AN END OF DARKNESS

Chapter 7

The chill in the caverns was dispersing with the heat of the fire and the refugees were settling down to eat. When Karis and Karlin returned, Karis asked Zarel “Has the Lightstone called?” “Not yet” the Lightstone-Bearer answered “but it will.” “We also sent the Thought-without-Words to the Lightfriends” Whitestar reminded the Swordsman, “They will know to come here, and bring others.” Dorvai, overhearing, added “And Lorin and Talar, who carried supplies here, will also have told any Children of Light they know.” “The Swordsmen we met when we entered Ma’al?” asked Karlin. “Yes, they are brothers and Children of Light” Dorvai answered. Karis queried “If only the mercenaries and the Malani bear weapons, how are there Swordsmen still in Ma’al?” Dorvai explained “When the Darkness fell in Ma’al, there were some few noble families who fought for Light against the Dark Lords. Their lands were taken and those who were not slaughtered were declared outlaw. The surviving families were in hiding, but still found means to train their sons as Swordsmen. There are very few Swordsmen left in Ma’al, but there are some. Lorin and Talar are the last of their line, but they fight for Light as their ancestors did.” “And they will join us here?” asked Zarel. “Here, or at the next safe haven”, Dorvai said.

Karis, still curious about the two Swordsmen, asked, ” How is it that they are the last of their line? They have no parents or children?” “It is a sad tale” Dorvai answered. “Their family had a homestead where they lived as ordinary folk, subsistence farmers. But the Dark Lords are relentless in their search for those they deem traitors, and somehow Lorin and Talar’s family were betrayed. The Dark Ones’ mercenaries descended on the homestead and spared no one. All were killed and the buildings burned down. Lorin and Talar escaped only because they were helping the Lightfriends with an errand at the time. When the Malani heard what had happened, they warned the Swordsmen against returning, and so they came to us. They were younger then, and felt it very much, especially Lorin, who is the younger. They were not in love or betrothed, and have had no thought of it since. It may be that when this Way is over and we are all in Li’is they will be able to think of a future for themselves, but for now the pain of their loss is all-encompassing.” “That is sad indeed.” Karis said, and Karlin and Zarel agreed. “I hope they may find a place and a future for themselves in Li’is.” the Lightstone-Bearer added. “We shall all need to find our place in Li’is” Dorvai said. “Though we are sure of welcome, as you told us, we will need to learn and adapt to a different world. Even the freedom will be strange to us, Zarel.” “It may be difficult, at first” Zarel replied “but as Children of Light, you will be in the place where you belong. You will soon feel at home in Li’is.”

Karis, who had been aware at the back of his mind of the sound of the sea in the lower caverns, now asked “Dorvai, how long can we stay here? If the Two-Moon Tides here are the same as in Li’is, it is near time for the next. Will these caverns be safe at the Two-Moon Tide?” The Lightfriend answered “In truth, Karis, I do not know. None of us has ever been here at the Two-Moon Tide. I think, though, there would have been signs if the Tide had come up this far in the caverns. But the Tide is not due for a few more days, and we should be on our way again by then.” “Beyond here we have one more safe haven” Naton added “but after that it is unknown territory.Though we have charts made by the early Lightfriends, none of us has ventured so far North.” Zarel responded “Light knows the way, Naton. The Lightstone has called the Children of Light together for this Way, and Light will guide us to its completion.” Sure enough, when they gathered for the Evening Prayers after their meal, the Lightstone began pulsing again, calling to the Children of Light and Zarel commented “The Lightstone knows there are more to join us yet.”

However, they were all surprised when, a short time later, they heard a sound from the cavern entrance. Surely no Child of Light had already answered the call of the Lightstone? It sounded like someone stamping on the hidden door, and Karis and Karlin were ready to defend the refugees, but Dorvai said, “No, it is a signal, Swordsmen. Someone seeks admittance.” They still followed him to the entrance, to be sure of his safety, but the opening of the entrance admitted more refugees. Three of them were Lightfriends, greeted gladly by Dorvai, followed by their families, including four boys, not yet grown, but with the vivid blue eyes that showed their Perception. There were others too, some family groups, and a couple of lone maidens, and they were followed by the young Swordsman Lorin. His brother was not with him, and Karis, having heard their sad story, asked anxiously “Where is your brother, Lorin? I pray Light no harm has befallen him!” “No, Talar has gone ahead.” Lorin explained. “He has gone to escort more Lightfriends to the next safe haven.” Once back in the main cavern, Lorin explained that he and his brother had carried the news of the Way to those Children of Light they knew how to find. The Lightfriends had already been alerted through the Thought-without-Words, and together they had travelled here with Lorin while, as he had said, his brother had gone ahead to collect others they knew of. In turn, Zarel explained that the Lightstone had called, so more Children of Light would be joining them. Then he had to explain the Way again to the newcomers, after which they were given food and drink to sustain them following their journey. The cavern was becoming crowded now, and Karis hoped that the Children of Light who the Lightstone had called would soon arrive and they would be able to move on. However, at least the number of people offset the lingering chill of the cavern, and as there were family groups they would be able to sleep more closely together than if unrelated. They managed, too, to allot a space with more privacy for the girls, and the rest of them disposed themselves as best they could.
It was not until morning that more Children of Light began to arrive. Corhan and his Malani had kept watch for the travellers and brought those they found to the safety of their camp before taking them on to the safe haven. Corhan explained that he had thought it wiser to gather a group of refugees, rather than bring them in ones and twos. “It seems safe enough” said the Lord of the Malani, “and there are no signs that we are observed, but I prefer to be cautious, and make two or three trips here rather than going constantly to and fro as newcomers arrive.” Dorvai, Zarel and the Swordsmen agreed. The Lightstone had not called again, so Zarel knew that when the latest influx of refugees was complete, they would be able to move on. After the new additions to their number had been fed, had the Way explained to them, and received the Lightstone’s touch, he and Whitestar managed to find a corner of the cavern, albeit cramped, where they could link Perceptions and, with the Lightstone’s and the Dancers’ aid, make the Thought-without-Words with their twins in Li’is to tell them how the way was progressing. It was a comfort to them both to be in contact with Aren and Moondancer again and share news of their progress, while Aren and Moondancer in turn were glad to hear that thus far the Way seemed to be going well, and to send their encouragement, prayers and blessings to their twins in Ma’al.

