They were ready now to set out for the Merchant Town, after their day’s enforced stay at the Faring House. They bade farewell to Cerrin, Fara, and their children, and mounted ready for the ride ahead. Aila was pleased to see that Marla seemed to be more comfortable riding now, no doubt helped by a day’s rest, but also by growing accustomed to being on horseback. Aiel, with Lin, led the way now, and Mellin and Janir rode rearguard to protect them, the others in between. The going was not too rough, though they were in the uncultivated land skirting the Plateau of the Westerners, and with one break for a meal they had made good time when evening came and they began to think of finding a place to make camp for the night. As they rode up a slight incline and reached the top, however, Zohra gave a little cry of surprise, and pointed down. Below them, in a little hollow, was a familiar sight to the Westerner, a herders’ tent, with a few horses in an enclosure next to it, though working beasts, not the Westerners’ prized breed. No sign of herd-beasts, though, which made Aiel advise caution till he had sent out his Perception. He sensed no danger, so they rode down the slope towards the tent. He let Zohra take the lead, and she called a Westerners’ greeting to the occupants of the tent. After a moment a man appeared at the open tent flap, and looked surprised to see them, as well he might. “Lady Zohra!” he exclaimed”Welcome, you and your friends.” “Thank you” she answered ” You are far from the Plateau. And where are your herds?” “It is only myself and my kinsman, Lady. we are our way to Lady Fara at the Faring House, for he has been scalded in an accident while our group of herders was preparing a meal.”
Zohra said “Then it is well we met with you, for we have a Healer with us. She can tend your kinsman, and we will take shelter with you for the night.” She did not need to ask if they could stay, for hospitality was the unwritten law of the Westerners. However, she added “We have food and water, and need not burden you too much.” “You are welcome indeed, Lady. And if the Lady Healer will tend to Harn, we shall be grateful.” He came out to help the Swordsmen get the party’s horses into the enclosure, while the rest of them, led by Zohra, went into the tent. Though it had only two occupants, it was intended for use by a group of herders, so there would be room for them all. Harn, the injured man, recognised Zohra, of course, and greeted them all politely, then looked relieved as Aila came across to him and he saw the Healer’s sack and knife-sheath on her belt. “Your kinsman said you are hurt” she said, and he nodded and pulled back a loose sleeve to show his reddened arm. Aila gently examined it and was pleased to find no infection, and that, though some of the skin was beginning to peel, the burn was not too deep. Silently thanking Light again for the marvellous provision of springfollower at the Western Fortress, she pulled out one of the pots of salve she had prepared from it and carefully rubbed some into the man’s arm, then wrapped it in strips of clean cloth. “I will leave the salve with you and you must rub it in, night and morning, until the dead skin has come away. I will leave you some cloths too, to keep it covered and clean. It will heal well, but do not be tempted to pull off the peeling skin. Let it come away by itself.” The man smiled at her, and said “I thank you, Lady Healer. It begins to feel better already.”
The second herder, who had said his name was Talar, came into the tent with the three Swordsmen, who had brought some of their supplies with them. He too thanked Aila for tending his kinsman, then set out cushions for them to sit on. Herders and travellers shared their provisions and made a good evening meal, chatting amicably as they ate. Zohra asked “Will you return to the Plateau now?” “We will, Lady Zohra. We had to leave the others in charge of the herd-beasts, and it will soon be time to move to fresh grazing.” Aiel, knowing these Westerners could be trusted, told them “We have a special task to undertake, and may be pursued by Children of Night. If you meet any strangers seeking us, give them no information.” Since they knew him to be the Lightstone-Bearer, they agreed immediately, and Zohra added “My father Ket-Kai is on the Plateau, on his way back to the Ket’s Camp. Send him word of anything suspicious.” and this they promised to do. When the meal was finished the herders brought out some woven covers for their guests to use, and set out sleeping places for all, girls on one side of the tent and men on the other. They were all thankful for the shelter and the hospitality of the herders, and settled down to sleep, though the Swordsmen took the places nearest the tent entrance, in case of danger. Next morning they shared another meal with Harn and Talar, who said they would now pack up their camp and go back to join the others. Janir, always thoughtful of others, wondered how two men, one injured, would manage alone, and if they should offer to help, but Zohra laughed, and gently teased him “Janir, they have been doing this almost from childhood. You would only hinder them!” Aila asked “How will they carry everything with them, Zohra?” and the Westerner explained that as well as pack horses, the herders had a kind of sledge, pulled by one of the horses, with boxes built on to carry their goods. “It is an old-established way of moving camp.” she added.
They said their farewells and thanks to Harn and Talar, and prepared their own mounts to continue their journey. As they did, Aila noticed, though the others did not, Marla speaking earnestly to Mellin. He listened gravely to the girl, then smiled, and shook his head, as if he refuted some fear of hers. Still, Marla looked after him as he walked over to Starstorm and mounted, then turned and, seeing Aila watching, came across to her. “Is something wrong between you and Mellin?” Aila asked, forthrightly.”I thought he was your friend now, Marla.” “Oh, he is! He has been so kind to me, ever since the Western Fortress. No, it is that I am concerned for him, Aila. He is your cousin – you know him well?””Well enough to know if anything were wrong. Why, Marla?” “Is there anything that should cause him sorrow? I can feel it all about him, yet he never shows it. I thought that perhaps it was something I once said to him – asked of him – but he promised me it was not that, and I think he told the truth.” “Mellin would not lie, Marla. He may be outspoken sometimes, even harsh – oh, you know that yourself- but he is always honest. Yet I know of nothing that should cause him sorrow, unless he is worried about Aunt Krystha. Are you sure?” Marla smiled, but it was a sad smile. “My dark sense is never wrong. I wish it were. Mellin is full of sadness, Aila.” “Perhaps he feels sorrow for you, Marla, as we all do. None of us will be truly content until you attain Light.” Marla frowned. “Maybe, but – I have not felt in any of you, even the Lightstone-Bearer, who has accepted the task of freeing me from Darkness, what I feel in Mellin.” She paused, then added “I would not speak of this to Aiel or Arenel, but you too have Perception, Aila. Watch Mellin, and see if he needs help. You have all of you been so kind to me; I should not like to think that in helping me, he has come to any harm.”
