Chapter 6

They rode down the slope into the hollow, thankful for the respite, however slight, from the wind and rain, and clattered into the courtyard of the First Faring House, weary to the bone and sodden with rain, but thankful to be within reach of shelter. In the courtyard, a groom took charge of their horses and gear, and they turned gratefully to the welcoming open door of the Faring House. The Priest-in-Charge was waiting for them there, his robe rippling in the wind that reached them even here. He was medium of height and build, brown-haired, with a roundish, kindly face – a very ordinary-looking man, save for his vivid blue Priest’s eyes. He ushered them into the Faring House, full of concern for them, cold and soaked as they were. As he passed various of the House’s servants he threw out orders for dry clothing to be brought, and sent word to the kitchens for more food to be prepared.

He had not really looked at them all, except to note their tired, wet state, but now he turned to them, and said “Your pardon for my discourtesy! I have so much to order tonight, for the House is full because of the bad weather.” With a wave of his hand he indicated some of the other guests in the rooms and corridors around them. With a smile he continued, “I am Mell…” and broke off, suddenly realising, as Aiel drew back the hood of his cloak, that here was a brother Priest, but disguised. For a moment his face showed recognition and puzzlement. Then his eyes flicked questioningly to Aiel’s, their Perceptions meshed for a moment, and Aiel knew that the other’s mind was as sharp as his appearance was ordinary. Mell had quickly grasped the little Aiel had been able to communicate of the urgency of their mission and the need for continued concealment. He made no gesture, spoke no word, to betray that Aiel was a member of the Priesthood. Instead, speaking just loudly enough to allay the suspicions of any passers-by who might be Aiel’s enemies, he said, “I am sorry, but the House is so crowded tonight, I have had no time to keep tally of which rooms are occupied. Will you wait and warm yourselves in my Quiet Room while I enquire?”

By this little subterfuge, he brought them safely into the warm peace of the little room. Closing the door, and locking it, he urged them closer to the fire – for Arentha had begun shivering in her damp clothes – and asked Aiel, “Now, what is your need, my Brother-in-Light? Who are you, and how may I serve you?” Aiel faced, for the first time – for even Merhaun had been a friend of his father’s – the need to tell a complete stranger of his Way. It was not easy, though Mell was a brother Priest. The young man lifted his head to look at Mell and said, “I am Aiel, son of Arnath, High Priest of the Temple of the One Light.” He hesitated, unsure what Mell might know of the Lightstone and the Way. To speak of these things to one who knew nothing could sound like a madman’s ravings. He asked, “Mell, what do you know of the Lightstone?” “I know of its existence” the other answered, “and that when the Lightstone came to be sent forth, it might fall to any of the Priesthood who kept a Faring House or Prayer Room, to succour the Bearer.” Aiel looked into Mell’s eyes, and said, softly, “It falls to you to succour me, this time, Mell. For on me is the doom of Dark’s passing and the Way of the Secret Word. I am the Lightstone-Bearer.”

The other Priest was gazing at him with concern and amazement. “Then you may need more help than I can offer, Aiel my brother”, Mell said, “but I will gladly do what I can.” He looked round at Aiel’s bedraggled company and said, “Hot water, first, and dry clothes. Then you shall eat with me, and tell me what you need of me.” A maidservant led the girls away to the women’s Bathing Place, and Mell himself conducted Aiel and Lin to theirs. As he had said, the hot water bathe comforted and relaxed them, easing their bodies of the ache of their long riding and the chill of the wind-driven rain. Wrapped in the warm robes which Mell had provided, they rejoined the two sisters in Mell’s Quiet Room. Arentha and Krystha, also snuggled into their robes, were sitting near the fire, their long hair loose on their shoulders to dry. Arentha’s robe was grey, and her dark hair flowed over it as smooth and glossy as a stream of water. Krystha’s hair, though, was a wild tumbled glory of fiery waves, falling onto a flame-coloured robe, so that her creamy-skinned face was like the pale heart of a fire. It was as though their inner selves were outwardly visible, thought Aiel, as the Secret Word came back to mind, that had said of the sisters, ‘ebony and red gold, melody and healing’.

While they had been bathing, food and drink had been brought, and now Mell joined them, locking the door behind him again. They gathered round the table, and as they ate, Aiel asked Mell for his guidance regarding the next part of their journey. “Beyond this House”, Mell told them, “lies nothing but scrubland and then the Red Forest. As you enter it it seems ordinary enough, but it is not a normal forest, and as you near the Dark Ruins, it turns red.” “Why?” Krystha asked. “It is blighted by the Ruins – by the thing that happened there when Rafel, Brann and Tamorine defeated the Dark One. The Ruins are lifeless – nothing has grown or moved there since, save the Children of Night, who make of it a place sacred to Darkness.” Mell frowned. “Did you know that the Children of Night have a prophecy of their own, which it seems has now been fulfilled by what you tell me of the coming of this Black Piper and the Bloodstone? I take note of such things, being so near the accursed place, and responsible for the villages of my Soul-Watch. The Black Piper will give heart to the Children of Night, and make them bold. You must be watchful in the Red Forest, and in particular, close to the Ruins; it is their ground. Especially, be careful of the maidens.” He sighed, “I wish there was not need for them to go.”

