The next morning, though all of them had every intention of pursuing their normal tasks, somehow they found themselves lingering in the Great Hall after breakfast, waiting for Aiel’s arrival. Aila and Krystha had visited Marla again to tend her, salving her feet and taking her food and drink and a change of clothing , and again Aila had tried to ask Marla about the mysterious ‘ceremonies’ and the help she sought from Aiel. This time the other girl had said, quite simply, “Aila, there are things I can only tell the Lightstone-Bearer.” Then, smiling a little, she had added, “I know you stand my friend, and I thank you for trusting me. I will not betray your trust.” Aila had been content with that, but knew Mellin would not be so trusting. She did not mention it to her cousin. Hearing the clop of hooves on the courtyard outside, Mellin exclaimed “Aiel is here!” “No” Arenel answered. “It is not my father. Aila and I would have Perceived him.” “Perhaps a messenger from Merhaun and Alira, to say when they are coming home” suggested Lin, for the Lord of the Mountains and his Lady were away visiting friends.
A shadow appeared in the doorway, and Aila, curious, rose from her chair to see who the visitor might be. A young man, obviously a Swordsman, he came bounding down the steps into the Hall. She heard Mellin, behind her, give an exclamation of pleasure, and Lin and Krystha both smiled broadly and hurried to greet him. A welcome guest, then, Aila thought. She studied him covertly, so as not to seem rude. He was tall, his build, Like Lin’s and Mellin’s, muscular but not stocky. His curly chestnut-brown hair, though, made Aila wonder if he were some kin of Krystha’s. He was tanned, too tanned for a Northerner. His eyes were warm and brown, his mouth rather wide, and smiling. The bones of his face, wide cheekbones, straight nose and firm jaw, were a little too strong to make him handsome, but it was a very pleasant, likable face. To Aila it seemed a vaguely familiar face, too, though she had difficulty remembering at first. Then, as the young man turned towards her and her brother and cousin, she saw the heavy gold open-ended bracelet on his wrist, and the blue,red,green and yellow cords plaited into his sword-belt. Tokens of the West, which gave the final jog her memory needed. Now she knew him; it was Janir, Lin’s nephew, childhood companion of their times at the Fortress, son of the Lord of the Western Fortress and his Lady, Lin’s sister Mira.
“Janir?” she asked, still a little unsure, “It is you?” He gave her a warm, wide smile that was instantly familiar. “Yes, I am Janir. I did not think you would know me, Aila. But I would recognise you anywhere.” He looked over her shoulder at Arenel, still smiling, and said, “Arenel, my friend. You are a full Priest now? I must show you due deference!” Arenel smiled back and said “It is good to see you again, Janir.” “Sword-Brother!” Mellin said, reaching out to take his cousin and Sword-Brother in the Swordsmen’s hand-to-forearm grasp, “Arenel is right. It is good to see you.” Aila too held out her hand to her old playmate, and Janir took and held it, saying, “It is strange that you should be here today, Aila, for I had a message to be passed on to you, from Shala, my sister.” “From Shala – for me?” Aila repeated, surprised. “Why, we have not seen each other for – oh, several years!” “We have not” her cousin’s cousin agreed. “But we remember the old friendships, do we not? Shala is to be married, and I am sent to invite my grandparents, Merhaun and Alira, Lin and Krystha and Mellin, and your family too, to the wedding. And Shala asks if you will be one of her bride-maidens.” “Oh, I would like that!” Aila exclaimed, impulsively, then, remembering Marla, “Oh, but there is – there may be – a problem.”
Lin, who had come across to them during this conversation, said, “Perhaps not. Shala’s marriage may help us in this thing. Who knows? Aiel will be here soon, and then we can decide.” Janir was looking at them enquiringly, still absent-mindedly holding Aila’s hand. She did not mind, for it reminded her of happy childhood days. Janir, older by a little than the others, had been the kind and dependable one, who sorted out quarrels, soothed fears, and comforted when scratches, cuts or bruises were suffered as the result of boisterous games. Lin quickly explained about Marla, and Janir responded with quick and generous sympathy for the girl’s plight. It was evident that he was about to ask more questions, when Arenel announced “Our father is on the Fortress Level. I Perceive him.” Aila swung out her Perception, and felt her father’s presence, and another. “Our mother is with him.” she said gladly. She knew she would find an ally in Arentha for her championship of Marla’s cause. “Good!” Lin exclaimed. “With Aiel’s help, we can begin to solve this problem of Marla.”
