DAUGHTER OF DARKNESS, SEED OF LIGHT

Chapter 9

When she woke, Aila could not remember what had happened, for a moment. Then she felt the tenderness of her throat, and her eyes flew open as memory returned. As she looked up, she found her father there, his eyes holding hers, his Perception meshing with hers to help her through the first shuddering moments of dreadful recollection. Once that was over, and his Perception released hers, she saw that Arenel was standing at Aiel’s shoulder, and behind them the Healer was smiling gently at her. “Oh, Aila!” exclaimed her brother, and bent to embrace her, his Perception emitting concern. “How is it with you, dear one?” Aila’s hand went to her bruised throat. “It- aches” she said, finding her voice sounding husky and strange even to herself. “But the worst thing was the evil in them. That man was enjoying the thought of – of killing me! It was horrible!” “Such are the ways of Darkness.” Aiel said heavily. “Marla!” Aila exclaimed , remembering. “Oh, Father, is she safe? She did not try to use her Dark power to save me?” “She did not use it” Aiel assured her.” She obeyed you. She has been very unhappy, but now she is certain that she did what was right, and it will be well with you, she is comforted. And Zohra too ” he continued, forestalling her next question, “is better this morning. Her valiant spirit, and the Lightstone, helped her,” “Oh – Janir!” she cried, though it hurt her throat, for she had a sudden memory. “I had forgotten – Janir was fighting, and I think he was hurt.” “Janir’s wound was nothing, just a cut.” Aiel said. “But he has a worse hurt” Arenel commented.

“What?” asked Aila, alarmed for her beloved ‘cousin of a cousin’, “What ails Janir?” “He was forced to kill the Child of Night” Aiel told her, “and he is very unhappy. He refuses my Perception, and the Lightstone. He will not make his peace with Light.” “He would not accept my Perception, either.” Arenel added. “Oh, I do not believe that he does not wish to come to Light. But he feels guilty, unacceptable to Light, because of the man’s death.” “Besides that” Aiel said thoughtfully, “he was very anxious for you, Aila. Of course we all were, but Janir saw at close hand what was done to you, and it has doubled his burden – Aila, do you feel well enough to see Janir? If he sees that you are recovering, it may ease him.” “And maybe” Arenel suggested, “to you, who have Perception but are not of the Priesthood, he may feel able to unburden himself, as he cannot to us.” “Oh,I do not know that Aila is well enough for that” their father frowned, but Aila said quickly, “Oh yes, Father! It will be well with me. And if I can help Janir – you know he was so kind to me, when I was missing Arenel. While he was away, Janir was like a brother to me in his place. Please let me help him.” She could not add , as she did secretly to herself, the thought well-guarded to escape her father’s and brother’s Perceptions “And I love him!” “Do you think it is wise?” Aiel appealed to the Healer, who smiled, and said, “I think it is. Janir needs reassurance, and Aila will be unhappy now if she cannot help her friend. Besides, she is a Healer herself, and should know what she can bear.” Aila smiled back at him, grateful for an ally. “Very well” Aiel said “I will find Janir and send him to you, Aila.” When her father and brother had gone, the Healer gave her a strengthening draught, and, after a quick examination, allowed her to rise from her couch and sit in a chair, wrapped in a warm robe. Then, gently warning her not to overtax herself, he discreetly left the Healing Place.

Shortly afterwards, Aila heard a tap at the door, and called out “Janir? Come in.” When the young Swordsman entered the room, Aila felt a shock of concern. He looked so haggard and wretched, his face pale, with dark smudges under the eyes as if he had not slept at all, clothes and hair rumpled, shoulders slumped. He closed the door behind him and leaned against it for a moment, staring at her. “Aila,” he said, in a low voice that was quite unlike his normal tone, “is it well with you?” “It will be.” she assured him, then, holding out her hands to him, said “But, my dear, it is not well with you! What ails you, Janir?” She did not tell him what Aiel had said. Let the Swordsman find his own words to explain his predicament – hopefully the telling would ease him .Almost unwillingly, it seemed, Janir came towards her, and she rose to meet him, but he did not take her extended hands.. He kept his head and eyes bowed, not looking at her, as he told her “Aila- oh, Aila, I was so afraid for you – I thought, when I found you, that you were dead. And I – I slew the Child of Night who attacked you. I had to, to protect you, but oh, it is so hard, to know I have taken a man’s life and sent his spirit into Darkness forever! But he would have killed you….” His voice rose as he spoke, and suddenly his head came up, and he was staring at her again, with tears in his eyes. Then he reached out, not for her hands, but to hold her, to hug her tightly to him, as he exclaimed “Oh, my love, my love, if you had died…” His voice cracked on the last word, and he leaned his face into the curve of her neck and shoulder, and wept. Aila was stunned, by the force of his emotions, and his words of love. She wrapped her arms around him and felt his body shake under her hands, as his near-unbearable feelings burst out in violent tears.

