound died. Had his breathing stopped? “Lin, I am here!” she cried out in terror, leaning over him, but he did not respond. An overwhelming sense of loss swept her; too frozen with fear for him to feel for his heart, his breathing, the Healer in her gave way to the grief-stricken girl who cried out, in her agony, the secret she had hidden so long in her heart. “Lin! Oh, Lin, you cannot die! I love you!”

Lin was exhausted. He had fought his way through the Fever Dream and it had been the most deadly battle of his life. But still the battle was not quite over. There was a restful blackness, a quiet oblivion, that called him. He might surrender to it, and sleep, and wake in the Joyous Place, with Light. Or, like a swimmer drawn into dark ocean depths, he might fight free, and struggle to rise up to the daylight, and life. He was so weary! He remembered Krystha, his comrade in this battle, his love, and called to her for aid. As he paused to gather breath and strength, the black depths of sleep tugged enticingly at him, yet Krystha’s voice calling “I am here!” was a call , too, upward to the light. In that moment his life hung balanced.and then came Krystha’s despairing cry, and the scales tipped in life’s favour. With her “You cannot die! I love you!” echoing in his mind, Lin found in Krystha’s desperate need of him the spur to fight back to life, and to her. He drew a great, gasping breath, as if he were indeed a swimmer breaking surface, and heard Krystha exclaim, in a voice that was half a sob, “Lin? Lin, can you hear me?” Lin opened his eyes, but shut them again against the brightness of the nearby lamp. He tried to speak, but his throat was tight and dry. “Wait , do not try to speak yet.” Krystha said. He heard her begin to move away towards the Healer’s bench, and then she gave a sudden cry,”No! Oh, not now!” Alarmed, he opened his eyes again, and saw her stand, swaying, between his couch and the next. Her hands were shaking violently, and as he watched her anxiously she tried to reach the bellpull over the couch. But her hands were uncontrollable, and with a moan of distress she sank down on the couch next to his. Lin was helpless ; unable to move or speak, he could do nothing to help Krystha. He watched in an agony of fear for her as the trembling spread through her body. Not knowing what ailed her, he was unable even to reach the bellpull that would summon Lady Benika to her aid. Then suddenly into his mind. though it was still somewhat muddled from the Fever Dream, came the memory of how Aiel, at need, had managed to reach out his Perception and summon Lin. Could Lin now do the same, and reach Aiel’s mind? He drew on what strength he could muster and willed himself to concentrate on calling out to Aiel’s Perception.

Aiel, in the Prayer Room with Arentha, felt his Perception, enhanced by the Lightstone, tugged by some outer force. He let his Perception follow the pull, and intercepted Lin’s plea for help. Aiel cried, “Lin!” “What is it?” Arentha asked anxiously “What did you Perceive?” “He must be conscious, for I felt him call me. But he needs help urgently. Why does Krystha not aid him?” As he spoke, Aiel was hurrying her along the passageway to the Healing Place. They burst through the doors, and saw, in the pool of lamplight, Lin lying still but gazing at them with conscious, pleading eyes, and Krystha seated on the next couch, shaking uncontrollably. Aiel reached for the nearest bellpull and tugged it to call Lady Benika, while Arentha ran to her sister and held her tightly, trying to stop the shaking. Next Aiel went to Lin’s couch and, telling his friend not to attempt to speak, used his Perception to find out what had happened. As their thoughts merged, Aiel felt Lin’s relief at their arrival, his weakness and confusion from the fever, his fears at the apparent sickness that had suddenly overtaken Krystha. Drawing on the power of Light, the young Priest tried to reassure and comfort Lin, and succeeded in calming him. As he withdrew his Perception, Lady Benika arrived, asking “Is it Lin?” “Lin is past the Fever Dream, and conscious” Aiel told her. “It is Krystha.” The Healer gave a little exclamation of praise for Lin’s recovery from the Wound Fever. Then she quickly went to Krystha. Arentha tried to hold her sister still while Lady Benika lifted the girl’s shaking hand, then tilted up her face and looked into her eyes. Then she went to the Healer’s bench, and lifted the bowl of blackbark which Krystha had not had time to drink. She held it up for them to see. “This is the culprit. Krystha has been taking blackbark to stay alert and tend Lin.” Lin groaned at the thought that Krystha might have harmed herself to help him. Lady Benika reassured him. “Have no fear for her, Lin. Blackbark only borrows tomorrow’s strength for today. After prolonged use, once the body is released from its hold, it will react with a dreadful weariness, so that even the muscles are uncontrollable. It is frightening to see, but unless taken to excess – and Krystha is wiser than that – it is easily amended, and will do her no permanent harm. Plenty of rest and sleep – those will heal Krystha.” She mixed two draughts at the Healer’s bench and brought one to Krystha. “Drink this, child, and rest now” she said tenderly “Your work is done. Lin is safe.” Krystha obeyed, though she had some difficulty in drinking, since she was trembling so. Arentha helped her, and when the bowl was empty, she and Lady Benika lifted Krystha’s legs on to the couch and laid a cover over her. The exhausted girl was almost instantly asleep.

