DANCE THE DARKNESS DOWN

Chapters 9 and 10

Chapter 9

As Aiel and Lin entered the Eating House, they saw that though it was not yet busy, the maidens were not alone. A dark-haired man sat at one of the tables near theirs, and his companion, a woman in a wine-coloured cloak, its hood still pulled over her head, had turned a little to look at the sisters. After a moment she said, in a soft, Eastern-accented voice, “Ah, we shall not have to eat alone. Have you travelled far, maidens? And surely not unaccompanied?” It seemed a pleasant, innocent enough enquiry, but Aiel was uneasy, half-Perceiving something Dark, yet not knowing yet what it was. It was Krystha who answered, being cautious but not discourteous in her reply. “No, we are not alone. We are awaiting our companions.” Lin’s attention was on Arentha. There was a tautness in her body as though she were – no, not afraid, but poised, waiting for something. And on Arentha’s face was a kind of bewilderment, as though she heard something she should have understood, but could not.

The woman asked again, “But where are you travelling from? I would wager you are from the South – from the City, perhaps?” Krystha answered, truthfully if evasively, “No, we are not from the City. You are very curious, Lady – some might say discourteous.” Aiel lingered in the doorway, signalling Lin to do the same. He was curious to hear the woman’s answer. “Your pardon, maidens, I meant no harm. It is just that you seemed familiar to me. I have friends in the City, and I thought I might know your father – or your mother.” There was a change in her tone as she spoke the last words that set Aiel’s Perception stirring, sent Lin’s hand to his sword-hilt, and caused Arentha to gaze at the woman with a wild, wide stare. Krystha, though seemed unmoved. “Our father does not go to the City. And we have no mother.” The woman gave an odd, short little laugh. “No mother? Are you sure of that – Arentha, Krystha?” She lifted her arm and pushed back her hood. Aiel gasped. The face that she revealed was, allowing for the extra years, almost the duplicate of Arentha’s. The same luminous dark brown eyes, the same lovely oval, the same delicately formed features, under the same glossy fall of dark hair. But after the first shock, Aiel began to see the things that made it not Arentha’s face at all – the lips grown taut and pinched, the little lines caused by dark emotions, the haunted look in the brown eyes. And Aiel now saw clearly that a dark mist clung to her, and her companion. Arentha cried out “Mother! Oh, I knew…” and could not finish, but fell silent , and reached out a hand which the woman ignored.

“Come!” Aiel told Lin, and they hurried to the girls’ table. “Lady” Aiel said to Alira ” You are disturbing these maidens, who are under our protection.” Alira, not yet realising that he was a Priest, since he wore no robe, answered him scornfully, “Have I not the right to speak to my own daughters?” Lin said “You have not used that right since they were scarcely more than babes. It seems to me that you no longer have it.” The dark man, Alira’s companion, who had been still and silent until now, slid to his feet. “You are insulting a Lady, Swordsman” he said, his tone urbane but menacing . His hand hovered over his sword. Aiel stepped forward and said “In the Name of Light, I ask you both, go on your way and let these maidens be.” The man’s long, pale eyes flicked towards Aiel’s face. He saw the young Priest’s eyes, and gave a mirthless grin. “What Priest, now, goes disguised?” he asked. “In any case, we serve another master, and do not recognise your authority.” His arrogance did not affect Aiel. Slipping his hand inside his clothing, Aiel pulled out the Lightstone , and said “But my authority you must recognise, Child of Night. For I am the Lightstone-Bearer!” He slipped the Lightstone free of concealment, and it lay blazing on his breast. The dark man cowered back before its light, and Alira stood frozen. Lin took Krystha and Arentha from their seats and placed himself with drawn sword between them and any danger.

Aiel set his Perception first on Alira. He had to know why she had made her claim on the girls. For their sake he had hoped it might be some remaining spark of love for them, however dark and perverted it might have become, that moved Alira. If she had any such feelings, though, he could not find them. Only Darkness and – surprisingly- overwhelming fear were in her mind. It was not fear of Aiel, for her spirit was defiant of him. Yet even that defiance, he felt, was born of fear. Another’s will – her companion’s, Aiel guessed- held Alira’s will in bondage. Even with the Lightstone’s aid, he could not reach her true feelings towards her daughters. They lay behind a closed door in her mind which even the Lightstone could open only a crack, and which was immediately slammed shut again. Strangely, Aiel felt nothing towards the woman who has abandoned his beloved Arentha but a strange pity. Withdrawing his Perception, he offered her the Choice of Light, but she answered “I cannot. I have made my choice.”

Turning his Perception on the man, Aiel was more than ever sure that here was the source of Alira’s fear and bondage. It was this Child of Night who had exploited Alira’s recognition of the girls. He would have used her to lure them for the uses of the Children of Night, and Aiel’s soul shuddered as he thought of the girl in the Ruins and what might have happened to Arentha and Krystha if the trick had succeeded. The man’s mind fought his Perception all the time, and Aiel knew that it was useless to offer him the Choice of Light. He did so anyway, but the man’s only reply was to spit on the floor at Aiel’s feet. “Then go, both of you, in the Name of Light!” Aiel commanded them, and added, because of Alira, “And, unless you turn to Light, make no attempt to contact these maidens again, nor send others to do so. Go your way!” As they turned away, there was a wail from Arentha. “No! Oh, Mother…” For an instant, it seemed Alira’s step faltered, but then she walked on without turning her head. Aiel had always known how she would choose. The deep, dark bond between her and her lover was too strong for her to break. Arentha would still have rushed after the couple, but Lin caught and held her. Krystha tried to reason with her sister. “Arentha, that is not our mother! Our mother is dead, and another spirit lives in her body! Arentha!”

Arentha, though, was frantic with loss. She turned on Aiel with such vehemence that Lin could not believe it. She had been so caring and concerned for Aiel, burdened with the Lightstone Way, that he hardly recognised her now. “You sent her away! You would not even let us speak to her! We could have turned her back to Light, but you would not try -she is our mother, and you have sent her away from us forever!” Aiel, his heart aching for Arentha’s misery, said gently and sadly, “Arentha, I did try. I offered her the Choice of Light, but she would not take it.” Before Arentha could say more, Lin said, “Let us go back to the Faring House. This is too public a place for such discussions!” It was an unhappy group that crossed silently to the Faring House and followed Aiel into the Quiet Room that Varn had lent them. When the door was locked behind them, Aiel began, “Arentha…” But she would not let him speak. To all of them her anger, because she was always so gentle, was frightening. It spoke of her deep distress and loss and pain. “Why, why did you send her away? If you had let us – let me – talk to her, we could have turned her back, and she would have taken the Choice of Light. But you would not give us the chance – and now we shall never have it again!”

“Arentha!” Lin spoke, his voice commanding “Let Aiel speak – let him explain.” He did not want to speak so roughly to her, but he had to give Aiel the chance to break through to her. Aiel said, “Arentha, I did all that I could to turn her to Light! But that man – her lover – has her completely under his domination. She would have obeyed him, and followed Darkness, even though…” Aiel broke off, unable to continue, to tell her what the man had planned for them, unwilling to expose Arentha to this last blow. Aiel and Lin had almost forgotten Krystha, in their concern for Arentha. Now, though, Krystha asked, in a tight, careful little voice, “Aiel- even though – what? Do not hide anything from us. Why did she want us to acknowledge her?” Aiel knew, by the way she put the question, that Krystha, the Healer, asked it for Arentha’s sake. It was as if Krystha told him that to heal Arentha, he must first hurt her with the truth – the truth Krystha already understood – about their mother. So he answered, making no attempt to veil the truth or soften his answer. “She was trying to lure you because the man commanded her to – because he wanted you for dark purposes. I do not know if she had thought beyond that, but Alira had no thought for you. To satisfy that man, she would have let you become victims of the Children of Night. You are right, Krystha, it is another spirit that controls Alira’s. Only Light can turn her back into your mother – and she refused the Choice of Light.”

