DANCE THE DARKNESS DOWN

Chapter 14

As pleasant and comfortable as the Gatehouse was, with its kind hosts and beautiful Gardens, there came a time when the four Way-Sharers were rested and refreshed, and beginning to grow homesick, missing their families. Lin missed the sound and smell of the sea by the Harbour, Aiel, the work and companionship of the Temple, the girls their Fortress home. All of them longed to exchange the cool, high Northern skies for their own blue sunny Southern ones. So they began to make plans to be off . Lin’s arm had healed enough for him to travel, and he would have Krystha to care for him. Still, Aiel insisted that he spend some time practising his riding before they left, to get the feel of it again, and to ensure that it was not too much for him. Aiel had his doubts about Lin’s mount. Lin had been able to control Mischief well with two sound arms, but could he now hold him in check with still limited use of one arm? It seemed, though, when they put it to the test, that the intelligent animal understood and was, in fact , as quiet and sensible as Aiel’s Greymouse. The Spring had turned to high summer now, too. There would be much less risk of bad weather than on their journey here. So at last they set a day for leaving, and packed their gear, and Lady Benika prepared provisions for them. Though they were longing to return home, it was hard to leave Tor-Harat and Lady Benika, and the Dancers. There were tears as they embraced the Gatekeeper and his Lady and bade them farewell, and the two Priests’ Perceptions meshed in an expression of mutual affection and respect far deeper than words could express. As they made their farewells a Dancer appeared, shimmering out of the air to bring the Dancers’ thanks and farewells and blessings.

They reached the ridge from which they had first seen the Gatehouse, and turned to look back at the solid grey building. Lin sighed, and said “There, it is over. I wonder if any of us will ever return here?” “Is it over?” Aiel wondered aloud “Not all the Secret Word is yet fulfilled, and I shall see its fulfillment – so it is written.” Now their journey ran backward along the way they had come, and now that the dark shadow of Lak no longer hung over them, they could see and appreciate the places they had passed through before. They returned to the caves to sleep for one night, and the place was full of memories now past and overcome by new joys. On their second night they stayed in the village inn where they had stayed before, and were glad to be shown the child Krystha had tended then, now well and thriving again. If there was any curiosity that Aiel, now obviously a Priest, had travelled in disguise before, nobody was discourteous enough to show it. They went on, the weather fine, the sun warm. The places that had seemed so bleak and bare when they crossed them in wind and rain, under the shadow of the Black Piper, now showed a strange, rough beauty, perfumed with wild herbs, busy with summer insects, starred with wild flowers. They were travelling more slowly, this time. There was not the urgent compulsion Aiel had felt before, to travel as far and fast as possible in pursuit of Lak, and there was Lin’s still healing arm to consider. So they took their time, and spent one night in the open, curled up in cloaks and wraps, on the rough springy grass that was surprisingly comfortable. The next night they spent in the strange grey-green forest with its refreshingly perfumed leaves and little spring. Their provisions were low now, and they were glad of the edible plants Krystha found in the wood, glad too to know that next day they would reach the Merchant Town – though Aiel wondered about the unhappy memories it must hold for Arentha and Krystha.

They reached the Merchant Town just before nightfall, and went straight to the Third Faring House, where Varn greeted them joyfully and insisted that they eat with him and tell him of the conclusion of the Way. Aiel was glad of this, because it meant that the maidens need not enter the Eating House where they had had the traumatic encounter with their runaway mother. Nor was there any time later for unhappy memories, for they sat and talked with Varn late into the evening, then went straight to bed, very sleepy. Next morning when Aiel woke, for he had slept late, Lin was nowhere to be seen, but one of the servants said that he had gone into the town, leaving a message to say that he would not be long. In fact, he rejoined Aiel just before they were called to breakfast. When Aiel enquired, he explained that he had been to the saddler’s to have a loose buckle on his sword-belt mended. “And on the way back I saw this” he said, reaching into his jerkin, and pulled out a tiny package. He unwrapped it with care. It was a pendant on a slender gold chain, delicately worked, with fronds and latticework making a frame for the large central stone. It was a beautiful stone, golden-tawny and clear. Lin said “I bought it as a love-gift for Krystha. It is just the colour of her eyes. Do you think it will please her?” “Surely it will! It is a beautiful thing, and like enough no one has ever brought her a gift just for herself.” The young Priest smiled, then , and said, “You see, I do not know what to do in these matters, Lin! I would not have thought to buy a love-gift for Arentha.” “Do you go and choose something, then, and I will wait to give Krystha hers until you have Arentha’s.” Aiel shook his head. “No, Lin” he laughed ” I would not rob you of that pleasure. Besides, I would not know what to choose. I will go with Arentha into the town later, and let her choose for herself.”