The Healer turned to Lin. “Now, Swordsman, let us see how it is with you.” She examined Lin thoroughly, while Aiel and Arentha stood by, waiting. Lin, now that his fear over Krystha was gone, lay still and quiet under Lady Benika’s gentle hands. He knew by the feel of his own body how weak he was, how much strength he had lost in fighting the fever, and even though he had been unconscious for so long, he felt unutterably weary. His mouth tasted abominable, his throat was dry and sore, his head ached, and after burning with the fever, he felt cold and shivery. Aiel, though he rejoiced at Lin’s escape from death, could also see that his friend had far to go to regain his usual good health. The shadow of his fear for Lin had not yet completely lifted. Lady Benika completed her inspection by gently unwrapping Lin’s arm. There was no more sign of infection and the wound was no longer an angry red, but pinkly healing. She smiled. “Good, my Swordsman, good.” she said, “It will be a slow road back, but it will be well with you now. Yet I think you have fought the greatest fight of your life.”She redressed the wound with healing salve and bandages, then brought him the second bowl that she had mixed, saying “Drink this, it will clear your head and throat.” The Healer lifted Lin’s head while he drank. The draught had a clean, sharp taste that drove away the foul taste in his mouth and eased his throat immediately. She laid him back on the cushions and said to Aiel and Arentha, “A moment with him only, then you must go, and let him rest.”

Lin smiled faintly at his friends, trying to reassure them. To his great surprise, Arentha bent and kissed his brow. “Dear Lin!” she exclaimed “Praise Light you are restored to us!” Aiel, though his faith in Light had never wavered, had in his human heart been deeply fearful for his friend’s life, and now relief and joy mingled in his voice as he bent to carefully embrace Lin, saying “Lin, my brother!” Then he straightened again, telling the Swordsman, with a mock severity that was a cover for his very deep emotion, “As you love Light and me, do not frighten me like that ever again!” Lin looked at Aiel with affection. In those moments when Aiel’s Perception had held and searched and comforted his mind, Lin had felt a new strength and maturity in his friend. Lin had always had that underlying feeling almost of responsibility for Aiel, a protectiveness, as though Aiel had been not quite strong enough to stand alone. Now, though, Lin knew that his ‘younger brother’ had come of age, and Aiel’s new maturity caused Lin to feel a different kind of respect for him. Aiel bent again, and touched the Lightstone to Lin’s brow. The light flowed out and surrounded the Swordsman, and he felt a deep peace enfold him. It as as though he floated on a warm, supporting tide, and he allowed it to carry him into restful sleep. Lady Benika smiled. “That will do more good for Lin than all my draughts.” The light withdrew into the Lightstone, and Aiel murmured a blessing on his sleeping friends. The Healer told them, “Do not fear for them Aiel, Arentha. Lin is weak from the sickness, but he is young and strong. He will be well again, though it will take time. And Krystha needs only to make up the sleep she has lost. She needs time too, to rest and recover.” Now the Healer cupped Aiel’s face in gentle hands, and studied it. “The shadow of this Way is still on your heart, Aiel. It would be well for all of you to stay here for a while, till strength returns. Send word of your victory to the City, and stay with us, for now.” Aiel glanced at Arentha, who nodded. “Perhaps” he said. “You are kind, Lady. And in any case, we must wait till Krystha and Lin have recovered. After that – we will see.”

