DAUGHTER OF DARKNESS, SEED OF LIGHT

Chapter 12

The next day Aiel and Lin began to talk about plans for the homeward journey, for now Lin was anxious to be back with Krystha as her pregnancy advanced. Most of the others happily agreed, for they had wedding plans to make. For Arenel, though, the return journey meant only that every step would take him nearer to parting from Zohra, in all likelihood forever. Zohra, too, seemed less enthusiastic than the others, though she had often spoken of missing her people and their ways. Arenel, watching her covertly, saw her gazing through the windows of the Gatehouse that faced the Dancers’ Mountain, her gaze lingering on the Meeting Place. That was the hunger in her heart, then, Arenel guessed – no human love, but the longing to hear again that music which only she could hear, and which surpassed all other melody in Li’is for her. ‘I must watch her, so that she does not come to harm’ Arenel thought to himself. Though Aiel had not forbidden Zohra to listen again to the Dancers’ Song, he had suggested that perhaps it might not be wise. “But yours is the gift, and you must seek Light to decide what to do with it” he had concluded. Arenel felt that Zohra did not truly know either. If the gift had been given to her only for the sake of Marla’s Way, would Light now take it back? Or if not, and she went to the Dancers, would they refuse to sing to her again? ‘The Dancers are wise’ Arenel comforted himself. ‘If Zohra does go to them, they will not do anything that could harm her.’

It seemed to Arenel, as the day went on, that Zohra was particularly restless, and once he noticed her staring up at the Meeting Place again. For a moment there was such a look of determination on her face, such a glow in her eyes, that he knew she would go to the Dancers. He must watch out for her going, he thought again, and follow her, to see that she came to no harm on the mountain path. Still, in the end she almost evaded him, for she was a Westerner, with all her people’s skills, and she slipped away like a shadow, almost between one breath and another, so that one moment she was standing nearby, and the next, she had gone. Arenel, who had been talking to Mellin, made some excuse and hurried after her. It was late in the day now, close to dusk, and he was concerned for Zohra, lest night catch her alone on the Mountain. He cast out his Perception and found her, as he had known she would be, out in the Gardens and hurrying towards the Dancers’ Gate. Arenel ran through the Gardens, reached the Gate, which stood ajar, and saw the whisk of Zohra’s gown ahead of him on the mountain path. Arenel climbed as quickly as he dared up the narrow path after Zohra, but she was quick and nimble and had a good start. By the time he reached the Meeting Place she was already standing in the middle of the rocky shelf. Arenel called her name, and she spun round. “Arenel, go back!” she cried. “You will not change my mind.” “You have come to hear the Dancers’ Song again?” “Yes – oh, I must, whatever Aiel says!” she cried, defiantly, then added, more calmly, “That is, if they will sing for me.” “I do not wish to change your mind” Arenel said. “But I will stay with you.” “Why?” she asked.”I will not need protection, with the Dancers. And even if I did, you are no Swordsman.”

He knew she had not meant her words to hurt him, but they did. He was not a Swordsman; did that, to this child of the valiant Westerners, make him less of a man? He answered “No, I am not a Swordsman. But as Aiel my father said, you do not know what the Dancers’ Song may do to your spirit. You may have need of my Perception.” Then he added “And I am your friend – am I not? For friendship’s sake, I will stay with you.” Zohra smiled at him then, and said “You are my friend, in truth. Stay then, and welcome.” She turned again, lifting head and arms, her dark hair blowing back on the breeze that swept the Meeting Place. “Dancers” she called “Hear me!” After a moment one of the shimmering blue-green flame-shapes appeared, towering over the slender figure of the girl. Both Zohra and Arenel ‘heard’ its thought. “What do you ask of us, child of the West?” “To hear your Song again, Dancer.” “Wait” the light-being ‘said’ “We must see if it is permitted”, and vanished. After a brief pause it – or another, they could not tell – reappeared. “Zohra of the West” the Dancer’s thought came to them “it is permitted, but once more only may we sing to you, lest our Song become as a drug to you. For no other music will ever satisfy you again. Yet because you search for the perfection of the Dancers’ Song, in the searching you will make such music as was never before heard in Li’is. Do you agree to this?” “Oh yes, I agree!” Zohra cried. “But you must be warned also that you will be lonely in this, because no other will have heard our Song. In all of Li’is you alone have this gift.” Zohra asked, “Dancer, must this be? Here is Arenel, my friend. If I might share the Song with him, through his Perception-?” “That is his choice” the Dancer answered. “If he wishes it too, you may.” Arenel was swept by joy. Why Zohra wished to share with him something as precious to her as the Dancers’ Song, he could not imagine, but was very glad that it was so. “Then, I do wish it” he answered.

