DANCE THE DARKNESS DOWN

Chapter 12 and Chapter 13

Chapter 12

Lady Benika, meanwhile, was conferring with Krystha, both of them bent over Lin, who was lying on a carrying bed made ready for their coming. Arentha was standing close to Aiel, and, as he turned towards her, held out a hand to him. He took it, and found it was trembling a little. He drew her with him towards the two Healers, Tor-Harat following. Lady Benika looked up as they came near, and said, “That was well done, Lightstone-Bearer! You have kept faith with Light, and defeated Darkness.” This time he was not disconcerted by her praise. He was not thinking about himself at all, but Lin. “Aye” he said, rather gruffly, “But how will it be with Lin, Lady?” “Krystha and I will tend him now, then we can tell you. Let you and Arentha come to the Healing Place too. I think it is not only the Swordsman who is wounded, though your hurts are not bodily hurts. It was a hard battle, this Way of the Secret Word, and well fought , Aiel.”

Aiel suddenly realised that there was no sign of the Dancers. He glanced round, but they had gone. “Where are the Dancers?” he asked. Tor-Harat answered “They have returned to the Meeting Place, to hold council. They bade me tell you that when you are rested, they will come for you again. They wish to honour you.” Aiel still did not understand all this talk of honour, and the praise. To him it seemed that he had done only what he had to do, the task laid on him by the Secret Word. As for talk of his service or loyalty to Light, everything he had done, all his life, had been done for love of Light and the joy of Light’s service. He was relieved that he had accomplished his task without failing Light, and glad – very glad – that the Darkness had been turned away from his world. But somehow it seemed to have been hardly his own doing. Arentha was tugging at his hand. “Come” she said gently, “Aiel, come to the Healing Place. There is Lin to tend, and you – you look so tired.” Aiel had not felt it before, but now, following the others to the Healing Place, he realised that Arentha was right. The burden of the Way, its responsibility, stresses and fears, its ultimate climax, and even the ordinary physical strain of the long journey, had taken their toll. Aiel felt exhausted, and he was, not just in body, but also, though he did not know it yet, in mind and soul and spirit. He had used up so much of himself on the Lightstone Way and only now that the dreadful, driving need which had overridden his own needs was gone, was he beginning to feel it.

In the Healing Place the stewards, following the Healers’ instructions, lifted Lin carefully on to a couch. Lady Benika said to Aiel “You may watch if you wish, but it will be slow work.” “I will watch” Aiel said. He felt it would have been, somehow, a betrayal of Lin not to do so. Arentha said, “And I”, and he was grateful to her. The two Healers prepared Lin by causing him to inhale sweetwood powder, taking care not to breathe in the narcotic spice themselves. Then they cut away his blood-stiffened shirt and washed away the blood from his body. They unwrapped Krystha’s bandaging, cautiously easing away the inner bindings that were already crusted with blood. Then they cleansed their hands again, and set to work. Krystha’s herbs and the tight wrappings had done their work and blood no longer pumped out from the wound. There was, though, still a steady, slow ooze. Lady Benika opened a sealed jar containing the wound-pins, kept in a cleansing solution. They were small pins of pure gold, meticulously worked with a screw thread at each end and tiny fasteners which screwed on to them. Speared through the edges of a wound, and tightened, they would bring it together and hold it there until the healing was established, the purity of the gold ensuring no harm. As Lady Benika had said, it was a very slow and painstaking task for Krystha and Lady Benika to seal Lin’s long and ragged wound – for Soom’s strange, wavy-edged knife had left no clean cut behind it. At length, though, they were finished, and the wound washed again with cleansing solution, and healing salve and clean bandages applied. Lady Benika straightened and put her hand to her back, and Krystha gave a long sigh of relief, and touched her fingers softly to Lin’s brow for a moment.

Arentha, used to being, often enough, a second pair of hands for Krystha, had been able to help by handing things and fetching fresh water from the Healer’s bench. For Aiel, though, there had been only the waiting and the watching, and he ached with the tension of it. He asked “Will it go well with Lin?” Krystha and Lady Benika glanced at each other. Then the older Healer answered “It was not a clean cut. We must wait and see how it heals. It may be slow, and he will be in pain, but it will be well, if only…” she broke off, and Aiel knew that she was thinking of the danger of the Wound Fever. Krystha said “The knife was a strange one. Light grant there was no poison in its blade! I did not think of that.” Aiel closed his eyes for a moment, to remember. He had had only a scant glimpse of the knife , and his chief thought had been that it was red with Lin’s blood. Yet it had been so unusual that he found he remembered it quite well ; the strange, wavy blade and the hilt of some black stone, bound with red cord. He opened his eyes and looked at the Healers again. “I think – it was a sacrificial knife,” he said, with a tremor in his voice. Lady Benika called him to her, and he got up from the bench where he had been sitting. Got up too quickly, it seemed, for his head drummed for a moment, and swirled dizzily, and he had to snatch at the bench to stay upright. The moment passed, but left him feeling hot and rather sick,as though he had been running too hard. Lady Benika had been watching him closely, and when he came to her, said, “Aiel, you must rest. Do you think you can sleep?”

He was weary enough, for certain, and yet he was not sure. The day’s events, the memories of the time before, and his deep concern for Lin, tumbled boiling through his head like the Falls of Vandar. The Healer saw his uncertainty, and said, “Then I will give you a draught, to make sure.” Aiel said, unhappily, “Lady, why was it I did not Perceive the Child of Night? I should have felt his presence, and prevented this harm to Lin.” The Healer’s look was compassionate, but her voice was very firm. “Aiel – you were not expected to bear that burden too! How could you Perceive one Child of Night amid all the Darkness around you, when all your Perception was tied into your task? Do not let yourself feel guilty for what happened to Lin.” Krystha added, “It was his task to see to our physical defence, Aiel. That was his part of the Way, and he knew it. The spiritual battle was burden enough for you, without any other. Lin would not have expected it of you.” Arentha, standing beside him, took his hand in hers, and her presence was a comfort to him. Tenderly she said, “Dear Aiel, they are right. Both you and Lin have fought your battle well, and Lin has the best of care. Listen to Lady Benika, and take the draught, and rest. Let sleep begin to repair the hurts of your soul.”

“Lady, may I stay here, with Lin?” Aiel asked. The Healer smiled, and said “If it will ease your concern for your friend, yes.” She indicated a nearby couch. “Sleep here, then.” Aiel kicked off his sandals and slid beneath the cover, and Krystha brought him the bowl containing the sleeping draught. He took and drank it, and Krystha smiled, and said, “Light bless your sleep, Aiel.” Then she turned away and went to help Lady Benika make Lin more comfortable, but Arentha came close and took his hand again, stroking it gently. Aiel was glad, for he had been feeling just a little lost, as a child put to bed in a strange, though friendly, house might have done. He closed his eyes, and heard her whisper to him, “Sleep, my love, in Light, and wake in Light’s strength.” Sleep was stealing over him and he was glad that at last he could drift away and rest and forget. Just before he finally fell asleep, he felt a softness brush his brow, but whether it were Arentha’s hand, or hair, or kiss, he could not tell.

Tor-Harat came quietly into the Healing Place, and smiled at his wife and the maidens, and their sleeping charges. “Will it be well with the Swordsman and the Lightstone-Bearer?” Lady Benika answered.”The Swordsman’s wound is bad, but not deadly – unless he take the Wound-Fever. It will be well with him, but it will take long to heal. For the Lightstone-Bearer, I cannot tell, yet. His wounds are not bodily wounds, Tor-Harat. Let him sleep, and regain strength, then we shall see.” “The Lightstone sustains him” Krystha said “Yet he has endured more these last days than many would experience in a lifetime. He has used up much of his strength – in all ways, Gatekeeper.” Tor-Harat went and stood at the foot of Aiel’s couch, looking at him. Asleep, Aiel looked hardly more than a boy, and the Gatekeeper said, wonderingly, “He is so young to have done so much, to have so kept faith with Light, and defeated such Darkness.” He turned to Lin’s side, and went on “And the Swordsman would have given his life to save his friend. Songs are made of Brann’s deeds, but it seems to me that here lie two heroes of Li’is as great as Brann.” Krystha answered, “I am proud that Lin is my Sword-Brother, and Aiel my friend.” “Ah, now, you and Arentha have had your part in this Way too” Lady Benika reminded them ” and you too must rest. Come, a room is ready for you. It is time for all the Way-Sharers to rest from their tasks.”

