It was dark in the City, and in the great Temple of the One Light shadows settled between the columns and the benches. Only at the Temple’s heart, the Crucible, was there light. The Crucible flame burned tall and steady, and lanterns burned too, standing at the head and foot of the bier that stood before the Crucible. On the bier, covered in white cloth to the breast, lay the body of a very old man – a Priest, for he wore a Priest’s striped robe, though the vivid blue, Perception-gifted eyes were now closed in death. The face was lined, but very serene. Beside the bier stood another Priest, his bright gaze fixed on the still figure. His hair was iron-grey, and he was well past middle age, though he could not yet be called old. In his hands he turned a broad golden collar bearing the Symbol of the One Light, and round his neck hung a chain of silvery metal carrying a replica of the Symbol, at whose centre was set a white stone, seemingly an insignificant pebble – save that at its heart burned a spark of light like a tiny white fire. Aiel, the Lightstone-Bearer, stood quietly gazing at the body of his father, Arnath, the High Priest. But Arnath was dead, and now it was Aiel who was High Priest of Light.
It had not been unexpected, this death, for lately Arnath had grown daily frailer – not through any sickness, for Light had spared him that, but simply his great age, and the quiet slowing and wearing out of his flesh. If his body had been weak, though, his spirit had grown stronger and more indomitable daily. Arnath had known he was dying, but he had not been afraid, for he was a Child of Light. When he died, he would touch Light, he knew, and be reunited in the Joyous Place with Elandra, Aiel’s mother, who had died so many long years ago in childbirth, and the child that had died with her. He had spoken words of love and encouragement to his son and to his family, and prayed with and for them, each night. And two nights ago, after this time of family sharing, he had gone to his quiet sleep and never wakened, slipping peacefully into the Presence of Light. Aiel mourned his father, the love and guidance and encouragement he had received from Arnath, all his life, even when he was a grown man, a father and grandfather. He could not, though, be sorry that Arnath had touched Light, was in the Joyous Place with those he loved. Aiel knew that his time would come to touch Light, and then he would see his father again. Meanwhile, tomorrow Arnath would be laid to rest, with family and friends coming to do him the final honours, and it would be, despite the sorrow, a time of celebration of Arnath’s life and service to Light.
Lost in his sad-sweet musings, Aiel had not noticed the approach of two young men in Priests’ robes who had come down the passageway which led from the Priests’ quarters into the Temple. Though they stood patiently behind him, he did not Perceive their presence, nor know they were there, until a pleasant young voice said, hesitantly, “Grandfather? Is it well with you?” “We were concerned” added the other young man, his voice almost identical to his brother’s. Aiel turned, and smiled at his grandsons. Those grandsons, Zarel and Aren, were unique even among a unique Priesthood. They were identical twins, a rarity in Li’is and never before known among the sons of the Priesthood. Aiel’s son Arenel had married Zohra, herself the daughter of a twin, and granddaughter of the Ket, the Lord of the Westerners. Zohra’s own unique gift was that she – alone of all in Li’is – could hear the Song of the Dancers, the beings of light and energy who shared the world of Li’is with men. She was an accomplished, instinctive musician, and her sons also delighted in music. Zohra’s beautiful, haunting compositions were often played in the Temple worship by musicians including Zarel and Aren. Zarel was the firstborn twin, by a few minutes, and so would be High Priest one day, after Aiel and Arenel. But there was no telling the twins apart if they did not wish it, even now they were grown, and as children even their father, mother and sister had occasionally been mistaken. The young men were average in height and build, with the sturdy grace of their Western heritage, quick and easy of movement. Arenel’s cousin Mellin, Swordsman and Lord of the Mountains and Fortress, had once commented “If those two were not born to the Priesthood, they would have made fine Swordsmen.”
