The others were waiting for Lin, concerned for Aiel. Brath and Tavis had joined the womenfolk, and the Swordsman said to Brath, “I have done what I may for Aiel, and I think I have eased his hurt. I think, though, he would be glad of a Brother-in-Light with him now, Brath.” The Priest nodded, and went off in the direction of the Prayer Room. Arentha asked, “Lin, will it be well with Aiel?” “Yes, it will. He has some old hurts to overcome, but Light will help him.” Alira said , unhappily, “It is my fault, Swordsman. I made him sad.” “Ah, you could not know Elandra had died, Lady.” “No” she said softly, “I have been in another world these many years. I have been blind and deaf – aye, dead! – myself.” “Then praise Light you are delivered from it!” Lin said, smiling at her. Then, thinking it time to turn the conversation to happier things, he said, “Are you not an old friend of my mother too? Her name is Janira.” “Yes!” she exclaimed, delightedly, then, doubtfully, “But whether she would acknowledge me if we met now, I do not know.” “She would.” Lin said stoutly. “Then you are her son? I remember you with your toy horses and sword of sticks – and now you are grown, and the horse and sword are real. Janira must be proud of you. And had you not a sister?” “Mira” Lin said. “She is married now, and has a son of her own.” “And- and Merhaun?” she asked, very nervously, turning to her daughters.”Is it well with him?” “He was sorely hurt – we all were – when you went away”, Krystha told her mother bluntly. “Aiel helped him overcome that hurt, with the Lightstone.” The Healer looked into her mother’s face, levelly, tawny eyes meeting brown ones.”I do not know what he would say to you now.” Alira smiled faintly. “You do not think that I would make any claims on him, Krystha, after what I have done?” “Mother, will you not come with us?” Arentha cried, fearing to be bereft of her mother again. “I will not desert you again, Arentha,” Alira promised, “but neither will I shame Merhaun. You must give me space, child. I will speak with the Lightstone-Bearer, and decide what to do.”
When Aiel returned, calm and quiet now, with Brath, they were all glad enough to take their evening meal, and after, the warm spiced drinks Lady Saditha made them, and go to rest. It had been a day of such mingled emotions that they were all tired, and Aiel most, as he had not been since the Gatehouse. The maidens insisted that their mother share their chamber, as if they were afraid she might disappear, and no doubt they had much to talk about. Priest and Swordsman, though, spent little time in words, but went quickly to sleep. Next morning, when they gathered round the breakfast table, Alira said, smiling, “I am told that there is love between you and Arentha, Aiel. And Lin has Krystha’s heart.” The young men admitted the truth of it, and Alira said, “I am glad of it. I took my love away from them. I am glad that a true love has come to them.” Aiel asked, “What will you do, Lady? Will you come with us?” He could have told her what Merhaun had confessed to him, that the Lord of the Mountains still loved his errant Lady. But any decision on that score must be hers, and Merhaun’s, with no prompting from him. “I will certainly come part of the way with you” she promised, looking lovingly at her daughters. “We have much to make up, my girls and I. I cannot part from them yet.” “Will you not come to the Fortress?” Arentha pleaded. “Dear babe, how can I?” Alira said. “I will not come even on to Fortress Ground, unless Merhaun grant me leave. Nor will I see you again, though it hurt me, if he says not. It is his right!” “Mother-” Arentha began, but Krystha said, though gently, “Hush, Arentha, our mother is right. And I love her the more for it.” “Oh, my dears, we shall be happy together while we may” Alira said, “and before we come to Fortress Ground , I will write a letter for you to give to Merhaun. He was always a good and generous man, and maybe he will let me see you sometimes. I would like” she added, a little sadly, “to see you married. But I will not ask that, since my presence would shame Merhaun. And that I will not do.”
So when they rode on from the Second Faring House, Alira went with them, Brath having provided a horse for her. Aiel said to Lin, as they rode together, “Lin, thank you again for last night – and for sending Brath to me. Now I have made my peace with Light, and with myself, and with Elandra my mother and the babe. ” Lin said thoughtfully, in answer, “Aiel, does it not seem as though time, as well as our journey, runs backwards now?” “Why, what do you mean, Lin?” his friend asked. “It seems to me that Light is mending the old hurts. Alira has returned to Light, and Arentha and Krystha rejoice. And for you too, the old pain is gone -is it not?” “Aye”, Aiel answered. “Oh, the loss is still there,as you said, Lin, but you were right in this too – that the sharpness of it is gone. Now it is what it should be – a dim ache that will sometimes waken, not a sharp blade always in the heart.” “There, that is good, Aiel. Light is merciful. I wonder, though, what else will happen before we reach the City again?” Aiel had it in mind, though, and told the Swordsman so, that they must pass again by the Ruins of the Dark City, with their evil memories. “Well, we need not go near, this time” Lin comforted him. They were actually riding now down the road along which they had fled in the dusk of that dreadful evening, but now it was daylight and they could see the rough, wild countryside on either side of the well-trodden road. It was a hot day, hotter than they had been used to in the North, for now they were nearing their own Southern lands again. They were glad of the shade of the occasional trees alongside the road and a few stretches of lanky bushes.