Alerted by this conversation, Aila was watchful of her cousin as their journey continued. The route was easier now, on a track alongside the farmlands, and the journey was uneventful, which gave her more time to observe him. Once she began to do so she realised that yes, at times his manner did seem falsely bright, his good humour forced. She began to see things she had missed; moments when Mellin seemed subdued, as if he had withdrawn into his inner thoughts, or , when they paused for their meal, took part in conversations in a desultory way that showed his mind was on other things. By the evening, when they were ready to make camp again, Aila was sure that Marla was right. But what hidden sorrow could have taken such a grip of her normally carefree cousin? She decided to find a way to take him aside and question him, and, if possible, to allay whatever his fears might be.They had found a suitable place to camp, where there was a little stream for water, and some small trees whose lower branches the Swordsmen wove into rough shelters. That done, they made their evening meal, and after that, Aila waylaid Mellin and asked him to walk a little way with her, as she wanted to talk with him. Mellin agreed readily enough, and they followed the little stream down to a bend where it had carved out a tiny valley, and the trees were a little taller. Aila turned to her cousin, saying “We can talk privately here.” “What is wrong, Aila?” Mellin asked her. “That is what I wish to ask you. What is making you unhappy, Mellin?” “I? I am not unhappy” he evaded, but she had seen a wary expression flash in his eyes, and said “Mellin, I know you are sorrowing over something. Is it that you are afraid for Aunt Krystha in her pregnancy?”
He frowned then, and said accusingly “Aila, you had no right to Trespass your Perception…” “Not my Perception” Aila cut in, but gently, knowing his anger rose from his secret hurt. “It was Marla who felt the pain in you, by her Dark Perception. She was concerned for you, and unhappy lest the sorrow she felt in you was because of her Way. You had been so kind to her, she said, she did not want you to suffer because of it. Do not be angry with her, Mellin! She only told me about it because she wanted me to help you – and that is all I want to do, dear. Marla knows nothing of the Vow of Trespass, and she can by no means control her Dark Perception. You know that.” “Yes, I know that” her cousin echoed, with a strange tone to his voice that she did not understand.”I am not angry with her Aila – nor with you.” “Then will you tell me what is wrong?” “Why should I burden you?” Mellin asked. “I am already burdened, seeing you in pain” she told him “If you let me share your hurt, Mellin, maybe I can help you.” He hesitated a moment longer, then said, in a sudden rush of words, “Oh Aila – I am in love with Marla! Sweet Light, what shall I do?” It was so unexpected a confession that Aila stared at him in astonishment for several moments, then exclaimed “You love Marla? But Mellin, you hated her so, in the beginning!” Her cousin had been leaning back against one of the small trees, and now, as if all strength had left him, he slid down its trunk till he was sitting on the grass with his knees drawn up in front of him. He looked up at Aila and said “I was afraid, though I said I was not! I began to feel her tug at my heart, and I felt it must be some trick or enchantment. I was afraid and angry. I wanted to hurt her, to make her angry too, so that she would betray herself for the Dark thing she was, so that it must be an enchantment, what I was beginning to feel for her! But she was not angry, though I wounded her so -oh, Aila!-she was only understanding of me, and so unhappy. And when I saw her in the Prayer Room at the Western Fortress, and heard her pleading with Light to accept her, I could not deny the truth any longer. There was no evil intent in her, and I knew that what I had been doing was like – like giving poison to a wounded man who cried for water! Oh, I was so ashamed! And my shame turned to concern for her, and my concern, fight it though I might, to love. She is so vulnerable, and in such danger, and she has been hurt so much and there is so much for her yet to endure, yet she does not think of herself – see how concerned she was for me. I do love her, Aila, all my heart is given to her, yet I am afraid that I betray Light in loving her, since she is born of Darkness.”
The unhappy torrent of words ceased, and Aila looked into Mellin’s sorrowful face. “Oh, my dear!” she exclaimed “You do not betray Light. Light loves her too, Mellin.” “And there is another thing.” he told her. “In the Prayer Room she told me what Si-Mara plans to do to her at her ‘ceremonies’ – oh, I could not tell you, Aila, it is too foul for you to hear. The only reason Marla told me was because she had asked a pledge of me, and at first I would not give it. Aila, she asked me that if all hope of her attaining Light was gone, if Si-Mara triumphed, then I would – I would slay her with my sword, since she would no longer be able to choose death for herself, and she would rather die than have to endure such things, and be a slave to the Bloodstone.” Aila saw that there were tears in Mellin’s grey eyes. She asked quietly, not really needing to, “And you promised her?” “Yes, I promised. She said that there are worse things than to die quickly and cleanly, at the hands of a friend, in mercy. But Aila, if the need came, would I be able to do it, when I love her so?” “I think” she answered, gently,” that if the need came you would only be able to do it because you love her, Mellin. But I believe the need will not come, and Marla will attain Light.” She knelt then and put comforting arms round him, saying “Mellin, let me help you.” The words that came rose in her untaught, but she knew they were the right words.”Let us carry this burden to Light, together.” He lifted his eyes to hers, hesitant for just a moment, then offered his eyes to her Perception. Aila cupped his face in tender hands and let her Perception flow in, very gently, as if she tiptoed into his mind. Very carefully she went, letting him lead her into the sharing of his deep feelings, his hurts and fears, the attempts he had made to deny to himself the growing love he felt for Marla. Aila felt the burden on Mellin of the continuous tension of the Way, the stress made worse for him by the threat of having to fulfill the death pledge he had made to Marla. She experienced with her cousin the doubts that assailed him, lest he betray Light in loving this child of Darkness. His fears, his love, his sorrow, his doubts, his pains – they had woven a net that entrapped his soul. It was not easy to tease out all the tangled cords of his emotions and help Mellin to carry them and lay them before Light. In the end, though, he accepted both his love for Marla and his own belovedness to Light, and was reassured, so that when at last Aila was able to withdraw her Perception and touched him on the brow in blessing, her whispered “Light grant you peace, Mellin” was not a prayer, but a promise.