Arentha had turned so white that Aiel almost thought his words had killed her. She gave an almost animal wail of despair, and sank down onto a bench, unmoving. Aiel, almost as pale as she, seated himself beside her and held her, trying to comfort her. Lin felt sick, and bitterly angry. He wanted to howl like a hound – the thought of such betrayal as Alira’s of her daughters was beyond his comprehension. He too had thought of the girl in the Ruins, and suspected that Krystha must be remembering too. He looked at her, and saw such a bleak, hurt look on her face that it stabbed through him like a sword blow. He knew now that beneath her brave, defiant outer shell she was as vulnerable as quiet, gentle Arentha and must be suffering as much. “Oh, Krystha” he said gently, holding out his hands to her, “I am sorry that you should be hurt so.” The hands she placed in his were shaking and icy-cold, and she begged him, in a painful whisper, “Lin, Sword-Brother…help me!” Lin hugged her close against him, trying to still her trembling. He heard her draw a deep, shuddering breath, and then she rested her head against him, holding tightly to him, and gave way to bitter sobbing. Lin had never felt such hurt and anger. He was Krystha’s Sword-Brother, but all that meant, his own abilities, were useless now. There was no physical enemy to fight for her, and his strength, agility and sword-skill could not protect her from this bitter pain. That something could hurt her so, and he be powerless to prevent it, was more than he could bear. He knew that it was more than the understanding and friendship that had grown between them that made him feel like this. He knew, now, that he was in love with Krystha, and, loving her, must hurt with her too. And, having once realised his love for her, he could not remember that it had not always existed.

Aiel, meanwhile, found Arentha unreachable. She did not speak, or weep. She had made no sound at all save that one despairing wail. She sat as cold and motionless as stone, staring straight ahead. He looked round for Krystha’s help and saw her in Lin’s arms, weeping as if she would never stop. Aiel was glad that one sister, at least, had found some release, but frightened for Arentha. It had, all the time, been Krystha who found it hard to express her pain, or let herself cry. Arentha had been open in her emotions. Now she was locked up inside herself, and Aiel did not know how to help her. He called her name softly, then louder, but there was no response. Lin, hearing Aiel call to Arentha, looked up and saw the still, unresponsive figure. He saw that Arentha’s reaction was similar to the way that Krystha had reacted to the death of the girl in the Ruins of the Dark City. Maybe Krystha, a Healer and Arentha’s sister, sharing her deep pain, could help her. Krystha’s sobbing had slowed now, and she was no longer clinging to him, but rather leaning into his embrace as though she were very weary. He bent his head again so that his face almost brushed her shining hair, and called her name. Krystha raised to his a face so blotched and swollen with crying that he felt love and pity tear him. Still, he held back his emotions, and said, very gently, “Krystha, I am sorry, I know you need time to deal with this thing. But we cannot reach Arentha. She will not answer.”

Krystha brushed away her tears and turned her head to look at her sister. Then she moved out of Lin’s supporting arms and went to Aiel and Arentha, Lin following. Aiel looked into her face with concern, and said “Krystha – how is it with you?” “Well enough, for now. While there is work for me to do” she answered, her voice husky with weeping. “Arentha will not answer me” Aiel said. “Is it the shock?” Krystha shook her head. “It is more that that, Aiel. She has lost her dream.” “Her dream? Your mother?” Krystha said sadly “She has always hoped – believed – that one day we would find her, and that when we did she would return to Light, and us. When we were children, Arentha used to tell me stories of how it would be. She had persuaded herself that – that Alira had been tricked into leaving us -that she was somewhere out in Li’is, longing to return to us, but too ashamed. That if we could only find her and speak to her, she would come back. It was a dream, but it sustained her, Aiel.” “And now all that she hoped for has proved false.” Lin said, soberly. “She is so trusting, so gentle!” Krystha exclaimed. ” I – I am my father’s daughter, and do not give my trust, or my belief, so easily. But Arentha- and yet it was those very things in our mother that first led her into Darkness- she was so naive, so Merhaun my father has said. Oh, Arentha!” She bent to embrace, then examine her sister, but Arentha was still unmoving. Krystha straightened again, and said, “It is an ill of the spirit, Aiel. Not I, but Light, can heal this.”

Aiel nodded, and laid the Lightstone to Arentha’s brow. Lin, aware of the tension still in Krystha, reached out and took her hand in his, and she gave him a glance and a wan half-smile for the comfort, before she looked back to Arentha. The Lightstone poured its soft flood of light over the immobile girl, seeming to hold her in its embrace. Aiel, Lin and Krystha watched hopefully for some sign, but the light withdrew again into the Stone and still Arentha had not moved. Then, after a moment, her brown eyes blinked, and lost their distant stare, and focussed, with some bewilderment, on Aiel and the soft glow of the Stone on his breast. Aiel made the little Priestly gesture that offered his Perception, and she gave herself to its power. There was nothing for Lin and Krystha to see; Aiel’s gentle cupping of Arentha’s face, the meeting of blue and brown gaze. Yet within their merged minds Aiel – or not Aiel, but the power of Light working through him- was touching her need, healing hurts, freeing, soothing, bringing peace. When Aiel withdrew his Perception, Arentha’s eyes were instantly full of tears. She turned to her sister, holding out imploring arms, and the two clung together like children in their grief. For grief it surely was. Aiel said to Lin, in a low voice, “They must mourn. Their mother is dead.” “It went deep with Arentha?” Lin asked, in concern. “Very deep” Aiel answered, and Lin knew he could say no more. The young Priest sighed, then “I wish there had been another way to deal with this, that I need not have sent Alira away” he said “but she would not take the Choice of Light, and I could not leave her free to follow us, and be a danger to the maidens. What else could I have done, Lin?” “Nothing.” Lin agreed, aware of his friend’s need for reassurance. “There was nothing else to be done but what you did, Aiel.” “I would have turned her to Light if I could” Aiel said, almost as if he had not heard Lin “but she was completely overshadowed by the Darkness in that man. She would have given them up without a thought, Lin – her own daughters- at his word. And I thought of the girl in the Ruins, and I – it was hard for me, Lin.” “She was corrupted by him indeed” Lin said quietly.

“When – when my mother died” Aiel said, and it was the first time Lin had ever heard him mention the subject of his own volition, ” it was a terrible loss to me, but it is worse for Arentha and Krystha. I at least knew that my mother and the babe had touched Light – that some day we should all be together in the Joyous Place. But for them – Alira is dead, yet she lives. I have forbidden her deliberately to approach them – unless she turns back to Light, though I see little hope of that – but still, they may meet again by chance, some day.” “If they do, at least the maidens will be prepared for what she is” Lin comforted him. Aiel said, and Lin knew it was hurting him. “Arentha asked me why I had sent her mother away- but I had to, Lin! She was a danger to them.” “Aiel, there was no other choice, once she refused Light. I am sure that Krystha, at least, understood that.” “Then I hope – I pray Light- that Arentha understands too.” “She does.” came Arentha’s voice quietly, from behind them. The young men turned, startled, but Lin caught the look of relief on Aiel’s face. The sisters were standing hand in hand, Arentha a little in front. Their faces bore the signs of their weeping, and to Lin they looked like lost children. Arentha said to Aiel, “Aiel, I…I said some terrible things to you….” Her voice caught on a sob, and Aiel said, in soft protest, “Ah, Arentha, no….” Arentha, to Aiel’s amazement and joy, suddenly flung her arms around his neck, crying, “Oh, Aiel, I am so sorry!” “Arentha, you were hurt, distraught!” he exclaimed, hugging her in token of his forgiveness, if any were needed. “Dear Aiel, you have such burdens to carry” Arentha went on “If my unkindness has added to them, please forgive me. I would not wish to hurt you.” “If there is anything to forgive, I forgive it, gladly.” Aiel told her.

Arentha, suddenly aware of her own impulsive gesture, coloured, and took her arms from his neck. Aiel, though, caught one of her hands as she lowered it, and pressed it against his cheek. Arentha looked questioningly at him , and met his eyes-not his Perception, but his heart. As if something flashed between them, she lowered her eyes a moment, raised them to Aiel’s again, and then laid her hand, which he had released, back against his cheek in a tender gesture. And that was all, yet Lin knew that something was settled between Aiel and Arentha. He wished it might have been as easy for him, with Krystha. How he might persuade that volatile maiden that he loved her, and how, seemingly impossible, to make her fall in love with him too, were problems to which he could not begin to imagine the answer. Aiel asked, “Arentha, Krystha, how is it with you now? Do you need anything? Shall I call the Healer?” Arentha said, “It will be well enough with us, for now. There is still the Way. Perhaps later, when that is done, we shall need to weep again. It is hard to lose a mother. To lose her the second time…” she broke off and swallowed hard, then said , resolutely, “We will not speak of it again.” Krystha said, “Light be praised that you and Lin were with us. It would have been ill for us if we had ever met her alone.” None of them wanted to think of that, though, and Aiel said “Best to forget what might have happened, Krystha.”

