AN END OF DARKNESS

Chapter 2

In the Temple Aiel and Arenel, who had come together after their own evening meals to contact Aila, so that the party from the Western and Mountain Fortresses could be forewarned, spent a few moments in silent prayer before the Crucible. Then Aiel asked “Is it well with Zarel? Is he afraid?” “No” Arenel assured him. “At the moment he feels only the joy and honour of being the Lightstone-Bearer – though he is still concerned that he has taken it from you. And we do not know yet that there is anything to fear.” “There is nothing for his spirit to fear. He is the Lightstone-Bearer” said Aiel, with the conviction of one who knew. “Yet the human soul is subject to emotion even when the spirit is strong in Light. I know well enough that to be the Lightstone-Bearer does not set a man free from his emotions – including fear. But Light gives strength to overcome them.” “If the Way continues, must there always be danger?” Arenel asked. “The Way is always a battle against Darkness, and Darkness is not an honourable foe” Aiel replied. “There is always the danger of sorcery and treachery if nothing else. The Black Piper and Si-Mara and Tamat are dead, and the Night Temple destroyed, but the Night Lords may not have given up all hope of achieving the rule of Darkness in Li’is. There are still Children of Night.” He sighed, then said “We shall know tomorrow. Arenel, reassure Zarel, if you can, that he has not taken the Lightstone from me. It is Light’s gift, to be bestowed as Light wills. The lad’s doubts do him honour, but they are unfounded.” He smiled, then, and said “Zohra is right, those two have all the noble qualities of the West. It is as though they combine the best of a Swordsman with the inheritance of a Priest. I am not surprised that Light has chosen them to take up the Way.” Arenel returned his father’s smile. “I too am proud of my sons. Yet I hope there is no rashness in their courage, if it comes to be tested.” “I believe they are too disciplined for that” Aiel said. Still, as he bade goodnight to his son and returned home, Aiel could not help remembering how he had told those two earlier that they had not yet endured that testing of their faith which would strengthen it. It seemed it had, as he had fleetingly thought, been a prophecy for them after all.

The next morning was bright and clear. It was Spring, approaching the time of the first run of the Two-Moon Tides, and the soft sunlight poured into the sleeping chamber as Aiel woke. For a moment he felt a sense almost of nakedness at the lack of the Lightstone’s slight weight against his chest, but then he remembered, and prayed a swift prayer for Zarel, the new Lightstone-Bearer, before rising. Arentha was already up and gone, no doubt organising her household for the day’s doings. Aiel dressed, donning his Priest’s blue and white striped robe, of fine fabric today, since it was a day of important ceremonies. He would carry with him the High Priest’s gold collar and the gold circlet, slightly broader than his ordinary Priest’s circlet, that were his from today on, for as part of Aranath’s funeral ceremonies he would be recognised as his father’s successor. And he thought, suddenly, that there was wisdom in the Lightstone’s passing to Zarel just at this time. A High Priest who was also the Lightstone-Bearer might, despite his own wishes, been revered to excess by some, might have received something close to the worship which belonged to Light alone. Aiel was glad he had been spared such adulation. The Temple would not be opened, even to the new High Priest, until the time for the ceremonies to begin, so Aiel made his Morning Prayers in his own Quiet Room before joining Arentha at breakfast.

Shortly afterwards Lin and Krystha arrived. Lin, though his hair was now silver, was as tall and tanned and clear-eyed as ever. Krystha was little changed either, only a little thinner – she had lost weight after Karis’ birth and never regained it – and her red-gold hair had faded, not to silver, but a soft sand-colour. Aiel was glad of his friends’ early arrival, for he needed to explain to them what had happened, and was about to happen. Lin, greeting him warmly – for they were still more like brothers than friends – gave Aiel the opportunity when he remarked “So you are High Priest now, Aiel. It is a great responsibility, but the Lightstone has prepared you for it.” Aiel answered “Yes, I am High Priest, Lin – but I am no longer the Lightstone-Bearer. The Stone has passed to another.” “But I thought it was yours to bear till death!” Krystha exclaimed. “It was never mine, Krystha, always Light’s gift. And by Light’s Will, it has passed to Zarel, and he continues the Way, though Aren will somehow share it.” “Zarel and Aren?” Lin mused “Are they the ‘two and two’, Aiel? What happens now? How does the Way continue? And what of us? We are no longer young, my friend!” “It is not our Way to walk, now” Aiel answered. “Only to advise and help. As to the rest, we do not know yet.” And he went on to explain to the Lord of the Harbour the previous evening’s events, and what was to happen today.