Mellin’s group were on their way up to the Plateau of the Westerners by now, and had camped overnight in the same little valley where Aiel and Lin, Arentha and Krystha, had camped so long before on the Lightstone Way, and been attacked by Children of Night. No such peril threatened them now, though, and they had settled comfortably enough. They had been surprised when Moondancer had told them there was no such feature as the Plateau on Ma’al , but Lira said “The Dancers told us that though much on our worlds was similar, other parts were totally different, so it is not so strange that the Plateau should not exist in Ma’al.” “That is true” Mella agreed, “but no doubt Zarel and the others will find it strange too.” Mellin answered his daughter, with a wry smile, “I think the terrain of Ma’al will be the least of their concerns, Mella!” “And my father and the other Lightfriends will guide them” Moondancer reassured them. Lira told her “When we reach the Plateau, Moondancer, you must look to the night skies. Up there they are so beautiful!” Zohra said, “Oh yes, you must see our skies, Moondancer. ” She smiled at Arenel, and added “There is little I miss of the West now, since I have been so long in the City, but those skies are one thing. ” They had been preparing to pack up and move on, after their morning meal and prayers, but paused for the communication between the two sets of twins. After Aren had told them Zarel’s news, Mellin said “So it seems that all goes well so far, praise Light! The Children of Light are gathering to the Lightstone, as the Dancers said.” “Still” Arenel commented “we need to keep them constantly in prayer. Light is with them, but it is a perilous Way. Praise Light they have the faith and courage to take it.”

In the sea caverns on Ma’al , Karlin was hoping that the last of the refugees would soon arrive so that they could move on. This refuge had never been intended for so many, and though they had managed to clear a way into another, smaller cavern to make more room, it was still very crowded, and some of the smaller children were growing fractious. He, like Zarel, had thought there would be very few Children of Light, apart from the Lightfriends and their families, in Ma’al, but as people had answered the Lightstone’s call and their numbers had grown, the Swordsman had realised that the Lightstone-Bearer’s task was greater than they had imagined. With the refugees they had already gathered, as well as Corhan’s Malani, and more still to come, they would be a large number by the time they had to cross the open plain towards the Meeting Place, and surely could not continue unobserved. He voiced his concerns about this to Karis and Lorin as the three Swordsmen stood guard at the cavern entrance, waiting for any new arrivals. Karis agreed, but Lorin said “Swordsmen of Li’is, I understand your fears. But we of Ma’al who follow Light have to trust wholly in Light. It is true that there have been disasters for the Children of Light, such as befell my family and Dorvai’s wife. But if Light has called us together and sent the Lightstone-Bearer into Ma’al to lead us to safety in Li’is, Light will defend us, somehow. We would not be called together so to be slaughtered. Light is merciful.” In the face of his faith, Karis and Karlin felt ashamed of their fears, and agreed with him. Another stamping sound from above was the signal to open the entrance, and a further group of refugees appeared, led by the Malani. Once again Corhan had caused them to wait and gather in his camp before sending them on to the refuge, and it was a fairly large group. Karis and Karlin were wondering where they would all find space in the caverns, but to their relief the Malani told them that there were no more Children of Light to come as all had been safely escorted here. Karis thought to himself that at least that would mean that they could soon move on. The Malani also told them that Corhan would await their instructions before preparing to break camp. They went back up the stairway and closed the entrance behind them, and the three Swordsmen led the new group of refugees into the caverns, where Zarel, Dorvai, Whitestar and Naton greeted them, explained the Way again, and once more Zarel used the Lightstone to bless and encourage the newcomers.

That done, they were taken by some of the other Children of Light to eat and rest after their travels, while the Lightfriends, Lightstone-Bearer and Swordsmen conferred over plans to continue the Way. “It grows cramped here” Karis said. “It would be as well to move on quickly.” “That is true” Zarel answered “but the day is well advanced now. I think we can manage another night here, and leave early tomorrow.” “Corhan’s Swordsmen said he would await our instructions on when to break camp.” Karlin contributed. “We should send him word.” “I will go” Lorin said. “I will return to help here tomorrow.” “Very well” Zarel responded. “Tell him to be ready to make an early start. We will need to travel under cover of the Malani again, and that grows more difficult as there are so many more of us.” After Lorin had left them to carry their message to Corhan, Zarel and the Lightfriends moved among the refugees to tell them to prepare to move on tomorrow. Karis found Sharamine, and informed her of the plan. “I shall not be sorry to leave this place.” he added. “It is safe, but with so many here it is not very comfortable. And I miss the daylight, even that of Ma’al! Has it been well with you, Sharamine?” “It has” she answered. “I am glad to be safe and among the Children of Light.” Karis had feared, as the refugees gathered, that she would stand out because of her marriage bracelet, but had noted that some of the women who had joined them wore the bracelet too. He had asked Dorvai about this, and the Lightfriend had explained “Those Children of Light who live among the people of Ma’al must behave as those people think normal, so though they have been married by the Lightfriends, they go through the marriage ceremony before the Townmaster when they return to the towns.” So Sharamine now fitted in with the others, and there was no need to explain their sham marriage to any. “We are to move on to the last safe haven” Karis told her, “but after that, I do not know. We can only trust to the leading of Light.” “Where better to trust?” Sharamine said. “Light has called us to Li’is, and will fulfill the calling.” Again Karis felt humbled by the faith of the Children of Light of Ma’al, who had faced so much Darkness yet were still totally trusting of Light. He guessed that many of them, if asked, could tell of trials of faith as great of that of Dorvai and his daughters, of the Swordsmen Lorin and Talar, or Sharamine herself, yet they stayed true to Light and depended fully on their faith. As Sharamine had said, Light had called them and they had heard and obeyed the calling, even though they did not know why or where they were called when they left their places to follow. “You are right, Sharamine” he agreed. “Light is with us, and the Lightstone-Bearer leads us. That is enough.”

They were all relieved that this was the last night they would have to spend in such cramped conditions, and no one demurred at the next morning’s early start. The provisions that had been brought here from what had been carried from Li’is were now very low but should just last them to the next and last of the Lightfriends’ havens, where more had been conveyed for their arrival. Lorin returned from Corhan’s camp to say that the Malani were ready to move, and the exodus from the caverns began. It was not thought wise to move such a large number of people together, so they left in groups, escorted by waiting Malani Swordsmen. Despite their eagerness to leave the caverns behind, Karis and Karlin waited with Zarel, Whitestar and Dorvai until everyone else had been safely evacuated and they could make their own way to join the rest at Corhan’s camp site. The camp had been struck, the travelling sledges packed, and some horses left unladen for those who were less able to walk. As before, the Malani surrounded the Children of Light to conceal them, and the refugees travelled with hoods up or wearing headgear provided by the Malani, to hide their fairer skin. Though the sea was still on one side of them for a while, it gradually fell out of view and the land sloped down, though it still rose and fell in gentle undulations. “We will not reach the haven today” Naton told them. “We will need to camp with the Malani overnight again.” They travelled as before, on foot, with the less able on the few available horses, taking breaks for rest and food. The ground was like rough moorland, but not too difficult to cross, especially as there were no hills to climb. As it drew near to evening they began to think of making camp, and Corhan sent out some scouts to find a suitable place. After searching, they returned with news of a place nearby, more of a hollow than a valley but with a little spring for water and some small trees for cover. The rest of them followed the scouts to the chosen site and again the Malani set up camp with quick efficiency. They were all glad to rest from their travels and after the refugees had eaten a small and simple meal, since their stocks were depleted, the Lightfriends led the Evening Prayers and they went to their rest in the tents allotted them, tired from the journey.