As they neared the ominous Ruins, though, it seemed they had a more profound effect on Alira than on any of the Way-Sharers. It was she who was nervous and pale, while Krystha and Arentha seemed quite composed. Aiel wondered whether Alira, who was riding a little ahead of her daughters, had had anything to do with the dreadful events that had occurred there, and glanced again at her. She was trembling now, and there were tears on her cheeks. Aiel dropped back to speak to her. “Alira, there is something about this place that frightens you?” he asked her, quietly. She answered, “Oh, yes – it is an evil place, Aiel. The Children of Night use it for terrible things. The men come here with girls or women they have captured, or persuaded…” A sudden deep sob rose in her throat, making her daughters look over anxiously at her. Seeing her in conversation with Aiel, though, they did not interfere. “It-it was so with me.” the woman wept,” He brought me here, Aiel, and his friends were waiting…I-I will not say what happened then, but afterwards I knew that I was ruined, and tied to him forever! I could not go back after that, however much I wanted to!” “And you have not been here since?” Aiel asked. His tone was such that she stared at him. “No, I told you, it is only for the men – the only women brought here are those they want to use – Aiel, what is it?” He told her, then, about the dead girl and babe, and she flinched away, pale-faced, her hand to her mouth. “Aiel, I did not know about that! Oh, truly I did not! Did you think – oh, merciful Light, what could have happened to Arentha and Krystha, if you had not been there? I was bewitched, unable to escape, but even so I could not have shared in a thing like that – believe me!” Her sorrow and fear and self-loathing were enough to convince him, and what she had suffered in the Dark City Ruins herself at the hands of the Children of Night was enough to account for her horror of the place now. “Alira, I do believe you!” he told her. “Have no fear – better not to think of dark things. It is over now.”
They skirted as widely as they could around the eerie Ruins and were almost glad to be under the tainted trees of the Red Forest, and out of sight of them. Spring had already long turned to summer, but there was no change in the appearance of the Red Forest. It was as still, sour and sombre as ever. Lin wondered , as they rode through it, if the leaves even fell in Autumn. The place seemed frozen in some other time. They came to the place where the trees turned green again, but there was still no sign of change or life. Not until they were out of the Forest and on the road that led to the First Faring House did they begin to see life and movement again; birds in the air, insects on leaves, the furtive rustling of small animals in the long grass alongside the road. They were even glad to see the wild fruit trees, though the fruit they produced was sour and useless. At last they came to the Faring House, with its stone boundary walls, its herb-garden, and the tree-garth where Lin had sworn Sword-Brotherhood with Krystha. Mell, who had Perceived their coming, stood in the doorway, waiting for them. It was like a homecoming. “Aiel!” Mell greeted the Lightstone-Bearer, joyously, “Light bless you, my Brother-in-Light! Oh, it was well done, Lightstone-Bearer!” “It is good to see you, Mell.” Aiel responded. “Now I feel I am nearly home!” “Come in, come in, and welcome!” Mell invited, as the stable-boy led their horses away. His quick eyes flashed from one to another. “Ah, Swordsman, you are hurt?” “I was” Lin answered briefly. “I am healing now.” “And it is well with the maidens? But you have another in your party.” “Our mother.” Arentha said, proudly. Mell’s glance went from her face to Alira’s, and back again. “Of course!” he said heartily, “Who else could it be? You are so alike.”
Later, after their rooms had been allocated and orders given for their meal to be prepared, Aiel went with Mell to the other Priest’s Quiet Room, where they shared the Thought-without-Words, and Mell learned of all the Way-Sharers’ activities and adventures since they had left his Faring House. Afterwards, Mell said, “It was a dreadful thing that happened in the Ruins of the Dark City, but I was thankful to share it with you so that I might have more comfort to give the family. And they were very glad of what the maidens did to tend their dead.” “Then they were both from one family?” Aiel asked, sadly. “I did not know that, Mell. How terrible it must have been for them.” “The girl was the babe’s aunt – his mother’s young sister.” Mell told him. “I wonder what instinct made the girls lay the babe in her arms? Perhaps Light told them what to do. And it was the right thing to do, Aiel. When we took down the cairn and found them so, their people said it was a comfort to them. We brought them home as the maidens had laid them, and the babe’s mother wept bitterly, but still she said she was glad of how they had been laid- and they were buried as they were laid. The poor young parents said it made them feel, somehow, that the maiden and the babe had gone hand-in-hand into the Joyous Place, to touch Light. Will you tell the maidens?” “I will” Aiel said. “It was Krystha who laid them so. She said she wanted to send them back to their folk in decent order – to show that someone had cared for them in their death. She will be glad their people understood.”