Aiel slept long, though it had been only early evening when he lay down. Exhausted, and with the sleeping draught suppressing the turmoil of emotions that would have kept him awake, he slept heavily, and did not wake till the morning was almost gone. When he did wake, he was still dazed from sleep, and unsure where he was, though vaguely conscious that some great burden had lifted from him. Opening his eyes, he saw, through the window, the dark mountains rising above the Gatehouse Gardens, and memory rushed back. He sat up, and looked round for Lin. The Swordsman was lying just as he had the night before, sedated by more sweetwood that Lady Benika had given him. Aiel left his couch and went to stand by Lin’s. It was dreadful to him to see Lin lie so pale and still, when he was usually so active and healthy. Aiel recalled the words he had said to Lin, so many years before, “Rescuing me begins to be a habit with you, Lin!” But this time the rescue had almost cost Lin his life, and Aiel looked down at his friend and wept. “Lin, True Sword, true friend” he whispered, “do not die!” In his concern for his friend he had not heard the door open, nor known that Krystha was in the Healing Place, till her voice came from behind him, gentle and reassuring. “Aiel, Lin will not die. Do not think it.” He turned to look at her, relieved to have her there. “Krystha” he said “Are you sure?” “The wound will not kill him” Krystha said, prosaically, “and surely Light kept Soom’s blade from his heart. Aiel, do not fear for him. Come now, you are weary still, though you slept deeply. I will give you a draught to strengthen you, and you must go and eat.” She gave him a bowl of a bitter-sweet drink that did revive him, as she had promised. Then she said. “I will tend to Lin, now. Arentha is waiting for you.” She told him how to get to the Hall of the Gatehouse, where he would find her sister, and Aiel said, “I will go – but Krystha, you must promise to call me if Lin wakes.” “I will” she replied.

Aiel found his way to the Hall, where Arentha was waiting for him, as Krystha had said. There was food on the table, but that was not what he felt the need for. He went straight to Arentha’s arms and clung to her as she held him tightly. For a long while he simply stood, embracing her and being embraced, and it was all he needed. His tumbled thoughts began to grow calmer and stiller. He had defeated the Darkness, he thought, and though Lin was badly hurt, he was not in danger of death. He felt himself to be spent out, in body, soul and spirit, which was probably why he was so emotional, and so afraid for Lin. But now there was time to rest, and recover, time to be with Arentha, his love, time to consolidate all the new things he had learned of Light, and about himself – a breathing space. He was so grateful for Arentha, for her loving tenderness, her quiet understanding, for the comfort of her arms around him, the coolness of her hair against his cheek. He sighed, and raised his head, and smiled into her sweet, anxious face. “Arentha” he said, “you are truly my Gift-of-Light! You do me more good than all the Healers’ draughts.” “Oh, Aiel!” she answered, her face lighting with relief, “Is it well with you now, my dear?” He drew her with him to the table and sat down, and she sat beside him. He said “I cannot tell yet, Arentha. We have been through so much, and there has been no time to deal with it, to make it part of me, or understand my own feelings. I need time with Light – and with you, my heart. I am very glad that I have done what Light bade me do, and defeated Lak. Yet even that was not my own doing, but Light’s. I think I will not be fully at rest, either, until I know that Lin is safe and well. But I have not asked how it is with you. It was a fearful thing that happened to you on the Meeting Place, yesterday. There are no ill effects from it, still, for you?”

She said “No, not now…” yet through their linked hands he felt her shudder, and asked, “Arentha, what is it? Something still frightens you, my heart.” “I was so afraid” she whispered, “Aiel, when the Bloodstone struck me, I felt it threw my spirit from my body, and it was as if I were dying, on my way to touch Light. And I could see myself, Aiel! There was a brightness met me – I think perhaps it was a Spirit-in-Light – and I knew it protected my spirit, as the Dancer protected my body, and I knew it was Light’s Will that I return to you, and that I would not touch Light – not yet. But still I was afraid – Oh, Aiel, it is a terrible thing to see your own body lie still and untenanted! But also, I was afraid for you, that I was not there to aid you in the battle – I was afraid you would be defeated after all. But then you overcame Lak, and called me back with the Lightstone.” “Arentha!” he exclaimed “Why did you say nothing? My love, I would not have had you bear the fear of this alone.” “Lin’s need, and yours, were greater.” she said, simply. He reached for the Lightstone, took it out, and touched it to her brow. “Here is the Healing for your fear.” he told her. The light enfolded her, and then withdrew, and he asked, “Is it well with you now, Arentha?” “It is well” she told him, quietly, and he knew she would say no more, now or ever.

Suddenly it seemed that he was hungry, after all, and he reached for the food and began to eat, while Arentha watched him, smiling. He pressed her to eat too, but she said she had already eaten. When he had finished his meal, she said, “Aiel, go and bathe and refresh yourself, it will help you feel better. I will ask Lady Benika to have clothes brought for you.” “I will, Arentha – but ask her for a Priest’s robe. There is no need, now, to pretend not to be what I am.” Once bathed, and dressed in the fresh Priestly robe, Aiel did feel better – more like himself than he had felt for many days. And yet, he knew, he would never again be the old Aiel. He felt he had aged as many years as days on this Way. When he came from the Bathing Place, Tor-Harat met him, and told him, “Aiel, the Dancers are waiting for you.” “The Dancers?” Aiel asked, not understanding. He had forgotten the Dancers’ message in all the turmoil of the previous day. The Gatekeeper gently reminded him “Do you remember that they wanted to honour you in their own way, Aiel? They are waiting for you. One of them has come to carry you to the Meeting Place.” “Do you come too?” Aiel asked, a little nervous at the thought of ‘travelling’ again with the Dancer. “No, it is you alone they honour.” Tor-Harat answered. “Will you tell the others where I have gone?” Aiel requested. “Surely” Tor-Harat promised. “Come now, Aiel.” Out in the courtyard, one Dancer was waiting to take him to the Meeting Place. Aiel said to the Gatekeeper “I hope the Dancer will not think me discourteous if I close my eyes when we – travel.” Tor-Harat laughed. “I doubt it.” he said, “I have travelled with them many times now, and I could never yet bear to keep my eyes open, Aiel!”

Aiel stepped forward to meet the Dancer, closed his eyes, and waited. Again he was not aware of movement, but suddenly felt rough ground beneath his feet. He opened his eyes and found himself on the Meeting Place, encircled by the Dancers. He did not know if the thought that quietly entered into his Perception came from one Dancer, or many, but he knew that it spoke for them all. “Welcome Aiel, Lightstone-Bearer, Lightfriend. We honour you.” Aiel said aloud, in humble protest, “Dancers, why honour me? It was Light worked through me, using me only as a channel. Honour Light.” The gentle thought came, ” Aiel, it is Light’s Will that we honour you. Men honour strength and courage, and that is good. Yet Light honours humility and obedience, and that is better. Do not be afraid that the honour we do you will make you proud, for it will make you more aware of Light and of your own smallness before Light than you have ever been. Though no man in Li’is will ever have seen what you will see.” Before Aiel could begin to understand, the thought of the Dancer came again. “It is time. Come, Lightstone-Bearer, we must travel again.” Obediently Aiel closed his eyes and waited. It seemed a longer wait this time before the Dancer ‘said’ “Look now, Aiel! Behold the wonders of Light!”

Aiel looked, as he was bidden, and almost immediately cried out in mingled terror and wonder. He stood on a harsh, colourless landscape of blazing whites and silvers, and sombre greys, and impenetrable black. The horizon curved incredibly, toothed with impossibly high and jagged mountains. The ground beneath his feet was bare and dusty and pock-marked. The sky above was black, and blazing with stars, and nearby hung one moon, many times the size of any he had ever seen. He knew, by his own shadow, that the sun was behind him, and knew also, though not how he knew, that in this place it burned so bright that if he had turned and looked into it, it would have burned out his eyes. And then, beyond the impossibly huge and shining moon, he saw a globe, mostly blue, but with patches of colour, and veiled in parts with purest white, like swirling gauze. He could understand none of this ; he was overcome with beauty and dread, and fell to his knees, covering his eyes. As he did so, he felt something yield around him. Extending his arms, he felt as though a tough skin encircled him in an elastic globe. It was like being in a water-bubble. He cried out to the Dancers, wherever they might be, “Oh, what is this place? Dancers, I am afraid! Where am I?” Their thought came again.”Aiel, do not be afraid. We will not bring you where harm can touch you. Stand, and look, and do not fear.” Slowly he obeyed, and opened his eyes, rising to his feet. He looked around him and felt the wonder and terrible beauty of the place enter into his Perception. He asked again, “Where is this place?”

The Dancers ‘said’ “You are standing on the Shield, Aiel. That moon is the Hound, and the world beneath your feet – that is your Li’is.” Now indeed Aiel was ready to fall, from very fear, yet the thought that he was seeing what no man had ever seen before, and the awesome beauty of it, and the smallness of his own world in all the vastness, held him fascinated. At last he managed to gasp “But why is the sky so black? Is it the work of Darkness?” “No” the Dancers replied. “There is no air here, Aiel, and that is why the sky is black. It is why we have enclosed you in a globe of air, also. Else you would die here in seconds.” “Now I know what you meant” Aiel exclaimed, “when you said that when you honoured me, it would make me small and humble! I have seen my own world like a pebble in the universe of Light.” “It is not finished yet” came the response. “The honour decreed for you by Light, and the Dancers, is that you Dance with the Dancers, out among the stars. This is only the first step, Aiel.” Suddenly, he was surrounded by Dancers, and, as suddenly, the air bubble lifted from the surface of his moon, and, in the midst of the Dancers, soared out towards the blackness and the stars. It happened before Aiel had time to close his eyes, and this time the terror overcame him.

