Aiel went out among the rocks and scrubby trees. It was now past the time of the Two-Moon Tide and the Hound had already dwindled to a half-moon low in the sky, while the Shield was still three-quarters full. Their combined light was still bright enough, though, to throw double shadows around him. Aiel paced back and forth, gazing into the Lightstone, trying to defeat the Darkness that still tried to hamper him, the sense of the pain and loneliness of his task. Inside the cave, his friends murmured more prayers to Light for Aiel’s strengthening and comforting. Eventually, Arentha raised her brown eyes, misty with tears, to the Swordsman’s, and asked “Oh, Lin, is there nothing more we can do to help him?” Lin answered, quietly, “Yes – I believe there is something you can do. Go to him, Arentha. he needs you now. Go to him, and comfort him.” Arentha blushed a little, but, knowing it was no time for false modesty, said “Yes, Lin, I will go to him.”
Aiel, with the Lightstone’s aid, had reached a measure of calmness. He seated himself on one of the rocky outcrops and let the glowing Lightstone fall back on to his breast. He was aching with a need he hardly recognised. The comfort he drew from the Lightstone was tender and strong, but awesome. The need he felt now was for human consolation, and it was the deepest need of all, for the tenderness of a motherly embrace. He felt again, as sharply as if it were new, the desolation he had felt when his mother died, and he had realised that never again would he feel her soft arms enfold him , her hair brush his cheek, her kiss on her brow. He had not known till now how deep the pain of his loss still was. Arentha found him sitting there; guided by the glow of the Lightstone she came to him, and all her love and tenderness for him rose in her like a tide. He had not heard her quiet approach, and when she knelt in front of him and spoke his name softly, holding out her arms, Aiel, still wrapped in his memories, responded instinctively. He leaned forward into the gentle embrace , weeping softly, his own arms circling her, clinging to her. Was it a dream, he wondered, or some kind spirit, sent to comfort him? But a dream or a spirit would not have a heartbeat, and he felt hers beating. Then he heard Arentha’s voice again, and knew her.
“Oh Aiel, my dear! It is not well with you.” He lifted his head to look into her sweet, sympathetic face, seeing her own tears glisten in the moonlight, and said “I am – so glad you came to me, Arentha! I needed you so!” She said nothing, but held him closer, tenderly reaching one hand to stroke his tumbled black hair and nestle his head against her again. Aiel gave a deep, shuddering sigh, and for a long space they were still and silent, not needing words. At last Aiel raised his head again, and said “Arentha, I must not fail the Way, or what will become of our world?” “You will not fail, you will succeed” she said ” for Light is with you. And your heart is in Light, Aiel.” “There has been so little time for me” Aiel continued “for anything but the Way. And I would not say this now, but that perhaps I have looked into your heart tonight, and found there an answer to my own. Arentha, if I should die tomorrow…” he felt her arms tighten on him as if in protest, but she stayed silent, and he went on “will you remember that – I loved you?” “Aiel, I always knew it, in my deepest heart. As you must know I love you too.”
Lin and Krystha were sitting quietly in the cave. Lin was glad of Krystha’s presence, and hoped Arentha might be able to comfort his friend. He thought of Aiel’s sufferings and gave a little, involuntary sigh. To his surprise, Krystha took his hand in hers, and said, “Ah, Sword-Brother, it is hard for you too, is it not? Aiel is very dear to you.” “He is like a brother to me, Krystha! My father and Aiel’s are friends, and as boys we were sometimes playmates. Then one day Aiel’s mother was to bear a child – and something went wrong. The babe could not be born, and all the Healers’ skills availed nothing. The babe died, and Aiel’s mother too. They brought Aiel for my mother to look after, and oh, he was so wretched, Krystha! My heart went out to him…” Lin did not really know why he was telling Krystha all this, but he went on, telling her about the playhut in the garden, the rescue in the alleyway, the way in which his friendship with Aiel had grown, and how it always seemed that Lin was there when Aiel was in need of help. “So he has come to be like a younger brother to me, because I seemed always to be pulling him out of some scrape or other. That time in the alley, he said to me – he laughed about it, though he was so badly beaten – he said ‘Rescuing me begins to be a habit with you, Lin!’ But this time” the Swordsman continued “I cannot rescue him, as much as I want to. I must let my brother fight alone, and I can only watch, and pray for him. And that hurts me, Krystha.” “Oh, Lin!” she said, and gently stroked the hand she was holding, “You are a loyal friend to Aiel. And a bond-brother truer than many a brother born. He will not come to harm, with you watching over him.” She smiled at him, and added “And you were very wise, to send Arentha to him.” He understood, and asked, “Do you think they will find each other now?” “They have already found each other, Lin. Arentha loves Aiel as much as he loves her. Only the words were yet unsaid.” He gave her a sideways glance, and asked, “And if Aiel succeeds, and the danger is over, he and Arentha will want to wed. What of you, then, Krystha?” She answered ” If Arentha weds Aiel and goes to live in the City, I shall be lonely, of course I shall! She is my best friend,as well as my sister. But she will be happy, so I shall be glad for her. And if they have children, they will be as my own to me.”