They began to move towards the doorway, Janir releasing Aila’s hand , with a little smile of surprise at her that he had kept hold of it so long. Krystha said “I will go and see if it is well with Marla and if she feels ready to see Aiel. No, Aila, you need not come. Stay and explain to Aiel what we have seen and heard,” At that moment Aila and Arenel felt the touch of their father’s Perception seeking and greeting them. Brother and sister came through the doorway into the courtyard, followed by the three Swordsmen, to see Aiel and Arentha dismounting. Their children embraced them, and the others greeted them, but not a word was said about Marla till they were back in the comparative privacy of the Great Hall.. “Janir” Arentha said, delightedly, “I am glad to see you again! But last time you were little more than a boy, and now you are a man – and a Swordsman! And how is Shala?” “Well, and about to be married. I am sent to invite you all to the wedding, and ask Aila to be one of Shala’s bride-maidens.” Aiel said, thoughtfully, “Then I doubt you are here by chance just at this time, Janir. Light knows all things. Now Aila, Arenel, come here and let me Perceive all that you have learned about this Marla.”
Brother and sister obeyed, going to stand before their father while he set his Perception on them, first Arenel, then Aila. When he released Aila from his Perception, he said, smiling,” So, I see Marla already has one friend and champion!” Then he turned to Mellin, asking, “Mellin, will you also permit me to Perceive what you have seen of her?” Mellin looked into the Priest’s face and said, with his usual outspoken honesty, “I will, Aiel, but you will find that Marla also has an opponent. I do not trust her!” Aiel smiled at the young Swordsman’s candour, and set his Perception on Mellin. When he withdrew it, he said, “No, you do not trust her, Mellin. Why is that?” “Could you not Perceive it, Aiel?” “Mellin, that would be Trespass. You know that.” The Swordsman had a defensive look in his clear grey eyes. “Aiel, what she claims is – is simply impossible! How can there be Light and Dark in one spirit – a soul cannot be divided so! And how shall such a Child of Night, born of Darkness, seek Light? Yes, there is the Choice of Light, but she refused that.” “No” Aila protested “She did not refuse it, Mellin. She only said that because of who she is, the Choice of Light was not enough to free her from the Darkness in her. She wished that it were!”
“Mellin” Aiel said gently, “listen to your own words. Do they not remind you of anything?” It was obvious that they did not, but equally obvious that to both Lin and Arentha, Aiel’s question had a meaning. They were both staring at the Lightstone-Bearer with a mingled awe and excitement in their eyes. “Can it be?” Lin murmured ” Aiel, after so long – the Way continues?” “Father, Aiel – what is it?” Mellin asked. Aiel reached inside his robe and drew out one of the metal cylinders used for record-keeping in the Temple. He tipped out a scroll, unrolled it and read aloud. “From this shall come a strange thing; Dark and Light in one spirit, a soul divided. He shall hear the Child of Night cry mercy of Light, and Darkness shall lay its Dark powers at the feet of Light. Hate shall be transformed to love, and pain to joy.” Aila too stared at her father. “But that is Marla- where is it written about Marla?”
Aiel rolled up the scroll and said quietly “In the Secret Word.” He went on to explain, in answer to their exclamations and questions, “It seems we are entering upon the fulfillment of the next part of the Secret Word. You see, if what Marla says is true, she is what she is because of the Lightstone’s touch – as a result of the Lightstone Way. And that is what the Secret Word says – that out of the fulfillment of the first part of the Secret Word comes the continuing Way – the Way of a Child of Night with a soul divided between Dark and Light. Marla.” Krystha had come into the Hall, unnoticed, and stood listening. Now she said, as quietly, “I had wondered. Aiel. I too recalled the Secret Word.” “Krystha, how is it with the girl?” he asked. “She is on a knife-edge, Aiel. She is truly a soul divided, and if you do not bring her hope, she may go down to Darkness, or madness. Balancing hope and fear in her mind is taking all her energy. We had to give her a draught to help her sleep, and even then, she said, she dreamt fearsome dreams.”
