AN END OF DARKNESS

Chapter 10

As they moved on into the forbidden lands, everyone was alert for signs of pursuit or further obstacles. Zarel kept his Perception extended, aided by the Lightstone. All the Swordsmen and the warriors of the Malani were poised for action, and the Lightfriends ready to pass on news of any danger caught by their Perceptions. Apart from Whitestar, there were two other women among the Lightfriends, and they had been nominated to walk alongside the carts, in case any of the children should be frightened and cry, possibly giving away their presence. If so, the Lightfriends could use their Perceptions to help settle the children. In addition, a female presence would be welcome if there were any problems with the pregnant women. Now, as they progressed, it seemed that there was, as yet, no response to the breaching of the Dark Lords’ first barrier, and they relaxed somewhat. Zarel, however, was alert for signs of anything unusual, remembering Mihel’s warning of traps and sorceries. They crossed the untravelled landscape in silence, broken only by the sound of the horses’ harnesses jingling slightly as they trod, and the creak of the carts. Eventually the higher land on either side fell away again and they were traversing a seemingly endless plain that stretched away as far as they could see, with no landmarks, but no sign either of any barrier. Here, if anywhere, thought Zarel, was where they might encounter sorceries set to prevent movement through these lands, for the construction of any physical barriers would have been an immense task.

As they went further, there seemed to be a mist rising from the ground ahead. Karis said quietly to Zarel ” We should be cautious, Zarel. That mist might indicate marshy ground. It would not do to get the carts mired in it.” Zarel agreed, and Karis went on ” I should ride forward and test the ground.” Zarel was reluctant to allow the Swordsman to ride ahead alone, but could see no alternative. “Very well, but be cautious, Karis!” he instructed. He watched anxiously as Karis trotted carefully closer to the misty area and then walked his mount very slowly forward. He half-expected to see the beast’s legs sink into the ground, but nothing happened, and Karis rode safely back to them, shaking his head. “The ground is firm enough.” he stated. “Maybe it is just a heavy dewfall evaporating, but I would not trust anything here, Zarel.”
There was nothing to do but go on forward, but Zarel felt an unease in his Perception . They moved onto the misty ground and at first all seemed well, with only pale wisps of mists curling round the feet of the travellers and their horses. Soon, though, the mist began to thicken and change colour, and suddenly they were surrounded by a thick, choking, yellow fog that seemed to boil up from the ground. It coiled around them like some amorphous beast, so that they could hardly breathe or see. “This is no natural fog!” Zarel exclaimed. “It is one of the Dark Lords’ sorceries!” He drew out the Lightstone and gazed into it, calling on its strength to defeat the sorcery. As he did so, he felt the lightest of touches in his Perception, and light though it was, he knew that Mihel’s power was behind it, joining his Perception in the fight against the sorcery. Grateful for the Shining One’s help, he concentrated on sending the power of the Lightstone into the fog which the Dark Ones had summoned. The Lightstone blazed in his hands and his blue Priest’s eyes glowed as he focussed all his attention and his Perception on the task. The others watched as the Lightstone-Bearer fought silently. For a while it seemed the eerie fog would resist all his efforts, but then a great flood of light poured from the Lightstone, and as soon as it touched the yellow pall, it began to thin and lessen and sink back down into the ground. Before long all was clear again, and the light withdrew into the Lightstone. Zarel lifted his head with a weary sigh, and said,”It is safe to go on, now.” The others could not know how much effort it had cost him to overcome the sorcery, but he gave a grateful glance at Mihel, and in return felt the touch of the Shining One’s thought, strengthening and encouraging him.