Aiel was pleased with Lin’s purchase for another reason. This morning they must breakfast in the Eating House, and Lin’s gift to Krystha would distract them all from memories of unhappy things. They walked across to the Eating House, where the girls joined them ; Aiel had carefully chosen a place in another part of the building to where they had sat last time. There were a few people here already from the Town; farmers who had brought in produce to sell, busy merchants, one or two travellers. The steward arrived to ask what they wished to eat, and after their travelling rations, it was pleasant to have so much choice. While they waited for their meal and chatted together, Lin reached for his little package again. Aiel saw though, with amusement, that Lin was shy about the gift. The Swordsman sat turning the packet in his hand, over and over, until there was a lull in the conversation, then he said, “Krystha, heart, I – I bought you this” and pushed the little package across to her. She looked at him in surprise, and as she took it up and began to unwrap it, Lin went on talking, to disguise, Aiel thought, the diffidence he felt over his gesture of love. “I saw it on the way from the saddler’s – and the colour was so right…” Lin’s voice tailed off as Krystha opened the package and the jewel felt out into her hands. She had not known what to expect – some little thing, perhaps a ribbon or a girdle, bought on impulse. When she saw the beautiful pendant, and knew what Lin meant – that the colour of the stone was exactly that of her tawny eyes – she was overwhelmed. She knew, did not need a love-gift to know, that Lin loved and valued her. Somehow, though, the lovely jewel and the thought he had put into choosing it crystallised his love for her into a tangible form. She knew she would treasure the pendant forever, not because of what it was, but what it meant. As Aiel had guessed, she had seldom had a gift brought to her just for herself, not because it was a birthday, or a Festival, or in thanks for her Healing skills. Because of that, Lin’s love-gift moved her so that her eyes filled with tears even as she smiled at him. “Oh Lin, dear love, it is so beautiful!” she exclaimed. Lin was disconcerted. “Krystha, what is it? I meant to make you happy!” Arentha leaned across to him, smiling “Lin, she is happy.” Then, softly, “All her life she has needed such a gesture – just to show her she is truly valued. Thank you.”

Aiel said, “Arentha, my love, I did not even think to buy you a love-gift – and if I had, I would not have known what to choose. Shall we go and choose something together, later?” “You do not need to do that, just because of Lin” she protested “I do not need a gift, to know that you love me.” Lin had gone to lean over Krystha, wiping away her tears, and fasten the pendant round her neck. Aiel saw her look up at Lin with shining happiness, and said, “But I would like to give you something beautiful too – though I shall never find something as lovely as you!” She laughed, and said, “Very well then, my love, you shall buy me a gift – but you must choose it yourself, with no help from me. And whatever it is, I shall not be disappointed.” Their food was brought, but the question of Aiel’s gift to Arentha had become the subject of much good-natured teasing, and in this happy mood they ate their meal and left the Eating House with no word or thought of the devastating events on their last visit here. Returning to the Faring House, Krystha took Lin to the Healing Place to tend and exercise his arm. Aiel, since Arentha refused, laughingly, to be drawn on the nature of the gift he might bring her, set off alone into the Town to find something. He knew it was useless to think of buying anything other than a jewel, for he would not know where to begin, so he went from jeweller’s to merchant’s to enameller’s, searching. He was almost ready to give up, when he found the thing he sought. It was a brooch-pin, to fasten a cloak or wear as an ornament. The outer ring of it, jewelled and enamelled, was designed like intertwining branches with green leaves and white blossoms, and in the centre of it was a little bird in blue and white enamel, made with its tiny beak open as if it were singing its heart out. It reminded Aiel of the first time he had seen Arentha, and her blue gown with its embroidery of white birds. So he bought it, and carried it back in triumph to the Faring House, where he found Arentha in the Healing Place with the others. He put the little packet in her hand, and when she opened it, and he saw her face, he knew that he had chosen aright, and that she loved it. And when he told her why he had chosen it, she smiled, and hugged and kissed him, and he was content.

