Zarel and the others were making use of the waiting time at the abandoned farm to make further preparations for the final part of the Way. Dorvai and another Lightfriend, Jaret, who was also a Healer, had gone through the gathered Children of Light to make sure no one was sick or injured. They had found only a few sore feet and minor cuts and bruises from the journey, and appropriate salves and the few days’ rest would remedy those. Dorvai was able to report back to Zarel that everyone should be fit for the last part of the journey. Karis and Karlin, thanks to Mihel’s advice, knew that they would need to follow a route that avoided both the Seacoast Town and the place of the Naqad, where the creature’s destruction was no doubt still being investigated. Since the Malani were not unknown in the area of the Seacoast Town, where they sometimes travelled on the pretext of trade to ensure the safety of Lightfriends and Children of Light who might be nearby, they could move on under cover of the Malani when they left. “Though the carts may be a problem” Corhan said, ” since we are known to travel light. We should cover them till we are past the Town, so that it seems we are carrying goods, not people.” “Do the Hawks overfly the Town?” Karis asked. “If they are nearby they will see us.” Mihel told them “The Hawks are not concerned with the Seacoast Town. There are always mercenaries there, who are bonded to various masters, and can be called upon if there is a problem there for the Dark Lords – or for one of their masters, as you found, Karis!” “Yes” Karis answered ruefully. “The Dark Lords are still concerned about the destruction of the Naqad” Mihel went on, “and the Hawks will be deployed to search and guard that area, since it is so vital for the Dark Lords to communicate with the Night Lords there. It is there, more than the Town, that we must avoid.”
Corhan had, as usual, posted guards to watch out for more refugees, and they were slowly trickling in. Mihel had warned Zarel that the Lightfriends and Children of Light in this last gathering would be slower to arrive, since they were more scattered and also needed to be extra cautious in making their way to the safe haven. The first to arrive had been two more Lightfriends, a father and son with their wives and a babe. Though Lightfriends had joined them along the Way, they still seemed few, and Zarel asked Dorvai “Will there be many more Lightfriends to join us?” “Some” Dorvai answered “But we have always been few in number, Zarel. Most of the Lightfriends went into Li’is in ancient times, and only a remnant were left here. We were persecuted and hunted down, and those that survived found it hard to maintain a normal family life. It was difficult to find a Child of Light for a bride, and when we did, we could not raise large families because of our lack of resources. ” Zarel thought of the centuries of oppression suffered by the Lightfriends of Ma’al, and their determination to maintain their service to Light and turn as many as they could to Light. The refugees they had gathered on the Way were proof of their dedication and success. He said “Dorvai, I am ashamed that we in Li’is had no idea that the Lightfriends of Ma’al still survived, and fought for Light here. I feel our service to Light is nothing to yours.”
“That is not so” Dorvai answered. “The Priesthood of Li’is is descended from the Lightfriends of Ma’al, and has fought as strenuously against the Darkness in past times. That all of Li’is, with few exceptions, now serves Light is the Mercy of Light, yes, but without the Priesthood to uphold and protect the Rule of Light, the Darkness might have broken in again. ” ” It can only be that Light has allowed us to see Darkness, and to fight against it” Zarel commented, “so that we are strengthened in Light, and know the dangers of Darkness.”