Aiel said, sadly, “I do not wish to take them into danger, Mell, but I must. They come with us because it is the fulfillment of the Secret Word, that they should be part of this company. I would gladly have had it otherwise.” “Aiel”, Mell asked,”Do you know what your enemy really is?” “Oh,yes.” Aiel answered, “Yes, Mell, I know my enemy.” And he told the other Priest of his encounters with Si-Mara and Lak. He could have shared Perception and let Mell experience them for himself, but was unwilling to submit Mell to such evil. When he had finished, Mell said, “Yes, you do know your enemy, Aiel. Well then, you do not need me to bid you take care. Now, there is a stream running through the Red Forest. That too is tainted. Do not drink from it, you or your beasts. Trust nothing that moves- only evil beasts lurk there. Still, once you are past the Ruins it is a long but straight road to the Second Faring House. And you have the Lightstone to keep all evil from you.” Aiel reached inside the green robe he had been given and drew out the Lightstone. “It must be hard for you too, Mell”, he said, ” to keep the Faring House and its Soul-Watch with the Darkness always at your back. Come, draw strength from the Lightstone.” Mell came to Aiel, who touched the Lightstone to his brow and watched the now familiar fountain of light pour out over the Keeper of the First Faring House. Mell’s kindly, ordinary face seemed to show an unsuspected nobility in the Lightstone’s glow – perhaps a reflection of his loyalty to Light. When the light withdrew, leaving, as always, a little of itself in Mell’s eyes. Mell looked into Aiel’s face and said, softly, “I have been blessed of Light!”, then, louder, “Thank you, Aiel, Lightstone-Bearer.”

The Way-Sharers slept well that night, knowing themselves secure in the Faring House, and being wearied by long riding. Still, each woke the next morning with a consciousness of the possible dangers ahead already at the back of their minds. Again they joined Mell in his Quiet Room, and found him grave-faced and sad-eyed. “I have had word from one of the villages of my Soul-Watch, on the Westward edge of the Moor”, he told Aiel, who felt a stab of alarm. “The village was raided by a large band of the Children of Night, the night before last. They were led by a white-faced man in black, with a fiery ring on his left hand. It must be the Black Piper, Aiel.” “What happened to the village?” Aiel asked, his voice sharp with concern. Mell answered, his voice breaking on the words as he spoke, and tears springing to his eyes, “They were tortured, ravished, murdered – homes burnt, families destroyed – and the Dark One fed the foul stone with their agonies. Some were carried off – who knows for what evil purposes? Oh, my poor people!”

Aiel had tears in his eyes too as he exclaimed, “Oh, Mell, I am so sorry!” He held out imploring hands to the other Priest. “It is because of the Bloodstone – the evil I let pass! Oh, forgive me!” “Aiel, it is not your fault!” Mell told him. “The evil is not your doing, Lightstone-Bearer. Do not think it! ” “Can we not help>” Lin asked, looking anxiously at Aiel’s distressed face and eager to find some means of alleviating his friend’s feelings of guilt. “I will go myself”, Mell said, “and I have already sent all the help I can spare – if only I had more Healers, for there are many wounded, or half-crazed with fear or grief. But you must go on with your Way, Aiel, and bring this Darkness to an end.” “I am a Healer”, Krystha said, “I can go and help these people.” Aiel had recovered himself, and now said to her, gently but firmly, “No, Krystha, Mell is right. We must go on.” “But the need is here!” Krystha cried.”Am I not on this Way to heal? Shall I not do the work Light has given me to do?” “Krystha”, her sister said, “You must do as Aiel says. We are sworn to him, and to this Way.” “We are sworn” Krystha argued, “to undo the work of the Black Piper and the Bloodstone. And that is what I would be doing! Mell needs more Healers – it is foolishness that I am here, a Healer, and am forbidden to go to these people’s aid. That cannot be the Will of Light!” “The Will of Light is not always that we meet the most obvious need.” Aiel told her, firmly. “Krystha, I know how you must feel and I am more sorry than you can know that I cannot let you go. But we cannot spare the time. Our enemy is still ahead of us, and such a detour as you wish might cost us two days. It is impossible.” “Then leave me here, and go on without me!” Krystha cried. “No.” Aiel answered. “Krystha, you know that is just as impossible.”