Born to the Priesthood they were, though, as their vivid blue, Perception-gifted eyes showed. The thick black lashes that fringed those eyes, their glossy black hair, and the golden tint to their skin they owed to the Western heritage of Zohra, their mother, though the fine bones of their face ,like their Perception, came through Aiel and Arenel. Zarel and Aren were gentle, compassionate young men, wholly given to their service to Light, though they could be fierce in defence of the right, or in defiance of injustice. To their parents, and especially their grandparents, they were loving and respectful. Aiel was very fond of his grandsons, but, sometimes, puzzled by them too. Beyond the unique bond always shared by twins, they also had the link of their Perceptions. So close was that link that it was largely involuntary and semi-permanent. If Aiel set his Perception on one twin, the other was always there, like an echo. It was a strange experience. Their sister, Rentha, seemed to regard them with an amused motherliness, though she was over two years younger. Though they loved their sister, the twins were so much a unit that had she been another kind of maiden, Rentha might have felt shut out by their completeness. Aiel’s granddaughter, though, was a happy, sweet-natured girl, very like her beloved grandmother, for whom she had been named. Though she had her mother’s Western colouring, the shape and sweet expression of her face, and her expressive brown eyes, as well as her tender heart, reminded Aiel very much of Arentha, his Lady, when they had first met.
Aiel saw his other grandchildren less often, since his daughter was married to Janir, the Lord of the Western Fortress, whose mother was Mira, the sister of Aiel’s friend, bond-brother and Way-Sharer, Lin. Janir had a special place in Aiel’s heart, not only for his own noble qualities, but because he had saved Aila’s life on the continued Lightstone Way. He and Aila were very happy, loving each other devotedly. Aila’s only regret was that both their children were girls; she would have liked a son for Janir’s sake. If he were disappointed, though, there were no signs; he doted on his daughters, Janna and Lira. Janna too was very like her mother and grandmother, and she and Rentha were more likely to be taken for sisters than she and her real sister, Lira. Janna was dark-haired, with dark brown eyes, but Lira favoured Janir’s colouring, with waving chestnut hair and lighter brown eyes. She had a bolder spirit, too, than Janna, and was often the leader, though she was the younger. Well, tomorrow they would all be here, and all Lin’s family too – Lin and Krystha, Arentha’s sister, his Lady, their son Mellin with his Lady Marla – Marla whose birth had been in Darkness and whose desperate search for Light had been the continuing Lightstone Way, happily resolved at last. They had a son, Karlin, and daughter, Mella. There was Karis, too, the late-born son of Lin and Krystha, who was little more than two years older than his nephew, and more likely to be taken for Karlin’s brother.All the Way-Sharers, their families and friends, would be here tomorrow, to honour Arnath’s long life of service to Light. All these thoughts flashed through Aiel’s mind in the few moments before he answered Zarel and Aren.
“It is well with me” he said, “though I thank you for your concern. I was thinking of tomorrow, and all those who will be here.” “I wonder…” Zarel pondered softly, “Grandfather, do those in the Joyous Place know – will our great-grandfather know that we love and mourn and honour him?” “In one way or another, surely he will” Aiel answered. “And I rejoice that he will be reunited with Elandra my mother, and the babe that died with her. It has been a long parting for him.” Aren said “He was so old and frail, but so strong in Light. I have sometimes felt ashamed that beside his, my faith seemed so weak!” His twin nodded agreement, and Aiel smiled at them, and said “You are young, Zarel, Aren, and have not yet endured that testing of your faith that makes it stronger.” And somehow, as he spoke, he felt a strange tingle in his Perception, as though, without knowing it, he had prophesied for them. He was about to bid them go back to their home, now, when he felt, quite definitely, a strangeness touch his Perception. He saw that Zarel and Aren Perceived it too, and the three Priests stared at each other. He felt their unspoken question in his Perception, and then, quite suddenly, he knew what it was that he Perceived, though it had been so long, he had been slow to recognise it. Quietly he watched as the air beside the Crucible began to shimmer and seemed to thicken. He heard the twins’ astonishment and wonder echo in his Perception as, beside the Crucible, another flame took shape – a tall, beautiful, blue-green flame of living light, with a glowing heart – a Dancer.