The Lord of the Malani, with Saban and some of his other warriors, and the Swordsmen, had been considering the defence of the refugees, once past the Seacoast Town. Though they did not know Mihel’s true identity, his knowledge of territory unknown to them made him a voice to be relied on in their deliberations. Now that they had the carts and draught horses to carry the less able travellers, and some of the Malani’s travelling sledges could be abandoned once the pretence of their moving camp was no longer necessary, they would have more horses available, though certainly not enough to mount everyone. “I believe we should mount the Swordsmen and fighters” Corhan said. “They will be at an advantage over mercenaries on foot, and if the enemy is mounted they will not be at a disadvantage.” “What of Zarel and the Lightfriends?” Karlin asked. Karis answered his kinsman, “I think they would be in more danger on horseback. They would be more easily visible, and their eyes would betray them. Besides, we have already agreed that the Lightfriends should be scattered through the column, so that they can pass word of any danger by their Perception.” “Zarel will lead us” Karlin commented, “and we will protect him. Mihel said there will be traps, and some of those will be the Dark Lords’ sorceries. He will need to use the Lightstone to overcome them” “Those traps, and the Dark Ones’ mercenaries, are what we will have to contend with”, said Corhan, “but I do not doubt that we shall be able to overcome them, since Light is with us, and intends us to make the journey into Li’is.” Mihel spoke now, for the first time. “Corhan speaks truly. Light will bring all safely into Li’is, though the obstacles are many. Have courage, and all will be well.” Once again, his words seemed to calm and encourage them.
In Li’is, Mellin and his party were well on the way to the Merchant Town. Ket- Shal and Ket-Tai had escorted their relatives to the Kets’ Pillars that marked the end of their lands, and waved them farewell as they left. Moondancer was curious about the Town. “There is a Seacoast Town in Ma’al.” she said. “Our safe haven, where Zarel and the others are now, is not so far from it. Your Merchant Town seems to be almost the same.” ” Except that there is a Faring House in the Merchant Town.” Mellin answered her. “No doubt there are traders in your Town too?” “There are, though of course I have never been there.” Moondancer replied. “Sometimes the Malani or some of the Children of Light not known to the Dark Ones have been able to bring us supplies from there.” Aren told her “You will meet more of our Brothers-in-Light at the Faring House. “. “There are none in our Seacoast Town who serve Light” she replied. “There are many mercenaries quartered there, who serve different masters, but the same Darkness.” It seemed that thought disturbed her somewhat, for as they neared the Merchant Town she seemed apprehensive. Aren said “No need to fear the Town, Moondancer, you will find no Darkness there.” She answered, though, “It is not that so much, Aren, but I am not used to places where many people gather. I did not feel it so much in the City, because the Temple is there, and I sensed the reverence of the people for Light. I am sure the folk of the Merchant Town are good people too, but I have been trained all my life to hide away from such places, and it is hard to overcome.” Zohra told her ” We understand, Moondancer. It was a hard life you led in Ma’al, and the training you had was necessary to enable you to survive, but as you say, it will take time for you to overcome the precautions that have been trained into you since childhood.” The girl-Priest responded “I would not wish to insult anyone by showing my fears, Lady Zohra, but I admit that I am still nervous among strangers.”
Once they had reached and entered the Merchant Town, however, it seemed that Moondancer’s nervousness dissipated, calmed by her interest in this new place. She looked around with curiosity at the merchant’s shops and booths, busy with people buying and selling, and asked “There is a harbour here, too?” “A little way outside the town” Mellin told her, “But a roadway runs between the harbour and the town gates on the seaward side. It is a much smaller harbour than the City’s,and not as busy. The ships from the East do not sail here, though some of their cargo may be brought onward by other ships.” They reached the Faring House,left their horses and gear to be tended to, and went in to find the Priest-in-Charge. He introduced himself as Telis, and gave them a warm welcome, especially Moondancer, expressing his joy at welcoming a Lightfriend of Ma’al. “The Way goes well in Ma’al?” he asked.”We here have been in constant prayer for the Lightstone-Bearer and the task Light has given him , to rescue the Lightfriends and Children of Light there.” “It goes well, so far.” Aren answered. He knew that the news of Mihel’s appearance had been disseminated to the Priesthood through the Thought-without-Words, so added “The Lightstone-Bearer has special protection there, as you have no doubt heard.” “We have indeed, praise Light! It is a great blessing.” Telis responded, and turned to discussing arrangements for their stay at the Faring House.