Lin spoke, then. “Krystha, Aiel is our leader, the Lightstone-Bearer. You have sworn a vow to him, and to the Way. You must obey him now, or break faith.” Aiel did not know why it should be that whenever Lin spoke to Krystha in a way that she should clearly understand, she should grow so angry with the Swordsman. Perhaps he understood her too well. Whatever the reason, she erupted now. “Will you tell me about breaking faith? Am I not being asked to break faith with my Healer’s vows, that I also made to Light, long before I ever heard of this Way? Do you doubt my honour, Swordsman? Better look to your own – are you not sworn, too, to protect the victims of Darkness?” With this angry outburst she turned and almost ran from the room, leaving them all dismayed. Arentha tried, unhappily, to excuse her sister. “Oh Aiel, Lin, I am sorry! She is upset, and Krystha will never let herself be anything but angry when she is upset. She never could learn to weep, and so she flies into a fury instead.” “But why is she always angry with me?” Lin asked. Arentha gave a wry smile. “Perhaps – because you remind her too much of her shortcomings, Lin. It is not always easy to catch sight of oneself as another sees you.” Lin smiled a little too, thinking Arentha might well be right and agreed, “Perhaps! Aiel, let me go and see if I can find Krystha and make peace with her.” ‘But still’, the Swordsman thought to himself as, having received Aiel’s relieved agreement, he set out in search of Krystha , ‘she has as much need to make peace with me. For Aiel’s sake, this cannot go on.’

Lin went first to the stables, thinking Krystha might be with the horses. She was not there, but from a window he saw her, out in the tree-garth, beneath one of the fruit trees. Lin thought the matter over. His was a generous spirit which did not hold grudges, and it was no animosity towards Krystha, but his concern for Aiel and the Way, that made him determined to have out the issue with her, for her behaviour had unsettled them all. Krystha was leaning against the tree, her hand running absently over the smooth bark,as if she found the rhythmic movement soothing. Remembering Arentha’s words, Lin hoped the girl was not weeping, for he did not think she would like him catching her in tears. But she was not weeping, though her face was serious and pale. As Lin approached her, she looked up and said, challengingly, “You need not stand watch over me, Lin. I shall not be running away to the village.” “I am not standing watch on you”, he answered. “You are not a child, Krystha.” She flushed. “But I have behaved like one. I am sorry, Lin.” She pushed herself away from the tree with an impatient gesture, but her impatience was directed at herself, as she said, “Oh, sometimes I could tear out my tongue!” The confession, and apology, were unexpected. Her moods changed so quickly. Lin said, more gently, “Krystha, I wanted to speak to you.” She plucked a leaf and rubbed it between her fingers, as she answered, “I am listening.” “I am sorry, Krystha, if I have done anything to hurt or offend you. I think I only spoke truth, but if not, I wish that you would tell me where my fault lies, so that I may amend it. Aiel has burdens enough. For his sake and the Way’s, let there be no more of these petty wars between us.”

As he spoke, she had turned red again, and bowed her head. There was an awkward few seconds’ silence before she said, “Oh, Lin, you are an honourable man! There is no fault with you.” She glanced at him then, and continued, with a rueful half-smile, “I think you know that, though it is generous of you, to offer to take the blame for my – my foolishness.” She turned her head away again, and said softly, as if to herself, “No, you have done no wrong, nothing to hurt me…except to be yourself, Swordsman and free spirit.” And suddenly, Lin understood. He remembered Verrin saying, “Lady Krystha, now, would have made a fine Swordsman!” Lin felt a sudden compassion for Krystha, abandoned by her mother, overshadowed by her beautiful, beloved sister, deeply loyal to her father, yet with that brave, bright spirit imprisoned by the culture and customs of Li’is to a maiden’s tasks and duties. Yet she had taken up the fight against Darkness as best she could through her Healing skills. Now Lin better understood her reaction to Aiel’s interdict. Yet, he thought, Light had foreordained her, too, to the Lightstone Way. And when Lin really thought about it, he decided that if she had been a Swordsman, he would have trusted such a man with his life. he had no doubts of Krystha’s loyalty to Light.

Now, because he had been thinking these things, Lin said, “Krystha, what is a Swordsman’s most important attribute?” He could see that his question surprised her, because it was not what she expected. Still, she tried her best to answer. “I suppose…courage. Or sword-skill.” “Those are important. But the most important is discipline, Krystha.” “And I am undisciplined?” she asked, almost ready to be angry again. “Krystha, I do not know you well enough yet to say! I must see you in battle, first. Can you obey an order you mislike, knowing it to be for the best? Can you stand firm when all your senses scream, “Run!”? Will you let yourself be commanded?” She was thoughtful for a moment, looking at him with serious tawny eyes. “I think perhaps I do not know myself that well yet, either.” she said at last, quietly. “It might depend on who commanded.”