One of the twins gave a gasp of wonder, both of them stared at the light-being as it hung sparkling in the air. The Dancer’s thought extended to them all. “Greetings, Aiel, Lightstone-Bearer. Greetings, Zarel and Aren, Priests of Light. Honour to Arnath, the dead in Light.” Aren asked, aloud, in a hesitant voice. “Have you come – has Light sent you – because of Arnath? That is an honour indeed!” “I am here because Arnath has touched Light, yes, and I honour his life in and for Light, but that is not the reason that I came.” “Is it the Lightstone-Bearer that you seek, then?” Aiel asked. “Yes, that is so.” Aiel asked again “Why are you here, Dancer? Is it time for the Way to continue, at last?” But he was thinking to himself that, though still healthy and able, neither he nor Lin were the young men they had been, and each had new responsibilities. Would they be able to take up the Way again? The Dancer ‘said’ “Aiel, Light-Friend, the Way continues – but it is no longer yours to walk it, only to be a guide to those who do, and a helper at the Way’s end.” Aiel felt mingled relief and disappointment. The Dancer went on “As to my presence here, I have come at the bidding of Light. I am here to sing to Zarel and Aren.” Two pairs of vivid blue eyes widened, two pairs of dark brows arched in enquiry, as the twin Priests gazed up at the light-being. Aiel could Perceive the bursting curiosity in them. he said “Then sing, Dancer.” He watched his grandsons closely. He guessed the reason for the Dancer’s errand – to confirm whether Zarel and Aren had inherited their mother Zohra’s unique ability to hear the Dancers’ Song.
Aiel could not, of course, hear the Song himself, but he knew as soon as the Song began, because the two younger Priests were instantly gone from him, rapt and lost and totally absorbed in the Dancer’s Song. Aiel sent out his Perception, knowing it could not disturb the enraptured pair, to their father Arenel. “Arenel, a Dancer is here, in the Temple. It is singing to Zarel and Aren. And they hear it!” He felt his son’s startled response, and then Arenel’s “Why?” “It is to do with a new Way. Come, Arenel, and bring Zohra!” The Dancer was still singing when Arenel entered the temple. Zohra was with him, but her expression was as rapt as her sons’. She stood still by the door as soon as Arenel released her hand, and he explained to Aiel “Zohra began to hear the Song as soon as we entered the Temple.” “The Dancer came at the bidding of Light, it said”, Aiel told him, “to sing to the twins. It must be to find out if they have Zohra’s Gift – and it seems they have.” The Dancer, its Song ended ,’said’ “That is so, Aiel.” Aiel and Arenel saw the twins, released from the thrall of the Song, simultaneously give an odd little shake of their heads, like a swimmer breaking the surface of the water, and stare at each other. Zohra, by the door, gave a little sigh, then went to her sons and put her arms round them. She smiled at Arenel. “See, I am no longer alone” she told him. “Our sons hear the Dancers’ music too.”
“Aiel” the Dancer ‘said’, and Aiel knew that its thought, now, was extended to him alone, “It is time to relinquish the Lightstone.” Aiel felt a pang. The Lightstone had become so much a part of him! On the day he had received it, his father Arnath had told him that he would bear it always, all his life, unless Light bade him relinquish it to another. Somehow he had never thought anything but death would take the Lightstone from him. But it was not his, never his, only and always held in gift from Light to do Light’s work, and if it was the Will of Light that he hand it on to another, he could not and would not gainsay it. His Perception told the Dancer “If it is Light’s time for me to relinquish the Lightstone, I will. But if it concerns the twins – they are two, and the Lightstone is one. They cannot both be the Lightstone-Bearer.” “It is Zarel” the Dancer told him “who will be the Bearer. Yet Aren will share his Way in a manner you would not think possible!” And suddenly Aiel remembered the prophecy of the Secret Word – “Two and two, and times and Time out of their place, but all for good…” He did not realise he had spoken the words aloud, until Zohra asked “Aiel, what is it? What are you saying?”