There was a knock at the door, and when Aiel cautiously unlocked and opened it, Varn came in. “Aiel – is something wrong? They said there was some trouble in the Eating House, and you did not stay. Is it well with you?” Aiel answered for them all. “We met with someone who tried to trick the maidens by claiming an old acquaintance with them. She would have betrayed them to the Children of Night, but Lin and I came in time. They were hurt by the deception, and frightened, so we came back here.” Varn was dismayed at the thought of such duplicity, but thankful that Aiel and Lin had managed to protect the maidens. He asked if they needed a Healer’s care, and assured that that was not necessary, he promised to have food and drink sent over for them, and withdrew. His kindly attentions had helped to relieve some of the tension of the evening’s events, and when the meal arrived, Aiel, Arentha and Lin were able to eat, if not heartily, at least sufficient to sustain them. Krystha, though, could eat very little, saying she had a headache. She crumbled some dried herbs from her Healer’s sack and mixed them in a cup of water. Lin watched Krystha with concern as she drank the draught. She did look wan and tired. His new-found love for her made him very conscious of her; he had cared for and guarded her before as a good comrade, a Sword-Brother, but wholly her own responsibility. Now he felt that loving her made him somehow responsible for her, but also made her responsible for him. Whatever hurt her, hurt him too. Lin did not realise that he was gazing thoughtfully at her, taking in the pale, heart-shaped face, the amber-brown eyes grown big and dark with tiredness, the heavy plait of red-gold hair. Krystha looked across the table at Lin and tried to smile, but winced. The headache, Aiel thought. He was watching them both. Krystha did not look well at all, and Lin too looked strange, as if he had an ache in him. Maybe he was still thinking about Alira, and how she would have betrayed the maidens.

Aiel asked, “Krystha, would it not be best if you went to rest, you and Arentha? It has not been well with you, and you look so tired.” The girls agreed that the emotion had exhausted them, and Krystha still complained of headache. They decided to take Aiel’s advice, and as they went out to the room that had been prepared for them, Krystha paused to say quietly to Lin, “Sword-Brother, thank you for comforting me”, and was gone before he could reply. When they had left, Aiel asked, “Lin, what ails you?” “What ails me? It has been a painful evening, Aiel.” “I know. But it is more than that, Lin. Is it that you are still thinking of what might have happened to the maidens? You need to be careful of such thoughts, for they can lead to a wrong kind of anger.” Aiel persisted with his questioning, knowing that something was disturbing Lin. At last Lin answered, for the comfort of sharing his feelings, “Aiel, it is – I find myself in love with Krystha, and I do not know what to do.” Aiel was just a little alarmed. He could recall that Lin had cared for other maidens before. But Krystha was no ordinary maiden, and he knew, by what Arentha had told him about her sister, that she could be hurt much more easily than Lin might guess. Aiel thought that, considering the respect and comradeship that had been between Lin and Krystha, this time Lin’s affection was probably true. Still, to make his friend think clearly about the relationship, he said sternly, “Lin, be sure – very sure – about this. Krystha is vulnerable, for all her careless bravery. She is not one of our flirting City maidens, in and out of love in a day. I will not have her hurt for a whim, for I think that if you win her heart, it will be given forever, not to be tossed back to her again if you lose interest.”

Aiel was satisfied, then, for Lin’s response showed the reality of his feelings for Krystha. “I know it, Aiel! I have never met a maiden like Krystha, and in the beginning I never would have thought of loving her. I grew to respect and honour her as a Sword-Brother, yes. But tonight – how can I explain it to you, Aiel? I held out my arms to a wounded comrade, and found I was holding my only love. Every tear she wept cut me like a knife.” Lin looked at his friend as if bewildered by the strength of his own feelings. “Aiel, all I want is to go on loving Krystha, all my life, and for her to love me too. I want her to be my Lady, for I want her to be beside me always. But how am I to win her love? If I tell her how I feel, she is as like to think I am mocking her as to believe me.” “Lin, Krystha respects and honours you, as you say you do her. Might not her feelings also turn to love?” “I hope so.” the Swordsman murmured. “I think you must be patient, my friend, and gentle. Krystha likes and trusts you, and Arentha says her trust is not easily won.” He smiled at his friend, then sighed, “Lin, I know how it is with you. You know how I love Arentha. But for all of us such feelings must wait until the Way is finished.” “I would not let my love for her interfere with the Way” Lin agreed “but it need not prevent me from asking Light for the gift of Krystha’s heart. Is not Light the source of all love?” “Aye, and Light will keep our loves safely, till this Way is ended.” Aiel said. Comforted by the thought, the two young men went to find the room Varn had allotted them. But while Aiel, despite the day’s misfortunes, seemed to fall asleep easily and quickly, Lin lay awake for a while, exploring the excitement and joy, the doubts and fears, of his love for Krystha.

Next morning, the maidens still seemed subdued, and it was, strangely, Krystha who seemed unhappiest, though she had been the more clear sighted about her mother. Aiel, seeking to distract them, asked if there was anything they needed for their journey which they now had the opportunity to buy in the Merchant Town. Their storekeeper, Arentha, could think of nothing, but Varn, who was with them, said, “If you intend to camp out on your way to the Gatehouse, your cloaks will not be warm enough. It grows colder as you near the Meeting Place. There is a merchant nearby who sells coverings, finely-woven, very light, but warm. I would counsel you to buy some for your journey.” “That is a good thought” said Lin “we cannot risk the Way by taking a sickness through chill.” So they agreed to go to the merchant’s, but Krystha said she still felt unwell, and would not go. Lin, anxious for her, elected to stay with her, since Aiel had the Lightstone, and Varn’s guidance, and the merchant was very near. So Varn, Arentha and Aiel went off to the merchant’s booth, leaving Krystha and Lin in the Quiet Room. Krystha said, “Lin, it is kind of you to stay, but you could have gone. It will be well with me.” “Krystha, it is only Alira? You are not sick?” Lin asked. “No, it is Alira” Krystha answered, and sighed. Lin asked again, “Krystha, you said you knew and understood what Alira is, and that it was Arentha who dreamed of finding her. Why is it then that this thing seems to hurt you more than Arentha?” She looked at him for a moment, as if she decided whether to trust him, then said, “Maybe, for all I said, I had more of a share in Arentha’s dream than I knew. Maybe I had let myself hope too, Lin, though I denied it. And also, it frightens me to know that she is one half of me, and that half turned to Darkness.” “But you would never turn to Darkness, Krystha.” “Oh Lin, who knows? Once she loved my father dearly, and he her. I know that is true. Yet something turned her love cold.” She looked at him again, then said softly, “Lin, sometimes I wonder – would it have happened if I had not been born?” Lin took her by the shoulders, but gently, and said firmly, “Krystha, that is a nonsense! How could your birth have anything to do with it?” “Is it a nonsense? To bear two children so quickly can be a strain, and I know I was not an easy child. Arentha was always as she is now – sweet-tempered, gentle, beautiful. But I was a stormy little creature, so our old serving-woman said. “Like a baby hawk” she used to say, “Small and golden-eyed and very fierce.” I was always around where the lads were at their horse-riding and Sword-Training, and I would not learn to be a well-behaved little maiden. Maybe I was too much for Alira.” “Krystha” Lin said ” You cannot blame yourself – why, you were little more than a babe when Alira deserted you. And not all little maidens are sweet and well-behaved. You sound as though you were describing my sister Mira, save that her hair, not her eyes, was golden. She would forever be with me and my friends, and my mother said she despaired of her, but she did not desert us because of it!”

Krystha smiled faintly, but said nothing. Lin said, “Krystha, you cannot take this guilt on yourself. I know what it is.” He seated himself on a bench and signalled her to sit beside him. When she did, he asked, “Is it not as if Alira had died?” She nodded, dumbly, and Lin said “When I was a little lad, my grandfather died. I loved him very much, Krystha, and I used to go every day to see him. He died suddenly, one night – and I felt so guilty, as if it were my fault. I felt I should have known that day that he was sick. It would have been impossible for me to know, for it was a sudden seizure that killed him, yet I still felt I should have known. I spent days going over my last visit to him, wondering what I could have done to prevent his death. I think it is always like that when we lose someone, whether to death or Darkness. Always we think, if I had done this, or that, I could have prevented it. But it is a false guilt, born of Darkness. You must not accept it.” She thought for a moment, then said quietly, “I think you are right, Sword-Brother. But it is hard for me, and this is the second time she has rejected me, and I wonder, I wonder – what have I done, Lin?” She was crying now, very quietly, without passion, and he put his arms round her and rocked her a little, comfortingly, saying “You have done nothing, Krystha, nothing at all, that she should hurt you like this. It is the Darkness which controls her that rejects you, and it is proof that you are beloved of Light. And I believe Light will bring healing out of your pain for you, though you do not see it yet.” “Lin” she said, in surprise, “I did not know you were so wise. Thank you.”