Lin was unaware of time passing as he drifted in and out of sleep. Sometimes, when he woke, Lady Benika was there, and gave him clear water or more of the sharp-tasting draught to slake his thirst. Sometimes he woke at night, alone in the lamplight. Always, he looked for Krystha on the couch at his right, and saw her still sleeping. Once he woke, and a curtain was drawn between his couch and hers, and he heard Lady Benika and Arentha talking behind it. Alarmed, he called out, and the Healer came from behind the curtain to assure him that all was well with Krystha and she was only being made comfortable. At last Lin woke completely. He was aware of the slackness and lack of strength in his body, but his mind was clear and alert, the dreadful tiredness and lassitude gone. He had been aware of thirst, all the time, but only now did he feel the gnawing emptiness of hunger in his stomach. He opened his eyes. It was bright morning, and sunlight spilled through the windows of the Healing Place. He turned his head to look for Krystha, and saw her on her couch. He compared her appearance with the frightening signs of sheer exhaustion he had seen on her face before, and felt that she must be much better. The deathly, translucent pallor had gone and her skin was its normal clear, creamy tone. The pinched whiteness of her lips had given way to a soft pink and her cheeks were rosy with sleep. The great dark smudges under her eyes had almost faded away, and of the bruised appearance of her eyelids only a few faint mauve veins remained. Her hair, which had looked so rough and dull, had been loosed and brushed out, no doubt by Arentha, and lay about her in a red-gold cloud, flaming to a fiery glory where the sunlight touched it. She wore a simple white nightgown which showed up the brightness of her hair even more. Lin felt as though his heart constricted with love for her, and murmured, very softly, “Krystha, my heart!” She could not possibly have heard him, but she stirred as though she had. Lin watched her, wondering to himself if he had really heard her call out to him that she loved him. Or had it only been a part of the Fever Dream? It seemed so long ago now.

Krystha was drowsily moving, and Lin lay still and delighted in watching her come awake. She turned, and flung out one arm in his direction, the hand curled up against the frilled sleeve of the nightgown. She murmured, then sighed, then yawned, showing white teeth and a pink tongue-tip. Her lashes fluttered against her cheeks, once, twice, and then her tawny-brown eyes opened, and gazed straight at Lin. He smiled tenderly at her, and, still half-asleep, she smiled dreamily back. Then her eyes widened, the smile disappeared, and she sat bolt upright, exclaiming “Lin!” In a flurry of movement she scrambled from her couch and fell to her knees beside his. “Lin!” she said again “Oh, Lin!” as if she were quite unable to say anything else. He was left in little doubt as to her feelings for him now, for she flung her arms around him, hugging him tightly, burrowed her head into his chest, and burst into a storm of weeping that alarmed him. Lin wished he had the use of both arms, but had to hold her as best he could with only one, and nuzzled her red-gold hair in lieu of any other caress. “Krystha, hush!” he implored her. “Do not weep so! It is well with me. Oh, my heart, do not weep!”Eventually his entreaties and tender endearments calmed Krystha, and she lifted her tear-wet face to look at him. Lin swiftly leant to kiss her, surprising her into a little gasp. He had dreamed so often of this moment that it might have been an anti-climax, but her lips were as sweet and her response as warm and tender as he could have hoped. When his mouth lifted from hers, Krystha touched her fingers to her lips and gazed at him in wonder.”I love you” he told her, joyful to be able to say it at last, “Krystha, I love you.” She drew a shuddering breath. “Oh, Lin – my Lin – I thought I had lost you!” “How could I die?” he asked her “When I love you so, and had never told you? How could I die, and leave it unsaid?” “I did not know.” Krystha whispered.