“Or” Mellin said, his tone cold and slow, “she too knows the Secret Word, and is acting a part on Si-Mara’s behalf, seeking revenge for her father’s defeat and death!” “She could not feign her body’s responses.” Krystha, the Healer, pointed out. “She could feign them by enchantment, or some dark drug.” her son argued. “She might even be a Shape-Changer, as her father was, and not as we have seen her at all.” “Mellin!” Aila protested. “No, let him speak.” Aiel said. “He may well be wrong – very wrong. But it is good to have one doubter among us, to remind us that there might be deception and Darkness here. The maiden could be under some enchantment of Si-Mara’s and not even know it. Though I think the Lightstone would have warned us.” Janir, who had not yet spoken, said “I have not seen the maiden, so perhaps I should not speak. But would not Aila and Arenel, having Perception, have sensed any evil intent in her?” “Probably” Lin said “But I too am not yet convinced. It is true that the Secret Word seems to point to Marla, and she to be free of guile. But the Lady Alira has told us much of what she suffered among the Children of Night, and they are very cunning.”
Aila admitted “I know that Marla has not told us everything. Certain things which I have asked her she has refused to answer, saying she could only tell the Lightstone-Bearer. But I felt that she had a reason for not answering me, and it was not an evil reason..” “I will try her with the Lightstone, and see what I may learn” Aiel said, “but my feeling is that Marla speaks the truth.” He looked round at them all. “Aila, Arenel, Mellin, Janir – forgive me if I exclude you for now. Too many folk around her may alarm her, and also I wish to form my own impression of her.” He made a gesture with his arm that included Lin, Krystha and Arentha. “We four will go to her. We are the Way-Sharers, sworn to the Lightstone. I think we shall know what Light wills for Marla.”
When their elders had gone, the four young people were left to discuss the strange events and the problem of Marla. They had all known, of course, of the Lightstone Way and the Way-Sharers, but it had been long ago to them, before any of them but Janir had been born. It was difficult to imagine their parents, aunts and uncles, having a part in such an adventure, or to understand that there might now be a time for them to take up the Way again. Eventually, though, with Aila and Mellin again taking opposing views of Marla, the discussion threatened to become heated, and Arenel, in his sensible way, said, “Let us wait until our parents return, and see what our father has to say of her. In the mean time, Janir, tell us about Shala’s wedding.” “She is to marry Ket-Tal, the Ket’s grandson. His father it was who fought the Sword-Trial with Lin on the Lightstone Way, and afterwards became his Sword-Brother.” Mellin looked interested. “I have heard my father tell of that! Is the son a good Swordsman too?” “He is, and my Sword-Brother. He has been serving with us in the Westward Watch, and that is where Shala met him. He has a younger sister, Zohra, who has a wonderful gift of music. She is to be Shala’s bride-maiden too, with Aila, and sing at the wedding feast.”
Meanwhile Lin, Aiel and Arentha had followed Krystha to the Healing Place, where they found Marla just as Krystha had left her, the food beside her on a table barely touched. She drew back a little as they entered, but then she saw Aiel and leaned forward again, her strangely coloured eyes lifting to his with a mixture of hope and fear. He said “You should have spoken to me at the Temple, child. There was no need to fear me.” “Lightstone-Bearer, can you – will you – help me?” Marla asked. “If I can, I will. And with the aid of Light, I hope that I can.” Arentha, always gentle and compassionate, bent and carefully smoothed back the girl’s silver-blonde hair, looking into the pale, unhappy face. “Poor child!” she said, “You must have been so lonely and afraid!” “Are you Aila’s mother?” Marla asked, “You are so like her.” When Arentha smiled and nodded, Marla went on, “Aila is truly blessed of Light.I wish…” then stopped and bit her lip, as if what she wished were too painful to express. Arentha, tenderhearted as her daughter, gathered Marla in a warm hug, then turned to her husband, and said, “Aiel, we must help her!” “then she must help us to help her” Aiel answered. To Marla he said, “Marla, will you tell us all of the truth? We cannot help you otherwise, Aila said you evaded her questions.” “I did, Lightstone-Bearer, and that was deliberate. There are things I could not tell her – or the young men. I would not defile them with such knowledge. I who was born to Darkness suffer from what I have learned and experienced – it is hard for me to bear it. It is not fitting that I should tell Aila such things.”