Intent as she had been on easing her cousin’s hurts, Aila was not even aware that there were tears for him on her cheeks, till Mellin gently wiped them away. He stood, helping her to her feet, and smiled at her, a little weakly still. After a moment he reached out and embraced her, bowing his head for a moment against her shoulder. “Aila, little cousin, thank you.” he murmured “It is not enough to say, but – thank you.” “Mellin, come to me, when there is need” she offered. “Light does not promise the pain will not be, but that you will receive strength to stand against it. I can help you.” “I will” he promised.”Aila, you have lifted such a burden from my soul…” “Not I, but Light” she told him quickly. He went on, “It is such a relief, to be able to say that I love her, to share my feelings.” Aila sighed, thinking of her own love for Janir. Mellin, made sensitive by his own emotions, and by the recent contact with her Perception, asked softly “So – is your heart given too? Who is it for you, Aila? Is it one of the Priesthood – or maybe some Sword-Brother of mine at the Fortress?” “Yes” she said, and blushed to the roots of her hair. But she could not be less honest with her cousin than he had been with her. “Yes, it is one of your Sword-Brethren, Mellin, but not of the Fortress. It is – it is Janir that I love.” She saw that though he was pleased at her choice, he also found it unexpected. “You chose well, Aila, and perhaps more wisely than you know. Yet I am surprised that you should love Janir, I own. I would not have thought he was the kind of man to attract you.” Aila thought, a little ruefully, that considering her early fancies, his comment was understandable. She said “Maybe I have grown up, Mellin, and learned to look on the character of a man, and not his outer seeming.” She looked at her cousin, and smiled “Janir is a good man. But he may not be for me” she added more soberly “Perhaps he is already in love, or betrothed.” “No” Mellin said “I would have known. He is not betrothed, and I do not think his heart is given yet. He is fond of you, Aila, and liking may turn to love.” “Aye” she said, plucking restlessly at a spray of leaves, “He is fond of me – like a sister, Mellin. But can he care for me as more than a ‘cousin of a cousin’?” “However he feels about you, he will never hurt you.” Mellin comforted her. “I know that, too.” she replied.
At that moment they heard a voice calling out to them, and realised that it was Janir himself. Mellin hastily rubbed away the signs of his tears. Aila smoothed her rumpled hair, wondering if Janir had overheard any of their conversation about him. Seeing some useful wild herbs growing nearby, she bent and hastily plucked a bunch, both as an excuse for her and Mellin to be here, and to hide her face till she could compose herself. Janir, though, was his usual good-humoured self. “Ah, here you are. Lin sent me to find you. He said it was best not to stray away from the camp – even allowing for your Perception, Aila.” “Oh, is he angry?” she asked. “No” Janir reassured her “Just concerned.” Aila was thankful that there was nothing in his manner to indicate that he had heard her confess her love for him to Mellin, and the three of them walked together back to the camp, chatting lightly.Once there, having apologised to Lin for her disappearance with Mellin, Aila sought out Marla, and told her “I have spoken to Mellin, and you were right, Marla, he has been sorrowing about …something.” Marla noticed her hesitation and said “Aila, I am not asking you to tell me what troubles him, I know you cannot. But were you able to help him?” “Yes” Aila said simply. “Just telling it eased him, and we brought his need to Light, and Light helped him. His hurt has not gone, and perhaps it never will ,but Light will help him to bear it. I have told him to come to me for help when he needs it. Thank you, Marla.” She smiled at the other girl, and said softly, “You are an amazing person, to be so concerned for Mellin when you have such burdens of your own to carry.” “But they are mine to carry” Marla said, “I would not wish to drop them into any other’s spirit.” She paused, then said, “I made Mellin give me a promise. I hope I have not hurt him by it.” “He told me.” Aila said. “Of course, he would be loathe to do it, but it was not that which hurt him, Marla. Do not worry over that.” “I am glad.” Marla said. Aila, surprised to find that she was still clutching the little bunch of herbs, stowed them in her Healer’s sack, and looked up to find Janir watching her. She smiled at him and said “Always as well to gather my herbs while I may, Janir.” He smiled back and said “Yes, you are wise to be prepared, Aila. A sign of a good Healer.” He turned, then, and indicated the withy shelters the Swordsmen had made. “Do you think you will be comfortable enough there, you and the other maidens.?” “Oh, I am sure we shall, Janir. It is only for one night.”
Aiel had been standing a little apart from the others, gazing into the Lightstone. Arenel wondered what his father might be doing, though he had no doubt that it had to do with Marla’s Way. Now Aiel disengaged his Perception from the Lightstone and looked around him, but said nothing of what had occupied him. Instead he said “Let us try to sleep now. If we leave early enough tomorrow we should be able to reach the Merchant Town.” They all agreed, and Aila and the other girls ducked into the shelter that had been made for them,and wrapped themselves in their cloaks as before, while the menfolk did the same in the other shelters. The Swordsmen, though, as usual, took turns on watch in case of danger. The girls were cosy enough, snuggled together in their cloaks. Zohra, of course, was well used to sleeping out in the open, and Aila and Marla were tired from their ride, so all three slept well. They were woken by Arenel, who called to them from outside the shelter. The early morning was a little chilly, but bright, and the others were already awake.Once again they made a hasty breakfast before setting out. It seemed Aiel was anxious to get to the Merchant Town, though he gave no reason. Arenel wondered again if it was to do with his father’s use of the Lightstone the previous night. The Lightstone-Bearer’s estimation had been correct, for they made good time, and having decided not to stop again, they reached the Merchant Town by mid-afternoon. Admitted by the Watchwards at the Town Gates, they made their way to the Faring House, where they received a warm welcome and were allotted rooms to sleep and a Quiet Room to share. Since the Priests of the Faring House knew who Aiel was, and what he had achieved on the Lightstone Way, they naturally wanted to speak with him, and see the Lightstone, and he could not in all courtesy refuse them. So it was a little later than expected that they went for their delayed meal.