As they set off again the next morning, Karis asked Dorvai and Naton about the next safe haven, with his mind on its defence. “It is an abandoned farm, as we said” Dorvai told him. “The land has long since become too worked out for crops and too poor for grazing. It was never that fertile an area, and bad management made it useless.”
Karlin asked ” Are you sure, though, that no one has sought shelter there since? It may be occupied now. ” “No” Naton said. “The last to farm there spread a bad report about the place, since they had failed to thrive there. They would not admit their management of the farm was to blame, and spread rumours about poisons in the soil and water. It was all nonsense, but it suited us that the superstitious folk believed them. No one will go there now and the place is shunned.” “It has been neglected for many years now” Dorvai added ” and its tumbledown appearance makes it even more unappealing to any passer-by – though in truth, it is seldom that any go near.” Karis and Karlin were still a little concerned about what seemed to them the possible vulnerability of the farm, but since Dorvai and Naton spoke with such certainty, and they had the protection of the Malani if any danger should threaten, they put the matter aside and concentrated on the journey there. The abandoned farm, Dorvai told them, was on an upland, not far distant from the Seacoast Town but out of the way of travellers there. There were a few Children of Light in the Town, and no doubt the Lightstone would call them to join the others. “They know the haven, and how to approach in a roundabout way, so as not to invite inquiry.” the Lightfriend assured them. The Malani too led them by a roundabout route, using, where possible, the cover of dips in the landscape or belts of trees to hide their passage. At last they came to the first sign of the old farm, some tumbledown fencing and a collapsed roofed structure which might have once sheltered farm animals. The soil beyond the fencing, as Dorvai had said, was thin and poor, and hosted only patches of weeds and some scrubby bushes.
Zarel, Karis and Karlin were surprised at the comparative size of the place. The worn out fields stretched for a fair distance, and they could see a group of buildings across them. It looked as though there would be plenty of room for all, after the cramped sea caverns. As they neared the buildings, the Swordsmen tensed, seeing a movement, but Lorin said “It will be Talar and the Children of Light he brought here.” Sure enough, as they came up to the main building, the Swordsman Talar appeared. Lorin went forward, and the brothers embraced. Karis looked around him. Besides the main building, some kind of homestead, there were several large and still serviceable barns. Though all the buildings were in a state of disrepair, they were usable and not dangerous. Zarel said ” I am glad this refuge is so spacious, Dorvai, for I think we will need to stay here a few days, to gather the last of the Children of Light and to plan our strategy for approaching the Meeting Place. We will need to make a careful study of your charts, since none of you have gone much beyond this point.” The others agreed, and Corhan said “We will take one of the barns to hide our gear and the horses, and camp there, since the Malani are not known to travel much in this area.” “Very well” Zarel agreed “and we can allocate the other barns for sleeping and use the homestead for meals and instructions for the Children of Light, for prayers, and for our discussions. ” Karlin asked Talar “Provisions were brought here, I know, but is there water?” “Yes” Talar said. “There is a well, and we have made sure it was clear while we waited for you.” “Then we are well prepared.” Zarel said “That will help us prepare for the final part of the Way.”
For now, though, there was the need to let the weary refugees rest , while sleeping quarters were sorted out and food prepared. Corhan and his Malani drew their sledges into the cover of one of the barns,opting, since they had their tents for cover, for a building with a less weatherproof roof than the others. the horses were loosed and cared for, and they set up camp inside. Whitestar, Sharamine, Varine and Kira , with help from some of the younger women, made ready one of the barns for the use of the lone women in the group. Some of the men prepared other buildings for the families with children and the menfolk, while the Lightfriends and their families prepared the evening meal. Once all was done, they gathered in the homestead to eat, and afterwards to make the Evening Prayers.

Zarel and the Lightfriends of Ma’al had decided, after all the work of getting the haven ready, that they should leave their deliberations about the rest of the journey until the next day, since all were weary and would think more clearly after a night’s rest. So it was not till all the next morning’s tasks had been dealt with that they were able to come together to consider what lay ahead. Dorvai, as Healer, was somewhat concerned. He had been called on to treat some minor but painful consequences of the long journey, sore feet and fatigue among the older and younger refugees being among them. “It is a long way to the Meeting Place, and exposed” he said. “I trust Light and the Lightstone-Bearer to bring us there safely, but it will be hard going for some.” Corhan promised “We will lighten our load as much as possible, to free horses to carry some, but we need to bring some tents for cover for everyone at night, and there will not be room on horseback for all who need it.” “We need more horses” Naton said. “There are carts here, still serviceable, which we could use for those who cannot walk so far, but we need beasts to draw them, we cannot drag them ourselves.” “Then Karlin and I will have to go into the Seacoast Town to buy them, since anyone else might be detected as outlaw.” Karis said, decisively. “Saban and I will come with you, then,” Corhan declared “since you will not know the ways of the Town, and how to haggle with the dealers.” “Thank you, Corhan” Karis answered. Zarel said “Very well, but in the Name of Light, take care! And remember that you cannot mention that Name among the Dark Ones.” The Swordsmen and Malani were soon mounted and on their way. It was a strange journey for Karis and Karlin, for the place they were heading for had its parallel in the Merchant Town on the Great Bay in Li’is. Though neither Karis nor Karlin had been to that place, they had heard Lin’s and Mellin’s accounts of it, enough to have some idea of its layout. They had to remind themselves that though this town might seem half-familiar, this was a different place entirely, and to leave the pathfinding to Corhan and Saban.

As they entered the town, they recognised the likenesses to the Merchant Town. There was no Faring House, of course, but there were merchants’ booths and shops, and an inn or two. At one of these they stopped, to leave their mounts and enquire where horses might be sold. The innkeeper mentioned two places, but recommended one over the other. As they left the inn, Karis remarked “The innkeeper seemed to think highly of that horse dealer.” Corhan laughed. “Ah, you are too trusting, my friend! No doubt he will get some share of any money the dealer makes from sales to those the innkeeper directs to him. We will look at both dealers’ stock.” It took some time to locate the dealers’ premises, and after visiting them both, they took the sturdiest of the beasts each had to offer, four in all, so that they could lead one horse each. Karis and Karlin, though well used to selecting horses, were accustomed to the fine animals bred by the Westerners, or at the Fortress, and were not over impressed by the beasts they had purchased, but since they were to be draught horses, it did not matter that they were not the most excellent of their breed. After arranging for their purchases to be delivered to the inn where they had left their own mounts, they set out to make their way back there.