When he came to himself, he was lying on soft grass. There was no bubble around him, and he was breathing pure air. He thought to himself “It is a dream. It was all a dream.” He opened his eyes, and immediately found himself looking at a Dancer. “Well, then,” he thought ” they have brought me home to Li’is, knowing I could bear no more.” “Lightstone-Bearer, this is not Li’is” came the Dancer’s thought.”Look around you.” Aiel took a deep breath of the sweet air, sat up, and was at once conscious of the strangeness of the place. There was hot sunlight around him, but it was greenish-gold. The grass on which he sat was the vivid blue of his own eyes. The flowers that were strewn across the grass were small, and delicate, and of colours that he could not even name, but so exquisite that their beauty was almost painful. He looked up and saw that the sky above was the source of the greenish-golden light, for in it burned two suns, one golden as his own, one green. And looking up he also saw the trees, many and beautiful, not green-leaved as in Li’is, but with foliage of many hues, gold and rose and violet and more of the strange , unnameable colours. Something was singing in the forest, more sweetly than Aiel had ever heard a bird sing before. The awesomeness and coldness of the Shield had been terrifying; this world, though utterly strange, had a sweetness and richness that held no fear. Somehow Aiel knew that nothing evil had ever come there, and no danger could threaten him. He asked “It is not – the Joyous Place?” “No” came the answer “The Joyous Place could not be constrained within one world, one time. This is but a world of the star you call Torvine.” “Where are its people?” Aiel asked eagerly.”Am I permitted to meet them? They must be very wise and fair, in such a world as this.” “There are no people. Only birds and beasts live here” replied the Dancer, then “Aiel, you are thinking that is a waste, but it is how Light ordained it. There are and will be no men in this world, and that is not a mistake. Do you know better than Light?” “No” Aiel said, and bowed his head. He would have liked to taste the fruit that hung from the trees of this strange and lovely world, but did not ask, for he thought “If that is how Light has ordained it, they were never meant to be eaten by men.”

“We will go now” ‘said’ the Dancer. Forewarned, he closed his eyes, and waited for the next place. From planet to planet, star to star, the Dancers swept him. He saw worlds that were vast balls of ice, huge globes of roaring, raging gases, places where the very air froze and lay like snow on the ground, others where metals melted and ran over the burning landscape like water. He saw worlds with many moons, or one, or none, worlds of total darkness, thrown away from their sun to wander through dark space, and worlds of eternal daylight, where several suns shone. He saw strange or beautiful or terrifying places, but nowhere did he see men. Last of all they brought him, so he thought, back to where he had begun, and he stood on the moon he had stood on before, and saw the same nearby moon, the same planet swim beneath his feet. But now the world was shrouded in a murky mist, and it seemed to Aiel that it burned with black fire, like some rogue sun that sent out coldness and death and darkness instead of warmth and life and light. The Dancers ‘said’ “Nearer than this we cannot go, Aiel. For now we are on the other side of Light and time, and there before you lies Ma’al, the Dark World, the mirror image of your own Li’is.” Aiel stared at the distant world, and said, “Will the Darkness ever leave Ma’al, Dancers?” “There will be an end of Darkness here” the Dancers replied “and you will see it, Aiel. But not on this part of the Way. Come, we will take you home now.”

“I must have been a long time among the worlds, Dancers” Aiel said. “Has it been well with my friends? What of Lin?” “Time spent with the Dancers is no time at all.” he was answered. “We do not need to move in your time. You will return no later than you left.” And indeed, when the Dancers set him down again in the courtyard of the Gatehouse, Tor-Harat was still standing there, and smiled at him. “There, it was not so terrible, Aiel!” “Oh, it was, Gatekeeper!” Aiel exclaimed, “Terrible, and beautiful, and – oh, there are no words!” When he explained to the Gatekeeper what he meant, and where he had been, and in what way the Dancers had honoured him, Tor-Harat said, “Aiel, the Dancers have honoured you indeed!” “Yet they said the way they honoured me would not make me proud, but humbler and closer to Light, and so it is.” Aiel said. “For I have seen my own smallness, and the smallness of my world, and how lonely we would be in Light’s great universe without the love of Light. And I have seen Ma’al, and the Darkness Li’is has been delivered from, through the Lightstone, and if ever I had thought it, I know now that I could never have defeated that Darkness in my own strength.” Now Aiel wanted nothing but to be alone with Light, to use his Perception and the Lightstone to understand all that he had experienced, to accept it and make it a part of himself, so that none of it was a thing outside himself to hurt or harry him. He said, knowing that Tor-Harat, a Priest himself, would understand. “Gatekeeper, I will go to the Prayer Room now. I must be alone with Light for a while.” “Go” Tor-Harat smiled “I will keep distractions from you.” “Unless it is Lin” Aiel said, as he turned towards the Gatehouse door. “Tor-Harat, let you call me at once if Lin wakes!” “I will call you” Tor-Harat promised.

In the familiar surroundings of the Prayer Room, Aiel took out the Lightstone and gazed into it, using it to make the most dangerous journey of all, into his own thoughts and emotions. He was not aware of the outward signs of his progress, though he smiled and wept, groaned and sighed and trembled, without knowing it. He knew that there was much to unravel and lay before Light, many experiences to work through and understand, but he knew also that his strength was depleted, and his own resources, though not Light’s, were limited. At last he understood that he could do no more, for now. There was still a great deal of unresolved emotion in him, and he knew it must be dealt with, but he was too weary, and Light’s wisdom seemed to tell him he had done enough, for the time being. As he left the Prayer Room he met Tor-Harat, who said “Aiel, I was coming to fetch you. The Swordsman is awake.” Thanking him, Aiel hurried to the Healing Place, where Krystha was waiting for him. She said, “Aiel, he has been waking and dozing again for a while, but he is awake now. He is in pain, and does not look himself, of course. Let you not be afraid for him, though. He is strong. Now go, and show him you are alive and well. He is afraid for you, for in his pain and with the draughts we had to give him, he could not remember well, and he has been asking for you, to be sure you are unharmed.” She held open the door of the Healing Place, and Aiel went in and crossed to the couch where Lin lay, now propped up on cushions. He was very pale still, but his arm had been freshly dressed and made more comfortable in a sling of soft material, to ease the weight on the wounded part. Though Krystha had said he was awake, Lin’s eyes were closed, his breathing quiet. Aiel bent over Lin, not sure, despite Krystha’s assurances, if his friend were awake. “Lin” he whispered, knowing that the Swordsman, if he were awake, would hear. And if he slept, Aiel’s voice was not loud enough to waken him.

Lin’s eyes opened, and he looked up at his friend. “Aiel.” he said. There was relief in his voice. “Praise Light! I thought I remembered that you were not harmed – but it was all so confused. Krystha told me you were safe – but I was not sure. Not till I could see you.” Aiel gazed at him anxiously. The Swordsman was pale, with a greyish tinge to his skin that worried Aiel, and a shadow in his usually clear grey eyes. Lin gave a faint, lopsided smile. “Do not look so grave, Aiel. It is well with me.” “It is not well with you!” Aiel contradicted him. “Lin – you knew you could not save me, and avoid Soom’s knife yourself!” His voice was almost accusing. “I did not have time to think that far.” Lin answered, but they both knew that was not true. “Your life for mine” Aiel said, very carefully, lest his voice betray him with a tremor, “would have seemed to me too high a price, Lin.” “It seemed a fair price to me.” Lin said equably. “I made a promise to your father, Aiel.” “To protect me till the Lightstone Way was ended. And it was ended, Lin, before Soom struck.” For the first time, Lin showed emotion. “Do you think it was only for a vow made to your father that I protected you, Aiel? You are my friend and bond-brother – as dear to me as my own kin. Should I have let you die? If I had not saved you, I could not have lived with the pain and shame of it!” Aiel laid a gentle hand on his friend’s uninjured shoulder. “I know it, Lin! But if you had died in saving me, I would have felt the same, my brother.” Again Lin gave that faint smile. “We are wounding ourselves with shadows, Aiel. You are alive, and I am alive, and the Darkness is defeated. Light is merciful.” He looked into Aiel’s face and said, with an air of command, “Do not worry! I have Krystha to tend me, and I am strong. A few days, a week or two – I shall be well.” ” Praise Light!” Aiel agreed “And Light protect you, Lin. Rest now, and grow strong again.” Lin settled back against his cushions with a sigh, and Aiel slipped quietly out of the room.