Aiel was impressed by what she said. He answered, “Then I thank you for your thoughtfulness towards my daughter, Marla. But you can unburden yourself to my Perception.” “Lightstone-Bearer, I forbade Arenel to try his Perception on me, and I am not sure if even for you, it would be safe. I have a kind of – Dark Perception of my own. And there are powers in me, latent now, and I would not use them deliberately – I long to be rid of all! But if the Darkness chose to work through me, would I be able to prevent it? I would not wish to harm you, though I do not intend to.” “You might also” Lin pointed out, “wish to avoid Aiel’s Perception.” “I might” she admitted, ” if I were not what I say I am. Do you disbelieve me, Lord Lin?” “I am undecided” he answered her honestly ” but if you are speaking the truth, you will not find me an enemy, Marla.” “I thank you also for your warning, Marla.” Aiel said. “Tell us your story now, then we can decide what is to be done.”
Marla looked from one face to another, then, seeming reassured, nodded and began “Do you know that I was born on your wedding day? I suppose not. The Dark ones rejoiced- oh, not for my sake. I was nothing. But I was a body that was to be prepared for Darkness to inhabit…” Briefly then she told them of her early life; sent away by the evil mother who had no use for her except as a dwelling for Darkness when she was grown, the babe had been sent to the Eastern continent of Li’is to be raised unseen. At first she had been given to a nursemaid who was not a Child of Night, but who harboured no illusions about her pale, sickly nursling. Despite that, as Marla had grown older and stronger the nurse had tried to set her on the road to Light, even, when she was old enough, taking her to the Eastern Temple. “But the Priest of Light there called me a child of evil, and told her to take me away, for I would defile the Temple.” Marla said, her voice trembling with remembered rejection and hurt. “That was the first time I was aware of my Dark Perception, for I could feel his anger and fear towards me. It was – it was that memory, partly, that kept me from you at the Temple, Lightstone-Bearer.” Aiel nodded, then said, “Marla, my name is Aiel. Call me that.” She smiled fleetingly at him, and went on.
She had been reasonably happy with the nurse until she was about twelve years old, when men had come to take her away to the Children of Night. The nurse, upset and frightened for Marla, had refused to let her go. But in the night, Marla said, they had come again. She had woken to shouts and screams and the tread of feet that came to her door. Confused and frightened by the noise and the whirlwind of dark emotions that she sensed, Marla had been carried off. Looking back, she had seen the little house ablaze, with no sign of her nurse. “I did not need to look.” Marla said , “I knew she was dead – oh, Aiel, I felt her die, and it was dreadful!” She could not have feigned the pain in her voice. Aiel put a comforting hand on her shoulder, and Arentha reached out and held Marla’s pale, cold hand. Marla told them that she had been taken to the house of one of the Children of Night, a woman, a courtesan, and in that house her ‘training’ in the perversions of the Children of Night was begun. Though, mercifully, she was not expected to take any part in it, it would have been impossible that she should not realise what was happening in the house, nor was any attempt made to hide it from her; in fact it was flaunted before her as part of her ‘training’. There, also, she was made to learn the mixing of drugged potions, to weaken the will and bend the recipient towards Darkness, and of more deadly potions.