Waiting till his first rush of weeping subsided, Aila asked gently “Janir, what is it keeps you from Light? Aiel my father told me you refused his Perception, and the Lightstone. But your healing is in Light.” His answer came, muffled by her hair, in which his face was still hidden. “I-I cannot face Light – not yet, Aila. I do not understand what I have done. I feel guilt and fear. I think I did not mean to kill, but maybe in my heart I did, and did not know it. I love you so, and he had tried to kill you- I thought he had! What if in my secret heart I wanted revenge for that? How could I come to Light?” “Janir” she said, still softly, but firmly, “You must tell me exactly what happened.” He looked at her then, and “Arenel was choking too.” he said. “I realised it was the Thought-without-Words, and I knew they were trying to kill you.I rode for the place like – like a mad thing, Aila, I was so afraid I would find you dead! I saw him astride you, strangling you, and I threw myself at him and pulled him off you. I thought he was stunned, but he came at me with sword and dagger. I was fighting to keep him from you, and disarm him. I swear I did not mean to kill him, but he twisted suddenly,, trying to get under my guard, and the stroke I had aimed only to wound went right through his body.” His voice was shaking with the memory as he added “There was nothing to be done, Aila, it was so quick – he was dead even before I could offer the Choice of Light!” “There!” she told him “Listen to your own words, Janir, you never meant to kill the man. And it was self-defence, not revenge.” He looked at her,still a little doubtful. “Was it?” “Yes it was.” she told him firmly. “You felt and acted only as a Swordsman, Janir. I do not believe that your – your feelings for me had anything to do with the man’s death.”

He started at her words, then flushed and said uncomfortably “Oh, what have I said? I never meant you to know that I loved you – oh, Aila, forgive me! I am dishonoured…” “But why?” she broke in, unhappily. Could it be possible that he was promised to another, despite Mellin’s confident assurances? “Janir, you are not betrothed already? For I love you too, my heart.” “No, I am not betrothed” he answered, his look now bewildered,”But how can you love me, Aila? Are you not Mellin’s love?” “Mellin?” It was her turn to be puzzled. “Janir, he is my dear cousin, dear as a brother, and we love each other like brother and sister. But he is not my love! His heart is given, but not to me…” and she stopped, realising that she had come close to betraying Mellin’s secret. “Oh, Aila!” Janir murmured. “But I thought – you were always so close, so affectionate, you two, and I did not understand that was how it was with you. I was sure you would be betrothed, one day. And I could not set out to steal the love that belonged to my kinsman and Sword-Brother.” “No, you would not” she said, understanding. “Not my honourable Janir.” “It was such joy, and such pain” he went on ” to be with you all these weeks,knowing I would love you all my life, yet you would never know it. And to see you look so lovely at Shala’s wedding – oh, I could not help but imagine that one day I might have stood with you before the Crucible if things had been different, and it hurt me so!” “I felt it!” she exclaimed.”I did not mean to Trespass, my heart, but I could not help but Perceive your pain, though I thought you were sad to lose Shala. But – but you speak as though you have loved me so long, Janir.” “I have!” he answered “Oh Aila, Aila, do you know how long? Since I was old enough to know what love is, I think I have been in love with you.” “And never said, because you thought I loved Mellin?” she asked, gently. “How could I?” he asked in reply, simply. And she knew it had been that simple – and that painful – for him, because he was a Swordsman, and a man of honour, and it had been impossible, as he had said, for him to think of stealing the love he believed was Mellin’s . And she loved him the more for it. “Oh, I am sorry to have caused you such pain! But it is you I love, Janir” she told him, “more than anything save Light.”

Janir gave a little laugh of delight “I never thought to hear those words from you, Aila! Oh, my heart, I have wasted so much time. But this recompenses me for all.” “Janir” she said “If I had known – but you have scarcely seen me, these last few years. How is it that you came to love me – and when?” “The last time we were all at the Fortress together. You were staying with Aunt Krystha, learning the last of your Healing skills, and Mellin had finished his Sword-Training and was to take his oath to the Fortress Watch. Arenel and I had come to see him do it. Do you remember? I always was fond of you, Aila, even when we were children, but that was when I fell in love with you.” “So long ago?” she said, wonderingly “And you have been so constant in your love, not even seeing me?Oh, Janir!” “You may not have seen me, Aila, but I have seen you” he told her, reaching out for her again, She came gladly into his arms, as he went on “You would be surprised how many messages pass between the Western and Mountain Fortresses, and how many times I found means to make myself the messenger. And always my mother or sister would have some errand in the City for me, and I found ways to see you. Oh, you did not notice me, but I was there.” Aila was moved to the heart by the picture of unspoken devotion to her that his words conjured up. “Janir, I am ashamed!” she said “I have loved you such a little while, and you have loved me so long. And yet perhaps if I had known of your love, I might not have valued it then as I do now.” “Little time or long does not matter to me now, if you really love me.” he answered her, smiling. “I do” she assured him. “Love me too, Janir, but never more than Light, the source of all love. Is it not time to make your peace with Light, my heart?” “Yes.” he answered, softly. “Aila, I have never been distanced from Light before, and it is a pain and a burden to me. But my love for you was another reason I could not surrender to Aiel’s Perception – I was so full of love and fear for you, he would have known it at once, if he had Perceived me.” “Come now,” she said “make your peace with Light, Janir.”