As expected, it took a few days for all of the newcomers to arrive at the safe haven, but eventually the Malani reported no more travellers, and Zarel, who had been looking into the Lightstone, which had now ceased pulsing, to gather strength for the last, most demanding and dangerous part of the Way, felt a presence beside him and looked up to see Mihel. “The tally is complete” said the Shining One. “We will leave soon, Lightstone-Bearer.” Zarel drew a deep breath, and Mihel said, gently, “Do not doubt yourself, Zarel. Light knows that you are equal to the task.” “Only with Light’s aid, and the Lightstone’s – and yours, Mihel” Zarel replied. “You rely on Light, and that is your strength, Zarel.” the other replied. “There are so few Lightfriends, compared to the Priesthood of Li’is.” Zarel said, “Yet they have relied on Light also, I think much more than I, Mihel. The Children of Light who are with us are proof of that. The Lightfriends have been faithful in their service.” “They have” Mihel confirmed, “and now Light rewards them by rescuing them from Darkness and destruction.” Zarel had indeed been surprised that, in the end, the tally of Lightfriends had been little above thirty, though they had families with them. The Children of Light, however, with their own families, numbered in the low hundreds, many more than he had expected, and he was still concerned that such a large number could not possibly pass unnoticed, once they began to breach the Dark Lords’ barriers to progress towards the Meeting Place – or rather, its equivalent in Ma’al. Mihel’s assurances that they would arrive safely in Li’is reassured him, but still, there were bound to be battles along the journey, with Hawks, mercenaries, or other servants of the Dark Lords , maybe even Night Lords. He breathed an inward prayer of thanks for Mihel’s presence.
Time, now, to make arrangement for the journey, and Zarel decreed they should set off the next morning, as early as possible, so the rest of the day was spent preparing. The carts were inspected for a final time, to make sure they were roadworthy. The Malani removed what they would not need from their travelling sledges and left the unwanted gear in the barns, retaining only enough to provide cover for the refugees and the carts, and instead replaced their travelling gear with supplies for the journey. Karis and Karlin, with Dorvai and Jaret, the Healers, went through the Children of Light assessing who should travel in the carts, while Sharamine and others found cloaks and other articles which could be used both for padding in the carts and for sleeping at night. Most of the Children of Light declared themselves able and willing to walk, and the Malani were well used to doing so. Corhan’s sister, Daria, was quite unwilling to ride, seeming indignant at being allotted a place in one of the carts, despite her advanced pregnancy, until her brother reprimanded her and she acquiesced. The other occupants were three more pregnant women, the elderly, and the youngest children. The older children, able to walk for some distance, could take turns riding in the carts. When all was done, Zarel gathered everyone for the Evening Prayers, before their meal and the early bedtime he had insisted on, in view of their setting out so early next morning. The Prayers were heartfelt, and Zarel drew everyone under the protection of Light’s mercy and the covering of the Sacrifice of Light for their imminent journey.
When morning dawned, everyone was astir. They would not neglect the Morning Prayers, despite the need to leave early, and it was necessary that they make a speedy breakfast, since they were not sure when their next meal might be taken. Other than that, though, now that this last part of the Way was before them, all the travellers were ready to depart, and the mood Zarel sensed was a mix of excitement and anxiety. The horses that were to draw the carts were harnessed and their occupants settled, with some of the Malani’s tents over them as covers until they passed by any inhabited places. The Malanis’ horsedrawn travelling sledges were behind them. Otherwise all were on foot, cloaked and hooded to disguise the fact that they were not Malani, in the midst of the real Malani, who surrounded them. Mihel, since he knew the way, was at the head with Zarel, Whitestar, and Dorvai, Karis and Karlin and Corhan. Lorin, Talar, and the other Swordsmen were scattered through the crowd, ready to aid the Malani warriors in case of attack. At last, when they were as prepared as they could be, Corhan gave the signal to move off. They followed the rough track down from the farm, out onto the scrubby open ground, keeping carefully to the route Mihel had laid out for them, which avoided both the Seacoast Town and nearby villages, and the place where the Naqad had lurked. The Malani, expert as they were at travelling long distances when necessary, set the pace. Once they had passed the places where there was any danger of being observed, it was safe to rest for a while, with guards posted, and make a hasty meal before moving on again. Now they were in the lands where none of them had ever been, and reliant on Mihel’s guidance. Zarel and Whitestar had total confidence in the Shining One, but Karis and Karlin, not knowing his true identity, were hoping that his knowledge of the terrain was as complete as he had promised. “We must still keep away from the sea coast” Mihel told the leaders of the column, “for that is where the Dark Lords’ mercenaries have their stronghold. Once the land rises, we are past them.”