In their own home near the Temple the twins had woken simultaneously, as they usually did, as they had done since they were babes, except on the rare occasions when they had been separated, or one of them had been sick. As they woke, before they even spoke or looked at each other, their Perceptions were already flowing together, turning over the matters of the Lightstone, the possibility of danger, curiosity as to the Way, determination in their duty to Light. Then Aren said, as if they had spoken, “You know that whatever happens I will be with you, my brother.” “I know” Zarel confirmed, smiling at his twin. It never seemed strange to him that Aren’s face and his own were the same, though others stared, for there were very few identical twins in Li’is, and certainly none among the Priesthood but them. The gazes they attracted were not hostile, but could sometimes be disconcerting.

Zarel still felt overwhelmed, though, by the awareness of the Lightstone round his neck. Its physical weight on his chest was slight, its presence, however, heavy with meaning. The young Priest was wondering so many things about this Way, knowing as he did the stories of what had gone before this. He knew that Aiel had twice defeated the Darkness that threatened Li’is, and tried to imagine what the new threat might be. Would it mean another journey to the Dancers’ Gate and if so, who now would be the Way-Sharers? Since Aiel was no longer the Lightstone-Bearer, did it mean that the old vows no longer held? His head was buzzing with questions, his own and Aren’s, since their Perceptions were almost one. Useless though, he knew, to try to outguess the ways of Light, and felt Aren’s unspoken agreement. Together they lifted their hearts and voices in praise and prayer to Light, as always, before they set about their preparations for this new, strange day. Later, sitting with their parents and sister after the morning meal, Zarel asked Zohra “Why should it be, that Aren and I can also hear the Dancers’ Song?” “There was a reason for me” his mother replied “and that was to be a link between the Dancers and Marla’s spirit when they sang the Changing Song for her. If you have inherited the Gift, it is for Light’s purposes. You two, like me, must be meant to be a link between the Dancers and the world of Li’is – maybe even Ma’al. They will tell us.” Arenel added “We shall know soon, when the Dancer returns. But first we must do honour to the dead in Light.” Discussions ended, Zohra fetched her harp, for she would be singing a composition she had made to honour Arnath’s passing, and she and Rentha joined the three Priests on the short walk to the Temple.

The great building was full ; family, friends and Priesthood, and the people of the City, had come to remember and celebrate Arnath’s life and share his passage into Light. Lords of the City and farther afield were all present, and those of the Priesthood who could not leave the places where they served to attend were linked into the Perception of their brother Priests through the Thought-without-Words. When the prayers and music and eulogies were over, though, it was Arnath’s heirs, Aiel, Arenel and Zarel, with Aren, who accompanied him to the special garden in the grounds of the Temple which held the mausoleum where all the High Priests of the Temple were laid, when their time came to touch Light. After that they returned to the Temple for a second ceremony. Aiel was led to the Crucible, where he knelt while the High Priest’s collar and circlet were placed round his neck and on his head. Then, officially High Priest of the Temple and the Priesthood, he led the Quieting Prayers for the gathered crowd of mourners. Strange it felt to him, to be in his father’s place, to be no longer Lightstone-Bearer, to be at the start of a new Way. He needed the Quieting Prayers as much as any of them. For besides his new responsibilities, his mind was running over the things to come, the promised return of the Dancer to tell the Way-Sharers and their families about this new Way. He wondered what Light would require of him, but especially of Zarel – and Aren, for the Dancer had said he would share his twin’s Way.

Nothing had been said, yet, to the elders and Priesthood of the Temple. Time enough for that when they knew what to expect, and how much to pass on. Aiel had, though, requested that when all the funeral ceremonies and his confirmation as High Priest were over, and the Temple shut up, he and his family and friends should be allowed, for a while, the use of the Prayer Room. Of course his request had been granted, his fellow Priests no doubt thinking that the families desired some time in private to mourn Arnath. But Aiel had with him the crystal rod that was the key to the Lightstone Room, and once all of them were left in the Prayer Room, and he had locked the door, he crossed, as his father had so many years before, to the lampstand that was the lever to open the door behind the wall-hanging. Only he and Lin, of them all, knew what lay beyond, and led them all down the stone steps to the mysterious door, aware of little whispers and glances behind them. Aiel could Perceive the curiosity all about him as he used the strange key to open the door of the Lightstone Room, and motioned them all to enter. The secret room beneath the Temple was crowded now as it had never been, even when the Council-at-Need of Li’is had met there. The Council-at-Need was well represented, though, at this gathering. The High Priest, the Lord of the Mountains, the Lord of the Western Fortress and the Lord of the Harbour were all here, all members of the Council. Only the Lords of East and West and the Gatekeeper were missing.