The Lightstone-Bearer looked up at Karis and Karlin, guarding him on either side, and said “Now we have defeated their sorcery, the Dark Lords will be aware of our presence here. We must be more on guard than ever.” Karis glanced back towards the tail end of the column, but as yet there was no sign of any enemy. “We will keep careful watch”, he promised Zarel. Ahead, the land seemed featureless as ever, and Zarel wondered if it had been deliberately levelled at some time in the past of Ma’al, for it seemed unnatural to him that there should be no change in the landscape for so long. As the column of refugees proceeded, Swordsmen and Lightfriends kept watch, in their different ways, but there was no pursuit as yet. Zarel was not relieved by this, though, as he felt that the Dark Lords might be considering how to deal with this incursion before they attacked. Even as he thought this, suddenly there was a red blaze in their eyes, and a wall of flame rose up in front of them, making the leading horses paw the ground nervously. “How…?” exclaimed Karis, steadying his mount. Karlin looked, and said “Wait…if the land is afire, why does the grass not shrivel and burn? Look, it is unchanged. It must be another sorcery.” “But sorcery or not, will it still burn us?” asked Dorvai. Karis, remembering his encounter with the Naqad, said “Let us see, Dorvai.” He lifted his bow, slung in front of him for ease of access, and asked “Dorvai, do you have cloth in your Healer’s sack?” Dorvai handed him a strip of cloth, and Karis tied it round an arrow and shot the whole into the edge of the fire. They watched the arrow’s flight. It fell into the flames, but lay there untouched, the cloth not even singed by the flames. “There!” Karis said. “It does not burn. The flames are an illusion.”

Zarel remembered the time he had spent with Aiel, learning all that his grandfather could teach him about the Lightstone and its powers, and of his own experiences with Darkness and sorceries on the first Way. Recalling something Aiel had said, Zarel told those around him “It is a delusion set on us by the Dark Lords, not a sorcery. As long as we believe the delusion, it is there, but if we resist it, it will fade. We must make the Thought-without-Words and tell the Lightfriends to instruct the people how to overcome this – that we have proved that the flames are not real, and they must not believe in them.” It took time to accomplish this, and longer yet for the Children of Light to understand and obey. Karis wondered why they could not have just pressed through the flames, but guessed that it was because the refugees, afraid of the illusory flames, would have been loath to follow. Finally they saw the flames before them begin to waver, thin, and ultimately vanish, and Karis gave a sigh of relief. Any delay made it easier for the Dark Lords’ followers to catch up with them, and he was glad to be on the move again. Zarel felt a thought touch his Perception, and knew it was Mihel. The Shining One told him ‘You have done well, Lightstone-Bearer. But now the Dark Lords are aware that their barriers have been deliberately breached and there is an incursion into their forbidden lands. There will be attacks.’ Zarel’s Perception acknowledged this, and he told those with him at the head of the column “We have passed three barriers now, and are sure to be attacked soon. Be watchful at all times.” Karlin answered “Zarel, we have travelled far today and the people are likely weary. Should we pause for a while and let them rest while we are still free of pursuit? It will be difficult to withstand attack if everyone is exhausted!” “That is true” Karis commented, and Zarel could see the sense of their words. The open land made it difficult to defend the column, so they gathered everyone into a large group and stationed guards round the outside while they rested and ate. It was not safe to stay too long, but the respite was welcome and put fresh heart into the refugees.

When they moved on, there began to be a change in the landscape. Once again the land on either side was beginning to rise, and soon there were definitely small hills to be seen. Zarel was not sure whether or not to welcome this change. The hills might be hiding places for an enemy, or a place to defend their own numbers with higher ground at their backs. He said as much to Karis, the Swordsman, who searched the higher land with his keen eyes, and replied “Unless there are garrisons of mercenaries in the hills, I do not think attack will come from there, and Mihel said he knew these lands. He would have told us if such were there. If we are approaching the mountains, these may be foothills, Zarel, or maybe we have just reached a change in the terrain. I prefer it to those endless plains.” As they went on , the hills drew in around them, and they found themselves moving through another wide dale, but without lake or watercourse. Karis was thinking that if they stopped to camp, they would at least have the protection of the higher ground, when he heard cries of alarm from behind him, and turned in the saddle, just as Zarel called “There is danger approaching!”, having received a message from the Perceptions of the Lightfriends scattered through the column.
Karis saw that two Hawks were approaching rapidly, and seemed to be bearing down on one of the carts carrying the younger children. For a moment he hesitated, but then he heard Mihel’s voice. “Karis, they are no ordinary women. They are Darkness through and through, and the tools of the Dark Lords.” The words firmed his resolve, though he wondered momentarily how Mihel had discerned the antipathy his Swordsman’s training had bred in him to any attack upon a woman. He reached for his bow and wheeled towards the disturbance, and saw Karlin follow suit. Thankful for Lin’s insistence that they receive extra training with bow as well as sword before entering Ma’al, both Swordsmen fitted arrows to their bows and fired. One arrow tore through one sail-wing, the second found its mark as the Hawk struggled to control the damaged wing, and the Hawk plunged to the ground as the startled crowd drew back from her. The second Hawk, though, wheeled away and was gone, escaping the arrows that followed her.