Lin had been trying, in a roundabout way, to bring their conversation to a point where he might be able to tell Krystha of his own love for her. He was bemused, though, by the way she had answered him, and said, “Krystha, why do you speak like that – as if you will never have any children of your own? Surely you will find a love of your own one day, and marry, and have children?” Then he thought, suddenly, that there might be some physical reason why she could not have children, for momentarily she caught her bottom lip in her teeth, as if a spasm of pain took her. If he had hurt her with foolish words, he felt he would want to tear out his tongue. ‘If it must be, let Mira’s babe be my heir, for I will have no Lady but Krystha’, he thought. The moment had passed, and Krystha answered him “There will be no love, no children for me, Lin. I have sworn it.” “But why, Krystha? Do children matter so much, if a man loves you?” “No, that is not it, Lin. If I were to wed I could have children. But I – I do not believe in love – not for me. I have loved, and been rejected, as has my father. I am truly his child! To love, I have found, is to be hurt, and I am not so fond of needless pain.” “But you will let Arentha risk it?” he asked, rather bitterly. “Arentha? Oh, Lin, that is different! Arentha is sweet, and gentle. Everyone loves her. And Aiel adores her – it is clear to see – and she him. There will be no hurt for Arentha.” His moment of bitterness had gone, and he asked her gently “Who then has hurt you, rejected you, Krystha?” “My mother” she said quietly “Twice. You saw it, Lin. “And – one other. I will not speak of that.” And a redness swept over her creamy skin. “But I will not risk that pain again.” “Is not my Sword-Brother braver than that?” he asked – and instantly regretted it. Her eyes filled with angry tears, and she said, fiercely, “Lin, that is not fair! Do you wish to take back your Sword-Brotherhood, then?” “No! Oh Krystha, I am sorry – you are right. It was an unfair thing to say, and I would not have hurt you – forgive me. It is only that I am concerned about you, and do not want you to be lonely.” “I would not mind that, Lin. I had rather be loved and wanted only for my Healing skills than be some man’s momentary fancy, to be dropped again when he found someone more beautiful or clever- as he must. Lin, please let us not speak of this any more, if you are my friend.” But she smiled at him then, and he could draw comfort from that.
‘I must be patient’ Lin thought, ‘she has been hurt before, and must learn that I will not hurt her. When she trusts me fully – then I will tell her that I love her, and she will believe me.’ Then he said aloud “I am your friend, Krystha, and your Sword-Brother. Surely, we will not speak of things that hurt you. Though, until tomorrow is gone and Aiel’s battle won, there seems nothing but pain in the air.” “Lin, why does Light let such Darkness be?” Krystha asked. “Why should such a burden fall on Aiel?” “I asked that question myself, of Arnath the High Priest, at the start of this Way. And he told me it was because every creature that Light made was created free, with its own will to choose to serve or to disobey Light. Light desires friends and children, not slaves, so all men and spirits and Dancers were made with a free will.” “If Light loves all things, yet has been spurned by some – then Light too knows that love is pain.” Krystha said, musingly. “That is true. But it does not prevent Light from loving.” Lin could not resist saying. “Could Aiel have refused the Way, at the very beginning?” Krystha asked. “He could” Lin answered “Arnath told him so. But I believe Light knew Aiel before ever he was born, and that he was the one ordained to the Way. And I believe also that Light knew Aiel would not refuse. I hold to that, Krystha – that all this was foreknown and foretold, and surely Aiel must succeed, or it would all have been for nothing!” “Yet still, if what you say is true, it depended too on Aiel’s free choice. It is a mystery, Lin.” “Who can understand the ways of Light?” the Swordsman asked.”It is too deep for me, Krystha. I trust Light and try to obey, doing what Light asks of me. That is sufficient for me.” “And for me, Lin. Yet sometimes – sometimes I wonder, and wish I could know more!”
Aiel, for a while, had been able almost to forget the threat of tomorrow in being with Arentha, knowing that she loved him too, having her to confide in, her kisses to sweeten his Way. Now, though, he sighed, and said, “We must go back, and try to rest. I could gladly stay here with you, my Gift-of-Light. But there is tomorrow.” “Oh Aiel, I wish it were over, and you safe!” Arentha exclaimed. “Light is merciful” Aiel said. “We would not find each other now, only to be torn apart again. Besides, in fighting the Darkness around me today, I had forgotten a part of the Secret Word. There are other things to come from this Way – things that the Secret Word says I shall see, before my times end. I shall succeed tomorrow, and I will not die, Arentha. Do not be afraid for me.” He kissed her once more, then took her hand and led her back to the cave, wondering if Lin had been able to use the time to speak to Krystha too. When he and Arentha entered the cave, though, they found the other two sitting quietly, talking, and sipping from Krystha’s wooden cups. She had made a hot drink with certain of her herbs, pleasant-tasting and soothing, not a sleeping draught, but enough to relax taut nerves and let them rest. As Krystha poured two more cups for Arentha and Aiel, Lin looked closely at his friend. He saw at once how Aiel’s mood had lightened, and was glad. Yet the loving glances Aiel and Arentha exchanged made the Swordsman wistful, as he thought of Krystha.