“Prepare yourselves” the Dancer told them. “We will sing to you the Song of Li’is, for that is the only Song that it is lawful for you to hear.” Zohra turned towards Arenel, lifting her face to his. He felt love and longing for her tug at him, but thrust his feelings aside so that his Perception would not betray them to her. Then he set his vivid blue eyes on her lovely dark ones and let his Perception flow, feeling their thoughts mesh, careful not to Trespass beyond the limits her mind set for him. He felt a sense of welcome to him in her mind, the feeling that they were setting out on an adventure together. He was, outwardly, faintly aware that the sun was sinking fast, the long reddish-golden rays casting strange shadows across the Meeting Place, and briefly hoped that they would not have to scramble back down the steep path in the dark. Inwardly, though, he felt Zohra’s excited anticipation, and then the Dancers’ Song began, and he was instantly, completely, caught up in it. The Song the Dancers sang was the Song of Arenel’s own world, of the rhythms and melodies and unseen powers of Light that held all things in place. All of creation had its own theme, from the crashing thunder of the Two-Moon Tide to the fragile, delicate whispers of flowers. Because Arenel and Zohra were part of Li’is, and their world of them, each theme and harmony found an echo in their very flesh and blood. To each of them the Dancers sang the only human theme they were permitted to hear, their own, and touched in them the deepest chord of all. When the Song reached, not its end, for it was unending, but the completion of one perfect cycle, the Dancers called them gently back to themselves, lest they be lost in the thrall of the Song. The light-beings disappeared, and they were alone. Arenel found himself holding both of Zohra’s hands. His cheeks were wet with tears, and when he loosed Zohra from his Perception and looked at her, he saw that she too had wept.

At first he thought that no time at all had passed, for the same reddish sunlight lit the Meeting Place. Then he realised that the shadows lay the other way, that the sun was rising, not setting. From sunset to sunrise they had stood listening to the Dancers’ Song. Zohra shivered a little as a chill dawn wind snaked across the rock shelf, stirring her hair and the skirts of her gown. Arenel moved closer, slipping an arm round her shoulders to warm her. They smiled at each other almost shyly, and Arenel said “Zohra, thank you for sharing the Dancers’ Song with me. It was so beautiful!” “Thank you for standing with me, Arenel.” “You have a wonderful gift, to be able to hear their Song.” She sighed. “Yes, it is wonderful- but the Dancer was right, it is a lonely thing too. Imagine if you alone in all Li’is had Perception, Arenel!” “But you are not alone, Zohra. You shared the Song with me, and now it binds us always.” It was a sweet thought to him that though she might never know of or return his love for her, he had at least one thing that he alone had shared with her. To his surprise, though, Zohra blushed hotly red at his words, and exclaimed “Oh Arenel, I had not thought -truly! You cannot believe that I would mean to -to tie you to me so!” Confused, he began “Why, Zohra, I did not mean that at all – only that to share a thing so wonderful…” and then he stopped, because now her dark eyes were filling with tears and she turned her head away from him. Miserably he thought “I have spoiled the Dancers’ Song for her!”

He did not know that his tenderness towards her strayed into his voice, he was too concerned for Zohra, as he asked “Zohra, sweet, what is it? Do not be afraid of me – you know I would not hurt you.” He reached out and gently lifted her averted face, speaking his thoughts aloud. “I am so sorry- I have spoiled the Song for you with my clumsy words.” She was forced, now, to look at him. She did not answer, only whispered his name, but the way she said it and the look in her eyes were such that he knew, as surely as if he Perceived it, what lay behind her tears and blushes and confusion. Hope leapt wildly in him, but still his voice was quiet and tender. “Oh Zohra, my flower of the West! How long has it been, that you loved me, and would not say?” Another tide of crimson flooded her face, but she did not deny what he said. With downcast eyes she murmured “Since – since you gave me your harp, when the Warrior-Children broke mine.” And the joy was a soaring thing singing in him, as gently still he said again “Zohra, my heart, do not be afraid”, then, “I love you too.” She lifted wide startled eyes to him. “You love me? But I am a wild Westerner, not like your City maidens, Arenel? How should you love me?” He smiled at her, wanting to laugh, to shout, for joy. “And I am a quiet Priest, Zohra, not a warrior like the Westerners. How should you love me ?” He drew her close to him then, and though he had never kissed a maiden in love before, it seemed his inexpertise did not matter to Zohra.

What Arenel and Zohra had not anticipated, because they had not known they would be away so long, was the consternation they had caused in the Gatehouse. They had not been missed until the time of the evening meal, and since it was dark by then , nobody had suspected, at first, that they might be up on the Meeting Place. Moreover, since Aiel’s Perception was meshed into Zohra’s hearing of the Dancers’ Song, and neither was aware of anything else, neither Aiel nor Aila could reach Arenel with their Perception. This frightened them all, because there was nothing that should have prevented their contact with Arenel, unless he was far away, which was impossible, or unconscious-or dead. The last possibility was too dreadful to contemplate, and they racked their brains for an explanation. “He must be with Zohra!” Aila exclaimed. “She is his friend and he would not let her go off somewhere outside alone.” “But where could they be?” Mellin asked.”Where could they go that you or Aiel could not reach with your Perception?” “After Tamat…” Lin said soberly, paused, then asked “Aiel, could they have been abducted?” “But there is no Darkness near” Aiel answered. “Even with the Lightstone’s aid, I can find no trace of Darkness.” Marla asked “I do not understand your Perception, Aiel. There is nothing that could block it? A mountain or a cave?” “Nothing but distance, or the other’s Perception being unable to respond” Aiel answered. “Which is where we began” Janir said unhappily. “Arenel must have met with some accident.” “And if Zohra is with him, she would stay with him, to tend him” Aila said. “We must search!” Mellin declared. “But where?” Lin asked. “It is dark. We may search the gardens, but we cannot venture on the mountain in the dark, even with torches.”