Karis looked down at the dead Hawk, glad of the strange visored helmet that covered most of her head and face, glad too that neither he nor Karlin could know which arrow had killed her, so closely together had they fired. He glanced at Karlin, and saw that his face, though a little pale, was determined. “It had to be done” he told his nephew, and received a nod of assent. “We must hurry” said a familiar voice, and he saw that Corhan had come to join them. “And we must prepare for battle. The other Hawk will return to the Dark Lords to make a report, and their mercenaries will soon be in pursuit.” Karis and Karlin returned to their places with Zarel at the front of the column, and the Lightstone-Bearer looked into their faces and said firmly , “It is well, Karis, Karlin. You fought against Darkness.” “Aye”,Karis agreed, ” and will need to do so again. Corhan says we will be pursued.” Mihel told him “Once we entered these lands, pursuit at some point was inevitable, Karis. But Light will keep us.” They moved the column on, skirting round the dead Hawk and leaving her lying there. Karis asked “How long before the other Hawk can get back and raise the alarm?” “Impossible to say” Dorvai told them, “since the Hawks ride the air currents, and skilful though they are, must follow the prevailing wind. We do not know, either, where she is bound, whether to the Dark Lords or the stronghold of their mercenaries. It will take time, too, for her to make a report and an army to be raised to pursue us. But better to prepare for an early attack.” “Could the Dark Lords cause winds to rise, to carry the Hawks?” wondered Karlin, but Mihel said firmly “No! They may be masters of dark sorceries, but only Light can control the winds and tides.” “The Hawks, then, will return with the mercenaries?” wondered Zarel. Dorvai answered “It is not likely, since one has been killed. There are far fewer Hawks than mercenaries, and they are more valuable to the Dark Ones, as spies, and because they bring fear. I think they will not risk losing another.”

Now there was a difficult decision to be made. Because of the great likelihood of pursuit and attack it was important to make as much progress as possible, yet the Swordsmen among them did not think it wise to travel so fast that the defenders of the group might be tired when the necessity to fight came. So they kept a medium pace, with occasional breaks to rest while it was still safe. Night came, and they had to stop and allow the refugees to sleep, if they could. Corhan thought it unlikely that the mercenaries would attack a large group by night, but still they drew the column into a more compact huddle under the shelter of one of the small hills, and posted guards in shifts around the edges, while Zarel and Whitestar, with the aid of the Lightstone, sent out their Perceptions into the surrounding country, but found no danger yet. It was not till early morning, after a fitful night’s sleep, that they Perceived the approach of the mercenaries, sensing them as a cloud of darkness. Immediately they warned the Swordsmen, who prepared the guards, then conferred. Many of the refugees were still asleep, and to rouse them and move on would take time they might not have, they decided. “Safer to make a stand here ” Corhan said “We are already in a position of defence, and we can tighten our perimeter.” Karis agreed, but said “Zarel, you and Whitestar and Dorvai must not stay near the edges, nor the other Lightfriends. Go into the midst of the group. Karlin, you must guard Zarel, and Mihel, you are our only guide in these lands. We cannot risk you, so go with them and help guard Zarel.” They agreed to this, though Zarel could Perceive that Karlin was not happy to let his uncle and Sword-Brother fight alone. He was not sure what, if any, part Mihel might have taken in this battle, if Karis had not ordered him to stay with Zarel, but guessed that, without knowing it, Karis had been Light-guided in assigning the Shining One to Zarel’s protection.