Varn urged them to stay longer at the Faring House, but they were anxious to be on their way, and having obtained fresh provisions and eaten the midday meal, they said farewell to Varn and set off again, out of the Town gates that faced South, riding towards the twin pillars that marked the borders of the Westerners’ summer pastures. They crossed the farmlands, already lush with growth that promised a rich harvest, and just climbed up on to the Ket’s Plateau as darkness fell. They made camp in the shadow of the Ket’s pillars, under the velvety star-jewelled sky, and ate a light meal, for Varn’s catering had been generous. Then they curled themselves up in their cloaks and coverings and slept, while the tethered horses munched the rich grass of the Plateau. Next day they travelled on, meeting one or two groups of wandering herders, who took note of the multi-coloured bands on their left wrists, which showed the four to be friends of the West, and offered refreshment and guidance. Late in the day they came to the Ket’s camp, and as they rode into its outskirts they heard the murmurs run ahead of them; “It is the Lightstone-Bearer!” “The Lightstone-Bearer has returned.”

At the entrance to the Ket’s pavilion, his twin sons stood waiting to greet them. As the four Way-Sharers dismounted, Ket-Kai stepped forward to greet Lin with the Swordsmen’s handclasp, but asked with concern, seeing Lin’s arm in its sling, “You are hurt, Sword-Brother?” “I have been” Lin answered briefly “It is well with me now.” Aiel, though, told Ket-Kai “Your Sword-Brother saved my life, and almost lost his own in doing it. He was sorely wounded, and took the Wound Fever, and we thought we would lose him.” He laid his hand on Lin’s shoulder, and added, “But by the mercy of Light, he lived, and is almost recovered now.” Ket-Lai said “You chose your Sword-Brother well, my brother. But you also have been fighting battles, Lightstone-Bearer. It is much that we owe you.” “Indeed” Lin said “Aiel stood against the Darkness and defeated it. And he too has been wounded, in spirit if not in body. But he is strong again now.” “Light is merciful” Ket-Kai said, “and we honour you, Lightstone-Bearer, for you have saved our world, and that is no small thing!” “We shall have a feast for you tonight” his twin continued, “I am sorry that our father the Ket is not here.” “Not here?” Aiel echoed, rather disappointed. He had admired the Ket and would have liked to have met him again. Lin thought that a slightly mischievous glance passed between the twins, though he could not imagine why. Ket-Kai said “Aye, he has been called away, and will not return for some time. But we shall not do you any the less honour because he is not here.”

That indeed was true. The twins ordered a lavish feast prepared, and there were so many fires and torches that it seemed the whole Plateau was ablaze with light, almost as bright as day. There was singing, and the Warrior Children performed a wild dance with sword and shield, and at the end of it came crowding round the Way-Sharers. Foremost among them was Taran, eager to show Aiel that his healing held, and Lin how well he was doing with his Sword-Training. And there were gifts. For Aiel and Lin, the heavy golden open-ended bracelets of the Westerners, and for the maidens, when the twins learned of their wedding plans, the promise of the choice of the Westerners’ finest fabrics for their wedding gowns. For in their winter quarters the Westerners spun and dyed and wove fabrics that were fine and highly valued. The Western Fortress provided them with rooms for the weavers and seamstresses, some of whom stayed there most of the year, and the fabrics were sent to the City and the Merchant Town be sold. It seemed that everywhere they went, the four of them were pressed to stay, and the Camp of the Westerners was no exception. Now, though, they were beginning to feel the nearness of home, the pull of it. Just across the Plateau lay the road to the Second Faring House, and then the First, and then the Fortress, and the City, and home. They explained to the twins, thinking it might be hard for them to understand, who loved to roam from place to place, and felt unsettled among buildings. Ket-Kai, though, smiled, and said, “Aye, still and settled or wandering, every heart has its belonging-place. Stay with us tonight, then, and go in Light tomorrow.”

Next morning they took leave of the Westerners, half in regret, half eager to be gone on the homeward way. Ket-Kai said to Lin, “Now my heart is sad, Sword-Brother, for we may not meet again. Go in Light, and if we do not meet again till we meet in the Joyous Place, may Light guard you all your life.” “Ah, I hope we shall meet again before then!” Lin exclaimed. “Surely I shall see you again, for my sister, remember, is Lady of the Western Fortress, and we must chance to meet there sometime.” “I hope so” Ket-Kai answered, smiling. “Farewell, Lightstone-Bearer. Though you are not a Swordsman, you have done deeds as great as Brann’s. We shall remember you. And Krystha and Arentha too, maidens as valiant as Tamorine.”