Later, as they settled themselves near the fire to sleep, Lin could hear the sisters murmuring together on the far side of the fire, though not what they said. He whispered to Aiel “It is well with you and Arentha, then?” “It is well.” Aiel whispered back.”She does love me too, Lin! But did you speak to Krystha?” “No. No, I could not. I tried to, but she would not speak of any possibility of her loving or being loved. Aiel,she has been hurt somehow and it has made her afraid of love.” “That is what her father told me.” Aiel said. “I must teach her to trust me first, and know that I would not hurt her” Lin explained, “then I can speak to her of my love. If there is time”, the Swordsman added, “after tomorrow.” “There will be time” Aiel promised “Lin, as I said, today I was struggling under some Dark attack. And I was in a strange mood, a fey mood, so that I forgot the Secret Word. But now I have remembered that it spoke of things that would come later, out of this Way, things that I would see. So I believe that I shall succeed tomorrow, and that I shall not die.” “Light be praised for that, Aiel, my brother!” Lin exclaimed.
Next morning Aiel disappeared round a turn of the cave for a while, and when he came back he was wearing his Priest’s robe and sandals again, the Lightstone Harp slung on his back. The Lightstone lay openly on his breast, and he had smoothed back the black hair that usually tumbled over his forehead, because he was wearing round his brow a narrow golden circlet, the precious and sacred symbol of full Priesthood. It was given to each young Priest when he had finished his years of training, and weeks of preparation, and his night’s prayer vigil, and was named a Priest of Light before his brother Priests. Thereafter, the circlet was worn for the highest and holiest Festivals. The sombre, burdened Aiel of yesterday had vanished; this was a warrior of Light, though he bore no worldly weapons. His face was determined, his eyes, always vivid, so fiercely bright that they could not meet them. All of them, as well as they knew and loved Aiel, felt in awe of him. Something was about him like a mantle, a power and a greatness that was more than Aiel, as if the Presence of Light was all around him. Lin, hardly knowing he did so, went to one knee, and the girls followed his example. Then the Swordsman extended his arm towards Aiel, and cried “Behold the Lightstone-Bearer!” Aiel too was aware of the Presence of Light with him, had woken with the sense of that Presence, and also with the knowledge that now all concealment of his purpose was past. He went into battle with Darkness today as a Priest of Light and the Lightstone-Bearer. Nor did his friends’ homage embarrass or seem strange to him, for he knew it was Light with him, not himself, that they honoured.
They rose, and Krystha turned aside for a few moments, having her own duty to perform. She had brought with her one tiny bag of a powdered herb that was not a healing herb, but one special to the Priesthood, which she had obtained from the Fortress Prayer Room. Now she mixed it in a cup of water and watched it turn deep red. The cup was bitter, though refreshing, and was used symbolically to signify cleansing for the Priesthood before the great Festivals. She turned back and handed the cup to Aiel, and he looked into it, then gazed at her in joyful surprise. “Tha’ara” he murmured, in the Old Tongue. “The bitter water, the Purification – oh, Light bless you, Krystha, that you thought to bring this! Now I am prepared as a Priest should be.” He drank down the wine-coloured drink without the slightest sign of dislike for the bitter taste; indeed, he smiled as he gave the cup back to the Healer. “For yourselves, you must choose” he said “but I fast today.” “It is a spiritual battle” Lin said.”It is good to fast.” And the girls agreed. That decided, they put out the remains of their fire, loaded and mounted the horses, and set out on the last stage of their journey, riding always upwards, towards the last dwelling place of man in Li’is – the Gatehouse. Here the Gatekeeper and his family, with their servants and stewards and Watchwards, kept the Dancers’ Gate and guarded the way to the Meeting Place and the Dancers. For at the Meeting Place men and Dancers met; men who had satisfied the High Priest and the Temple Elders, according to the laws laid down by the first Lightfriends and the Dancers themselves, that they had good and serious reasons for the interview. The Meeting Place was as far as men might go in Li’is, and no one had seen what lay beyond those mountains. They might even lead into another world entirely, since the Dancers were free of the laws of any one world, being able to move at will among so many. What must be prevented though – what Aiel, wielding the Lightstone, must prevent today – was the opening of a door that would let the Darkness flood into Li’is. The Night Lords, and the Lords of Darkness who ruled them, must not reign here as once, briefly, they had attempted to do, in the time of Brann and Tamorine. The Lightstone had defeated the Darkness then, and would do so again, if Aiel were equal to his task.
They rode swiftly and silently, each concentrating on Light, on prayer and preparation for what lay ahead. They crossed tumbling streams, passed strange, bare tors and little hollows and valleys where, more sheltered, late Spring flowers had broken through. At length they came to a ridge, from which the land flowed down into a wide vale, surprisingly green and beautiful among these bare highlands. They were not looking at the vale, though, but across it, for on its far side rose the range of mountains they had been aiming for, and in their midst, the Mountain of the Dancers. There before them was the place they sought; the towering, brooding, ancient mountain, torn by a split in the rock which began a little below the summit and widened downward, like a funnel, until it ended in the wide, deep, level ledge that was the Meeting Place. What, if anything, lay beyond these mountains, no man knew, for it marked the end of men’s territory in Li’is and the beginning of the Dancers’. A thin, snaking path crept up the mountainside to the Meeting Place, and at the foot of the mountain, surrounded by its extensive gardens and high stone boundary walls set with huge, ancient gates of wrought metal, stood the Gatehouse, the only way of entry to the Dancers’ Mountain and the Meeting Place. It looked deceptively near, but it was still a good hour’s ride away. None of them spoke, but Lin and Aiel exchanged a look that was the embrace of comrades about to enter a battle. Then Aiel said “Come!” and led them onward down the slope.
