Chapter 16

Aiel lifted his eyes to his father’s, and the two blue gazes met in the link of the Thought-without-Words. Through that link, Arnath relived with his son the full tale of Aiel’s Way, with no need of long and wordy explanations. When they broke the link. Arnath exclaimed “You have grown so much, Aiel! You are wise , and compassionate. You have learned not to deny your fears and emotions, and yet to master them. Above all you have learned to rely only on Light, at every step. You are a worthy Lightstone-Bearer – and I do not say that because you are my son. If anything, I would judge you more harshly on that account.” “And is it still a secret, that I am the Lightstone-Bearer?” “That is a difficult question. The Priesthood know, of course, and the Council, and those to whom your Way has taken you. Yet it will never be openly announced, for there would always be those who revered the Stone above what it represents, and the Bearer because of the Stone – as if one worshipped the Crucible in the place of Light. Yet there will be stories, and rumours, and there will be those who seek you, and the Lightstone, because their need is desperate. Or those to whom the Stone itself draws you, as to the boy Taran.” “Then I must be led of Light.” Aiel said. The door of the Prayer Room quietly opened, and Lin and Linnad came in. The Lord of the Harbour smiled at Arnath. “I too have come to thank Light for the return of my son” he said, and knelt with Lin in prayer for a while, as the two Priests watched silently.

When the two Swordsmen rose, Lin turned smiling to his friend, and said, “I am going to the Bathing Place now, to wash off the journey’s dust. Shall you come?” Aiel nodded, and they left the Prayer Room together, hearing their fathers talking behind them as they went. Lin said, with a snick of laughter, “I have been telling our adventures till I am weary of it. My friends were horribly envious of my part in the Way – till I told them of all the Darkness we had seen. Barengian said he was glad all went well between Ket-Kai and myself, since they are also Sword-Brethren, and if I had harmed Ket-Kai he would not wish to choose between Sword-Brethren! And Mira cannot believe I really mean to wed, but has given me her approval of my choice of Krystha.” And he laughed again. They found fresh clothes waiting for them in the robing room by the Bathing Place, clothes for a Festival day. Aiel’s Priest’s robe was not his usual one, but woven of fine fabric, and his gold circlet lay with it. Lin found fine cloth breeches and high boots of soft leather, a shirt of soft fabric, and a brocade tunic. He grumbled at this, and at the gold chain with its enamelled family badge proclaiming his Lordship, which accompanied the fine clothes. Lin hated any kind of formality, and was happiest in his simple everyday clothes, or his Harbour livery. It was, though, a special occasion, made more so by the reunion of Merhaun and Alira and their intended renewal of their marriage vows, so Lin accepted the need for the finery. They were much refreshed by their bathe, and Aiel was relieved to see that all that showed of Lin’s wound now – outwardly at least – was a long, wavering, reddish scar. He asked “How is the arm, Lin?” “Much better.” Lin said. “It aches now, because of the riding, and because I am a little tired. And it aches when Krystha makes me exercise it, but I bear that because it is for my good. She truly does have the gift of Healing, Aiel.” When they had dressed, Aiel thought that his friend looked rather splendid in the fine clothes – every inch a young Lord. Lin buckled the True Sword on again, though, unwilling to trust it out of his sight, Lin, in turn, saw Aiel as he had seen him on the morning of their arrival at the Gatehouse – Lightstone-Bearer, Servant of Light, determined to do the right. Aiel let the Lightstone lie openly on his breast, since all here knew him to be the Lightstone-Bearer, and the Stone seemed to glow more brightly than usual, as if there were rejoicing at its heart too.