He looked solemnly into her eyes. “Krystha, I might have died – without you. After the Fever Dream – I was so tired, so very tired. It would have been so easy to give up, to just let go and drift into the darkness and sleep. Sleep forever, and never wake.” He felt her shudder in his embrace, and said quickly “You saved me , my love. I heard your voice – you called to me that I could not die because you loved me, and that gave me the strength to fight my way back to life – to you, Krystha. But was it real, or just part of the Fever Dream?” “No – no, not a dream, Lin. I did call out to you. I do – I do love you.” “I wish I had not been so cowardly, my heart! I was so afraid to say that I loved you, for I could not think how to woo you. I did try once – do you remember, in the cave, the night before we reached the Gatehouse? But you said you would never love, and turned the subject, and I was afraid to try again to tell you.” Krystha blushed, then, and said “I-I did not speak the truth, Lin. I think I began to fall in love with you when you swore Sword-Brotherhood with me. And when you fought the Sword-Trial – I was so proud of you, and so afraid for you, and from that moment I knew that I loved you. But I too was afraid. I thought that if you knew, and could not love me, I might lose even your friendship.” “It was when I saw you in such distress at the Third Faring House, that I knew I loved you” Lin told her “I would have given anything to take the pain from you, if I could. I wish I had known then how you felt.” “It does not matter, my love” she said softly “We have found each other now, and the dangers are past, and the tears behind us.” “You have won back my life for me.” he said “but I do not wish to live it out without you. Will you be my Lady, Krystha.?” “Yes, Lin, I will” she answered, simply and gladly, and when he had kissed her again, she rose, and said “Let me look at you now, Lin, and see that it is well with you.” But Lin would not let her. “You have been sick yourself, from taking the blackbark to tend to me” he said. “Summon Lady Benika, if you will. But you should still be resting too.” Krystha, astonishingly, obeyed him; climbing back on her couch she pulled the covers over her and tugged on the bell that would call Lady Benika. “But at least you will tell me how you feel?” she asked. Lin considered, then, “My mind is clear, but my body is weak” he answered, “and I am very happy, my love.” Then, plaintively, he added “And also very, very hungry, Krystha.” “Ah, now that is a good sign!” Krystha said, and laughed.

When Aiel and Arentha had left the Healing Place, feeling the mixed emotions of joy at Lin’s escape from death and concern at Krystha’s exhaustion, they went towards the Hall of the Gatehouse, looking for Tor-Harat, to tell him of Lin’s recovery. As they entered the Hall, though, Aiel felt a strange and sudden weakness sweep over him, and stood trembling. “Aiel, what is wrong?” Arentha cried, but he could not even find strength to answer her. He felt as if his legs had turned to water, and sank down on to a chair by the table in the middle of the Hall. He laid his arms on the table, and his head on his arms, and began to weep. He did not know that relief and reaction were overtaking him now. He did not feel unhappy – he felt nothing. But he could not stop weeping. It was as if the tears were not his at all, but the outpouring of a great flood that swept through him, washing him free of hurt and fear. He was unconscious of anything around him, not hearing Arentha begging him to speak, to tell her what ailed him. He did not hear her bid a passing servant to fetch Lady Benika and Tor-Harat. His tears were a current on which he floated above all that had power to dismay him. Lady Benika came first, and when Arentha turned to her in search of help for Aiel, the Healer hugged the frightened girl, and said “It will be well, Arentha. This is release from all the burdens he has been under.” When the Gatekeeper came, he sat opposite Aiel, and gently reached out his Perception. Aiel felt the soft touch. He was coming, now, to an end of his weeping; it was as if the tide of tears receded and left him lying, cleansed and drained, on some strange shore of his own mind. When he felt the touch of Tor-Harat’s Perception, his own Perception clung to it and let the other Priest draw him slowly back to his own world. He lifted his head from his arms, and gazed at Tor-Harat, and Arentha gave a little cry of relief.