Aiel looked round at the gathering. He and Arentha, Lin and Krystha, the original four Way-Sharers, all of them grown older and greyer now. Their children, partakers of the second Way – Marla’s Way. Marla herself, who had been so miraculously Changed by Light and freed of her Dark heritage to become a Child of Light, with Mellin, Lin’s son, who had begun by hating and ended by loving and marrying her. Karis, Mellin’s brother, born only days before Mellin’s marriage, had had no part in that Way, but might in this. Karlin and Mella, Mellin and Marla’s son and daughter, both fair like their parents , but Mella with Mellin’s grey eyes and Karlin, Marla’s green ones. Mella was a Healer, like her mother and grandmother, and very close to her cousin Rentha, Aiel’s granddaughter, also a Healer. Rentha stood with Arenel and Zohra, and her twin brothers, who were at the heart of the group with Aiel. Then Aila and Janir, with Lira and Janna, Healers too, like their mother. Janna stood hand in hand with Karlin, her newly-betrothed. All of them waiting now, and wondering what news and instructions the Dancer would bring, what this third Way might mean for Zarel, the new Lightstone-Bearer. They had not long to wait, for soon the air in the room shimmered and thickened, and not one, but two Dancers glimmered and coalesced into being. The younger ones, who had not seen the light-beings before, gazed in wonder. As always, Aiel was unsure whether one or both ‘spoke’ to the assembled company. “Greetings, Friends and Children of Light”.

There was a pause, and Aiel asked “What have you to tell us, Dancers, of this new Way?” The Dancers’ thought stayed extended to them all as they ‘said’ “It is time for the final fulfillment of the Secret Word. Light has decreed judgement on Ma’al, the Dark World. But first the Lightstone must return to Ma’al for a short time.” There was a collective gasp. Aiel said “Ma’al? Light would send Zarel into Ma’al?” Aren stared wildly at his twin, their Perceptions melding in bewilderment and consternation. The Dancers confirmed “Zarel – and Karis and Karlin too, to protect him, until they are established there.” Now it was the Swordsmen’s turn to gaze at each other questioningly, while Janna gave a little cry of fear. They were all silent, though, as the Dancers went on “Though most of the Lightfriends of Ma’al came into Li’is in the First Days, a few volunteered to remain in Ma’al, to keep the service of Light alive there, and the Choice of Light open to any that might still be willing to take it. So there are still Lightfriends and Children of Light in Ma’al, and they must be brought out of Ma’al into Li’is, so that they do not perish with the Darkness of Ma’al.” “But why can they not be brought out of Ma’al as the first Lightfriends were?” asked Mellin. concerned for his brother and son and Zarel. “Because the Lightstone and the Lightstone-Bearer are key to the making of the gateway between the worlds, and to bring them here, it must be done from Ma’al.”

Zarel spoke for the first time. “If it is Light’s Will, it must be so. But how shall we come into Ma’al? And we do not know that world, or anything in it. How shall we go about this task?” The Dancers ‘said’ “Some of us will carry you into Ma’al. We cannot stay there, for the Night Lords would sense us, but we will remain as near as we can, on one of Ma’al’s moons, to make the link between you and Aren and so between Ma’al and Li’is.” “What is this link?” asked Aren. “First, listen” the Dancers told him, and then, for the others, there was silence. But Zarel and Aren were obviously hearing and reacting to something, and Aiel knew that the Dancers were singing to them again. Zohra, though, looked puzzled, and whispered “But I do not hear them!” When the Dancers’ Song ended – and it was not long- they told her “You did not hear, Zohra, because what we sang to the twins was their life theme. When we sang to you and Arenel on the Meeting Place, though you shared the Song, you each heard in it only your own life theme. You are not permitted to hear another’s – even your sons’.” Then they continued “Zarel, Aren, that life theme is the key to the link we will make for you, so that though Zarel is in Ma’al and Aren in Li’is, your Perceptions will be joined. And through that link, at need, Zarel and the Lightfriends of Ma’al will have access to the Priesthood of Li’is.” “So we can stand with them in prayer!” Aiel said thankfully.