Leaving the robing room, they found a gentle-faced elderly man waiting for them, who proved to be Harik, the Fortress’ elder Healer, and trainer of Krystha. She had sent him to inspect Lin’s arm, which he did carefully, and tied it in a sling of soft cloth to take the weight so that it would not ache too much. Then they went on their way to the Great Hall, where a transformation had taken place. The huge room was decorated with banners and flowers. Lines of tables and benches filled the Hall, set with cups and platters, and on the dais stood a long table for Merhaun and his family and friends, draped with cloth and set with platters and dishes of fine pottery, and enamelled cups. Stewards and servants hurried in and out, and appetising smells wafted in from the direction of the kitchens. The two young men, seeing that they were early, went out through the courtyard and climbed one of the narrow stairways onto the walkway at the top of the wall, facing the City. Below them they glimpsed the head of the Falls of Vandar, and the Forest, but they were looking out across the Plain of Blossoms to the City on its hill, crowned by the Temple, its white stonework glowing pink and gold in the light of the now sinking sun. Aiel saw, with joy, that the North Doors of the Temple had been opened, as in times of celebration, so that the Crucible flame shone forth, and he saw nearby the brazier that would be lit in answer on the Fortress walls, when darkness fell. Beyond the City again, they could see, either side of the Temple Hill, the distant gleam of the sea, and Aiel wondered if Lin was thinking of his home by the Harbour. Lin said, as if in answer to Aiel’s unspoken thought, “I have wondered if I would ever see that sight again! Especially when I lay in the Fever Dream…” he shuddered, and Aiel said quickly, sympathetically, “That is over now, Lin. Your battle is won.” It was the first time, the young Priest thought, that Lin had given any hint of how frightening his experience of that sickness had been, or how aware he had been of his nearness to death. “All battles are fought, for now.” Lin said, the moment of dark memory passing, and leaving the present brighter for him, by contrast. “Now it is time to rejoice!”

They went back down the stairs and recrossed the courtyard to the Great Hall. Merhaun, resplendent in a long robe of russet and blue and a strangely worked and ancient gold circlet round his brow, was standing with Linnad and Arnath, also wearing Festival dress. The High Priest wore a robe like his son’s, and the High Priest’s regalia, a broad gold collar with the Symbol embossed on the front of it, and a gold circlet a little wider than Aiel’s. Linnad wore a tunic of green and gold brocade, the colours of the Harbour, his own circlet, and a family badge like Lin’s. Merhaun welcomed the friends, and seeing their interest in his gold circlet, smiled. “That is Brann’s gift” he explained, pointing to the True Sword hanging at Lin’s side, “but this is Tamran’s.” and he touched the ancient band around his brow. “Is it really so old?” Lin asked. “Aye, and has been longer in Li’i than even the Lightstone and the True Sword.” Merhaun answered. “It may be the oldest thing made in Li’is.” They heard a soft rustle behind them, and turned, to see the Ladies of the Fortress, with Janira, Lin’s mother, standing there. They too were richly dressed for the occasion, the gowns of all of them cut to the pattern of Festival dress; the close-fitting bodice, cut rather lower than for daily wear and filled in with embroidered fabric, bell-shaped skirts, sleeves that were close-fitting to the elbow, then flared into an echo of the skirt’s shape. Janira, fair like her daughter and son, small and quick as a bird, wore a gown of soft green, and sea-jewels for her necklace and earrings. Alira, lovingly dressed by her daughters, wore scarlet embroidered with gold, the bright colour throwing a warm glow on her face. Her dark hair was braided into a coronet intertwined with a fine gold chain, and her dark eyes were fixed on her husband’s face with a tender intensity. But Aiel and Lin were gazing with loving pride at their own betrothed, both elegant in their Festival clothes, but so different it was hard to believe they were sisters. Arentha’s gown was deep, rich blue, patterned with softer blue and rose. Aiel’s enamelled brooch shone on her breast, and she had blue-stoned drops in her ears. Her dark hair was loose, save for a few braids, and held in place with hair ornaments set with more blue stones. Krystha was golden and glowing in a gown patterned in apricot and gold, her hair, like her mother’s, plaited and pinned up in a regal coronet, but without ornament. Her only jewellery was the pendant Lin had given her, with its great tawny stone echoing the colour of the big, bright eyes in her creamy, heart-shaped face. Arentha had always been the lovely one, but for once Krystha outshone her sister in her golden glory, burning like a flame. Lin, stunned, held out his hand to her and said, as she laid her hand in his, “Krystha – Krystha , my heart, I did not know you could be so beautiful!” The others might have smiled at his choice of words – for blunt, honest Lin had never learned to flatter – but Krystha knew exactly what he meant, and smiled at him lovingly, and glowed even more.