“Meanwhile”, Lin asked, ” is it peace between us, or war?” But he smiled as he said it, and she smiled too. “Peace.” she answered, extending her hand to him in token. Lin took it, not in his, but hand-to-forearm, in the Swordsmen’s handclasp, and saw that this pleased her. “Krystha,” he said suddenly, “we are comrades in this Way. Will it please you to swear Sword-Brotherhood with me?” “Gladly!” she answered, ” But – I am a maiden, Lin. Is it permitted?” “Each man may choose his own Sword-Brethren, you know that. There is no rule, nothing to say I may not choose a valiant maiden. It is a man’s own folly if he chooses unwisely, but I do not think I have chosen foolishly.” He smiled at her. “You are a descendant of Tamorine, Krystha – did you know that? – and I think her line runs true in you.” Lin drew the True Sword and they made the oath on its hilt. Lin did not know what impulse had led him to make her the offer of Sword-Brotherhood, only that it had felt the right thing to do, but also it settled matters between them fairly, for there could be no unpleasantness between sworn Sword-Brethren. “Krystha”, Lin said, when they had made the vow,”you know Aiel is right and he cannot let you go to the aid of the villagers. But by playing your part in the Way you can help Aiel defeat the Black Piper, and so avenge them.” And she nodded, thoughtfully, in agreement.

They returned to the Faring House, finding Mell and Aiel in quiet discussion. Arentha had been waiting for them, and shot Lin an enquiring glance. He smiled at her, to reassure her that Krystha and he had made a truce. Krystha had gone to the two Priests at the table, evidently, from her flushed cheeks, to apologise. Lin saw Aiel smile, say something softly to her, then rise and cup Krystha’s face in his hands , and set his Perception on her. Afterwards, Krystha seemed somewhat subdued, as though perhaps Light had chastened her, though only, as always, in love.

After they had breakfasted, it was time to go. Their provisions had been replenished and their horses saddled, and they mounted, bade farewell to Mell, and rode off with the words of his blessing in their ears. As they rode, the sun rose higher and the air became warm and still. Soon they saw a belt of trees ahead of them, and the roadway narrowed and became a track leading into the forest – the Red Forest, though at this point the trees were still green, though a sickly green. They rode in. Under the trees, the heat became oppressive. The soil did not have the rich, damp smell of the Mountain Forest. It seemed sour and light, a pale yellow colour. It was very still, with no birdsong or sound of small animals moving, not even the sound of insects. Arentha and Krystha, used to their own Forest, commented quietly on the strangeness and silence. They rode on, and entered a long, narrow glade. At the far end of it there seemed to be a strange shift of colour, which they first took to be a trick of the light. But drawing nearer, they saw that all the vegetation was touched with a strange, unhealthy reddish-brown, as though some unnatural fire had scorched it. “The Red Forest”, Arentha breathed. Aiel cast out his Perception towards the area, remembering Mell’s warning, and encountered something he could not quite interpret. Lin, seeing Aiel tense, asked, “What is wrong?” “I am not sure. I Perceive something, but I cannot make out what it is.” “Then we had best make sure”, Lin said, dismounting,”Where is it, Aiel?”

Aiel dismounted too, and, cautioning the girls to be ready to ride at any sign of danger, the young men crept forward. Peering through the red leaves they saw a dirty-looking stream, more of the reddish trees, and then, through a gap, a distant view of a few tumbled blocks of stone. Aiel sent out his Perception again in that direction, but was suddenly distracted by an awareness of a small, sharp, intense sense of evil, very close to him. He was about to look for its source when Krystha’s voice behind them said, commandingly, “Do not move , Aiel, Lin. There is danger near you.” With his Swordsman’s training, Lin froze instantly. Aiel too stood still, but it cost him a tremendous effort not to move, not to look round for the danger. Lin spoke, in a quiet but clear voice. “What is it, Krystha?” “A tree-viper, Lin. On the branch above you. be very still. Do not move till I say, and then be ready to move quickly. Do you understand?” “Yes”, Lin answered, for both of them. He could do nothing himself, and dared not move. Krystha seemed to have a plan, and he was thinking, as was Aiel, that they could only trust to her judgement. There was a pause of a few seconds, which seemed like hours. Then something small and bright slashed past them through the air, singing by so close to Lin’s cheek that he felt the wind of its passing. There was a small, soft thud, and Krystha cried, “Now!”

AS the two friends leapt back, Lin felt something whip across his shoulder, and looked up to see the deadly snake hanging from the branch, lashing wildly about. It was pinned to the branch by Krystha’s little knife, which had pierced it through a little below the head. Aiel stared at the creature with loathing. Lin drew his sword and cut off the viper’s head. It dropped to the earth, still viciously mouthing, and the Swordsman ground it to pulp beneath his heel. Then he wiped his sword, sheathed it, and reached up to pull Krystha’s knife free. The girls had dismounted and come across to them, and the body of the snake, still twitching and jerking, fell at their feet. Arentha took a step backward, but Krystha did not flinch. She asked, “It did not harm you?” Lin held out the knife to her, saying, “No, thanks to you, Krystha.” He looked at her with frank respect . “That was well thrown.” She smiled at him, looking pleased at his praise, but answered lightly, “Not so well. I was aiming for the head.” She took the little knife and wiped it clean on a rag from her Healer’s sack, before replacing it in its sheath. Aiel said, “Krystha, we likely owe you our lives, Thank you. ” To his surprise the Healer seemed embarrassed by his thanks, and only said, “Maybe. Should we not ride on?”

