The threatening Tides were over now, and they could leave for the Gatehouse. They mounted for the journey, Aiel and Arenel going first, Perceptions extended for any hint of Darkness, and the three Swordsmen last, the girls well-guarded in between. They bade farewell to the Priests of the Faring House and rode down the main street of the Merchant Town to its gates, and out into the country beyond, heading North. For some time they rode through farmlands, and the tracks were well-marked and easy. After a while, though, the farmlands gave way to wild grassland, rough and windy, and cooler than they were used to in their own lands. Aiel remembered that it was after this point in their journey on the Lightstone Way that they had been misdirected by Lak’s enchantment which had tried to lead them into a deadly bog. He was very careful, now, to follow the right path. The ground rose slowly and steadily and there were few landmarks but, guided by the Lightstone, Aiel was sure of the way, and there were signs that others, though not many, had also travelled this route. They came to a small hill, which Aiel and Lin recognised as a place where they had paused to eat on the Lightstone Way. That had been a hurried halt, under pressure of the urgent need to reach the Gatehouse before Lak could harm the Dancers. Now they took a more leisurely meal, then remounted, the two Way-Sharers knowing they were heading for the little wood where they could shelter for the night. All seemed well with them thus far, for neither those with Perception, nor Marla with her ‘Dark Perception’, felt any sense of Darkness or danger. At last they reached the wood, with its strange trees and spring of water. Those who had not seen it before remarked on the strangeness of it, and Aiel told them about the refreshingly scented leaves, which they tried for themselves, and agreed how pleasant the perfume was. With no spies of Darkness near they were able to gather stones and make a rough hearth for a small fire to warm them.
Aiel told them “Tomorrow we should be able to stay in a village.” but they were all growing accustomed to making camp now and it was no hardship. Though there seemed to be little danger, the three Swordsmen still said they would take turns on watch that night. There was no disturbance in the night, though, and with the fire, and warmly wrapped, they all slept well. When they set out again next morning, Aiel knew that soon they would need to ride through the defile where the Children of Night had attacked the four Way-Sharers on the Lightstone Way. Wondering if it might still be a place of danger, he again sent out his Perception, but found no Darkness near. He was also reassured by knowing that he was not the only one, this time, who was able to Perceive Darkness and danger. He felt a sense of nervousness from Lin, too; no doubt his memories of that time were also stirring. He turned in the saddle to reassure the Swordsman “It is well, Lin. I Perceive no Darkness there this time.” They rode through the defile in silence, for though there was no danger of attack, there still might be an earth or rock fall. Nothing happened, though, to trouble them and they emerged safely on the other side. The fall that had blocked the defile behind them on the Lightstone Way had been cleared many years since, and there was no hindrance to their passage. They could see, far and misty in the distance, the mountains where the Meeting Place and the Gatehouse were, but knew they were still a fair way from them. They could, as Aiel had said, spend the night in the village where he and Lin had stayed before, though it would mean a slight detour from their route. From there they knew it was about a two days’ ride to the Gatehouse, if they travelled at a normal pace, and not with the urgent speed of the Lightstone Way. As long as they were not threatened or pursued, there was no need to make such haste, and Aiel, knowing what lay ahead for Marla, was unwilling to use up her strength in travelling at speed.
Accordingly, they turned towards the village, riding up the ridge that overlooked the valley where Lak’s illusory Dark Warriors had been set to try to turn them from the Lightstone Way, years before. Now, though, it was quiet and peaceful, and they crossed it and rode up the next ridge. They rode at an easy pace, chatting quietly from time to time, and Aila was glad to see that Marla seemed relaxed and comfortable. With a couple of breaks for refreshment, the day passed and they reached the village and rode towards the inn where Aiel and Lin had stayed before. The inn had a new innkeeper, a younger man, but just as hospitable. He was glad to provide food and lodgings for the night, and welcomed them in a friendly manner. The fact that Aiel, Arenel and Aila were so obviously a family, and Lin, Mellin and Janir also evidently kin, made them less conspicuous than Aiel had feared, as they were taken for a group of family and friends. Even Zohra’s presence, Aiel thought, might be easily explained by the tokens of the West that Janir bore, for she might be taken for his sweetheart, in view of those. If there were any among the villagers present who might have seen Aiel and Lin on their previous visit, they must have long forgotten, for no one claimed acquaintance with them. They spent a pleasant evening and restful night at the inn, and even Marla ate a good breakfast. The horses were brought, and they paid and thanked the innkeeper and set off again. Aiel told them “Only two days’ ride now, to the Gatehouse.” then he smiled at Marla and added “And then we shall free Marla from Darkness!” Marla smiled back and said, joyfully, “And I shall attain Light!”
It was a thought that encouraged them all, knowing they were nearing the end of Marla’s Way and, so far, after the failed attempt of the Children of Night to recapture her, and the other girls with her, there had been no more signs of danger. They still kept alert, though, knowing how cunning the Dark Ones could be. With this in mind Aiel, realising that on the Lightstone Way they had travelled faster, asked Lin, when they paused to rest and eat, “Do you think we can reach the caves today? We made haste last time, and travel more slowly now. Yet I would rather make camp there, than risk the open country.” Lin replied “If we go a little faster, and travel for longer, we should. It may be late when we reach them, but we can leave later tomorrow. It will not be so far from there to the Gatehouse.” Taking Lin’s advice, Aiel said to the others “If we are to reach the caves, we shall need to go faster, and travel longer, but they are safe, where open country may not be. Do you all feel able to make the journey? Marla?” Marla thought for a moment, then said, “I think I am well enough used to riding now, Aiel. And the hope of attaining Light sustains me. It will be well with me.” The others too agreed to press on, so the decision was made. Even so, Aiel said quietly to Lin as they remounted “The caves are our last stop before the Gatehouse, and the last chance for the Children of Night to come against us. We must take care.” “You think they might try to surprise us among the caves?” Lin asked. “I do not know. I have sensed no Darkness near. It seems unlikely, but we must still keep guard.” “We will” Lin promised “as we have before. Marla’s Way draws too near to a successful end to let it fail now.”
Though they were riding faster, dusk and then nightfall still overtook them before they reached the caves at the top of the steep rise. Aiel had taken out the Lightstone and let it lie gleaming on his breast to encourage them in the darkness, but it was still with great relief that they reached the shelter of the caves. They busied themselves tethering their mounts, preparing a fire, sleeping places, and food, then seated themselves round the fire to eat. Mellin, catching a sombre look on Lin’s face, asked “Father, what is it? Does something here worry you?” Aiel looked up and his Perception caught, for a moment, Lin’s remembrance of past concerns. He said “Mellin, the night we Way-Sharers spent here was a dark one, and I think your father is remembering it.” He smiled, then, at Lin , and said “True Sword of the Lightstone Way, he had such concern for me.” Lin said, gruffly, “Aye”, and that was all, but now the younger ones were curious. So Aiel explained “It was the night before we reached the Gatehouse, the last night before I must do battle with Lak for the Dancers, and prevent him overcoming them with his Dark music and bringing the Darkness down into Li’is. I was very burdened, for the Dark powers attacked me – no, not physically, but in my mind and spirit and Perception. I had to fight, and Lin’s sword could not help me in this, for there was no physical enemy.” He looked again at his friend, with deep affection, and went on, “And he felt it keenly – Arentha and Krystha too, but Lin was sworn to protect me and I know it hurt him that he could not. Yet he and Arentha and Krystha went to prayer for me, and that was the weapon that helped me. Lin, do not concern yourself with the ghosts of old hurts, for when the time came for physical action, you did protect me, and almost lost your own life to do it!”