When she herself had reached womanhood, Marla said, the occasion had been marked with a coarse ribaldry that embarrassed and upset her. Two years on, the question had been raised of whether Marla’s ‘training’ should go further. Was she too – like her mother, Si-Mara – to become a courtesan? “There was a man” Marla explained, her voice shaking with the memory, “much – oh, much older than me, and – quite disgusting, Aiel, I could not tell you…this man saw me and he – he wanted me. They sent word to Si-Mara, to see what she would have them do with me. I had to wait for their message to reach the City, and her reply to come – and it was delayed by the Two-Moon tide. And all the time the man was coming to the house, and – and lusting after me – he would leer at me, and try to touch me. I was so afraid! It made me ill – I was so sure Si-Mara would say yes, I must go to his bed that I went to where the potions were made, and stole some poison. If they said I must go to him, I meant to kill myself! When the letter came, I was in an agony of terror, especially when they sent for me and the man was there! Then they told him Si-Mara was planning some great ceremonies of Darkness in a few years’ time and I must be virgin for those, so he could not have me. I could feel his anger, and his lust, and his hatred for me because he could not have me. Then I fainted – oh, they thought I was sick, but it was because it had been so terrible, and now it was over.”
Krystha, while Marla had been speaking, had gone quietly to her Healer’s bench and drawn a bowl of clear spring water from the pump. Into it she stirred some powdered herbs and brought the reviving draught to Marla. The girl smiled at her gratefully, and drank, then set down the bowl and drew the back of one hand across her brow, pushing back her hair as if she were weary. Arentha said, “Aiel, should she not rest a little, now?” “It would be best if she went on.” her husband answered, but looked questioningly at Marla as he said it. “Aye, let me finish with the telling!” Marla exclaimed, as though it were something she wanted over and done with, and she continued her story. Though she was not made to join in the activities at the woman’s house, nor at the Night Temple of the East, where she was frequently taken, Marla had been made to watch. What she had seen in the Night Temple, and the knowledge that she was expected to preside over such doings after Si-Mara’s ceremonies, had horrified her. Haltingly she told them of the acts of the Children of Night, their total abandonment to Darkness and their own lusts, of suffering wantonly and gloatingly inflicted, foul sacrifices carried out before her eyes, while she was helpless to intervene.
Marla wept bitter tears of shame as she described the victims’ fear and pain and her own helplessness to aid them.. Krystha and Arentha tried to comfort her, and Lin looked at Aiel, who saw that his friend’s face was grim, not with condemnation of Marla, but anger against those who had subjected her to such horror and mental pain. Aiel was remembering, and knew Lin was too, the girl they had found dying, a victim of the Children of Night, in the Ruins of the Dark City, many years before on the Lightstone Way. The anguish and distress and feelings of helplessness they had experienced then were what Marla was describing, but her experiences had been worse. Not only had she seen similar foul deeds many times over, she had not even been able to express her hurt and revulsion, for she had been expected to join in the Dark Ones’ gloating enjoyment of their victims’ torment. Now she looked into Aiel’s face and asked unhappily “Was there really nothing I could have done to save them, Aiel, or was I a coward? Will Light forgive me this?” “Light is merciful.” he answered her, “And I do not think there was anything you could have done, a maiden alone, Marla.”
She was bringing her story towards its conclusion. “Some months ago Si-Mara sent for me, and I knew the time was coming when she would want me for the ceremonies. I was afraid, and yet – I was curious too, to see what she was like. I knew what a mother should be like – my old nurse had shown me that – and I had always known it was not like that with her and with me, for I knew she did not love or care for me, and I felt nothing at all for her. So I had told myself that I could not be her true daughter, but some foundling she had raised for the purposes of Darkness.” The sea voyage had made her ill, Marla continued, and she had to rest for a day in Si-Mara’s house before she was fit to meet her mother. meanwhile women had been sent to make her new clothing. “On the second day she summoned me to her – oh, like a servant, not a child! She was in the Night Temple, which is a great black hall in her house. It was dark, and she was on a dais at the end. There were lamps where she was, but I had to walk through the darkness to reach her, and I could feel the evil in the place. When I reached the dais, she was lying there, by the Black Altar, on a silver couch, and Tamat her bodyguard stood at her side. I looked at her, and she at me, and I could not pretend any longer. It was almost like looking in a mirror – oh, her face was older, and crueller, and my eyes are different, but it was my face! Then she smiled, and that was cruel too, and she said I was beautiful, and was pleased. But she meant only that I looked like her! She said “We are flowers of Darkness, you and I. We are born of Ma’al and too much of Li’is and its accursed Light will sicken us.” Then she began to tell me…”