Quite how it was that Karis managed to drop behind the others he did not know, though afterwards he realised it must have been planned. A stumbling drunkard swaying across his path, one or two other obstacles, deliberately placed, it occurred to him later, and he was half the street’s length behind them. Before he could hurry to catch up with Karlin, Corhan and Saban, he found his way blocked by a thickset man in the leather harness of a mercenary. He wore his employer’s badge on the harness, a badge which said nothing to Karis, though it was obviously meant to. The man smiled at Karis. It was not a pleasant smile. “I have a message for you. It seems you have had the misfortune to displease my master.” Karis knew he was in danger, but kept his voice calm. “How so?” “You have taken something which should have been his.” “I am not aware” said Karis “that I have taken anything from any man.” “You have taken the girl Sharamine” the mercenary said. “She was intended for my master’s marriage bed. Your marriage must be broken.” He smiled his unpleasant smile again. “My master will soon tire of her, no doubt, and toss her back to you.” Karis knew that this was no time to lose his temper and fought back the burning swell of anger that rose in him, hearing this man talk of Sharamine as if she were nothing. A toy, he thought, a plaything, a doll to be used and thrown from man to man, of less value to such men, as he had thought after their sham marriage, than a horse or a hound. He felt sick. He said, with a coolness he did not feel, “And suppose I do not choose to take your master’s leavings? Suppose I will not break the marriage?” “Then” said the other man, still smiling, “your wife will become your widow!” Suddenly there were two other men standing with him, swords drawn, but Karis too had the True Sword in his hand, for the first mercenary’s signal had not been too fast for the Swordsman to see. “Kill him!” the leader of the mercenaries ordered. As the men closed in on him, Karis thought that surely Karlin and the others had realised by now that he was not with them. He yelled at the top of his voice “Karlin!”

For a moment, as he concentrated on parrying his attackers’ blows, he was beset by a dreadful doubt – could the others too have been cut off, and be in danger from other attackers? But then he heard Karlin’s answering cry. The man leading the attack cursed, and ordered “Finish him-quickly!” Karis, however, knowing help was coming, fought fiercely to defend himself. The True Sword found a target, and one of his attackers fell. A blade slashed towards his body, but he leapt back and suffered only a light cut across one forearm. Suddenly, he was in a churning mass of bodies, Karlin at his shoulder, Corhan and Saban fighting to protect his back. Outnumbered now, and with one man down, the mercenaries fled. Karis gave a deep sigh, and wiped the sweat from his brow with his forearm. Karlin, seeing blood on his sleeve, gave an exclamation of concern. “Karis- are you hurt?” “Only a scratch” his kinsman reassured him “thanks to your speedy help. Thank you – all of you.” Saban flashed him a wide smile. Corhan grunted. He was turning over the sprawling body of the mercenary with the toe of his boot. “Dead” he said, decisively. Karis felt a strange sensation in the pit of his stomach. He had never taken a life before, and it was not a good feeling. His Swordsman’s vows bade him kill only at the last extremity. But this was Ma’al, and the laws that governed life in Li’is held no sway here. Corhan, seeing his expression, asked “Is it well with you, Karis?” Karis nodded. “I have never had to do such a thing before” he explained. “It does not come easily to me, Corhan.” Corhan said, solemnly, “If it came easily to you to kill, you would not be the man I know you to be, Karis, my friend.” Karlin said “We should go, before someone comes to investigate the noise!” Saban shrugged. “A brawl in the street – it will be put down to drunken mercenaries fighting.” Corhan, though, asked his friend “Have you seen whose badge the man wears, Saban? He will not let it rest. Karlin is right. Come, quickly.” When they reached the inn where they had left the horses, Corhan said “Best if you and Karlin wait outside, Karis. It might be that someone at the inn betrayed you.”

In a little while the two Malani returned, mounted, and leading the other horses. The kinsmen swung into their saddles and took one of the purchased horses’ halters each, and they trotted out of the town, glad to leave it behind. When they had almost reached the Lightfriends’ hiding place, they dismounted and led the horses by a roundabout way, muddling their tracks to confuse any who might pursue them. As they walked, Karis said “Corhan – you saved my life today – you and Saban and Karlin. We have fought a common enemy, back to back. And, if it pleases you, Karlin and I would be glad to swear Sword-Brotherhood with you.” For he and Karlin had been discussing it quietly as they rode.To their surprise, Corhan asked “What is it then – this swearing of Sword-Brotherhood?” For though the Dancers had warned them that there was no such thing as Sword-Brotherhood among the people of Ma’al, they had thought that surely any Swordsmen among the Children of Light, such as the Malani, would have kept the custom. “You have no Sword-Brethren?” Karlin asked. “Aye, many” said Corhan. “Saban, and all the men of the Malani. They all fight with me against the Darkness.” “That is one kind of Sword-Brotherhood” Karis replied “but in Li’is we have the way of swearing an oath of Sword-Brotherhood with those of our company or kin for whom we feel a special Brotherhood. A Sword-Brother is one that you know to be loyal – to you and to Light – and trustworthy, and courageous, and honourable. A Sword-Brother may even be a valiant maiden, like Tamorine, the maiden who helped defeat the first Darkness that came into Li’is.” “Or Krystha, Karis’ mother, who was a Way-Sharer on the Lightstone Way” added Karlin. “She and Lin, his father, were Sword-Brethren before ever they fell in love.” Corhan was looking thoughtful. “It seems a good thing to me” he said. “How blessed you are in your world of Li’is, to have so many men – and maidens- of such honour and courage.” Suddenly, Karis knew that Corhan was thinking again of his dream, and wondering whether another such valiant maiden as Tamorine might be his future Lady. Karis drew the True Sword and explained the vow of Sword-Brotherhood to the Malani, and they made the vow on the Sword’s hilt. When that was done, Corhan said “I am curious about your sword, Karis. For you have never been in Ma’al , and yet it has a look of the swords the ancient craftsmen of this world made, before it fell to Darkness. “And so it is, Corhan” Karis answered. “For the True Sword was brought out of Ma’al into Li’is by the First Lightfriends and the Ketai, and given to Brann to carry in the battle against Darkness. My father bore it on the Lightstone Way, but gave it to me to bring here, for where the Lightstone goes, so too does the True Sword.”

The four Swordsmen remounted and made their way back to the place of refuge, leading the purchased horses. When they reached the hiding place, the beasts were handed over for stabling, and they went in to join the others, who welcomed them gladly, happy at their safe return. But Zarel, Perceiving that something disturbed his kin, asked “Did something go amiss in the town, Karis?” and Dorvai also queried “Are you hurt?” as he saw the smear of blood on Karis’ sleeve. Karis had hoped not to mention the events that had occurred in the town, for he was afraid that the telling might bring new fear to Sharamine, but now it could not be avoided. So he explained, as briefly as possible, what had happened, and reassured them that, thanks to his Sword-Brethren, he had escaped with only a scratch. “Though in the skirmish I slew one of the mercenaries” he added, “and that weighs heavy on me.” Zarel comforted him “Remember what the Dancers told us before we came here, Karis. You cannot live like a Swordsman of Li’is in Ma’al. There is no fault in what you have done. And we know”, he added, “that those who live by the Darkness of Ma’al are judged of Light, and the Dark World doomed. I think the man had not much longer to live in any case.” Sharamine, as Karis had feared, was looking concerned. He said “We were not pursued, we made sure of that. There is no danger to anyone here.” “And we will set guards, as always” confirmed Corhan. “Everyone will be safe.” Sharamine said “But you were in danger in the town!” “No harm has been done” Karlin assured her. “And we had to go, to get the horses. Now we have transport for the less able.” Karis had not admitted, even to Karlin, that the admiration, concern and affection he had had for Sharamine had gradually grown into love for her. He did not want her to know, not until they were safe in Li’is. He remembered how she had been nervous, after their sham marriage, that he might use it to make demands on her that she did not want. To speak to her of his love, while they were still in Ma’al and she was not yet free of its laws, might make her question his motives again, and he did now want her to fear him.