It was not till near dusk that they reached the point where the land began to rise on both sides of them, funneling them into a wide dale with a small lake. All were weary by now, and ready to stop and camp, but Karis asked “Is it safe here? We are surrounded by high ground, which would help any enemy that came against us.” “It is safe” Mihel assured them, ” and the lake water is drinkable.”
“You are sure of that?” Corhan demanded.” If we are in the Dark Lords’ forbidden lands, might they not poison the water to deter intruders?” ” I am sure” Mihel replied calmly. “We are not yet in the forbidden lands, Corhan. Tomorrow we will be, and we need to give the Children of Light time to rest and eat and prepare. From now on they will need all their strength and faith.” “Where, then, do the forbidden lands begin?” Zarel asked. “I thought, from what you said, that we would be in them as soon as we passed the Seacoast Town.” “At the other end of this dale.” Mihel replied. “There is a barrier there, which we will need to pass, and once through that, we are in the Dark Lords’ lands.” “Then they will know we have entered!” Dorvai exclaimed. “Not then.” Mihel told him. “Physical barriers can be breached accidentally, perhaps by animals. But once we defeat their first sorceries – then they will know.” None of them knew whether to be reassured by his confirmation of their safety in the dale, or alarmed by his statement that tomorrow they would be in the Dark Lords’ realm of sorcery. All, though, was in the Will of Light, thought Zarel, and felt Whitestar’s silent agreement. They moved far enough into the dale to make room for all the travellers, and set up camp by the lakeside, using the Malani’s shelters for cover. Zarel led the Evening Prayers, and told them all to rest as much as possible, for tomorrow they would need to be fresh and alert. The Malani set guards as usual, with the Swordsmen taking turns on watch. Karis and Karlin, though, kept to the duty assigned them by Light, to guard Zarel and the Lightstone, taking turns through the night. Zarel wished that he could have told them he was under Mihel’s protection, and spared them to rest, but the Shining One had forbidden any such revelation. Maybe, though, Zarel thought, Karis and Karlin were also growing in Light through their obedience, and it was part of Light’s plan for them.
In the morning, the thought of the barriers ahead of them were in all their minds. “A physical barrier” Mihel had said of the first, and they would need means to breach it. Though other belongings had been left behind, anything that might serve as a weapon had been brought, and besides the swords, bows and large knives carried by the Swordsmen and Malani, some of the farmers among them had brought axes and sickles, which might be of some use in tackling whatever obstacle lay ahead. They set off again, as prepared as they could be to deal with the first barrier. When they reached the end of the dale they saw it; a tall wooden fence stretching right across. There was no gate or other entrance, and the sides of the dale were too steep to take the wagons and travellers up them to bypass it. They would have to hack down a section of the fence to pass. After examining the barrier, Corhan, Karis and Karlin reported back to Zarel. “I believe we need to break through the cross beams” Karis said. “The timbers of the fence are supported on those, top and bottom.” “If we can cut through the beams” suggested Corhan, “and then attach ropes to the top part, the horses might be able to pull the rest down.” It seemed a viable plan, so they gathered the men and tools required and began. The first problem was the height of the fence, but the supporting beams were lower down and by standing up in the carts they managed to reach them. It took hours of hacking and cutting away at the wood to finally cut the timbers through, top and bottom, and it was exhausting work, even working in shifts, but at last the crossbeams were breached and they were able to sling ropes through the upright timbers and attach them to the horses’ harnesses. For a while the fence seemed immovable, but as the horses pulled, slowly the top began to tilt, and eventually the angle was such that the weight of the wood made it fall. They could not leave it there, or there would be no passage for the carts, so horses and men were used to drag it to one side. The horses were reharnessed to the carts, and the column of refugees passed through the gap. Once through, the Malani released some of their horses from the now unwanted travelling sledges, and piled the sledges in the gap in hopes of slowing any pursuit. Now they set about putting their new travelling arrangements into operation. Apart from Karis, Karlin, Lorin and Talar, there were eight other Swordsmen, all of them, like the two brothers,scions of the ancient noble families which had stayed true to Light, hidden away and training their sons as Swordsmen. The twelve Swordsmen and the Lord of the Malani, with Saban, took horses and placed themselves in positions of defence around the perimeter of the column. Mihel was also mounted, on the horse he had brought with him, since he appeared as a Swordsman. The Lightfriends, as they had arranged, were scattered through the column, ready to make the Thought-without-Words to warn of any approaching danger. Thus protected, with Zarel, Whitestar and Dorvai, surrounded by Karis, Karlin and Mihel on horseback, in the lead, the column of refugees set off into the forbidden lands.