Now Lin smiled back, and said “Still, it was a hard thing to see you suffer like that, Aiel. But you are right, all is long over and done and it is well.” Marla said, tremulously, “Yet despite all that, you are willing to help me, Aiel?” The Lightstone-Bearer said gently “Marla, I think it is because of that, that I have some understanding of how you feel, under threat from Darkness. And your Way is also part of the Lightstone Way that we are sworn to.” Aila, wanting to lighten the mood, said “Marla, tomorrow we shall learn what is to be done to free you from Darkness. Is that not wonderful?” “Yes!” the other girl said, and they began to discuss the possibilities, and the promises of Light to Marla, sweeping away any unhappy memories. It was not long, though, before they slept, tired with the long ride and late night. They slept late after their journey, but there was no urgency, and no sense of Darkness near, and they could take their time. It was late morning before they had eaten, and done all that had to be done, and were on the move again. The sun was shining, and the fresh Northern lands were pleasant, in their own way. The faint track leading towards the Gatehouse showed them the way, and they chatted quietly and companionably as they rode. They could see the mountains growing nearer, and Mellin, remembering their conversation about the sea-cats, said “I wonder if it will ever be permitted, to cross those mountains?” “It is in the Will of Light” Arenel answered his cousin. “One day, maybe, if Light’s purposes require it.” At last they came to the wide green dale which lay below the mountains. Across it they could see the Gatehouse, at the foor of the Dancers’ Mountain, which was split by the funnel in the rock face that ended in the Meeting Place. Aiel sent out his Perception to greet the Gatekeeper, and Tor-Harat replied that he would be waiting for them.
All of them now were filled in varying degrees with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation as they approached the Gatehouse and the Meeting Place. This was the climax of Marla’s Way, and the next day or so would see them undertake the measures necessary to free Marla forever from her Dark heritage and the threat that hung over her so that she could become what she longed for most of all, a Child of Light. Aiel was wondering, since Lin had been so moved for a while by the shadow of past trials, what the Swordsman might feel on his return to the place where he had fought so hard for his life after being wounded saving Aiel from Soom’s attack. His friend and Way-Sharer, though, seemed intent only on bringing Marla safely to the Gatehouse, and Aiel heard him encouraging the girl, and smiled with satisfaction that Lin was back to his normal spirits. After crossing the dale they were soon riding up to the Gatehouse, and Tor-Harat and Lady Benika were at the door to meet them, both older, but very familiar to Aiel and Lin. “Aiel, Lightstone-Bearer, welcome!” Tor-Harat called as they drew near. “It is good to see you again.” As they dismounted, Lady Benika asked “Arentha and Krystha are not with you?” “Not this time. Krystha is bearing a child, and Arentha has stayed with her.” Aiel replied, then smiled, and said “But here are our families, Lady Benika. My son and daughter, Arenel and Aila, and Lin’s son Mellin and nephew Janir.” The kindly Healer welcomed them, and Tor-Harat said “And you have a Westerner with you! Welcome, maiden. We rarely see any of the Ketai here.” “Zohra, the granddaughter of the Ket” Aiel explained. “She is our ‘melody’ on this way, as Aila is our ‘healing’.” Then this maiden is Marla?” the Gatekeeper asked, turning towards her with a welcoming smile. “Aiel has told us something of your story, child. We are glad to help you.” “Thank you, Gatekeeper.” Marla answered.
They went inside the Gatehouse, the younger ones looking round them at the building that was so well known to Aiel and Lin. Aiel asked the Gatekeeper “Have the Dancers told you what is to happen here, Tor-Harat?” The Gatekeeper said “They have, Aiel. It seems we must expect an awesome visitor.” Aiel commented “It is a measure of Light’s love for Marla. She does not seek Light only for herself, Tor-Harat. She is determined that she will never let the Children of Night force her to become the Bloodstone-wielder and a curse upon Li’is. Her Way is also the Way of the Secret Word.” The Gatekeeper answered “The Dancers too have said they have respect for her. She is a true Child of Light at heart, Aiel, for all that she has not yet attained Light.” “I will need to go to the Meeting Place” Aiel told him. “The Dancers will give me the final instructions for Marla’s Changing.” “Then I will come with you, so I know how to prepare the House.” Tor-Harat promised. Meanwhile Lady Benika had led the others into the Hall and had drinks brought to refresh them after their ride. It was now late afternoon, and would be dusk soon, so Aiel and Tor-Harat came into the Hall and told the rest of the party to rest, while they went to the Dancers. After they had gone, the others began to wonder what the Dancers would tell them. “Do you think it will be soon?” Marla asked excitedly. Aila considered, and said “Light will not keep you in Darkness, Marla, but it is late in the day now. I think you will need to rest before we begin the Changing. Tomorrow, I am sure!” Arenel agreed “Aila is right, Marla. There will be preparations to be made, and as she said, we have had a long journey here and you need to rest. Light has a time for everything, and your Changing will have its proper time.” Lady Benika came back into the Hall and said she would show them their rooms, and then have a meal prepared for them when Aiel returned. Aila told the other Healer, quietly, that she doubted any of them could eat much, being so full of nervous anticipation, and Lady Benika agreed, but said “You know you should try to persuade Marla to eat, Aila, she will have need of strength for the Changing.”
It seemed a long time before Aiel and Tor-Harat came back from the Meeting Place, and all of them were eager to know what they had been told, but Aiel kept his counsel. “Tomorrow” he told them “I will tell you all what you need to know. We must abide by Light’s timing, which is perfect.” “But it will be tomorrow?” begged Marla, and he said “Yes, Marla, it will be tomorrow. But not till evening. And meanwhile you must gather what strength you may, child. It will be a battle for you.” “I will try” she answered. She looked relieved, and Aila guessed that having a time set for her Changing, whatever battles might lie ahead for her, meant everything to Marla. Mellin, though, looked troubled, for the idea of Marla having to do battle worried him. When the meal was served, Marla did try to eat, encouraged by Aila and Zohra, but managed very little, and none of them had much appetite. Aila noticed that Mellin too ate very little, and felt compassion for her cousin, knowing his secret love for Marla made him vulnerable to every threat to her. After the meal Zohra, sensing the currents of varying emotions among them, slipped away and returned with her harp. Then she seated herself, and began to play and sing. The melody was unfamiliar to Aila and she wondered if it were one of Zohra’s own compositions, but it was gently uplifting and soothing, and they began to relax. Tor-Harat and Lady Benika came to listen too, drawn by the music, and when the piece ended the Gatekeeper said quietly to Aiel “No wonder you chose Zohra for melody, she has a true gift.” “It was Light chose her for the Way, and gifted her with music.” Aiel told him. Zohra went on playing for them, and the music had a calming effect. Arenel, watching the Westerner as she lost herself in her own world of melody, was unable to hold back his feelings of love for her, even though he had decided it was useless to love her, believing she would never return his love. However hard he tried to push his feelings away, they insisted on returning. Despite the soothing music, though, none of them slept easily when they retired. There was too much to imagine, too much at stake, and all of them slept fitfully, even Aiel, wondering what the next evening would bring.