For the next two days, it seemed that Lin was right. Each time that Aiel went to visit his friend, having first prayed long for Lin in the Prayer Room, the Swordsman seemed stronger. On the third day it even seemed to Aiel that there was a more healthy colour in his friend’s face. The next morning, though, when he went at his usual time to visit Lin, he was met at the door by Krystha. Her expression was grave, and Aiel felt that a stony fist seized his heart. “Lin!” he exclaimed. “Oh, Krystha, what is it?” “Aiel, he has the Wound Fever” she replied. “But yesterday he looked so well – even his colour was better -” Krystha shook her head. “He was flushed with the beginnings of the Fever. I noticed it when I went to tend him. The wound had become infected. Lady Benika and I have opened it again, and stripped and cleansed it. We will not pin it again, but leave it to drain thoroughly. But the poison is in his blood, Aiel, and he has the Fever.” Aiel stared at her numbly. He felt so helpless. As the Lightstone-Bearer he had defeated an evil, a Darkness, that threatened his whole world. Yet now, though he had saved a world, he could do nothing to save one man, as dear as that man was to him. “Oh, Lin, my brother!” he said unhappily. “I told him, Krystha, that to have my life at the cost of his seemed to me too high a price – and he promised me that he would be well again, soon!” Aiel knew it was a foolish, a childish thing to say – as though Lin, by falling victim to the Wound Fever, had broken some vow to him. He looked at the Healer with pleading eyes. “Krystha, save him! He is my brother as surely – more surely- than if we were born of one blood.” Aiel did not know if he were even making sense to her, not knowing that Lin had told Krystha about the deep bond of friendship that lay between them. Krystha, though, surely understood, for to Aiel’s surprise she came to him and gently embraced him, speaking softly and encouragingly. “I know, Aiel! Do not fear for him. The Wound Fever is a serious sickness, but Lin is young and strong, and his body is a fine-tuned thing. He will be very sick, but I think he will defeat the sickness in the end – and he will keep his promise to you, his bond-brother.”

Aiel bowed his head onto Krystha’s shoulder, feeling suddenly weak and tired. She glanced at him with concern, and her hand softly stroked his neck with a soothing movement,as she said, “I know you feel you can do nothing for Lin, Aiel, but you can. You are closer to Light than any of us, and Light is merciful. Let you lift Lin up before Light, for strengthening and healing.” Aiel felt a sudden sting of tears in his eyes. His overwhelming concern for Lin, Krystha’s kindness, and his own slow recovery from the rigours of the Lightstone Way, made his emotions almost ungovernable. Though at core his trust in Light was rock-firm, his surface feelings were almost out of his control. Krystha, seeing this, lifted his face between gentle hands, and said, “Dear Aiel, remember that you too are not yet back to your full strength. It will not help Lin if you become sick. Come.” She led him into the Healing Place and made him drink a draught she prepared for him, which made him feel stronger. He asked, “May I see Lin?” “You may see him, but he is still drugged. We had to give him a strong draught of sweetwood, so that we could cleanse the wound without causing him pain.” Krystha stood by Aiel’s side as he looked down at the still figure on the couch. Lin’s face was flushed, as Krystha had said, with fever, his brow damp, his lips dry. He lay very still, held deeply unconscious by the drug he had been given. His wounded arm was wrapped in strips of bandage that were already darkly sticky with the ooze of blood and fluid from the reopened wound. “I must change those dressings” Krystha said. “Aiel, go now. Do not distress yourself. I will tell you if there is any change – for good or ill. I promise.” She looked again into his face and continued, “You need tending, Aiel. Go to Arentha, and tell her how you feel. I can love you as a friend, a sister – but Arentha is your love. It is her you need – and Light. The love of Light, and Arentha’s love. Those will uphold you.” Aiel nodded, accepting her advice, knowing by now how Krystha seemed to change into another, wiser, more mature maiden when she was at her Healing work. “I will” he said. “Thank you, Krystha. I trust Lin to you.”

When the young Priest had gone, Krystha bent to her task, carefully unwrapping the soiled bandages. When she and Lady Benika had inspected Lin’s wound that morning it had been red and puffy, hot to the touch, and, where it strained at the healing pins, beaded with pus. They had unsealed the wound, as Krystha had told Aiel, and stripped and cleansed it, leaving it open to drain of fresh poisons. The skin was not as tautly red and shiny now, but, as Krystha had said, the infection was in Lin’s blood. The Wound Fever was his body’s reaction as it fought against the toxins in itself. Krystha sighed heavily. She had told Aiel that Lin was young and strong, his body fine-tuned, and that was true. But other strong young men, before this, had died of the Wound Fever, either in the Fever Dream itself, or from infection settling in some vital part of the body. A Healer’s skills could go far to fight the sickness, but it was the victim’s will to fight, to live, that was the important thing. So as she worked, Krystha spoke to Lin, for though he was unconscious, somehow her words might enter in at a deeper level and do some good. “Lin, Sword-Brother, hear me! You must fight this sickness – it is your deadly foe. Fight, Sword-Brother, as though you stood sword in hand against the Darkness. Fight, fight, and live!”

Aiel had done as Krystha told him, and gone to find Arentha. He was feeling as though a cold, heavy weight lay in his stomach. He must, he would, trust Light in all things, but what if Light chose to take from him his dearest friend, his bond-brother? He had almost lost Arentha to the Darkness and now Lin too was in deadly peril. He found her sitting in a chair, stitching at some piece of work with which she was helping Lady Benika. When she saw Aiel’s expression, though, Arentha laid aside her needlework and asked anxiously “Aiel, what is it? Lin?” Aiel said “He has the Wound Fever.” Arentha answered, “That is evil news, Aiel! But Krystha will tend him, and she will save him.” He went to her and knelt in front of her chair, leaning forward to rest his head against her, his arms clinging to her as if for refuge. Arentha’s arms gently circled him. Aiel said, with quiet anger “Arentha, why does the Darkness touch all I hold dear? It snatched away my mother, and my little brother unborn. It has threatened my whole world. It nearly took you from me, and now it hangs over Lin. Yet I love and serve Light, as best I may. And I have completed the task Light gave me to do.” “Aiel, that is why the Darkness attacks you! You are like – like a Swordsman of Light. You are a threat to the Darkness, otherwise it would not fear and threaten you. And knowing that you are true to Light and would not fear for your own life in serving Light, the Darkness seeks to pull you from the Path of Light by threatening those you love.”

“That is true” Aiel admitted. “You are wise, Arentha. It is true that I would willingly have given my own life for the Lightstone Way, but yours, or Lin’s, or Krystha’s – then I might feel the price too high.” “Never!” she said, so fiercely that he was startled. “Aiel, if Lin and I and Krystha lay dead at your feet – if the Fortress and the City and the Temple lay in ruins – what matter, if it denied the rule of Li’is to Darkness? We are only one small part of the story, Aiel. We live, and die, and touch Light, but the world goes on, and the rule of Light goes on, and the purposes of Light must be fulfilled.” At heart, Aiel knew and felt as she did, but to hear her speak again these truths strengthened and comforted him. “Krystha told me to come to you.” he told her, “She said that I needed your love and counsel, and she was rights. My Arentha, you are still as a deep pool, and your thoughts, though you seldom speak them, as deep as its waters, where I can drink, and be refreshed. Yes, you are my refreshing-place.” “As you are mine” she said quickly, “Aiel, if I have any wisdom, I learned it of Light, and of you.” She stroked his black hair gently, and he said “We will go to the Prayer Room and lift Lin before Light.” “We will” she agreed, “and after, we will go to the Gardens, and you shall rest in their beauty, and praise Light.”

The day was drawing towards evening before Lin emerged from his drugged sleep. Krystha, who had been in the Healing Place most of the day, heard the change in his breathing, his little murmurs and moans, and came to his side. He might waken fully conscious and lucid, he might lapse back into unconsciousness or the delirium of the fever dream. The Wound Fever was unpredictable; that was one of its dangers. When Lin’s grey eyes opened, though, they were as yet unclouded by fever. “Krystha?” he whispered. “Hush, Lin, drink this” the Healer said, bending to slip an arm under his head to help him swallow the fever drink she had prepared. When he had obeyed her, he said, “My arm burns like fire, and my head is burning too. And I feel so weak!” “I know. Lin, you are very sick, but you must fight this sickness – like your bitterest enemy.” “Is it the Wound Fever, Krystha?” “Yes, Lin.” “Will I die?” he asked, with such simplicity that she had to fight back the tears and struggle to answer with her usual asperity. “Oh, Lin, of course you will not die- not if you wish to live! But you must fight, Sword-Brother- fight against the sickness and the Fever Dream, for your life.” His eyes were beginning to look glazed as the fever mounted, despite the fever drink she had given him. Krystha laid her hand on his brow to feel how hot he was, and he reached up with his good arm and grasped her wrist. “Krystha, I will fight – if you stay with me. Fight with me, Krystha, as you have sworn to your Sword-Brother!” “I will, Lin! I will fight with you, Sword-Brother!” she cried, seeing that he was on the edge of the Fever Dream, fearful that he might not hear her. But he tried to smile at her, and his hand tightened for a moment on her wrist, and she knew that he had heard.