The other members of the Council joined them, with Lady Benika, and Lin’s sister Mira, who had left little Janir safely in the care of a doting maidservant. The tables in the Great Hall began to fill with the folk of City and Fortress, with Aiel’s brother Priests, and Lin’s Sword-Brethren. Liveries of Fortress and Harbour mingled, and several new Sword-Brotherhoods had their beginnings over the celebratory meal. When the feasting was finished, Merhaun called for silence, and he and Arnath explained, for those who did not know, or had heard only rumours of, the thing that Aiel and the Way-Sharers had done, and the reason for the celebration. Merhaun announced, too, the betrothals of Aiel and Arentha and Lin and Krystha, and finally, and with undisguised emotion, he told of Aiel’s reclaiming Alira to Light, of their reconciliation, and the intention of renewing their wedding vows. The atmosphere of joyous celebration was all around them as they made their way to the Prayer Room for the ceremony. It was a deeply moving thing to see the Lord of the Mountains reclaim his lost Lady in this way. Krystha and Arentha were weeping with their almost unbearable joy. Aiel, helping his father with the ceremony, was overwhelmed by a sense of the gracious mercy of Light. Lin, holding Krystha in the curve of his good arm as she wept, felt, in the poignancy of the moment, the sting of tears in his own eyes. And when all was done, and Merhaun tenderly kissed his wife, there was a great, collective sigh from all the guests who had crowded into the Prayer room, and those who had been forced, by the crush, to listen outside its open door.

Naturally enough, the two young couples, watching the ceremony, had been thinking of their own future wedding day – for they had long since agreed it should be a shared occasion. Merhaun, though he understood, asked later, when they could be quieter, if they could agree that it should not be too soon. “I know, I do understand, that you do not wish to wait too long.” he said, “But we need some time together, as a family. A few months, that is all, before you take your brides. It will not seem long, in any case, for there will be a great deal to arrange.” Lin answered, smiling, “Lord Merhaun, you have waited many years for your happiness. Surely, we can wait a few months for ours.” Aiel agreed, and added, “And the Fortress is not so far to ride, from the City, unless…?” He did not finish the question, but looked at Merhaun, who said, as if Aiel had asked, “No, my prohibition no longer stands. My enmity with the City is over. All are free of the Forest and the Mountains now.” He smiled, then added, “And speaking of riding, it is my wish that you keep Mischief and Greymouse- a betrothal gift , if you like.” Lin was delighted, Aiel hardly less so, for he had become a fair rider on the Lightstone Way, and had grown fond of the quiet, sturdy Greymouse.

It had been a long, crowded day, and all of them were weary. Yet tomorrow Aiel and Lin would ride on to the City, leaving Arentha and Krystha behind in the Fortress, and none of them wanted to make their goodbyes publicly in the morning. This their friends and families understood, and made no comment when the two young couples slipped away. First they went together to the Prayer Room to commend each other to Light’s keeping. Then Lin and Krystha left Aiel and Arentha there, and went away hand-in-hand. Aiel smiled after his friends, then stretched his arms up and back, easing the tensions that even such a happy day had brought. Arentha asked, “Is it well with you, Aiel?”, still with that tender concern for him that had supported him so well on the Way. He smiled at her contentedly. “Well, and very well”, he told her, “except that I must leave you behind me tomorrow. But, as Merhaun your father said, it is only for a little while.Are you happy now, my heart?” Disconcertingly, her brown eyes flooded suddenly with tears, but she gasped, “Oh, Aiel – yes, I am so happy, and it is all your doing! You have brought me so much love – Light’s, and yours, and my mother’s restored. And – and I do love you so!” Aiel was moved by her words, and swept not only by love for her, but by a fierce protectiveness he had not felt till then. He reached out to hold her tightly to him, and promised her, “Arentha, my heart, with Light’s aid I shall do all I can to make and keep you happy.”