So a thorough search was made of the Gardens, and the Gatehouse too. It took time, for the Gardens were extensive, but there was no sign of the missing pair. One of the Gatekeeper’s Watchwards, though, brought news. “The Gate to the Dancers’ Path has been opened” he reported. “Zohra wanted to hear the Dancers’ Song again!” Aila exclaimed, ” and Arenel would not have let her go alone.” “Then they are on the mountain” Janir said. “We must go and find them!” Mellin cried, but the Gatekeeper checked him. “You cannot climb the Dancers’ Path by night” he told them. “If Arenel and Zohra are with the Dancers, they are safe. And if any harm had come to them, the Dancers would have told us.” In view of the Gatekeeper’s words, they agreed to wait till dawn, but the restriction chafed them all, and none of them could go to bed. Lady Benika brought them warming drinks, which were all but ignored. They stayed together in an anxious group. Aiel sat gazing into the Lightstone, though whether he was drawing calming from it, or using it to augment his Perception in seeking his son’s, they did not know. Lin was restless, constantly glancing up at the windows for signs of the lightening sky. Mellin sat with Marla. There was tension in every line of his body but he was quiet and still because Marla, weary, but adamantly refusing to rest till the lost ones were found, was held in the curve of his arm, her head drooping on his shoulder. Janir was holding Aila’s hands tightly, but she was only dimly aware of him as she cast out her Perception over and over again, seeking her brother. ‘Arenel…Arenel…’ As soon as there began to be a pallor on the horizon, Lin was making plans. “We will go up to the Meeting Place first. If they are not there…” he paused, and said to Tor-Harat “Is there any place where they could have stumbled from the Path? Where perhaps the Dancers would not find them?” Tor-Harat shook his head. “No, I am sure the Dancers would know if Arenel and Zohra were on the mountain, and in danger.” “Then…” Lin began, but stopped, startled, as Aila suddenly cried out “Arenel!”

Arenel, standing on the Meeting Place with Zohra, still half-bemused by the Dancers’ Song, and the discovery of her love for him, suddenly became aware of something nibbling at the edges of his Perception, and automatically opened his mind to his sister’s. Immediately Aila was in his thought in a rush of relieved and questioning emotion, a Thought-without-Words indeed, and his response was as immediate and formless. Moments later he became aware of his father’s Perception too, much more coherent, mingling anger and relief. ‘Arenel- Sweet Light, where have you been all this night? Is Zohra with you? Is it well with you both?’ ‘Yes- yes, Father, we are both here, and well. We have been with the Dancers.’ ‘Why could Aila and I not reach your Perception before? We were anxious that you might have met with an accident.’ ‘Oh, Father, I am sorry! Zohra wished to hear the Dancers’ Song again, and she asked if I might link with her through my Perception and hear it too. And the Song was so beautiful, it held us both, and lasted the night through, though it seemed like minutes only.’ ‘Come down now’ Aiel commanded.’Let us see that all is well with you both.’ ‘It is well with us.’ Arenel assured his father, and felt a relieved and oddly amused undertone to his father’s thought.’We will come down’ he added, and Aiel broke the contact. Arenel relayed what had been said to Zohra, who was immediately contrite over the others’ concern, though he knew she would have done it all again, to hear the Dancers’ Song. Before they set off down the mountain, though, he kissed her once more,just to be sure he had not imagined her confession of love for him.

Aila, in those first emotional, tumultuous moments of the link with her brother, had found herself pouring out to him her fear and love for him and her joy at finding him again, and had received in return not only loving reassurance and warmth, but a taste of the beauty and power of the Dancers’ Song. And also, because it was bubbling over inside him and he was longing to share it, the secret of his long-cherished love for Zohra, and his joy at finding that the Westerner loved him too. And that, Aila thought to herself, was the reason for her brother’s strange moods the last couple of days. He must have been dreading the return home that must take him away from Zohra, but now all was well with them. As she thought it, her father’s Perception lightly touched hers, and she realised that he too had been made aware of Arenel and Zohra’s feelings for each other. The rest of them had waited, still concerned, while Aila and Aiel had used their Perceptions, and were relieved to be told what had happened to Arenel and Zohra, and that they had come to no harm. Still wishing to see for themselves, though, they followed Aiel out into the Gatehouse entrance hall to wait for the couple to appear.