The whole party was cautious, aware that in the Merchant Town they were at their most exposed. However, they had to keep the semblance of normality, and went to eat in the separate Eating House of the Faring House, though in a quiet corner. Such a large party would not normally pass unnoticed, but the Merchant Town was a busy place, with many travellers from all across Li’is, and so their group was not so unusual, despite the presence of a Westerner. Still, the Swordsmen were vigilant, and Aiel, Arenel and Aila kept their Perceptions alert, and all were glad when the meal was over and they could return to the Faring House. Once back there, though, they were surprised and concerned when Aiel gathered them together and quietly told them that he must leave for a few hours. Marla especially was fearful of losing his protection and that of the Lightstone, but Aiel assured her that he would not go unless it was of vital importance to her Way. “Arenel and Aila will Perceive if any Darkness comes near, and you have the finest Swordsmen in Li’is to protect you.” he reassured her “And I shall go and return as swiftly as I may. It is the next step on your Way, Marla, or I would not leave you.” She was still nervous, but accepted what he said, and Aila hugged her and said “Have no fear, Marla, we will guard you well till he returns.” That said, Aiel went to the stables to collect his mount and set out on his mysterious journey, and the others set about reassuring Marla, and trying to cheer her with light conversation. As evening drew near, it was time to bathe and prepare for sleep. The three Swordsmen said they would wait till last, so that there was someone to keep guard if need be, at all times, so Arenel went to find the Priest-in-Charge and returned with him. Arrangements were made, and he said that a maidservant would come to collect the maidens when their Bathing Place was free, and meanwhile he would take Arenel to his. They would be given fresh clothing while theirs was cleaned, and nightwear left in the rooms allotted them.
Arenel went to bathe, and then, refreshed, popped his head into the room where the others were, and said he was going to the Prayer Room to make his Evening Prayers. The others were chatting, quietly, wondering where Aiel was going and why, but keeping their words circumspect in case of being overheard, when a maidservant came to take the girls to the Bathing Place. She was a little older than they might have expected, and waited politely until they were ready, then went ahead of them. The maidservant led the three girls to the women’s Bathing Place which, unusually, was in a separate building, set a little apart from the main Faring House, in the gardens, and screened by ornamental bushes. The woman was deft and courteous, laying out drying cloths and clean clothing for them. Yet Aila felt a tingle in her Perception that said something was not quite right, which made her stare intently after the servant as she left. “What is it, Aila?” Zohra asked, noticing this. When it came to putting her feelings into words, though, they seemed so vague that Aila had second thoughts. Marla had not, apparently, sensed anything with her ‘Dark Perception’. Perhaps Aila’s own impressions were due more to fatigue and the tension of Aiel’s absence than Perception. Not wishing to cause unnecessary alarm, she laughed, and answered, “Oh, nothing, Zohra. I was lost in thought.” By the time they had enjoyed a relaxing bathe in the hot water and a dip in the cooler pool, and were drying themselves, Aila was convinced that she had been suffering from an over-active imagination. But then, as they dressed, Zohra said “How sweetly these gowns smell. They must use sweet spices in their clothes preparation here.”The words struck a warning chord in Aila’s mind, and she raised her arm and sniffed at the sleeve of her gown. A familiar, sweet perfume assailed her, making her head swim. The steamy air of the Bathing Place had dampened the aroma, so that they had not suspected, but Zohra’s keen senses had warned them. Now Aila cried “Marla, Zohra – there is sweetwood powder in the gowns! Take them off!” and began tugging at her own garment.. Already the narcotic spice was beginning to affect her. As if in a dream she saw Marla, who had dressed first,put her hand to her brow and slide to the floor. She saw Zohra struggling feebly to free herself from the drugged gown. Aila too fought to free herself, but her arms seemed heavy, as if they were weighted down. The door opened and the treacherous serving woman appeared, followed by three grinning, black-clad men – Children of Night! Aila, knowing they could not escape, threw all her remaining strength into launching her Perception outward, seeking her brother in the Faring House. “Arenel! Help us!” She felt the answering touch of her brother’s Perception, his alarm, but she was too dazed to communicate with him. Barely conscious, she felt herself seized and dragged away, and then the drug completely overcame her.
Arenel, who had been in the Prayer Room, leapt up as his sister’s desperate plea shot into his Perception. “Aila!” he cried aloud, then tried to calm himself and concentrate on making with her Perception. He could not reach her, though, and a pang of fear went through him. Aila could not be far enough away for distance to affect their communication – not in such a short time. If his Perception could not reach hers, it meant she was unconscious – or even dead. That thought, though, was too terrible, and he brushed it aside, trying to think what might have happened. If they had been followed and spied on, then now, just when his father, the Lightstone-Bearer, had left them for a few hours, would be the ideal time for the Children of Night to make their move to snatch Marla back. And if Aila and Zohra were with her,they would be taken too – to what fate? “I am wasting time” he told himself “I must find Lin!” Hurrying to the room they had been given, Arenel was thankful to find the Swordsmen relaxing there. His hurried entrance, though, and one glance at his stricken face, was enough to bring all three to their feet. Mellin’s chair crashed to the floor, Janir reached for his sword-belt which was lying on the table, Lin asked quickly “What has happened?” “I do not know!” Arenel answered, fighting to keep calm enough to give Lin the information he needed. “I felt Aila’s Perception touch mine. She was scared – she cried out to me “Arenel, help us!” And then I could Perceive nothing more. Oh Lin, she is unconscious or – or something worse! And I know nothing of Marla or Zohra, but Aila said “Help us!” Lin’s face was grave. “Had the maidens left the Faring House? Mellin, go and find out. Janir, to the stables and have our horses saddled. We will likely need them.” As his son and nephew went to do his bidding, Janir buckling on his sword as he went, Lin turned back to the young Priest. “Arenel, try to think quietly. Can you remember anything else? Anything at all?”
He waited patiently as Arenel withdrew inwards, searching his Perception of Aila’s brief, urgent message for other impressions that might have underlain the sense of fear and the worded message. After a minute or so Arenel’s eyes lost their absent expression and looked again at his unce. “She was seeing a woman – a woman at the door with three men in black – Children of Night. A treacherous servant, her thought was. Something about sweetwood- the smell of sweetwood powder in the gowns they were given” He sighed wearily, and rubbed his forehead. “That is all I can find, Lin.” “It is enough.” Lin said. “Do not tire yourself, Arenel. We will need your Perception.” Janir came in. “The horses are ready.” Almost on his heels came Mellin. “They had gone to bathe – their Bathing Place is a little away from the main House. There is no one there, but their soiled clothing is there still. A maidservant is missing who went with them, she must have been captured too.” “No” Lin said “Arenel has searched his Perception. Aila had thought of a treacherous servant, and sweetwood powder in their gowns, and three Children of Night at the door. The woman must have drugged the gowns, and let the men in to carry off the maidens. Quickly now! Our one advantage is that they will not expect pursuit, since they could not know of Aila’s message.” As they hurried to the stables, Lin outlined his plans.”Arenel, you must keep trying to reach Aila. Sweetwood powder is potent, but its effects do not last long. And try to reach Aiel, too. He must be on his way back by now. If – when- we find the maidens, I think Zohra will be in the least danger, so you must take her up, Arenel. Mellin, take Marla, and Janir, Aila. If we must fight, we will, but our first aim is to get the girls out. I will guard your backs. And whatever happens, do as we have planned, or there will be confusion.” Once mounted, they cast around the area of the Bathing Place for tracks. “They must be on foot” Mellin said “at least for a while. They could not have got horses so close without being seen.” “Unless the maidservant had them hidden somewhere. ” suggested Janir. Surprisingly, it was Arenel, not one of the sharp-eyed Swordsmen, who saw the first sign, a footprint in a patch of soft earth, and a mark alongside as though something had been dragged. Lin nodded grimly. “That is them. Which way are they going? Come!” Once they found it, the trail was easy to follow- the Children of Night had not bothered to hide their tracks. The four pursuers could not ride too fast, in case they should miss the trail, but their enemies were on foot, and hampered by their unconscious captives, and Arenel began to be hopeful for his sister and her friends again.