Lin and Krystha had climbed up on to the Fortress wall. It was quite dark now, but the fire still burned in the signal brazier, answering the glow of the Crucible flame through the open doors of the Temple, across on the City Hill. Stars and one moon shone brightly above them, though not with the brilliance of the Westerners’ Plateau, and the air was warm and scented with wood-smoke and the green of the Forest around them. Distantly, they could hear the rush of the Falls of Vandar , and the murmur of voices from the Great Hall. Lin said softly. “I remember the first day I came to this place. You flew at me like a hill-cat, and told me you hated me, because I spoke harshly to your father.” “I did not hate you.” she admitted. “I knew the words you spoke were true, and I was angry because of it. And you – disturbed me, even then.” “I thought you spoiled and childish, then” he admitted in his turn, “I did not understand, Krystha.” “I was spoiled and childish” she said thoughtfully, “always wishing I had been a boy, and a Swordsman, and fretting at being what Light made me. I did not realise that was like an insult to Light.” She laughed suddenly, joyously, surprising him. “Praise Light that I am a maiden, Lin, or I never would have the joy of loving you!” “Nor I you.” he said. He stared at her, trying to see clearly in the dimness, watching the fire glint red off her hair. Already he was aching at the thought of tomorrow’s leave-taking. His emotions made little sense. He was not leaving her forever. He could ride to see her whenever he wished, and before long she would be his Lady, his for all their lives. Yet he felt so desolate. Seeming to sense this, she asked, “Lin, what is it, dear love?” “Krystha…” he struggled for words to explain, then suddenly burst out, “Krystha, I do not want to leave you tomorrow! Oh, I know it makes no sense at all, but I think I cannot bear it!” “Hush!” she told him, but tenderly, surprised at his vehemence. She reached out and gently took his face between her hands, holding his grey eyes with her golden-tawny ones. “What do you fear, Lin? Do you doubt me?” she asked, without reproach or recrimination. “No!” he answered, fiercely,” I know your heart is true, my love. It is just – oh, it sounds so stupid, Krystha.” “If it hurts you, it is not stupid. tell me, Lin.” she said, firmly. “Why- you are all I ever wanted, and never knew I wanted, and I am afraid that – somehow, when I am away from you, it will all become a dream. As if you might vanish when you left my sight! There, I told you it would sound stupid.” He smiled wryly at his own fancy. “Have I not a scar half the length of my arm to prove the reality of it? And can I not ride to see you whenever I wish?” Krystha released him, and said, quickly, “Lin, you know that you came very close to death in the Fever Dream. This insecurity has likely sprung from that. You had more wounds to heal than one, my heart, and they are still healing.” She reached up and uncoiled one braid from her coronet of plaited hair. Loosing it, while he watched, bemused, she reached for the sword at his side. He recoiled, asking, “Krystha, what are you doing?” “I need a sharp blade, and have not my own” she answered, and took the True Sword from him without further argument. Carefully, she cut a lock of her red-gold hair and swiftly wove it into a little braid, which she laid in Lin’s hand. “There” she said , ” A token, Lin. Look on that, and you will know you have not dreamed our love.” He took the little braid of hair, marvelling at her understanding, and kissed the ‘token’, and hid it inside his shirt. His strange mood was lifting, and he retrieved and sheathed his sword, and said, “Krystha, I love you” and drew her into an embrace, feeling the warm, sweet, living reality of her in his arms.

Next morning, as they prepared to leave the Fortress, it was certain that Aiel and Lin should have in mind their setting out from there on the Lightstone Way. The contrast, the relief of Aiel’s success, were enough to lighten them, so that their farewells to Arentha and Krystha were tender but not mournful. They all had other joys to turn to, for a while, and then the anticipated joy of their marriages. Lin had his parents and family to accompany him, and Aiel his father and Sulyar. The others had left earlier to return to their duties in the City or to their own places. Aiel, watching them go, had felt both sadness and assurance. Sadness, because he did not know when, if ever, he would see his friends of the Way again, assurance that, if they never met again in Li’is, they would one day greet each other in the Joyous Place. They took the easy road down the flank of the Mountains, riding in the warm sun through the rich fragrance of the Forest, and across the Plain of Blossoms, where the brighter summer flowers had ousted the blooms of Spring. Aiel realised, suddenly, that during his absence another Festival had come and gone. It was the first time in his life that he had missed a Festival, but this had been the Festival of Service, the time of dedication to Light, and he had surely done his service and made his dedication on the Lightstone Way!