As the two of them descended the Dancers’ Path, Arenel voiced the doubts that still troubled him. “Zohra, my heart.. if I ask you to be my Lady, is it the Ket who must agree to our betrothal? And will he agree? I am not a Westerner.” “First” she said, very demurely, but with that flash of hidden laughter that he loved, “you must ask me, Arenel!” “Zohra – oh, what am I thinking!” he exclaimed. “It is just that I – I love you so, and I was so sure it was hopeless – oh, Zohra, will you be my Lady?” “Of course” she said simply, “and yes, the Ket must agree, because I am of his blood. But I have a father, and an uncle, and cousins – and now my brother Ket-Tal and Shala are married, their sons too, and it is unlikely that any -any son of mine”…and she was suddenly shy…”should be the Ket’s heir.” “It would be impossible” Arenel told her “for if we marry, any son we had would have a different heritage, being born to the Priesthood, and having Perception.” “Oh, I had forgotten!” she said, and laughed. “Zohra, love, are you really sure about this?” he asked gently. “Do you want to marry me and have sons who will never be among the Warrior-Children of the West? And I am heir, after Aiel my father, to the High Priesthood of the Temple. That is where I must be. Can you bear to leave the lands of your people, that you said you were so homesick for, to come with me to the City and the Temple, and never to live in the West again?” “For you, yes” she answered. There was a little tremor in her voice as she added “Do you doubt me, Arenel? Yes, I will miss my people and my lands. But I would miss you more, if I stayed with them and let you go.”

They had reached the bottom of the Path now. Arenel held the Gate open for Zohra, then followed her through, back into the Gatehouse Gardens. Then he said “I do not doubt you, Zohra. But I want you to be happy. If you are sure that you will be happy to leave your own place, and come with me as my Lady – oh, Zohra, if you love me that much I am very glad.” She stopped and turned to him, lifting a face suddenly intense and serious to his. “I do love you that much, Arenel. And I will be happy if I am with you, if I am your Lady.” “Oh, Zohra!” he exclaimed again, and held her close and kissed her, under the sweet-scented trees of the Gardens. Then, feeling quite light-hearted with joy, he took her hand again and said “Come, we must get back to the Gatehouse.” And somehow they began to run, hand in hand like children, arriving back at the Gatehouse breathless, still laughing, so exuberant with love and joy and the still bubbling echoes of the beautiful Dancers’ Song that they had to pause outside the doorway to compose themselves before they could face the others. As they entered the Gatehouse, their friends and family crowded round them, and Aila hugged them both. “Praise Light you are both safe!” Lin exclaimed. Zohra said “Oh, I am sorry to have caused you all such concern! I wanted to hear the Song again, and did not know it would last so long. And Arenel is not to blame, he only followed me to see that I came to no harm, and it was my idea that he should share the Song with me. I did not think it might mean that you could not reach his Perception.” Aiel told her “You should have told us you were going, child. I would not have prevented you. But no talk of blame, all is well with you both and if you were with the Dancers you were kept safe.” Lady Benika commented “It is early still, and none of you have slept. I advise you to go and rest now, and I will have you woken for the midday meal.” Her advice was sound, and they quickly followed it, since all were weary with the night’s concerns and emotions. Even Arenel and Zohra, who had each thought they would never sleep with the excitement of their new-found love and the Dancers’ Song, once settled in the rooms they had been using, soon fell asleep.

As promised, Lady Benika sent her stewards to call them, though she left it till some time past midday, and once they had all bathed and dressed, feeling refreshed by their sleep., they assembled in the Great hall for their meal. Once they had eaten and were now feeling more relaxed, the conversation turned to Zohra and Arenel’s adventure. Mellin asked “Only Zohra can hear the Song, but if you could share it with her by Perception, Arenel, could you not share it in turn?” Arenel said “No, I do not think that would be right, Mellin. The Dancers had to make sure that it was permitted by Light that they sing to us. The Song is sacred to Light, not just a melody. It is the very rhythm of all life.” Mellin and the others accepted this, and Zohra added “And the Dancers said they would only be allowed to sing to me that one time more.” “Oh, that must make you sad!” Marla said. “Yes, but the Dancers also said that because I would always seek the perfection of their Song, I would make such music as had never been heard in Li’is. I could not ask more than that.” Janir asked “But who will hear your wonderful music, Zohra? Your father himself said that many of the Westerners did not understand your gift of music, and even when you come to us at the Western Fortress for the winter, there are not that many there. It would be a pity for your beautiful music to remain unheard!”

Arenel glanced quickly at Zohra, then said “Zohra’s music may well have a wider hearing than that, Janir. For we love each other, and she has said she will be my Lady, if the Ket agrees. And then she will be with me in the City, and there will be many to hear her music.” Aiel and Aila had of course already Perceived Arenel’s involuntary sharing of the news of his and Zohra’s love, but joined in the chorus of exclamations and congratulations that Arenel’s announcement caused. “So now we must prepare for three weddings!” Mellin laughed. “Truly, Light is love, and the bringer of love.” Janir said, in his thoughtful way, “I am glad for you both. But you will find the City strange after the grasslands of the West, Zohra.” Arenel said “I told her so, Janir, and asked if she was sure. But she said she would rather leave the West and come with me, than stay and let me go without her.” Zohra smiled at him, and said “I shall be happy where Arenel is. He will teach me the ways of the City, and I will teach him the ways of the West. ” That stirred a memory in Aila, and she asked “Zohra, what was that the Gatekeeper called your people when we arrived here – the Ketai?” Zohra nodded, and said “It is a very old name, a traditional name, for my people. We rarely use it now, except for special ceremonies, such as when a new Ket is installed, since we are known to all as the Westerners. But there is a legend…” She paused and looked round at them, to see if they were interested, and Janir said, “Go on, Zohra. I thought I knew the Westerners, but I have never heard of this legend. What is it?” “It is said” she continued ” that in ancient times, the First Days, when the Lightfriends came into Li’is from Ma’al, they brought with them a warrior race loyal to Light, to protect them, and those were the Ketai, the ancestors of my people.” Aiel said, pondering this, “I have heard other versions of that legend in other places, Zohra. It may well be true, for after the defeat of the darkness in Li’is, there was much to be done to restore and rebuild, and some of the histories of that time were lost.”