The four continued their homeward ride. It was a hot, sunny morning, and they could see the sparkling sea on one side of them, the Western mountains on the other. But they were looking ahead, Southward and home. They reached the edge of the Plateau, and began the descent. Coming up, it had been hard work. Going down, on the dusty slope made even drier by the heat of the sun, it was difficult and tiring, especially for Lin, with one arm restricted. Aiel wondered if it might not have been wiser after all to stay another day in the Ket’s camp and let Lin rest. They were grateful to reach the shallow caves where they had sheltered before, and rest. It was only late afternoon, but they were hot and thirsty, and the riding had been hard work for Lin. Aiel was not willing to risk his friend’s continued recovery by going further, and Krystha agreed. So they settled their horses and made camp, then ate their meal, and sat talking in the shade of the cave.

Aiel said, “One thing I do not understand. My father told me that if I succeeded on the Way, no one would know, or credit me for it. Yet everywhere we go, I am being praised.” “I think” Lin answered “that he meant that most of the folk of Li’is would not know. Those we met on the Way must know, and acknowledge you. No doubt in time – maybe many years hence – there will be stories and songs. It was so with Rafel and Brann and Tamorine. At first nobody – or very few- knew exactly what they had done. Only later – perhaps after they had touched Light – did they become a legend.” Aiel laughed “I cannot see myself as the stuff of legend!” he replied “You, perhaps, Lin, for you saved my life at risk of your own.” “And had you not already saved mine?” Lin retorted “If not from death, from slavery, which is worse than death? Mine and all of Li’is’ too!” Krystha commented “The people of Li’is would be right to honour you – both of you. But above all, to honour Light.” “Aye, Aiel agreed,” For I know well enough, having seen Ma’al, the Dark World, that I could not have defeated the Darkness in my own strength.” Lin said, thoughtfully, “Perhaps the songs and stories and legends are necessary to our faith, Aiel. Is it not easier to believe what Light can do in our own lives if we know what Light has done in the life of another?” “That is true.” Krystha agreed. “It is” Aiel said. “For sure, I took up the Lightstone with the more faith, because I knew Rafel’s story. ” He smiled. “And I should be glad if someone generations hence should feel more sure of Light because I had need to trust, and was not disappointed in my faith.”

Next morning they were on their way again, riding downward and Southward, making better time than yesterday, because the track was less steep and hazardous, and they spoke gladly of home, and how soon they might be there. At evening, they reached the little valley where they had camped before, where the Children of Night had come upon them. Aiel felt the place almost sacred to him for two reasons; first, because a human spirit had been turned there from Darkness to Light, and second, because there he had first known he loved Arentha. Lin and Krystha took the horses and water bottles round the curve of the valley to the little beach, while Aiel and Arentha prepared their meal. He said to Arentha, “Do you remember when we were here before , my heart – how you came to comfort me?” Arentha smiled at him “Yes, I do. I was so burdened for you!” “That was when I first knew I could care for you.” he told her. “Did you?” she said softly. “I think I cared for you almost from the beginning of the Way, Aiel.”

Lin and Krystha turned the horses free to drink, and she insisted on filling the water bottles herself, not to strain his arm. Then she made him stretch and exercise it, and he grimaced as the scar pulled at him, and complained “You will not let me fill a water bottle lest it hurt me, yet you put me through this!” But he laughed as he said it. “That is different” she said primly. “Lin, I am sorry if the exercises hurt you, but you would not have your arm heal stiff and drawn?” “No!” he said, and, still laughing, reached for her suddenly and pulled her into an embrace, surprising her.”Else how could I hold you?” She rested her hands on his chest and gazed up at him, her look so serious and questioning that he asked, only half-jokingly, “Now what has got into that red head of yours, Krystha?” “I still cannot quite understand it, that you should love me, Lin. There must have been girls in the City…” “There were.” he said, briefly, “Pretty girls, sweet girls, but none that I could wish to spend one year of my life with, let alone the whole of it.” “And I am not pretty or sweet!” she exclaimed, and for a moment he thought he had offended her, then saw that she was laughing at him. Still, he answered her seriously. “No, you are not pretty, but you are beautiful, in your own way. And you are sweet like the sweet-nut, my Krystha. First one must break through the prickly shell, then at the heart there is sweetness and goodness.” She had blushed at his compliment, and he said, “Listen to me, Krystha, then forget this thing. It is you I love, you who have won my heart, and I swore when I fell in love with you that I would have no Lady but you. Do you not believe me?” “Yes, I do” she said “For I knew too if ever I loved, it must be you, or none.” “Good” he said, laughing again. “Now, my wise, foolish, sweet, prickly love, be assured of my love, now and always.” He kissed her once, quickly, then said, “Now let us get this water back to the others, before they perish from thirst!”