Later, Aiel did tell the girls what Mell had said, and they were, as he had thought, pleased that their care for the dead had helped to ease the family’s suffering. They were quiet and thoughtful for a while, but the joy that was in all of them at being so close to home could not be quenched. It was a warm, pleasant evening, and they wandered out into the tree-garth for a while. Lin said to Krystha, softly, “Here is where it began , my heart – when I swore Sword-Brotherhood with you.” “I shall always be your Sword-Brother, shall I not?” she asked, a little anxiously, “Even when we are wed?” “Of course!” he laughed, and teased her, “And I have yet to ask the permission of your father for our betrothal, my love!” “Are you not the son of his Sword-Brother Linnad?” Krystha asked, feigning indignation. Alira, who was nearby, and had heard their jesting exchange, said, laughing too, “Merhaun was always Krystha’s slave, when she was a babe. I doubt he would refuse her, Lin.” Then, though, it seemed that she remembered what had happened between, and said, quietly and sadly, “Oh, I forgot! Who am I to say now how Merhaun feels, after all these years?” She looked almost tearful for a moment, and Arentha hugged her. Aiel, though, felt a strange excitement. Could it be that it was not only Merhaun who remembered with tenderness and longed for the rekindling of their love? Might there yet be a miracle between those two? ‘It is in the Will of Light’ he told himself ‘whatever happens.’
Now the pull of home could not be denied, and they were off as early as might be next morning on their ride across the Great Moor, the Mountains and the Spearcleft Pass looming on the other side, looking tantalisingly close. Aiel extended his Perception, with the help of the Lightstone. He could feel, distantly, the buzz of Perceptions that was the Temple, away in the City, but the contact was nebulous, and he could not differentiate one Priest from another, not even his father. He was disappointed, for he had hoped to reach Arnath, but he knew that as he drew nearer to the City he would have more success. The Moor, sunlit and scented with low-growing plants where insects hummed, was a very different place to the grim, rain-sodden expanse they had crossed on their outward journey. They laughed and chatted as they rode, and stopped for a pleasant, simple meal, sitting comfortably on the sunwarmed, springy grass. Aiel noticed, however, that Alira grew quieter and more withdrawn as they neared the far side of the Moor and the North side of Merhaun’s Mountains. They rode slowly and carefully up the mountainside and it was nearly dark before they reached the place of the now almost dry spring and made camp in the place where they had rested before. Once more they made shelters to sleep in and settled for the night, knowing that tomorrow they would be home.
The next morning,as they were about to set off, Alira said, “I do not know that I should come further. I should not be on Fortress Ground. But I will come with you as far as the old hunting shelter – if it is still there.” “It is still there.” Lin told her. Arentha said, “Mother – you said you would not leave us again! You cannot go!” “Dear love, I will not.” Alira said. “I hope I shall always be near you. But I cannot shame Merhaun, either. I will send him a message, to ask if I may see you now and then.” Aiel could see that this would not be enough for Arentha, but he understood and respected Alira’s reasons, and knew that Krystha and Lin did too. He said to his sad love, “Arentha, Alira is right. Leave it to the Will of Light, my heart. Light is merciful.” They rode on and up, up to the bare, wind-swept heights where the Spearcleft Pass began, deepening into the heart of the Mountains. This time no Darkness awaited them there, no shadow pursued, and they trotted quietly through the deep, narrow Pass, shivering only with the natural coolness of its shadowed depths. Once through, Aiel eagerly cast out his Perception again, and almost immediately found his father’s, far closer and stronger than he had thought to feel it. Their Perceptions meshed. and Arnath poured into his son’s thought a glad, proud, loving welcome that overwhelmed Aiel. He had always been sure of his father’s love, but Arnath was not usually a demonstrative man, and Aiel had never realised before just how deeply his father loved him. His own loving response flowed back to his father, and when the first deep emotions had passed, Aiel learned that Arnath was waiting for him at the Fortress, and Linnad was there too. “We could not wait to reclaim our sons!” came Arnath’s loving, amused thought, “And Linnad was anxious for Lin, since we heard he was wounded.” “Aye” Aiel returned, his Perception carrying too his own care and gratitude for Lin. “Wounded to save my life, and like to die of the Wound Fever over it, but he is recovered, praise Light!” “Then well has he kept his vow to me, and to Light. A True Sword indeed!” “He is, Father, and the greatest friend a man could have. Tell Linnad he has right to be proud of his son – very proud.” “As I am of mine!” Arnath returned, and they broke the contact.