It was a relief when morning came, though the day stretched ahead of them and it seemed evening would never come. The day was bright and fair, and Lady Benika suggested that they walk in the Gatehouse Gardens to pass some of the time. Aiel and Lin were busy in consultation with Tor-Harat, but the younger ones went out into the Gardens. The three girls walked together and Aila and Zohra tried to distract Marla by drawing her attention to the beauties of the Gardens. Arenel and the two young Swordsmen followed behind them, alert for any danger even here. Aila was aware of Arenel’s Perception, of Janir’s beloved presence, of Mellin’s concern. They all tried to behave as though it were a normal day, but they all knew it was not. Aila wondered again about the Spirit-in-Light that had been promised, to aid Marla’s Changing, but could not begin to imagine what would happen that evening. She felt at once excited and afraid, and knew the others must feel the same. Eventually they turned back towards the Gatehouse, all of them feeling unable to continue simply passing time, and hoping that by now Aiel would be able to tell them more about Marla’s Changing. Coming back into the Gatehouse, they found preparations underway for the midday meal, and Lady Benika told them that Aiel, Lin and Tor-Harat were making some preparations in the Prayer Room, but would rejoin them shortly. For the rest of the day, she said, the Prayer Room was not to be used. “Marla, if you can, you should eat and rest before this evening” the Healer told her, “but I know it will not be easy for you.” Shortly before the midday meal was served, Gatekeeper, Lightstone-Bearer and Swordsman came back to them. They looked grimly satisfied. Aiel said “We are almost prepared now. Try to eat, all of you. We will need strength for what is to come.” Once again they took a meal that most of them had difficulty managing, though in view of Aiel’s words they tried to eat. Marla, though, despite Aila’s encouragement, could eat very little, and her friend thought it was no wonder, when she herself could barely eat with the prospect of the night ahead. When they had done their best with the meal, Aiel said “Now it is time to begin. First, Light’s strengthening.” He moved round the table, laying the Lightstone to each one’s brow in turn, except for Marla, who still could not receive the Lightstone’s blessing. After that he said “Now come here, all of you, and I will tell you what must be done, and your part in it.”
They gathered round the Lightstone-Bearer to hear his words, all of them hushed and full of anticipation. Aiel said “Tonight, as night falls, we shall begin Marla’s Changing. Arenel and Aila and I will take you to the Prayer Room, Marla. Remember what we are promised! We shall have the aid of a Spirit-in-Light” he paused a moment, as if awed anew by the thought, then went on “and with that aid, and the Lightstone, the Darkness will be cast out of your soul, and your spirit will waken in Light. Then at dawn we will go to the Dancers on the Meeting Place and they will change the rhythm of your body, from flesh of Ma’al to flesh of Li’is. That was the word the Dancers brought me.” Marla asked “Aiel – if I were to die in the Changing, would I still attain Light?” There was no fear in her voice, and Aiel took and held her hand, answering “I have not asked that, Marla. But I believe you would, because you would be giving yourself for Light.” He looked round at the others, and went on “Lin, Mellin, Janir, you must guard the Prayer Room while we are there. Nobody must enter, not even the Gatekeeper himself. Do you understand?” The three Swordsmen nodded, and Lin, speaking for them all, said “We understand. “Zohra” Aiel said “I am sorry that there is nothing for you to do. But you are to come with us to the Meeting Place. The Dancers said so, and Marla may need you as well as Aila there. And you can pray to Light for us, this night.” “I will!” Zohra assured him, her dark eyes very solemn. “Aila” Aiel turned to his daughter “The Dancers said there would be physical effects from the soul-cleansing. You should bring your herb-sack with you.” “I will go to the Healing Place” Aila said “and fetch what I may need.” “That is all” Aiel said . “It is a few hours yet, to nightfall. It is best that we try to rest our spirits and seek Light, in whatever way we may.” Seeing that they were dismissed, Aila headed for the Healing Place to gather what she might need to help Marla. As she went out of the door, she heard Mellin call after her, and waited for her cousin. She did not need to ask why he had called her, but said gently “Come with me to the Healing Place, Mellin.” He followed her in silence, and when they entered the long, double room with its benches and couches, she was thankful to see it was empty. Aila fastened the door behind them and turned to her distressed cousin. “Mellin?”
“Oh Aila, I am so afraid for her! Is it really possible that she might – she might die?” “My dear, I do not know! Who knows the ways of Light? I believe that Aiel my father is right and that whatever happens to her body, her spirit will attain Light. If she lives, she lives in Light, and if she should…die, then she will be in the Joyous Place, in the Presence of Light.” Mellin said, very softly, so that she could hardly hear him “If she dies – then I think I will want to die too.” “Mellin, Light is merciful, and knows how you love her. But if – if – it should be the will of Light that she lives no longer in Li’is, can you not still trust?” “I want to trust! I do not wish to betray Light! But to have her taken from me, never even to know that I loved her – oh, Aila!” Aila, Perceiving his deep distress, knew what her cousin was going through. She said “Did I not tell you to come to me, when the pain grew hard to bear, and we would carry it to Light together? Come, Mellin, let us seek Light.” Her cousin’s grey eyes surrendered to her Perception, and she helped him lift his fears and needs to Light, being honest about his lack of trust, seeking a deepening and strengthening of his reliance on Light. And Mellin’s honesty, his admission of his needs, was answered, she knew. Mellin received the mercy of Light, the love and reassurance, that he needed, but also, within himself, a growth in Light. As though it were a seed, rooted in need, watered with tears, but nourished by Light, a stronger faith grew in him. Withdrawing her Perception, Aila folded her cousin in a comforting embrace and said “You see, Mellin? There is no need for fear. Whatever happens will be Light’s best for Marla – and for you.” “I know” he said “Oh, thank you, Aila!” There was a soft knock on the door of the Healing Place, and Mellin opened it. It was Janir, and he glanced at Mellin’s face, which was still a little strained, and asked, with concern, “Is it well with you, Sword-Brother?” Mellin smiled at his kinsman. “Yes, Janir it is well with me – now.” To Aila he said “Thank you again for your help, Aila.” and was gone before Janir could question him further. Janir turned an enquiring face to Aila. “He has been unhappy about – something.” she said. “But we have laid it before Light, and he feels better now.”