They used the time they had in preparing for the onslaught, gathering the group more tightly together and placing the Malani, Karis, and the other Swordsmen to protect them. Karis saw that there was a second line of defence, for the younger Malani women had stationed themselves behind the men, armed not with swords, but long, keen knives. In the distance now they saw a cloud of dust, evidence of the oncoming mercenaries, and Karis threw a quick prayer to Light for protection, and unsheathed the True Sword. Zarel had called the Lightfriends together and they led the frightened Children of Light in the Quieting Prayers, and the prayer for the covering of the Sacrifice of Light, as the enemy approached. Karis found himself next to Corhan, with Saban further along the line, some of the Malani and the young Swordsmen Lorin and Talar in between. He gazed towards the approaching riders, trying to gauge the strength of the enemy. There were not as many as he had feared, but he remembered what Mihel had said of this contingent of the Dark Ones’ mercenaries – “ruthless, and the worst of their kind”. The mercenaries swept down on the group with a triumphant yell, and Karis thought that they had not expected any resistance, for some of them checked when they saw the Swordsmen, but then came on again. He had never been in battle, but fought by instinct and his Swordsman’s training, knowing he was fighting for Light against Darkness. Suddenly he heard a clash of metal by his ear, and turned his head to see that Corhan had intercepted a blow aimed for his neck, which would surely have killed him. Their eyes met for a moment, then Karis turned back to his opponent, while Corhan dealt with Karis’ attacker.

The mercenaries had obviously not been prepared for a battle, expecting an easy victory. Ruthless and evil they might have been, but also concerned with preserving their own skins. As the Swordsmen and Malani cut swathes through their number, and the Malani women with their long knives proved equally lethal, the attackers faltered and at last, shouting curses and threats of retribution, retreated and made off. Corhan looked at Karis, and they shared a grim smile. “We are safe – for now!” gasped the Lord of the Malani. “But they will return in force.” As they cleaned and sheathed their blades, Karis said “I am in your debt again, Sword-Brother- twice now you have saved my life!” “Ah, you would do the same for me” Corhan replied, with a careless air. “Let us see if we have any losses or wounded.” It seemed Light had been with them, though, for though the dark mercenaries had taken many losses, their own company was intact, with only a few minor injuries. But then, thought Karis, if all of these were intended to go through the Dancers’ Gate and into Li’is, their lives would be protected by Light. They quickly got the column ready to move on again, but with more of their fighters towards the rear, since that was the direction from which any other attack would most likely come. Karis rejoined Zarel, Karlin, and the others, and Karlin said “Light was with us! Praise Light that all escaped with little hurt.” Karis did not want to alarm his nephew, so did not mention Corhan’s intervention, which had saved him from almost certain death. They left the bodies of their fallen opponents behind, and all were glad when they disappeared from view. Mihel warned them now “There are more of the Dark Lords’ traps ahead of us, but we can evade them. When we draw near our goal, though, there is a place where we will have to abandon the carts, for the way through is too narrow.” “Then we shall be delayed?” asked Karlin.”It will take time to get all these through a narrow gap.” “It will, but it will also slow any pursuers” Mihel answered” We can pull the carts across the way behind us too, as we did the travelling sledges, which will delay them even more.”

