AN END OF DARKNESS

Chapter 6

It was no longer surprising to Zarel when, after they had made the Morning Prayers in the tent set aside for that purpose, he felt led to bring out the Lightstone, and saw it immediately begin pulsing again. Now the Children of Light and the other Lightfriends saw what he and Whitestar had seen, as the Lightstone sent out its call to the Children of Light, and he could sense that it heartened them. “The Lightstone has called” he said ” so no doubt there will soon be others joining us.” “They will know to come to the Malani” Whitestar said ” for safe guidance.” “Then we must wait for them” Zarel answered “before we move on. Light knows all, and we will be led of Light.” Karis, watching the young Priest, thought that he had matured rapidly since they entered Ma’al. No doubt the Lightstone was working in him, making him more confident and yet more reliant than ever on Light. The Lightstone-Bearer had accepted the task laid on him by Light, and was growing in his determination to fulfill it. Now Zarel asked “Dorvai, are there many more safe havens where we can gather the Children of Light?” The Lightfriend told him “There are two main places of refuge between here and the Seacoast Town. Along the coast there are some caverns, not easy to access from land or sea, but the Lightfriends of old created a secret way into them from the clifftops above. And near to the Seacoast Town there is an abandoned farm. The land is worked out and too poor now for crops or grazing, so it was left to fall apart. There is no reason for anyone to come near it, and the Malani guard the way if any should be curious. The Children of Light must live among the people of Ma’al, but they know those who are followers of Light and they are cautious of others.”

“And the Lightfriends?” asked Karis. “Some of us stay at the safe havens, others in other places of concealment. We will meet with the Children of Light when we can, as Naton did, but we must always be wary. To the people of Ma’al, indoctrinated as they are by the Dark Lords and the Night Lords, we are traitors, outlaws, and there are rewards for any who find and betray us. It can be seen at once, of course, that we have Perception, and there is no hiding who we are – though we would not wish to, since that would be to deny our service to Light.” “Have many of the Lightfriends been captured, then?” Karlin queried, concerned for Zarel’s safety. “Praise Light, we have lost none of our number for many years now” Dorvai told him. “We are vigilant, and the Malani protect us as much as possible. Some of the Children of Night have been taken by the Hawks – my wife was one -” he paused for a moment, then continued ” but none of them would betray us. They know what would happen to any Lightfriend who fell into the hands of the Dark Ones – torture, a show trial, and execution.” Zarel said “That threat will soon be past, praise Light! When this Way has ended you will be safe in Li’is and the world of the Dark Ones will be destroyed. You will be free, Dorvai.”

As Zarel had predicted, the Children of Light had felt and followed the call of the Lightstone. Corhan had set his Swordsmen to keep watch for the travellers and guide them to safety. They came in ones and twos, in little families, and one small group accompanied by one of the Lightfriends. Karis, looking over the new arrivals, felt some anxiety. Besides little Kilmo, there were several other small children , a couple of pregnant women, though not in as advanced a state of pregnancy as Corhan’s sister Daria, and some older folk, The Swordsman was concerned over how these more vulnerable travellers would make the long journey to the Meeting Place. True, Zarel had said there was no need of haste, but once they were past the last safe haven and there was danger of pursuit, they would have to make arrangements to get them to safety. There were some horses, but not all of them would be able to ride, and the Malani’s light transporting sledges would not carry a human burden. For now, though, they concentrated on welcoming the newcomers and explaining the journey to those who were not sure why they were there. Zarel touched each of them with the Lightstone as they arrived, to strengthen and reassure them. Once that was done, and the group had been introduced to the others and all had eaten, Zarel and Whitestar left them to return to the Prayer Place and make the Thought-without-Words, to tell those in Li’is how the Way was progressing.