Chapter 13

For a week Lin lay in the Fever Dream and the dread of it was heavy on them all. Aiel came hopefully and laid the Lightstone to Lin’s brow, but the Swordsman was not healed. “Why?” Aiel groaned to Krystha, turning the glowing Stone in his hands. “It healed Varn’s eyes, and brought Arentha and Ket-Lai back to us.” “Thoes were the works of the Bloodstone”, Krystha reminded him. “It healed Taran’s twisted hand. That was not the work of the Bloodstone”, Aiel said. Krystha replied, “Aiel, we cannot question the ways of Light. You, above all, should know that.” “I do”, he said, “and I trust Light.” He stared at Lin, who was tossing and muttering in delirium, and said, “But still, I do not understand what purpose there may be in Lin’s suffering so.” “Let me tend to his body’s needs”, Krystha said. “Go you, Aiel, and pray for him. Light will hear you.” So Aiel went, but with a heavy heart.

As well as Lin, they were concerned for Krystha, for she had vowed not to leave Lin, and she would not go back on her word. She left his side only to tend to her own most urgent needs. She would not eat with them, but took her meals in the Healing Place, and it was little enough she ate. She slept in snatches in a chair at Lin’s side, and would not allow Lady Benika to watch beside Lin for a while so that she might rest. She grew thinner, and paler, and her eyes were like purple smudges in her face, but to every remonstration she gave the same reply. “I promised Lin to stay and fight with him. How if I should leave him, and he should waken and find me gone, and give up the fight because his Sword-Brother was not there to fight with him?” To Aiel she said, also, “Do not worry over me, Aiel. I am a Healer. I know how much I can bear, and how to strengthen myself. If I grow weary now, I know how to rest later. Do not be so concerned.”

On the eighth day, when Aiel and Arentha came, they found Lady Benika with Krystha, both of them bent over Lin. They had dampened pieces of cloth and wrapped him in them, but the Swordsman was still burning hot. “Krystha, is it very bad?” Arentha asked her sister, who glanced at the other Healer, then said, “The fever is still not falling. We shall know tonight.” “What will you know?” Aiel asked, fearful for his friend. Lady Benika’s face was serious, her voice sombre, as she replied, “The fever must break now – or Lin is like to die.” “Oh, no!”, Aiel gasped. Krystha said quickly, “Aiel, do not give up. Lin has fought hard thus far. Many would have been dead by now. Aiel, you must fight too. Pray for Lin – make a prayer vigil for him. All sickness comes of Darkness. Let us fight the sickness, and do you fight the Darkness.” Aiel bent his head, dumbly. Then he leant and laid the Lightstone to Lin’s brow. The light surrounded Lin, then withdrew, and Aiel said, “I know it will not heal him, Krystha. But it may give him strength to fight.” and she nodded. All day Aiel and Arentha, with Tor-Harat joining them too for a while, spent in their prayer vigil for Lin, but now word came from Krystha and Lady Benika. They went to their evening meal with heavy hearts and little appetite, and Lady Benika came to join them. “No change, for good or ill”, she answered their anxious enquiries. “Go to your beds now and try to rest, and we shall call you if anything happens.”

Aiel, though, was quite unable to sleep. He tossed and turned on his bed, knowing that Lin was fighting for his life. At last he rose and dressed and went back to the Prayer Room to resume his vigil. Now, though, there seemed to be an opposition, something striving against him. He fell to his knees before the Crucible, drawing out the Lightstone and holding it in his hands to draw strength from it. He felt that he was fighting another battle with Darkness, this time for the life of his friend. With intense prayers and tears he struggled against the encroaching Darkness, striving to push it back. A little before sunrise, he suddenly felt release,a withdrawing of Darkness, the dawn of hope. In that moment he was sure that Light had touched Lin in some way, and all would be well with his friend. Aiel rose to his feet, a little stiffly, for he had knelt a long time in prayer, and raised his arms in quiet praise before the flame that stood for the far greater reality of Light. Then he turned, sensing someone near, and saw a quiet figure seated on the bench behind him. “Arentha!”, he exclaimed, “How long have you been here?” “I woke, and could not sleep again”, she explained. “I was so burdened for Lin. I came here to pray for him again, and saw you, and knew you were praying for him too, so I did not wish to disturb you.” “I think Light called us again to prayer for him”< Aiel told her, and recounted how he had battled in prayer for Lin, and how he had felt that sudden assurance that all, now, would be well with his friend. Then he said, “Krystha has been so devoted in her care for him. If Healer’s care counts for anything, she has saved him. Arentha, she is your sister, and you know her best. Do you think she could care for Lin – as more than a friend, and a Sword-Brother?” “I cannot tell, truly, Aiel. Krystha hides her feelings well, even from me. She fell in love once, when she was very young, and was badly hurt. Since then she has set a guard on her heart. But why are you so concerned for Krystha? Are you afraid that she might care for Lin, and not he for her?” “Not at all, Arentha. It is the other way about. Lin has told me he loves Krystha, very deeply. But I know he fears she will never learn to love him too.” Arentha sighed. “I do not know what Krystha feels for Lin. But I have never known her trust anyone, give so much of herself, as she has to him – except to me.” She smiled at him. “I hope she may learn to love him. He is a good, brave, honest man, and true. And Krystha is very like him – when she lets herself be. I think they could be good for each other, Aiel, if they loved.” “As you are good for me, my Gift-of-Light”, he told her.

That same night, as the two Healers had watched Lin, Lady Benika had said to Krystha, with a wry smile, “I suppose it is no use, to offer to watch Lin part of the night for you?” “No use at all”, Krystha had replied. The older Healer laid a gentle hand on Krystha’s arm, and said, “Light guard you both, child. Call me if you need me, whatever the time.” Krystha, left to her self-appointed vigil, gathered what she might need through the night. Lady Benika had had some food sent for her, and though she had little appetite, she made herself eat something, lest hunger make her less efficient at her work. After a while she went to Lin’s couch and laid her hand on the Swordsman’s brow. Did it seem cooler? She removed the cloths that had been damp but were now dried by the heat of his body. Yes, he was a little less hot. She seated herself in the chair at his side and prayed hard that the fever was breaking. She must have dozed, for she woke with a start, and rose again to feel his brow. Thankfully she realised that the raging fever seemed at last to have burnt itself out, but now the pallor and clamminess of his skin, and the harshness of his breathing, alarmed her. She felt so tired, death-weary, but she must be there to help Lin when he needed her. Krystha went to the Healer’s bench and reached for a small phial of sooty powder, dispassionately considering the trembling of her own hand. For several days now she had been taking blackbark to stay awake and alert, the Healer in her carefully balancing Lin’s needs and her own strength. She knew that now she was near the edge of dangerto herself; one, or at the most two more draughts of the stimulant were all she could allow herself without harm. But Lin’s need was paramount. She prepared the draught, but before she could drink it she heard Lin’s breathing quicken to a hoarse, fast,lod panting, as if he were running hard. She turned in alarm, and as she did so he called her name in a low, cracked voice. She ran to him, but suddenly all sound died. Had his breathing stopped? “Lin, I am here!” she cried out in terror, leaning over him, but he did not respond. An overwhelming sense of loss swept her; too frozen with fear for him to feel for his heart, his breathing, the Healer in her gave way to the grief-stricken girl who cried out, in her agony, the secret she had hidden so long in her heart. “Lin! Oh, Lin, you cannot die! I love you!”