The others had been watching, and Aiel told them Arnath’s news, and his praise for Lin. Now they were more than ever anxious to press on. Aiel saw, though, that Alira grew quieter as they rode down the mountainside, and glanced about her often. Was it memories of the past that shadowed her, or the thought that soon she must part from Arentha and Krystha? He knew that at the Faring House she had begged from Mell writing materials and the use of his Quiet Room, and spent a long time in there. He had seen her leave the room later, pale and red-eyed, as though she had wept over what she had written. He guessed it was the message she had said she would give him, to take to Merhaun, though he had not yet received it from her. When they reached the hunting shelter, despite Arentha’s entreaties, Alira refused to go further. “I have told you that I have brought Merhaun enough dishonour, and shall I shame him further by riding in at his very gates, as though I still had the right?” she said. “Aiel, tell him what has happened to me, and that I ask only this; that he will allow me to see Arentha and Krystha from time to time. Send word to me here – but be prepared, my daughters, as much as I long to see you, that if his answer is no, I will go away, and not let you hurt him by visiting me secretly, as you might be tempted to do. If he says yes, then I will try to find safe lodging in the City, and tell you where I am.” “Alira, come to us at the Temple” Aiel said, “My father and I will help you.” She agreed, then said,” I have written this letter to Merhaun. I hope it will comfort him in some degree, for the hurt I have caused him. And Aiel, I release you from your Vow of Trespass. You may tell Merhaun anything you have learned of me by your Perception, that will help him.” She handed Aiel the folded and sealed sheet, and he took it, and said, “Light bless you, Alira. I will do as you ask.”
The farewells between Alira and her daughters were both tearful and painful. When they had been said, they made Alira comfortable in the shelter, leaving her with what remained of the food and drink Mell had provided, and her mount tethered safely. As the four Way-Sharers rode away, Alira stood in the doorway waving them out of sight, and there was many a backward glance from the maidens until she was lost to their view. Despite their triumphant return, the problem of Alira was a shadow that hung over them. Aiel, feeling the crackle of her letter to Merhaun, where he had stowed it away in his robe with the Lightstone, prayed Light for wisdom and tact to relay her request to the Lord of the Mountains. Arentha’s and Krystha’s subdued faces showed a sense of loss. Lin was wondering what Merhaun,as a man of honour, a Swordsman and Lord of Li’is, might do. As they neared the Fortress, Aiel reached out again for his father’s Perception, telling him that he, the Lightstone-Bearer, had one task yet to carry out, a task that closely concerned Merhaun, Arnath’s friend, and in which both Aiel and Merhaun might be glad of Arnath’s presence. Arnath promised his help, and Aiel, after telling his father to expect their arrival soon, broke off the contact. He looked at the others. The girls had brightened a little as they neared home, and he said to Arentha, who was riding beside him, “How is it with you, my heart?” She smiled a tremulous smile at him, and answered “It was hard to part again from my mother. But I have prayed Light to soften our father’s heart. Surely Light will not let her be taken from us again?” “Light is merciful” Aiel agreed. He glanced back at Lin and Krystha who were also riding together, quietly talking. Arentha followed his glance, and said, “I am sure Krystha has prayed too. Love is the gift of Light, Aiel. Light’s love for us, and mine for you, and Krystha’s for Lin, and our love for our mother – all are woven of the same thread.”
Ahead of them they saw the trees begin to thin, and through them they glimpsed the green turf of the Fortress Level. A few minutes more and they were out in the open, gazing up in surprise at the Fortress. Flags and banners and pennants flew in colourful welcome from every tower and turret, and all the folk of the Fortress were up on the high walls, watching. As the four riders appeared,a mighty roar went up, the great gates of the Fortress swung open, and the whole company of the Fortress Watch, in ceremonial livery, poured out and split into two lines, forming a guard of honour. Aiel was astonished. He had not expected to return to this hero’s welcome, and, in truth, would rather have slipped quietly into the Fortress. However, the Dancers had taught him to accept the honour done him, so he overcame his embarrassment and rode into the Fortress with his head held high. Still, he reached inside his robe and drew out the Lightstone, letting it lie shimmering on his breast. Lin, watching his friend, knew that Aiel was making the response so natural to him, “Not I, but Light.” As they entered the courtyard, there were more surprises. Merhaun, Arnath, Linnad and Janira were waiting for them, but others were there too. The towering figure of the Ket stood at Merhaun’s side, and Lin thought of Ket-Kai, his new Sword-Brother, and grinned back. Now he understood the mischievous undercurrent he had sensed between Ket-Kai and his twin.