Janir closed the door and reached for her hand. “I too am unhappy, Aila” he said, and there was a shadow in his eyes.”Will it be safe for you, this Changing? You have Perception, but you are not of the Priesthood – you do not have their skills. To be part of such a task – might it not harm you?” “Janir, my love, can you not trust me to Light?” He frowned, but at himself, not her. “I should, I know I should! Did not Light save your life before? Yet I cannot help but be fearful, my heart. There is nothing save Light that is more precious to me than you.” What was it, she wondered, about human love that made it, though a gift of Light, still able to become a barrier to trust, to faith in Light? She had said to Janir “Love me, but not more than Light.” Yet she knew that if he had been in danger she would probably have felt the same as he did about her. His need was the same as Mellin’s, and the answer was the same. To Janir too she offered her Perception and helped him lay his fear before Light and receive forgiveness and assurance. This time, though, it was Janir who embraced her, murmuring “Praise Light!” before kissing her tenderly. Sweet as it was to be with him, though, she had other, more vital tasks, and she sent him away, in peace, and went on with her work, What kind of reaction might come upon Marla? Aila gathered stimulants in case of faintness, calming draughts in case of hysteria, herbs that would deal with nausea, cramps, muscle spasms and other physical symptoms, salves for wounds or bruises, strips of cloth for bandaging. She had no idea what to expect, and prayed that she would be equal to her task.
Arenel, too was nervous. He was concerned for Marla, and anxious, in a different way, for Aila, and he felt that it was almost a betrayal of his sister that he felt glad – very glad – that for Zohra there was no task to perform, no danger. He tucked that thought away very carefully into the recesses of his mind, into the depths where no other’s Perception would Trespass. The young Priest, like his sister, hoped that he would be equal to his part in this, and sought Light for sustaining. Lin, when his son and nephew returned, had taken them to examine the corridors and passages leading to the Prayer Room, to find the best defensive positions. Zohra was helping Marla by doing what she did best. Settling the other girl in a comfortable chair, the Westerner had seated herself on a stool by Marla’s feet and taken up her harp. Then she began to sing and to play, beginning with vibrant, joyful praise-songs and running through a progression of ever quieter, more peaceful music, until she was playing one sweet, flowing, gentle harmony, full of peace and quiet joy, flowing on and on like a rippling stream. Marla leaned back in her chair listening, soothed by the lovely sound. Aiel was in the Prayer Room, making the preparations that had been outlined to him by the Dancers, wondering and wondering about the promised Spirit-in-Light. Once before he had felt the presence of a Shining One, when he had become entrapped in the evil mind of the Black Piper, a consciousness that was more than man. the awful symbiosis of man at his most evil, and the Dark spirit that governed the man. Unable to escape, his Perception had almost been swallowed up, when that bright presence had come to him from Light and torn him free. Amid the horror and fear surrounding him he had felt the awesome power of that mighty helper. And yet, he reminded himself, the Spirit-in-Light was, like himself, only a creation and servant of Light.
Thus, in their various ways, each of them made preparations for Marla’s Changing, and as it drew near to sunset, they reassembled. “Now it begins!” Aiel announced. “You are all ready?” and when they signed assent, he asked gently “Marla, how is it with you?” “I am afraid, of course I am. But if I shall attain Light whatever happens, then that does not matter!” the girl declared. As they entered the Prayer Room, Aila and Arenel looked round to see what preparations Aiel had been making. Their father had called them first to the room, bidding Marla wait with Zohra until they had prayed and made spiritual preparation, but Aiel’s children saw that the room was physically ready. All the benches in the place had been pushed back to the walls, clearing a large space in front of the crucible. Spread across this area was the thick wall-hanging which usually hung behind the Crucible, and it was piled with cushions at one end. To one side stood a long table with wooden Healer’s cups, pitchers of milk and clear spring water, a small bowl for herb preparation. Aila set out the contents of her herb-sack on this table and saw that beneath it stood a large pottery bowl and a basket of soft cloths. What was it that her father had prepared for? “Aila, Arenel” Aiel summoned them, and they joined him before the Crucible. Swiftly they wove the chain of the Thought-without-Words, linking their Perceptions. Then they went to prayer. Aiel lifted them, lifted Marla, to the mercy of Light. He made the Cleansing Prayers, and the Prayer for Protection, drawing them and Marla, all their company and all they did, under the covering of the Sacrifice of Light. When all was done, Aiel smiled reassuringly at Aila and Arenel, and told his daughter “Aila, bring Marla now.” Aila was grateful for Zohra, who had stayed at Marla’s side, playing her calming music, comforting her, encouraging her, and now, as Aila led the other girl away to the Prayer Room, called after them “Light be with you, Marla dear – and with you, Aila! I shall not cease praying for you.”
As they entered the Prayer Room, Marla’s eyes flashed round, taking in all the strangeness of Aiel’s preparations for the Changing. Then they settled, questioning but full of trust, on Aiel’s face. Aiel smiled at her with tender encouragement, and asked “Ready, Marla?” “Oh, yes!” she exclaimed. He drew out the Lightstone and held it in his cupped hands, concentrating on its soft glow. Through their linked Perceptions, his children heard him call to the Dancers. They waited expectantly. Scarcely a second passed before a shimmer in the air revealed the presence of a Dancer, and the tall blue-green flame appeared, barely fitting under the domed roof of the Prayer Room. At any other time Aila and Arenel would have been overwhelmed with wonder at this happening, but now they were too tense with anticipation of what lay before them. Marla stared up at the Dancer, but her face showed no emotion. The light-being’s blue-green gleam reflected in her green-and-silver eyes, giving them a strange glow. Aiel said “Dancer, we are ready to begin. Summon the Shining One.” The Dancer blinked out in an instant, and they waited, nerves taut-strung, wondering what form their awesome visitor would take. There was a shimmer in the air, as though the Dancer had returned, but it grew to a blazing light, brighter even than the Lightstone at its fiercest, so that they covered their eyes, cowering. Then suddenly the light was gone, and a very gentle voice said “Children of Light, do not be afraid.” Timidly, Aila and Arenel opened their eyes. When the after-dazzle had faded from their sight, they saw that the voice had come from a figure standing by the Crucible, where the blaze of light had been. It appeared to be the figure of a young man, dressed in dazzling white. His face was noble and beautiful, his eyes burned like molten gold, and he was still with a stillness that was pure peace. Even the air about him seemed cleaner and fresher, as though his presence burned out all uncleanness in it. They were rapt with awe and wonder, but Marla fell to her knees, then prostrate on the floor, weeping.