The whole party, now, were eager to set off for home, with the prospect of three weddings and the birth of Lin and Krystha’s babe ahead of them. With Tamat dead and Si-Mara confined to the City, there was no threat of revenge from the leaderless Children of Night against either Marla or Aiel, and they were confident of a safe journey. Still, in all wisdom, Aiel decreed that they should rest a few days more at the Gatehouse, to recover from the tumultuous events they had experienced, and in Mellin and Marla’s case, the physical effects of Marla’s Changing and the attack on them both by Tamat. The enforced rest was not so hard, for with their loves finally acknowledge and betrothals made, the three young couples had much to discuss and plan, and Aiel and Lin were able to relax and enjoy the happy atmosphere, and advise, if asked. At last though, on a sunny morning, they bade farewell to Tor-Harat and Lady Benika and left the Gatehouse. They would retrace their route as far as the Merchant Town, then up to the Plateau of the Westerners. The weather was warmer now, and with no threat of danger they would be able to make camp in comparative comfort and security. They stayed that night in the caves where they had sheltered before, then pressed on with their journey. Marla had no need of special care this time, for she was now ‘Marla of Li’is’ and the blood heritage of Ma’al, that had made her always a little weak, had gone. So they made good progress, and eventually arrived at the Merchant Town. It was natural that the menfolk should wonder whether the maidens, in view if what had happened to them here, should have troubled memories of the Faring House, but they seemed unaffected. Janir, when alone with Aila, did gently question her about it, but she smiled at him and said “Janir, my heart, that is all past now. My only memories of this place are happy, for it was here that I learned of your love.”

Once they left the Faring House and the Merchant Town, their way lay upwards towards the Plateau of the Westerners, and Arenel began to feel a little apprehensive. Soon they would reach the Ket’s camp, and he must ask for the Ket’s approval of his betrothal to Zohra. He was still half afraid, despite Zohra’s assurances, that the Ket might forbid it, since he was not a Swordsman, was indeed forbidden weapons by his Priestly heritage and vows. Zohra had laughingly told him that she would wed him whether or not the Ket agreed, but he knew that if that happened, he would be setting her kin and her people against her, and the thought troubled him. They reached the Ket’s Pillars, which marked the end of the Westerners’ lands, near nightfall, prepared to make camp, but found a group of herders there, who gladly shared their shelter with Zohra and her friends. In return, they shared their provisions with the herders, and the evening passed pleasantly. They slept well, and next morning set out again for the Ket’s camp. It was enjoyable riding on the lush grass of the Plateau with the high skies above them and the sun warm on their backs. Zohra was excitedly looking forward to seeing her family again, and gave a little cry of joy as the tents and pavilions of the camp began to appear in the distance. It was not long before they were among the outlying tents, and the message of their return began to be passed. By the time they reached the Ket’s own pavilion, he and his family were waiting outside for them. As they dismounted, Zohra was immediately claimed and embraced by her parents, and Arenel wondered once more if they would be willing to give her up again. “Lightstone-Bearer, welcome!” the Ket said. “And what of Marla? Did you succeed? Is it well with her?” Aiel smiled and brought Marla forward. “Yes, Lord Ket. Marla is free now of Darkness, and of the taint of Ma’al. She is a Child of Light and of Li’is, and she has destroyed the Bloodstone that they would have made her wield.” The Ket said “I am glad of it. Marla, we salute you. You have done a great service to Li’is.” Marla replied “Thank you, Lord Ket. But I could never have achieved Light without the aid of the Lightstone-Bearer. It is him you should thank.”

The Ket smiled at her, and answered “No doubt all have had a part to play. I am glad that Zohra was able to help you too.” “Zohra” Aiel told him “has an amazing Gifting of Light, Lord Ket. Her music is beautiful, but more than that – she was able to hear the Dancers’ Song.” The Ket looked across at his granddaughter in astonishment and asked her “Zohra- truly?” “Yes, Grandfather. That was why I was needed on Marla’s Way, to help the Dancers sing her body into tune with Li’is. And once more after that they sang to me, but they never will again.” Her father said “A Gifting of Light indeed, Zohra. But why will you never hear them again?” “They said it was because their Song might become like drug to me, but because of it I will make such music as was never heard in Li’is. Only I , in all of Li’is, can hear them ” she added, “but Arenel was with me when they sang to me, and we shared the Song through his Perception. So he has heard it too.” Arenel agreed “I did, Lord Ket. It was the most wonderful thing I have ever heard.” “You must tell us all about it, later” the Ket replied. “But for now, you will need to rest and refresh yourselves. We will prepare tents for you, and later there will be a meal to welcome you.” Zohra was carried off by her family, and the others, taken into the Ket’s pavilion, were served drinks to refresh them after their journey, and offered places to sit and relax if they wished. Aiel, though, said that if possible he would like to meet Taran again, and Janir wanted to see his sister Shala. So Aiel, Janir and Aila went to Ket-Tal’s tent, and the young Westerner happily agreed to take Aiel to see Taran. Left alone with Shala, Janir and Aila confided in her the news of their betrothal. Shala was overjoyed, but promised to keep it a secret for now, until Janir’s and her parents were told.