As they rode, he reached out his Perception towards the Gatehouse, seeking the Perception of the Gatekeeper, Tor-Harat. When their Perceptions meshed, Aiel first warned the other to show no sign of what the Lightstone-Bearer told him. Then, through the link of the Thought-without-Words, he poured into the Gatekeeper’s Perception the tale of the Secret Word, the Way, and the danger to the Dancers. Aiel felt Tor-Harat’s grief and concern, but also how the Gatekeeper pushed his own feelings aside and concentrated on the need. His Perception asked Aiel’s “What shall I do, Lightstone-Bearer?” “Is Lak – ‘Dular’- with you?” “He is preparing now to go up to the Meeting Place. Shall I stop him?” “No, do not attempt it” Aiel warned “You cannot prevent him, for he wields the Bloodstone. he would kill you, or drive you mad. You may perhaps be able to delay him, but only if he is not suspicious.” “My wife, Benika, is our Healer. I will ask her to make some excuse to examine him before he goes – perhaps to see if he is fit to climb the path since he is – appears to be – so elderly. That may work.” “Aye, but do not endanger her. Can you warn the Dancers?” “Maybe. They may not be hearing my music.” “I do not understand.” “That is how they would ‘say’ it- I am used to their way of communicating. Sometimes their music – their rhythm of living – is tuned to something outside Li’is, and then I cannot reach them, But I will try to warn them.” “We have no Pass to the Dancers’ Gate” Aiel added. “I will come there with you, and the Lightstone will be your Pass. And I will prepare the Watchwards at the main gate for your coming.” “Then we shall be with you soon.” “I will look for you. Light be with you, Lightstone-Bearer.”
Aiel broke the link with Tor-Harat and briefly gave his companions the gist of their conversation. There was little comment. They were all too tense now, too tight-strung for the coming battle, to talk much. It seemed they would never reach the huge metal gates, but at last they were there, and the Watchward stepped forward, primed by the Gatekeeper, to open the gates and let them through. They rode towards the Gatehouse, a large, square, solid building made of massive blocks of greyish stone, closer in appearance to the Fortress than to the Faring Houses. Some distance from the entrance a man stood waiting for them, wearing a Priest’s robe, but with an open, sleeveless green over-robe which was the badge of office of the Gatekeeper. He was a tall burly man of middle age, his wiry dark brown hair and beard both touched with grey, his face rough-hewn but kindly. Behind him stood a woman, a comfortable-looking figure with brown hair and hazel eyes in a gentle, motherly face. Her Healer’s belt and knife showed that she must be Lady Benika, Tor-Harat’s wife. The Gatekeeper stepped forward, putting his hand on Aiel’s reins, and gazing up at the young Priest and the Lightstone. “What news?” Aiel asked. “The Dark One has gone. We could not delay him. He is on his way to the Meeting Place.” “Is there anyone with him?” Lin asked. “His servant.” “Then we must follow at once.” Aiel said. “Gatekeeper, you will show us the way?” “Yes” Tor-Harat said “but you cannot go on horseback.” He turned and signalled towards the Gatehouse, and two servants hurried out to lead away the horses and gear once the Way-Sharers had dismounted. Lady Benika spoke a blessing on them all and followed the servants back towards the Gatehouse. “Were you able to warn the Dancers?” Aiel asked the Gatekeeper, as he followed him through the beautiful gardens of the Gatehouse, which all of them were quite unable to appreciate. “I have tried, but I am not sure that they understood the nature of their danger.” “Will they know me?” the Lightstone-Bearer asked. “They will know this” Tor-Harat answered, indicating the Lightstone, ” and you by it. Aiel, is there anything I can do?” “You can pray for us, Gatekeeper, and for the Dancers. Plead with Light for us – you and your house.” “We will” Tor-Harat promised, then “See – there is the Dancers’ Gate.”
Ahead of them they could see another pair of the ancient metal gates, and the beginning of the snake-like path up to the Meeting Place. Aiel drew a deep breath. There was no turning back now. But that was a foolish thought, because there had never been any possibility of turning back, nor would he, the Lightstone-Bearer, have wished to. He looked round at his companions, saw the maidens, pale but resolute, and Lin, his face set in grim determination, hand poised over the True Sword. The Gatekeeper was also looking at them all, his face showing kindly concern. Aiel felt as he had at the very beginning, when his father had read the Secret Word to him, that his feet were set on a path he had not chosen, and he had no power to alter it. He was not afraid for himself. His one concern was to complete the task Light had appointed for him. He felt a strange stillness – almost a peace – at the heart of himself. Tor-Harat came with them as far as the Dancers’ Gate. The Watchward listened intently as Tor-Harat explained the situation to him, and ordered him to let no other pass that way. Then the Gatekeeper, his face grave, turned to Aiel, laid his hands on Aiel’s shoulders, and looked into his face. For a moment their Perceptions meshed, and Aiel felt the Gatekeeper’s feelings for him; brotherhood, loving concern, compassion. He felt Tor-Harat’s blessing before the other spoke the words. “Go in Light, Lightstone-Bearer. Go in Light, all of you. I will pray for you. And I will send out the Thought-without-Words, so that all the Priesthood of Li’is stands with you in prayer.” Aiel looked at the Priest-Gatekeeper. “Aye” he said soberly “Pray for us, my Brother-in-Light – as you have never prayed before. We need the support of all Light’s Children in this thing that lies before us.” The Lightstone lay quietly gleaming on his breast as he turned from Tor-Harat and led the Way-Sharers through the Dancers’ Gate and on to the narrow winding path that led to the Meeting Place.