There was more to tell. For the Dark World that lay on the other side of all things – Light, time, space – from Li’is, was yet in some strange way the dark twin of their world – its mirror image. Places and people of Li’is had many parallels in Ma’al, though some were so distorted as to be unrecognisable. Some, though, had almost identical counterparts. And in Ma’al as in Li’is there were twins born with Perception, Lightfriends. As with Aren and Zarel, one of them would stay in Ma’al and one cross into Li’is. And Aiel pondered in his heart again the words of the Secret Word “two and two and times and time out of their place, but all for good.” There was also, in Ma’al, a place that corresponded to the Meeting Place in Li’is, the Dancers told them. Zarel’s task was to join the Lightfriends of Ma’al, to gather them and those few in Ma’al who were Children of Light, loyal to Light, and bring them to that place. There, with the Lightstone’s power and the Dancers’ Light-given abilities, the gateway would be made to bring the refugees into Li’is. Zarel worried that they might not be able to achieve this, to find all the Children of Light in time. The Dancers, though, told him that he need not search. “The Lightstone will draw them to you” they ‘said’ “by the power of Light.” Aiel asked, because he Perceived that all wanted to know, but none dared ask, “When will this be, Dancers? When must the young men go into Ma’al?” “At the second of the Two-Moon Tides” was the reply. ‘The second of the Two-Moon Tides!’ Aiel thought, trying to calculate quickly. Lin, Lord of the Harbour and conversant with the movements and tides of the sea, guessing what he was doing, moved closer and murmured to him “Six weeks, Aiel – seven at most.”

The Dancers’ instructions continued. While the three were in Ma’al with its Lightfriends, making their way towards that world’s equivalent of the Meeting Place, those in Li’is would make the same journey, to welcome the refugees from Ma’al. Aiel wondered how he could leave his new duties as High Priest to make such a long journey. However the Dancers told them that he and Arentha, Lin and Krystha, would not travel with the others, but that the Dancers would come and carry them to the Meeting Place when the time was right. The four Way-Sharers were all a little relieved that they need not make the journey, though they would have liked to accompany the others if they could have. Before the transfer to Ma’al was made, the Dancers ‘said’, the Priesthood of the Temple and of Li’is should be informed, so that they could make a Prayer Vigil for the Lightstone-Bearer and his companions. The Kets of the Westerners would also need to be informed, both as members of the Council, and because their help would be needed. The Gatehouse could not house all the refugees, and the Westerners would be asked to bring their travelling tents there to provide them with shelter. Priests and Healers would also be needed there, to counsel and tend the Lightfriends and Children of Light of Ma’al who had come into Li’is. For the rest of the Council, word could be sent to the Lord of the East, and the Dancers themselves would inform the Gatekeeper. Aiel knew that since Tor-Harat and Lady Benika had had no close family, the Gatekeeper’s mantle had fallen to Rujel, one of his contemporaries, who was kin to Tor-Harat. Rujel was calm and sensible, and would do whatever the Dancers told him.

All of them listened without further comment. It was so much for them to understand, and they were silent, trying to absorb the Dancers’ instructions. Finally, the Dancers added, Zarel, Karis and Karlin would need to take as many provisions with them as possible. “We will carry the load” the light-beings ‘said’ ” For the Lightfriends of Ma’al are outlaw, and live on very little. They cannot enter the towns, for they would be seized and executed. They have only what their secret followers can bring them, or they can grow or forage for themselves.” The Dancers stopped ‘speaking’, but all of those present were aware of a sense of compassion and understanding emanating from them. It was clear that the light-beings knew how hard it was for them to take in the enormity and complexity of what was soon to happen. “We will come again” the Dancers’ thought told them ” before it is time for the transfer to Ma’al, to give you more advice, Aiel, Zarel, and the others. Meanwhile, prepare as best you may – and trust Light above all!” With this the Dancers shimmered out of sight, leaving their hearers amazed and perturbed. Aiel looked round at the others. Zarel and Aren seemed to have recovered some of their composure, but Aiel could see that most of the others were still struggling with the thought of Zarel, Karis and Karlin entering the Dark World of Ma’al. Janna, though quiet and still, clutching Karlin’s hand, was radiating such distress that Aiel could not help but Perceive it.