Ket-Tal led Aiel to where the Sword-Trainers were working with their young charges, and called out “Taran!” The Sword-Trainer turned, and Ket-Tal called again “Come and meet an old friend!” As Taran came closer, he realised who was with Ket-Tal, and exclaimed “Lightstone-Bearer! Oh, it is good to see you again!” “And you, Taran” Aiel smiled. “Arenel brought me your message, and I thank you. I am glad to see you so well.” “You and Light have brought me all I ever wanted” Taran told him “and I praise Light, and love you for being the means of Light’s blessing to me.” They chatted for a while, but then Taran had to return to his duties. Ket-Tal said to Aiel, as they walked back towards the Ket’s tent “I have heard Taran’s tale many times. It is still as fresh and joyous to him, Lightstone-Bearer. And he has been a blessing to our Warrior-Children because of it.” “It was a joy to me, too.” Aiel told him. Mellin had also been exploring the Ket’s camp, with Marla at his side. As a Swordsman, he was particularly interested in the Westerners’ fine horses, and had been to look at and admire them. Marla too had been impressed by the grace and beauty of the animals. Now, as they too made their way back to the Ket’s pavilion, Mellin said, smiling at Marla, “It is pleasant here, but I shall be glad to be home. I so want to see that all is well with my mother, and to tell her of our betrothal.” Marla replied, thoughtfully, “I had no thought before, save of attaining Light. I did not stop to think where my home might be, after that. I never dreamed it might lie with you, though I loved you.” Mellin took her hand and said “Now,though, you know, my heart. Your place is with me, now and always.” Lin, too had been renewing old ties, talking over their Way with Ket-Kai, his Sword-Brother, who had left Zohra with the rest of her family and come to find him. The Westerner was still amazed at the discovery of Zohra’s unique Gifting, and Lin told him how she had sung with the Dancers on the Meeting Place, helping them turn Marla from Ma’al to Li’is. “Besides that” he told her father “she has been a blessing to us on the Way, with her music. She has played and sung for us in times of difficulty, and soothed and revived us with her melodies.” Ket-Kai said “I am glad of that, Sword-Brother. And I am glad that Zohra has found Light’s purpose for her Gifting of music, for at times, though she could not gainsay it, it has troubled her a little, since she was not sure of its meaning.”

Eventually they all made their way back to the Ket’s pavilion, and spent some time relaxing and telling of their meetings with old friends. Zohra, though, was still absent, and Aila sensed an undercurrent of concern from Arenel. No doubt, thought Aila, as part of the Ket’s family she was dong her part in preparing their welcome, and she flashed that reassuring thought to Arenel’s Perception, receiving a grateful smile in return. When Zohra finally rejoined them, telling them that yes, she had been helping with preparations for the welcoming meal , Arenel was relieved to see her. She asked Mellin, Marla and Aila, the only ones who had not visited the Plateau of the Westerners before, what they thought of her homeland, and seemed pleased with their comments. “When it grows dark” she told them “you must come outside and see our Western skies”, and Arenel, who had seen their glory, knew what she meant. The Ket’s pavilion, like the other larger tents, was divided into rooms by colourful woven hangings, and in the room beyond the one where they were, they could hear the preparations being made. Soon they began to smell savoury aromas, and Zohra disappeared again into the next room to help. It was not that long before she returned, telling them “All is ready now. Come and take your places.” They followed her through, and were welcomed again by the Ket. At his request, Aiel spoke the Meal-Blessing, then dishes were passed and the meal began. Arenel, unsure of the customs of the Westerners in such matters, had asked Zohra how he should speak to the Ket and her father. She had told him of the meal to welcome the guests, but said that he should not speak then. Afterwards, she and the women of the family would take the other girls to show them the guest tent allotted to them, and where to prepare for the night. “And then, when the menfolk are alone, you may speak” she told him, then, “Have no fear, my heart, they will not refuse you.”