Lin was exhausted. He had fought his way through the Fever Dream, and it had been the most deadly battle of his life. But still the battle was not quite over. There was a restful blackness, a quiet oblivion, that called him. He might surrender to it, and sleep, and wake in the Joyous Place, with Light. Or, like a swimmer drawn into dark ocean depths, he might fight free, and struggle to rise up to the daylight, and life. He was so weary! He remembered Krystha, his comrade in this battle, his love, and called to her for aid. As he paused to gather breath and strength, the black depths of sleep tugged enticingly at him, yet Krystha’s voice calling, “I am here!” was a call, too, upward to the light. In that moment his life hung balanced, and then came Krystha’s despairing cry, and the scales tipped in life’s favour. With her “You cannot die! I love you!” echoing in his mind, Lin found in Krystha’s desperate need of him the spur to fight back to life, and to her. He drew a great, gasping breath, as if he were indeed a swimmer breaking surface, and heard Krystha exclaim, in a voice that was half a sob, “Lin? Lin, can you hear me?” Lin opened his eyes, but shut them again against the brightness of the nearby lamp. He tried to speak, but his throat was tight and dry. “Wait, do not try to speak yet”, Krystha said. He heard her begin to move away towards the Healer’s bench, and then she gave a sudden cry. “No! Oh, not now!” Alarmed, he opened his eyes again, and saw her stand, swaying, between his couch and the next. Her hands were shaking violently, and as he watched her anxiously, sh tried to reach the bellpull over the couch. But her hands were uncontrollable, and with a moan of distress she sank down on the couch next to his. Lin was helpless; unable to move or speak, he could do nothing to help Krystha. He watched in an agony of fear for her as the trembling spread through her body. Not knowing what ailed her, he was unable even to reach the bellpull that would summon Lady Benika to her aid. Then suddenly into his mind, though it was still somewhat muddled from the Fever Dream, came the memory of how Aiel, at need, had managed to reach out his Perception and summon Lin. Could Lin now do the same, and reach Aiel’s mind? He drew on what strength he could muster and willed himself to concentrate on calling out to Aiel’s Perception.

Aiel, in the Prayer Room with Arentha, felt his Perception, enhanced by the Lightststone, tugged by some outer force. He let his Perception follow the pull, and intercepted Lin’s plea for help. Aiel cried “Lin!” “What is it?” Arentha asked anxiously.”What did you Perceive?” “He must be conscious, for I felt him call me. But he needs help urgently. Why does Krystha not aid him?” As he spoke, Aiel was hurrying her along the passageway to the Healing Place. They burst through the doors and saw, in the pool of lamplight, Lin lying still but gazing at them with conscious, pleading eyes, and Krystha seated on the next couch, shaking uncontrollably. Aiel reached for the nearest bellpull and tugged it to call Lady Benika, while Arentha ran to her sister and held her tightly, trying to stop the shaking. Next Aiel went to Lin’s couch, and , telling his friend not to attempt to speak, used his Perception to find out what had happened. As their thoughts merged, Aiel felt Lin’s relief at their arrival, his weakness and confusion from the fever, his fears at the apparent sickness that had suddenly overtaken Krystha. Drawing on the power of Light, the young Priest tried to reassure and comfort Lin, and succeeded in calming him. As he withdrew his Perception, Lady Benika arrived, asking “Is it Lin?” “Lin is past the Fever dream and conscious”, Aiel told her. “It is Krystha.” The Healer gave a little exclamation of praise for Lin’s recovery from the Wound Fever. Then she quickly went to Krystha.Arentha tried to hold her sister still while Lady Benika lifted the girl’s shaking hand, then tilted up her face and looked into her eyes. Then she went to the Healer’s bench, and lifted the bowl of blackbark which Krystha had not had time to drink. She held it up for them to see. “This is the culprit. Krystha has been taking blackbark to stay alert and tend Lin.” Lin groaned at the thought that Krystha might have harmed herself to help him. Lady Benika reassured him. “Have no fear for her, Lin. Blackbark only borrows tomorrow’s strength for today. After prolonged use, once the body is released from its hold,it will react with a dreadful weariness, so that even the muscles are uncontrollable. It is frightening to see, but unless taken to excess – and Krystha is wiser than that – it is easily amended , and will do her no permanent harm. Plenty of rest and sleep – those will heal Krystha.” She mixed two draughts at the Healer’s bench and brought one to Krystha. “Drink this, child, and rest now”< she said tenderly. “Your work is done. Lin is safe.” Krystha obeyed, though she had some difficulty in drinking, since she was trembling so. Arentha helped her, and when the bowl was empty, she and Lady Benika lifted Krystha’s legs on to the couch and laid a cover over her. The exhausted girl was almost instantly asleep.

The Healer turned to Lin. “Now, Swordsman, let us see how it is with you.” She examined Lin thoroughly, while Aiel and Arentha stood by, waiting. Lin, now that his fear over Krystha was gone, lay still and quiet under Lady Benika’s gentle hands. He knew by the feel of his own body how weak he was, how much strength he had lost in fighting the fever, and even though he had been unconscious for so long, he felt unutterably weary. His mouth tasted abominable, his throat was dry and sore, his head ached, and after burning with the fever, he felt cold and shivery. Aiel, though he rejoiced at Lin’s escape from death, could also see that his friend had far to go to regain his usual good health. The shadow of his fear for Lin had not yet completely lifted. Lady Benika completed her inspection by gently unwrapping Lin’s arm. There was no more sign of infection and the wound was no longer an angry red, but pinkly healing. She smiled. “Good, my Swordsman, good”, she said. “It will be a slow road back, but it will be well with you now. Yet I think you have fought the greatest fight of your life.” She redressed the wound with healing salve and bandages, then brought him the second bowl that she had mixed, saying, “Drink this, it will clear your head and throat.” The Healer lifted Lin’s head while he drank. The draught had a clean, sharp taset that drove away the foul taste in his mouth and eased his throat immediately. She laid him back on the cushions and said to Aiel and Arentha, “A moment with him only, then you must go, and let him rest.”

Lin smiled faintly at his friends, trying to reassure them. To his great surprise, Arentha bent and kissed his brow. “Dear Lin!” she exclaimed, “Praise Light you are restored to us!” Aiel, though his faith in Light had never wavered, had in his human heart been deeply fearful for his friend’s life, and now relief and joy mingled in his voice as he bent to carefully embrace Lin, saying “Lin ,my brother!” Then he straightened again, telling the Swordsman, with a mock severity that was a cover for his very deep emotion, “As you love Light and me, do not frighten me like that ever again!” Lin looked at Aiel with affection. In those moments when Aiel’s Perception had held and searched and comforted his mind, Lin had felt a new strength and maturity in his friend.Lin had always had that underlying feeling almost of responsibility for Aiel, a protectiveness, as though Aiel had been not quite strong enough to stand alone. Now, though, Lin knew that his ‘younger brother’ had come of age, and Aiel’s new maturity caused Lin to feel a different kind of respect for him. Aiel bent again and touched the Lightstone to Lin’s brow. The light flowed out and surrounded the Swordsman, and he felt a deep peace enfold him. It was as though he floated on a warm, supporting tide, and he allowed it to carry him into restful sleep. Lady Benika smiled. “That will do more good for Lin than all my draughts.” The light withdrew into the Lightstone, and Aiel murmured a blessing on his sleeping friends. The Healer told them, “Do not fear for them Aiel, Arentha. Lin is weak from the sickness but he is young and strong. He will be well again, though it will take time. And Krystha needs only to make up the sleep she has lost. She needs time, too, to rest and recover.” Now the Healer cupped Aiel’s face in gentle hands, and studied it. “The shadow of this Way is still on your heart, Aiel. It would be well for all of you to stay here for a while, till strength returns. Send word of your victory to the City, and stay with us, for now.” Aiel glanced at Arentha, who nodded. “Perhaps”, he said. “You are kind, Lady. And in any case, we must wait till Krystha and Lin have recovered. After that – we will see.”

Lin was unaware of time passing as he drifted in and out of sleep. Sometimes, when he woke, Lady Benika was there, and gave him clear water or more of the sharp-tasting draught to slake his thirst. Sometimes he woke at night, alone in the lamplight. Always, he looked for Krystha on the couch at his right, and saw her still sleeping. Once he woke, and a curtain was drawn between his couch and hers, and he heard Lady Benika and Arentha talking behind it. Alarmed, he called out, and the Healer came from behind the curtain to assure him that all was well with Krystha and she was only being made comfortable. At last Lin woke completely. He was aware of the slackness and lack of strength in his body, but his mind was clear and alert, the dreadful tiredness and lassitude gone. He had been aware of thirst, all the time, but only now did he feel the gnawing emptiness of hunger in his stomach. He opened his eyes. It was bright morning, and sunlight spilled through the windows of the Healing Place. He turned his head to look for Krystha, and saw her on her couch. He compared her appearance with the frightening signs of sheer exhaustion he had seen on her face before, and felt that she must be much better. The deathly, translucent pallor had gone, and her skin was its normal clear, creamy tone. The pinched whiteness of her lips had given way to a soft pink and her cheeks were rosy with sleep. The great dark smudges under her eyes had almost faded away, and of the bruised appearance of her eyelids only a few faint mauve veins remained. Her hair, which had looked so rough and dull, had been loosed and brushed out, no doubt by Arentha, and lay about her in a red-gold cloud, flaming to a fiery glory where the sunlight touched it. She wore a simple white nightgown which showed up the brightness of her hair even more. Lin felt as though his heart constricted with love for her, and murmured, very softly, “Krystha, my heart!” She could not possibly have heard him, but she stirred as though she had. Lin watched her, wondering ti himself if he had really heard her call out to him that she loved him. Or had it only been a part of the Fever Dream? It seemed so long ago now.