Mellin’s party were on the move again, having left the First Faring House, but halted when the Perception-gifted felt the call of the Thought-without-Words, and dismounted to rest while the communication took place. Aila and Arenel joined Aren and Moondancer in making the link, and were relieved to hear that so far all was going well and the ingathering of the Lightfriends and Children of Light was succeeding. When the link was broken, Aren told the others what was happening. “Zarel says they will not make haste, until it is necessary, for they need to travel at the pace of the slowest. It seems that Light is drawing the Children of Light to him through the Lightstone, as the Dancers said, and more are gathering. They have the protection of the Malani, and safe havens between them and the place where the Merchant Town would be if they were in Li’is, but after that he is not sure.” They had crossed the belt of scrubland beyond the First faring House, and now remounted and headed on towards the Red Forest. The track they had been following had narrowed, and as they neared th e Red Forest they all grew quieter, sensing the oppressive atmosphere of the place. Aren, whose Perception and Moondancer’s had become closely linked by their communication with their twins in Ma’al, Perceived that the girl-Priest was much more uneasy than the rest of them.

They entered the Forest and rode through the sickly-looking trees, until they came to the place where the trees began to turn red, tainted by the ancient Darkness, and here Moondancer gasped “What is this place? I feel the Darkness of Ma’al close here, as I have not felt it since I came into Li’is!” It was Aren who answered her. “It is the Red Forest, and it is blighted by the presence of the Ruins of the Dark City, which the Dark Lords built when they tried to take possession of Li’is. They were defeated, though, by Brann and Tamorine and the Lightfriend Rafel, the first Lightstone-Bearer, and driven out of Li’is. Their city was destroyed, but the ruins are accursed, and nothing will live or grow there.” Aila added “The Children of Night made of it a place sacred to them, to carry out their vile rituals, and on the Lightstone Way my father and mother and Mellin’s encountered great evil here. But since the Night Temple was destroyed and their Priestess Si-Mara killed by the Night Lords, that seems to have stopped. Her body was interred in the ruins, as it was the only place that her presence could not taint, and the few Children of Night that remain fear the place now.” “But if she was their Priestess, why did the Night Lords kill her?” asked Lira, who did not know the story. “Because she failed them” her mother told her. “She was intended to prepare Marla to be a focus of Darkness and the new Bloodstone-wielder, but Marla turned to Light and destroyed the Bloodstone, and the Night Lords took their revenge on Si-Mara. Your father and I saw it happen, at a distance, from the walls of the Fortress.”

Moondancer said “Yet there is still some link between this place and Ma’al, for it is the only place in Li’is that has felt to my Perception like Ma’al itself.” They had continued riding as they spoke, and had now reached a place where they could glimpse the tumbled Ruins of the Dark City. Peering cautiously through the trees in case, despite their assurances, there might be any Children of Night in the vicinity, Aren pointed out the massive, broken stones to Moondancer. She stared at the ruins, then declared that here was the focus of the Darkness that she Perceived, though Aren, Arenel and Aila only felt a keener sense of the oppressive atmosphere. Moondancer, however, was used to the sense of Darkness of Ma’al, and they accepted what she said. “It may be that this place would be a foothold in Li’is for the Dark Ones” Mellin suggested, but that the Dancers guard us from them.” Marla agreed, and said “Maybe once Light’s judgement falls on Ma’al, this place will be set free of their influence.”

Zarel had gathered the Children of Light together again, feeling it wise to tell them something of Li’is, and what would await them there. “You will all be welcome” he assured them, “and Light has prepared the way for you. There will be Priests and Healers and Children of Light to meet you when you come through the Dancers’ Gate, and to tend to your needs.” He went on to tell them the way of life in Li’is, how they would be free to worship Light and to live and move anywhere they wished, without fear. They listened intently, and he could sense their unspoken response – joyful anticipation, yes, but also trepidation about the journey ahead, which was natural. They would be a large enough company by the time they neared the end of their journey to be bound to attract unwanted attention. So the Lightstone-Bearer told them of the plans that had been formulated for the protection of the travellers, to try to assuage their fears. The meeting was interrupted by the arrival of Corhan, with some news from his outlying sentries. “You Lightfriends and Children of Light must stay inside the tents” he warned them, “for our guards have seen mercenaries out on the plain. It may be that some information has reached them that there has been movement near here, for the Dark Ones have eyes everywhere. Our guards will let themselves be seen by the mercenaries, and that will cause them to assume that it was only the Malani who were travelling around, as we often do, and report so to their masters.” “Will not your guards be in danger, then?” asked Karis. “No, the mercenaries know our reputation as fighters. They know also that there is no plunder to be had from the Malani, for we live simply. They would not risk attacking us, with nothing to gain.” The others, though somewhat concerned, seemed reassured by Corhan’s words, and promised to obey his order to stay inside. Karis, though, could not help wondering whether the mercenaries were really investigating suspicious movement, or if they might be hunting for Sharamine, paid by her unwanted suitor. He said nothing, though, not wanting to alarm her. “Light grant that there are no more Children of Light on the way here” said Dorvai “if there are mercenaries nearby.” “My guards have seen no other travellers” Corhan replied ” but they are posted along the likely routes, if any should still need to join us. Even if there are no more to come, we will not move on until we are certain that there is no danger.”