“Come” he said, taking the lead. “Come back to our house, all of you. We can discuss this there.” The rest of them, subdued and thoughtful, followed him as he ushered them out of the Lightstone Room, locking the door behind them, and led them out of the Temple and back to the High Priest’s house in its grounds. Once there, knowing that only he and Marla had any idea of the realities of Ma’al, and wondering how she must feel, to have to send her son into the Darkness she had escaped, he asked gently “Marla, how is it with you?” Her face was serious, but she said “Aiel, you know – none better – how Light saved me from the Darkness of Ma’al and Changed me, so that I became a Child of Light. If I was thus protected, can I doubt that my son and Karis will be, too?” He saw that Karlin and Janna were still standing close together nearby, and Perceived that Marla’s answer seemed to ease Janna’s distress slightly. He could also sense that though the girl was still very upset, she was determined not to show it before Karlin. Mellin slipped across to his cousins, and said quietly “Janir, Aila – let Janna stay with us. She and Karlin have so little time before he must go. Let them have what time they can together,” Janir answered “That is a kind thought, Sword-Brother, and I agree. But Aila, my heart, would it not be best if you and Lira stayed too, to support her? I know my daughter, Mellin, and she will be in torment inside, knowing the danger he faces, yet she will not show it and dishearten him. If Aila and Lira are with her, she will be able to share her fears and imaginings with them.” Mellin nodded, and Aila said “You are right, my love. But what of you?” “Ah, I will have to leave you. I must go back to the Western Fortress to send word to Ket-Kai and Ket-Lai.” “But are you not fearful for Karis and Karlin, Mellin?” Aila asked. “I cannot deny it” her cousin replied “but I remember that both my father and I were at peril of death from attacks by Darkness, he on the Lightstone and I on Marla’s Way. We both suffered, but Light was merciful, and we both lived. More, we found our loves because of it. So I trust my son and my brother to the grace and mercy of Light.”

Aiel had been watching these interactions, giving them time to take in what was happening, and talk among themselves. He noticed that the twins had not spoken, but sensed their Perceptions flowing together, though he would not Trespass on their deliberations. Now, though, he called for everyone’s attention, and said “We must set things in train for this Way. Janir will take word to the Kets of the Westerners, and the Lord of the East must be notified also. I will speak to the Temple Elders and the Priesthood. The Dancers said that the Lightfriends of Ma’al have need of provisions, so I will ask that a donation be made from the Harvest gifts in the Temple’s stores. Lin, Mellin, I am not a Swordsman, but it seems to me that it would be wise for Karis and Karlin to receive extra training. Any enemy they meet in Ma’al will not be an honourable Swordsman.” “Aye” Lin added, “with bow as well as sword, Mellin.” For Lin, impressed by the bow Ket-Kai had given him, intended mainly for use from horseback, had had copies made and added to the Fortress armoury. Mellin and Karis nodded agreement, Karis seeming, now, quite calm about the Way that awaited him. Aiel sensed too that Karlin was more concerned for Janna than for himself. Krystha had been quiet so far, but now she said “Karis and Karlin will not fail you, Zarel.” The young Priest replied “I could not wish for better guardians, Krystha.” Aiel continued “Until the Dancers return, we must make what preparations we can. For now, though, we all need time to understand what has happened. Best, I believe, to return home, and reflect, pray, and yes, prepare.”

Zarel stepped forward to stand beside his grandfather, and drew out the Lightstone. Still a little unsure, he said to Aiel “Grandfather, I feel it in me,that I should use the Lightstone…” “Do as you feel guided, Zarel” Aiel told him “You are the Lightstone-Bearer.” So Zarel went to each of them in turn, beginning, Aiel noted, with Janna and Karlin, and laid the Lightstone to each one’s brow, and the light spilled out over everyone he touched, bringing peace and blessing. Last of all he came to Aren, then Aiel, and when all of them had been touched by the Lightstone he gazed into it himself until he too was enveloped by the gentle glow. There was a silence in the room then, as always seemed to happen after the Lightstone had been used, but Aiel could Perceive a lessening of the tension and fear that had been there. “Thank you, Zarel” he said. “You have strengthened us for this new Way.” He spoke a blessing on them all before they dispersed. As they were leaving, Lin intercepted his sons, and said “Mellin, Karis, before you return to the Fortress, come to the Harbour now.” So, after telling the others from the two Fortresses that they would follow them in a while, Mellin and Karis accompanied their parents back to the house by the Harbour. Krystha had said little until now, but once in their own home, she embraced Karis and said “I trust you to Light, my love, but you must take care! And obey Zarel above all, for he is the Lightstone-Bearer.” Karis returned his mother’s hug and promised to do as she said.