Aiel agreed, and did not pursue the matter. To Lin, though, as they remounted, he said, “That was brave of Krystha. And cool-headed.” “Aye”, Lin concurred, “She has a Swordsman’s spirit, Aiel. This morning we resolved our differences, and after, I swore Sword-Brotherhood with her. But I never thought to call on it so soon!” As they rode, Lin dropped back to say to Krystha, “I chose my Sword-Brother well!” Her amber-brown eyes gazed steadily at him. “Would you say so, Lin, if your Sword-Brother were a Brother indeed, and not a maiden?” “Aye,” he said, “I would. There are men of my Watch who could not do what you did, for it takes skill to strike a target from horseback, with a knife, at that distance. And,” he added, surprising himself as much as Krystha with the realisation of it, “I trusted your judgement, Krystha, enough to risk my life, and Aiel’s on it. And on Aiel’s life hangs the whole Way and all it means – Sword-Brother.” He smiled at her, and trotted forward again to join Aiel.

They had reached the stream now, and forded its unsavoury-looking waters cautiously. Emerging from the fringe of reddish trees on the other bank of the stream, they found themselves looking across at the tumbled Ruins of the Dark City. Great blocks of stone, columns, pillars, grotesque statues, lay in jumbled masses across a vast expanse of dull red, dusty earth. No one, in all the centuries since its destruction, had plundered the dark stone of these accursed Ruins to build with. No growing things had spread to cloak the rawness of the broken buildings, for nothing could take root or grow in the defiled earth. Only the rains and winds had gnawed impotently at the shattered stone, and blown drifts of the red dust in a slowly creeping veil across its ugliness. Aiel saw Arentha shudder at the sight, and knew the same unease was in them all. As they rode towards the brooding Ruins, Aiel thought of the history of the Lightstone he now bore, thought too of other men, of Brann and his fellows and Rafel who had been his forerunner as Lightstone-Bearer, carrying the Stone into battle with the forces of Darkness. Here before him now, after years upon years, still lay the evidence of Brann and Tamorine’s triumph, and the Lightstone’s power, which had destroyed the City of Darkness. The thought heartened him, despite the menace of the Ruins. They skirted the Ruins, but as they did so, Aiel thought he saw a movement. Were there Children of Night in the Ruins? He rode closer. Lin called to him, “Aiel, be careful! Mell said, remember, that the Children of Night still haunt this place.” Aiel turned his head over his shoulder and called back to his friend. “We will be cautious, Lin. But look around you – this is the work of the Lightstone. Should we fear the Darkness in this place, knowing what we carry with us?”

Lin made sure the maidens were safely close, and they rode after Aiel into the fringes of the ruined city, wary for signs of danger. Aiel was looking in the direction of the movement he had seen. “Lin, something stirred, there.” Lin looked. “It might be something – or nothing. Maybe a rag in the breeze.” “There is no breeze – the air is too still. Let me try my Perception.” Aiel reached out his Priestly sense towards the movement, cautious, after his previous encounter with the Black Piper, and ready to withdraw at the first touch of that poisonous, sucking evil. But, prepared for the evil, he was not prepared for what he did encounter – not Darkness, but pain. Pain physical, mental and spiritual, a raw anguish like that of a wounded animal, engulfed him. It was not an animal, though, for at the heart of it was a mind which was – or had been till the agony broke it – human. Aiel was as trapped as if he had encountered the Black Piper, for nowhere in that broken mind was there a single rational thought to help him back to himself. He was drowning in agony and madness.

Lin saw in Aiel’s face a reflection of what he was Perceiving, and caught Aiel’s reins, shouting his name. There was no reply. Vainly the Swordsman struggled to reach Aiel’s mind and control the horses at the same time. Krystha saw Lin’s struggles, and she and Arentha rode closer. The Healer took one look at Aiel’s tortured expression and the way his body was tensing, his back beginning to arch backwards in response to what he was Perceiving. Without hesitation she leaned over and delivered two swift, hard slaps to his face. Lin almost protested, then saw that her rough treatment had succeeded. Aiel’s eyes came alive again, and he was back with them. He shook his head and rubbed his stinging cheek in automatic reaction, and Krystha said, “I am sorry, Aiel. It was the only way to reach you.” “I know”, was all he said, then, “Krystha come, I need your skills. There is someone – or something – terribly hurt in that place.” He was off at a swift pace, with Krystha riding at his horse’s heels, and Lin and Arentha wheeled to follow them.