When they had eaten their meal and made their evening prayers, Aiel drew out the Lightstone and gazed into it, his blue eyes bright, reaching out his Perception towards home, seeing how far he might be able to send his Priestly sense. He easily made contact with Brath and Tavis and Lady Saditha at the Second Faring House, telling them that the Way-Sharers would be with them tomorrow and receiving their glad welcome. Even with Mell, at the First Faring House, he made tenuous contact, but could not reach further, though he longed for contact with his father, Arnath. He had to be content, though, with Mell’s promise to relay to the High Priest the news of his son’s coming. The next day’s ride was pleasant, through the rolling green countryside to the Second Faring House. The good weather was holding for them, their mood was light and merry, and the overriding knowledge that all danger was over and done lent a sweetness to everything. It was late in the day when they reached the ridge above the Second Faring House and saw it sitting snugly below them in its walled gardens. When they arrived there, Lady Saditha was on hand to greet them, though Brath and Tavis, she told them, were away in a nearby village. “They will be back soon, though.” she told them, “Now, come inside and let me look at you. You are all so changed!”

She led them into the Great Hall, where refreshments waited. Her blue eyes swept them as they seated themselves, and she came first to Aiel and lifted his face in her hands. Their Perceptions meshed for a few moments, and then she smiled.”Ah, Aiel, you have grown so much in Light, and you have finished your Way and defeated the Darkness. Truly you are a worthy Lightstone-Bearer.” To Lin she said, “You have been wounded, Swordsman?” When Aiel explained, she said, “I knew Lin was valiant, and true to you and to Light. It is what I would have expected of him, Aiel. And Krystha” she went on, turning to the younger Healer and laying a motherly arm round her shoulders, “has learned to bend and not break, as her sister always knew. Yet even you are changed, Arentha. This Way has been a fearsome thing, but it has strengthened you all in Light.” “Aye, it has, Lady” Lin said, ” and for that we are thankful.” There was a disturbance in the entrance hall, and Brath and Tavis came striding in, dusty from their ride, and exclaiming with pleasure when they saw the Way-Sharers. “Saditha, love, before I forget, there is a child sick in the village. I said you would go”, Brath told her, then turned to greet and eagerly question Aiel and the others. Lady Saditha excused herself and went to collect her Healer’s supplies and give orders for the preparation of the evening meal.

When she returned, Lady Saditha said “Before I go, Aiel, may I ask your help?” “If I can help in any way, gladly”,he answered. “What is it?” “We have a woman in the Healing Place whom I cannot help. It is not a bodily sickness, she is sick at heart. She was brought in to us by some village folk who found her on the Moor. She had opened her veins and tried to destroy herself. We saved her life, but I cannot leave her alone lest she make another attempt. My stewards are with her now.” “She will accept no Priestly care, either” Tavis said.”She refused our Perceptions, and my mother’s. She will not even speak to us.” “But why? Why did she try to destroy herself? ” Krystha asked. “She told the village folk that she is – or has been- a Child of Night.” Lady Saditha told them. “Something has happened to cause her to repent, but she is full of remorse and guilt, saying she only deserves to die, since she has betrayed Light, and will never be forgiven. Aiel, perhaps the Lightstone may help her? “I will try.” he said. “Krystha, will you go with him?” Lady Saditha asked. “I must go to the village, and a Healer may be needed. ” So Aiel and Krystha followed the Healer to the Healing Place, where the stewards stood guard over the anguished woman. She was slumped in a chair, her head bowed, her hands, with their bandaged wrists, lying limply in her lap. Lady Saditha said, softly, “My dear, I have brought someone to help you.” But there was no response. “Do you know her name?” Aiel asked, and the Healer shook her head.”She will not tell us. Help her if you can, Aiel. She is in a very dark place.” When Lady Saditha had gone. leaving them with the woman and her guards, Aiel asked Krystha,”How can we begin? We must reach her somehow.” “I will try” Krystha answered, and knelt beside the woman’s chair, and gently lifted the bowed head, saying, “Lady, we want only to help you…”, but suddenly she broke off, and gave a strange cry. Aiel did not need to ask why, for he too had recognised the unwillingly lifted face. The woman in the chair was Alira, Krystha’s mother.