Aiel, gazing round half in bewilderment, saw familar faces; Barit, and Sulyar, and others of the Priesthood, mingled with young men in the green-and-gold of the Harbour Watch. Beside Janira, Lin’s mother, stood a chestnut-haired, tanned young man, who wore the Westerners’ gold bracelet. It gleamed on the wrist of the hand which held that of a pretty, golden-haired young woman who cradled a sleeping child in her other arm. “Mira! ” Lin exclaimed, seeing his sister. “It is Mira and Barengian and the babe!” Krystha exclaimed in turn, “See, Aiel – Lady Benika! And the Gatekeeper!” “But how could they be here, so far from the Gatehouse?” Arentha asked. “The Dancers must have brought them.” Aiel answered, still puzzled. He was looking at a man who stood talking to the Gatekeeper, a man he had never seen before, a tall, bearded man dressed in the distinctive garments of the East, and like the Ket, wearing a gold circlet round his brows. “Lin – who is that?” he asked his friend. “Do you know him?” Lin looked, and suddenly realised what was happening. “It is the Lord of the East – it must be!” he answered, “Why, Aiel – the whole Council-at-Need of Li’is is here!” Aiel looked round at those assembled, recalling his father’s words, “The Council-at-Need of Li’is is seven – the four Keepers, the Ket, the Lord of the East, and the Gatekeeper. But I think it has only been assembled ten times in all the years of Li’is.” Now, though, it had assembled again, to honour the Lightstone-Bearer and the Way-Sharers.
As the four riders drew close, the seven members of the Council turned towards them, standing in a semicircle, Arnath at the centre. Then at each end of the line there was a faint shimmer in the air, a coalescing brilliance, and two Dancers appeared, drawing exclamations of awe and delight from the onlookers. Aiel dismounted and came forward, followed by Lin and the maidens. Arnath stepped forward to meet him, laying his hands on his son’s shoulders, smiling proudly, lovingly, as he greeted Aiel and the others. “Welcome” he said ” Aiel, Lightstone-Bearer, Defeater of Darkness. Welcome, Lin, True Sword of the Lightstone Way. Welcome, Arentha and Krystha, true hearts and Way-Sharers, the Treasures of the Mountains. We welcome and honour you. You have kept faith with Light and defeated the Bloodstone-Wielder.” Next the Dancers’ thought echoed in every mind as they ‘said’, “Aiel, Friend of Light, and these who shared your Way, we too have come to honour you, for all the Dancers of Li’is. For your obedience to Light has saved us from Darkness.” Aiel lifted his head to look up at the Dancers, then round at the Council. Then he said, with quiet dignity, “Truly, it was not I, but Light that saved this world of ours. Like the Lightstone itself, I was nothing but a channel for Light to use. I thank you for the honour you do me, and Light has bidden me accept it as the gift of Light for my obedience. But as the Lightstone-Bearer, I ask you to remember that this is Light’s doing, and I but a servant of Light. Indeed”, he added, ” had I not had Light’s gift of my friends, the Way-Sharers, and the strengthening they, and Light, have given me, I could not have succeeded.” Aiel was not concerned to see what effect his words might have, but Lin was watching, and saw how the young Priest’s words impressed and even surprised those who knew him. Perhaps in that moment they grasped just how much Aiel had grown on the Way. The Lord of the East smiled, and said, “Well spoken, Lightstone-Bearer. We shall not forget.”
Still, the Way-Sharers had to wait and listen to the words of praise from the Council, and the applause of the Fortress folk, and the congratulations from their friends, and the prayers of thanksgiving from the Priesthood. They were gratefully conscious of the honour done them, yet they were glad when the ceremonies and formalities were over and they could become simply returning sons and daughters, brothers, sisters, and friends. Aiel embraced his father, Arentha and Krystha theirs. Linnad enquired anxiously after Lin’s wound, then hugged him very carefully, Janira kissed him, Arnath too embraced him, blessing the Swordsman for his steadfastness, and his saving of Aiel’s life. Lin greeted his sister and her husband, and at last made the acquaintance of his little nephew, Janir, who had woken and was staring up with obvious delight at one of the Dancers, its shimmering reflected in his brown eyes. Finally, he was claimed by his comrades of the Harbour Watch, anxious to hear of his adventures. Aiel too found himself enveloped in Linnad’s hearty embrace, kissed by Janira and Mira, greeted by Barengian, introduced to Janir, and finally deposited before Merhaun, who greeted him as warmly as Linnad, though less boisterously. The girls stood close on either side of their father, as Merhaun said, “Later there will be a feast for you all, Aiel. But now you will want to bathe, and change your clothes, and rest.” Aiel replied, “Lord Merhaun, there is something I must do first, something which concerns you.” He flashed his Perception to his father as he spoke, and Arnath came to join them, as Aiel said, “I have asked my father to be with us, since you may have need of a friend in this. I bring you some news long overdue, and a letter. Is there somewhere we can talk privately?”