As Lin had said, the sweetwood powder was strong but short-lived in its effects, and Aila came to a dazed consciousness of being half-carried, half-dragged along, evidently over rough ground from the frequent stumbles and curses of her abductor. She made herself keep still and limp, hoping that it would hinder him, and reached out her Perception again, searching for Arenel’s, not sure if he had heard her first hurried appeal. She bit back the sob of relief that rose to her lips when her Perception meshed with her brother’s, feeling his reassurance that help was on the way, and his concern for her, still dazed from the drug and fearful for herself and her friends, especially Marla. Arenel told her, gently, to be still and not try to communicate yet, simply to leave her Perception open to him so that he Perceived what she did. He helped her to build the links of the Thought-without-Words, holding open their two-way connection without need of conscious communication and independent of outside circumstances. Then Arenel withdrew for a moment to report to Lin, and Aila concentrated on clearing her head and picking up any clue which might help Arenel and the Swordsmen to find them. She heard Zohra’s indignant voice then, still thick from the drug, demanding to be freed. It was cut off, no doubt by a hand across the mouth, but her captor’s curses and references to the ‘Western wildcat!’ showed that Zohra was not taking her captivity easily. Aila risked opening her eyes a little, so that Arenel could Perceive their surroundings. They had left the Town, presumably by some back way, and were in scrubland, rough and dismal. She guessed they were on the East side of the Merchant Town, for there was a salt tang to the air, and Aila could hear, distantly, a faint roaring that might have been the sea. In the distance was a small copse of trees, and it was towards this that they seemed to be heading.
Aila’s captor spoke. “Careful with the blonde. She is the important one.” “Who is she?” asked the man he had addressed, who was carrying Marla. To Aila’s narrowed view the girl appeared to be still deeply unconscious. The first man gave an unpleasant laugh. “I know nothing-I am not so high in the ranks! But you can see she is from Ma’al -or bred from there.” Zohra’s abductor said “Then what was she doing – keep still, Night curse you!” – this to Zohra – “what was she doing with Priests and Swordsmen?” Aila felt her captor shrug. “Who knows? Someone high up in the Night Temple’s ranks has come from the City and wants these three, and we were told to get them. That is all I know.” He cursed again, then, and said, “If this one does not wake soon, I shall drag her by the hair! It is heavy going!” At that, Aila felt it expedient, having now recovered her senses, to pretend to waken. She feigned a groan, and opened her eyes. The man who carried her looked down at her with small, pale eyes that looked odd in a swarthy face, and cursed once more. “This one is Priests’ spawn!” he called to his comrades. “She has the Blue Eyes.” His crony laughed an ugly laugh. “All the more sport, then, if they are given to us when they are finished with!” he said. Arenel, having told Lin that he was in contact with Aila, had concentrated on listening with her ears and seeing with her eyes. Now, though, he turned a distressed face to Lin. “They are talking of – of ‘sport’ with the maidens!” he exclaimed, horrified, knowing what kind of ‘sport’ the Children of Night would mean. Lin’s face too was grave. He remembered – would never forget- that on Aiel’s Way they had found a young girl dying, raped and beaten, victim of the Children of Night, in the Dark City Ruins. But he held back his distress, lest Arenel sense it. “We must hurry!” was all he said, then “Arenel, tell us what you have seen, so we can recognise the place.”
Marla regained consciousness suddenly and in terror, screaming and struggling. Aila called out to her to comfort her, and was rewarded by a stinging slap from her captor. The three girls were forced to walk now and Aila, despite her contact with Arenel, began to be afraid as she saw the men were taking them into the copse they had seen earlier, for she Perceived a Darkness emanating from it. Forced to pass into the trees, they saw a still, tall figure in a hooded cloak, waiting. Aila knew it was the source of the Darkness she had felt. As they drew nearer, the man threw back his hood, and Aila saw that it was Tamat, Si-Mara’s bodyguard and lover. He smiled mirthlessly, and made Marla an ironic bow. “Welcome, Lady Marla! We have been waiting for you. The Lady Si-Mara, your mother, sent me to find you, fearing you had lost your way, Your people and your Temple eagerly await your return.” Marla might have blanched, if she were not already so pale, but she kept her head high and defiant, her voice steady. “I have not lost my way. It does not lie in service to Darkness. I will not return to Si-Mara!” “Oh, but you will, Lady! But you have been keeping strange company.” He gestured for Aila and Zohra to be brought to him, seized Aila’s chin in a cruel grasp, and forced her head up, staring defiantly into her Perception-gifted eyes. “The child of our greatest enemy!” “Let her go!” Marla cried. “Oh no, you do not command me yet, Lady” Tamat said, smiling cruelly, “Not until you wield the Bloodstone!” He held Aila a moment longer, as if to show that he released her in his own good time, then turned to Zohra. “The granddaughter of the Ket” he mused, “yes, a useful hostage for the old man’s cooperation.” “The Ket is loyal to Light alone!” Zohra cried, her dark eyes sparking with anger. “He would not buy my life at such a price – nor would I wish him to.” “Your life, no – but your honour might be a different thing. The old fool is fond of you. And when the Lady Marla wields the Bloodstone and Darkness rules in Li’is as in Ma’al – he will have no choice then, Zohra of the West!”