Their supplies were becoming limited, but they had handed out food to be eaten on the way, as they did not wish to wait for a meal before setting out, in case the mercenaries regrouped and attacked again. However, there was no sign of their enemies as they travelled on. Ahead, the hills were rising higher and drawing together, funneling them towards a gorge between high, sheer cliffs. Karis was uneasy. Such a place would provide an enemy with a perfect spot for an ambush, and he was concerned that the Dark Lords’ mercenaries might have made their way here to renew their attack. Zarel, though, sent out his Perception and reassured the Swordsman. “It is safe, Karis. No enemies are there.” He was correct in his assessment, and they brought the column through the gorge, and out into another, wider dale. The hills were rising higher now, and on one side of the dale a waterfall flowed down, feeding a small river which ran across the terrain ahead of them. They paused, considering this obstacle. “Another sorcery or delusion?” asked Karlin, but Mihel answered, “No. This is a natural feature, and the waters are not too high now. We can ford it.” “But still, it will delay us.” Karis commented. This was true, for to cross even such a relatively shallow watercourse involved preparation.
The carts could not cross while laden, and their passengers had to be ferried across on horseback by the Swordsmen and Malani. Those who were on foot had to remove footwear and kilt up their clothing, so as to stay as dry as possible as they passed through, and then dry their feet thoroughly before replacing their footwear. There was still plenty of walking to be done, and they did not want rubbed, sore feet. There was some anxiety about getting the carts across, even without a load, but with the horses pulling them and others to steady them when needed, they reached the other bank of the little river safely. Once the column was back in order, with the passengers back in the carts and their defenders positioned, Zarel breathed a sigh of relief. Looking into the distance, he saw the hills continuing to rise, though the land between them was widening out again. It was hard to see far, in the gloomy atmosphere of Ma’al, but he thought he glimpsed a far-off view of mountains, and hoped he was seeing the range where they would find the way to the Meeting Place. “I think there is not so far to go, now” he told Whitestar, who was at his side. “Pray Light it is so”, she responded.

They had travelled on for about an hour when Zarel suddenly felt a sense of darkness near, and warned the Swordsmen. “What is it, Zarel?” Karis asked,”Can you tell?” But before Zarel could respond, there was the sound of horsemen close by and a small group of mercenaries swept down out of the hills. Ignoring the rest of the column, they made straight for the head, where Zarel was. Karis shouted “They are attacking Zarel!” and Karlin, Corhan and Saban, quickly followed by Lorin and Talar, rallied to surround Zarel, Whitestar and Dorvai. Zarel, knowing he had Mihel’s protection, and seeing the Swordsmen and Malani now going forward to encounter the attacking mercenaries, sent his thoughts to the Shining One in appeal. “Mihel- protect them!” No one but Zarel saw the ‘Swordsman’ Mihel quickly vanish from his side and reappear in the midst of the other Swordsmen, who were now fighting hand to hand with the mercenaries. The sword he drew looked like any other, but all his power was behind it, and the mercenaries, filled with a terror they could not explain, faltered, broke ranks, and rode off as fast as they could. Karis and the others seemed momentarily bewildered by their enemies’ retreat. Karlin gasped “Is Zarel safe?” “It is well with Zarel”, Mihel told him. “But the Dark Ones have realised his presence here – and the Lightstone’s. He is their target now.” Corhan said ” You Swordsmen, get back to Zarel and guard him. Saban and I will see if any harm has come to the others.” Without waiting for a reply, he rode off towards the back of the column, followed by Saban, and disappeared from their sight for a while. When Karis, Karlin and Mihel reached Zarel, Karis said “You are in peril, Zarel! Mihel says that the Dark Lords must have realised that you and the Lightstone are here in their lands, now that their sorcery has been overcome. You must take great care.” Zarel glanced at Mihel and felt the Shining One’s thought touch his. “Do not fear, Zarel. I will protect you, and the Way will succeed. But there are still trials that you must face.” Lorin and Talar, following the other Swordsmen, came up to Zarel, and Talar asked “Is it well with you, Lightstone-Bearer? Shall we stay here to guard you too?” “It is well with me” Zarel answered them. “And the Lightfriends and Children of Light still need guarding, Talar. We are forewarned now. I thank you for your concern, but I think it is best that you go back to your posts.” Karis and Karlin nodded agreement. Talar said “As you command, Lightstone-Bearer.” and the two brothers turned their horses and rode back along the column to their assigned positions. Karis, Karlin and Mihel took their places around Zarel, Whitestar and Dorvai. Zarel said “We still have dangers to face, but I believe the journey will soon be over. I am almost certain that I saw the mountains far ahead. We shall reach the Meeting Place before too long.”