Zarel was relieved that the four Swordsmen had escaped the attack. He had been concerned about the dangers of the town. But still, he thought, it had, by the Mercy of Light, turned out well in the end, and now they could use the carts to transport those Children of Light who might not have been able to withstand the rigours of a long journey on foot. As they had gathered the refugees, he had begun to realise that there were many more than he had expected. Ma’al was the Dark World, and he had thought the Darkness would be almost total, but the Lightfriends of Ma’al had been faithful and loyal in their service to Light, over the centuries, and though it was death to serve Light in Ma’al, still there were those who followed the Rule of Light, and they were more numerous than the handful Zarel had thought. There were all the Malani, and whole families and small communities of secret Children of Light. It made him glad, but also concerned. Once they reached the large open plain they must cross to reach the equivalent of the Meeting Place, such a large number of people could not but be seen by the Hawks, and no doubt pursuit was inevitable. His hand strayed to the Lightstone, and he felt ashamed of his doubts. Light had sent him here for a purpose, and Light would accomplish that purpose. He was still concerned enough,though, to gather Dorvai and the other Lightfriends, together with Karis, Karlin, Lorin, Talar , Corhan and Saban, to discuss the protection of the Children of light on the way to the Meeting Place. There were few Swordsmen among them, other than the Malani and those like the two brothers. Those that there were had mostly been trained by Corhan’s people, since otherwise, to receive training in the use of any weapon would mean joining a band of mercenaries. The other men were farmers, or had worked at various trades, and though they would no doubt be willing to defend their friends and families, would not have the skills to withstand trained fighters. The Dark Ones’ suppression of women, too, meant that only the Malani women were really capable of fighting, though the younger women would no doubt have done their best if threatened. So what Swordsmen there were must guard the rear and perimeters of the column of refugees, and, the others were very clear, Karis and Karlin must guard Zarel and the Lightstone, as the Dancers had charged them to. The Lightfriends would be positioned throughout the column, both to support and encourage the Children of light, and to be ready to alert the others, through the Thought-without-Words, if there was a threat to any sector of the column. That decided, Zarel felt more at ease. The safety of these people was a responsibility he felt keenly. After the discussions, there was still the matter of harnessing the horses they had obtained to the carts in the outbuildings and getting them used to pulling them, as well as checking that the carts were in good working order and the wheels firmly in place, for it would be disastrous to lose a wheel on the journey, when a cart was full of passengers. Karis and Karlin went to help Naton and some of the men from the Children of Light, and it took some time. Then they went back to the main building, where Dorvai and Zarel led the Evening Prayers, and afterwards, there were the people to be fed. So time passed quickly, and soon it was time to allot sleeping places in the various outbuildings, and to retire.

Karis woke early, startled by a dream of the previous day’s events. He did not feel that he could sleep again, and since Karlin and the other men were still asleep, he quietly made his way out into the air. Instinctively, he glanced round for any sign of danger, but all seemed peaceful. He noticed, though, that the door of one of the outbuildings was a little ajar, and went to see that all was well, since it was there that Sharamine had gone to sleep, with Whitestar and some of the other women and girls. He looked in quietly, so as not to disturb them, but saw that Sharamine’s place was empty. That, and the partly-opened door, caused Karis a moment of near-panic. He tried to assure himself that she had likely gone outside for some good reason, but still his quick gaze took in all the details of the empty sleeping place, searching for clues. Seeing something unusual propped up on a cross-beam above it, he went silently to investigate. It was a message from Sharamine – brief, and written with makeshift materials, soft chalky stone on a piece of smooth bark, hard to read. Karis carried it out into the light, sure of nothing but her name at the bottom. When he was able to decipher it, it said simply ‘I must go. Thank you for everything. Sharamine.’ He gave a little groan. Why had she gone? Had she been frightened by the events of yesterday? Had he, or one of the others, done or said something to drive her away? Or, in spite of the Malani guard, had she been carried off by that evil man or his minions. forced to leave a message to throw them off the scent? He had no doubt of her fate, if that were the case, and everything in him shuddered at the thought. Trying to think calmly, he realised that abduction was unlikely, since Sharamine would surely have struggled or screamed, and alerted the others sleeping there. But whatever the cause, he could not let her go like this.

Hurrying back to the sleeping place he had shared with Karis, he shook his nephew awake. Karlin looked up at his young uncle, startled, and then, seeing the anxiety in Karis’ face. asked “Karis – what is it?” “Sharamine has gone” Karis answered, showing him the piece of bark with its scrawled message. “Karlin, I must find her!” “But if she has gone of her own accord…” “I do not know that she has! And you know that there is danger, Karlin. I cannot let her go off alone!” “Then I will come with you.” “No! Karlin, you must stay. Zarel must be guarded. Whatever happens, he cannot fail.” “Then perhaps you should not go either” Karlin said, but gently. “Perhaps the Way is more important even than Sharamine’s safety.” Karis answered, with anguish in his voice now “I know, I know! But -” he hesitated a moment, then confessed “Oh, I love her, Karlin! If it were Janna, how would you feel? I must find her!” “I thought that might be the way of it” Karlin replied, “but you must set a limit to your searching, Karis – you know that.” “She cannot have got far – a maiden on foot. She would not have taken a horse. And she would not go back, she would go on. I will find her, Karlin.” “Light grant you do, Sword-Brother!” Karlin prayed. He went with Karis to where the horses were tethered, promised to tell Zarel everything, and, before Karis mounted, he embraced him and prayed Light’s protection on him, and on Sharamine. “Go in Light” he said “And in the Name of Light, Karis, be careful!””I will” Karis promised, seeing by Karlin’s expression how much his kinsman disliked his going off alone. He rode away from the decrepit farm and its buildings, alert for any sign of mercenaries or Hawks, but saw none. Hoping that a lone horseman would not be of interest should either appear, he made his way across the rough ground, heading in the general direction of the North. He was sure, as he had told Karlin, that Sharamine would not have turned back towards the towns, where danger lay. Perhaps she was hoping to reach the Meeting Place by herself, He kept alert, but it was by his Swordsman’s instincts alone, since his mind was turning over the question of why Sharamine had fled. He was concerned, too, that there were no landmarks of note to help with any return journey, should he find her, until he came to a range of low hills.