Aiel led, Lin, with drawn sword, guarded the rear, Arentha and Krystha walked in the middle. The path was too narrow for more than one, and it worried Lin. It was too good a place for an ambush. They moved quickly and quietly, keeping silence not only for the sake of concealment, but because the task before them was a heavy weight on all their hearts. There was no sign of any Child of Night on all the mountain, but there were signs of the Black Piper’s activity as they neared the Meeting Place. The air was strangely still and unnaturally dark over the rocky shelf. They reached the Meeting Place and slipped into the concealment of some of the large boulders that were scattered across its surface. “Lin, Krystha, stay here and keep watch.” Aiel ordered in a whisper. He slipped off the carrying case for his harp, and took the instrument out. At that very moment he heard a faint sound, growing louder and clearer as he listened. It was the music of Lak’s pipe, and the sound chilled him. The music of the Black Piper was not the ugly cacophony he had expected; indeed, it had a strange, eerie beauty. But it was a beauty like Si-Mara’s, that was cold, and deadly, and only a snare to draw one into Darkness. To Aiel, Priest of Light, it was a painful sound, so that even physically he responded, with creeping flesh and teeth set on edge. Peering over the boulders they saw Lak, in his own form now, the pipe to his lips. The Dancers surrounded him; graceful, shimmering flame-shapes, blue-green with a heart of light, and twice as tall as a man. Even in the urgency of the Way they could not help but wonder at the Dancers. But the sky above Lak was darkening, and in the darkness was another Darkness. Strange, amorphous shapes, like a thickening of the gloomy air, but with a life of their own, writhed above Lak’s head. Sliding down the darkened sky, they formed into another shape, echoing and mocking the Dancers they confronted. These flames were dark, like columns of soot, not softly shimmering but shot with angry sparks of red and flashes like white lightning. Aiel thought of his father’s words, and knew what they were. “The Night Lords!” he murmured “Black Dancers, corrupted by the Great Darkness..”
He dared wait no longer. “Arentha, come!” he whispered, longing to be able to leave her there, in comparative safety, but knowing that her voice was part of his weaponry. As they stepped out of hiding, the Lightstone flung a shield of light around them. Into Aiel’s Perception came, untaught, another melody, one that swept out of his thought and through his fingertips to the strings of the harp. And instantly Arentha was singing with him, not picking up the melody from him, he knew, but Light, because the blending of voice and music was too perfect to be anything of man’s making. Nor did it seem strange to him that the words she was singing were neither in the Old Tongue, nor the common speech of Li’is, but in another language that he had never heard. It might have been some language of Ma’al, but it seemed to Aiel too beautiful to be a tongue of that dark world. Lin and Krystha watched as Aiel and Arentha walked out towards Lak. The Light-Shield around them seemed so insubstantial a thing to protect them from such Darkness. “But the weakest of Light” Lin told himself, recalling a truth he had heard times without number from the Book of Light ” is stronger than the strongest of Darkness.” He glanced at Krystha; she had drawn her little Healer’s knife and held it tightly in her hand. Her eyes were wide as she watched the scene before her. Lin knew she was afraid for Arentha, afraid for all of them, as he was. He reached out and took her free hand, as much because he needed comfort himself as to comfort her. But he did not for a moment relax his guard, his eyes sweeping the Meeting Place for signs of danger.
The Night Lords were now pressing in on the Dancers, bright flame and dark smoke mingling in a silent, awesome battle. The Dancers writhed and twisted as if in pain, the Night Lords towered over them, spiralling up into the heavy sky. Between the Dark Lords and Lak’s music of Darkness, the Dancers were besieged. For a while it would seem they would go down before the Darkness, and all Li’is with them But as Aiel and Arentha moved towards the battle across the Meeting Place, carrying with them the harmonies and empowering of Light, the soot-black flames began to waver and withdraw, while those Dancers that could reach him rallied to Aiel. Lin, watching from outside the combat, saw the battle lines forming; the Night Lords clustered round Lak, drawing strength from his music and the Bloodstone, while the Dancers stood with Aiel, sustained by the music of Light, and the Lightstone. Aiel himself was unaware of the exact parameters of the battle, knowing himself to be there only as a channel of Light, his only duty obedience to Light. Faint echoes of the cosmic battle rang in his Perception, sounds, thoughts and emotions that he could not name or understand. As he and Arentha moved steadfastly on, bringing the music of Light, the figure of the Black Piper seemed to waver before them. For a moment Aiel thought that perhaps he had defeated his enemy, but suddenly the black-clad figure vanished, and in its place stood – Arentha, holding out entreating arms to Aiel, and her other self! Arentha – the real Arentha- cried out in fear, stepping back and away – and out of the protecting Light-Shield. At once the Bloodstone on the false Arentha’s hand flashed deadly fire towards her. Aiel moved quickly to try to envelop her again in the Light-Shield, but succeeded only in splitting and scattering the ray. One shard of the red light struck Arentha, and though it lacked most of the Bloodstone’s power, still she fell, limply and all of a piece, like a toppled tree, to the stony floor of the Meeting Place.