Si-Mara had told Marla of Lak and the Bloodstone, of Aiel and the Lightstone, of her own encounter with Aiel, and Lak’s destruction. And Marla said, “Oh, you do not know how much she hates and fears you, Aiel! But I knew you were my hope, for it was then I came to understand how the seed of Light had been born in me. I was already conceived in Si-Mara when you searched her with the Lightstone, and through it Light touched me too, and left me hope.” “I felt it!” Aiel exclaimed, remembering,” Marla, I felt you! When I searched Si-Mara, I Perceived something strange,unformed, in her, that Light touched through me. I did not understand it then, but it must have been you, newly conceived.” “Aye” Marla said quietly, to this confirmation. “That is why I told Aila that you made me what I am, though I do not think she understood. And I knew that only you could help me, because if you had destroyed the Darkness that was my – my father, surely you could burn out the Darkness in me too.” But then, Marla said, Si-Mara had told her the worst news. A new Bloodstone had ben forged in Ma’al – the Otherworld – and she, Marla, was intended to wield it, as Lak’s heir. The ‘ceremonies’ which the Children of Night were preparing would be twofold in purpose; to receive the Bloodstone from Ma’al, and to make her the instrument of Darkness to use its powers. When they exclaimed in horror at this, Marla cried out passionately, “Oh, believe me, I want no part of it! Do you know what they will do to me, to make me a fit bearer of this loathsome thing, this curse on Li’is?”
She told them what Si-Mara had told her, of the sacrifices that would be made first, of Marla’s coming in the white robe that would be ritually defiled with the blood and dung of the animal sacrifices, a robe that would eventually be stripped from her before the Children of Night , so that her body should be as ritually defiled. As she spoke now the girl’s face bore the glazed, terrified look of one in a waking nightmare. “I will be made to give myself – to be available – to anyone there – for anything at all – I must be ceremonially defiled – to make me Dark enough. They will – they will call a Lord of Darkness – to inhabit my body and wield the Bloodstone. And there will be muder – the Bloodstone must be fed…” Marla broke down into tears again, sobbing and trembling. Arentha sat beside her on the couch and hugged her , fiercely protective, looking up at her husband with angry yet pitying eyes. “Aiel, do not let her go on! You have heard enough. Poor child! Oh, Marla, poor, poor child!” Marla sobbed “They will destroy my seed of Light and make me all Darkness. I will not be the Bloodstone-Wielder and bring Darkness into Li’is! I shall kill myself first!” “Hush, Marla, child!” Krystha protested. “Do not distress yourself. You are safe, here in the Fortress. Aiel will find a way to help you, and Si-Mara cannot withstand the Lightstone-Bearer.”
Marla, a little calmed by the Healer’s reassurances, gasped, “How can I bear it, that she is my mother – oh, I will not call her that, but I cannot deny it! While I was with her, they brought my new clothes – courtesan’s clothes, oh, shameless things! She told me to take off my gown and put them on, to show her how I looked, and I asked her to send Tamat away first. She laughed at me, at first, then, when I insisted, she grew angry and cursed me for it. She said she would not have such ‘prudishness’ and if I persisted, she would beat it from me. She came down from the couch and slapped me, and then she ripped the gown from me with her own hands.” Marla’s hand went to the scratch marks at her shoulder and breast as she went on “She tore me with her nails. She said I must grow used to men looking at me, touching me. She made me stand still and told Tamat to – to touch me. It was horrible!” The girl buried her face in her hands, as if ashamed, for a long few moments then, seeming to recover a little, she continued, “When he grew – aroused- she said that but for the ceremonies she would have let him take me, but meanwhile she would show me what to do. I was naked, and helpless, and – oh, Aiel, she made me watch while she let him take her there, in front of me, on the silver couch. But he – he was looking at me, and I knew that in his mind it was me on that couch,and that when the ‘ceremonies’ came, he would be the first to want to take me.” She shuddered, and Arentha, who was still embracing her comfortingly, felt a chill herself,as though it were a death shudder that ran through the girl. Marla said “When it was over, and she had made me put on the clothes, she let me go. I ran to the Bathing Place, and I was sick till I could be sick no more, and I washed and washed myself, but I could not feel clean. That night I ran away, to find you, Aiel.”