Marla said, in a firm, clear voice, “I will not wield the Bloodstone, nor surrender myself and this world to Darkness. I will die first.” “Not even to save the life of your friend?” he asked, indicating Aila. Marla. almost tricked for a moment, cast a distressed look at Aila, who cried “No! Do not heed him, Marla. He would not let me go.” “I know” Marla said sadly, her Dark sense for once aiding her, warning her that Tamat lied. The man’s face twisted in an evil grin that was almost a snarl. “Aye” he hissed “Too sweet it will be to take revenge on the Lightstone-Bearer, through his daughter, for Lak’s defeat at his hands.” Then, to Aila’s captor and the other men, he said “This one is no more use to us – take her! But leave her alive- for the Black Altar!” The man who was still holding Aila gave a smile of gleeful lust, and pushed her to the ground. She cried out in fear as his hands pawed at her, tearing at her gown, and her Perception flashed a terrified plea to Arenel to come quickly, come now, to her aid. Marla, in fear for her friend, cried out “Stop! I have – I have the Touch of Darkness! I can destroy you if you harm her.” Tamat cried out in answer , and there was triumph in his voice, “Aye, use the Dark Power, Lady! Use it, and honour Darkness! Use it, and be bound to the Lords of Darkness forever!” Aila, even in the midst of her own fear, knew Marla was in peril. In this moment of terror, the other girl must have somehow realised that she possessed some Dark power which could slay Aila’s attacker. But even if she tried to use it for good, to save Aila, Marla would be bound by it to Darkness, never to attain Light. Despite her own desperate situation, Aila, aware of the danger to Marla, screamed out “Marla, no! Do not use the Dark power! You will be lost to Light forever.” Her attacker tried to gag her, but she evaded him, and cried again “It does not matter what happens to me – if I die, I will touch Light. Do not use it!”The Child of Night had her by the throat now and Tamat, enraged by her resistance, shrieked at the man, who was straddling her, “Kill her! Kill the Priest spawn!”
Aila, eyes wide with fear, saw the man’s face twist with evil pleasure and realised with a cold shock that he was enjoying the thought of killing her, that it was more pleasing to him even than sating his lust on her. She felt sick with horror and fear as the evil face loomed closer. She heard, as if from far away, Marla scream her name, with a sob in her voice, then, thankfully, Zohra, her voice taut more with anger than fear, say firmly “Marla, you must not use the Dark power! Whatever happens, you must do as Aila said.” Now the man’s hands tightened on Aila’s throat, squeezing, choking. Surely Arenel would feel, would know, would bring rescue quickly? At first she fought against her would-be murderer, but soon could spare little strength to struggle. She was choking, suffocating, her blood drumming in her ears, redness swimming before her closed eyes. On the edge of consciousness, her mind screamed “Arenel!” Arenel had turned, begun to tell Lin that Aila was in great danger and they must hurry -for they could see the copse now- when the Child of Night began to strangle her. The link which he and his sister had built through the Thought-without-Words entrapped him now; feeling everything she felt, it was as if he too were under attack. The young Priest swayed in the saddle, gasping and choking, while Lin caught his reins in alarm and Mellin wondered if it were some kind of seizure. It was Janir who grasped what was happening. “The Thought-without-Words!” he cried, “He feels what Aila feels. Lin, they are killing her!” “Go!” Lin said, urgently, “I will deal with Arenel.” Before he spoke, Janir had already urged Redhawk at a gallop towards the trees, and Mellin raced after him. Lin turned to Arenel. remembering what Krystha had done, so many years before, when Aiel’s Perception was similarly entrapped, Lin leaned across and slapped Arenel hard on both cheeks. For a moment Arenel still looked dazed, then he shook his head and looked at Lin, realising what had happened. “Aila! They are strangling her, Lin!” “Janir has gone to her aid” Lin said ” And Mellin. Quick now, after them. But trust Aila to Janir – he will not fail – and stay with our battle plan, Arenel.” As they galloped after the others, he repeated his warning. “Arenel, I know you will want to go to Aila. But you must take up Zohra, as we planned.” “I will, I understand.” the young Priest replied.
Janir had ridden like a wild thing, as if Redhawk had wings indeed. Mellin, skilful horseman though he was, had difficulty in keeping up with his cousin. Their whirlwind arrival among the Children of Night, though, proved in their favour, startling and unnerving their foes .Only Zohra, true child of the West, grasped immediately what was happening and seized the chance to break free of her captor, crying to the Swordsmen “Over there! Save Aila!” She pointed to where Aila lay at her attacker’s mercy, but Mellin, remembering Lin’s orders, left Aila’s rescue to Janir and rode at Tamat, who was trying to drag away the struggling Mrla. Janir leapt from horseback at the man who knelt astride Aila, hands tight on her throat, and jerked him backwards, freeing her. Then he threw the man forcefully aside and turned towards Aila, but her attacker came up again, a dagger in one hand, drawing his sword with the other. Drawing his own sword, Janir swung back to meet the assault, protecting himself and Aila. The Child of Night was not as skillful a swordsman as Janir, but he was a different kind of fighter, eager to kill, and treacherous. Janir, bound by his Swordsman’s vows, wanted only to disarm or disable the man, having in mind that to kill the Child of Night meant sending him, soul and spirit, into Darkness forever. He moved suddenly, swiftly, to disarm the Child of Night, but his opponent, seeing Janir’s side apparently unguarded, lunged forward with his dagger. Janir had to twist quickly away, altering his stroke, and his blade pierced his opponent’s body. The Child of Night gave a cry, dropped his weapons, staggered backwards and fell, while Janir stood shocked, never having meant to kill. The Swordsman moved forward and knelt beside the fallen man, hoping he might only be wounded, but saw at once that the man was dead. He knew that he had had no choice, having to save not only his own life but Aila’s – if she were not already dead – but it did not lessen the impact of how he felt at having taken a life, though it was an enemy’s. A cry from Lin alerted him to danger as he knelt there. Another Child of Night was leaping at him, knife in hand, and he rolled aside barely in time, the knife gashing his thigh. Lin leapt over the body of the man Janir had killed and pursued the other attacker into the trees, and Janir turned to tend Aila.