Now the Gatekeeper’s eyes held Aiel’s, his Perception poured anew into Aiel’s, helping him, strengthening him, until Aiel was aware again of who and where he was. Lady Benika poured a cup of wine from the pitcher that stood on the table, and made him drink it, and Aiel felt its rough warmth spread through him, dispelling the icy coldness. Arentha reached inside his robe and brought out the Lightstone, and laid it to Aiel’s brow, and the enveloping light embraced him, upholding and comforting him. Once the light withdrew, Lady Benika said firmly “Aiel, now that we know it will be well with Lin, you must go and sleep. Every time you gain a little strength, you spend it again. But now there is nothing for you to do but rest and recover, like the others.” Aiel still felt as though his legs would not obey him, and had to lean on Arentha, her arm around his waist, as she and Lady Benika helped him to his room. He had never felt so weak and drained, not even after the battle for the Dancers. He could barely manage to drink the draught that the Healer gave him, and almost fell into bed. Arentha covered him over, and bent to kiss him, but he was not conscious of her whispered “Light keep you, my love.” The warm touch of her lips was the last thing he knew, and then he fell into a well of oblivious sleep. Arentha, standing with Lady Benika, looked down at her sleeping love, and said to the Healer, “Aiel, and Lin, and Krystha have given so much to this Way. I do not feel I have done anything.” Tor-Harat, who had followed them, said, “That is not true, Arentha. You played your part and suffered too, on the Meeting Place. And on the Way, you have been their quiet place and their anchor. By being always there when Aiel needed you, you have been the staff on which he leaned, walking this Way of the Secret Word. Oh yes, he had the Lightstone to uphold him. But without your support, and that of the Way-Sharers, it would have been very lonely for him, and much harder.”

Aiel did not know that he slept through two days and nights in his utter exhaustion, only that when he woke it was the dawn of a new day. He felt light with the sense of burdens lifted, and inwardly he felt cleansed and strengthened and purified. He stretched, and even his limbs seemed lighter and stronger. He slipped out of bed and went to the window. He saw a glorious sunrise glow rose and gold and myriad pearl-colours above the mountain, and still the faint shadow of one of the moons in the sky. It was so beautiful and fresh and new, as though it were the first dawn there had ever been. Memory flowed back, and he knew why the dawn seemed so joyful. Darkness was defeated, and Lin was safe from death. As he gazed out at the sky, thinking on the mercy and the wonder of Light, he remembered too that he had stood on that moon with the Dancers, and seen Li’is beneath his feet. He recalled the amazing journey on which the Dancers had taken him, and his awe and his sense of smallness before Light, and his wonderment that Light could love and show mercy to a creature as small and insignificant as he was. These memories made Aiel take out the Lightstone, looking into the depths of its glow, reaching, he felt, further towards Light than he had ever gone before. Then it was as if he burst through into a Presence so vast, so awesome and eternal, yet so loving, so tender, so understanding of his smallness and his needs, that he cried aloud in wonder, and fell, first to his knees, then prostrate on the floor in joy and worship.