She paused again, looked round at them all, then confessed “I was afraid! I came to the Temple, and I longed to go in, to see for myself what the place of Light was like, to find the Lightstone-Bearer, and ask for help – for peace! But I remembered the Priest of the Eastern Temple, and, hurt as I was, I did not want to suffer any further hurt. I could not have borne to feel hatred and rejection. And there were so many people there – that frightened me too. Then I heard someone speak to you as you left the Temple, Aiel, and I knew you, and followed you. I was desperate for your help, but when you turned to me, I drew back. I could not overcome my fear! Yet when I saw Aila, earlier, I was not afraid. I saw that she too had Perception, and I felt – somehow in my heart I felt that if I could only speak to her, she would understand,and help me to speak to her father, the Lightstone-Bearer. Maybe – I do not understand these things, but if Light wished to help me, , maybe Light turned her heart towards me in friendship. I followed her here, and the rest you know.” Marla finished speaking, and gave a great, deep sigh, as though the telling had wearied her her, body, soul and spirit.
The others were silent too, trying to take in all she had told them, and the horrors she had experienced. Arentha still held and soothed the girl, while Krystha watched her with a Healer’s care. Lin, now convinced of the truth of Marla’s story, stood with a grave and thoughtful face, considering it all. Aiel too stood looking at Marla thoughtfully. He did not for a moment doubt the truth of her story and was determined to help her, if it were possible, but he did not yet know how. He was only sure that Light had sent Marla to him in fulfillment of the Secret Word, and that he would need Light’s guidance. Now Marla was gazing up at him, her strange eyes full of urgent pleading, and Krystha, Lin and Arentha had switched their attention to him too, to see what he would do. Aiel reached inside his robe and drew out the Lightstone. He held it out on its chain so that Marla could see it. “Marla” he said, “this is the Lightstone.” It was quiescent now, an unimpressive white stone, semi-opaque, like a pebble, save that at its heart burned a tiny spark. Marla, though, was looking at it with rapt attention. “Look” she breathed “it has a seed of Light in it too, like me.”
“Let us see what the Lightstone has to say of you.” Aiel said, smiling at her so that she would not be afraid. He was anxious to know how the Stone would treat the girl. Would the light embrace Marla, as it did the Children of Light, or search her with blazing brilliance, as a Child of Night? But when he laid the Stone to Marla’s brow, and the light poured forth, it took no form he had seen before. The light encircled Marla, without touching her, keeping its distance from her yet surrounding her completely. It made Aiel remember the Lightshield that had protected him on the Meeting Place as he fought Lak for the Dancers. Then he understood. The light withdrew into the Lightstone, and Marla cried, “Light would not touch me! Oh Aiel, Light rejects me!” “No!” he answered her, quite sharply, because he could see she was on the edge of despair, and he wanted to snatch her back. “Marla, hear me! Light does not reject you, it protects you. Did you not see the Lightshield around you?” Marla looked at him hopefully, and he continued, “Marla, there is Darkness in you, but it is not of your choosing. Though Light cannot touch you till the Darkness is driven out of you, Light will protect you from the Darkness that would enslave you. Do you understand?”