In the Temple of the One Light, Aiel was also thinking that surely it could not be much longer to wait before Zarel and the others reached the Meeting Place. He had put arrangements in place for the time when he and the Way-Sharers would be carried to the Gatehouse, not knowing how long he might need to stay there. Now he was standing before the Crucible, head bowed, in silent prayer for all those belonging to Light in Ma’al, and their journey to freedom in Li’is. It was dusk in Li’is, and the Temple was quiet, though soon it would fill with those coming for the Evening Prayers. He felt another’s Perception touch his, and opened his Perception to it. It proved to be Sarn at the First Faring House, relaying, through the Thought-without-Words, a message from the Gatehouse. “Lord High Priest, all is prepared at the Gatehouse, and the Dancers will come tomorrow to carry you and the Lord of the Harbour and your Ladies to the Gatehouse, to await the return of the Lightstone-Bearer and those from Ma’al, and to see the end of the Way.” Aiel acknowledged the message and thanked Sarn. He resumed his contemplations. Not so long, then, as he had surmised, until Zarel’s Way was finished. Lin, Krystha and Arentha would be at the Evening Prayers, so he could tell them of the summons then. He had already begun making plans to welcome the Lightfriends of Ma’al into the Priesthood of Li’is – his responsibility, as High Priest. He knew they were not many, but they would have their own customs and hierarchy, and he did not intend to force them to conform to the ways of Li’is if they did not wish it.

The time of the Evening Prayers came, and the Temple filled. Arentha had come through from their home in the Temple grounds to sit with her sister and Lin, and when the Evening Prayers were over, and the Temple emptying again, Aiel joined them and said ” I have received a message from the Gatehouse. The Dancers will come for us tomorrow, to carry us there, as they said.” “Then the Way nears completion?” asked Lin. “It does, but this is the most – difficult – part ” Aiel replied. Almost he had said ‘dangerous’, but since Lin’s son and grandson were so closely involved, he did not wish to alarm his friend. Lin was not to be duped so easily, though, and Aiel Perceived that he understood the peril to those in Ma’al, but also that he had confidence in Karis and Karlin’s abilities to deal with it. Aiel said “We shall be there instantly, as you know. The Dancers do not move as we do.” Lin smiled. “Ah, you three may know that, but you forget that the only time I was carried by a Dancer, I was unconscious, Aiel !” “I had not forgotten.” Aiel said, feeling, momentarily, the fear he had had then for Lin’s life. “That is long behind us.” Krystha said firmly. “Do we know how long we will be at the Gatehouse, Aiel?” “No, though all is ready for the return from Ma’al.” Aiel said. Arentha said, thoughtfully, “Aiel, we had best take some extra clothing in case of need. The Gatehouse will be stretched to its limit to accommodate everyone, and we should not burden them further.” “Still our storekeeper, Arentha!” Lin laughed. “But you are right.” “All is arranged with the Temple Elders for my absence.” Aiel said. “What of the Harbour, Lin?” “The Watchwards are prepared.” Lin answered. “I will tell the Head of the Watch tonight.” “Then bring what you need and come to our house tomorrow, after the Morning Prayers.” Aiel told his friends. “I was not told a time for the Dancers’ arrival, so we will await them there.” “I will be glad to be at the Gatehouse” Arentha said. “I am concerned for our families, especially Janna. She has been very brave, and I know she trusts Light, at heart, but she will never be at ease until Karlin returns. Aren, too, must be concerned for Zarel, though they have the link of their Perceptions through the Dancers. It will be good to see them all again, and await the return of the others, and the Children of Light of Ma’al.” “Who would ever have thought the Lightstone Way would end like this?” said Krystha. “When we set out on the first Way, we thought it concerned only Li’is.” “It is true that when we began, we saw only the first few steps” Aiel said thoughtfully, “but as we trusted Light and obeyed, more of the path was revealed. That at least is my own experience, and I hope it has been Zarel’s.”

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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