He nodded, and offered his eyes to her Perception. It was an easy thing to guide Janir into making his peace with Light, for he was ready and eager for it already, aching inwardly at the separation. Now she felt Light free him from his fear and self-appointed guilt, and felt, too how, as he had said, his deep feelings for her ran through his thought like a thread in the weaving. At last he found his peace in Light, and she felt the joy break through in him. Aila felt joy for him flood through her too, as she withdrew her Perception and spoke the words of assurance to him. His face was radiant as he said exultantly “Oh, Aila, Light is merciful! This morning I was so unhappy, for I had come close to losing the two things I love best – Light’s Presence, and you. But now I have Light’s forgiveness and your love, and I think I am happier than any man has right to be!” He cupped her face in his hands and gazed into her eyes as intently as if he, not she, were Perception-gifted. She closed her eyes under that bright gaze, and he bent and kissed her. “Aila, my Gift-of-Light” he said, after a while, “I know that for now, only Marla’s Way matters. All else, our love too, must come second to that, and we must put our feelings aside for a while. Yet I have loved you and dreamed of you so long, I am impatient. Is it too soon to ask you now to be my Lady?” Aila thought of the years of love and longing he had confessed to her, so poorly repaid with scant glimpses of her here and there, and her own innocent obliviousness of his devotion, now so amply proved to her. She was sure of her own feelings, and did not want to make him wait, unrewarded, any longer. She responded, “Janir, my love, how can it be too soon, when you have loved me so long and constantly? I will gladly be your Lady, if Aiel my father agrees – and I think he knows you, as I do, for a man of the deepest honour. He will not refuse.” “Then we are betrothed!” he exclaimed, then, lighthearted with love and joy, he teased her “But you still have not told me when you learned to love me.”

“I scarcely know!” she answered truthfully. “You were always so kind to me, and such a comfort – and I know that is your nature, if you loved me or not -that I must have grown into it so gradually, I did not know myself. Then, that evening Zohra sang to us at the Last Faring House – do you remember?” He nodded, and she went on “Her music was so powerful, so lovely, that I looked to see how it affected others, and at first I thought it was the music that made me feel so strange, when I looked at you.” “How, strange?” he asked.”I felt as though you were the most important thing in the world to me, and when you smiled at me, I felt my heart melt. Then I knew I loved you, and was astonished at myself!” “Yet you did not show it” he said, a trifle reproachfully. “I thought you only cared for me like a sister” she explained “and if you did not feel love for me too, you would feel sad that you could not return my love.” “Oh, Aila!” he laughed “What a tangle it has all been. But Light has resolved it for us, for as you said, all loves grow from Light’s greatest love.” “But I was so afraid you could not love me, when all the time you did!” she exclaimed. “And I was so sure you loved Mellin – I saw him embrace you-” “When we walked by the little river?” Aila asked, and when he agreed, explained “I was comforting Mellin, Janir. He has a burden – a secret sorrow – that is not mine to tell. Like you, he would not go to my father or Arenel, lest they Perceive it, but he shared it with me. That is all.” “Poor Mellin!” Janir said. “I do not ask his secret, Aila. But if my Sword-Brother is ever in need of my help in this thing, tell me. And do not fear I shall be jealous of your affection for Mellin, my heart. He looked at her with tenderness and said softly. “Aila, Light is merciful. I have been so blessed.”