The place where Aiel had seen the movement was a part of the Ruins where the Children of Night must obviously have gathered, for some of the tumbled columns and stones had been collected and built into a rough square building, partly open to the sky, with a narrow doorway. It was in this doorway that he had seen the movement. Aiel reined in his horse and slid from its back, with Krystha right behind him. A moment later, seeing the horror before them, Aiel was wishing, as desperately as he had ever wished anything in his life, that he had not had to call Krystha to come with him. For the movement he had seen was the feeble stirring of a dreadfully injured body that lay across the doorway. It was a young girl, scarcely more than a child, her face, once surely innocent and fair, now a bloody, battered mask of injuries. Her simple clothing was ripped to shreds,the body beneath torn and bruised. Her limbs lay at such grotesque angles that it seemed not one bone was left unbroken. Aiel could not comprehend a force of evil that could leave an innocent like this ravished, beaten, broken in mind and body. Despite his enounters with Si-Mara and Lak, only now did he begin to understand the true nature of the Dark Lord, his capacity for infinite evil.

Krystha, after one short cry of horror, had set aside her feelings and bent to her Healer’s tasks, kneeling beside the girl to gently lift the wounded head into her lap. She ran delicately probing fingers over the poor broken body with a tenderness that somehow spoke of her distress, and at last she raised her head from her work and said, “Aiel, she is dying. There is nothing I can do.” “Not even to ease her pain?” he asked. She shook her head. “No, not even that” she answered, bleakly. “I have no draught with me that would be strong enough to drown this out..” she almost choked on her words, then said, with a little gasp, “Oh! Aiel, perhaps the Lightstone..” “Yes”, he said, anticipating her. He drew out the Lightstone and knelt beside Krystha, touching the stone to the wounded girl’s brow. The light flowed gently over the pathetic, twisted body, and Aiel thought, for a moment, that perhaps it would even heal her. The light seemed to wash the pain from the girl’s face. For a moment, it seemed she almost tried to smile, and her hand moved,as if she would reach out for something. But then the hand dropped, heavily, and the girl’s head lolled back in Krystha’s lap, eyes fixed and still. Krystha closed the girl’s eyes, and said, “She is dead.” And then, in a voice tight with pain, “Oh, Aiel!”

Aiel had forgotten the others, but now he heard a sound behind him, turned, and saw, thankfully, that Lin had pulled Arentha round, away from the dreadful scene; her face was hidden in the Swordsman’s shoulder as she wept bitterly. Lin, though, was staring at the dead girl with set face and eyes like cold grey stones. Aiel turned back to Krystha. She had laid down the still body, but still knelt beside it, silent and numb, tawny eyes unseeing. Aiel called Krystha’s name, but she did not respond. Gently he touched her cheek; it was icy-cold, but not with tears, for her eyes were wide and dry. Aiel did not know how to reach her. He did not feel in his spirit that the Lightstone was the answer, this time, but what else to do he did not know, for Krystha was the Healer, not he. He turned again towards the others, hoping for Arentha’s help, but saw at once that she was still too distressed herself to help Krystha. So he appealed to Lin, quietly. “Lin, Krystha will not answer me.” Lin said, “Let me try. Take Arentha.” Aiel held the weeping maiden and watched while Lin knelt beside Krystha and spoke to her, softly, but with an air of firm command. Aiel could not hear what the Swordsman said, but after a while the bowed red head straightened, and Krystha looked into Lin’s face. Lin continued to speak to her, and at last the girl nodded, and let Lin help her to her feet, but still she did not weep. Aiel looked at her dry-eyed pallor, and wished that she would let the tears come.

Lin said, now, “Aiel, is there Darkness yet in this place?” Aiel answered, “I Perceived only the poor girl – her pain was so strong, it drowned out anything else…” “I will search.” Lin said, drawing his sword, “There may be Children of Night hiding there still.” “Lin, be careful!” Aiel exclaimed. The Swordsman stepped, very carefully, round the girl’s body, and through the doorway, disappearing into the dimness beyond. A few moments later, Aiel heard his friend give such a cry of horror that with a hasty “Stay here!” to the girls, he rushed after Lin into the place of death. Instantly his Perception was assailed by a sense of terror and evil, yet there was no one but Lin in the place. What foul things must have happened here, to leave such an imprint on the very air! Lin was standing motionless by a slab of black stone at the far end of the building. Aiel went towards him, seeing that something small and pale lay across the stone by which the Swordsman stood. Lin looked up from the thing which had seemingly held him hypnotised, and said, “Aiel..” in a low voice that was almost a groan. He pointed, and Aiel looked, and felt a cold wave of horror and nausea engulf him. The thing that lay across the slab was the tiny body of a baby, ripped open like a butchered animal. Aiel echoed Lin’s groan, feeling, in that moment, as though all that had been innocent and untroubled in him finally shrivelled and died. Very gently, as though the child still lived, he lifted and cradled it against him, looking across the stone into Lin’s horrified face. “Now I have looked three times into the very heart of Darkness”, Aiel said, “and this third time is the bitterest.” He looked down again at the tiny body and said, with tears of sorrow and pity pouring down his cheeks, “Lin, the child was a sacrifice to the Bloodstone – and I let the Bloodstone pass! How shall I bear this burden on my soul – the maiden, and now this poor babe?” “Aiel, it is not your guilt to bear!” Lin cried. “The Secret Word tells you that, and Light forgave you the Bloodstone’s passing. Do not listen to the lies of Darkness, nor let false guilt turn you from your task, What happened here is terrible, but if you allow the Darkness to overcome you, to persuade you that you are not worthy of the Lightstone and the Way, and to defeat you – then all Li’is goes down into Darkness, and such things as these will happen everywhere.” “Lin, you are wise!” Aiel agreed, “I must not let this defeat me, but trust in Light, and not listen to my own feelings.”