He would gladly have gone on holding her, but she smiled at him and moved away, saying “Come, I feel better now. Let us go on with the preparations for the journey, then there will be less for Aiel and Arentha to do when they return.” So they went to work together, companionably chatting as they packed up their baggage. But Lin watched Krystha with love, wondering how many rejections there had been for her, and if they would make it harder for her to accept his love for her, when at last he was able to confess it to her. Aiel and Arentha returned from the merchant’s with Varn, and Arentha was pleased with the coverings they had bought. “Light and warm,as Varn said, and thin enough to carry easily, or wrap around us as an extra cloak if it is cold” she said. “Our thanks to you, Varn, for your advice. These will be very useful.” Varn had refused to let them purchase other supplies, insisting that the Faring House supply all their needs. Their greatest need, though, was of his counsel. the journey thus far had been painful and difficult, but always with the assurance of a goal to aim for; the Faring Houses, the Ket’s Camp, the Merchant Town. They had gone step by step, but now there were no more stepping stones between them and the Gatehouse, and their enemy might be anywhere on the way ahead of them. If they chose to sleep in a village, there might be an ambush there, yet in open country too they would be at risk. Varn advised them where the villages were which he knew, and told them that when they neared the mountains where the Gatehouse and the Meeting Place lay, they would find caves in which to shelter. “Otherwise, let the Lightstone guide you, Aiel, and your Perception” Varn said “There are few enough go up to the Dancers’ Gate, and they usually have their own servants and sleeping tents with them. I have not had to give this kind of advice before, and I may mislead you, without meaning it. Trust Light only, Lightstone-Bearer.” They appreciated Varn’s honesty, but it did not make the way before them any easier.

Their horses were brought, and they set off, riding through the Town unremarked, and out of another gate, the one nearest to the North. Soon they came to an end of the farmlands, and were riding over rough, open grassland. It was windy here, for there were no hills or mountains to shield them from the winds that swept from sea-coast to sea-coast across this, the narrowest part of their land. The wind stung, too, laden with salt from the sea, and though the day was bright, they were glad of their cloaks. The land rose slowly, a long, steady, upward slope. There were small streams, though, crossing the rough expanse, and a movement as of small birds or animals in the grass and bushes and occasional trees. The air, swept clean by the wind, was biting-fresh, and the sky seemed very high and clear. The land tired them but the air revived them again. Aiel thought it a strange place. When he remarked on this, Lin said, “This is the North, and we are Southern-bred. It must seem strange to us – unless it is another strangeness you feel, Aiel?” Aiel, who had kept his Perception partly extended, told Lin, “No, I have felt no Darkness here.” Krystha said thoughtfully, “This land is not as soft as ours. Even the farmlands, though fertile, did not have the richness of ours. I think perhaps we are nearer the – the bones of the land, here.” “I have never breathed air so cool and clear” Arentha contributed. “It is a good land, Aiel ,if rough.” Aiel, though, thought to himself that if the place were cool and windy now, in bright sunlight, it would be doubly so at night. The problem of their night’s shelter perplexed him.

As they reached the top of the long slow slope up which they had been riding it became the brow of a hill, the other side of which descended into a kind of cup in the landscape, out of which the land rose again on all sides. A small river ran down from the opposite side of the depression and emptied into a lake, from which it seemed to have no exit. Around the lake clustered a tiny village. There were a few small houses, one or two slightly larger ones with fields attached, in which a couple of animals were grazing. In the cottages nearest the water lived fishermen, it seemed, for their nets were set out to dry. The smoke of cooking fires rose from one or two of the dwellings, and they could see distant figures; the beasts in the fields, a man cutting wood, children at the water’s edge, a woman in a doorway. It was a peaceful scene, but somehow Aiel wondered what might lie behind it. Was the place as innocent as it looked? Aiel could not think, for a moment, what it was that made him suspicious of this quiet, pleasant-looking lakeside village. There was none of the dark aura about it that he had seen around the Children of Night. Then he remembered. Varn had told them where the villages lay, and he had not mentioned this one. True, Varn had said that he was not well acquainted with the country between the Merchant Town and the Gatehouse, and he might not know of this village, hidden as it was. But Aiel felt disquiet.

Arentha said, “Aiel, that might be a good place to seek shelter for the night.” Aiel answered, “I do not know…Lin, you are the Swordsman. How does the place feel to you? For I Perceive nothing, yet I somehow distrust the place.” Lin looked surprised, and replied, “Aiel, I feel nothing wrong. And it would be a safe place for the maidens.” “Sword-Brother” said Krystha “I trust Aiel’s feelings. Let us wait and watch a little longer, and see if Aiel Perceives anything.” “No harm in that” Lin agreed. Aiel sent out his Perception, cautiously, towards the village. He met no Darkness or danger there – but nothing else either. No sense of life, no undercurrent of thought, no spark of merriment from the children, simply a blankness that confused and puzzled him. Lin, seeing him frown, asked, “Aiel, what did you Perceive?” “Nothing” Aiel answered, then, seeing his friend did not understand, went on, “Lin, I Perceived nothing there – no thought or feeling in those people at all.” He looked down at the village. He could see the people; why could he not Perceive them? A frightening thought came to him, and he swung his Perception towards his friends. No, there was nothing wrong with his Priestly sense, he could feel the puzzlement in all of them at his words. He said, “I Perceive you all, so it is not my Perception.” Lin said, “Wait”. He leaned forward in his saddle, carefully studying the village. Then he said “Aiel … look at the people!” They all looked. The woman in the doorway, watching the children by the shore, the man cutting wood. Suddenly, Aiel saw what Lin had seen. The woman raised her hand to push back her hair, and lowered it, and raised it to push back her hair, and raised it…the children by the lake were throwing stones at the water, bending to pick up stones, and throwing them, but there was no splash, and they bent in exactly the same way to pick up the same stones and throw them without hitting the water, and bent again…the woodcutter put a log on his block and split it with one stroke, but then the block was empty, and he put the same log on the block, and split it, and reached for the same log to put on the same empty block…

Aiel watched the distant figures performing the same actions, over and over, as though time stopped, and ran back, and restarted in the same place, and he shuddered. Lin said, “In the Name of Light, Aiel, what is happening in that place?” Aiel said “Wait. Let me think.” They respected his silence, and after a few moments he said, “It must be something to do with Lak. But what? It could be that by the Bloodstone’s power he has broken their minds and this is the result. But even so, I should have Perceived the living spirit in them. Unless he has somehow blocked my Perception.” He took out the Lightstone, gazing into it, using it to augment his Perception, but the village was still a blank. Now, though, he could feel, vague and distant, the presence of a Darkness behind what was happening here, and though it was not close, he knew it was a great Darkness. “There is Darkness behind this, I Perceive it” he said , “Lak, or -” The Night Lords, he thought to himself, the corrupted Dancers of Ma’al – the Otherworld – under the sway of the Lords of Darkness. They still had the Dancers’ powers over time and space. Could this be their work? But no, they could not interfere in Li’is, not unless Lak succeeded on the Meeting Place, and he was not there yet. “Aiel?” Arentha recalled him from his thoughts, and he said, “No, it must be Lak’s work.” “Aiel, can we not help those poor people?” Krystha asked. Aiel considered the facts he had; the unknown village, the people who repeated the same actions interminably, the sense of distant, brooding Darkness overshadowing the place, the fact that he could Perceive no life or feeling in the village. And then he knew.