And now they were nearing the North Gate of the City. They had ridden mostly in silence, because all of them were busy with their own thoughts, relaxed and happy that all had ended so well. Now, though, Lin turned his head to look at his friend and said, “Aiel, we are home!” Aiel returned his joyous grin, and said, “Aye, Lin, we are home!” Once through the Gate, their ways would part, Lin’s to the Harbour, Aiel’s to the Temple. And because it was impossible to part casually from each other after all they had shared, once they passed the Gatewards, Aiel and Lin dismounted, and bade each other farewell with a brotherly embrace, and wished each other “Go in Light.” “My father and mother insist that I rest, but I will be at Evening Prayers tomorrow.” Lin promised, and swung back into the saddle, and was gone, trotting down the street with his family, pausing to wave another farewell to Aiel as he turned the corner. Aiel too remounted, and Sulyar, noting the ease with which he did so, said drily, “You have learned some useful skills on your Way, it seems, Aiel.” Aiel smiled at him, grateful for the other Priest’s remark, which eased the strangeness he felt at being, after all this time, without Lin, his friend and bond-brother. “Aye” he said, as drily, “I may surprise you yet, Sulyar.” Suddenly solemn, the other said, “Aiel, you have already done that! It was well done, Lightstone-Bearer – better than many of us hoped for.”

They rode up the steep hill towards the white Temple, and it was the Temple Aiel was homesick for. Not his father’s quiet house, but the great Temple, was where he yearned to be. They reached the Temple grounds, and left their horses in the Priests’ stables. There were few enough beasts in the stables, since the Priesthood were not great riders, but enough to be company for the faithful Greymouse, from whom Aiel parted affectionately. Then Aiel turned straight for the Temple, like a bird to its nest. He strode up the wide steps, where he had been sitting with Lin on the day it had all begun. He walked through the tall doors with their carved panels into the high, airy building, and moved down one of the aisles between the rows of padded benches to the heart of the Temple, the Crucible. Nobody in the Temple paid attention to a lone Priest standing before the beautiful golden bowl of the Crucible on its stepped stone dais. Nobody saw that when he lifted his head to gaze up at the man-high, steady golden flame under the great arch of the Temple dome, there were tears in his vivid blue eyes and a white stone that burned like a small star on his breast. Aiel raised his arms as if in praise, and none of the onlookers could know that in that gesture he offered, as if in sacrifice, the sum of his experiences and accomplishments on the Way. The Lightstone-Bearer stood before the Crucible and said in his heart to Light, “I have done the thing that Light gave me to do.” And that was the greatest joy of all.

It seemed so strange, after the first excitement of return, and telling their adventures, to drop back into the old routines of life again. For Aiel, his Perception and Priestly disciplines enhanced by the Lightstone making him more useful in the Temple than ever, it was not as hard as for Lin, who was still forced to be idle a little longer, until his arm was fully useable. Even when he was fit to return to the Harbour Watch, Lin confided to his friend one day, he felt somehow out of place there. They were sitting on the Temple steps in the sun again, having soon reverted to the habit that had been theirs for years. Aiel said, with some surprise, “But you are heir to the Harbour, Lin!” Lin said, “I know, and all my life I have loved the Harbour, and the sea. But now I feel restless there. It is all so – so settled and organised. To tell truth, I feel more at home in the Fortress, Aiel – and not just because Krystha is there. It seems to me that when I left the Harbour Watch, it was as if i left a footprint in soft mud. It was soon filled in, and smoothed over, and forgotten. Now I find it hard to take my place again.” “And what does Linnad say?” Aiel asked. Lin had had the braid of hair Krystha had given him sealed together at the ends with a tag of gold, and wore it on his wrist with the other band of plaited cords that the Ket had given him. Now he played with both bands as he answered, “He says that I must be where I am happy. And my mother says that Krystha is a Healer to the Fortress and will need to stay there in any case. Merhaun and Alira would be glad to have me there too. But my father grows no younger, and I would not wish to desert him.” “Linnad is not yet in his dotage!” Aiel retorted. “And you will have children, you and Krystha. It may be your son who will be Lord of the Harbour, after all.” He sounded so sure that Lin asked, with a glint of laughter, “Are you making a prophecy for me, Aiel?” “No!” Aiel said, surprised, then, “At least, I do not think so, Lin.” “Merhaun has said” Lin admitted “that he would be glad to make me the guardian of the Fortress, at need, until any sons we had were grown. He said I could do that, and remain my father’s Heir. I think it is that he remembers what happened to his own father, and is afraid that a burden might fall suddenly on Alira or Krystha, if any such thing befell him.”