They went back to the girls, then. Lin went first, to prepare them, while Aiel tenderly carried the murdered child. “Lin, Aiel, what is it?” Krystha asked, as the Swordsman appeared. “Krystha, they have slain a babe, too, as a sacrifice to the Bloodstone.” Lin answered. Arentha, who was still quietly weeping, gasped, “How could anything human do such things?” Aiel said, looking down at the dead infant in his arms, “Those who did this are no longer human. They are possessed by Darkness. ” Krystha, seeing his distress, held out her arms. “Give me the babe, Aiel.” Unprotesting, the young Priest handed her his forlorn burden, and said, “They must have come from the village that was raided.” “But that was two days and nights past..” Lin began, and broke off, because it was not good to think of what had happened in those two days and nights.

“I must send word to Mell”, Aiel said, “I will not let them lie here, in this dreadful place.” “It will be some while before Mell comes.” Lin said, “We must raise a cairn over them, to keep them from scavenging beasts.” “Let me and Arentha tend the dead”, Krystha said, “Mell will take them – will take them home for burial.” It was the first time that her voice had faltered. She continued, “I would send the little one back to its mother in fitting manner, and the girl to her people in decent order. Go you, and gather stones for the cairn.” Arentha brushed away her tears, and turned to unfasten her saddle bag. “We have spare clothes. We will cover her decently.” she said. “Come”, Lin said to Aiel, and the two friends went far enough away to give the girls privacy to manage their sad task. They were careful, though, that they were close enough to see and respond should any danger threaten the sisters. As they gathered the stones, Lin asked, “Aiel, how is it with you?” “The Darkness still accuses me,” Aiel answered, “but I will not listen. Lin, this foe must be overcome, if it costs me my life! I will not let this evil devour all Li’is.” Lin was satisfied by his friend’s determined words, though his heart shrank from the thought that Aiel might die in achieving his task. “Light prevent it!” , the Swordsman murmured to himself.

Laden with armfuls of broken stone, they returned to the others. Aiel and Lin were both moved by what the maidens had done for the dead. They had dressed the girl in a white undergarment that covered her nakedness and sore wounds, discarding her own torn clothes, and combed out her tangled, matted hair. They had straightened, as far as possible, the crooked limbs, and because they had washed the red dust and dried blood from her face, though they could not wash away the bruises, the peace the Lightstone had brought to her dying moments showed there. As for the babe, Krystha had wrapped its tiny body tightly in strips of cloth from her Healer’s sack, and placed it in the girl’s arms. That seemed fitting too, seeming to take away some of the loneliness of death from them both. Before they built the cairn, Krystha reached into her Healer’s sack again, and threw two or three handfuls of sweet-smelling dried herbs over the bodies. Then the four of them pushed and dragged some of the larger stones into position above the bodies, and filled the gaps with the smaller stones which Aiel and Lin had collected. Aiel stood and prayed aloud, giving the spirits of the two innocents into the keeping of Light. Then he drew out the Lightstone and used it to augment his Perception, reaching out for that of Mell, his brother Priest. He stood quietly for a long time,as the Thought-without-Words flowed. Then he turned to the others, and said, “Mell will come with the villagers at first light, and take them home. But he says we must go on now, for there is still far to go, and the sun is well past noontide.”