Lin, meanwhile, had gone to another room and, coming back to them, he turned to his younger son with something in his hands. It was a sword-belt, and he drew the sword from its sheath and raised it in the air. “The True Sword” Lin said. “This goes where the Lightstone goes. Take it, Karis, you must accustom yourself to it, for it is like no other sword.” Karis was overwhelmed, knowing how much the True Sword meant to Lin. “Father…are you sure?” “It was never mine, Karis, as the Lightstone was never Aiel’s. Both were lent to us for a while, for the purposes of Light. Now it is time for the Stone and the Sword to move on. There is a new generation of Way-Sharers.” “But Mellin is the elder” Karis said, uncomfortable lest his brother should feel slighted. Mellin answered “Karis, you heard what our father said. The True Sword is not an inheritance to be passed down, but a gift to be bestowed as Light wills. Did you think I would be jealous of you, little brother?” He smiled at Karis, who was relieved. Mellin only called him ‘little brother’ when he wanted to show affection. “You – and Karlin – must be Zarel’s True Sword, as I was Aiel’s” Lin told him. Mellin said “I wish I went too! No, not for the Way’s sake, but because I must let the two I love, my son and my brother, go into danger and Darkness, and I not there to aid them.” “So I feel, too” Lin said, “though I grow older and slower now, and like enough would be of little use.”

“I will guard Karlin for you” Karis promised his brother. “He is my nephew, and my Sword-Brother.” “I know you will” Mellin said, putting his arm round his brother’s shoulders in affectionate embrace, “but who will guard you for me? Take care, little brother, as our mother told you! Remember that you are a Swordsman of the Fortress and the City, but do not take unnecessary risks.” Karis was moved. He had been born when Mellin was already grown and betrothed, had been a babe in arms at his brother’s wedding, playmate to his brother’s son, almost more of a son than a brother himself to Mellin. He had adored his brother – his hero – all his childhood, and still loved him dearly. He had not quite realised though, till now, how deeply Mellin loved him too. Lin held out the True Sword and Karis took it, weighing it in his hand, awed and excited that it had come to him. “Aiel was right” Lin said. “You and Karlin must train hard for this Way. You must both be the very best you can be. And you must learn how to handle the True Sword, Karis.” “I will do all I can” Karis promised ” to prepare for this Way – and to encourage Karlin. It will be hard for him, Father, to part from Janna. I am glad you invited her to stay with us until it is time for the Way, Mellin.” Mellin nodded. “I was not sure – having her here might have discouraged him, but it seemed so cruel to part them now. I think my son is Swordsman enough to cope.” “I am sure he is!” Karis exclaimed, in loyalty to his nephew and Sword-Brother.

“Six weeks – seven at most”, Lin had said of the appointed time, and those few weeks flew past. In the Fortress the two young Swordsmen were undergoing rigorous extra training in the use of bow and sword, as Mellin and the Fortress Sword-Trainer sought to prepare them for the kind of enemy they might face in Ma’al. In between Karlin spent as much time as he could with Janna, both of them refusing to discuss the dangers ahead in detail, only taking comfort in their closeness and love, and the kindness of those around them, though Karis was the recipient of Karlin’s, and Aila and Lira of Janna’s, secret fears and anxieties about the Way. Marla, after some consultation with Mellin, had added to the Swordsmen’s weaponry. Krystha had trained her, and her daughter Mella in turn, as a Healer, and now she gave the two Swordsmen a phial each of a powdery substance prepared at her Healer’s bench. “It is sweetwood powder” she explained. “At need, it will subdue an enemy long enough for you to escape – but be careful not to breathe it yourselves. I know how effective it can be!” She shuddered inwardly at the memory of how that same powder had been used to drug her and her friends so that Si-Mara’s emissaries could carry them off, and Mellin, who had helped rescue them on that occasion, saw her overcome the memory to smile at Karis and Karlin. He thought to himself that in a way it was apt that what had been intended to bring her back into the power of Darkness, she should now turn to a means of saving her son and his young uncle from it.