Zarel offered a silent prayer of thanks to Light for the protection of the Malani. When he had first been told that he must go into Ma’al, he had been confused and afraid, but had clung to his faith in Light, knowing that the Lightstone had passed to him for this very reason. The presence of Karis and Karlin with him had been a comfort, but also added to his concern, for he feared for them too. As he had taken step after step of faith, however, he had been rewarded by a growth in his trust in and reliance on Light, while the Lightstone had, as Aiel had promised, strengthened and refined his communication with Light. He felt that as he moved further along the Way which Light had allotted to him, each time he took a step into the unknown, he found that Light had already made provision for it, such as the presence of the Malani. “We shall certainly wait until the danger has passed” he agreed now with Corhan, “for we cannot risk the Way by rushing ahead of Light’s timing.” Despite his faith and trust in Light, though, he found the situation concerning, not for his own sake, but for that of those he was gathering together. He withdrew to a quiet corner and took out the Lightstone, gazing into it for strengthening. When he laid it down he found Whitestar had followed and was standing beside him, her look anxious. “Is it well with you, Zarel? I feel you are disturbed.” That was true, Zarel thought, for he had never missed his twin as much as then, the reassurance that they drew from each other, halves of a whole, the knowledge that if the whole of Li’is had misunderstood him, Aren would not. Whitestar must be feeling the same about Moondancer, for he knew that she would, must, react as he did. In a way he and she too were halves of a whole, as were Aren and Moondancer; another twinning of worlds and times, making possible the fulfillment of the Secret Word that spoke of ‘two and two…out of their place’.

He said softly “I think it is that I am missing Aren now. Are you still as lonely for Moondancer?” Whitestar looked into his face with a serious expression. “I am lonely for her still, yes. And yet, I think – not as lonely as I would have been if you were not here, Zarel.” Zarel knew what she meant. For him too the loneliness had been blunted by her presence. He had expected it to be the companionship of Karis and Karlin, the strangeness of a new world, the honour of being the Lightstone-Bearer, which would make Aren’s absence bearable. All these had helped, but it had been the company of this girl-Priest, who understood exactly what his parting from his twin meant because it was happening to her too, that had comforted him most. He looked back at her, as seriously, and answered “For me also, Whitestar, it is not as lonely as if you were not here.” “I am glad” she said, smiling now, and he smiled back. “I have been concerned, too, for the Children of Light” he admitted ” for they are my responsibility. I know that Light has sent me into Ma’al to bring them safely to Li’is, through the power of the Lightstone, and the melodies of the Dancers, and their ability to make the Gate. I do have faith, I do trust Light, Whitestar, yet still I feel the burden of this Way, for I know I must not fail.” “You will not fail” she said, stoutly, ” or Light would not have chosen you to be the Lightstone-Bearer, Zarel.” “My grandfather, Aiel, has told me how it would be, for he was the Lightstone-Bearer for many years. He said that though his spirit was always strong in Light and had complete faith, still his human heart and mind could be clouded by doubts and fears. It is as though a man were at war with himself.” “I think it is so with all of us who serve Light” the girl-Priest answered. “But I believe also that the battle with ourselves makes us stronger in Light, in the end, Zarel.” “You are wise, Whitestar,” he responded ” and you are right. Light will bring us safely into Li’is, or I would not be here.”