“It is the Secret Word, Zohra, the last part of the Secret Word, and it is about to be fulfilled. There is a new Way, but it is not for me, this time. It is to be Zarel and Aren’s Way. And Zarel…” He beckoned to his grandson, who came to him. Arel reached inside his robe and took out the Lightstone. Holding it in his hands once more, for the last time now, he gazed into its glowing heart, drawing the strength to do what he must. He raised the Stone on its chain, and Zarel stood quietly, not yet understanding, expecting only to receive, as he had before, the Lightstone’s blessing. Only when Aiel lifted the chain over his own head and held it out towards Zarel, did the young Priest begin to comprehend, almost shying away, startled. Quietly Aiel said “Zarel, it is the Will and the Word of Light. You now become the Lightstone-Bearer.” Zarel let Aiel place the chain around his neck, then, but still he whispered, as Aiel himself had done, so many years before, “I am not worthy of the Lightstone!” And Aiel in turn, just as Arnath had then, lifted the Stone and placed it to Zarel’s brow in blessing, and watched the light overflow from it and pour over the young Priest like a fountain. When the light had withdrawn, he looked into Zarel’s glowing eyes, and told him “Light finds you worthy, Zarel. Bear it in Light, and bear it well.” All sense of loss was gone from him now. Instead he felt love and gladness for Zarel, the new Lightstone-Bearer. Yet he wondered about Aren. Quickly he cast the net of his Priestly sense towards the other twin, but found only his astonishment, his wonder, and his delight for his brother. No, Aren would not be envious. Aiel would not really have expected it. All of them had been so taken by surprise by the train of events that none of them questioned what was happening, or why. Now, though, Zarel asked, in some bewilderment, “But – Dancer, Grandfather…what is it that I am to do?” The Dancer ‘said’ “Tomorrow, after the ceremonies for Arnath and Aiel, I will come to you again, and explain. Aiel, you must gather all the Way-Sharers, and their families. All must be there. Wait for me on the Lightstone Room, and I will bring you Light’s bidding for this new Way. Meanwhile, give Zarel and Aren what guidance you can.” Before they could question further, the Dancer shimmered into nothingness again.
After they had watched the Dancer disappear, Zarel turned to Aiel, and asked, gravely, “Grandfather – why should it be, that I am to be the Lightstone-Bearer? I do not wish to rob you of it!” “Dear lad, you do not rob me!” Aiel answered, lovingly. “The Lightstone was never mine, only held in trust from Light. I knew, as you will too, that I must relinquish it when Light bade me to.” “Does it mean danger for Zarel?” Aren asked, concerned for his twin. Aiel answered, honestly, “It may. If the Way continues now, it is in battle against Darkness, that is for sure. The Way is Zarel’s, yet the Dancer told me you would share it ‘in a manner I would not think possible’. And certainly, it has something to do with your inheritance from Zohra” – and he smiled at his son’s Lady – “of her Gift of hearing the Dancers’ Song.” Zohra said “I know my sons have the spirit of the West, though they are Priests of Light. If there is danger they will not fear to face it.” Zarel replied “That is true, Mother – yet I would put my trust in Light and the Lightstone, not in my own courage. That might fail me, but Light never will.” Aren was nodding agreement, and Arenel commented “If you think like that, you are wise Zarel. But the Secret Word speaks of ‘two and two’, Father. Here are two, but who are the others?” “For that we must wait until tomorrow, when the Dancer will tell us” Aiel answered. “But first we must honour the dead.” They all glanced at Arnath, quiet on his bier before the Crucible.Almost it seemed as though his death had been a catalyst that had triggered these strange events. Remembering his father’s words to him so long ago, when Arnath had himself bestowed the Lightstone on his son, Aiel told Zarel “Never take off the Lightstone, Zarel. You must wear it always, so that it becomes part of you. It will first attune to you, and to your own strengths in Light, and then it will build new ones in you. If you gaze into it, and let it fill your Perception, you will learn from it. But your experience will not be mine, as mine was not Rafel’s, for the Stone does not overmaster us, but works with us, with all that we are, mind and soul and spirit.” Zarel asked, almost shyly “But I may come to you for advice, at need, Grandfather?” “Of course!” Aiel smiled. He put a hand on each twin’s shoulder and murmured a blessing on them both, then said “Go home now, and rest if you can. We do not know what strength you may need for tomorrow, when the Dancer comes again.”