In the Temple the Priesthood had been informed of the Way, arrangements made for the Prayer Vigil , though most of the Priesthood had begun their own prayers for the new Lightstone-Bearer and his Way-Sharers as soon as they had been told, and provisions gathered from the Temple storehouses for their needy Brothers-in-Light in Ma’al. Aiel was spending as much time as he could find between his High Priestly duties in guiding Zarel, as far as he could, in the use of the Lightstone. He reiterated, though, that Zarel would not find his experience of the Lightstone the same as Aiel’s, since each Lightstone-Bearer was unique, and so Zarel must let his Perception attune to the Lightstone, and follow where it led him. With a scant week until the time of the transfer to Ma’al, all of them were to gather again for the Prayer Vigil. Aiel had received a message from Rujel through the Thought-without-Words that before the Vigil, the Dancers would return as promised to prepare Zarel and Aren, Karis and Karlin, with more instructions about the Way, and what to expect in Ma’al. So the young Swordsmen had arrived before the others and joined the twins and Aiel in the Lightstone Room. They waited in anxious anticipation until the light-beings appeared, wondering what more they might learn of the Way that lay before them. When the Dancers finally glimmered into appearance in the room, and greeted them all, Aiel asked, for all of them, “What have you to tell us, Dancers?”

“We are here to tell the young men more of the dangers of Ma’al. There will be others there to instruct them, for we will carry them to the secret place of the Lightfriends of Ma’al. But still, on occasion they may find themselves, for a while, alone, and will need to be on guard.” The two Swordsmen glanced at each other, the twin Priests did not move or speak, but Aiel sensed their Perceptions turning this over. The Dancers continued their warnings. “You must always remember that Ma’al is the mirror image of Li’is – its complete opposite. Good is bad there and bad is good, Darkness supreme and Light the enemy. Evil continues unchecked, while the Children of Light are hunted down, killed or imprisoned. Which means that you must turn your whole way of thinking around, especially the Swordsmen. For the values by which you live have no meaning in Ma’al.” “How so?” Karis demanded. “There is no prizing of honour or courage there. There are few who are what you would call Swordsmen, except among the few Children of Light. The rest are simply fighters, mercenaries for sale to the highest bidder, with no sense of loyalty to comrade or Lord. You can trust no one unless they be a Child of Light. In Li’is you may have an honourable opponent. In Ma’al there is no such thing.” Karlin was struggling with this. As the Dancers had said, these facts were turning his ideas of Swordsmanship on their head. He asked “Are you saying they would even betray their own Sword-Brethren?” It was the most unthinkable concept he could find with which to challenge the Dancers. But the light-beings, unperturbed, answered “Karlin, we are saying that there is no such thing as Sword-Brotherhood among them. It is each for his own skin. If you and Karis were fighters of Ma’al – even kin as you are – and one was wounded in fighting, the other would flee to save himself, without thought of helping the injured one – would leave them to their fate at the enemy’s hands.”

Both Swordsmen were silent now, looking into each other’s faces, each trying to imagine what might bring them to desert the other in such a way, and failing utterly to grasp it. At last Karis said, slowly, “It must be an evil world indeed, then.” “And an evil thing to live in it” Karlin added. The Dancers were continuing with their warnings. “You honour Zarel as a Priest of Light and as the Lightstone-Bearer. And you, Zarel and Aren, know that the Priesthood is treated with respect, and that is how you expect it to be, because the Priesthood are servants of Light. But you must realise that in Ma’al the Friends of Light are regarded as enemies and renegades. Any who join them are outlaw. There is no Priesthood in Ma’al because there are no recognised Prayer Rooms, certainly no Temple of Light. Those who worship Darkness will stand no rivalry! The worship of Light is forbidden, a crime against the Dark Lords – except that in Ma’al they are simply “the Lords of Ma’al”. Understand that very well, for your lives will depend on it. You cannot even mention the Name of Light.” Zarel, silent and listening till now, broke in ” Oh, Dancers, how shall I not speak of Light? To praise and pray to and worship Light is my whole life – the meaning of my whole life, for I am a Priest of Light. It is as natural to me as breathing. How can I stop breathing, as long as I am alive? And only if I die can I cease speaking of Light!” “But you will be with the other Lightfriends” the Dancers replied. “You cannot go elsewhere, for your eyes would betray you. It is Karis and Karlin who may need to go near the towns, and must guard their tongues most.”