Merhaun was gazing at him in surprise at his words, but said only “Follow me”, and went towards the Great Hall. Aiel saw the maidens staring after them with concern, knowing that he was about to pass on their mother’s message. Merhaun led Aiel and Arnath to the same room where he had given the True Sword to Lin at the start of the Way. Closing the door, he motioned the two Priests to chairs, and seated himself. Then he asked Aiel “So, Aiel – what is it you have to tell me?” Aiel said “First, Lord, let me make it clear that I have permission to tell you whatever I need to about this matter, since the – the person concerned has released me from my Vow of Trespass.” He paused, then looked Merhaun full in the face, and said, “It concerns the Lady Alira…” Merhaun’s expression was a mingling of pain, fear, and hope, but there was more – a glow in his eyes that gave Aiel a hint of promise. “Alira!” Merhaun gasped. “Aiel – you have seen her? Spoken to her?” “I have” Aiel affirmed, and the Lord of the Mountains did not interrupt again, but let Aiel speak. The young Priest told Merhaun everything; their first meeting with Alira, the use of the Lightstone and her lack of response, her subsequent remorse and attempted suicide. He told of the second meeting, her pain and shame, and how Light had restored and healed her. He told the full tale of Alira’s dark years, of the rape that had turned her to Darkness, and the fearsome bondage in which she had been held. He described the joyful reunion with her daughters, as a Child of Light now, and their journey together, and their sorrowful parting. And finally, he gave Merhaun Alira’s letter.
Merhaun had not spoken all this time, though his face had reflected his powerful emotions. Now there were tears in his eyes, and the hand he reached out for the letter was trembling. Aiel watched nervously as Merhaun broke the seal and opened the letter. He did not mean to look at the letter, but could not help but see that in places the words were scrawled, and blotched with tearstains, as if they had been very painful for Alira to write. The two Priests watched in silence as Merhaun read and then reread the letter. But Aiel could not forbear to flash a thought to his father’s Perception.”Do you know what he will do? Will he forgive her, Father?” Arnath’s Perception replied, “I cannot tell. He loved her deeply, but she has hurt him so much. Yet maybe Light is doing a miracle here, a great healing.” Merhaun folded the letter, tucked it into the breast of his shirt, and asked, “Where is she now?” “At the hunting shelter. She said she would not shame you by coming further on to Fortress Ground.” The tears spilled over onto Merhaun’s cheeks, but he wiped them briskly away, and said, very decisively, startling Aiel, “Aiel, take me to her. Arnath, old friend, come with us.” They slipped quietly out of a side gate without a word to anyone but the trusted servant who brought their horses. Let the others believe they were still conferring inside the Fortress. Aiel felt a great excitement building in him, and hoped that he was not deceiving himself, that Merhaun’s meeting with Alira would not be angry and bitter, She had caused him so much hurt in the past.
When they reached the shelter, Aiel insisted that they wait, while he went first alone to Alira, lest she be frightened. She answered his knock with a timid question, and when she recognised his voice, opened the door. “Aiel – so soon?” she exclaimed, then asked eagerly, “What is Merhaun’s answer? Will he suffer me to stay in the City, and see Arentha and Krystha, sometimes?” “I do not know” Aiel answered, truthfully. “Let him tell you himself, Alira.” She turned very pale as Merhaun strode forward and threw back the hood of his cloak. “Alira?” he said, a strange hesitation in his voice. Alira gave a desperate wail, and threw herself at his feet, sobbing. But to Aiel’s joy – and his father’s too, he Perceived it – the Lord of the Mountains bent and gently lifted his erring wife to her feet. “Alira” he said quietly, “Aiel brought me your message, and he has told me what you have been through, and I know you have suffered as much as I. You know how much you have hurt me, but I do believe you are truly sorry for it. You have returned to Light, and Light has forgiven and restored you, and I can do no less. Come home, Alira!” Alira looked up at him unbelievingly, and sobbed, “Merhaun, I cannot! I have shamed and dishonoured you! You are noble and kind, but I will not bring you more shame by returning now.”