Despite her reassurances, he felt nervous through the meal, and even while Zohra played and sang for them afterwards. When, as she had said, the women and the girls had left the Ket’s pavilion, and the men were left alone, Arenel knew his time to speak had come. He had confided in his father beforehand, and Aiel, sensing his son’s nervousness, sent a quick, encouraging thought to Arenel’s Perception. Thus supported, the young Priest took a deep breath, and said “Lord Ket, Ket-Kai, there is something I must say to you.” The Ket smiled , and said “Speak, then, Arenel. What is it?” “It is – Zohra and I, we are in love” Arenel said, taking courage, “and she has said that, if you both agree, she will be my Lady.” Receiving no immediate answer, he went on “I know I am neither Swordsman nor warrior, perhaps not what you wished for her, but I love her truly, and will always cherish her.” The Ket had leaned back in his carved chair and was looking thoughtful. He said “Arenel, indeed you are not a Swordsman or a warrior, but you are a Priest of Light. Each Child of Light fights for Light in their own way, and none can say they have no need of the other. Without the Priesthood, where would Li’is be?” He smiled then, and continued “We would not refuse you because you are not a warrior! Ket-Kai, what say you? She is your daughter.” Ket-Kai too smiled at Arenel, and said “If Zohra has your heart, and you hers, that is all I wish for her. If she is happy, so am I.” “The we agree” the Ket said. “You shall be betrothed.” Arenel gave a sigh of relief and thanked them. The Ket said “But you must stay with us for a while, Arenel, so that you may be betrothed in our fashion and learn our ways. I know you will take Zohra to the City, but it will be easier for her to leave us if you understand her people and their traditions,” Arenel nodded in agreement, and said “I asked Zohra if she was sure that she could bear to leave the West to come with me. She said that she would miss her place and her people, but not as much as she would miss me, if she stayed here and let me go away without her. So I will do anything you wish, Lord Ket, Ket-Kai, that you believe will make it easier for her.”

Both Zohra’s father and the Ket smiled in approval, and Aiel said “Then we must make arrangements, Arenel”, and turning to the Ket, he explained “Much has come of this Way, aside from Marla’s Changing and her attaining Light. She and Mellin are betrothed, and Janir and Aila also.” “And my Lady, Krystha, is bearing a child” Lin added “and her time of birthing will draw near once we return.” “Good news, indeed!” the Ket exclaimed ” But I see how there will be much to arrange. We will not delay the rest of your party long, Lightstone-Bearer, but you will be able to stay a day or two longer, so that we may prepare for the betrothal, and you will be there to take part in it?” “Of course!” Aiel answered. “Now Marla’s Way has succeeded, there is no urgency.” When the womenfolk returned to the Ket’s pavilion, he called Zohra forward to stand with Arenel, and said “Ket-Kai your father and I have agreed that you and Arenel may be betrothed, so you will need to prepare for the betrothal ceremony.” As Zohra cast a joyfully glowing look at Arenel, he continued “And Aiel and Arenel have also agreed that Arenel will stay with us awhile, to learn our ways.” Arenel noted that Zohra’s mother and aunt seemed unsurprised by this announcement, and knew that she must have told them earlier what to expect. However, they joined in the general congratulations in a way that showed their happiness for Zohra.

The next day, having said the Morning Prayers for the Ket’s camp. Aiel called Arenel and Aila to him. Concerned that Lin might begin to worry over Krystha, now that Marla’s needs were met, he had them help him make the Thought-without-Words to send a messsage through the Priesthood, starting with those at the Western Fortress, to the Priest of the Fortress, to enquire after Krystha. The message that came back was that Krystha was well and all was well, too, with her pregnancy. She sent her love to her husband, and bade him not to worry. Aiel sent no word, though, to either Fortress, of Janir and Aila’s or Mellin and Marla’s betrothals, nor Arenel’s, for that was theirs to tell. He passed on the news of Krystha to Lin, glad to set his friend’s mind at ease, and then all could enjoy preparing for Arenel and Zohra’s betrothal ceremony. Janir, asked by his friends if he had witnessed such a ceremony for Ket-Tal and Shala, said not, and Zohra explained, “Oh no, it is mainly for the maidens.” “Why so?” asked Aila. “It is because we are a wandering people” Zohra replied. “The betrothed might be apart for a long time, and it is a guarantee to the betrothed maiden that her beloved will be true to her. A Westerners’ betrothal is only one step below a marriage.” She warned them then, with a smile, ” The womenfolk will wail for me, but do not be concerned by that. It is not disapproval, it is only a tradition.” Only Arenel realised what she meant, as the others looked surprised. “As they wailed for the Warrior Children?” he asked. “You remembered that?” Zohra asked, looking pleased when he nodded. “Why?” asked Aila again. “They wail for the Warrior Children because they will be their children no more, but warriors in training. And they wail for the maidens who are betrothed, because they will leave their family and become wives and in time mothers to their own. But as I said, it is only a tradition. They are happy for us really.” “As we all are! Aila laughed. “It is a simple thing, the betrothal” Zohra went on “but important to us. To be handfasted by the Ket shows that we are truly devoted to each other.” Arenel said ” It will be good for us to keep the traditions of the West, Zohra. I am glad to be able to learn the ways of your people, so that we may carry some of the West with us, when I take you to the City” and Zohra gave him a loving look. “Why do you need to wait for the betrothal, though, Zohra?” Aila asked, still curious, and the Westerner smiled at her and said “There is some weaving to be done – you will see, Aila.”