She turned her head away from Krystha with a pitiful moan, and Aiel took a step, not towards her, but Krystha, sure that she would not be able to bear this second encounter. But Krystha, to his surprise, shot him a look that told him to wait, that she was in command both of herself and the situation. With tender hands she turned Alira’s face back towards her, and said, “Alira – Mother – Light is merciful.” “No!” the word was half-cry, half-groan. “I have betrayed Light, and you. Oh, my baby! I would have given you to Darkness. Leave me – let me die!” “No” Krystha said firmly.”We will not let you die in Darkness. Aiel?” she turned to him and he came forward and bent over Alira. He had heard the pain and remorse and longing in the cry that the confrontation with Krystha had wrenched from her, “Oh, my baby!” “Do you remember me, Alira?” he asked. “I am the Lightstone-Bearer. What has happened to cause this?” “I remember you, Lightstone-Bearer” she answered. “It was the Lightstone’s touch that did this. Though I was in Darkness, the Light broke into my spirit, and I began to remember the things that had been, the happiness, and how I had changed, and what I had become. I saw all the evil and the Darkness in me, and the filth…and I knew what I had lost…” She stopped speaking and hid her face in her hands. “Is it mercy to let me live like this?” she cried.”Let me go, and I will find my own way back to Darkness. Or mix me some draught, Krystha, and be rid of me forever. Why should you try to save me when I have lived without thought of you?” Krystha was weeping softly now, but she replied, “We are Children of Light, and Light is loving and merciful. Aiel offered you the Choice of Light once, and you refused. But as long as you live, whatever you have done, that Choice is open to you still. Mother…” “Do not call me that!” Alira cried.”I have no right to that name now!”

Aiel knew that it was time to intervene. He drew out the Lightstone, and the woman gazed into its gentle glow, and said, “Aye, let Light destroy me for my sins, and let it end!” “First my Perception” Aiel said, gently but firmly, and she nodded, and let him take her face in his hands and set his Perception on the brown eyes that were so like Arentha’s. Aiel stepped into the torment of her mind, and understood. He saw how the Lightstone’s power had unlocked doors in her mind that had been firmly locked, reviving memories of her happiness with Merhaun and their infant daughters. He saw the realisation, the remorse and the pain. He knew the terror it had cost her to leave her evil lover, and the dark influence he had wielded over her. He saw how she had been beaten, used and abused by that man, and how much of her awful fascination with him had been fear. Though he could not deny the fact of Alira’s dark and sinful life, he knew, too, that much of it had been filled with pain and fear, and he felt compassion for her. No, more, he felt a love that he knew was not his own, but the power of Light reaching out to her through him. It touched her wounded, soiled spirit and comforted, cleansed, and healed. And when he withdrew his Perception, Alira, who had expected judgement and received mercy, gazed at him unbelievingly. Before she had time to question, Aiel, himself deeply moved, said, “Now the Lightstone” and touched it to her brow.

The soft glow enveloped Alira, held her close in a cocoon of light that was gentle, but dense, so that they could not see what passed inside the light. Aiel knew that he had no part to play now. This was Light confronting Darkness, sin and pain and driving them away, so that Alira would come forth, if her spirit was willing, once more a Child of Light. It was Light and Light alone, with no human intervention, giving her the Choice of Light, and Aiel had only to watch, and to wonder at the loving grace and mercy of Light. Krystha had risen and reached out her hand to him, and he took and held it tightly, wishing that Lin, who loved her so, were here to stand with her. And suddenly he thought of Arentha – Arentha, whose dream had been to have her mother restored to Light, and who had been so hurt by their last encounter. She must be here! In the circle of light they could hear Alira weeping great racking sobs of release. The two stewards who had been guarding her were watching with rapt, awed faces. Aiel attracted the attention of one of them, and requested, “Please bring the Swordsman Lin and the Lady Arentha here quickly!” As soon as the light began to withdraw into the Lightstone, Krystha gently pulled her hand from his and wrapped her arms around her weeping mother, with tears pouring down her own face. Alira’s arms came up and round her daughter, and Aiel’s own eyes brimmed with tears of joy as his spirit soared with praise to Light. He could hardly wait for Arentha’s arrival.

The door opened, and Lin came in, followed by Arentha. “What is it, Aiel?” the Swordsman asked. “It is – a miracle.” Aiel answered, awed at the thought. “Arentha, my heart, look!” He indicated her mother and sister, weeping in each other’s arms. Arentha turned very pale. “What is it?” she asked in her turn. “Krytsha…?” But Aiel felt she half knew, before Krystha looked up, and whispered to Alira, and the woman also looked up, with a strange, shy smile, as though she feared Arentha’s rejection, at her elder daughter. “Light has restored your mother to you, Arentha” Aiel said gladly. “She is no longer a Child of Darkness, but a Child of Light.” He had expected her to be joyful, but her face was white, and very still. Alira said, timidly, “Can-can you forgive me, Arentha?” Aiel wondered at Arentha’s stillness. Had she been hurt too deeply to forgive? The girl moved. She reached out both hands and cried, in a strange, high voice, “Mother?” And then her eyes closed, and she swayed, and would have fallen, but that Lin caught her, and he and Aiel lifted her carefully on to one of the couches. Alira cried out in alarm “Arentha! Oh, what have I done?” “It is not your doing, Mother” Krystha said, “It was the shock, that is all. She will be better soon.” She went to the Healer’s bench and opened a sealed phial, from which she poured a few crystals into a bowl, where they began to smoke and give off a strong, pungent aroma. She carried the bowl to where Arentha lay, and wafted it before her sister’s face.