“And if we may not speak of Light”, asked Karis, “how then shall we accomplish this task which Light has given us? How shall we help Zarel to find the Children of Light in Ma’al, and save them from Ma’al’s destruction?” “They will come to you” was the reply, “for the Lightstone will be in Ma’al, and it will draw the Children of Light to it. They may not even know they are called, but they will be guided of Light. Their spirits will hear the call, and follow.” Karlin pondered this, and asked in turn “What if they are known, and followed, Dancers? If I sought an enemy and knew that his friends could lead me to him, I would follow them. Might not the Dark Lords’ mercenaries do the same?” “There is that danger, yes. But Light will protect you, and there are those among the Children of Light who will protect and aid you, if it comes to battle. But remember this, Karis, Karlin, your Swordsmen’s vows do not hold in Ma’al. You cannot let any escape to betray you. And even if an enemy is mortally wounded, you cannot offer the Choice of Light.” Even Zarel and Aren, who were not Swordsmen, were shocked at this. Karis gasped “But then they would go into Darkness forever!” The Dancers’ tones seemed sympathetic to the Swordsman’s dismay, as they answered “Karis, those of Ma’al are already in Darkness. And they are already doomed to destruction with their world. They have refused Light for so long that they have no more time to repent.”

Aiel, Perceiving the distress and confusion that the Dancers’ warnings had stirred in all of them, said gently “I understand that this is strange and upsetting to you all, but though Light is loving and merciful, Light must also be just and true to Light’s own laws. The Lords and people of Ma’al have rejected Light and the Sacrifice of Light to go their own way. Light gave them free will to choose, and they have chosen the path of Darkness. So there is only one end for them.” “That is so” the Dancers confirmed, “and whatever your own feelings, you must follow where Light leads you.” “We will follow Light” Zarel vowed, firmly, and the others, though subdued, agreed. The Dancers, having given their warnings, now offered encouragement and advice. “Remember, you will not be alone in Ma’al. You will be among the Lightfriends and Children of Light, few though they are in comparison to most of the people of Ma’al. And though you are the Lightstone-Bearer, Zarel, you must let yourself be guided by the Lightfriends, for theirs is the experience and the knowledge of Ma’al.” “I will” Zarel promised. “For I know nothing of Ma’al and I am inexperienced as the Lightstone-Bearer. I would certainly bow to their knowledge.” “Then you are wise.” was the reply. “Now you must all prepare yourselves through the Prayer Vigil. In one week we will return, and the transfer will take place.” With that, the Dancers blinked out of their sight, leaving them all grappling with what they had been told. Aiel, Perceiving their need, called them to him, and led them in the Quieting Prayers, until they were somewhat settled again.

It was a heart-wrenching time for them all. To send the three young men into the Darkness of Ma’al, into all that was opposed to Light and the deadly enemy of Light’s Children, was a horrifying prospect. And yet it must be done, and they had need of all their faith in Light and Light’s mercy. Marla and Aiel were the only ones who truly understood what kind of place Ma’al was, and he knew it must be so hard for her, despite her faith and trust in Light, when she had fought so hard and been through so much to escape, now to let her son step back into that Darkness. Janna was, quite simply, bereft. Knowing the need, she had made no outcry, though what she had said or if she had wept when alone with her betrothed, none but she and Karlin knew. But as the dreaded day approached, despite her courageous attempts to hide her feelings, she moved and spoke and acted like someone in a daze, a waking nightmare from which she could not rouse herself. Karis had promised Marla and Janna that he would guard Karlin with his life, and he meant it. He would probably have been quite indignant had he heard his mother’s whispered conversation with his nephew. ” Karlin, you know Karis, he is brave but impetuous. And he will feel he must be the boldest, because he is the elder of you. But remember he is only a little older than you, uncle or no – and guard him for me, Karlin, as he will guard you for Marla.” Karlin had kissed his grandmother and promised her gladly, for Karis was, in his eyes, Sword-Brother first, and father’s brother second. Zarel and Aren were in the strangest position of all. They were to be separated physically, but the bond of their Perceptions, strengthened through the Lightstone and the Dancers’ Song, would be maintained. Thus they would be both better and worse off than the others. They would still be in contact – but Aren would be constantly, piercingly aware of his twin’s dangers and activities in Ma’al. Aiel and Arenel had agreed that he would need as much support as they could give.

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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