Someone knocked at the door of the Healing Place. They quickly drew apart, and Janir went to open the door. Aiel was standing there, and he cast a quick glance at Janir’s face and seemed pleased with what he saw. “You see, Janir?” he said, smiling at the Swordsman “I told you it would be well with Aila now.” “It is well with Janir, too” his daughter told him. “He has made his peace with Light, Father.” “I know” the Lightstone-Bearer said.”I can see it in his face.” He drew out the Lightstone and said “Come, Janir.” Unhesitatingly now, Janir came and stood before Aiel while the Priest held out the Lightstone to him. It touched Janir’s brow, and the light poured out of it, spilling over Janir, blessing him. When the Light withdrew it left its glow in Janir’s eyes, and Aila was glad for him. There was the moment’s pause that always seemed to come after the Lightstone had been used, while each mused inwardly on Light. Then Aila asked “Father, where did you go, last night?” “I went to meet a Dancer.” Aiel said. “You know that I felt only they would know how to turn Marla to Light?” “Yes. But how – you could not have gone to the Meeting Place?” “The Dancers are not confined to the Meeting Place” Aiel reminded her”though they rarely leave it. I had sent the Thought-without-Words to Tor-Harat, and he sent back word that a Dancer would meet me – at a certain place – to tell me what we must do.” Janir asked “Then it can be done? Marla can attain Light? Praise Light!” Aiel sighed. “Yes, she can attain Light, but it will be painful and dangerous – for her, for me, perhaps for all of us.” “But you will do it, Father?” Aila asked. Aiel smiled. “Of course!” He paused, then said, “I have been promised aid – and I bear the Lightstone. I know its power to defeat Darkness.”

As they spoke he had been idly playing with a folded garment that hung over his arm. Now he held it out to his daughter. “Here is a fresh gown, Aila. Do you feel well enough to join us?” “Oh yes!” Aila cried”I must be there when you tell Marla! Wait for me, Father.” She slipped into one of the curtained alcoves to change, and could hear Aiel and Janir chatting as they waited for her, though not what they said. She felt remarkably well, despite her ordeal. Light had strengthened her – no doubt through Aiel and the Lightstone – and the joy of Janir’s love for her had swept away the remembered terror of the previous night. Thinking of Janir, Aila wondered, for a brief moment, if she had been rash to agree so soon to be his Lady. Then she smiled to herself. She was quite sure of her own feelings, and his had surely been tested over the years and remained true. She knew she had made a wise choice. Rejoining her father and Janir she found the Healer there too, and submitted quietly to his quick examination. “You were right, my Brother-in-Light” the other Priest told Aiel.”Her spirit is strong in Light.” To Aila he said “You have recovered well. You do not need me to tell you to be careful of yourself for a while. But remember that a Healer does not as easily see the weakness in themselves as in another.” “I have good friends around me who will see, if I do not” Aila told him, holding out a hand each to Aiel and Janir. Her father took her hand for a moment in an affectionate squeeze, then released it, but Janir clasped the hand he held tightly, as if he almost feared that Aila would be lost to him again.”We will go to Marla now.” Aiel said. Janir freed Aila’s hand, and they followed him out of the Healing Place.

Marla was waiting with the others in the Quiet Room. When she saw Aila she flew to embrace her friend, sobbing out “Aila! Oh Aila, I am sorry!” “Marla, dear, hush!” Aila implored her “There is nothing to be sorry for – it was not your doing!” Aila was moved by the way in which they all showed their love for her and their relief that she had recovered from her ordeal. Her brother hugged her, then Zohra embraced her and so did Lin. Mellin not only hugged his cousin, but placed a quick,unexpected kiss on her brow. Aila was touched; Mellin was seldom so demonstrative, and the gesture showed the depth of his brotherly concern for her. Remembering what Janir had said about her closeness to Mellin, she glanced at him, and received a warm, slightly mischievous smile, as if he said “No, I am not jealous, for I know you are mine.” Now Aiel began to explain to them where he had been the previous day. Marla’s whole body was taut with attention as she listened to his words. “The Dancer has told me what must be done. But Marla, it is difficult, and dangerous. The Darkness must be cast from you, body and soul, and your spirit fully awakened to Light.” “How?” Marla breathed the question with eager intensity. “When we come to the Gatehouse, we are to take you to the Prayer Room and separate the Darkness from the seed of Light in you. We must drive out your Dark powers, Marla. Not until we are there will I be told exactly what to do. But only those of us Perception-gifted may be there, and the Lightstone, and …” he paused, and Aila asked excitedly “Will the Dancers help us, Father?” “Not the Dancers, no. They will help us later, with the second part of the Changing, but in this,” and there was a kind of awe in his voice as he went on “they have said that this is not their task, it is beyond their powers. But they said also that “they have sung Marla’s Song in the Courts of Light, between the stars and the Joyous Place” and they were promised aid for her. When the time comes, they will be allowed to summon a Spirit-in-Light to help us.” “A Spirit-in-Light? A Shining One?” Lin exclaimed. “So the Dancer said.” Aiel answered.