Lin watched silently. Though part of him rejoiced at what had happened, another part was remembering the maidens’ sorrow and desolation at their previous meeting with Alira. The hurt she had done his beloved Krystha then still rankled. Aiel, sensing his friend’s thoughts, drew near and whispered to him, “Lin, she is not the same woman. I have looked into her spirit, and she has experienced as much pain as ever she caused Krystha and Arentha. More – for they were in Light, and she has been a long time in Darkness. My brother, it is not mine to tell, but she has suffered. Be thankful to Light that she is restored to them, and forgive.” Aiel’s appeal, and the obvious change in Alira, moved Lin. In any case, his spirit had always been too generous to bear a grudge for long. “Let Light forgive me” he answered softly “for an unforgiving spirit. May she be at peace with Light. Light is merciful.” “It is forgiven” Aiel assured him, and turned to see how Arentha fared. Alira too had risen from her chair and hovered anxiously over her daughters as Krystha tended Arentha. In a little while Arentha sighed and opened her eyes. The colour returned to her face, she sneezed and indignantly waved away the fuming crystals. Then she looked up and saw Alira. “Mother!” she exclaimed, but this time her voice was strong and vibrant with joy, “Oh, praise Light!”Arentha held out her arms and her mother bent into her embrace, weeping again. Krystha moved back, looking very glad, but a little bewildered. She turned towards Lin and whispered, “Lin, my love, hold me!” He reached out for her and held her tight. She was trembling a little with emotion, and leaned thankfully against him. “Oh Lin” she said, only half in jest, “My rock!” Aiel was looking at Alira wonderingly. Now that the peace and forgiveness of Light and the banishment of Darkness had taken all the ugly lines of fear and sin from her face, she was so very like Arentha.

After a while, Aiel and Lin were banished. For Alira, in her self-disgust and despair, had neglected herself and refused to allow others to tend her, and her daughters intended to set matters right. The two young men went back to the Great Hall, where they found Lady Saditha newly arrived from the village. “Were you able to help the woman?” she asked Aiel, anxiously. “Oh, yes” he assured her smiling. “Did you find out who she is?” the Healer went on. “We knew that already.” Aiel answered. “Her name is Alira, and – she is Arentha and Krystha’s mother.” “Oh!” Lady Saditha exclaimed, “I knew that I had seen a face like hers before! Of course – she is so like Arentha. But – how was it then, that she was in Darkness?” So Aiel explained, and told all about their previous encounter with Alira, and how the Lightstone’s power had affected her, and that she was now reconciled, both with Light and with her daughters. Eventually, the three women appeared, Alira still rather shy and unsure. Her daughters had dressed her in a russet gown from Lady Saditha’s store, and she looked at peace, and happy with them, despite her self-consciousness. Lady Saditha went to her, and kissed her cheek. “Light bless you, my dear” she said “You have been very sick, but now it is well with you.” And they all knew that the Perception-gifted Healer did not mean physical sickness. “Light has been merciful to me” Alira said, and tears shone in her eyes, “though I have not deserved mercy.”

She gazed at Aiel with the brown eyes that were so like her daughter’s, and said “Praise Light for you, Lightstone-Bearer, that you would not let me go my way in Darkness, but touched me with the Lightstone, and brought about this change in me.” “It was not I, but Light.” said Aiel, but automatically. Suddenly, seeing the maidens with Alira restored to them, clinging one to each of her arms, he felt something gnawing at him, the shadowy edge of an old pain that he tried to push away. “You are young, to bear such a responsibility, and bear it so well” Alira continued, “yet there is something in your face – it seems that I should know you. Who are you, Lightstone-Bearer?” “I am Aiel” he answered. “My father is Arnath, the High Priest…” “And your mother is Elandra!”” Alira broke in, smiling at him.”Oh, I remember now. You are very like her. She was kind to me, and gave me friendship, when I was new come from the East, and lonely. I should like to see her again. Is it well with her?” And the pain was awake and alive again, and snapping at his heart. “No” he said, in a quiet, dull voice, “She is dead, Lady. She died some years ago, bearing a child. The babe died too.” “Aiel, I am sorry!” Alira exclaimed, dismayed that her innocent enquiry had brought him such obvious pain. He could not stay there. He made some excuse, and rose, and went, eyes fixed on some inner seeing, straight to the Prayer Room, like a hurt beast to its lair. Arentha made as if she would follow him, but Lin laid a hand on her arm. “No” he said gently “not this time, Arentha. It is brother, not beloved, that he needs now. I have shared this hurt with him before.”