He watched as Arenel, Zohra and their sons walked back through the corridor, talking quietly together. They would go out of the Priests’ entrance and back to their own home, as would Aiel, soon. From tomorrow, though, the High Priest’s house would be his home. It was prepared, for it had been tenantless for a time, while Arnath passed his last days among his family. Aiel reflected on the many changes that had happened in the last few years. Arnath was the last of three old friends to touch Light, and it had brought upheavals for the Way-Sharers and their families. Merhaun, though the youngest of the three, had died first, leaving Lin and Krystha’s elder son, Mellin, as Lord of the Mountains and the Fortress. This had made Mellin quite uncomfortable at first, since he felt he was ousting his father, Lin, but Lin had reasonably pointed out that he had been only a guardian till Mellin was of an age to become Lord, and he himself had no claim whatsoever on the Mountain Fortress. All had been resolved when Linnad, lin’s father, followed his friend to the Joyous Place, and Lin became Lord of the Harbour. Lin and Krystha had left the Mountain Fortress to live in the pleasant house by the Harbour, and though they had both loved the Fortress, and still often visited it, they also came to love the bustling Harbour and its market area in a way they had not when they were younger. To Lin’s added sorrow, as well as his father and father-in-law, he had lost his brother-in-law and Sword-Brother Barengian too. A strange fever had been epidemic in the western farmlands, and Barengian had taken it in its most virulent form. Despite the devoted nursing of his son’s Lady Aila, the Healer, he had succumbed to the fever and died. So there was a new Lord of the Western Fortress too, Janir, Aiel’s son-in-law. New Lords, a new High Priest, and now a new Lightstone-Bearer.
And then there were those left behind ; Janira, Lin’s mother, had gone to the Western Fortress to live with Mira, his sister and Barengian’s widow. The two widows, mother and daughter, were a comfort to each other, and Janira was very welcome to share Mira, Janir and Aila’s home, though Janir sometimes laughingly protested at being outnumbered by so many women, his grandmother, mother, wife, and two daughters. Alira, Merhaun’s widow, divided her time between the homes of her two daughters, Krystha and Arentha, glad to be with them and, as she grew older herself, to be always close to the Temple of Light, where she went constantly to give thanks for her deliverance from Darkness and the happy years she had shared with Merhaun after their reconciliation. Karis too, Lin and Krystha’s younger son, contentedly divided his time between his parents at the Harbour and his brother’s family in the Fortress. There had been changes farther afield, too. The Ket, the Lord of the Westerners, had died also, gone to the Joyous Place in the way of his people, for these wanderers of the high Plateau did not bury their dead, but set them on funeral pyres. The more respected the dead, the greater the fire, and the night-time blaze of the Ket’s going had lit the Plateau like day. Now his twin sons, one of them the other grandfather of Aiel’s grandchildren, ruled the Westerners jointly. But Light had been merciful to the four original Way-Sharers, Aiel thought. They still had each other, he and Arentha, Lin and Krystha, though they were older and greyer, and they still had their friendship.
Now Aiel turned and went back through the passageway, out to his own house, where Arentha waited, still and always his lovely Arentha to him. And she was lovely still, for her gentle and quiet spirit was not marred by the years, though her dark hair had turned now to silver, and her skin was lined with the tracks of many smiles and some few tears. Tonight they were alone, for Alira was with Krystha, though she had come to the Temple early in the day to say her farewells to her old friend Arnath. As they ate their meal, Aiel told Arentha what had happened in the evening quiet of the Temple. She exclaimed “Zarel? But I thought you would always be the Lightstone-Bearer!” “I think I did, too” he told her, wryly, “but it is Light’s Will. I am not sad, or jealous – oh, I was for a moment”he added, honestly, “but then I felt joy for the lad, and I believe it was Light’s joy. Yet I am afraid for him too, a little. I wonder what it is that Light will ask of him. He has not given entrance to any Darkness, that he need defeat it. I hope I have not, by my actions so long ago, imperilled him now.” “Light is just, and would not ask payment for one man’s fault from another” Arentha said stoutly. “In any case, your fault, if there was any, was wiped out long ago by your obedience to the Lightstone Way. We must wait till tomorrow, as you bade Zarel do, and then the Dancer will tell us.”