“Marla” came the gentle voice again “do not be afraid. And do not bow to me. I am a created being like yourself, though this body is only a garment I wear to make me visible to you. Light has sent me to help you.” Encouraged by the kindly words, Marla raised her head, and Aila went to her friend and helped her to her feet. Aiel, his gaze fixed on the Spirit-in-Light, asked “What are we to do for Marla, Shining One?” “Aiel, with my aid and the Lightstone’s you will set your Perception on Marla and we shall drive out the Darkness that is hidden in her. But the Darkness will fight, and may manifest itself physically, trying to harm Marla’s body. Aila, you are the Healer, and it is your task to deal with Marla’s physical needs. Arenel, you must help Aila. She has not all the Disciplines of the Priesthood, as you have. Keep the link with her, and lead her in the Quieting Prayers as she works with Marla. But the link with Aiel you both must break, for only the Lightstone-Bearer – and then with my aid – can step into Marla’s mind while the Darkness is still in her. And Marla, again I say, do not be afraid. Your part is to open yourself to the Will of Light, and reject the Darkness from you. I tell you that you are beloved of Light, because you seek Light with all of your being. Light will not reject you – you shall attain Light. But it will be a very painful thing, to drive the Darkness from you. You must have courage, child.” But Marla’s face had lit with joy at the Shining One’s promise, and she exclaimed “What is pain – even death – if Light loves me, and will accept me? Oh, I would give up anything for that!” Surely the Shining One’s face, a mere dress of flesh-like appearance, could not show emotion? Yet the bright being seemed visibly moved, and even folded the pale girl in a paternally tender embrace, saying, “Yes, you are Light’s beloved and you shall be Light’s child.” Aila’s eyes stung with tears of joy for her friend. “Light is merciful!” she murmured. “You understand that it will still be hard to free you of Darkness?” the Spirit-in-Light asked Marla. “The seed of Light that was set in your spirit before you were born has kept you this far, but the Darkness that was also born in you still lurks there, waiting. It must be rejected by you, and cast out, so that Light may enter fully. It will be as though you struggled to birth something, Marla – but it is your own true self, in Light, that you will be birthing.” “I understand” said Marla, pale and calm. “When may we begin, Shining One?” “Now.” he told her. “Aiel, break the link with Aila and Arenel, and look into the Lightstone.”
Aiel’s children felt his Perception withdraw from the Thought-without-Words, while they stayed linked through it. They watched as once more he cupped the Lightstone in his hands and gazed into it. The Shining One turned to face Aiel. The Lightstone blazed. Marla reached out a hand towards Aila, who took it. Arenel took the girl’s other hand, wanting to help, to comfort, too. The Shining One seemed to step forward, through the blaze of the Lightstone and, somehow, through Aiel too – and vanished! Marla gave a little cry of alarm, but Aila squeezed her hand and said “It is well, Marla.” And then Aiel raised his head and there was such a holy peace in his face that they knew that in some amazing way his Perception was linked with the very thought of the Shining One, that somehow the Spirit-in-Light had actually entered into Aiel’s Perception. Marla took one look at the Lightstone-Bearer’s transformed face and said “Yes, it is well, Aila! No Darkness in me can harm him now.” The girl stepped forward to stand in front of Aiel, and tipped up her face, eyes confidently lifted to his, surrendering to his awesomely enhanced Perception. Aiel let the Lightstone fall onto his chest and took Marla’s face between his hands, setting his Perception on her. The movements, the Perceiving, were so familiar to Aila and Arenel, and yet somehow it seemed as though they had never seen Perception used before. For a while there was silence, and Marla seemed quiet, receptive, under Aiel’s Perception. Aila began to hope that, after all, Marla’s determination, Aiel’s Perception through the Lightstone ,and the Shining One’s powers had combined in a force too strong for any Darkness to fight against. However, soon they saw a change in Marla. Her body, which had been relaxed, stiffened visibly. Her lips drew back, her head rolled from side to side, a strange hissing sound escaped her lips. Aiel seemed unperturbed, though it seemed as though his concentration deepened.
Suddenly Marla screamed, a horrible, high-pitched shriek. Then she was down, rolling on the pile of cushions, her body arching and twisting. Arenel’s thought stabbed into Aila’s Perception. “Is it a fit?” “No” she answered, as silently, “Or not a natural one!” Aila hurried to kneel by Marla. Aiel spoke out, his voice deep, his word incomprehensible, for again he was speaking in the strange, unknown tongue he had used against Si-Mara’s enchantment in the Fortress. Marla shrieked and convulsed again as Aiel’s commanding voice went on. There was one final paroxysm before Aiel stopped speaking and Marla slumped limp and trembling across Aila’s lap. “Aila, give her a draught” Aiel ordered, and Aila hurried to obey. “Oh, Father, is it over?” she asked, as she supported Marla while the girl drank the reviving draught. Aiel said, a little sadly, Aila thought, “Not yet.” Then, to Marla, “There is more to endure yet, child. Can you bear it?” “For Light, anything!” the girl exclaimed. “Oh, but it felt as though something was ripped out of my soul by the roots, Aiel!” “It was!” he told her. “We have rid you of part of the Darkness, Marla, but there is more.” “Then go on!” she told him, and lifted her face to his again. The Prayer Room seemed very still, the Crucible flame never wavering, as Aiel bent his head and set his Perception on Marla once more. His Priest’s eyes glowed more vividly than Aila or Arenel had ever seen them. Aila moved closer, ready to help at any sign of distress in Marla. The stillness in the room grew stronger, seeming oppressive, like the dead calm before a summer storm. Arenel glanced at Aila, and he felt his shared thought “Aila, be careful! This is not-” and then, quicker even than his Perception could reach hers, a sudden Darkness swelled in the room. Aila felt a momentary surge of fear, then Arenel’s mind was with hers again. “Aila, do not fear it. It will feed on your fear. Come now, the Quieting Prayers! Follow me…”
Aila did not know that she was murmuring aloud as she spoke the words of the Quieting Prayers after her brother, but as she lifted her fears to Light, she felt them fade and die as Light strengthened her. The threatening Darkness was not interested in her, though, nor Arenel. It was Aiel that the thing confonted, solidifying now into a form he knew well, a tall, pale, black-haired, black-clad man with eyes of burning green. It was Lak, the Black Piper, his old enemy – though whether it were Lak himself, whom Aiel had thought long dead, or the Lord of Darkness with whom Lak had shared his body, taking the convenient form of its vassal, Aiel did not know. Marla, the link with Aiel’s Perception broken by the intrusion, gasped, “Oh, what -who-is it, Aiel?” Aiel, eyes fixed on the Dark thing, not in fear, but in defiance, answered her “I do not know what it is, Marla, but it takes the form of Lak, the Black Piper.” Marla’s eyes widened, and though she pressed the back of her fist into her mouth to stifle it, a strange, whimpering moan escaped her lips. Lak – if it were him- spoke. It was an eerie, chilling voice which seemed somehow to echo in the quiet room, sibilant and threatening. “This is my seed. It is mine!” Marla shuddered with fear as the Dark One made its claim on her. Aila drew nearer and put one arm protectively around the other girl. Aiel said, firmly, “Marla has a spirit and a soul of her own. They are not yours. She wishes to follow Light.” Lak’s face contorted with anger. “This body is mine. I will take it!” Then Aiel knew for sure that this was not the man Lak but a Lord of Darkness, the one which had possessed Lak and now sought to possess his daughter. “In the Name of Light” Aiel said, very clearly, and saw ‘Lak’ flinch as though it had been struck “keep away from Marla. She is protected of Light, and you shall not have her!” “I have right to her – my seed is in her. She is born of Darkness and I have set my seed and my mark in her!” “And so has Light!” Aiel answered. “You have no right to her, Lord of Darkness. She is Light’s.”