Lin found his friend kneeling before the Crucible, weeping bitterly. Aiel looked up at the Swordsman , and said through his tears, almost angrily, “Lin, I thought I was done with grieving for her! But…” “But the maidens’ mother is returned to them as if from the dead, and it makes your loss more sore.” Lin said, with understanding. He did not question Aiel’s tears, his grief, and Lin’s simple acceptance of them was more comforting to Aiel than his friend could know. “Yes” Aiel sighed, ” But that sounds so – so cruel, Lin – as if I envied them that happiness. I do not! I am glad for them. But I question…” “That is natural” Lin said. “It does seem somehow unfair. Aiel, you have not done with your grieving, yet.” “It was so long ago. Why is the pain still there, Lin?” “Time passes, and the pain grows less sharp, but the gap in your life is always there. Yet I have heard it said,” the Swordsman ventured “and by those wiser than I, that when the pains stays so sharp, the wound is not healing, because something keeps it open.” Aiel had risen to face him, and Lin looked his friend full in the face, and said, “Often enough it is an emotion that is difficult to face, that one may even be shamed by. Is it like that with you, Aiel?” “Aye, it is!” Aiel burst out. “I would not have remembered, but Lak took her shape, and wherever he took it from – maybe stole it from my own memory – it was her very likeness, as if I saw her again.” “Darkness is always ready to harm and hurt.” Lin said, angrily. “It made me remember, Lin. I was so unhappy, when she died. But I was angry too – and even jealous. How could she leave me? And she and the babe were together in the Joyous Place. They had each other. I had neither – I had not even my father, for a while, for his own grief consumed him, and he hardly thought of me.”

The young Priest was speaking, unconsciously, not as himself as he was now, Lightstone-Bearer, triumphant, and strong in Light, but as the child he had been, hurt and broken by his mother’s death. “And at the funeral…” “I remember” Lin said, remembering too his own sense of the injustice done to Aiel, “You wanted to go to the bier, to kiss her once in farewell, and they would not let you. They bade me keep you back- and you so white and stiff and still, I thought every moment you would faint from your agony-” “No doubt they meant kindly.” Aiel said, “But I felt – oh, it was a child’s foolishness, I know, Lin, but I felt if I could go to her, and hug and kiss her as I was used to, she would not want to leave me, she would come back to me, not go away…” Lin asked, softly, “Aiel, is it her you are angry with, still?” And suddenly Aiel wailed , like the child he had been, “Why did she leave me so, Lin, when I needed her? What had I done?” Lin knew, then, that Aiel had felt a sense of rejection as deep and secret as Krystha’s had been. “Aiel, Elandra did not choose to leave you. And it is always so, when someone dies, that we feel guilty, wondering what we could have done to prevent it. It was no fault of yours, just a terrible misfortune. Are you angry with Light, too?” That question took Aiel by surprise. He thought, and answered honestly. “I was, for a while. I think I am not, now. Lin, I have been acting like a child!” “Because there is still a hurt child in you” Lin said “It was his pain you felt, tonight. But now that you have acknowledged him, embrace him, and let him go.” He looked at his friend. “I am sorry that perhaps I could have helped you more, then, and did not”, he went on thoughtfully, “but you were such a quiet and private child. I did not want to be pushing in where I was not wanted.” “No, Lin, you did well by me. Have you ever truly known how grateful I was for your brotherhood to me, then? I look back on it now, and I am surprised at how mature your understanding was, and you only at the edge of manhood yourself.” They smiled at each other. Aiel’s tears had dried, and he no longer looked miserable, only thoughtful. “Is it well with you now, my brother?” Lin asked gently.”Shall I leave you to lay your thoughts before Light? Arentha was concerned for you – I could reassure her.” “Yes, do – and thank you, Lin.” Aiel said. As Lin turned to leave, Aiel was already gazing into the Lightstone.

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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