The summer blazed and burned and fruits and crops ripened into autumn. The marriage plans were well in hand, and somehow, without anyone actually making such a decision, it was accepted that after they were married, Lin would live with Krystha at the Fortress. Aiel and Arentha would occupy one of the little white Priests’ houses in the temple grounds. Aiel wondered, on one of his visits to her at the Fortress, if she would find it too small and quiet after the great, bustling Fortress, but she reassured him. “Anywhere with you, my love” she said, “and so close to the Temple, and the City, it will not be so very quiet. And where else would I live, if I marry a Priest?” Autumn arrived fully, and the Forest was a blaze of red and gold. In the temple the First Harvest Horn was sounded, and sheaves of grain and branches and vines of fruit brought in as offerings and piled high in baskets round the Crucible, so that all the temple was fragrant with them. Enough and to spare to be ground into meal or dried and stored, so that the poor and the hungry might be succoured in the bitter winter time with the gift of others’ autumn wealth. With the harvest too came other gifts, for the Westerners were beginning their move to the shelter of the Western Fortress and its villages for the winter, and some made a detour to the Fortress to bring the promised fabrics for Arentha and Krystha to choose from for their wedding gowns. Many and beautiful were the colours the Westerners had learned to dye into the rich, fine fabrics, and the choice was difficult. At last, Arentha chose the wine-red that the Westerners seemed to dye richer and more vibrant than any other. Krystha picked out a smooth, deep colour like a summer sea, neither blue nor green, but both, and glowing as if with sunlight. Now their wedding time was drawing near in earnest. In one way it seemed a shame that it would come when all the most beautiful and glowing part of the year was gone, and they had debated whether to wait for Spring again. But love – theirs, and Light’s – was enough to brighten any day they chose, and each couple was eager to belong together. The precious fabrics were cut and stitched, and Lin grumbled to Aiel, “I thought my mother would have enough to do, with her own gown, and Mira’s” – for Mira was to be bride-woman – “without fussing about decking me out too, as if I , not Krystha, were the bride!” He sighed, then grinned at his friend. ” Simple enough for you, Aiel! A Priest’s robe is as easy to wear whatever the material. I must suffer in stiff new fabrics and brocade, and as it is to be in winter, my mother wonders if it should not have a fur trim!” Aiel laughed too, and teased his friend, “And is not Krystha worth it?” Lin said, still merrily, but with a hint almost of solemnity behind his words, “Oh, yes! For Krystha I would wear sacking and a shirt woven of thorn-vines!”

The two months of the various harvests ended with the baskets in the Temple piled with all the root crops, smelling earthy and good. The Second Harvest Horn signalled the end to the time of gift-bringing, the root crops were taken away to be stored in boxes of earth or sand, and the leaves fell in the Forest. The Seacoast Mountains had a sprinkling of snow already on their peaks, the sky was coldly clear, the moons and stars were icy-bright at night. Cold little winds began to sneak through the City streets, but in Arnath’s and Linnad’s households, and in the Fortress, warmth and happiness reigned as the wedding day approached. Aiel had dropped back happily enough into his ordinary duties at the Temple, except that now and then, as Arnath had said, there was need of the Lightstone’s powers. His brother Priests had been naturally curious about the Lightstone, and awed by it, and in consequence, for a while at least, in awe of Aiel too, and distanced from him. Eventually, though, they accepted his oft-repeated reminders that he was nothing of himself, as even the Lightstone was nothing of itself, and only the Power of Light behind each gave them meaning. Now, though, he found himself excluded again, but in the pleasantest way, from his Brotherhood’s conferrings. Their marriage gift to him and Lin and their brides was to be the decking out of the Temple and the making of the marriage music, so the Lightstone Harp lay idle, and Aiel kept himself to the work of counselling and prayer, and left his fellow musicians to their work.