‘Lak’s’ mouth opened wide, wider than any human mouth could have done, and a great and terrible roar of fury shook the Prayer Room. Suddenly the Lord of Darkness whirled, clutching at Marla, but Aila was quicker, and snatched her friend away. This move, though, left her facing the evil thing, and it bent its burning green eyes on her. For a moment she felt her Perception caught and held, and terror rose in her as she struggled to be free. She heard, as though from far away, Arenel crying out to her “Aila…do not look at him….” but she was powerless to look away, and felt as though her very soul was being swallowed up. Then suddenly a great blaze of light flashed into her eyes, breaking the terrible grip on her Perception. Dazzled, gasping, she stumbled a few steps, then her brother’s arms closed on her and his Perception melded with hers again, leading her once more in the Quieting Prayers till the terror was gone. Looking up from Arenel’s protecting embrace, she saw that the Shining One had reappeared, burning like a fire, It stood against the Lord of Darkness, and though there were no signs of a physical struggle, it was evident that a battle was going on. The air in the room was electric with spiritual tension. Aiel glanced at the Shining One. “Go on, Aiel” said the Spirit-in-Light “the Dark thing is powerless to interfere while I hold it back.” “Marla” Aiel said gently. The girl was standing very still where Aila had pulled out of her danger, and tears were rolling down her face. “Marla” he said again “What is it?” “Aiel – oh, Aiel – is that my father? That foul Darkness fathered me?” “The man Lak fathered you.” he told her. “The thing that has taken his shape is the thing that possessed Lak while he was alive.” “And claims me now!” she gasped. “Aiel – has it any claim on me?” “On your body, none” he answered her “On your soul and spirit, only what you permit. If you reject it utterly, it has no right.” “I do!” she said, vehemently. “Oh, I do reject it, Aiel, in the Name of Light! I would not house that – that filth!” and she shuddered again. “Come, then” he told her, “Let us finish what we have set out to do.”
It was a night of terror and wonder, of pain and joy, of struggles and victories. It seemed that there were different kinds of Darkness dormant in Marla, and each manifested itself differently as they fought to free Marla from it. Once she went completely stiff for minutes on end, so that afterwards Aila had to massage her aching muscles. There were bouts of terrible screaming and groaning. There were cramps which racked the girl with agony till Aila could scarcely bear to see it, and once a horrible sickness, which filled the large bowl with yellow bile, yet moments later it had vanished. Aila stared at the empty bowl in bewilderment. But then nothing was what it seemed on this strange and terrible night. She was very glad of Arenel, of the Thought-without-Words, to help her through the times of fear or anxiety over Marla. Constantly the young Healer monitored her friend’s body, heart and breathing, and strength. Marla had never been strong, but Aila was amazed at how well the girl was standing up to her ordeal. Arenel was keeping a close eye on the Lord of Darkness, still locked in silent, unmoving conflict with the Shining One. He had somehow expected that the Darkness expelled from Marla would attach itself to ‘Lak’ and strengthen him, but it seemed rather that the Dark one was diminished by each Darkness that Marla rejected. Once more Aiel had set his Perception on Marla, and the silent struggle began. Arenel saw the Lord of Darkness begin to waver, lose Lak’s outlines, shudder to a dark smoke, and suddenly, totally vanish. At the same time Marla raised both hands to her head, gave a long sigh, and slid to the floor, falling in a heap across the cushions at Aila’s feet. Aila gave a little cry and dropped to her knees beside Marla, cradling her friend’s head in her lap. Aiel said, with a kind of weary triumph, “Have no fear, Aila. It is finished now. Marla is free of Darkness.” “oh, praise Light!” Arenel exclaimed, and Aila wept for joy.
The Shining One advised “Let her rest for a little, then take her to the Dancers. It is near dawn.” “Oh, Shining One, thank you!” Aila said ” For helping Marla, and for saving me from the Lord of Darkness.” “Our thanks indeed” Aiel added. “We are more than grateful, Shining One.” The Spirit-in-Light said “It is not the first time we have fought this foe together, Lightstone-Bearer.” Aiel stared. “Was it you who snatched my Perception from Lak’s grasp, that time on the mountainside?” he asked in wonderment. “Yes, and guarded Arentha’s spirit on the Meeting Place.” the Shining One replied. “Light sends us to the aid of Light’s Children, Aiel, and one day we shall rejoice together as one in the Joyous Place.” The bright being moved from one of them to another, touching them swiftly, softly, yet to each that almost insubstantial touch gave new strength. Last of all the Shining One leaned over Marla where she lay, exhausted, in Aila’s lap, and Marla he did not touch, but kissed lightly on the brow. “Rest now, Light’s beloved” said the Spirit-in-Light ” and wake in Light.” Aila was deeply touched by the love with which the Shining One had done this, and was sorrowful when he said that he must go back. Still, she thought, how hard it must have been to leave the Joyous Place and the Presence of Light! When the Shining One had gone, the Prayer Room seemed strangely dark by comparison. Aiel said “Arenel, go and tell the others to make ready to go up to the Meeting Place. Aila, will Marla be strong enough?” “She is very tired, yet her bodily signs seem so much stronger, Father. I have never seen such a thing before. Surely the Shining One has strengthened her, but it may be that the Darkness in her, though dormant, was feeding on her own strength, and she is in better health now it is gone.” Aiel came and knelt beside her, laying a hand in quiet blessing on Marla’s brow. Arenel smiled, and turned to carry out Aiel’s message, but his father checked him with a word “Arenel…Aila…my dears…” He could not say what he wanted but his Perception flowed into theirs, telling them, as his lips could not, how proud he was of them and their part in the night’s doings, of their love for and service to Light, and how he loved them. Then he sent Arenel on his way again, and helped Aila by fetching cool water and cloths for her to bathe Marla’s face.