Karis took the risk of riding up onto a rocky outcrop to survey his surroundings. On the other side the land had slipped down a small cliff immediately to his right, while the rest led down into a natural depression, surrounded by rough, scrubby woodland. At the heart of the depression, though, lay something odd, a dark pool so perfectly circular that the Swordsman thought it had to be man-made. He turned his head a little, so that his keen sight was not hampered by the dull hazy glow that so often passed for sunlight in Ma’al, and stared down at the place. It was a round pit filled with a black, scummy, viscous-looking liquid, and, Karis saw with a shudder, containing animal bones, and what he thought, but could not be sure, were human remains too. Was it a place where bodies were disposed of? Round the perimeter of the pit was a mass of strange vegetation. Huge, flat fleshy things that might have been either leaf or fungus, grey-green in colour, in overlapping rows all pointing outwards from the pit. Beyond these again was a ring of thorny hedge, perhaps planted to keep out the curious. Between this hedge and the surrounding woodland was an area of dry, bare earth on which the only vegetation seemed to be a sprawling mass of ground-vines, such as those which were familiar to Karis from his own Forest. Karis rode down, intending to skirt round the woodland and go on, but checked as he saw, in a patch of slimy mud, a few small footprints heading directly towards the trees. The prints showed that Sharamine – if it were her – had stumbled. There were the prints of knee and hand. If it was her, he reasoned, and she was weary or hurt, her impulse might be to hide under the trees to rest, for fear of the Hawks. The horse seemed nervous as he rode into the woodland, which put him on his guard, for the mounts of the people of Ma’al must be well used to the many horrors of the Dark World. It was dark and dank under the trees, quite chilly after the stormy sultriness outside. Karis saw nothing that might make the horse skittish, but thought that perhaps some wild beast had its lair here. In a soft voice that still seemed loud in the dead silence of the woodland, he called “Sharamine, are you here? It is Karis.” There was no reply, and he rode on, finding the going difficult, for the trees were low and grew closely together. Only once did he think he saw a movement at the edge of his sight, but he could not be sure. At length Karis found himself on the inner edge of the woodland, having ridden right through it to the clearing around the sinister pit. Now he was here, he thought, he might as well go out into the clearing and see if there were more footprints crossing it anywhere. He cast a wary eye upward, but no Hawk was to be seen. A few spears of lightning flashed over him, with an accompanying rumble of thunder as they had experienced before in Ma’al. Karis knew that despite the lightning there was little fear of rain. He rode forward into the clearing, saw at once that the dry ground was too hard to show footprints, stopped, and turned a little in the saddle, his amber-brown eyes scanning the edges of the surrounding area.

His mount was fidgeting nervously, its feet dancing among the ground vines, until it stepped on one and almost stumbled. Karis, looking down to steady the horse, watched in stunned disbelief as the limp vine came suddenly to life, lashing up and around the beast’s front legs. Even then the Swordsman did not realise his danger, reaching for his sword to cut away the vine. But then the horse, pulled down by the rope-like vine, dropped to its knees, almost throwing Karis. As he watched, still immobilised by shock and disbelief, more of the vines came to life, some lashing upwards like whips, some squirming along the ground to take a firmer grasp of the imprisoned animal. One brushed his leg, and Karis came suddenly to his senses, his Swordsman’s instincts taking command. Too late to free the horse – perhaps too late to save himself! Thrusting his sword back in its sheath, he climbed up onto the saddle, then scrambled up the frantic beast’s haunches, reached up, and swung himself up into the branches of one of the low-growing trees, praying that the deadly vines were confined to the ground. The horse was squealing in terror, unable to free itself. Karis, having managed to pull himself astride a low branch, gripped it tightly as he watched, horrified, the struggling animal bound up tightly in the vines, which then began to contract, drawing the wretched beast towards the thorny palisade. To Karis’ shocked amazement, a section of this ‘hedge’ now lowered itself, and he saw a mass of sharp spines rise from it, glistening as if with oil. The vines dragged the horse onto these, then released it and relaxed, falling back to lie inert across the clearing again. The animal made one frantic effort to struggle to its feet, but then collapsed, rolled to and fro a couple of times, gave one great snort, and lay quite still – lifeless, Karis thought, and, for the beast’s sake, hoped, not knowing what fresh horror might follow. He soon saw, for the thorny mass lifted again, throwing the animal’s body onto the flat fleshy growths around the pit. From his vantage point, Karis could see these ‘leaves’ move with a wave-like motion, rolling the dead horse inward to the pit. There was an oily splash, a foul miasma arose around the half-submerged body, carrying a terrible, carrion stench up to Karis’ protesting nostrils, and there was only silence and stillness again. Karis clung to his branch, feeling that at any moment he would be horribly sick, but the nausea passed, and he was able to think clearly again. He realised that what he had seen from the ridge was not a man-made, hedged-in pit at all. The whole thing was one enormous, living organism, seeming half-plant, half-beast. At home in Li’is, he recalled, on the desert edges of the Eastern Continent, there were small carnivorous plants that trapped and digested insects. Here was a huge and much more deadly variation. The vines acted as a trap, then drew the victim on to the thorns, which Karis supposed injected some kind of paralysing poison. Then the victim was rolled into the pit to be digested.

He must find Sharamine! She was in deadly danger. Karis’ mind refused to accept the thought that she might already have been entrapped and poisoned and thrown into that horrible pit. He moved carefully across the branches of the tree, away from the clearing, and having made sure that the ground beneath him was clear of vines, dropped down. A quick survey showed him that the vines were confined to the bare area around the pit, and it was safe to walk among the trees. At least, he thought, he still had his weapons, the True Sword at his side, and his bow and arrows – praise Light he had slung them on his back and not on his saddle-bow. He began to move carefully through the woodland, calling for Sharamine. He had almost given up hope, trying not to think of the devouring pit-plant, when he suddenly heard a faint, answering cry. He ran forward, then checked as he found himself on the edge of the dreadful clearing once more. He saw her then, peering out at him, pale-faced, from the trees, a little way away, just a few fateful steps across the clearing … “Sharamine, stay there! Do not move! The vines…” he began, but she had already started forwards towards him. He drew his sword and ran towards her. leaping across the vines. He remembered that they had not moved until the horse had actually trodden on one – that must be the trigger. “Oh, Sweet Light, let her not step on them!” Karis prayed as he ran. But just a few seconds before he reached her, Sharamine did tread on a vine . It whipped round her ankles and snatched her feet from under her, but Karis leapt to catch her so that she fell, not amongst the greedy vines, but against him, held firm in his left arm as his right flashed down, his sword slashing through the vine. There was a hissing sound, the severed vine began to writhe and lash about, and black, oily liquid poured from it like blood. The part of it still wrapped round Sharamine’s ankles went limp and fell away, and Karis snatched her to safety in among the trees and dropped with her to his knees, his sword falling to the ground, holding her tightly to him. As well as his relief at finding her, he was overwhelmed by the thought that, if he had not been there, she would have been the pit-plant’s next victim. She was trembling in his arms, but he was shaking almost as much, and the face he had hidden in her dark hair was wet with tears. They clung together in silence for a long few minutes, recovering from their ordeal. At last Sharamine whispered, in a voice that still trembled, “Oh Karis, what was that foul thing ? A snake?” “No, not a snake” he said, hesitant to tell her all, but when she insisted “What was it, then?” he told her, wanting to leave out the part about the horse, but finding that he could not, if he wanted to explain adequately. When he had finished she looked white and sick, and he was sorry he had told her. But she said “Karis, praise Light you were here. I was foolish to go off alone. But can nothing be done to warn others about that – that thing?”