Krystha was drowsily moving, and Lin lay still and delighted in watching her come awake. She turned, and flung out one arm in his direction, the hand curled up against the frilled sleeve of the nightgown. She murmured, then sighed, then yawned, showing white teeth and a pink tongue-tip. Her lashes fluttered against her cheeks, once, twice, then opened, and gazed straight at Lin. He smiled tenderly at her, and, still half-asleep, she smiled dreamily back. Then her eyes widened , the smile disappeared, and she sat bolt upright, exclaiming “Lin!” In a flurryof movement she scrambled from her couch and fell to her kneese beside his. “Lin!”, she said again, “Oh, Lin!”, as if she were quite unable to say anything else. He was left in little doubt as to her feelings for him now, for she flung her arms around him, hugging him tightly, burrowed her head into his chest, and burst into a storm of weeping that alarmed him. Lin wished he had the use of both arms, but had to hold her as best he could with only one, and nuzzled her red-gold hair in lieu of any other caress. “Krystha, hush!”, he implored her. “Do not weep so! It is well with me. Oh, my heart, do not weep!” Eventually his entreaties and tender endearments calmed Krystha and she lifted her tear-wet face to look at him. Lin swiftly leant to kiss her, surprising her into a little gasp. He had dreamed so often of this moment that it might have been an anti-climax, but her lips were as sweet and her response as warm and tender as he could have hoped. When his mouth lifted from hers, Krystha touched her fingers to her lips and gazed at him in wonder. “I love you”, he told her, joyful to be able to say it at last, “Krystha, I love you.” Sh drew a shuddering breath. “Oh, Lin – my Lin – I thought I had lost you!” £How could I die?” he asked her, “When I love you so, and had never told you? How could I die, and leave it unsaid?” “I did not know”, Krystha whispered.

He looked solemnly into her eyes, “Krystha, I might have died – without you. After the Fever Dream – I was so tired, so very tired. It would have been so easy to give up, to just let go and drift into the darkness and sleep. Sleep forever, and never wake.” He felt her shudder in his embrace, and said quickly “You saved me, my love. I heard your voice – you called to me that I could not die because you loved me, and that gave me the strength to fight my way back to life – to you, Krystha. But was it real, or just part of the Fever Dream?” “No – no, not a dream, Lin. I did call out to you – I do love you.” “I wish I had not been so cowardly, my heart! I was so afraid to say that I loved you, for I could not think how to woo you. I did try once – do you remember, in the cave, the night before we reached the Gatehouse? But you said you would never love, and turned the subject, and I was afraid to try again to tell you.” Krystha blushed,then, and said, “I-I did not speak the truth, Lin. I think I began to fall in love with you when you swore Sword-Brotherhood with me. And when you fought the Sword-Trial – I was so proud of you, and so afraid for you, and from that moment I knew that I loved you. But I too was afraid. I thought that if you knew, and could not love me, I might lose even your friendship.” “It was when I saw you in such distress at the Third Faring House, that I knew I loved you”, Lin told her. “I would have given anything to take the pain from you, if I could. I wish I had known then how you felt.” “It does not matter, my love”, sh said softly, “We have found each other now, and the dangers are past, and the tears behind us.” “You have won back my life for me”, he said, “but I do not wish to live it out without you. Will you be my Lady, Krystha?” “Yes, Lin, I will”, she answered, simply and gladly, and when he had kissed her again, she rose, and said, “Let me look at you now, Lin, and see it is well with you.” But Lin would not let her. “You have been sick yourself, from taking the blackbark to tend to me”, he said. “Summon Lady Benika , if you will. But you should still be resting too. Krystha, astonishingly, obeyed him; climbing back on her couch she pulled the covers over her and tugged on the bell that would call Lady Benika. “But at least you will tell me how you feel?” ,she asked. Lin considered, then “My mind is clear, but my body is weak”, he answered, “and I am very happy, my love.” Then,plaintively, he added, “And also very, very hungry, Krystha.” “Ah, now that is a good sign!” Krystha said, and laughed.

When Aiel and Arentha had left the Healing Place, feeling the mixed emotions of joy at Lin’s escape from death and concern at Krystha’s exhaustion, they went towards the Hall of the Gatehouse, looking for Tor-Harat, to tell him of Lin’s recovery. AS they entered the Hall, though, Aiel felt a strange and sudden weakness sweep over him, and stood trembling. “Aiel, what is wrong?” Arentha cried, but he could not even find strength to answer her. He felt as if his legs had turned to water, and sank down on to a chair by the table in the middle of the Hall. He laid his arms on the table, and his head on his arms, and began to weep. He did not know that relief and reaction were overtaking him now. He did not feel unhappy – he felt nothing. But he could not stop weeping. It was as if the tears were not his at all, but the outpouring of a great flood that swept through him, washing him free of hurt and fear. He was unconscious of anything around him, not hearing Arentha begging him to speak, to tell her what ailed him. He did not hear her bid a passing servant to fetch Lady Benika and Tor-Harat. His tears were a current on which he floated above all that had power to dismay him. Lady Benika came first, and when Arentha turned to her in search of help for Aiel, the Healer hugged the frightened girl, and said, “It will be well, Arentha. This is release from all the burdens he has been under.” When the Gatekeeper came, he sat opposite Aiel, and gently reached out his Perception. Aiel felt the soft touch. He was coming, now, to an end of his weeping; it was as if the tide of tears receded and left him lying, cleansed and drained, on some strange shore of his own mind. When he felt the touch of Tor-Harat’s Perception, his own Perception clung to it and let the other Priest draw him slowly back to his own world. He lifted his head from his arms, and gazed at Tor-Harat, and Arentha gave a little cry of relief.

Now the Gatekeeper’s eyes held Aiel’s, his Perception poured anew into Aiel’s, helping him, strengthening him, until Aiel was aware of who and where he was. Lady Benika poured a cup of wine from the pitcher that stood on the table, and made him drink it, and Aiel felt its rough warmth spread through him, dispelling the icy coldness. Arentha reached inside his robe and brought out the Lightstone, and laid it to Aiel’s brow, and the enveloping light embraced him, upholding and comforting him. Once the light withdrew, Lady Benika said firmly, “Aiel, now that we know it will be well with Lin, you must go and sleep. Every time you gain a little strength, you spend it again. But now there is nothing for you to do but rest and recover, like the others.” Aiel still felt as though his legs would not obey him, and had to lean on Arentha, her arm around his waist, as she and Lady Benika helped him to his room. He had never felt so weak and drained, not even after the battle for the Dancers. He could barely manage to drink the draught that the Healer gave him, and almost fell into bed. Arentha covered him over, and bent to kiss him, but he was not conscious of her whispered, “Light keep you, my love.” The warm touch of her lips was the last thing he knew, and the he fell into a well of oblivious sleep. Arentha, standing with Lady Krystha, looked down at her sleeping love, and said to the Healer, “Aiel, and Lin, and Krystha have given so much to this Way. I do not feel I have done anything. ” Tor-Harat, who had followed them, said, “That is not true, Arentha. You played your part and suffered too, on the Meeting Place. And on the Way, you have been their quiet place and their anchor. By being always there when Aiel needed you, you have been the staff on which he leaned, walking this Way of the Secret Word. Oh yes, he had the Lightstone to uphold him. But without your support, and that of the Way-Sharers, it would have been very lonely for him, and much harder.”

Aiel did not know that he slept through two days and two nights in his utter exhaustion, only that when he woke it was the dawn of a new day. He felt light with the sense of burdens lifted, and inwardly he felt cleansed and strengthened and purified. He stretched, and even his limbs seemed lighter and stronger. He slipped out of bed and went to the window. He saw a glorious sunrise glow rose and gold and myriad pearl-colours above the mountain, and still the faint shadow of one of the moons in the sky. It was so beautiful and fresh and new, as though it were the first dawn there had ever been. Memory flowed back, and he knew why the dawn seemed so joyful. Darkness was defeated, and Lin was safe from death. Ashe gazed out at the sky, thinking on the mercy and the wonder of Light, he remembered too that he had stood on that moon with the Dancers, and seen Li’is beneath his feet. He recalled the amazing journey on which the Dancers had taken him, and his awe and his sense of smallness before Light, and his wonderment that Light could love and show mercy to a creature as small and insignificant as he was. These memories made Aiel take out the Lightstone, looking into the depths of its glow, reaching, he felt, further towards Light than he had ever gone before. Then it was as if he burst through into a Presence so vast, so awesome and eternal, yet so loving, so tender, so understanding of his smallness and his needs, that he cried aloud in wonder, and fell, first to his knees, then prostrate on the floor in joy and worship.