Marla repeated, in a trembling voice “A Shining One? One of Light’s great servants will be sent to help me ?” “Yes.” Aiel said. “That is how much Light values you, Marla.” “Oh, Aiel!” she exclaimed, and then for a little while she was gone somewhere inside herself, hugging to herself the precious promise that was proof of Light’s love for her, with a quiet, tender smile on her face. “How beautiful she looks” Aila thought, and noticed Mellin watching Marla too, and knew he was thinking the same thing. When Marla looked at Aiel again, and asked what the Shining One would do, he went on “It will be dangerous, Marla, for all the Darkness in you has been dormant, waiting to be woken and put to use by Si-Mara’s ‘ceremonies’ that would bring your spirit into union with a Dark Lord and set the Dark powers free. But they expected you to go willingly to that, not knowing that you bore the seed of Light in you too, and had determined to choose Light. Once we begin to drive out the Darkness from you, the Dark Lords may attempt to take control of you and regain what they have lost. Oh, they will be defeated, in the end -‘the weakest of Light is stronger than the strongest of Darkness'” he quoted. “But it will be a battle – for your body, soul and spirit, Marla – and you must be ready for it.” “The Changing?” she asked. “That is what the Dancers called it. That will be the worst part, Marla. After that we must take you up to the Meeting Place, for the Dancers to do their part. They will attune your flesh to Light and to Li’is. You know how those who are born of the Darkness of Ma’al find themselves in the Light of Li’is as it were on sufferance. Our air, food, water, even our world itself are alien to them – to you. Have you ever been fully well in your life, Marla? Oh, your body has learned to overcome these things. As a child you were no doubt sickly, but as you grew you learned to live in Li’is more easily. But because you are born of Ma’al you will always be a little weak, a little tired – unless the Dancers change the rhythm of your flesh.”

“The rhythm of my flesh? I do not understand that.” she said. “I do” said Zohra. “Oh, may I explain, Aiel?” When he nodded, she took the harp that went everywhere with her, and said, “Listen, Marla.” Deliberately she slightly loosened one or two strings. “See, now the harp is out of tune” she added, and played a simple tune. The wrong notes jangled, jarring on their ears. Then she retuned the harp and played again, the same tune, and now it was pure and clear. “Did you hear the difference, Marla? ” Zohra asked. “Your body is out of tune with Li’is and jars, like the first time I played. The Dancers will tune your flesh into harmony with Li’is, and then there will be no jarring, as my second playing was smooth and clean.” “Oh, now I see!” Marla exclaimed. “Thank you, Zohra.” Aiel also thanked Zohra for her explanation, then said, “It will take courage and determination, Marla, but those I know you have. Do not doubt that you shall attain Light.” “I do not doubt Light – or you, Aiel!” she replied. He smiled at her, then said “So much has happened, I think it is as well that we attend to everyday things, for a while. I am told that food is served all day in the Eating House, so if you have not breakfasted, you had best go and do so.” Thus dismissed, they began drifting away, either to eat or to attend to other routine tasks. Zohra, though, lingered, packing away her harp, and Arenel, having a vague Perception of something troubling the Westerner, hung back too, and asked “Zohra, are you sure that you have recovered from last night?” For all her courage and spirit, he was thinking, it had still been a frightening experience. She answered “Yes, it is well with me, Arenel.” But he still sensed that faint aura of unhappiness, and said gently “Are you sure, Zohra? I do not mean to Trespass, but I feel that you are troubled.” She looked at him, and said “You do not Trespass, Arenel, and I thank you for your concern.” She hesitated, then, and he asked “What is it, Zohra?” “I am wondering” the Westerner replied, twisting her long slender fingers together as she spoke, “what it is that Light requires of me on this Way of Marla’s? Oh, I do not doubt your father, Arenel” she added hastily, looking up at him through the half-veil of dark hair that fell across her face. “I know that what he said was true, that I do belong on Marla’s Way. Yet I feel so useless! Aila is a Healer – and has Perception too – and you are a Priest, and Lin, Mellin and Janir, Swordsmen. And Aiel – he is the Lightstone-Bearer. But what am I, Arenel? An outlander, and a maiden, with a gift for music that seems out of place here.” She lifted her head and looked at him with serious dark eyes. “Oh, Arenel, I so much want to help Marla, but what can I do?”