The Dark Ruins safely behind them now, Mellin’s party were on the road to the Second Faring House. None of them had ever been there, though they had heard how the four original Way-Sharers had found help and kindness and much-needed sympathy and tending there, after their horrifying experiences in the Dark Ruins. Aila knew , too, that it was there that Mellin’s grandmother, Alira, had been brought when she had fled in despair from the Darkness that had entrapped her, and had been restored to Light by Aiel with the Lightstone, going on to be reconciled with her husband, Merhaun, and live happily with him until his death. Aila wondered if any of the Priestly family that had given Aiel and the others succour then remained at the Faring House, though it had been many years since then. The road was long and it was late afternoon before they reached the Second Faring House. As they rode into the courtyard, a figure in Priestly robes, the Keeper of the Faring House, came to the door to welcome them. When introductions had been made, the man smiled, and said “So, you are the families of the Lightstone-Bearer and the Waysharers! It is long since I met them. I am Tavis.” Aila said “Oh, I was wondering if your family still kept the House! It is good to meet you, Tavis. It is a long time indeed. I suppose your parents have touched Light?” “My father, Brath, has indeed touched Light” he told them ” but my mother still lives, though she is elderly. She is resting now, but will be at the evening meal, and will be very happy to see you.” “Lady Saditha still lives?” asked Mellin. “My father and mother have fond memories of her. She helped them greatly when they experienced such evil in the Dark Ruins. I will be happy to meet her too.”

“And the Lightstone Way continues, though there is a new Lightstone-Bearer?” Tavis asked. “We received the call to prayer for the transfer to Ma’al, and though I cannot leave the House, my sons and their wives, who are Healers, are making their way to the Gatehouse to help those Light will rescue from there. No doubt you are bound there also?” “We are” Arenel confirmed. “It is my son, Zarel, who is the new Lightstone-Bearer, and when he went into Ma’al this Lightfriend, Moondancer, came to us from there.” Tavis expressed his pleasure at meeting Moondancer, and Arenel went on to explain about the connection between the two sets of twins which kept open the communication between the two worlds of Li’is and Ma’al, and how it was foretold in the Secret Word. Tavis, as thoughtful as his mother, said “Ah, Aren and Moondancer, you must miss your twins. You will be glad whenever you are together again.” They followed him into the Faring House, where he introduced his Lady, Vara. She was accompanied by three small children, which confused them for a moment, till she laughingly explained “My grandchildren! Their mothers have gone to the Gatehouse, and I have the care of the little ones till they return.” “And is enjoying every moment!” Tavis teased her. Tavis showed them all to their rooms, where they could leave their gear and prepare for the evening. Moondancer had chosen to share with Rentha again as the sisters, Lira and Janna, would naturally be together, and Mella was happy enough on her own. As they sorted their belongings, Rentha said to Moondancer “So, it seems Lady Saditha is still here, after all, and you will meet her.” “I shall be interested” the girl-Priest replied, “for from what Mellin said, it seems she made good use of her Perception as a Healer.”

When they gathered for the evening meal, it was an unusual group. The elderly Lady Saditha, refreshed from her rest, had joined them. It was very rare for a daughter of the Priesthood to be born with Perception, so much so that many in Li’is had never seen one. Yet here were three; Lady Saditha, Aila, and Moondancer. Naturally the Keepers of the Faring House were curious, themselves, to know more about Moondancer, and the Lightfriends of Ma’al, and she told them about her life there, rousing sympathy and admiration in equal measure. Asked about her family, she had to tell, again, of the death of her mother, and once more Aren lent her the support of his Perception. Lady Saditha and her family were quick to offer words of comfort too. When the conversation turned to Zarel and Whitestar’s journey in Ma’al, with Karis and Karlin, the Secret Word was discussed again, especially the part relating to the two sets of twins. “It is amazing that the fulfillment of the Secret Word has depended so much on the marriages it led to” said Tavis, “but Light knows all beforehand, and all that Light does in our lives works out for good.” Lady Saditha was looking thoughtfully at Moondancer and Aren. Aila, glancing at her, felt the touch of her Perception and opened her own to it. ‘Two and two’ the other Healer’s thought told hers. ‘Maybe it does not mean only the two brothers and two sisters. Aren and Moondancer, Zarel and Whitestar – I feel they belong together.’ ‘You think they are in love?’ Aila’s Perception asked. ‘Not yet. But I think they will be.’ Lady Saditha’s thought replied, and she smiled at Aila. Aila considered Lady Saditha’s conclusions as she ate. Certainly there was a unique bond between the two brothers and the two sisters, and it was not unlikely that Light meant more by their being together than the outworking of the Secret Word. Loves had come out of the Lightstone Way before, and might again.