“There are no people” he said “Krystha, there is no village. It is a dark enchantment, like the one Si-Mara tried to set on us at the Spearcleft Pass.” “How can you know that?” Krystha argued, “If it is not so, these people are in dire need.” Arentha added, “Aiel, Krystha is right. We must be sure.” “Listen to me” Aiel told them “You are falling into Lak’s trap. As long as we believe in the village, it is there.” “Then let us go down and see” suggested Lin. “Lin, you know better than that!” Aiel exclaimed. “What reason would the Black Piper have to set such a trap,except to lure us down into that place?” There was an uneasy silence, until Aiel asked ,”Lin, you have Ket-Kai’s bow with you?” “Yes” Lin answered, looking puzzled. “Then get it” Aiel said. Lin dismounted and found the weapon among his gear, then looked questioningly at Aiel. Aiel said, indicating the woodcutter, “Lin, shoot that man.” “Aiel!” came the chorus of protests from them all. The young Priest said , “Lin, if I could use a bow I would do it myself. Do you really think I would bid you shoot an unarmed man? I tell you he is not a living man, but a phantom of Lak’s dark powers. But I must prove it to you, to break the enchantment.” When Lin still hesitated, Aiel asked, sadly, “Lin, do you trust me or not? If I must command you as the Lightstone-Bearer, I will, for you have sworn an oath to me. Aim for a limb, if you will, but shoot!”

The Swordsman took a deep breath, fitted an arrow to the bow, and moved a little way down the slope to get a better aim. “Not too near, Lin!” Aiel warned, and Lin stopped, glanced once at Aiel’s set, determined face, drew back the bow, and fired. They followed the flight of the shaft anxiously, except Aiel, who was quite calm. Lin was a good shot, even with a weapon he was unused to. Aiel saw him wince as the arrow hurtled towards the chest of the man – he had not aimed for a limb, then, unless the strange weapon had betrayed his aim, Aiel thought. Arentha cried out. Krystha’s fists were clenched on her reins. The sharp point of the arrow went into the man; the whole arrow went in, and through, and disappeared, leaving no mark , and the woodcutter went on picking up and splitting and picking up and splitting the same log. Lin turned and stared at Aiel, then scrambled back up the slope. “But I hit him!” he gasped, as he reached them, “I did hit him!” “You did not hit him, Lin” Aiel said quietly, “There was no one there to hit.” “But it seems so real!” Arentha exclaimed, turning again to look at the village. “Oh – look!” Krystha cried. The village was beginning to waver, as if seen through the hot air rising from a fire. The children and the woman blinked out like extinguished candle flames, and Arentha gave a little cry of alarm. Homes, fields and cattle, logs and nets all faded and vanished. Last of all the figure of the woodcutter slowly disappeared, but not before it had raised, to look at Aiel, a face so contorted with malice and anger that he knew that, for a moment, he saw his enemy.

Now they saw that, though the lake too had disappeared, there was still a gleam of light on water at the bottom of the hollow. No river, lake or stream was there, though, but a black, oozing, scummy bog, edged with plants of a bright unhealthy green that looked solid, but hid the sucking terror underneath. Like Lak’s eyes, and his mind, Aiel thought. Lin, shaken, said in a horrified voice, “Sweet Light! Aiel…” “You see?” Aiel said “I told you it was a trap. He wanted to lure us down there, and we would have been caught in the bog.” Krystha and Arentha said nothing, but stared at each other, pale-faced. Lin came and stood by Aiel’s horse, and bowed his head. “Aiel, my brother, I am ashamed” he said, “you should not have had to command me, before I would do as you said. I should have trusted you. Let you, and Light, forgive me.” “Lin, it is forgiven. Your doubts were honest, and it was a hard thing I asked of you, True Sword of the Lightstone.” “But Varn told us to trust to your Perception, and the Lightstone, Aiel. I should have done that. I will not disobey you again.” Krystha asked “Why did Varn not warn us of this place?” “Perhaps he did not know of it.” Arentha suggested. “Or maybe we have lost our way” Aiel said “There is no path to follow now. We may have strayed.” “There are the Dancers’ Mountains” Krystha said, pointing to the far distant range, visible only as a faint grey blur on the horizon. “Aye, but where is the Gatehouse?” Lin asked. “If we are lost, how shall we find our way?” Aiel smiled mirthlessly. “I can think of a sure way to do that.” “How?” asked Arentha. “By following the Darkness I Perceived. It is surely Lak, and he will make all speed for his goal.” “It is too dangerous!” Arentha cried.”His mind almost destroyed you once, Aiel.” “I am stronger now” the Lightstone-Bearer said “and more attuned to the Lightstone. But let me seek Light. If Light forbids me, I will not attempt it.” They were silent as he gazed into the Lightstone, seeking guidance. Then, as once before, he felt his Perception take wing and soar up and out, but now he was ready for any encounter with the Black Piper. For that, though, there was no need, for he saw the country between where he was and the Gatehouse, as though he leaned over a map. He saw that they were indeed off course, but also how to correct it. He saw the way to take. And he came close enough to his enemy to know where he was, close enough for his enemy to be aware of him, but not to touch him – close enough, perhaps, for his enemy to begin to fear him.

CHAPTER 10

Aiel raised his head and said “Light has shown me the way.Lak is not so far ahead. We must be careful.” They were beginning to be hungry, but none of them wanted to stop to eat in that dreadful place. As they skirted the bog and set out in the direction Aiel knew now was the right one, Lin suddenly asked, “Aiel, how could Lak know we would come that way? If we were not on the path we should have taken, how could he know?” “I think that might have been part of his enchantment”, Aiel told them.”He would not set the trap in that place if he did not expect us to go there. Yet my Perception was extended – I felt nothing. He is a cunning, deadly enemy, Lin.” They rode for a while in grim silence, each thinking of the Black Piper’s evil trap. Aiel guided them by the few landmarks his Perception had registered in its swift flight, and eventually they found signs that they were riding where others had ridden, though not many or often. “Now we are on the right way!” Aiel sighed. The ground was still rising towards the mountains, and they stopped for a hurried meal in the lee of a small hill, none of them liking to stop too long in open country, with their enemy near. When they started off again, they saw that between them and the next rise lay a shadow. As they came nearer they saw that it was a small wood, which lay either side of the faint track they had been following. Lin said, “Must we go through it, Aiel? There may be another trap there. It is a likely place for an ambush.” Aiel sent out his Perception, augmented by the Lightstone, and said, “I Perceive no Darkness there, Lin. It may make a good shelter.”

When they reached the wood, they found it the strangest they had ever seen. It seemed to be all of one kind of tree, very tall and slender, with strange, narrow, grey-green leaves. Under the trees grew rough grass, a tall, feathery bracken, and patches of a plant with long, delicate spires of purple-blue flowers. That was all. No bushes, no other trees, or flowers. It was a strangely austere place, but not unpleasing, and not harbouring any Darkness. Lin said, “It might be possible to camp here. There is some shelter from the trees, at least. It is better than open ground.” “What about the beasts?” Aiel asked. Krystha replied, “There is grass, Aiel, and we should have enough water for them too.” Arentha added, “We have the extra coverings we bought, and bracken makes a soft couch. We shall do well here.” They left the track and rode in under the trees until they felt they were hidden from view. As it happened, they found they would not need to worry about water for the horses. A little way into the wood they came upon a small outcrop of rock, and under it a spring bubbled up. Someone once had built a little kerb of stones around it, but it must have been long ago, for the stones were now worn, and thickly encrusted with moss and lichen. A few water-plants grew around it, the only change in the linited vegetation of the place. Krystha said, “See, here is waterbread – it is good to eat, as well as for healing.” They let the horses drink from the spring, then tethered them to the slender tree-trunks, where they stood seeming quite content. Lin, tying Mischief’s reins, brushed against a branch of the tree, bruising some of the leaves, and instantly they were surrounded by a wonderful perfume, sharp and sweet, herbal and fruity together, with a refreshing tang to it that was like a drink of water on a hot day. Curious, Krystha picked a few leaves and rubbed them in her hands, releasing more of the perfume, and inhaled it. Then she said, “This is a reviving smell. I wonder if these leaves can be used for healing?” They all agreed that they felt uplifted by the aroma of the leaves, and Krystha cut some sprays and put them in her Healer’s sack.