Arenel went to the room where Zohra had been waiting and praying through the night. As he entered the room, she looked up, her face lit, and she ran to him. “Arenel! Is it over – is Marla free?” “Yes” he told her triumphantly “it is over, and she is free of Darkness, Zohra. There is only the Dancers’ part to be done, now.” But she was looking at him with concern. “Oh, Arenel, was it so dreadful?” she asked. “You look – I do not know how you look! As though you had been in some fearful battle!” She had laid her hand on his arm, and he wished – how he wished – that he could have begged her to hold him, for now that the need to be strong and courageous was past, he was beginning to realise the fearsome things that had happened in the night. But he contained himself, and said quietly “Yes, it was dreadful. We were fighting a terrible Darkness. But oh, the Shining One, Zohra! I wish you could have seen – and all the terror was worthwhile in the end, for Marla was freed. But I cannot tell you, Zohra…” “I know.” she said gently, and took hold of his hand, as if to comfort him. “We must find the others” he told her ” for we must be ready to go up to the Meeting Place as soon as Aila says Marla is able.” Together they went to find the Swordsmen at their posts, to receive the same anxious enquiries from them, which Arenel answered reassuringly but truthfully. Yes, there had been dreadful battles, but the Darkness was defeated, with the Shining One’s aid, none of them were harmed – though perhaps shaken-and Marla was free of Darkness, only needing the Dancers’ contribution, now, to free her of the taint of Ma’al. His words were greeted with joy, and if he had not known his cousin better, Arenel would have thought he saw Mellin wipe away a surreptitious tear.
In the Prayer Room, Marla stirred, sighed, and opened her eyes, looking up at Aila, who supported her, and Aiel, who had come to lean over her at her first movement. “Aiel?” she said, and he smiled. “It is over, child” he told her “The worst of it is over, now. The Darkness has gone from you.” Marla gave a little sob, and reached for his hand, and pressed her lips to it. “Oh, Aiel, thank you, thank you!” she cried. “You have set me free!” “Not I, but Light.” he answered. “And that-that thing, that claimed to be my – my father? Has that gone too?” “The Shining One held it back, so it could not harm you” Aila explained “and when the last Darkness left you, the Lord of Darkness vanished too.” “And the Shining One?” Marla asked wistfully.”I wish I could thank the Shining One.” “He has returned to the Joyous Place, to the Presence of Light” Aiel said “but be sure he knows of your gratitude and love, Marla.” He cupped her face in his hands, then, and set his Perception on her, and though Aila did not know what he imparted to Marla – for that would have been Trespass – she saw the other girl’s face grow calm and peaceful. When Aiel released Marla from his Perception, he said “Arenel has gone to tell the others. It is dawn, Marla, and time to go to the Dancers.” “I am ready” she said, and smiled. It is a fair climb up to the Meeting Place” Aiel said.”Do you feel strong enough, Marla? I could summon a Dancer…” “I will walk.” she said, firmly. “I will go on my own feet, Aiel. It will be well with me – will it not, Aila?” Aila knew, from the way Marla said it, that it was agreement, not a Healer’s advice, that her friend wanted. She did not think, though, that the climb would harm Marla, and answered “Yes, I believe it will, Marla.”
Arenel had gathered all the others in the Great Hall of the Gatehouse, ready to start out for the Meeting Place. Lady Benika and Tor-Harat were there too. As the three of them came into the midst of the group, Aila was aware of the undercurrents of emotion, joy, wonder, concern for Marla. Aiel raised his voice above the murmurs of enquiry, explaining briefly what had happened, that Marla was freed of the Darkness within her and now needed only the Dancers’ help to complete her Changing. Aila caught Mellin’s gaze for a moment, her Perception swiftly touching him, feeling how he still feared for Marla, offering comfort and reassurance, all in the span of a few seconds. As Aiel turned to lead them out of the Gatehouse door, Aila found Janir at her side, his sideways glance at her full of love and concern. He murmured her name, questioningly, and his hand brushed hers. “It is well with me” she whispered back, and for answer he gave her hand a quick squeeze. The expectant group walked quickly through the Gatehouse Gardens, which seemed fresh and lovely at this dawn hour. Tor-Harat, who had come with them this far, swung the great gate open for them and wished them ‘Go in Light!” as they started up the Dancers’ Path. When they reached the Meeting Place they saw that the bare, windswept rocky shelf, lit by the pink and golden slanting rays of sunrise, was still and empty. After a moment, though, the air began to shimmer as more and more of the Dancers appeared, until a circle of them hovered on the Meeting Place, waiting. The three Swordsmen stayed grouped together at the top of the narrow path, guarding the way onto the Meeting Place, while the rest of the party, Priests and maidens, moved towards the waiting circle of Dancers. Marla’s face was quiet and still, as though the peace she had received in the Prayer Room stayed with her.
One of the towering blue-green Dancers drifted over to meet them. Its thought echoed in all their minds as it welcomed them, then greeted Marla. “Welcome, Marla, Child of Darkness, Child of Light, now no longer a child of Darkness but wholly Light’s child! Are you ready?” “I am ready.” Marla assured the Dancer, steadily. And then, to Aiel and Aila’s surprise, and Arenel’s great concern, the Dancer ‘said’ “And you, Zohra, child of the West? Are you ready to help us?” Zohra, though obviously startled, quickly answered “Dancer, if there is anything for me to do to help Marla, I am ready.” “Then wait for our summons” the Dancer told her “Marla, come.” Marla obeyed, following the light-being as it moved back towards the others. She reached the circle of Dancers, entered it, and it closed round her. Marla stood in the midst of the tall flames, looking very small and alone. There was total silence. Arenel asked Aiel, in a hurried undertone “What are they doing? And why do they need Zohra?” Aiel shook his head, bewildered. “I do not know. As to what they are doing – maybe they need to gather strength for the Changing.” They had not noticed Zohra’s rapt expression, but now all their attention switched to her as she said, in a reverently hushed voice, “Oh no, it is not that. They are singing. Do you not hear it?” Aiel, astonished, yet finally understanding why Zohra was the ‘melody’ of Marla’s Way, why the Dancers needed her help, asked “Zohra-are you saying that you hear the Dancers’ Song?” “Why, yes” she answered, as though it were nothing remarkable at all. “Listen, it is so beautiful! Do you not hear it also? Your Perceptions…” The Westerner broke off, seeing the expressions of amazement and awe on her friends’ faces, and drew a long, soft breath. “Ohhh! Am I the only one who hears it?” “Child of the West, you are truly blessed of Light!” Aiel told her. “For never in all the times and places of Li’is has one been known that heard the Dancers’ Song!” “What are they singing? How will it help Marla?” Aila asked. “I hear only what they sing in Li’is.” Zohra explained. “Part of the Song they sing in Ma’al, and part in the dark between the stars, and that I cannot hear. They are singing her out of Ma’al and into Li’is, but also they are singing Ma’al out of her and Li’is into her. Ah!” she gave a sudden exclamation. “They are calling to me now, in the Song. I must go.” “Why?” Arenel asked, anxious for her. “They need me to help them to-to tune Marla, as it were, to the life of Li’is, to the rhythm of its flesh and blood. She cannot hear their Song, and she needs to hear it herself to make the Change. I can do that – oh, I cannot explain it! I must go to them!”