Two of Corhan’s Swordsmen had appeared at the camp with a final group of refugees. They had gathered a father and his two sons, one almost grown to manhood, the other younger, and two women, an aunt and niece, found travelling, and escorted them safely away from the mercenaries. All were grateful to reach safety. The man explained that his wife had died of fever some years back. “We have all sought for more Children of Light”, the Malani explained, ” and found these, but no others.” “The Lightstone is no longer calling” Zarel replied. “It seems that all who were to come from hereabouts have arrived. We may move on when it is safe.” “Then we shall go to our next safe haven” Dorvai said. “That is the caverns you spoke of?” asked Zarel. “Yes” answered Dorvai. “The ancient Lightfriends found them, and knew they would be a secure place. The lower caverns are visible on the beach below, but there is no way down to them, and when the sea is high enough for a boat to come in, the lower caverns are full of water and cannot be entered. The only route in from the cliff-top, when they were discovered, was a deep hole, very steep and dangerous. The Lightfriends worked to make it a safe entrance by cutting steps into the sides, and to conceal it they made a door. It is covered with earth and turf, and over the years has grown so that it seems one with the rest of the cliff-top.” Karis exclaimed “But we cannot take horses down there! And if we leave them tethered nearby, surely they might betray us?” Corhan told him “The Malani will keep the horses, Karis. We will not join you in the caverns but camp some way away, for our guards will still be on watch for any incomers, or for any danger to you.” Karis still had doubts, wondering if the children, the elderly, and the pregnant women would be able to descend safely into the caverns, but did not voice them, thinking that they could be helped, at need, and that Light was with them and would keep all safe. “Is it far to the caverns?” Karlin asked, forestalling Karis’ next question. “A two days’ journey” Dorvai replied “but we travel under the cover of the Malani, and in any case there is no reason for any to be abroad in the wild places, to see us.” “And more will join us there” said Zarel. It was not a question, and Dorvai said “You are right, Zarel. The Lightfriends know the place, and will guide the Children of Light.”

Next morning the Malani broke camp once more, and they moved on, heading for the caverns. As they neared the sea coast, Zarel, Karis and Karlin raised their heads as they caught the familiar sea scent, and Corhan looked at them enquiringly. “You Perceive something, Zarel?” “No, it is the smell of the sea, Corhan. It reminds us of home, for our City, where the Temple is, lies on the sea coast by the Harbour, and Karis’ father, Karlin’s grandfather, is Lord of the Harbour.” Yet he thought that even this familiar smell had something different about it, something of the strangeness of Ma’al. Whitestar’s Perception touched his, and he felt her concern that he might be feeling homesick, missing Aren and his home and family. Quickly he reassured her and thanked her for the kind thought. They were on a long ridge, one side falling gently away to a belt of trees, the other slowly widening and flattening out towards the sea. It seemed quite exposed to Karis and Karlin, but Corhan was at ease, so they trusted his judgement. Again they were travelling at the pace of the slowest, and pausing for rest and refreshment, so were still in fairly open country when evening came. The Malani set up camp again, and guards were posted, so that the weary travellers could rest in safety.