For the few days before the wedding, Aiel was kept from the Temple, as much by his own preparations as by his brother Priests’ loving injunction. There was need to visit the Healers for instruction in the things a briedgroom should know, there was the little white house in the Temple grounds to be inspected with Arentha, the furnishings approved, and a room chosen for the girl Arentha was bringing with her from the Fortress to help with the household tasks. At least, thought Aiel, since he had no near kin, and the distant ones mostly within the Priesthood, like Sulyar, he had no need to be arranging for the quartering of guests, as had the others. When the day dawned, though very cold, it was bright and clear. Aiel felt joyous and solemn together, aware that Arentha’s happiness, and that of any future children, rested with him now. It was still early, and Aiel bathed and dressed quickly and went through the passageway that linked the High Priest’s house – his home no longer, after today – to the Temple. His brother Priests had not forbidden him the Prayer Room, so he knelt there before the miniature Crucible and prayed for himself and Arentha, Lin and Krystha. At the back of his mind he was aware of the secret door behind the wall-hanging, the hidden stairway and the room beneath this, through which he had entered on the Way which had, in the end, led him to this wedding day. He spoke aloud to Light. “Now I see that Light weaves many threads into our lives, dark and light together, and all the weaving is good, though it may not seem so at the time, to us. This joyous day would not be mine, without the Darkness that went before it. “

His prayers finished, Aiel rose, and was about to leave the Prayer Room when a group of the younger Priests, his contemporaries, hurried in. “Here he is!” exclaimed one, a cheery, rather impetuous young man named Lutar, for whom Aiel had always had a liking. “We guessed you would be here, Aiel! Come and see our work, now, and tell us if your bride, and Lin’s, will like it.” Laughing, Aiel let himself be drawn along by his friends to the main Temple. The doors were firmly shut and locked, but Lutar had the key, and unlocked and opened them with a flourish. Pushed forward by his fellow Priests, Aiel stepped across the threshold and stopped dead, astonished. Like a breath of the long-dead summer, a heavy, spicy fragrance swept over him. From floor to high ceiling, every pillar of the Temple was garlanded with swathes of fresh greenery, white and golden flowers, all fresh and blooming despite the winter outside the Temple walls. More garlands lay along the steps of the Crucible dais, the warmth of the bowl drawing out their perfume. It was like stepping into a summer’s day. Warmed, delighted, bewildered, Aiel turned a glowing face to Lutar, whom he suspected was somehow at the back of this, and exclaimed, “My Brothers-in-Light, it is beautiful – and amazing! How did you come by these flowers in the winter?” Lutar grinned. “Oh, it took some planning, Aiel! Hyet, here, has kin in the East, where the seasons differ. We had the blooms brought from there.” “But the sea journey is long – they would have died.” Hyet smiled in his turn, “Oh, they would – if they had come by sea.” They were chuckling together, conspiratorially, gentle teasing him, pleased by his puzzled look. At last Lutar, the ringleader, took pity on Aiel, and explained, “Rujel here, you may not know, is kin to the Gatekeeper. As it was for you, and knowing the love he bears you, we dared ask a great favour of him – and of his Dancers.” “The Dancers?” Aiel queried, somewhat dazedly. “The Dancers” Lutar echoed, and signed to quiet Rujel to speak, The slight, shy Priest said “We arranged for Hyet’s kin to obtain the flowers for us. And Tor-Harat asked the Dancers if they would be willing to bring them to us. And they said yes! They Dance among the stars, Aiel, yet they agreed to run such an errand for us – just for the love they have for you, Lightstone-Bearer, and the Way-Sharers, for saving them.” Lutar, solemn now, said, “We have seen the Dancers, Aiel. We are glad of what you did for them.”

Aiel stared round at his friends of the Priesthood, still half-bewildered. “You did all this for me? And the Dancers shared in it?” “Aye” Lutar said quietly “From brotherhood and love, we did it. And they shared in it.” For a moment Aiel’s eyes misted with tears. The scent of the flowers was not just that, but the perfume of the loving thought that had gone into all this preparation for his and his friends’ wedding day. He held out his arms, stretching out as if he would embrace them all. ” My brothers, I am speechless. Such love, and care, and planning! Light bless you all!” There was a little, emotional, silence, then Lutar, as if slightly embarrassed by their solemnity, demanded, “And will it please the Ladies of the Fortress, Aiel?” “Of course!” Aiel told him, smiling round again at them all. “Go you now” Lutar ordered him “and let us practice our music for your wedding.” Thus dismissed, Aiel thanked them again, smiling still, and walked back to Arnath’s house, musing on what they had done.