The day came for the betrothal ceremony and, as for the Night of the Warrior Children, the Westerners gathered to witness it. The participants stood in their assigned places, with their families, to either side of the Ket, who stood outside his pavilion, a small table at his side on which was a little box. He called Arenel and Zohra forward to stand in front of him and announced to the onlookers “Zohra of the Ketai and Arenel of the Priesthood are here before you, to be betrothed in the manner of the Westerners.” Turning to the couple he asked “Do you promise before Light to be true to each other until you may wed, even if your ways be far apart?” They made their affirmations, Zohra having coached Arenel beforehand what to say, and the Ket said “Give me your hands.” Both of them extended their hands towards the Ket, and he turned and opened the little box, taking out a long strip of fabric, woven in the colours of the Westerners. Now Aila understood, for the Ket took the strip and wrapped it around Zohra’s and Arenel’s hands, binding them together. “Handfasting” Zohra had called it, and the Ket said the same. “Now you are handfasted and promised to each other” he proclaimed, and laid a hand on each of their heads in blessing. The men also called blessings, while the women, as Zohra had warned, wailed briefly, before joining in the blessings. It was, as she had told them, a simple ceremony, but they found it very moving, just the same. Aila had felt her brother’s happiness at this formal acknowledgement of his and Zohra’s betrothal, and knew that Aiel had too. Afterwards, in the Ket’s pavilion, trays of sweetmeats were passed round to signify the sweetness of the occasion, and they all commented on the betrothal ceremony.

Now that the ceremony was done, though, and despite the Ket’s generous hospitality, they were ready to be on their way homeward. So it was decided that they would leave the next morning. Aila was a little sad to leave Arenel, but, she thought, they both had new lives ahead of them, and she would no longer be always in reach of her brother’s Perception. So she did not feel the same kind of sadness she had when they had parted before, for he had Zohra, and she had Janir. Aiel too was prepared for these new beginnings, and respected his son’s wish to learn more of Zohra’s people and way of life to ease her move to the City when they married. So though there was some sadness at parting the next day, it was tempered with happiness for Arenel and Zohra. Arenel embraced his family . and they wished him and Zohra well, then mounted and, with many a backward glance and signal of farewell, set off on the track that would take them towards the Western Fortress. Aila thought of their perilous transit through the Westmost Narrows at the start of Marla’s Way, and was thankful that they need not pass that way again. The track led them down to the foothills, and on to the Western farmlands, where again they crossed the Snake River and rode on towards the towns below the Western Fortress. It was good to be riding without the urgent need of Marla’s Way, with their families and loved ones, in these gentle lands. The sun was warm and the sky was clear, and the farmlands were showing promise of good crops to come. They chatted as they rode, discussing future plans. Marla said, suddenly, “I remember when we set out from the Western Fortress – I was so torn between hope and fear, and still did not know if I would attain Light. Aiel, Lightstone-Bearer, you achieved that for me. But all of you have been my strength too, and I love you for it.” They were touched by her words and Aila answered her friend “Marla, we were glad to help you, and we too did it out of love for you.” And Mellin, riding by her side, turned towards his betrothed and said “Marla, my heart, we are all more glad than you can know, that we were able to help you in your time of need, and to attain Light.”

They passed through the farmlands and approached the towns, passing through one of them as they had before. After that they were glad to see The Western Fortress come into view, and it was not so long before they reached it. Janir called out to the Watchwards at the gates, and they were opened to let the riders through. Janir turned in the saddle and said, with a broad smile, “We are home!” And though it was his home, not theirs, they did all feel a sense of homecoming, after their travels. Barengian and Mira came to meet them as they entered the Great Hall and, after greeting them all and embracing Janir, were anxious to know if Marla’s Way had succeeded. They were quickly reassured, and exclaimed at the physical change in Marla that the Dancers had wrought. Barengian asked “But where is Arenel? I hope no misadventure has befallen him?” “No, indeed!” Aiel replied, smiling. “But we have left him in the Ket’s camp. He and Zohra are betrothed, and he is staying with the Ket for a while, to learn the ways of the Westerners.” “A Priest and a Westerner? Now that will be a wedding to see!” commented Barengian. Janir stepped forward. “Mother, Father…” he signalled to Aila to come to his side, and taking her hand, he said “I have asked Aila to be my Lady, and she has agreed. We have Aiel’s blessing, and we are also betrothed.” Mira cried “Janir…Aila..oh, I am so happy!” Barengian smiled broadly and said, “So-we must prepare the Western Fortress for another wedding! Two weddings coming so closely together will mean much to arrange.” Now Mellin laughed, and said “Barengian, Aunt Mira, there will be three weddings-” he paused, and Mira asked excitedly “Oh – do you mean that you and Marla…?” “Yes, Aunt Mira, we too are betrothed.” “Now I do not know what to say!” Barengian exclaimed, laughing again. “Light is love, and brings love out of Darkness” Aiel said. He had been thinking again about the Secret Word, and recalled the part that said “hate shall be turned to love, and pain to joy”. That had certainly been true of Mellin and Marla. Lin added “It was on the Lightstone Way that Aiel and I fell in love with our Ladies, and now on Marla’s Way Light has brought love out of Darkness again, as Aiel said.” “Well, you must come and rest and eat now” Mira ordered. “And you can tell us all about it, and all your adventures!”

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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