Aila had been lying still, half on the edge of oblivion, gratefully aware of rescue but not wanting to move. She had taken one great gulp of air as Janir hauled away her attacker, but it had so abused her raw throat and achingly empty seeming lungs that after that she had breathed very slowly and carefully. She could not know how still she lay, how ghastly her bruised, blotched throat and her face, first near purple with strangulation, now slowly draining to white, looked. Janir, as he knelt beside her, seeing her so very still, apparently unbreathing, felt certain he had come too late and she was dead. He raised her up in his arms, his face pale. “Aila!” he cried, and it was a wail of despair. Arenel, who had followed Lin’s instructions and lifted Zohra up behind him, heard Janir, checked his horse and reached out for Aila’s perception. She felt the touch, his love and fear for her, and found enough strength to reassure her brother. “Praise Light, she is alive!” he told Zohra, and turned his mount in the direction of the Faring House. Mellin, meanwhile, was struggling to help Marla. He had hurled himself straight at Tamat, knowing him to be the chief danger to Marla, managing to tear the girl from Tamat’s grasp. As they fought, she had cowered back among the tress, dazed and terrified. Eventually Mellin had first slightly wounded, then disarmed Si-Mara’s lieutenant, and the man had been forced to flee, throwing curses and threats of revenge over his shoulder at the Swordsman. Despite his threats to Marla, Tamat had had to leave her behind him, after all. She was so terrified, though, and near-hysterical with grief for Aila, that she was quite unable to distinguish friend from foe. When Mellin tried to lift her on to his horse and take her to safety, she struggled frantically, beating her fists on his chest, screaming with fear and anguish. Mellin gave up trying to get her on the horse. Instead he held her closely against him, gentling her. Quietly and patiently he spoke calming words to her, calling her by name, telling her who he was, until at last his familiar voice broke through her terror, and reached her. Then she quieted and listened to his reassurances and let him lift her on to the horse. He mounted behind her, looked round, and saw that all their enemies were routed, and Janir was tending Aila. Though anxious about her, he knew he must leave her to his cousin’s care and get the still distressed Marla back to the Faring House.
Aila, with an effort, snatched herself back from the edge of the faintness which tempted her to slip into it and forget, and opened her eyes. She found herself gazing into Janir’s despairing face, and felt a pang at the sorrow and hopelessness etched on it. When he saw her eyes open, though, new hope washed them away. He gave a little startled jump and exclaimed “Aila! Aila, can you hear me?” Aila tried to speak, but her throat hurt so much that she could not. She nodded her head instead, but the slight movement brought instant nausea, and Janir, seeing her need, gently leaned her over while she was very sick. When it was over, she found that she was icy cold, and trembling violently, and crying. She was only dimly aware of Janir pulling her to him, holding her tightly to try to warm her and still her trembling, yet her Healer’s mind told her, quite clearly, ‘It is the shock.’ Lin had returned from his pursuit of the attackers, and Janir, sounding close to tears himself, yet with a tone almost of triumph in his voice, told his uncle ” Oh, Lin -praise Light, Aila is alive!” “Praise Light!” Lin echoed fervently “But we must get her back to the Healers, at once.” Suddenly Aila felt Arenel’s Perception nudge hers, carrying his love and concern for her, but a welcome message too. Aiel was returning, would be at the Faring House when they arrived. “Father!” she whispered, very hoarsely “Take me to him, Janir.” “He has returned?” Lin exclaimed, thankfully. Janir lifted Aila and carried her to Redhawk. Lin took her until Janir had mounted, then lifted her up to his nephew. As he held her, Lin looked at her with deep concern, murmuring “Aila, child!” She wanted to smile at him, to comfort him, but she could not, she was still too shaken. She clung to Janir, as much for warmth as for solace, as they rode, and he held her tightly to him with one arm, murmuring a constant stream of comfort and encouragement. Aila could feel too, though she still lacked the strength to extend her Perception to them, a background of reassurance and love from Aiel and Arenel.
They reached the gates of the Merchant Town and she heard Lin, in hurried conversation with the Watchwards, telling of the girls’ abduction and the presence of Children of Night. Aila was aware of the faintness constantly enticing her, but felt she must hold on to consciousness until she reached the Faring House, though oblivion would have been welcome. She would not burden Janir further by fainting. They were back in the Town now, she could hear Lin’s horse behind them and it was good to know that her uncle was there, she was sure of her safety with Janir, yet she would not feel fully secure until she was back with her father, the Lightstone-Bearer. Where he was, all would be well. As if he divined her thoughts, she heard Janir say softly to her “Look, Aila, the Faring House – and Aiel! You are safe now.” With some difficulty, she lifted her head from Janir’s shoulder, and saw the Faring House doorway, and three figures standing there – Aiel, and Arenel, and behind them a Healer-Priest. Aiel came forward to meet them as Janir reined in his horse, and the Swordsman carefully lowered Aila into her father’s arms. Aiel clasped her tight, exclaiming “Aila! Oh, my precious child!” Aila sighed. Now she was safe, now she could surrender to the enticing faintness. “Father.” she murmured, and went limp, unconscious, in his embrace. Janir gave a cry of alarm, but Aiel said quickly “Have no fear for her, Janir. She is overburdened and has only fainted.” He looked up at the young Swordsman and went on “Janir, Arenel has told me that it was you who saved her. I owe you a debt I can never repay. To thank you seems hardly enough.” “She is alive” Janir said, rather gruffly. “That is all the thanks I need, Aiel.” The Lightstone-Bearer, Perceiving the echoes of intense emotion emanating from Janir, and not wishing to Trespass, said no more, but watched quietly as Janir dismounted, a little stiffly. Concerned, Aiel asked “You are hurt?” “It is nothing – just a cut.” “Come to the Healing Place” the Healer said, now that their first concerns had passed. “Bring the maiden. Your friends are all there.” Janir offered “I will carry Aila, Aiel” and Aiel relinquished his daughter to the Swordsman, feeling it might comfort Janir.