“Alira, you will not bring me shame. Your restoration will bring honour to Light. No, listen to me,” as she began to protest again,”I have thought about this often, and the fault was not all yours – and Aiel has told me what was done to you to turn you to Darkness! If I had done as I should, as your husband, and had more care of you, and given more attention to you, instead of giving all my mind to the affairs of the Fortress and neglecting you, you would never have fallen into such bad company. Oh, I would not admit it; I blamed you, and I blamed the City. But Aiel, with the Lightstone’s aid, showed me my fault. Now Light has been merciful to us both, and we have a second chance together. And besides” Merhaun added, lifting one hand to gently sweep back her long dark hair so that he could look into her tear-filled eyes, “I have always loved you, Alira. Even when you betrayed Light and me, and left me alone with our children, I yearned for you. Oh, I was angry with you, and with myself, for continuing to love you. But I did, And I still do.” Still she protested, “Merhaun, I am not worthy! I cannot take back my place as your wife. Let me- let me come to the Fortress as your servant. I will be a serving woman.” “No” Merhaun said firmly. “You are my Lady, Alira, and you return as my Lady – no other way. But perhaps” – his voice was suddenly unsure- ” you have lost all love for me?” Alira smiled tenderly through her tears. “The Darkness hid my love for you – even from myself. I believed that I no longer loved you, Merhaun. But when Light returned to me, so did my former feelings for you. When I wrote to you, it was out of my heart, though I dared say no word of love. I am ashamed to offer it, tainted as it is.” “No, Light has cleansed and forgiven you. You are new-born, Alira, and so is our love.” Merhaun murmured. Swiftly, before his Lady could speak again, he bent and kissed her. They heard her gasp, and then she was clinging to him, weeping again, but this time with relief and joy.
Aiel felt a swelling gladness rise in him, not just for Merhaun and his Lady, but for Arentha and Krystha too. He could Perceive that his father, Arnath, felt the same joy for his old friend Merhaun. Merhaun looked over Alira’s head at the two Priests, and asked, “Aiel, Arnath, when we return to the Fortress, while all our friends are there – will you renew our wedding vows for us in the Prayer Room?” He smiled at Alira, and said, “It will be a new beginning for us, my heart.” Arnath went across to them. “Willingly!” he exclaimed, and Aiel echoed, “Aye, gladly!” Alira had stopped weeping now, though she clung to her husband’s hand as if he might turn into a dream and disappear. Arnath embraced her. “Welcome back, Alira my dear!” he rejoiced. “Light be praised that you are restored to Light, and to us.” Merhaun said, “Aiel, first you healed my hurts, then by your obedience to Light and your courage you defeated the Bloodstone-Wielder and saved the Dancers, and all Li’is. And now you have brought Alira back to Light, and to me. There are no words to express my gratitude to you.” Aiel answered “Lord Merhaun, I am very glad it is well with you both. But it is Light’s doing, not mine.” Alira, though, looked up at her husband, and said, “I think I know a way in which you might thank Aiel, Merhaun.” And she flashed a smile at Aiel which told him she was thinking of his love for Arentha. “Ask him, Aiel!” she encouraged. Aiel hesitated, but thought of his lovely Arentha, and said, “Then, Lord I do have something to ask of you. It is that – I love Arentha, and she me, and she has said that she will be my Lady, if you are willing.” The words came out in a rush, but Merhaun smiled broadly, and said, “Gladly, Aiel! I shall be honoured.” Aiel, realising that he had not spoken of this to his own father, turned towards Arnath, “Father..?” Arnath too was smiling and said, “Aiel, I am very happy for you, and for Arentha.” Beneath the words, his Perception slipped its own message to his son “Did you think I did not know, my son? Your every thought was full of the maiden!” and again there was that loving, amused undertone to Arnath’s thought. Aiel’s joy was complete.
“Come” Merhaun said again to his Lady, “Come home now, Alira.” He led her to her horse and lifted her on to it, before mounting himself. Aiel and Arnath too remounted and followed, and the little group rode back down through the Forest to the Fortress. They entered by the same side gate, and found that they had not been missed. There were so many people in the Fortress today, and they were so scattered among the various buildings, that no one had thought to question their absence. It was an easy thing to bring Alira into the Great Hall unnoticed, so that Merhaun could surprise his daughters and friends. Once inside the Hall, he sent a summons to his daughters, and a steward to call Lin, Linnad and Janira. He set a second chair beside his own on the dais, led Alira to it, seated himself beside her, and indicated to Aiel and Arnath that they should stand alongside. Having thus set the scene, he leaned back contentedly in his chair, holding Alira’s hand in his, and smiled a mischievously conspiratorial smile at the two Priests. Father and son smiled back, glad to see Merhaun so happy.