The circle of Dancers had parted, leaving a space large enough for Zohra to enter. As they watched, Marla fell to her knees, wrapping her arms about herself as if in pain, bowing over. Zohra walked steadily into the circle, to stand beside Marla. As the circle closed round the two girls again, they saw Zohra raise her head and arms. her mouth opened wide, and they heard her begin to sing. It was a high, pure, perfect note that seemed to strike a deep, poignant chord in the very being of each listener. As Zohra sang, each note seemed keyed to some vital part of them. Aila understood, with sudden clarity, that Zohra was singing the Dancers’ Song with them, as closely as human voice might come to that celestial music. Aiel, though, was watching with foreboding. It seemed that the Darkness that had coveted Marla was still fighting against her. There was nothing spectacular to see, but to Aiel, who had seen the Dancers under attack from the unholy rhythms of the Black Piper’s music, the signs of stress in the light-beings were there, unmistakeably. There came one moment in particular, when the sky overhead began to darken ominously, as if with the onset of a storm, and some of the Dancers were swaying as if buffeted by some unsensed cosmic wind, that made Aiel draw out the Lightstone, letting it lie gleaming on his breast, and move towards the circle of Dancers, which opened to admit him. Light poured out of the Lightstone, enveloping Aiel and Zohra, and forming a shield around Marla. They heard Aiel’s voice lift loud and deep in the awesome cadences of the unknown tongue they head heard now twice before, a strange counterpoint to Zohra’s singing. Aila clutched her brother’s hand and waited, feeling his fingers tighten on hers as though he, too, needed comfort. Suddenly Marla, in the midst of the circle, raised her bowed head and gave a great, terrible, triumphant cry that rang across the Meeting Place. Aila saw Mellin spin towards the sound and flung out her Perception to catch her cousin’s gaze, aware of his distress and able, even at a distance, to calm his fear. Then she turned back to the scene before her. Marla had slid to the ground, Aiel knelt by her, laying the Lightstone to her brow, and now its light embraced Marla. “Oh Arenel, Light accepts her!” Aila breathed. “Aye, but could her flesh stand the Changing?” her brother worried. “Is she alive or dead, Aila?”
That question was answered in another moment; they saw Aiel and Zohra bend to help the girl; the light withdrew into the Lightstone and they lifted her to her feet. They saw Zohra embrace Marla, saw Aiel lean to speak to her, and then the circle of Dancers broke open again, and Aiel took Marla’s hand and led her out towards them, with a ceremonial air, as if he brought a bride to her wedding. “Behold!” the Lightstone-Bearer called joyfully “Marla of Li’is, Child of Light!” “Oh!” Aila cried. “Look at Marla! Look at her!” For Marla’s Changing had extended beyond soul and spirit, she had been Changed outwardly too. Her silver-pale hair was now honey-blonde, her eyes were still green, but it was a soft green, with golden flecks instead of the eerie silver streaks. Her skin now had a healthy glow, her lips were softly rosy. She was beautiful still, but in a totally different way. Her cold, pale beauty had grown warm and alive – like a lovely stone statue come suddenly to life, thought Aila. She was Changed , and the Changing was total, yet she was Marla still, but, as Aiel had said, now Marla of Li’is. Now the prospect of any danger was over, the Swordsmen left their posts- indeed they would have been unable to keep away from such a miracle. As for Mellin, Aila suspected that only iron control kept him from running the intervening space and sweeping Marla into his arms.
They all crowded round Marla to rejoice and congratulate, until a Dancer eddied across to them to offer advice and words of caution. “The Changing has used much of Marla’s human strength, though we have fed her with ours as far as possible. Take her back now, and let her rest.” “But there is no danger to her?” Aila asked, as Healer to the group. “None. The Changing has been perfectly accomplished in the Will of Light. Though the maiden may seem a little confused later, but that will be only tiredness, nothing more, so have no fear for her. But have an eye to the Westerner, for we have never before found one of the human kind who could hear our music, and we do not know how it may affect her.” Marla said quietly – and her soft, Eastern-accented voice seemed the only thing unchanged about her – “Dancer, thank you, you and all your kind, for what you have done for me this day! I do not have words to thank you enough.” “Give the praise to Light” the light-being told her. “As for the Dancers, it was our joy and privilege to play our part in helping you attain Light, Marla – true Child of Light.”
Aila, acting again as the group’s Healer, superintended the arrangements for their return to the Gatehouse, having the Dancers’ advice in mind. Marla, though joyful and triumphant, was physically exhausted, and Aila, thinking of Mellin’s welfare too, asked him to support Marla down the Dancers’ Path and, at need, to carry her through the Gardens. This meant her cousin would be able to be close to Marla, perhaps to hold her in his arms, and see for himself that all was well with the girl, without the others suspecting his secret love for her. All unknowing of Arenel’s feelings for Zohra, she gladdened her brother too by asking him to go with the Westerner. “You have spent time with her in her own place, and know her better than any of us.” Aila explained quietly to him. “You will see first, Arenel, if she acts in a way that is unusual for her. The Dancers themselves said they did not know how their Song might have affected her.” Since Lin had elected to go ahead just in case of any danger and Aiel, with the Lightstone, to bring up the rear, this left Aila to walk with Janir. The tension of all that had happened, and the lack of sleep, were catching up with her now, and she felt the need of his beloved presence. They could speak no words of love to each other, but they could exchange secret, loving glances – and what was more natural than for Janir to take her hand to help her down the rough path?
Arenel, descending the path with Zohra, was concerned at how subdued she seemed – though that might be the wakeful night. He asked her gently “Zohra, are you tired?” “Tired?” she looked at him with abstracted eyes. “You seem so quiet.” he explained, and she said “Oh, I was listening to the Dancers’ Song.” “Do you still hear it?” he asked, surprised, and she smiled and said “Only in here” and touched her fingers to her brow. Then, with sudden intense determination, she went on “Oh, but I must hear it again, Arenel! It was so beautiful, so wonderful – the most beautiful music I have ever heard!” “But what if Light meant you to hear the Dancers’ Song only once?” Arenel enquired. “Oh no, I cannot believe that!” Zohra exclaimed, so fiercely that he fell silent, fearing to quarrel with her. They reached the mountain’s foot and the wrought metal gates, and went back through the Gardens, now sunlit and serene, and it seemed to them that the very birds were singing with joy for Marla. They were greeted with more joy when they reached the Gatehouse and gathered in the Great Hall to tell their story. Tor-Harat was twice amazed, first at the change in Marla, but more so, because it was so unexpected, at Zohra’s ability to hear the Dancers’ Song. “Not even any of the Gatekeepers has heard it” he told her. “Light has blessed you with a wondrous gift, child of the West!” At last, though, their exuberance began to diminish, and Lady Benika embraced Marla warmly, and said it was all wonderful, but they must take the Dancers’ advice, and the child must have some rest now, and it would not come amiss to the rest of them, either.