Next they cut piles of bracken to lie on. They would not be able to make a fire, for fear of being seen, and the bracken would be warm as well as soft, between them and the ground. The sun was descending, and as it sank, the air was growing chillier. Arentha said, “We shall be glad we took Varn’s advice about those coverings!” They made a meal, glad of the water-bread which Krystha had gathered to add variety to their travelling rations. It was growing really dark now, and they had no light till the moons rose. Aiel let the Lightstone lie shining on his breast, to lighten the dusk, but the darkness under the scented trees was not unpleasant, and the wind had died to a gentle rustling in the trees. After their meal they talked a while, then wrapped themselves in the new coverings, with their cloaks over all. It was Aiel’s turn for first watch, and while the others lay and slept, he stayed near the little spring, watching the moons, when they rose, shine on the water, Once, feeling sleepy, he went and took a handful of the sweet leaves, and rubbed them, and breathed in the refreshing perfume. He went to where Arentha was lying, and stood looking at her for a while, though he could see little of her face in the dim light. Then he sighed, and lifted his head and sent out his Perception, searching, but all was well. “Tomorrow”, he thought, a new resolution growing in him, “we will ride far and fast, and try to catch up with Lak. It was not said that I would not catch him before we reach the Meeting Place, and perhaps I have listened too much to my own fears. I may be able to defeat him before we come there. In any case, it is possible that he may not stop again to feed the Bloodstone, and I dare not rely on his being delayed.”

When it was time to wake Lin, Aiel told the Swordsman his thoughts, and asked his advice. “You know about horses, Lin. Can we make good time in this country without tiring them?” “We should do, Aiel”, Lin answered. “Yesterday you said you would obey me – but do not do as I say if you think it is foolishness, Lin. Then I spoke as I did because I was sure of what I said, but in this chasing of Lak I am not sure, yet it seems the right thing, to me.” “I think you have reason, Aiel. We cannot let him stay too far ahead. If it is Light’s Will that you do not overtake him until we reach the Meeting Place, so it will be, but we can try to catch him before that.” After that, Aiel lay down to sleep. The new covering was warm, but he did not sleep for a while. He was thinking about pursuing Lak. He was too sensible not to fear his enemy, though he no longer shrank away from the thought of him, as he once had. And another thought at least was comforting – that if he defeated Lak before the Meeting Place, Arentha might be safe.

The next thing he knew was Lin shaking him gently awake. It was quite dark still, and at first he thought it was the shade of the trees. Then he realised that it was only just dawn, and a grey and cloudy dawn. Lin said softly, so as not to disturb the maidens yet, “Aiel, it is still early. But the weather is changing, and the horses are nervous. I think a storm is coming.” Aiel sat up and looked around. The trees were swaying in a rough wind, the tops of them tossing against the grey sky. The clouds were moving quickly across the sky, thick soft grey patterned with torn swirls of darker rain-cloud. But behind them, out of the East, a bank of storm cloud rolled quicklyon, blotting out the rising sun and making night fall again where it passed. “We had best wake the maidens”, he said. While Lin did so, Aiel stood and sent out his Perception, locating the Black Piper. He was a great Darkness in a cloud of other Darkness, and Aiel knew he was among the Children of Night. He shuddered to think of what might have been happening in the night. No doubt Lak had been feeding the foul thing he carried, fuelling it for the assault on the Dancers. But that had delayed him, and he was not so far ahead after all. Aiel withdrew his Perception quickly, before Lak could become aware of him, and said to them all, “Storm or not, we must go on. I meant to catch Lak before the Meeting Place – if Light wills it.”

They splashed their faces with water from the spring and breathed the perfume of the grey-green leaves to refresh and waken them. So urgent was Aiel’s intent to pursue Lak that he almost grudged the time they took to make a quick breakfast, though Krystha told him, tartly, that a hard ride on an empty stomach would do them no good. The horses were a little fidgety and nervous as they set out – all but Aiel’s stolid Greymouse. Aiel said, “This storm came suddenly. There was no sign of it when I woke you, Lin.” “Aye”, Lin agreed, “The night was clear, then it seemed to boil out of the East with the dawn.” It was not rainingyet, but the wind was rough and chill. Once they had left the wood, there was no sign of shelter. Aiel knew by his Perception the direction of the Black Piper, and this time he was not avoiding his enemy, but riding straight towards him. He had warned the others ofthe Children of Night he had sensed with Lak, but he knew they would not be able to resist the Lightstone’s power. Of Lak he was not sure. There was a temptation to reach out and touch Lak’s mind, to try his enemy’s strength. Yet he knew that would be folly, having once been entrapped in the corrupted horror of that dark entity’s thought.

Ahead of them now rode a rounded hill, covered with a scrubby growth of bushes and rough tussocks of grass. It was long and steep, next to impossible to ride over, but the only way through was a place where the rise was split, showing raw red banks that rose higher than a man on horseback and overhung the narrow path. Aiel hesitated. It was the only way, but he mistrusted it. His Perception sensed a Darkness near – not Lak, but something Dark. The rain had begun now, too, lashing down in sheets that obscured their view. “Lin”, Aiel said, “There is Darkness there. Yet we must go through.” He reached for the Lightstone and laid it gleaming in full view. He Perceived no diminishing ofthe Darkness, but he was ready for it now. He led the way into the red-walled defile, with Lin, drawn sword in hand, guardingtheir rear. There was nobody in the entrance, but they might be waiting further ahead, where the defile turned. The rise was deep as well as long. The ground on which they rode was dusty and covered with small stones, and the horses kicked up clouds of dust. Aiel was uneasy, for there was something about the Darkness he sensed that was unusual. They reached the bend and turned it, tense with anticipation of attack, but still there was no one there. The track was wider here, the walls higher. The echo of their hoofbeats sent little trickles of dust running down the sides. Thedust was so dry and thick that even the pelting rain seemed to do little to hold it down. Lin said, puzzled, “Aiel, are you sure ofthe Darkness?” “Yes, I am sure. But there is a strangeness to it…” he paused to send out his Perception again, and gasped as he suddenlyrealised what it was. “Sweet Light – Lin, they are above us!” “Aiel, where?”, Lin asked quickly, “In front or behind? On both sides, or one?” “In front, and on the left only”. Lin looked, but saw nothing. “They are well hidden”, he said, “now under the overhang, all of you. If they are armed, they will find us a harder target.” They obeyed him, moving over so that they were under the overhang of the left-hand wall ofthe defile. It was harder going, for there were mores stones scattered along their way. They tried again to see their enemies, but the driving rain obscured their vision.

Suddenly through the air around them came a hail of stones, and they raised their arms to fend them off. One struck Whitefoot, and she danced nervously and stumbled, so that Krystha slid from the saddle. Lin cried her name in alarm, but the Healer was up and remounting in seconds, a little pale, but saying quietly to Lin, “It is well with me, Sword-Brother.” “They cannot have weapons, then”, Aiel said, but Krystha replied, “A rock will split our skulls as well as a sword, Aiel” . However, there were no more stones. The overhang above them, and a little in front, now revealed a group of figures, misty through the heavy rain, apparently working and struggling at something. Lin exclaimed, “They are trying to bring it down!”, realising thatthe shadowy figures were trying to loosen and make fall the overhang under which they were riding. Aiel said, “Lin, we must get through! If they block the way…” “When I tell you”, Lin broke in, ” gallop! But till then pretend you have seen nothing.” They trotted forward until they were underneath the group. Lin glanced up. The overhang was cracked right across, and a shower of stones and earth was beginning to fall. “Now!”, he shouted. As they dug in their heels and urged the horses forward, there was a creaking, groaning sound. Lin looked up again and saw the mass of earth and stones dropping towards him. Mischief leapt forward at his bidding, and the tons of soil crashed harmlessly down behind him, spilling across the defile and blocking it. Aiel, who was in the lead, turned in his saddle, calling anxuously< “Lin – are you hurt?” “It is well with me. Go on, Aiel!”, Lin called back. They galloped on, turned another bend, and found themselves on open ground again. They did not slow until they were sure that the Children of Night were well behind them. Then Arentha asked, “How will we het back, if the way is blocked?” “It will be a long time before we need worry about that!” Aiel replied, grimly. It was useless to try to stop while the rain was lashing down, and there was no prospect of shelter anywhere near, so they decided to make what time they could. They could not see far, or hear much, for the rain. It was as if nothing existed but themselves and the rain. Everything looked the same; the wet, rough grass, the grey sky, the veil of rain. The distant mountains to which they were heading seemed as insubstantial as clouds.