“Certainly we must do something” he said. “If any of those who wish to join us come this way, they are in mortal danger. If it were possible, I would destroy the thing.” He sheathed his sword, and cautiously they crept to the edge of the trees and surveyed the vines spread across the clearing, innocent-looking now, save that from one of them still pulsed the oily black liquid, where Karis had wounded it. More lightning flashed overhead, and Karis looked up, with the germ of an idea in his mind. He looked around, and shook his head, frustrated. “Karis, what are you thinking?” Sharamine asked. “See that black – sap”, he explained, “it has an oily look; I think it might burn. I have means to make fire, but there is nothing here dry enough to catch it.” Sharamine reached into the carrying pouch at her waist and pulled out a handful of dried moss used for kindling. “I have this”, she offered, ” and I can tear off the hem of my underskirt.” “Sharamine, this will serve well” he told her. “Tear the strips, then.” He struggled to catch a spark to the moss, blowing it gently, while behind him he heard the rending of cloth as she tore the undergarment. He took the strips she handed him, wrapped one round an arrowhead, set it alight from his little fire, and, while Sharamine kept the fire alight, fitted the burning arrow to his bow. “Now!” he said, “We shall see, Sharamine.” Karis aimed the arrow into the pool of black liquid which had pumped out of the severed vine. For a moment nothing happened, and the flame flickered as if the liquid would extinguish it. Then there was a sudden flare as the fire caught. The severed vine burned fiercely, but the other vines near it drew back, away from the heat. “It burns” Karis muttered ” but it is useless to attack the limbs. We must aim for the heart.” He scrambled up into a tree, and Sharamine handed up his bow, and when he was ready, one after the other, three arrows tipped with burning cloth. It was a difficult task to draw and shoot a bow, even Karis’ stubby one, among the branches of a tree, but Karis was skilful, and all three arrows fell into the heart of the black pit. He stayed in the tree long enough to see the scummy surface begin to take fire, then dropped down to join Sharamine.

“I think it will burn, now…” he was beginning, when there was a dull, muffled explosion, and a blast of hot air that snatched the breath from them. Karis managed to shout “Sharamine, get down!” and as she obeyed him, throwing herself to the ground, he dropped across her, shielding her with his body. A fiery rain fell around them as gouts of burning liquid exploded from the pit. The vines convulsed wildly as the fire burned down into them. The fleshy ‘leaves’ curled and shrivelled, the thorny hedge took fire and burned fiercely, and a stinking, choking fog arose over the burning pit. “We must get away from this place ” Karis said into Sharamine’s ear, “If we are not burned or choked, that smoke will bring the Hawks down on us!” “There is a small cave” the girl panted, trying not to breathe the acrid smoke, “at the foot of the rock, well hidden – I stayed there last night. I think they will not find us there.” “Come then, show me!” he told her, and they leapt up and ran through the dense-packed trees, stumbling and gasping, until they were out of the woodland and racing across open ground, eyes straining constantly upwards for signs of the Hawks. They were safe in the shadow of the rock face before the first bright sail-wing appeared in the distance, and Sharamine fumbled aside a curtain of hanging creeper to reveal a narrow gap beneath. If not for the imminent approach of the Hawks, Karis might have hesitated, being now very mistrustful of the vegetation in this place. Still, if Sharamine had spent the night here unharmed – and his estimation of her courage rose at the thought – it must be safe enough. She slipped into the cave entrance, and he followed her, the creeper dropping down behind them to conceal the gap in the rock.Inside the cave it was not totally dark, for a pale, ghostly phosphorescence glowed from the walls, giving a light very faint, but enough, once the eyes were used to it, to see a dim outline by. “Sharamine – you slept here?” he asked, thinking how frightened and uncomfortable she must have been. “Oh, it was not so bad!” she exclaimed, as if she had read his thought. “You know I have not been used to lie soft, Karis.”

He found her hand in the darkness. “Sharamine, why did you run away?” he asked. “Did I do anything to frighten you?” “Oh no, no!” she protested. “Then why?” Karis insisted. “I had not thought before” Sharamine answered, “what this sham marriage might mean. I did not realise that what was safety for me might be danger for you.” “You did not say this when Dorvai first suggested it” he said, not meaning it to sound like an accusation, but there was pain in her voice when she answered “oh, I know! It was selfish of me, but I was so afraid! I did not know how evil he was, Karis. I thought if he heard I was married, his fancy would turn elsewhere. How was I to know that he would take it as an insult, and be ready to kill you rather than be thwarted of his lust for me?” “It was not your fault” he responded. “There was no need for you to run away. If I had taken any risk, I did it willingly, and if he had caught and harmed you, it would all have been for nothing.” “I would rather I were harmed than you”, she said. “Being my husband, even if only in name, makes you his lawful prey as far as he is concerned. Ah, Karis, should I see you killed for my sake?” “I am a Swordsman of Li’is” he said. “I can defend myself, as I did yesterday.” “Only with help! And against a man of Ma’al?” she asked. “You are a man of honour, Karis. What do you know of the treachery and evil in a man like him? He would not meet you face to face. It would be the knife in a dark alley, or the poisoned cup paid for with a bribe.” “It does not matter” he answered her. “I have married you, sham or no, and you are under my protection.” “Then break the marriage!” she cried. “It can be done at the nearest town. Free yourself, and be out of danger.” “And you in it?” he answered. “Do you wish to insult me, Sharamine? Do you think I am such a coward?” “Ah, no!” she cried again. “But I wish I had never made this contract with you, Karis.” “Then why did you? And why change your mind now?” he demanded. “I told you why. It seemed the answer to my problem, and I knew you were an honourable man. But that was before…” She broke off, and he asked “Before what, Sharamine?” He thought that she probably would not have answered him, if they had not been in darkness, so that he could not see her face. “Before – before I …” she hesitated, then said, in a rush,” before I grew to love you, Swordsman from the other side of Light.” She said no more, but he could hear her crying. He said gently, “Sharamine, sweet, do not weep. There is no need. I love you too. Oh, I thought my heart and soul would turn to stone when I found you gone! My love, I was so afraid for you!” “Karis…” she said, wonderingly, and somehow he found her in the dimness and took her in his arms and kissed her, and told her again “I love you”, and kissed her once more. But there was still the danger overhead, and he had now to find the means to bring her safely back to where the others were.