The days that had passed in waiting, in Ma’al, had been days of travelling, in Li’is, and now Mellin and the others had almost reached their destination. As they neared the Gatehouse and the Watchward swung open the gate for them, they saw two figures standing in the doorway ; Rujel, the Gatekeeper, in his green over-robe, and Janir. In the courtyard they dismounted and their horses were led away. Rujel welcomed them warmly, and Janir joyfully embraced his wife and daughters, then turned to Mellin and took him in the Swordsmen’s handclasp. “It is good to see you, Sword-Brother” he said, “and all of you” he added, looking round at the group. “How did you find the journey, Moondancer? Are you accustomed to being in Li’is, now?” She smiled at him, and said “I am growing used to being here, though much is still strange to me, the freedom especially.” “But that is a good strangeness, is it not?” asked Rujel, and she agreed. “Come inside” invited Rujel. “We are very busy with preparations, and Janir and the Westerners have been very active too. My Lady is about somewhere, and our son and daughter and their families, but you must excuse us if we are not as orderly as usual. Never has the Gatehouse had to make ready for so many guests, but we are very glad to welcome those coming out of Ma’al.” They followed him into the Gatehouse and through to the Great Hall, where they saw that part of it was being partitioned off to make extra sleeping places. Some of the Westerners were helping another Priest whose obvious resemblance to Rujel proclaimed him to be his son. He was introduced as Marel. “We are trying to find as many places as we can to house these incomers” he said, “since the Gatehouse was never intended to support so many guests. The tents that our Western friends have brought will be invaluable.”
“But you will wish to rest after your journey” Rujel said. “I will have some refreshment brought for you.” They thanked him, and settled themselves in chairs around the large table which normally stood in the midst of the Hall, but had been moved to one side to make room for the alterations. Rujel disappeared to make arrangements, and after a while not the Gatekeeper, but a smiling woman who introduced herself as his Lady, Marilla, and a younger woman who was their daughter, Ruella, brought them food and drink and welcomed them again to the Gatehouse. “You will meet the rest of our family at the evening meal” Marilla explained. “Ruella’s husband and son are helping prepare some of the outbuildings, and Marel’s and Ruella’s daughters are sorting the coverings for the beds, to make sure we have enough. There is much to do, but it is exciting.” She looked round at them, then, and asked, “Which of you is the Lightfriend from Ma’al?” Once again they introduced Moondancer and explained how she came to be named so, and how she served Light as a Lightfriend of Ma’al. Marilla and Ruella were intrigued by her story, and full of compassion for her when they learned of her life in Ma’al. When they had finished their meal, Janir took them to see all the preparations which were being made. As Rujel and Marilla had said, every available space was being converted to house the refugees. Outbuildings had been emptied and their stores put into an unused part of the stables, so that they could be cleaned and made ready for occupation. Out on the wildflower meadow which took up a large part of the Gatehouse Gardens, a city of tents was springing up, since the stream which wandered through the meadow, filled with fresh water from the mountains, made it a good place to camp. The Westerners were still putting up the travelling tents they had brought, though many were already in place. The twin Kets, Zohra’s father and uncle, had excelled themselves in providing these, eager to help with the Way.