The scream began in Krystha’s eyes, and before it could reach her lips, Lin’s hand was across her mouth. Gazing into her anguished eyes, he said, softly, but commandingly, “Krystha, by the mercy of Light she may live! But if we make a sound to distract Aiel or attract the enemy – then , if she is dead, she has died in vain. If Aiel fails…” he paused, because it was impossible to think of defeat. He put his other arm across Krystha’s shoulders in a comradely hug, wanting to hold her tightly but knowing he could not, and still keep his sword ready for use. “Oh, Krystha” he said, still very quietly, “I know! My heart breaks for her too. But we must be brave. Do you understand?” Tears spilled from her eyes, but she nodded, and he took his hand from her mouth. Fighting back his own anguish for her, and for Arentha, he whispered, almost fiercely, “I am proud of my Sword-Brother!”
Aiel had felt that his soul ripped apart as Arentha fell, but there was no time even to see if she were alive or dead, no time to mourn. His eyes filled with tears, but he shook his head to dash them away, and his fingers did not stumble on the harp strings as he strode inexorably onward, impelled by the awful necessity of his task. The Shape-Changer held Arentha’s shape a few seconds more, but the lovely face was contorted by Lak’s own evil grin. Aiel still confronted Lak, though the torment of seeing his evil enemy counterfeiting the form of Arentha, when all his own heart seemed to lie in pieces on the Meeting Place with her stricken body, was terrible. It was almost a relief when the graceful form wavered into another.This time it appeared to be Lin who stood before him, drawn sword in hand and stern warning in his eyes, but Aiel ignored this phantom and went on playing the Light-sent music. Quickly Lak changed shape again, appearing now as Arnath, and then, when Aiel was still undeterred, the Black Piper made one final change. Flowing outlines coalesced into the figure of a woman. She was small-built, fine-boned, with delicate features, large hazel-green eyes, and a cloud of soft brown hair. She smiled sweetly at Aiel, and down at the newborn babe in her arms. And this time Aiel cried out in mingled grief and anger, for the figure before him was that of Elandra, his long-dead mother. This desecration of her memory fuelled his resolve, and he cried out, in a loud, authoritative voice, “It is enough!”
Lin, watching, breathed a silent prayer for his friend, and for Arentha, if she still lived, lying unprotected there. As if in answer, one of the Dancers near Aiel moved back towards the fallen girl. “Krystha, look!” Lin murmured. The Dancer hovered over Arentha, then descended, wrapping her in its own sparkling substance, obviously protecting her. “The Dancer guards her!” Krystha whispered.”Lin, would it do that if she – if she were dead?” “I do not think so.” he answered. “Oh, Krystha, there is yet hope!” The Dancers were pressing forward now with Aiel, except the one that guarded Arentha. Their tortured twisting and writhing had ceased; they were strong and tall and beautiful, and before them, and the Lightstone, Lak and the Night Lords were falling back. Now the dark flames wavered, and lengthened into ragged, sooty streamers, that suddenly shot upwards into the dark and thickened sky, leaving behind a thought-sound that echoed in Aiel’s Perception, a scream of rage and fear that somehow carried in it a threat. Yet Aiel knew that threat was empty in the face of Light. And with their going, the darkness and heaviness lifted from the sky above the Meeting Place, and light broke through. Lin exclaimed, though still softly, to Krystha “Aiel is winning!” Lak, abandoned by his dark allies, had retreated before Aiel until he was halted by the rock wall that backed the Meeting Place. Screaming terrible curses at the Lightstone-Bearer, he threw ray after ray from the Bloodstone at the unyielding Light-Shield. Aiel, knowing that Light spoke through him, cried again “Enough! It is time for the judgement of Light!” Trusting Light, he stood undismayed as the Light-Shield disappeared, pouring back into the Stone from which it had come. Aiel raised both arms and found himself speaking terrible, thunderous words in a tongue he had never learned.
Lin and Krystha, though, gasped in amazement and fear as the Light-Shield was withdrawn, leaving Aiel apparently unprotected. They heard Lak’s cackling crow of triumph as he raised his hand again. Krystha hid her face in Lin’s shoulder as the Bloodstone’s ray shot out towards Aiel, who stood unmoving. The Lightstone seemed to draw the ray, which struck fully on it without harming either Aiel or the Lightstone. It was instantly thrown back upon itself, travelling so fast that Lak had almost no time to realise what was happening. At the last moment he lifted his hands as if to defend himself, giving a long wail, and then there was a great red flash as the ray struck the Bloodstone. A roaring whirlwind swept up around Lak, carrying dust and debris with it, concealing the dark figure in a whirling mist. Then, as suddenly, all was still and quiet again. Of the Black Piper and the Bloodstone, there was no sign at all. Aiel stood still, dazed, unsure. The end of the thing had come so suddenly that he could not quite believe it was all over. Then into his Perception came a Presence that overwhelmed him; love, joy, understanding, compassion, flooded over him, and he knew that he had kept faith with Light and that Light rejoiced in his obedience. He fell to his knees, not from weakness or fear but because, before that Presence, he could not do otherwise. Lin started up, anxious that Aiel, exhausted from the battle and heartbroken for Arentha, was about to collapse. But then he saw his friend’s face. It was calm and radiant, and as Lin watched, Aiel’s arms lifted again in joyous praise.