At the Second Faring House, the travellers had spent a pleasant evening. Lady Saditha had enquired after Aiel and Arentha, Lin and Krystha, and especially Alira, and was pleased with what they could tell her. Since the Second Faring House had played no part in Marla’s Way, she was glad to meet her and hear her story too. She was also intrigued by Moondancer’s service to Light in Ma’al. “Perhaps” she said with a smile ” it is time that in Li’is too all with Perception served, not just the men!” Arenel smiled back at her. “It is a good thought, Lady. It has never been the intention to exclude those of our daughters with Perception – they are trained in its use, as you know. It is just that there have always been sons to carry on the Priesthood, and it has not been the custom to have women as Priests. But they can act as a Priest, at need.” That was true, Aila thought, for on Marla’s Way she had been able to help both Janir and Mellin make their peace with Light, when they did not feel able to go to Aiel or Arenel. “I am glad to have met you all, and had news of the Way-Sharers, before I touch Light” said the elderly Healer, “for I think I shall not meet you again.” She smiled at Moondancer, and said “Light bless you especially, child, and all who come into Li’is from Ma’al.” “Thank you, Lady” Moondancer responded, moved by the blessing, “and Light keep you.” They went to their beds happy and relaxed, and slept well. Next morning they made the Morning Prayers, ate a good breakfast, and were ready to leave. Lady Saditha was not there, for Tavis told them that in view of her age she tired easily and needed to sleep, but she had given him kind and loving messages to pass on to them. As they rode away, Moondancer said “I am glad we met Lady Saditha. She is a true Lightfriend, even if she does not serve as one, and so kind.” The others agreed, and Aila commented that it was sad that they were unlikely to meet her again, as she was so old. Arenel, though, comforted his sister “We shall meet her again one day, Aila, in the Joyous Place.” Now, they told Moondancer, they must make their way over the Plateau of the Westerners to the Merchant Town on the sea coast. Lira said “Will there be anyone in the Kets’ camp? My father said that he, the Kets, and the Westerners would be going to the Gatehouse with the tents for the incomers from Ma’al.” Zohra told her niece ” We would never leave the Plateau deserted, Lira. There are still herds and horses to tend, and the Kets’ camp must be maintained in case of need. My brother and Shala will surely be there, and some of the Elders.”

Zarel, Karis and Karlin, with the Malani, were continuing their journey, leading the Lightfriends and Children of Light of Ma’al on the next part of the Way. Dorvai and Whitestar were with them at the head of the column. The few horses that were not pulling the Malani’s travelling sledges carried those less able to walk the long distances, and the Malani surrounded the refugees to guard them. They were now on a wide headland above the sea, cliffs on one side, a steep slope down to the continuing belt of trees on the other. Corhan told them “When we reach the safe haven, we will make camp down there, on the moor beyond the trees. Then we can guard the approaches.” Karis asked “Do the Malani often come this far? Will it not cause comment?” “No” Corhan said. “We wander at will, and it surprises no one if we appear in their vicinity. As I told you, they think poorly of us, and we have encouraged them to think so over the years, as it gives us freedom to protect the Lightfriends.””What of the Hawks?” asked Karlin. “They do not fly this way” said Saban. “There are no towns or routes of travel to spy on, and the air currents near the cliffs are not helpful to their flight.”
Karlin was relieved, for he had been thinking that their column of refugees would be a prominent target for those spies of the Dark Lords.

It was not until almost dusk that they reached the place for which they were aiming. It was not easy to enter the Lightfriends’ safe haven, for it had not been used recently, and the concealing trapdoor had to be freed of enough overgrowth for it to open, without so much being removed that it was visible. The steep descent below looked difficult, and reminded Karis and Karlin of Tamran’s Stairway by the Falls of Vandar. However, there were stout ropes running alongside the steps so that those going down would have something to hold on to. “We must light the way” Dorvai said, and Corhan nodded and turned to call some of his warriors, Following his orders, they lit torches and went nimbly down the stairway to provide light for the others. It took some time, but eventually all of the Lightfriends and Children of Light were gathered in the now well-lit caverns. Corhan and Saban had come down too, to ensure that all was well with them while the Malani made camp. These caverns were neither as well-appointed nor comfortable as the ones they had left behind. The constant flow of the sea in and out of the lower caverns made them colder and damper, and the space was more confined. There was a central hearth for a fire, and some fuel ready for it, but they would certainly be in some discomfort from the smoke of any fire, though it would eventually dissipate through the cracks and crevices in the rock. Karis thought that he would rather have stayed in camp with the Malani, but realised that Dorvai must have a good reason for preferring the caverns.