He did not know how long he lay there in silent adoration. When at last the sense of that Presence left him, the dawn colours and the moon were gone, and full, bright daylight poured into the room. Aiel stood, and looked into the mirror of polished metal on the wall, thinking that somehow his face must show signs of that momentous encounter, but he saw only his face as usual, save that he realised it had grown a little thinner, and seemed a little older. He had been, still, more than half a boy when he set out on his Way. Now he was fully a man. In that moment he felt that nothing would ever have power to hurt or frighten him again. Suddenly he felt thirsty, and hungry, and in need of a bathe and fresh clothes. He smiled at his own reflection, and went out of the door with a light step and lighter heart. Finding a servant, he obtained a clean Priestly robe, asked for food and drink to be prepared for him, and went to bathe. Later, much refreshed and clean and fed, he went to look for Arentha. Not finding her, and guessing she might be with Krystha, he went towards the Healing Place and tapped on the door. Lady Benika opened it, and smiled at him. “Ah, Aiel, that is better! You look like a living man again, not some pale phantom.” “Aiel?” he heard Arentha’s voice from inside the Healing Place. Lady Benika stood aside, and he hurried inside. At once Arentha ran to him, hugging him, kissing him, exclaiming with joy and a few tears at his improved appearance. When they were both a little calmer, he asked “How is it with Lin? And Krystha?” “They are asleep” Arentha answered “but both much better. Come and see.” She took his hand and led him to Lin’s couch. The Swordsman lay peacefully asleep, and though he was thinner, he was neither pale with pain nor flushed with fever. Lady Benika said “The wound is healing well, now. And he grows stronger daily.” Krystha lay on the next couch, curled up on her side like a cat, one small hand under her cheek, like a little girl. Aiel bent and kissed her other cheek, softly. “Light bless you, Krystha” he said, quietly, so as not to wake her “Your care has saved my dearest friend for me.” Lady Benika asked “Have you eaten, Aiel?” “Aye” he answered “I fear I have made free with your kitchen, Lady.” “Good!” she smiled back “But now do you and Arentha go and walk awhile in our Gatehouse Gardens. They are meant for rest and refreshing and the very scent of the plants will help to heal you.”

They did as she bade them, wandering hand-in-hand among the fragrant flowers, the stately trees, the changing vistas and pretty bowers. One place though they found that they loved best of all the Gardens, because it reminded them so of home. It was a wild flower meadow, the grass strewn with many blooms, with a little stream running through, and a small copse of trees at one end. It was like a smaller Plain of Blossoms. Arentha kicked off her shoes and sat with her feet trailing in the sun-warmed water, and Aiel lay down with his head in her lap and gazed up at her face, and at the blue sky above them. He told her then, as he had not found time to before, of how the Dancers had honoured him, and of the beauty and strangeness of the worlds he had seen – though he made no mention of Ma’al – and tried to describe them to her, and she was full of wonder and amazement. They talked about the Way, and of when they might return home, which made them move on to the subject of Lin and Krystha, and how soon they might be fully well, and if, maybe, Krystha would return Lin’s love. And from that , naturally enough, they began to speak of their own love, and Aiel exclaimed,”Arentha, my heart – I have not yet asked if you will be my Lady?” “My dear love, of course I will” she answered , adding, in accordance with custom, “If Merhaun my father agrees.” “Merhaun” Aiel said, feeling a little uncomfortable, though he knew the request would be only a formality. “How will your father feel, Arentha, when I bring you back to him safely as I promised – only to ask him to give you to me again, forever?” “How could he deny you?” Arentha asked, somewhat indignantly, “When you have saved all Li’is?” and he laughed at her championship of him, and sat up, and kissed her.

Two days later, Lady Benika came to them as they sat in the Hall after breakfast, her face beaming. “Come ” she told them, and led them to the Healing Place. When they went in, Aiel’s heart leapt with joy. Lin sat up in bed, smiling at them, and the littered tray on a table at his bedside showed that he had eaten a good breakfast. Krystha , wrapped in a warm robe, sat in a chair at his side. She looked well – she looked better than well. There was a glow in her face and her eyes, and Aiel saw that Lin’s good hand clung to one of hers. He knew, then, that Lin had won her love. “Oh,Lin!” he said”It is good to see you so well, my brother!” he smiled at them “And Krystha, too. Is it well with you now?” “It is very well with us” Lin said contentedly, and Aiel saw the love shine in his friend’s eyes as he looked at Krystha. “I have told Krystha of my love for her, and she loves me too, Aiel. She has said she will be my Lady.” Krystha smiled at them, and Arentha went to her sister and hugged and kissed her, saying, “Oh Krystha dear, I am so glad!” “Then the Fortress must prepare for a double wedding” Aiel laughed, “for Arentha has promised to be my Lady too.” And the Healing Place was full of rejoicing and content.