In the Mountain Fortress, meanwhile, where news of Zarel’s accession to the Lightstone was not yet known, his aunt and uncle and their family had arrived to spend the night with their kin and friends before attending the funeral ceremonies at the Temple the next day. At the Fortress too that day had brought momentous events and changes in the lives of some of the younger members of the families. Now, as they settled at the table in the lamplit Great Hall to take their meal, despite their grief at Arnath’s death, there was a stronger joy for the living, a joy that shone particularly in the faces of two young people seated closely side by side, one a fair-haired, green-eyed, open-faced young Swordsman, the other a lovely, dark-haired, dark-eyed girl. Their mothers were seated nearby, so like their son and daughter that there could be no mistaking, and the closest of friends. Marla, the green-eyed blonde, Lady of Mellin, Lord of the Mountains – the same Marla who had fought her way out of Darkness every inch of the renewed Lightstone Way, and had at last attained Light despite danger and the sorceries of the Silver Witch, Si-Mara. Si-Mara had given birth to Marla, but never been a mother to her, wanting her only as a potential wielder of a reforged Bloodstone. It had been Aiel, with the aid of the Lightstone, the Dancers, and a Spirit-in-Light, who had finally freed her from her Dark heritage. The other was Aila, Aiel’s daughter, herself a Perception-gifted Healer, whose staunch friendship for and championship of Marla had been one of her friend’s greatest sources of strength on that Way. Because Aila and Marla had become such dear friends during Marla’s Way, they spent as much time together as was possible, despite the distance between the Western and Mountain Fortresses. Aila would take her daughters to stay with Marla, or Marla bring Karlin and Mella to holiday at the Western Fortress.
One such trip had occurred when Karlin had just finished his formal Sword-Training – though he had been learning from his father and grandfather and alongside his young uncle all his life – and taken his vows to the Fortress Watch. He had worked hard and done well, and Mellin had decreed a holiday and sent him off with Marla and Mella to visit Janir and Aila. To everyone’s astonishment Karlin and Janna, Janir and Aila’s elder daughter, had become inseparable, and at the end of the visit declared themselves to be in love. Since Karlin was so young, and Janna even younger, their parents had treated them gently, sympathetically, but, not expecting this first love to last, had not taken them too seriously. However, the young lovers had remained constant. Though they were rarely together, they seemed to live only for those brief visits, and lost no opportunity, when messages needed to be passed between the Fortresses, to send their own. There were many young men at the Western Fortress, Swordsmen, some of them Westerners, but Janna cared only for Karlin. And there were pretty girls in the City, but Karlin ignored them, and spent his off-duty time in the City with his Sword-Brethren, or choosing little gifts to send to Janna. After four years their love still lived, and now that Janir and Aila, with both their daughters, were arriving to stay at the Fortress in order to attend the funeral ceremonies for Arnath, Karlin was overjoyed. Mellin, who had had no objections to a match except that Karlin and Janna had been so young, thought that he must speak to Janir about the matter when his cousin arrived. Karis, who was in a unique position regarding Karlin, had already spoken to Mellin. Being, by virtue of his youth, so close to Karlin, more like a brother than an uncle, he had been the boy’s confidant. Yet, because he was Mellin’s brother, he also had the right to speak to the Swordsman as an equal, regarding Karlin’s welfare. “Mellin”, he had championed the young couple, “Have they not proved that their love is a lasting thing, not childish imaginings?” And Mellin had smiled affectionately at his younger brother, and said “Peace, Karis! Marla and I have already decided to discuss this with Janir and Aila when they arrive. But say nothing to Karlin yet!”
Karlin had been almost the whole afternoon on the Fortress walls, watching for the arrival of the party from the West. Karis watched him pacing there with compassion. He had seen the carefully kept letters from Janna, heard Karlin’s hopes and longings, helped him in the choosing of gifts. Gazing up at his impatient young kinsman, Karis hoped that today might bring him good news. If Janir were of a mind with Mellin, this visit might end all uncertainty for the young couple. Karlin called down from the wall “They are coming!” and came leaping down the stairway, eyes glowing. Karis smiled at him and said “Not long to wait now, Karlin.” It was almost like looking into a mirror, to look into Karlin’s face. Both young men had inherited Lin’s muscular, lean build and thick golden hair – though Lin’s had now faded to silver. Both had his open, honest face and the same slight quirk to a smiling mouth. Save that Karlin had the green eyes of Marla, his mother, and Karis, Krystha’s amber-brown ones, they were so alike that they might have been, and often were, taken for brothers instead of uncle and nephew. The fact that Karis was only a little more than two years older than Karlin aided the confusion. The two young men joined their family in the Great Hall to await the guests’ arrival. Karlin’s bright face and obvious impatience awoke little smiles of sympathy and tender amusement as they waited. At last the moment came when Janir and Aila appeared in the doorway with their daughters behind them. Janna’s lovely face, so like her mother’s and grandmother’s, was as lit with joy as Karlin’s. Her brown eyes flew straight to his face, her sweet mouth curved in a delighted smile. Behind her Lira, her sister, hung back a little, as if knowing that this moment was Karlin and Janna’s.