As the others helped light the fire and settle the refugees, Dorvai and Naton went back towards the entrance to collect the baggage which had been left there. Karlin went with them in case they needed protection, but as they reached the entrance they were surprised to see two of the Malani Swordsmen hurriedly descending the steps. The Malani spent a few moments in quiet and hurried discussion with Dorvai, before he turned to the others with an anxious expression and signed to them to follow him back to the caverns. The two Malani went back up the steps, presumably to stand guard over the entrance, as Dorvai hurried Naton and Karlin back to the caverns. When they reached them, Dorvai said sadly “There is grave news.” “What is it?” asked Karis. “Valin – one of the Lightfriends – has been captured by mercenaries. He had nearly reached us, but they came on him by chance.” “What will they do with him? Will they kill him?” Karlin asked anxiously. Dorvai said “They will not kill him, unless there is risk of him escaping. They will be paid more if they take him to the Dark Ones for a show trial before he is executed, than if they take them a dead body.” “Then there is hope of rescuing him!” Karis said. “A slight chance” Dorvai replied, “but if the mercenaries think they will lose their prize, they will kill him. Still” he added with a sigh “better that, than be taken to the Dark Ones for torture and execution. He would touch Light.”

Karlin, considering this, had a memory come to mind – his mother at her Healer’s bench, filling two phials. “Karis!” he exclaimed “The sweetwood powder!” “Ah, yes!” Karis said. “I had forgotten that, Karlin! That would work, if we can get near enough to use it, without the mercenaries hearing.” Corhan gave him a questioning look. “Another weapon, Karis?” It was Karlin who explained. “Sweetwood – I do not know if you have it in Ma’al. The tree yields a spice useful to Healers. In a draught it can cause sleep, or unconsciousness at need. A Healer might use that if a wound needs to be treated and would cause much pain, for example. In powder form it will render someone almost instantly unconscious, though the effects do not last very long. My mother gave us each a phial of the powder, in case we should need it in Ma’al.” “It needs caution in use, though” Karis added. “It would not do to breathe it yourself, you would be rendered as helpless as your enemy.” “We would need to mask our faces.” Karlin said. “How close are they?” asked Corhan. “There is no danger to this place?” “Valin would have said nothing” Dorvai assured them “and, as I said, the mercenaries were nearby by chance. This place is well hidden. They are in the woods at the foot of the hill. Your guards brought us word, Corhan. They saw what happened, but were not near enough to intervene without endangering Valin.” “Then we must make a plan” Karis said. “It is best if Karlin and I use the sweetwood, since we know how to overcome them and avoid the effects ourselves. As Karlin said, we will need to mask our faces, which may alarm Valin. Corhan, he would trust the Malani, so perhaps it is best if you and Saban free him.” “Then let us hope he is not tied between them” Karlin said “or he will be overcome too.” “In which case we would cut him free and carry him to safety.” Karis replied. “We cannot take horses, for the mercenaries would hear us.” “It is not too far, by what Dorvai says” Corhan commented, ” so no need of horses.”

Plans made, the four Swordsmen climbed the rough stairway. Corhan exchanged a few words in an undertone with the Malani on guard, before the four slipped quietly away from the hiding place in case, despite Dorvai’s reassurances, there should be any observers. All of them were skilled at moving noiselessly, and soon saw the light of the mercenaries’ campfire among the trees. Karis and Karlin tied the masking cloths around their faces and signed to the Malani to hang back. Creeping through the trees, they saw, with relief, that the captured Lightfriend had been tied to a tree on the opposite side of the fire to the mercenaries, so Karlin slipped back to Corhan and Saban and signed to them to go around to that side, then rejoined Karis. Now the kinsmen moved stealthily closer to the mercenaries and saw that they had evidently been celebrating their capture, for an empty wine flagon lay between them. That was good, thought Karis, since the wine might have already rendered them befuddled, before they used the sweetwood. He signed to Karlin, and the two Swordsmen, phials of sweetwood in hand, advanced. Quickly they seized the mercenaries by their necks from behind, forcing their heads down to inhale the narcotic spice. Both men struggled briefly, but then the drug overcame them and they slumped to the ground. “Corhan – now!” Karis called. The two Malani quickly released the captive and hurried him away through the trees, while Karis and Karlin, after making sure the mercenaries were not coming round, quickly followed. As they paused to unwrap the cloths from their faces, they heard a faint footfall. They were instantly ready to fight, but it was not the mercenaries but Corhan’s two Malani guards, coming down the hill towards them “Hurry, Swordsmen” one of them said. “Our Lord Corhan has sent us to deal with the mercenaries. You must get back to shelter.” Karis thanked them, and he and Karlin hurried back to the entrance to the hidden underground shelter.