The Way-Sharers had decided, almost by default, to follow Lady Benika’s advice and stay longer at the Gatehouse. Aiel and Tor-Harat spent all of one morning in the Prayer Room, in fierce concentration, joining their Perceptions with the aid of the Lightstone to send out the Thought-without-Words into Li’is. From Priest to Priest, friend to friend it went – to Varn at the Third Faring House, who linked with his brethren there to send it on, out to the Priest of the Western Fortress and to Brath and Tavis at the Second Faring House, from them on to Mell and the Priests whose Soul-Watches were all the small towns and villages in between, and finally, finally, to Arnath the High Priest at the Temple of Light, and the Temple Elders, and all Aiel’s Brothers-in-Light there. The message was simple, but it meant everything – that the Lightstone-Bearer had fulfilled his Way, and the Darkness was defeated, and the Dancers, and thus all Li’is, safe. That was the simple message, but what overwhelmed Aiel was the response to it, the joy and praise and love that swept back to him along the chain of the Thought-without-Words. That was truly what it was, for there were no words, only a tide of thought and emotion that overjoyed and uplifted him. Now that those who needed to know had been reassured, there was no urgency about their return, and there was the healing of Lin’s wound to consider. Aiel was anxious that they should not begin the return journey until there was no risk that the Healers’ work might be undone by the exertions of travelling. So they took time to relax and recover, to make plans for the future,and to discover the changes in each other.

Naturally the greatest change was in Aiel, who had born the burden of the Way and who had gone through so many changes, in himself and in his faith in Light, so quickly. In himself he felt that the greatest change was that his trust in Light was now like a great, immovable rock firmly embedded in his spirit, on which he would build every other thing in his life. He had had times before, and even on, the Way when he had swung wildly between faith and despair, trust and doubt. But now that divided heart had found its still centre and was whole. Arentha’s love for him, and his for her, was a wondrous gift of Light, but greater even than that was his assurance of Light’s love for them both – for them all. Arentha too had grown in Light, in faith. Though she was sweet and gentle as ever, a certain shyness in her had gone, and she was more sure of herself in Light, and so more confident in her words and actions. Krystha, by contrast with her sister, had grown softer and quieter, yet this was not a lack of confidence, rather the reverse. For it was her own self-doubt that had made her sharp and defensive and always prone to a hot or impetuous word or rash action. The need for reliance on Light on the Way had tempered her impulsive nature, and Lin’s love for her had freed her from the rejection in her life and assured her of her own worth. Light’s love, and Lin’s, had left her free to be her own true self. Lin too was quieter. He had come close to death and it had caused him to reassess his faith, his life, and his priorities. He was more thoughtful, closer to Light, without losing any of his strengths or courage. Like Krystha, he might now be less impetuous, having her love to hold him back from impulsiveness. For all he did now concerned not just himself, but Krystha too, and the future they planned together.

Their relationships had altered too; it was not just that love had blossomed between Aiel and Arentha and Lin and Krystha. The bond between Aiel and Lin had changed too, made deeper by Lin’s sacrificial rescue of Aiel. Yet Lin no longer thought of Aiel as a ‘younger brother’, for Aiel had so changed and matured that he was at least Lin’s equal, if not his ‘elder’. And that was how it should be, Lin felt. Even between the sisters there was a difference, since Krystha’s self-doubt had distanced her even from her sister, however slightly. Now, though, every barrier in her life was down, and the sisters were closer than ever. Nor were the old ties harmed by the new, rather enhanced by the love of the two couples. So they spent a pleasant and restful few weeks at the Gatehouse,until they had all recovered from the stresses of the Way. Lin’s redressed arm had healed enough to be unpinned again, and Lady Benika and Krystha gave him salves to soften the damaged skin, and exercises to do so that the scar would not grow hard and set and his arm would stay supple – though it would always be somewhat stiff. If Lin found the exercises painful, he did not complain, knowing they were done for his own good. Aiel had been called up to the Meeting Place several times to speak with the Dancers, though never again, to his mingled relief and disappointment, had they offered to take him ‘travelling’ with them. Lin too had been summoned by the Dancers one day, had been carried by one of them to the Meeting Place, and returned very thoughtful, but glad. he did not say, though, nor did the others, respecting his privacy, ask,what the Dancers had told him.

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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