“Zohra” Arenel said, reaching out to untangle those tightly twined fingers, ” You have been of help. Already your music has comforted and refreshed us on our journey. And I know it eases Marla.” He paused, looking at her, thinking how deceptively simple was her outward seeming, yet how complex the Westerner really was. ‘She is shy’ he thought ‘but untamed, like a wild thing. She is quiet, but brave as any Swordsman. She speaks as though she were of no account, yet she knows the value of her musical gift. And she is delicate to look at, yet she is strong and rooted in good soil.’ Her fingers felt cold, and he warmed them in his hands as he continued “You know that in Light we are all one, man and woman alike. There is no such thing as an outlander among Light’s people. We all may serve Light, according to the gifting given us. Light does have a purpose in your being here, Zohra, and in your gift of music. We do not yet understand it, but we shall. And you must not call yourself useless, Your gift may not be Perception or Healing or sword-skill, but it does not mean Light cannot use you!” She smiled at him then, and answered “I am sorry, Arenel – I did not mean to question the Will of Light – let Light forgive me.” “It is forgiven” he assured her, and she went on softly, “Maybe it is just that I – that I feel lonely, and lost. Marla’s Way is so important, and I have tried not to be homesick, but I have never left the West before. I am used to the tents of the West, and the freedom of the grasslands, and the skies of the high Plateau – oh, it is my heart’s belonging-place, and the road that takes me away from the West comes hard to me, Arenel.” As Zohra finished speaking, to Arenel’s concern her smile waverd to a trembling of her lips, and tears welled in her eyes. “Zohra!” he exclaimed “We did not realise – why did you not say?” “It – seemed such a little thing, beside Marla’s terrible need” she answered, with a catch in her voice.”Nothing that hurts one of Light’s children is a little thing.” Arenel reassured her. Seeing her distress, he reached out to comfort her, letting her lean against him and cry quietly, speaking soothing words to her.

In the midst of this friendly concern for Zohra, though, Arenel was swept by a sudden and surprising access of tenderness for her, a feeling that actually slammed into him like a physical fist, causing him to gasp aloud with astonishment, though Zohra did not notice it. The feeling broke over him like a wave, leaving his thoughts tumbling in a surf of half-understood emotion and wholly unexpected longing. Arenel had never expected to fall desperately in love with any maiden; knowing his own practical, prosaic and adaptable nature, he had always accepted that love, when and if it came to him, would be a steady outgrowth of friendship, in which companionship and common interests would feature more than passion. To find himself now caught up in this powerful, almost painful love for Zohra, so unexpectedly and against all reason, brought him close to panic. Arenel tried to reason with himself, to believe that what he felt for Zohra was friendship and compassion, nothing more, ‘It is only that we have spent time together among her people, and she has grown to be like a sister to me’ he argued with himself, yet knew, even as he thought it, that what was in his heart for Zohra was nothing like the brotherly affection he had for Aila. And when Zohra had done with weeping, and raised her head from his shoulder to smile faintly at him and thank him for his kindness, he felt again that rush of tenderness and could no longer deny it. ‘I do love her’, he thought, with mingled delight and fear. Another thought, though, quickly sobered him. What chance was there that Zohra might return his love, or ever be his Lady? Bred among the valiant Westerners, she would surely wish to marry one of her own, or at least a Swordsman. Not a Priest, whose vows forbade him weapons. And if she were homesick now for the tents and grasslands of the West, how could she bear to leave them forever to live with him in the City? ‘It is impossible!’ Arenel thought unhappily, but he hid his own sadness and sent Zohra on her way with more words of encouragement.

Now that Aiel had told them what could be done for Marla, he knew they would all be eager to set off for the Gatehouse. However, speaking privately to Lin, he said “I believe we must delay our start for two more days.” “But why?” Lin asked. “Lin, tonight, and tomorrow night, are the nights of the last of the Spring Two-Moon Tides. We must keep Marla safe till they are over. You know that she said it was at the Two-Moon Tide that Si-Mara intended to carry out her Dark ‘ceremonies’. It was not by chance that the attempt on the maidens was made last night.” “But the Dark Ones could not have got them back to the City in time for that.” Lin objected. “The City, no – but the Dark Ruins, Lin…with Tamat acting on Si-Mara’s behalf…” Aiel broke off and shuddered, and Lin gasped “You think they meant to take the maidens to that awful place?” Aiel said, sombrely, “I do. And I am thankful to Light that they did not succeed, that by Light’s mercy Aila was able to alert Arenel and you Swordsmen, and you saved them. ” He sighed, then, and said “It has been hard to conceal from Aila’s Perception what might have happened to them, I had such thoughts of it.” Lin said “After what we experienced there on the Lightstone Way, no wonder in that, Aiel!” For a moment his gaze was distant, his mouth a little twisted, as if with bitter memory, but then he said “Light is merciful, Aiel, and the maidens are safe. And certainly, I see now why we must not set off till the Tides are over.” “Once we are past the Spring Tides, Marla is safe, for as you know, Lin, there will be no more till autumn, and even if Si-Mara succeeds in bringing the new Bloodstone into Li’is, without a Bloodstone-wielder she can do no harm with it. By the autumn ,Marla, by Light’s mercy, will have attained Light and be free of her Dark powers, and so useless to the Children of Night as the Bloodstone-wielder.” Lin said thoughtfully “Marla…she does this as much for Li’is as for herself, Aiel. She has said so often that she dreads being forced to wield the Bloodstone for the curse it would bring on Li’is, as much as she longs to attain Light for herself. She is very courageous.” “She is.” Aiel affirmed. “No wonder Light knew and loved her before ever she was born, and told of her Way in the Secret Word.” He paused, then said, “We will make no mention to the others of the Dark One’s intentions last night, only that to keep Marla safe we will not leave the Faring House till the Two-Moon Tides are over.” “Surely!” Lin agreed. Accordingly, when they gathered again, they explained the delay and the reason for it, and all agreed that it was a sensible precaution. “In any case” said practical Arenel “it will give the maidens more time to recover from their frightening experience.”