“Let us hope the mercenaries do not search for Valin”, Karlin remarked. Karis said “The Malani will prevent them”, and each of them understood what he meant. There was a pause, as if each considered what had happened, and Karis, as if sensing an unspoken question from Karlin, said “The mercenaries are a danger, and I know we had them at our mercy. But I think that even in Ma’al, neither of us could kill an unarmed, unconscious enemy, Karlin.” “That is true!” Karlin responded. “No matter that they are mercenaries, men of Ma’al and Children of Night. I could not do it, Karis. The Malani are born to Ma’al and must do what life here demands. They protect the Lightfriends to their honour, and I do not condemn what they must do. I know, too, what the Dancers told us, that we cannot live in Ma’al as we do as Swordsmen of Li’is. But such a deed would cause me much pain.” ” And me!” Karlin responded. “We should praise Light for the Malani, Karlin.” They went quietly through the turf-covered trapdoor and down the stairway. The others had gathered in the main cavern of the retreat, where Valin was seated among his concerned friends. Though shaken by his experience, he was unharmed, despite the rough handling he had received from the mercenaries. Dorvai turned as the Swordsmen entered, and said, smiling,” Here are your other rescuers, Valin!” “We could not have done it without the Malani!” Karis answered, indicating Corhan and Saban. “Is it well with the Lightfriend?” Valin answered for himself. “Praise Light, thanks to your swift action, I was not hurt.” Zarel had been waiting while Valin’s friends assured themselves of his well-being. Now he came forward, and said, “Still, it was a fearful thing that happened to you, Valin.” He drew out the Lightstone, and went on, “I am the Lightstone-Bearer, and this is the Lightstone. Let it sustain you.” He leant over Valin and touched the Lightstone to his brow. The gentle fountain of light poured out of the Stone over the Lightfriend, and they heard Valin give a little gasp, and then a sigh. When the light withdrew into the Stone again, Valin smiled up at Zarel, and said “Thank you, Lightstone-Bearer. I have been blessed of Light.”
Seeing that Valin was safe, and recovering from his ordeal, Corhan said ” We are glad it is well with you, Lightfriend. We will go back to camp now, and set guards to keep you safe. Have no fear.” As he and Saban went towards the entrance tunnel, Karis said “Karlin and I will come to the entrance, Corhan, to make sure the doorway is securely shut.” Corhan nodded, and the kinsmen followed him and Saban out of the main cavern. Once outside, though, Corhan turned to Karis with a questioning look. “Karis, my friend, you know we would not leave the doorway unsealed. Why have you really come?” “I did not wish to alarm the others” Karis replied, ” but are you sure there are no more mercenaries? They have not followed us from the last camp?” “No, the two who captured Valin bore a different badge to the others. They were not of their company.” “Badge?” queried Karlin. ” The mercenaries wear the badge of their employer.” Saban said. “It identifies them to the authorities if there is trouble – there are sometimes drunken brawls and damage caused, and then their employer must pay a fine.” “And those two?” asked Karis, though he thought he knew the answer. “Disposed of” Corhan said, briefly. “They will not be found, nor betray us. I know that it seems harsh to you, living as you do by the laws of Li’is. But in Ma’al it is so different, and even the way we render service to Light may seem to you a darkness, but it is not so.” “No, Corhan!” Karis protested. “We would never condemn what you do – your courage and service to Light are beyond dispute. You are right, and the Dancers told us that we could not live as Swordsmen in Ma’al as we do in Li’is. But it will take us time to overcome our years of training, and to know that we cannot offer the Choice of Light is what we find worst, I think.” He glanced at Karlin, who nodded agreement. Corhan smiled. “You will learn” he answered. “Do not be concerned, our Swordsmen will be on guard for mercenaries, and on watch for Children of Light who are called here. ” He and Saban bade the kinsmen farewell and went up the steps, lifting the covering door and, as they had said, replacing it carefully so that not a chink of light could escape to betray the presence of the hiding place.

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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