Aiel reached out his Perception. He found the Black piper easily now, he was becoming attuned to his enemy’s presence. And now the other was not so far ahead, and only one other was with him. Not wanting to draw Lak’s attention to himself, Aiel concentrated on the Black Piper’s companion. It was Soom, the ‘beggar’, and Aiel found that, by usingthe Lightsone to help him, he could Perceive Soom. He knew enough now to shield himself from the dark thoughts,lusts and memories he found in the Children of Night, and seek only the information he needed. Aiel learned that Lak was very confident that one of his traps would succeed, so confident that he had decided to turn aside to a village for shelter from the bad weather. Aiel let the Lightsone fall and relayed this information to the others. “If we go on we will catch him”, the Lightstone-Bearer told them, “but he has set traps. We must be wary of them.” Now, though, Aiel was concerned what to do. “If I follow him to the village and confront him there, he may do harm to the villagers”, he said, “to force me to let him go on.” Arentha said, “Aiel, can we not wait till he has left the village? He may do them no harm then.” “It is his nature to do harm”, Lin argued. “They may need our protection, Aiel.” “We are not near the village yet”, Krystha said calmly. “Let us go on, and et Aiel try his Perception again in a while, and see what is happening. If they need us, we can go there. If they are unharmed, we will not go near and cause them trouble with Lak.” “That is sensible”,Aiel agreed. “That is what we will do, Krystha.” A break appeared in the clouds to the East, and the rain slowed. Aiel was able to see further now, and as they mounted a ridge he could faintly see, across a valley and lying off to the East, the small village where he knew his enemy was sheltering. Descending the slope with great care, for the ground was slippery from the rain, they rode in the direction of the village. The rain was stopping now, and as the dark clouds rolled away Westwards, the sky above them cleared to blue, and the sun broke through. The sight of the sun cheered them, but the cold wind was blowing still, and they were chilled, for despite their protective cloaks the driving rain had soaked them through. They must find some shelter, Aiel thought, somewhere to warm themselves and put on dry clothes.

Next moment, though, every thought was driven from his mind. They had crossed the narrow dale which lay between the ridge they had left and another, up which they were now riding. As they reached the top, Aiel was dazzled for a moment by a shimmering wall of light, which he thought at first was the sun reflecting off water. When his eyes grew accustomed to it, though, he saw the most unbelievable sight, so that he closed his eyes for a moment, and opened them again. It was still there, though – a long line of horsemen, silent, black-clad, the brightness caused by the sun glinting off their swords and spears. They reined in their horses and sat staring down. “Swordsmen of Darkness!”, whispered Lin, “Lak’s followers. Aiel, what can we do? It is death to go forward!” Aiel shook his head. “Lin, is it possible that so many horsemen could be assembled and brought here without some rumour of it reaching the Priesthood?” “They might have come in secret, over the Eastern sea, and landed at some solitary place”, Krystha suggested. “But the Lord of the East learnt of Lak’s coming, and sent word. This would not have escaped his notice”, Aiel answered. “I Perceived Soom’s thought, and it was of traps set. This is one, but are these horsemen flesh and blood, or is it another enchantment?” “Lak’s last enchantment hid real peril also”, Aretha reminded them, soberly. Aiel reached out his Perception, cautiously, towards the black horsemen. They had shown no sign of seeing the Way-Sharers, though they must be visible, up on the ridge. They had made no ove to attack. Aiel was sure they were as insubstantial as the lakeside village had been. He was right. There was the same blankness about the dark riders, the same sense of overshadowing evil. Aiel knew it was another of Lak’s enchantments, and a sudden anger overcame him. He was weary of this! The anger burning in him drove him like a clean, pure fire, and he felt it was not his anger alone, but Light’s. He found Lak, and, unafraid, touched the Darkness that was his enemy’s mind. And this time the Black Piper did not attack his Perception as before, but withdrew, retreating into a deeper Darkness, where everything told Aiel not to follow. He withdrew his Perception and looked down onto the plain again. The black-clad horsemen were gone.

Lin whispered, “What did you do, Aiel? They just vanished!” Aiel said, “I challenged Lak’s Dark Perception – and he withdrew. He went into a great Darkness, where I could not follow.””Then he fears you, Aiel!”, Lin said. “He fears Light”, Aiel answered. “We will go to the village, Lin. I think he will not stay there now.” As they continued on their way, Aiel kept his Perception extended, and, as he had expected, found that as they drew nearer to the village, the Black Piper made his escape, though he waited until the last minute, as if he could not decide whether to make a stand against the Lightstone-Bearer now, or not. In the end, though, Aiel Perceived him,and Soom, actually riding out of the village as the Way-Sharers rode in – they were that close behind Lak. They needed dry clothes, though, and food, and Aiel felt they could afford to stop for a while. In the village they found a small inn, and a kindly innkeeper, who prepared them a warming meal while his wife gladly gave them the use of rooms to change their wet clothing. While they ate, Aiel asked the innkeeper, “Is it far from here to the Gatehouse?” The innkeeper smiled. “This is unusual. For a long time we have had no visitors to the Gatehouse, and now there are six in one day.” “Six?”, asked Lin, with an air of innocent enquiry, “Who the were the other two?” “Oh, an old Lord from the East and his servant.”, the man replied. Lin and Aiel exchanged glances as the innkeeper went on<“It is about two days’ ride yet to the Gatehouse. Do you wish to stay here tonight?” “We have not yet decided”, Aiel answered. “We may try to catch up with the old Lord – I think we are acquainted with him. Is his name not Lord Dular?” “Aye, that was the name”, the innkeeper told them. When the innkeeper had taken away the dishes and left them in private, Aiel said, “Now I do not know what to do! This is a safe place to stay, and we rose early. Yet while we delay we lose what we have gained, and Lak will be desperate to reach the Meeting Place before us.” “He too must rest sometime”, Krystha observed. ” Pehaps”, Aiel said. “Aiel, he is a man. He must sleep!” the Healer said. “No, he is more – or less- than man”, Aiel replied. “He has given himself as lodging to a Lord of Darkness. His needs may not be as other men’s – or the Dark spirit in him may override his needs.” “Man or spirit, his body is flesh and blood”, Krystha said, “but if you feel it wisest to go on , we shall.” “How long to nightfall?”, Lin asked, “And what risk we shall meet with more danger if we go on in the dark, Aiel?” Before Aiel could reply, the door of the inn banged open, and a young man rushed in. His hair was dishevelled and he looked round him wildly. Then his eyes fixed on the Way-Sharers, and he ran to the, stopping in front of Krystha. “I heard there was a Healer here”, he said , breathlessly, as though he hadrun far and fast, “Lady, please – our babe is very sick!” Krystha reached instinctively for her Healer’s sack, but then she paused, and said, as if it were a question, “Aiel…?” Aiel had flashed his Perception towards the young man as he entered the inn, and found no Darkness, only his need, and his fear for his child. The Lightsone-Bearer nodded, “Aye, Krystha, go. Lin, go with her. It is well.” As they hurried out with the young man, Aiel turned to Arentha, and said, “It seems the choice has been made for us. Krystha must tend the babe.” “It is not another trap?” “No, unless Lak set the sickness on the child to delay us. I doubt that, though. And there was no Darkness about the child’s father.”

Krystha and Lin had followed the anxious father dow the village street to his neat little cottage. He led them in and called for his wife, a fair-haired girl who came hurrying from another room to ask, “Have you found the Healer?” “Yes, she is here”, the man said, indicating Krystha, and at the sight of her his wife exclaimed with relief. “Where is the bae?”, Krystha asked, “What ails the child?” “He has a bad cough and a fever, and is hardly able to breathe.” , explained the young mother. They crowded into the little sleeping room where the babe lay in a cradle, flushed with fever and drawing gasping, rattling breaths. Krystha carefully examined him, nodded, and snet the child’s father for water. She asked for cup, spoon, and bowl, and when the water was brought, measured and mixed a powder from one of her Healer’s vials and carefully, patiently, fed it spoonful by spoonful to the child, all the time murmuring gentle reassurance to both the babe and his parents. Then she took a cloth and the bowl and sat with the child in her lap, rubbing and gently tapping his back, until suddenly he coughed violently and vomited into the bowl, which she carefully inspected. “Good”, Krystha said, “That has cleared him. Now a fever drink.” The mother took the child while Krystha mixed another draught and gave it to the child. “Now let him sleep”, the Healer said, and laid the child back in the cradle. “I will give you the herbs to use and tell you what to do. Five days, and he should be well.” The young couple listened carefully to Krystha’s instructions, and took the precious healing herbs. Then the man said, “Light be praised that you came this way, Lady. Else we would have had to take him to the Gatehouse, to Lady Benika, and it is a two-day journey.” “Then it might have been too late”, Krystha said, seriously. “Babes sicken quickly. But do as I have told you and it will be well with the child.”