Telling Sharamine “Stay here!” Karis moved back to the cave entrance and peered cautiously out between the hanging leaves. The stench of the burning plant-creature and a pall of smoke still hung in the air, but there was no sign of the Hawks now. He said “I think it is safe to move. But take care!” They crept carefully out of the concealed cavern and hurried in among the trees, skirting the burnt area. “We must try to get back to the others” Karis said , “but without horses it will be difficult.” “Oh Karis, it is all my fault!” Sharamine exclaimed. “Why was I so foolish! And why did you follow me?” “You know why” he told her, gently. “Maybe I was foolish too, Sharamine, but I could not bear to let you go off alone. It is pointless to talk like this, though. We must try to find our way back.” He was not happy about the open country they must traverse, though, but he tried to hide his concern from her. They came to the edge of the trees, and halted in alarm. A young man, looking like a Swordsman rather than a mercenary, stood in their path, and he was holding the reins of three horses. Karis’ hand went to his sword-hilt. The man must have companions – where were they? But when the man spoke, his words were reassuring. “Have no fear. I am not an enemy. I have been sent to take you back to the Lightstone-Bearer.” Karis was doubtful – it might be a trap. Yet surely only a Child of Light would know of the Lightstone-Bearer, and he somehow felt the man was to be trusted. Still, he challenged “Who are you, and how do you know of the Lightstone-Bearer?” “I stand on the side of Light” the man replied. “My name is Mihel. There is no time to waste. The Hawks have gone back, but only to report. There will be others here to investigate what has caused the destruction of the Naqad.”Karis decided it was better to trust the stranger, Mihel, than to risk trying to get back to Zarel without help. “Very well” he said. He helped Sharamine to mount one of the horses and swung into the saddle of another. Mihel mounted too, and looked up. The overcast sky had darkened, and again they heard a sharp crack overhead. The stranger said ” Good, there is lightning. Maybe they will think it was lightning that did this.” And as they began to turn away, almost as if he had foretold it a bolt of lightning did hit one of the trees near the thing he had called the Naqad, and set it alight. A breeze sprang up and blew sparks and burning twigs into the still smouldering, oily pit, and little flames reignited. The breeze dropped again as quickly, and Mihel nodded, as if in satisfaction. Karis and Sharamine exchanged questioning glances, but Mihel said “Quickly now, follow me!” and they obeyed.

Karis could not have said how far he had ridden in his urgent search for Sharamine, nor what the surrounding country had looked like, but he was sure that the mysterious Swordsman Mihel must have known a shorter route back to the hiding place of the Children of Light, for they reached it much more quickly than he had expected, As they neared the place, Mihel said “You will be safe now. I must leave you here.” Karis, surprised, asked “You will not come with us to the Lightstone-Bearer?” Mihel shook his head. “Not now. I have other tasks to perform. But I will return. Tell Zarel that I will join you later, to help with the Way. Go in Light, Karis, Sharamine.” He raised a hand in farewell, and turned his horse away from them. Karis called “What of these horses, Mihel?” The Swordsman turned his head and called back “Keep them – I brought them for you. You will need them.” As he rode away, Karis and Sharamine were looking at each other in surprise. They had not given their names to Mihel, and Karis had deliberately not named Zarel, yet the Swordsman had known all. Perhaps, suggested Karis, Zarel and the Lightfriends had used the Thought-without-Words to contact other Lightfriends who had sent Mihel? That might explain it – though how would he have know where to find them? Sharamine agreed that that was the most likely explanation, and they turned back to look at Mihel, But he must have ridden very quickly round the curve of a nearby small hillock, for he was already out of sight. “Let us get to safety!” Karis urged, and they rode up the rough path to the farm. He was not surprised to find Zarel and Karlin waiting for them, guessing that Zarel would have Perceived their approach. As they dismounted, Karlin came forward to embrace Karis, exclaiming “Praise Light you have both returned safely, Sword-Brother!” Zarel too expressed relief, but his welcome seemed more muted, and Karis was suddenly, uncomfortably, aware that in going off after Sharamine, he had likely broken his vow to Zarel, the Lightstone-Bearer. He began to speak, but Zarel said, “Wait, Karis, till we are safely inside.” His tone was not harsh, though, and Karis took comfort in that.

Inside the farm the others were waiting, happy to see them return safely. Only when all the greetings and thankful praises to Light had been given did Zarel say “Karis, Sharamine, come with me” , and lead them to the curtained space which was being used as a Prayer Place. Once there he turned to face them, but before he could speak, Sharamine burst out “Oh Zarel, please – please do not scold Karis! It was my foolishness that caused him to follow me – I was in the wrong, to go off alone, and he only came after me to save me from danger – and indeed, he did save my life! Blame me, not him!” Zarel answered her gently “Sharamine, I am not here to blame. No doubt you had your reasons for leaving, and Karis’ intentions in following you were honourable and courageous. But still, he made a vow before Light and he has broken it. So he needs to repent, and make his peace with Light.” He smiled, then, and said “Light is merciful, and will forgive, and so do I.” “Then I too need to make my peace with Light” Sharamine said “since it was my fault that he broke his vow.” So each of them in turn stood before Zarel, and let him set his Perception on them, and lead them in repentance and surrender to Light. When that was done, he touched the Lightstone to each of their brows, and the light flooded over them in forgiveness and blessing. Afterwards, Karis asked, “Zarel, who was it sent the Swordsman Mihel to guide us back here? Did you and the Lightfriends make the Thought-without-Words?” Zarel was puzzled. “We did, but only to ask if any had seen you or Sharamine. I know nothing of this Mihel.” “But he knew our names – and yours!” Sharamine told him. “And he knew of the Way” Karis added. “He said he must leave us, now we were safe, because he had other tasks to perform, but he said ‘tell Zarel that I will join you later, to help with the Way.'” “That is strange indeed!” Zarel replied. “You were sure of him, Karis? He could not have been some spy of the Dark Lords?” “He said he stood on the side of Light, Zarel. And I did trust him. I do not know why, but I felt we were safe with him” Zarel paused, then asked “May I Perceive your memories of him? If I can see the man as you saw him, I might understand better.” Both of them readily agreed,and again he set his Perception on them in turn. When he had done so, he said “I wonder, where did the Swordsman come from? You are right, Karis, I could Perceive no Darkness in him. Yet still it is strange that he knows so much about us. We will ask Dorvai if he has heard of this Mihel.” When questioned, however neither Dorvai nor any of the other Lightfriends knew of Mihel, or any Child of Light who might have sent him to help Karis and Sharamine. So, thinking that as a Swordsman he might be known to the Malani, Zarel enquired if Corhan or Saban had ever encountered Mihel, but they had no knowledge about him either. “He said he would return” Karis reminded Zarel ” and when he does, we will question him further.” So with that they had to be content, for the time being.

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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