He did not know how long he lay there in silent adoration. When at last the sense of that Presence left him, the dawn colours and the moon were gone, and full bright daylight poured into the room. Aiel stood, and looked into the mirror of polished metal on the wall, thinking that somehow his face must show signs of that momentous encounter, but hesaw only his face as usual, save that he realised it had grown a little thinner, and seemed a little older. He had been, still, more than half a boy when he set out on his Way. Now he was fully a man. In that moment he felt that nothing would ever have power to hurt or frighten him again. Suddenly he felt thirsty, and hungry, and in need of a bathe and fresh clothes. He smiled at his own reflection, and went out of the door with a light step and lighter heart. Finding a servant, he obtained a clean Priestly robe, asked for food and drink to be prepared for him, and went to bathe. Later, much refreshed and clean and fed, he went to look for Arentha. Not finding her, and guessing she might be with Krystha, he went towards the Healing Place and tapped on the door. Lady Benika opened it, and smiled at him. “Ah, Aiel, that is better! You look like a living man again, not some pale phantom.” “Aiel?” , he heard Arentha’s voice from inside the Healing Place. Lady Benika stood aside, and he hurried inside. At once Arentha ran to him, hugging him,kissing him, exclaiming with joy and a few tears at his improved appearance. When they were both a little calmer, he asked, “How is it with Lin? And Krystha?” “They are asleep”, Arentha answered, “but both much better. Come and see.” She took his hand and led him to Lin’s couch. The Swordsman lay peacefully asleep, and though he was thinner, he was neither pale with pain nor flushed with fever. Lady Benika said, “The wound is healing well, now. And he grows stronger daily.” Krystha lay on the next couch, curled upon her side like a cat,one small hand under her cheek, like a little girl. Aiel bent and kissed her other cheek, softly. “Light bless you, Krystha”, he said, quietly, so as not to wake her. “Your care has saved my dearest friend for me.” Lady Benika asked, “Have you eaten, Aiel?” “Aye”, he answered, “I fear I have made free with your kitchen, Lady.” “Good!”, she smiled back, “But now do you and Arentha go and walk awhile in our Gatehouse Gardens. They are meant for rest and refreshin and the very scent of the plants will help to heal you.”

They did as she bade them, wandering hand-in-hand among the fragrant flowers, the stately trees, the changing vistas and pretty bowers. One place, though, they found that they loved best of all the Gardens, because it reminded them so of home. It was a wildflower meadow, the grass strewn with many blooms, with a little stream running through, and a small copse of trees at one end. It was like a smaller Plain of blossoms. Arentha kicked off her shoes and sat with her feet trailing in the sun-warmed water, and Aiel lay down with his head in her lap and gazed up at her face, and the blue sky above them. He told her then, as he had not found time to before, of how the Dancers had honoured him, and of the beauty and the strangeness of the worlds he had seen – though he made no mention of Ma’al – and tried to describe them to her, and she was full of wonder and amazement. They talked about the Way, and of when they might return home, which made them move on to the subject of Lin and Krystha, and how soon they might be fully well, and if, maybe, Krystha would return Lin’s love. And from that, naturally enough, they began to speak of their own love, and Aiel exclaimed, “Arentha, my heart – I have not yet asked if you will be my Lady?” “My dear love, of course I will”, she answered, adding,in accordance with custom, “If Merhaun my father agrees.” “Merhaun”, Aiel said, feeling a little uncomfortable, though he knew the request would be only a formality. “How will your father feel, Arentha, when I bring you back to him safely as I promised – only to ask him to give you to me again, forever?” “How could he deny you?” Arentha asked, somewhat indignantly, “When you have saved all Li’is?”, and he laughed at her championship of him, and sat up, and kissed her.

Two days later, Lady Benika came to them as they sat in the Hall after breakfast, her face beaming. “Come”, she told them, and led them to the Healing Place. When they went in, Aiel’s heart leapt with joy. Lin sat up in bed, smiling at them, and the littered tray on a table at his bedside showed that he had eaten a good breakfast. Krystha, wrapped in a warm robe, sat in a chair at his side. She looked well – she looked better than well. There was a glow in her face and her eyes, and Aiel saw that Lin’s good hand clung to one of hers. He knew, then, that Lin had won her love. “Oh, Lin!” he said, “It is good to see you so well, my brother!” He smiled at them, “And Krystha too. Is it well with you now.” “It is very well with us”, Lin said contentedly, and Aiel saw the love shine in his friend’s eyes as he looked at Krystha. “I have told Krystha of my love for her, and she loves me too, Aiel. She has said she will be my Lady.” Krystha smiled at them, and Arentha went to her sister and hugged and kissed her, saying, “Oh Krystha dear, I am so glad!” “Then the Fortress must prepare for a double wedding, Aiel laughed, for Arentha has promised to be my Lady too.” And the Healing Place was full of rejoicing and content.

The Way-Sharers had decided, almost by default, to follow Lady Benika’s advice and stay longer at the Gatehouse. Aiel and Tor-Harat spent all of one morning in the Prayer Room, in fierce concentration, joining their Perceptions with the aid of the Lightstone to send out the Thought-without-Words into Li’is. From Priest to Priest, friend to friend it went – to Varn at the Third Faring House, who linked with his brethren there to send it on, out to the Priest of the Western Fortress and to Brath and Tavis at the Second Faring House, from them on to Mell and the Priests whose Soul-Watches were all the small towns and villages in between, and finally, finally, to Arnath the High Priest at the Temple of Light, and the Temple Elders, and all Aiel’s Brothers-in-Light there. The message was simple, but it meant everything – that the Lightstone-Bearer had fulfilled his Way, and the Darkness was defeated, and the Dancers, and thus all Li’is, safe. That was the simple message, but what overwhelmed Aiel was the response to it, the joy and praise and love that swept back to him along the chain of Thought-without-Words. That was truly what it was, for there were no words, only a tide of thought and emotion that overjoyed and uplifted him. Now that those who needed to know had been reassured, there was no urgency about their return, and there was the healing of Lin’s wound to consider. Aiel was anxious that they should not begin the return journey until ther was no risk that the Healers’ work might be undone by the exertions of travelling. So they took time to relax and recover, to make plans for the future, and to discover the changes in each other.

Naturally the greatest change was in Aiel, who had borne the burden of the Way and who had gone through so many changes, in himself and in his faith in Light, so quickly. In himself he felt that the greatest change was that his trust in Light was now like a great, immovable rock firmly embedded in his spirit, on which he would build every other thing in his life. He had had times before, and even on, the Way when he had swung wildly between faith and despair, trust and doubt. But now that divided heart had found its still centre and was whole. Arentha’s love for him, and his for her, was a wondrous gift of Light, but greater even tnat that was his assurance of Light’s love for them both- for them all. Arentha too had grown in Light, in faith. Though she was sweet and gentle as ever, a certain shyness in her had gone, and she was more sure of herself in Light, and so more confident in her words and actions. Krystha, by contrast with her sister, had grown softer and quieter, yet this was not a lack of confidence, rather the revers. For it was her own self-doubt that had made her sharp and defensive and always prone to a hot or impetuous word or rash action. The need for reliance on Light on the Way had tempered her impulsive nature,and Lin’s love for her had freed herfrom the rejection in her life and assured her of her own worth. Light’s love, and Lin’s , had left her free to be her own true self. Lin too was quieter. He had come close to death, and it had caused him to reassess his faith, his life, and his priorities. He was more thoughtful, closer to Light, without losing any of his strength or courage. Like Krystha, he might now be less impetuous, having her love to hold him back from impulsiveness. For all he did now concerned not just himself, but Krystha too, and the future they planned together.

Their relationships hadaltered too; it was not just that love had blossomed between Aiel and Arentha and Lin and Krystha. The bond between Aiel and Lin had changed too, made deeper by Lin’s sacrificial rescue of Aiel. Yet Lin no longer thought of Aiel as a ‘younger brother’, for Aiel had so changed and matured that he was at least Lin’s equal, if not his ‘elder’. And that was how it should be, Lin felt. Even between the sisters there was a difference, since Krystha’s self-doubt had distanced her even from her sister, however slightly. Now, though, every barrier in her life was down, and the sisters were closer than ever. Nor were the old ties harmed by the new, rather enhanced by the love of the two couples. So they spent a pleasant and restful few weeks at the Gatehouse, until they had all recovered from the stresses of the Way. Lin’s redressed arm had healed enough to be unpinned again, and Lady Benika and Krystha gave him salves to soften the damaged skin, and exercises to do so that the scar would not grow hard and set and his arm would stay supple- though it would always be somewhat stiff. If Lin found the exercises painful, he did not complain, knowing they were done for his own good. Aiel had been called up to the Meeting Place several times to speak with the Dancers, though never again, to his mingled relief and disappointment, had they offered to take him ‘travelling’ with them. Lin too had been summoned by the Dancers one day, had climbed up to the Meeting Place, and returned very thoughtful, but glad. He did not say, though, nor did the others, respecting his privacy, ask, what the Dancers had told him.

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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