As they greeted each other, Karlin somehow remembered to be correct, greeting Janir with the Swordsmen’s handclasp, saluting Aila, giving Lira a perfunctory hug and kiss. But when he turned towards Janna and she to him, it was clear that no one else in the room existed for them now. He held her tightly to him, her arms clung round his waist. She bowed her head on his shoulder, he turned his face into the glossy dark fall of her hair. They were lost in each other. It was plain to see, now, that to keep them apart any longer would be as cruel as it was unnecessary. Janir, for whom too Aila had been his first and only love, perfectly understanding Karlin’s heart, turned to his cousin, reaching out to clasp him hand to forearm, as was the Swordsmen’s way, and when the greeting was over said softly “Mellin, I think they have proved their love. Is it not time to talk of a betrothal?” “Marla and I had been thinking the same thing” Mellin answered, smiling. “Then let us not keep them in misery any longer” Janir said. “Mellin…” “She is your daughter, Sword-Brother” Mellin broke in, laughing, “and yours to give to him!”
It took some moments to disengage the couple’s attention from each other when Janir called them to him. They came hand-in-hand, the joy in their faces touched with an apprehension at his summons that moved Janir and made him feel a wave of tenderness for them. They were so young, so in love, on the verge of their life together. If his beloved daughter found as much happiness with Karlin as he himself had with Aila, she would be happy indeed, Janir thought. “Karlin” he said “four years ago you asked me if Janna might be your Lady. Not from any unkind feelings towards you, but because you were both so young, I said no, bidding you bide your time. But Mellin and I have discussed this further, and since you are still true to each other, and your love as strong – then, if you both still wish to be betrothed, now I will say yes.” If they wished it! he thought, as he finished his formal little speech. Their faces were so bright with relief and love and joy, they could have lit a dark room. Janna exclaimed, with tears of joy, “Oh, Father! Oh, Karlin!” and could say no more but, overcome, turned back to the shelter of Karlin’s arms. He, though, holding her tightly, looked Janir in the eyes and said solemnly “Janir, this is the most precious gift that ever I was given – and one I will guard with my life.” Janir was touched. He laid a hand on Karlin’s shoulder, and gave it an affectionate squeeze. “Aye, dear lad, I know you will. Light bless you both.”
In this way the young couple’s dearest wish had been granted, and now, as the family shared their evening meal, the joy that had intoxicated Karlin and Janna all afternoon and evening had settled on all of them. Tomorrow there would be the solemnities of Arnath’s funeral, but for now all was gladness and contentment in the Mountain Fortress. Aila smiled on her blissful daughter, and glanced sideways at Janir, thinking to herself that Janna would be blessed in her choice of a husband ; Karlin went back to the same good stock as Mellin and Lin, as Janir did on his mother’s side – all of them brave, honest and honourable men – open-hearted and loyal to Light, to friends and Sword-Brethren. As indeed had been Barengian, her father-in-law, she added to herself. Janir had never failed her earliest expectations of him, yet had never shown any pride in the noble qualities which endeared him to her so much, remaining constantly and joyously surprised that Aila should have loved and married him. Suddenly, Aila was aware of a stirring at the edges of her idle thoughts, and knew that someone was reaching for her Perception. She realised it must be Aiel, or Arenel, and opened her Perception. It proved to be both her father and her brother, joined in the Thought-without-Words to reach out to her, telling her of the evening’s events, and that she should prepare the others for what was to happen tomorrow. Her eyes widened as she listened, and Janir, seeing this, exclaimed “Aila, my heart, what is it?” His words drew everyone’s attention to her, but she signed them all to silence until Aiel and Arenel’s message was finished. Then she looked round at their curious faces, and said “The Lightstone Way continues…” going on to explain what she had been told.