Aiel and Lin, being the only ones who had travelled from the Merchant Town to the Gatehouse, conferred together, trying to recall what they could of the journey. On the way to the Gatehouse on the Lightstone Way, they had been overshadowed by the urgency of reaching the Meeting Place before Lak could overcome the Dancers and bring down Darkness into Li’is. In addition, they had been bedevilled by the traps and enchantments which Lak had set. Returning, they had been relieved and triumphant with success, and more aware of their surroundings. Still, it was a long time past. Once they left the Merchant Town there were no more Faring Houses till they came to the Gatehouse itself. They would need to camp, or stay in the small villages that lay between. At least Aiel and Lin had some idea of their route. The makeup of their party, though, which had been a kind of cover in the Merchant Town, might attract attention outside it. Aiel told Lin that he thought the best course, if met by curiosity, would be to say only that they were heading for the Gatehouse, Priests and Swordsmen escorting the maidens for safety. Apart from the Dancers, there were other reasons why travellers might visit the Gatehouse, even if rarely, so their explanation would stand. They went back to considering their plans. Aiel said “When we went astray on the Lightstone Way, the Lightstone helped me to see the right direction, as if I looked at a map. If we are unsure, I will try the Lightstone again, to help us. But we need to decide where to rest on the way.” “There was the little wood, with the strange trees.” Lin remembered.”If we can find it again, there was water, and shelter to camp.” “And the village, where we stayed at the inn, and Krystha tended the sick babe.” Aiel added.

“And the caves…” Lin began, then stopped, remembering how, on the night before reaching the Gatehouse, when they had sheltered in those caves, Aiel had been so troubled, under attack from the dark thoughts and doubts that had assailed him as the Darkness tried to divert him from the Way. Aiel, sensing Lin’s reluctance to remind him of that night, smiled at his friend and said “That was a long and bitter night, Lin, but by the mercy of Light, and the support and prayers of my friends, I came through it, and did not fail Light. And I think it helps me to understand, now, something of Marla’s fears and doubts.” Lin sighed “It was a long night, indeed!” Then he brightened, and said, “But all that is long behind us, my friend!”Aiel nodded, and asked, “Do you think we shall manage, camping in the open, Lin? It grows cooler as we move North, and the nights are still not warm. I am concerned for Marla. she is not strong.” Lin considered, and said “Last time we came this way, Varn advised us to buy extra coverings. Perhaps we should do so again.” “I remember” Aiel answered. “If they can still be got, it would be practical, Lin.” Accordingly, they went to consult the Priest-in-Charge of the Faring House and he told them that yes. that merchant was still trading. Hearing this, they went to find the rest of their party, and Aiel asked Mellin and Janir to go out into the town to make the purchases, and at the same time to listen out for any news of the Children of Night. When they returned, the Swordsmen told Aiel that there were rumours abroad of the attempted abduction and, thankfully, the rescue of some maidens by the Children of Night – though, they said, nobody knew exactly who had been attacked. It had made the people of the Town nervous, however, and watchful of their young women. Janir said “I think that is a good thing, Aiel. With the townspeople on their guard, the Children of Night have likely enough gone into hiding. Certainly no on has seen any suspicious activity recently.” “Though” ,his cousin added, ” in a town as busy as this, it is not possible to know everything that is happening.” “Once we are safely past the Two-Moon-Tides, Marla is in less danger”Aiel reminded them.”It may be that, having failed this time, the Children of Night have retreated to plan new strategies. But we shall not let down our guard.” They spent the rest of the day preparing, in their various ways for the journey ahead, and also ensuring that the girls, as Arenel had said, took time to relax and recover.