Later, discussing it with Arnath, he asked, “Did you know what they were doing, Father?” “Only that they were to deck the Temple for the weddings, no more.” Arnath said. “They have done well by you, Aiel.” “Well and very well!” Aiel answered. “I did not know they bore me such love.” What though, if not love, should be the theme for a wedding day, Lin asked Aiel, when the matter was explained to him. “The one love brings out all the others, not least Light’s.” the Swordsman said, “I have never known my mother and sister as tender to me as they have been today, and they have always shown me love.” They were waiting in the Prayer Room to be called into the Temple for their wedding ceremonies. Lin, as he had foretold, was elegant in fine fabric and brocade robe in the Harbour’s green-and-gold – though he had escaped the threatened fur trim – and for once, no sword hung at his side. Gold chain with family badge, and Lord’s circlet, completed his wedding finery. Aiel, in his ceremonial Priest’s robe and simple gold circlet, said “This room is where it all started, Lin. I was thinking that this morning, when I came here to pray. And from that dark day comes this joyous one. Surely Light makes good for us of all things.” “Surely” Lin agreed “For if I had not been so sick, maybe I never would have known that Krystha loved me too.” Lutar’s head came round the door of the Prayer Room. “The Ladies are at the Temple Door” he told them “Come to your places, now.” The two friends, Lightstone-Bearer and True Sword, turned to face each other, smiling. Lin reached out one hand, and when Aiel’s came out to meet it, he took the Priest in the Swordsmen’s handclasp, then a quick, brotherly hug. “Light be with you both, my brother, now and always” he said. “And with you and Krystha”, Aiel rejoined Then they left the Prayer Room and went out into the Temple to meet their brides.

During the morning of Aiel’s wedding day, there had been a great deal of coming and going at the house of the Silver Witch. Si-Mara had been months in seclusion, not just because of Aiel’s command to her, and Lak’s defeat at the Meeting Place, but because in the moment of cold, evil passion the Black Piper, born of the same dark world as she, had impregnated her with his dark seed, as no man of Li’is could have done. Now at the moment that Aiel and Arentha, Lin and Krystha, stood before Arnath in the Temple of Light and made their wedding vows, Si-Mara lay back in bed, watching the woman who had assisted her during a long and painful labour, and was now bathing the babe, a girl-child, before dressing it. The Silver Witch was exhausted, but she smiled to herself. It was not a smile of tenderness, for she felt no love towards the child she had born to Lak, but a smile of triumph.

“Aye, rejoice while you may, Aiel!” she murmured to herself. “The Darkness grows again in secret, even as you celebrate its downfall. Bloodstone and Bloodstone-Wielder may be destroyed, but the stone will be forged anew, while its heir grows to bear it. In twenty years you will be older, and she will be young and strong in Darkness. Again we shall invite the Darkness into Li’is, and this time you will be complacent and unaware of our plans, and we shall succeed – and be revenged for Lak’s defeat! She will be your downfall – Lak’s seed and Si-Mara’s.”

The woman attendant held out the child to her mother, who made no move to take her. Si-Mara only looked at the babe, which was pale as she was, white-skinned with a faint fuzz of pale hair. Its mouth opened in a thin wail of protest, and the Silver Witch made a disgusted grimace, and waved the woman away. “Take the mewling brat away, and find it a wet-nurse” she said, “And as soon as may be, it is to be taken to the East, and raised there.” “Yes, Lady.” The woman bowed and backed away with the babe in her arms. At the door she paused, and asked, “Lady, how is the child to be named?” “Named?” It was obvious that Si-Mara had not even thought that far. She yawned, and stretched, and said, carelessly, “Oh – for Lak, and Si-Mara, call her Marla. Now go! I am tired.” As the woman left the room with the child, Si-Mara smiled her evil smile again, and said aloud to the empty room, “Aye, the Darkness shall grow, in secret and in hiding – and one day, Lightstone-Bearer, you shall know and fear the name of Marla!”

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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