Aren, catching a glimpse of the Dancers’ Mountain beyond the meadow, said quietly to Arenel, “Father, I will take Moondancer a little further into the Gardens, so she can see the Meeting Place.” Arenel nodded agreement, and Aren turned to Moondancer. “Moondancer, come a little way with me. I wish to show you something.” She looked at him in curiosity, but followed him along one of the paths through the Gardens, while the others turned back to the Gatehouse. When they drew near to the great wrought metal gate at the foot of the Dancers’ Mountain, Aren stopped. From here it was easy to see the split in the mountain that opened and widened downward like some huge funnel until it ended in the wide, deep shelf of rock that was the Meeting Place. “Look up there, Moondancer” Aren instructed the girl. “That is the Meeting Place. That is where they will all come from Ma’al – Zarel and Whitestar, and your father, and all the Children of Light and Lightfriends of Ma’al. They will be brought here to safety.” He had intended to comfort her with the sight of the Meeting Place, but to his concern he felt consternation emanating from her. “Moondancer, what is wrong?” he asked. “Are you not glad to see the place?” “But it is solid rock, Aren! I thought there would be some kind of -of tunnel, or some other sign – where is the Gate? How can they come there, through the mountain?” He glanced at her, still concerned by her fear. His eyes caught hers and the eyes of both of them widened in surprise as suddenly, inexplicably to him, their Perceptions met and merged, flowing together like a stream. Aren had often experienced such an involuntary sharing of perception with Zarel, as must have Moondancer with her own twin, but this ease of communion with Moondancer, who was not Zarel, was a shock to him, and he felt that she shared his surprise.
Now, though, his Perception was one with Moondancer’s, and he could feel her tumbled emotions, her desperate longing to have faith in what he had told her, to believe, to trust Light, but her human emotions of fear for her family and friends and inability to understand how the Gate could be, and then, again, her feelings of shame that she could disbelieve Light’s promises so. Aren’s Perception flowed with hers, soothing, comforting, encouraging, promising her Light’s understanding and love. And then, when she was calm again, and able to trust the promises of Light, he was about to withdraw his perception when he felt new sensations rise in both of them. There was a sense of belonging, of finding. There was understanding, compassion, and tenderness so deep that it needed no explanation. Aren knew only, and knew that she knew it too, that it was right and fitting and a joyous completion of their lives that they should be together. He could not even say that he had fallen in love with her or she with him. But he knew that she was part of him now, and the knowledge was sweet to him. Then, as easily as they had melded, their Perceptions flowed apart, and he saw Moondancer smiling at him. There was no need for any words at all, but to speak was to affirm, and he said quietly “Why – I love you, Moondancer.” She nodded. “And I you, Aren. How is it that we did not know?” “But now we know!” he said, and smiled back at her, and leaned to kiss her gently. “So”, he said afterwards, “there is more meaning to the Secret Word than we knew, my heart. ‘Two and two’ means more than just Zarel and I, and you and Moondancer – it means that Light intended us to be together.” “Then, Aren, do you think that Zarel and Whitestar…?” she left her question unfinished, but he knew her meaning, and answered ” For certain they must belong together too, for they are our other halves. Maybe they have already found each other. We shall know when they return to Li’is.” He took her hand then and said “Best that we say nothing of this yet, Moondancer. When the Way is finished we can share our news, and rejoice with Zarel and Whitestar, for surely they will feel for each other as we do. But for now nothing must distract from the Way.” She agreed with him, but as they made their way back to the Gatehouse, she told him “I feel complete again, Aren. I am still missing Whitestar, of course I am, but I do not feel so lost and lonely.” “I am glad”, he told her, knowing that he too felt the absence of Zarel less keenly because of being with Moondancer.