The next morning Aila woke very early, excitement welling in her for more than one reason. First, because Aiel had seen the Dancers, and it was certain that Marla could and would be helped to attain Light. Second, because she knew now that Janir loved her as she loved him. And lastly because she and Janir were – however unofficially – betrothed. She slipped quietly out of bed, because the other two girls were still asleep, and went to bathe and dress. When that was done, she went out to the Hall of the Faring House, for her still recovering throat made her thirsty, and she knew that there would be some refreshment left out for guests. She was surprised to find Mellin there too, thoughtfully sipping at a cup of fruit juice. He greeted her with a smile, and poured her a cup. “Another early riser?” he asked. “Janir is up too – I think he has gone to talk to his horse!” Janir’s special relationship with Redhawk was a standing joke between the two Swordsmen cousins. “Aila” Mellin continued, “is it truly well with you? You have been through a terrible experience.” “It is well with me” she assured him. “What I have received from Light more than erases the harm Darkness tried to do me. And is it well with you, dear?” “Much more than it has been” he confessed. “Aiel has brought me hope, Aila. If Marla can attain Light, that is all I wish. It may be that after that, I can teach her to care for me, but now I only want to know that she is free in Light, and safe from Si-Mara and her vile intentions.” “Is that what woke you?” Aila asked. “I am excited for her too. It will be so wonderful when she attains Light, Mellin.” “Of all things, the most wonderful!” he exclaimed. She put down her cup, and told him she would be walking in the grounds of the Faring House. He did not offer to accompany her, and she guessed that he hoped she might encounter Janir, not knowing that things were already settled between them. She wished she might tell her sympathetic cousin so, but she and Janir had vowed to keep their love for each other and their betrothal a secret till Marla’s Way ended successfully. So, though Mellin knew of her secret love for Janir, she could not yet tell him of its happy outcome.

She went to the stables, where, sure enough, on entering, she heard Janir murmuring to Redhawk as he groomed the horse. She had tried to tread quietly, to surprise Janir, so coming closer, she heard what he was saying softly to the beast. “I almost think I have dreamt it…that Aila should love me! After all this time it seems as unlikely as that you, old friend, should sprout wings and carry me above the stars…did I dream it, Redhawk – that I held her in my arms, and she said she would be my Lady?” Aila, moved, and aching with love for him, said almost as softly “No, Janir my heart, it is not a dream.” “Aila!” he exclaimed joyously, turning to meet her, while Redhawk snuffed at her in greeting. They wrapped their arms around each other and kissed, while the patient horse blew softly down his nose, then, realising that his master’s attention was otherwise occupied, began to munch quietly at the fodder in the rack. After a while Janir lifted his head and said ” I was afraid that it might have been a dream, Aila. After yesterday morning there was no time to be alone with you, and I wondered if I had imagined things that were not, in my concern for you.” “I love you” she told him. “Whatever happens, do not doubt that, Janir.” “Nor you my love for you” he said, then, somewhere deep in his throat, “Oh, my sweet, sweet Aila…” He kissed her again, with an ardent longing that startled her into a gasp. As if from very far away, she heard him give a strange little half-groan, and then he released her, and stepped a little way away from her, and gently but very firmly took her by the shoulders and put her away from him. His face was flushed, and his breathing had quickened. “My love” he said “go back now…it is not seemly that we should be here like this…” She smiled at him gently, understanding. “Yes, Janir. I am sorry, my heart. I did not mean…” She paused, not wanting to embarrass him, and said, lightly changing the subject, “Breakfast will be ready soon. I will see you in the Eating House, in a little while.” She kissed her fingers to him, and left the stables, feeling a strange warmth in her. Her love was a man of ardour, as well as honour, she thought, and though she would be careful now not to tempt him unduly, she was glad that, when the right time came, he could want her so. “When Marla has attained Light” she thought to herself ” and we are married” – for she had no doubt that Aiel and Arentha would gladly accept Janir as her betrothed – “then I can belong to him, and I will make him so happy!”

Once she had composed herself, Aila returned to the Faring House and the room she had shared with the other girls, and found them awake and prepared for the day. Aila asked “Is it well with you both?” and Marla answered “oh, yes! I own I was a little afraid to go to the Bathing Place, after…” she paused, then went on “But Zohra came with me, and she is so brave”, and she smiled at the Westerner , “that she gave me courage.” Zohra said “Not so brave, Marla, but I felt safe knowing that Aiel was back with us.” Marla said “Aiel – he has given me such hope! To think that Light has promised me the help of a Shining One – I truly believe I shall attain Light, now!” “Of course you will!”Zohra said, stoutly, and Aila echoed her, and gave Marla a quick hug. The three girls made their way to the Eating House and found the men there, waiting for them. Aila cast a quick glance at Janir, who caught the look, and gave her a brief smile to show that all was well with him. As they ate, Aiel told them that he had sought Light’s aid through the Lightstone for their route, as he had told Lin he would, and was now surer of their way. They could follow the usual, if little used, route to the Gatehouse, not having the constraints of Aiel’s previous journey to hinder them, though, he warned, they must still be wary of pursuit, and watchful. “Though the danger to Marla of Si-Mara’s dark ‘ceremonies’ is over, once the Two-Moon-Tides are past” he added, not wanting to alarm the girl. “One more night here, and then we can be on our way to the Gatehouse.”

Published by afaithbasedfantasytrilogy

I'm first and foremost a Christian. I'm also a widow, mother of 5, grandmother of 9, and a retired school librarian.

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