Lin was the first to arrive; he had still been talking with his friends of the Harbour Watch in the courtyard. Entering the Great Hall, he thought at first it was Arentha seated at Merhaun’s side. He came nearer, saying enquiringly, “You summoned me, Lord Merhaun..?” and broke off, his eyes, now adjusted to the indoor dimness after the bright sunlight of the courtyard, suddenly telling him who Merhaun’s companion was. “Lady Alira!” he exclaimed, then, impulsively, “Lord Merhaun, you are reconciled?I am so glad!” Merhaun smiled again at Lin’s impetuous words. “Aye, we are reconciled” he answered, continuing “Darkness broke our family, but Light has restored it.” Alira said softly “The way of Light is the way of healing. Darkness is only a road to death.” She shivered, and Merhaun’s hand clasped hers tightly. Krystha and Arentha had only just finished bathing when Merhaun’s summons had reached them. They arrived together, a little flustered, having had to dress hastily. For a moment, when they saw Alira sitting with their father, their faces showed a blank bewilderment, as if they could not understand what they saw. But when their father gently explained, and bade the girls embrace their mother, their joy and exultation were almost uncontrollable. Aiel and Lin, looking on, rejoiced to see the maidens they loved so well at last receiving their mother back into their lives, as they had dreamed. Linnad and Janira, the last to arrive, were astonished at the scene before them as Krystha, Arentha and Alira hugged and kissed each other and wept tears of joy. When all was explained to them, generous Linnad flung an arm round his old friend’s shoulders saying, “Light be praised, Merhaun! Light bless you all, Sword-Brother!”, while Janira embraced Alira and kissed her, obliterating all Alira’s fears about her reception. “Oh Alira, my dear!” Janira rejoiced, “Praise Light, that has restored you to us!”
Merhaun now called Arentha forward, and said, “Aiel, come.” To his friends he said, “I have more good news. Aiel has asked that Arentha be his Lady, and I have agreed. They are betrothed.” Amid the happy comments and blessings which this news occasioned, Lin glanced questioningly at Krystha. Receiving an encouraging nod, he stepped forward. “Lord Merhaun – Father, Mother -” he reached out his hand to Krystha, who took it and moved to his side. “I too would ask a daughter of you, Lord” he continued, smiling at Krystha, “for my heart is given to Krystha, and hers to me.” For a moment Merhaun looked quite astonished. “Krystha” he asked his younger daughter, “is it really so? – You who swore you would never love, or wed?” On receiving her admission of her love for Lin, Merhaun exclaimed, “Praise Light your heart has melted! Lin, True Sword, I can think of no one who would suit her better, or make her happier. Yes, you may have my Krystha. What say you, Sword-Brother?” he queried, looking at Linnad, who said, promptly and heartily, “Light bless you both! It is wonderful news!” Janira turned to hug and kiss Krystha and welcome her as Lin’s prospective bride, and Merhaun said, “There is one matter we must settle. Arentha is my elder daughter, and if she has sons they should be heirs to the Fortress. If she marries Aiel, her sons will be of the Priesthood, not Swordsmen, having a different heritage. Arentha, you must pass your rights to Krystha, and her sons shall be my heirs. Do you agree?” “Of course!” Arentha said, smiling at her sister and Lin. Krystha, though, looked flustered at the prospect of bearing Lin’s sons, and Merhaun, seeing this, said hastily, “Aiel and Arentha, Lin and Krystha, come, stand here.” They obeyed, and he joined the two couple’s hands, pronouncing the customary blessing, formally betrothing them.
That done, everyone was sent away to prepare for the feast of celebration. After that would come the promised ceremony when Merhaun and Alira would renew their wedding vows, and their daughters, having been told of this, were full of joyful anticipation. They carried off their mother, with Janira in attendance, to prepare her. Lin, too, had been reclaimed by the rest of his family, and Aiel was left with his father. Both Priests headed instinctively for the Prayer Room, where they spent some time kneeling together in quiet praise and prayer. Only after they rose from prayer did Arnath turn to his son and take him in a loving embrace. Aiel was astonished to see tears on his father’s cheeks. He did not remember ever seeing Arnath weep before, except when Aiel’s mother, Elandra, had died. Arnath must have Perceived his Perplexity, for he explained, “I have been so afraid for you, Aiel, but so proud, when word reached me of your success! Still, it was hard to wait for news to come, especially when it was I who had, as High Priest, to send you out upon this Way. I could not love you more than my duty to Light, Aiel, for that would be no love at all.” “I know” Aiel said quietly ” I have learned a great deal on this Way, Father. I could not wish it undone – even the worst parts. And I have been taken by the Dancers even beyond this Li’is of ours, and carried out among the stars – and my own eyes have looked on Ma’al, the Dark World, and seen what this world would have been like, if Lak had succeeded. Even if I had died to prevent that, it would have been worth it.” Arnath smiled at his son. “But you did not die, Aiel, and Li’is is saved, and now it is over.” “No” Aiel answered. “It is not yet over, Father. Part of the Secret Word is still unfulfilled, and I have yet to see it come to pass.”