Marla shook her head. Aiel went on patiently “As you know, for you the Choice of Light is not enough, for you have already chosen Light against Darkness. It is – it is as if you were born with some sickness. Though you wished to be well, it would avail nothing, unless you went to the Healers for treatment.” Marla asked “Then who – or what- will heal me of Darkness, Aiel?” Aiel answered “I have asked this of Light. Marla, it is in my heart that we must take you to the Dancers. They alone of all created beings know the rhythm of life in both Li’is and Ma’al. They will know how to rid you of the rhythms of Darkness and attune you to Light, and to Li’is.” Marla exclaimed “Oh, Aiel – you have brought me the first hope I think I have ever had in my life! How shall I ever thank you?” He smiled at her. “When you are free to stand before the Crucible in the Temple with me, and praise Light as one of Light’s Children – that will be all the thanks I need, Marla.” Arentha told the girl “Light foreknew you too, Marla. It is written about you in the Secret Word. Light has prepared the way for you.” “A Secret Word that speaks of me? Truly?” Marla breathed, and Aiel took the scroll and read it to her. Her eyes grew wide with awe, and she burst out “Then Light does know and care about me? How wonderful!” Then she said, more doubtfully, “But Aiel, Si-Mara will be searching for me. How shall I make the journey without being captured by the Children of Night? And will it not be dangerous for those who travel with me? Will you four also be my Way-Sharers?””In all these things we must seek Light.” Aiel told her.”But Janir of the Western Fortress is here, on an errand which may help us. Krystha, is Marla well enough to join us in the Great Hall?” “I think she will be, now that you have eased her mind and her story is told, Aiel. She has had a draught to help her. But how do you feel in yourself, Marla, child?” “I think I can” Marla said, then “It is always my instinct to hide myself away, because of what I am. But with you all I feel safe.” She smiled shyly at them. “You have all been so kind to me – even Lord Mellin, who does not trust me, has helped me.”
So Aiel led the way back to the Great Hall, where the four young people were waiting, full of curiosity. Aiel told them “I believe we can help Marla attain Light, but to do that we must take her to the Dancers. And, as she herself has reminded us, Si-Mara will be searching for her, so we will need to be circumspect. Janir, your errand may help us.” “Shala’s wedding? Of course I will help in any way I can, Aiel, but I do not see the connection.” “You have come to invite us to the marriage, and to ask Aila to be Shala’s bride-maiden. But how if we take back two bride-maidens?” “Marla!” Janir exclaimed. “Yes, of course, Aiel.” “They will not expect us to take her to the West” Lin said thoughtfully “It is a good idea, Aiel. We can go in a roundabout way from the Western Fortress.” “And even if they should suspect, there will be many guests returning home, afterwards” Janir added “in all directions. They cannot watch everyone!” “But – everyone will know me for what I am, a child of Ma’al.” Marla protested “The bride will not want such a one for bridemaiden!” “Shala will not reject you, Marla, when she knows your story” Janir told her “I know my sister – she will want to help you.” “And there are ways to change your appearance, child.” Krystha said. “I had thought of it anyway. There are plants that will yield dyes for your hair and cheeks to make you look more like a daughter of Li’is.”
“Then who is it that goes with Marla to the Dancers?” Aila demanded. “Father, I want to go with her, to help her and be her friend.” Marla smiled gratefully at her, and Aiel said. “Perhaps. It will be dangerous, Aila, even with the Lightstone.” “So was the first Way” Aila said. “If Mother and Aunt Krystha are going with you, surely I can go too? And I have Perception.” “We have not yet decided anything.” Aiel reminded his insistent daughter. “Janir, the Ket is to be at the wedding, since it is his grandson Shala is marrying?” “Yes, he will be there.” Janir answered. “Then we will make our plans for getting Marla to the Western Fortress safely, and when we are there I will speak to the Ket. He will be able to give us guidance on our journey.” Aiel said. Krystha said “Will you need ‘melody and healing’ on this Way, Aiel?” “The ‘Treasures of the Mountains’?” Aiel quoted back at her, with a smile, “Are you ready for another Way, Krystha?” But all she said was “Perhaps” and there was something in her tone that tugged at his Perception. He looked closely at her. She was her usual self, though. Perhaps a little pale, which would not have been surprising given the strange happenings of the last two days, but it was hard to tell, with her clear, creamy skin. Perhaps she was concerned for Lin, Aiel thought, since her husband had come so near to death on the first Way. “Janir, when is the marriage to be?” Arentha asked. “In a month’s time, before the Westerners move back to the Plateau.” Janir said. “But I was to ask if Aila could come back with me now, so that her gown could be prepared.” “Then we will all need to go, within a few days.” Aiel said. “Arentha and I brought some gear with us, in case of need. I will send the Thought-without-Words to Arnath my father to explain. Janir, the Western Fortress must support a few more guests until Shala’s wedding.” “No problem in that.” Janir said.