When they entered the Healing Place Marla, still in an agony of fear for her friend, sprang forward crying “Aila!Aila!” Seeing her distress, Aiel caught her. “Marla, it will be well with her. She has only fainted.” The girl, still too distressed to understand, looked up at him with tear-filled eyes. “Aiel, I am so sorry! Oh, what have I done? I could have saved her, if…” Aiel broke in, “Marla, hear me! Aila is alive.” “They – they did not kill her-” Marla gasped, as if she still could not quite comprehend it. “No, Janir came in time. He saved her.” “Oh, then – Aila was right” Marla said, “and I was right, not to use it.” Aiel asked “Marla, what do you mean?” The girl’s eyes were solemn now, as she replied “Oh, Aiel – when I saw the danger Aila was in, I suddenly knew that there was some Dark power within me that I could use to help her – the Touch of Darkness, I felt it named to me, and I knew it could blast her attacker to death, if I used it. Tamat told the men to – to take her, and I wanted to stop them – I cried out to them to stop, or I would use the power. But Tamat wanted me to use it, Aiel, that is why he ordered them to kill Aila, to make me use the power to try to save her. But to use it would have bound me to Darkness forever! Aila realised that, and cried to me not to use the power, whatever happened to her. So I did not – I let them – Aiel, was I right” she asked, in a sudden flood of self-doubt “or should I have used it, to save Aila all this – this terror?” Very gently, Aiel took her pale, unhappy face between his hands. “Aye, before Light, you were right, Marla” he confirmed. “To use such a power would have been to surrender yourself to Darkness – and Aila and Zohra as well. Do not doubt that you were right. Even if Aila had – died, you would have been right to refuse to use it.” While they were speaking Janir, following the Healer’s instructions, had laid Aila on one of the couches, where the man deftly examined her. Taking a pot of salve, he began to rub it carefully into her bruised throat, looking up to speak to them as he did so. “Her throat is badly bruised, and she has been dreadfully shocked.” he told them. “Nothing worse, physically. It is the fear of what has happened, the remembering, that will be the worst. But if she is strong in Light, that will pass too. It is love and tending and reassurance that she will need most.” Aiel drew out the Lightstone and went across to where Aila lay, leaning to lay the Stone to her brow. The soft light spilled over to embrace the unconscious girl, and when it withdrew, Aiel nodded and said “There, that will sustain her.”
The Healer smiled, and turned to Janir. “Come, let me dress that cut” he said, leading the Swordsman into a curtained alcove. Aiel, meanwhile, called the others to him. It was the Lightstone’s healing that they needed, and to all except Marla, whom he could not yet help in this way, he offered the Lightstone, and his Perception. Mellin and Zohra needed little but the Lightstone’s touch and quick reassurance. Arenel needed the most help, because of the Thought-without-Words; he had experienced much of Aila’s ordeal through that link and been deeply distressed by it. When Aiel was satisfied that the three young people would rest, he sent them to their beds. Marla, who had already been given a calming draught by the Healer when she arrived, in terror and tears, at the Faring House, went with them, Zohra supporting her with a friendly arm about her waist. At length Janir came out from behind the curtain where the Healer had been dressing the gash in his thigh. He looked at Aila, motionless on the couch, and then at Aiel, as if for reassurance. Aiel said “Do not be fearful for Aila, Janir. It will be well with her. Her spirit is strong in Light.” “I thought – at first I thought she was dead.” Janir said, heavily. Aiel could Perceive that the shadow of that fear was still on him, but there was something else too – some other sorrow that shadowed Janir’s spirit. The young Swordsman was very unhappy about something. “Janir, lad” he said quietly “I think your spirit is wounded too. Come, seek Light, and be healed.” Confidently, Aiel offered the Lightstone, and his Perception, to the Swordsman, but to his astonishment Janir made a polite but definite gesture of refusal. “Aial, I-I cannot!” he stammered, then turned his head away. After a moment, still not looking at any of them, he said “I – tonight I have slain a man, Aiel!”
“Aaah!” Lin breathed, in understanding. “You are right, Janir, there is no glory or pride to be taken in another’s death at your hands – but no blood-guilt either, if the thing cannot be helped. Janir, you know your Swordsman’s vows – to protect and fight for all that is of Light, and destroy all that is of Darkness.” “And not take life needlessly” Janir added, in a soft, dull voice.”Not even from the Children of Night, Lin. I could not even offer the Choice of Light – there was no time. So I have sent the man’s spirit into Darkness!” Aiel said gently, “Janir, we understand. But so does Light! It is a dreadful thing to have to do, but the need was there, and it had to be done. Light will not condemn you.” “Aiel, it is too new, too-too painful! I will come to you – to Light- when I am ready. But I am not ready, yet.” “Janir” Lin said “I know how you feel. But be wary of setting your own terms with Light!” “I cannot!” Janir said, almost angrily. “I cannot – not now!” Before any of them could speak again, he had turned and walked out of the Healing Place. Aiel said softly “Poor lad, it has come hard to him.” “Aye” Lin agreed, sombrely. “There is nothing that can prepare a man for it, Aiel – to see the breath go out of a living body, and know you have ended that life. I have only once had to kill a man – Soom. And you know, my friend, that that was at dire need. It is a dreadful thing – to send a living spirit into Darkness forever.” “If the Child of Night had not taken his dark road” the Healer said, practically, “he would not have died. The young Swordsman cannot blame himself. he is taking a guilt which is not his.” Aiel sighed. “Perhaps in the morning – if he can sleep tonight- he will see more clearly, and come to Light.”
It had been close on dusk when they had brought Aila back to the Faring House; now it was completely dark. The Healer had lit a small lamp at Aila’s bedside, which gave her face a peaceful glow. The two friends paused for a moment to look at the girl and say a silent prayer for her, then left the Healer to his tasks, bidding him goodnight, and left the Healing Place. In the corridor outside, a small side door stood ajar. Lin went to close it, then paused, and called softly “Aiel.” The Priest went to join his friend, and Lin said “Look”. The door led out into the herb garden of the Healing Place, and a soft breeze blew mingled scents, spicy, sweet and bitter, towards them from the plants. In a far corner of the little garden grew a huge and beautiful blackbark tree. In the darkness its sooty trunk and branches appeared insubstantial, almost invisible, while its massive crown of white blossom, touched by the moonlight, seemed to hang on the air like a luminous cloud, emitting a bitter-sweet aromatic perfume. Beneath the tree stood Janir. His back was to them, and he was leaning against the tree, his arms upraised and folded against the trunk, his head pillowed on them. He was very still, too still to be weeping, but his whole attitude spoke misery. Aiel sighed with compassion, the said “We cannot force him to seek peace, Lin. Let him wrestle awhile with himself, and grow stronger. He will seek Light soon, for he loves Light too much to distance himself for long.” Lin nodded agreement, with one more pitying glance at his distressed nephew. Leaving the door ajar so that Janir could come back inside when he wished, they went on their way.