The Presence withdrew, and Aiel rose to his feet and turned towards Arentha, knowing what to do for her, and that all would be well. Krystha, after a quick glance round to ensure there was no danger, slipped from hiding and ran towards her sister. Lin followed, still with sword in hand, though the danger seemed over. As Aiel reached Arentha, the Dancer which had been guarding her drew back. He felt, without surprise, its though touch his. “Aiel, Lightstone-Bearer, the maiden lives. The Lightstone will heal her.” “I know.” Aiel answered, with deep certainty. He knelt and lifted Arentha into his arms. She was pale and limp and heavily unconscious, but she breathed. A shadow fell across them and he looked up into Krystha’s face, her eyes wide and tear-filled, her face so pale that the golden dusting of freckles stood out almost black against the pallor. Gently he spoke into her distress, as if he, not she, were the Healer. “Do not be afraid for her, Krystha. She is alive, and the Lightstone will heal her.” He bent over Arentha and laid the Lightstone to her brow. As the soft light flowed over her sister, Krystha stood taut and trembling. Lin, aching for her, put one arm round her, and felt her lean against him as if she were exhausted. The light withdrew, and they stared at Arentha, willing her back to consciousness. The colour had returned to her face, but for a moment she lay still, eyes closed, as if she would not waken. Then her breast rose and fell with a great sigh, and her eyes opened, and gazed up into Aiel’s face. He tried to smile, but despite all his knowing that she would recover, his eyes still swam with tears. “Oh, Aiel!” Arentha gasped, “Is it over?” He made a strange little sound, part sob, part exclamation, and gathered her tightly to him. Lin felt Krystha sway against him, and looked down at her in alarm. For a few moments, it seemed very likely that she might faint, and in his concern for her, he relaxed his vigilance. And that was a deadly mistake.
As Krystha recovered herself, straightened and smiled reassuringly at Lin, he had a sudden, instinctive sense of danger. Letting go of Krystha, he spun round. Aiel was still crouched over Arentha, hugging her close, and from the shadow of some nearby rocks a black-clad figure, a knife in its outstretched hand, was in the very act of hurling itself at Aiel’s unprotected back. Lin gave a cry of warning and, thankful that he had not sheathed his sword, leapt between Aiel and his attacker, thrusting Aiel aside. He knew he was too close to avoid the knife himself; his friend’s life was his only concern. The Child of Night, unable to stop his headlong leap, impaled himself on Lin’s uplifted sword and bore Lin down under him. Lin recognised the snarling face, twisted in rage and bafflement and pain. It was Soom, the beggar, the servant of Lak and Si-Mara. His eyes glared madly into Lin’s as his hand plunged downward with the knife. “I take. ..you…with…me!” he gasped. But he was wrong. By what miracle Lin did not know, the knife plunged, not into his body, but his arm, at the shoulder. He felt Soom pull the knife downward, with all his dying strength, so that it grated on the bone. There was a moment’s numbness, then a searing, tearing pain as the blade ripped through flesh and muscle, a wetness as blood burst from the ravaged flesh. Lin heard Krystha scream his name, then there was a terrible noise in Soom’s throat and the raging face went blank, the eyes rolled up, a little foamy blood trickled from the corner of the slack mouth, and he fell heavily on top of Lin, crushing him into the stony ground. Lin’s head was spinning, he could hardly breathe for the weight of Soom’s corpse, and his left arm was a raging fire of pain.
Aiel, stunned at the speed of events, flung aside with Arentha in Lin’s frantic rush to save him, scarcely comprehended for a few vital moments what was happening. When he scrambled to his feet, pulling Arentha with him, it was only in time to hear Krystha’s scream, and to see, with horror, Lin fall under Soom’s knife. “No!” Aiel cried, in agony, “Oh, Sweet Light, no! Lin! Lin, my brother!” He ran to where the two men lay, with Krystha right behind him, and pulled at the beggar’s body, distraught with grief and fear for his friend, desperate to free Lin and see if he were alive or dead. Krystha joined him, then Arentha, and together they rolled the body away, too concerned for Lin to feel any repugnance for their grisly task. His first sight of Lin shocked Aiel with despair. The Swordsman lay quite still, pale-faced, unmoving, drenched with blood. Aiel gave a groan and dropped to his friend’s side, lifting his head. “Lin?” he said, in a soft, miserable voice, then, more sharply, “Lin!” Krystha too knelt, holding back her tears, feeling for Lin’s heartbeat, while Arentha bent anxiously over them. Then, to Aiel’s unspeakable relief, his friend stirred, and moaned, and opened grey eyes that were clouded with pain, but alive.. “Aiel” Lin whispered ” I failed you. I am sorry.” Aiel stared at him. “Failed me? Lin, you saved my life!” Lin shook his head, grimacing at the pain the slight movement cost him. “He – should not have – got so far. I let – my guard fall.” “Hush!” Aiel reprimanded him gently, “Only live, Lin!”