The sun was setting as Lin and Krystha walked back to the inn. Lin said “Light surely meant us to be here, Krystha. Would the child really have died without your aid?” “Not for certain”, she said, “but more likely than not, Lin.” “It is a great thing that you do, Krystha”, he said, for he had never seriously considered it before, “to help and heal and save from death.” “Not always”, she said quietly. “Some sicknesses are beyond healing, and sometimes – sometimes it seems that a person simply does not wish to fight any longer to live. Oh, I have seen death, Sword-Brother.” He glanced at her sideways and said, softly, “I would that you never had to see evil, Krystha.” “That is a strange thought, Lin”, she answered him, but not mockingly.” “If there were no evil in Li’is, we should not need to be aware of it. But since there is evil, better to know it than not. Is it not a wise thing, to be aware of your enemy?” “Aye”, he answered briefly, and smiled at her, but said no more. He had come perilously close to revealing his feelings for her, just then, but he knew at heart it was not the right time.

Aiel and Arentha, meanwhile, had been talking with the innkeeper, who had provided some useful information about the way to the Gatehouse, and where they might find some caves to sleep in the next night. When Lin and Krytsha rejoined them, the innkeeper asked after the babe, and after hearing the child was recovering, and expressing his own thanks to Krystha for her help, he went off to see to some villagers hwo had come in, and the Way-Sharers withdrew to a quiet corner to discuss their plans. It was too early to sleep yet, but Aiel proposed that they should retire early and rise as soon as possible, to be off after Lak. He had accepted, now, that it was likely he would not overtake his enemy before the Gatehouse. “But we must be as close on his heels as may be.”, he told them.

The innkeeper woke them, as they had requested, very early the next morning, but despite the early hour, there was a good breakfast waiting for them. Aiel, though, impatient to be off, his nerves taut-strung, could hardly bear to eat, though Krystha insisted he did. Having cast out his Perception to seek Lak, he realised that the Black Piper must have had to stop to rest after all, and had not gained as much ground as Aiel had feared. When they were ready to leave, they thanked the innkeeper and his wife, and Krystha inturn was thanked for helping the sick child. Obviously this small community was was close-knit and its members shared each other’s joys and woes. Krystha smiled, and said, “Mind, the babe should be well in five days. But if he shows signs of sickeing again, they must take him to another Healer.” The innkeeper promised to pass on the message, but as they rode away, Aiel, in strabge and sombre mood, said to the Healer, “Krystha, if I fail the Way, they do not have five days left!” Krystha glanced at his pale, set face, and said very firmly and with a touch of fire, “Aiel, you will not fail the Way!” Lin looked at her; he knew she had spoken fiercely only to try to stir Aiel from his strange mood. Her eyes met Lin’s and he read her concern for Aiel in them; her expression asked what they could do for the Lightstone-Bearer, and Lin shook his head slightly and lifted his shoulders, for he could not tell.

Aiel had woken with a sense of oppression and Darkness pressing in in him, and knew it was an attack by the Darkness, trying to make him fail in his task. Though his spirit trusted Light, he still felt an intense pressure, and did not know how to explain it to his companions. Now he said, “Lak is not so far ahead, but he moves onward also. It seems my doom is that I shall not overtake him before the Meeting Place.” “Aiel, are you afraid?”, Lin asked directly. “Only that I might fail Light”, Aiel answered. I am not afraid, but I feel so alone! Oh, my friends and Way-Sharers, I am grateful for your fellowship and your love, and I have been so glad to have with you with me. But on me is the Doom of Dark’s Passing, and I am the Lightstone-Bearer, and mine is the Way of the Secret Word, though you share it with me,” He looked round at them, and for a moment his face was awful, notwith fear, but with an iron and holy resolve. “I had known it, but now I feel it, the burden of this Way. I am carrying the weight of my world, for if I fail the Lightstone and the Way, all Li’is goes down to Darkness. And it is lonely – so lonely – even with all of you here.” “Aiel”, Lin said, “Aiel, my brother…” and stopped, because he could not find any words to comfort his friend. Aiel smiled at them, with a gentle, sad smile. “I know”, he said. “I Perceive your concern for me, your care, and it does ease my burden. And we are on the side of Light, and that means everything>” He laughed a little then, but Lin thought it was a forced laugh. “It will be well with me, my friends”, the young Priest said. “I have let my thoughts run in the wrong channels. I am wiser now. Come.” They had slowed their horses as they talked, but now Aiel urged Greymouse on, and they followed him. They were not convinced, though, by Aiel’s pretended recovery of his spirits. Lin and Krystha exchanged anxious glances, and Arentha blinked back tears of pity for him.

The weather did nothing to lift their spirits; the previous day’s heavy rain had passed, but today the sky was dull and grey, and they longed for the sun to break through. Lin, for the first time since they had set foot on this Way, was feeling distanced from Aiel by the burden his friend carried. He had, so far, been able to help and support Aiel, but Lin was neither Priest nor Lightstone- Bearer, and could have very little understanding of the spiritual battles Aiel must face. The Swordsman felt helpless in the face of his friend’s need and it hurt him – almost angered him – that he could do nothing for Aiel. When they stopped for their midday meal, Aiel would not eat at all. He took just a cup of water, then retreated from the others, and sat on a large boulder, cupping the Lightstone in his hands and gazing into it. They were glad when the light overflowed fromit and gently surrounded him. He would gain strength from the Lightstone, if they could offer him none. Lin said softly to the Healer, “Will it be well with him, Krystha?” She nodded. “Yes, Lin, I believe it will. He is drawing into himself, but it is not a retreat. He is gaining strength, drawing nearer to Light. And he would not eat, not, I am sure, because he was too nervous, but because he wishes it so – to fast for spiritual strength.” Arentha exclaimed, “Oh, Krystha, watch him well!” “I am watching, dearest”, Krystha reassured her. It was the first time Lin had heard her use an endearment to her sister, and showed, he thought, Krystha’s awareness of Arentha’s feelings and concern for Aiel.

As they rode on again, the sky began to clear and brighten, but the Way-Sharers were still subdued, speaking little and quietly, and Aiel barely at all. They were riding steeply upwards into the foothills, and in places the rocky bones of the country broke through the rough turf and ling in rocky outcrops and scattered boulders. The mountains ahead were clearly visible now, dark and towering and very old – the barrier at the end of their world. “About two days’ ride to the Gatehouse”, the innkeeper had said, but they had started early and ridden fast, and it was not ill after sunset that they found the caves they had been told of, where they could rest. Lin doubted if they were now more than half a day’s ride from the Gatehouse and the Meeting Place. They lit a fire and prepared their sleeping places around it. There were signs that others had used the cave for shelter, but not recently. Arentha prepared a meal, and this time Aiel joined them. Krystha asked him, gently, if he needed anything to help him sleep, but though he thanked her, he courteously refused her offer.

All day Aiel had been battling inwardly, drawing on the power of Light and the Priestly disciplines to fight the forebodings that overshadowed him. He knew it was more than his own natural fears that he felt; he was under spiritual attack from the Black piper and Lak’s Dark allies, and he could feel intense pressure on and around him. Aiel did not know if he could explain, even to Lin, the Swordsman, the kind of battle he had been fighting that day, but felt he owed it to his loyal friends to try. He smiled at them – a strange smile, Lin thought, a smile such as a dying man might give his loved ones, and the Swordsman hirriedly pushed the thought away. Aiel said, “Forgive me, all of you, if I have seemed aloof from you today. For I am under siege, and the Darkness presses in on me, and I must fight it. And it takes so much of my strength and concentration, I have little to spare for other things.” “Oh, Aiel, we understand!” Arentha told him, laying her hand on his arm, and Krystha echoed, “Of course!” Lin said sadly, “Aiel, if only I could help you in this thing – but in the battle you are fighting my sword is useless to you.” “Your sword, yes – but not your prayers”, Aiel answered. “Pray with me and for me, all of you, that Light will give me strength to keep the evil at bay.” They did as he asked, and he felt the pressure ease somewhat, but still he was restless and laden with the burden of his Way. He felt as though he wanted to run or stamp or kick, for the restlessness manifested itself in a compulsive stretching and arching of his feet, until he stood, and said, “I must walk, and be alone for a while.” He walked out of the shelter of the cave, and the others watched him go, unable to offer him any aid. It was something he must struggle with himself,

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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