Krystha had been gently searching for Lin’s wound; he was covered with blood, Soom’s as well as his own, and she was almost unable to believe that only his arm was hurt. That was bad enough, and she knew, gazing at the ruin of his upper arm, that she must stop the bleeding quickly, or even now he might die, from loss of blood. But it seemed a miracle indeed that he had escaped a blow to the heart. “Lin, Light was surely with you!” she exclaimed. “It is his arm, Aiel, but how he was not killed outright…” she broke off, and began gently to raise Lin’s arm to help lessen the bleeding. “I know it!” Lin murmured, “How it was only my arm that – aah!” He gave a sharp hiss of breath that showed how Krystha’s careful touch pained his wounded arm. She looked into his eyes, and said, “Lin, I do not want to hurt you. But I must stop the bleeding, Sword-Brother, or you might yet die of Soom’s blade.” He nodded painfully, and said, “Do what you must, Krystha. And – do not leave my sword behind.” “I will not” she answered briefly, and bent to her task. Aiel held his friend’s head and shoulders gently on his knees while Krystha, aided by Arentha, tended Lin’s arm. She crumbled herbs that would help to staunch the bleeding, and others to cleanse the wound, and dusted them along it, constantly wiping away the blood with clean cloths, for there was no water on the Meeting Place to bathe the wound. Then it was necessary to wrap the arm very tightly to stop the bleeding, and there was no way of doing it gently. Long before Krystha had finished, Lin had slipped into unconsciousness, his head lolling back against Aiel’s knees. Aiel looked down at the Swordsman’s face, which looked a greyish-white beneath the tan, and asked Krystha, who was wiping her hands on a rag. “Is it finished, now?” Her face was quiet and serious. “We must get him to the Gatehouse, as soon as may be. That will hold back the blood”, she indicated the wrappings on Lin’s arm, already beginning to darken with oozing blood, “but it is not good to keep the arm tied so for long. It can cause harm. The wound must be sealed, to let it heal properly. And without water to wash away the blood, I cannot see clearly what harm has been done. It is a deep wound, and ragged. The knife may have cut the strings of Lin’s arm – pray Light it has not”, she added quickly. “But it is not his sword arm.” Krystha rose to her feet, and said “There is one thing more I must do for my Sword-Brother.” She turned to the corpse which lay sprawled nearby, the True Sword through it. Before Aiel could realise what she meant to do, or protest that it was no task for her, she had grasped the sword-hilt in both hands, placed one small foot firmly on the body, and, with a great heave, extracted the sword. Arentha gasped, and turned her head away, and Aiel stared at Krystha with mingled admiration and horror. She brought the sword back and began to clean the bloody blade. Aiel saw, in her eyes and the twist of her mouth, that it had not been as easy a thing to do as she had pretended. Feeling his eyes on her, she looked up at him and said, “I promised Lin, my Sword-Brother, not to leave his sword behind.” Aiel nodded to show he understood, and said, “Lin chose his Sword-Brother well, Krystha.”
He looked around him. The Dancers were still clustered round, but he was not, for the moment, concerned with them. They were safe now. His thought was for how he could bring Lin down from the Meeting Place. He could not carry his friend alone. With the maidens’ help he might manage, though the path was narrow, steep and twisting, and once they reached the Dancers’ Gate the Watchward would surely help them. But what if there were other dangers on the way? Aiel realised that a Dancer was hovering before him, its thought impinging on his Perception , and opened his mind to it. “Lightstone-Bearer”, the light-being ‘said’, “we will carry you all to the Gatehouse. Have no fear for the Swordsman. One of us has already gone to tell the Healer her help is needed.” Aiel felt relief and gratitude and let it flow out of his mind to the Dancer. “When you are ready.” came the Dancer’s thought again. Aiel turned to Krystha, who had finished cleaning Lin’s sword and slid it into its sheath, and Arentha. “The Dancers have said they will carry us down to the Gatehouse. When we are ready…is it safe to move Lin?” “Yes- but how will the Dancers take us, Aiel?” The Dancer itself answered her, spreading its thought to all of them to explain. “We will wrap you in ourselves and – go. We do not need to move through space or time. You will be there instantly.” “Lin is not conscious.” Krystha said aloud. “The Swordsman will be safe with us. He does not need to be conscious. Are you ready, Lightstone-Bearer?” Aiel was not ready. He was really rather afraid at the thought of being wrapped inside a Dancer and transported by a means he could not understand. But he could not let his fear keep Lin from the care he needed. “Yes, I am ready.” he said.
He saw three more Dancers, one hovering near each of the others, and hoped that the girls were not as nervous as he was. The Dancer that had been ‘speaking’ to them came towards him, and Aiel took a deep breath and held it, somehow fearing that in the substance of the Dancer he would be unable to breathe. It was so close now that he saw everything through the blue-green haze of its body. Aiel closed his eyes – it was more than he could bear to keep them open- and waited for it to begin. What would he feel? Would it be smooth silence, or a dizzying swoop through nothingness? He could hear the blood pounding in his ears. And then he heard another sound. “Aiel! All is well. Open your eyes, now.” It was Tor-Harat’s voice, and he opened his eyes, and saw that he was standing just outside the Gatehouse, and the Gatekeeper was facing him. Aiel felt ashamed that his fear had been so obvious, but Tor-Harat grinned, and said, “I felt like that too, the first time I travelled with the Dancers. Aye, and worse! It is nothing to shame you, Aiel.” Then the grin went from his face, and he looked soberly into Aiel’s and said, “There is nothing to shame you at all, Aiel, Lightstone-Bearer, Defeater of Darkness.” For a moment he looked as if he might weep, and then, to Aiel’s utter consternation, the Gatekeeper dropped to one knee before him. “Tor-Harat- please-please do not do that!” Aiel stammered, discomfited. “It was – I did not do anything. It was not I, but Light. I was only the channel through which Light worked.” Tor-Harat rose, and took him gently by the shoulders. “Only the channel? Aiel, your obedience has saved the Dancers, and our world, from Darkness. Give the glory to Light, by all means, but do not refuse the honour that Light intends for you.”