As they remounted, Aiel glanced at the others. Arentha, though her face was pale and weary and marked with the dried-salt track of tears, did not concern him as much as the others. Her grief and revulsion, like his own, had been expressed. But Lin’s apparent stoicism, and above all, Krystha’s quiet rigidity, worried him. They set off again on the road to the Second Faring House, riding fast as if to outrun the memory of what they had experienced in the Dark City Ruins. It was a great relief when the place disappeared from view behind them. Lin, always practical, said, “Aiel, we must slow down. If we go on at such a pace we will tire the horses before we reach the Faring House.” “But it is growing darker” Arentha observed, and she was right. Though the sky was still light, it was slowly darkening overhead. Aiel slowed his horse and reached out with his Perception in the direction of the Faring House. He touched a consciousness, and felt his brother Priest’s Perception swing to meet his. Aiel’s grief and weariness made the contact tenuous, so he could give no detailed communication. He managed to convey that he and his companions were distressed, weary, and possibly in danger, and sought the shelter of the Faring House, and the other Priest assured him that he would come to meet them on the road. Aiel thanked him,then broke the contact, and told the others. The knowledge that they were no longer riding into the unknown, that help was on the way, seemed to ease their minds a little. Aiel, though, was still concerned about Krystha, and, to a lesser extent, Lin. He rode alongside his friend , and said, softly, “Lin, I do not like Krystha’s silence.” Lin said, as quietly, “No more do I. She has herself under tight control, Aiel. But sometime she must break.” “And what of you, Lin?” Aiel challenged. “I? I feel sick to my stomach, Aiel. But my task is to guard you and the maidens until we come safe to shelter. Only afterwards will there be time to mourn the dead, or weep, or feel ill. I shall probably do all of those, when there is time.” he added. Aiel felt some relief. Lin’s practicality and honesty cheered him a little.

It grew darker as they rode, and soon they were trotting through the dark night and milky moonlight. Aiel slipped the Lightstone free of its pouch and let it lie gleaming on his breast, its light and presence comforting them in the gloom. At length, they heard the steady clop of hooves on the road ahead, and Aiel reached out his Perception, meshing with the same mind he had met before. It was Brath, the Priest who kept the Second Faring House, and with him his son, Tavis. Their greetings were courteous but perfunctory, then Aiel said, “You may see, my Brothers-in-Light, that I am the Lightstone-Bearer.” “And you have encountered peril on your way?” Brath asked. “Not peril, but great grief”, Aiel answered, ” and we are too burdened to speak clearly of it yet.” “Let it rest, then, till we have you safely in the Faring House, my Brother-in-Light.” Brath answered, kindly.

With the other two Priests as guides, the journey seemed less dismal, though they rode in exhausted silence after their brief interchange, and Brath and Tavis, Perceiving their great sorrow, made no attempt at conversation. There would be time enough for explanations, as Brath had said, when they reached the safe shelter of the Faring House. Before long, they saw the gleam of lights from the House ahead of them, and found themselves riding into the courtyard. Weary in body and spirit, and still dazed with shock and grief, they were hardly aware of dismounting and their horses being led away. With kindly concern, Brath ushered them into the Faring House, where a sweet-faced, brown-haired woman waited. “Lady Saditha”, Brath introduced her, “my wife and our Healer.” “Lady”, Lin said urgently, “if you are a Healer, look to the maidens!” For Arentha had sunk down on the bench by the door, her face in her hands, as if she could bear no more. But it was to Krystha’s stony white face and rigid-still body that the Healer’s concerned look flew, and Krystha it was who, as her fellow Healer took a step towards her, crumpled suddenly and silently to the floor. Arentha cried out her sister’s name, and Aiel exclaimed to the Healer, “I was afraid of this! She was so quiet…” and stopped, realising that his words would make no sense, since Lady Saditha did not know what had happened. Lin said nothing, but swiftly bent to lift the unconscious girl, his look asking the Healer what he should do next. “Come with me, all of you.” Lady Saditha commanded, reaching out a hand to Arentha. “Go you, Lin”, Aiel said, “I will follow in a little, Lady. First I must speak to my Brothers-in-Light.”

When the Healer had gone, taking his companions with her, to the Healing Place, Brath said, gently still, “Lightstone-Bearer – you are overburdened. Do not burden yourself further with searching for words. Let us make the Thought-without-Words.” “My name is Aiel.” the young Priest said, suddenly realising that he had not even told them that. “And I would be very glad to share Perception with you, for I think I could not bear to speak of what has befallen us today. Yet if I do, I must expose you too to the Darkness of it.” “You are our Brother, and you need our help.” Tavis said, simply. “Aye” Brath agreed.”Let us make the Thought-without-Words, Aiel.” They sat together at a table, then, and simply let their Perceptions flow together. Aiel was too tired to censor his experiences, and just let everything flow out to Brath and Tavis, and with it his sorrow, his guilt and shame, his determination to overcome this and finish his Way and defeat the Darkness. He felt the other Priests’ reactions, their sharing of his sorrow and pain, their compassion, acceptance and reassurance. From Tavis he felt a spark of anger, for the innocent victims, and for the hurt done to Aiel himself. From the older Priest he felt sorrow, and loving brotherhood. Both of them rejected his feelings of guilt, giving him strength and determination with their fellowship. This time of sharing, of brotherhood, brought Aiel closer to peace.

Meanwhile, in the Healing Place, Lin had laid Krystha down on the couch indicated by the Healer. Seeing Arentha’s anxiety as the Healer examined her sister, he took her hand gently, to comfort her, though he too was watching with no little concern. Arentha’s hand was very cold, and when he took it, her fingers clung tightly to his. At last the Healer finished her examination, and sighed, “Poor child, she is greatly overburdened. It is as well that she fainted. Let her rest.” She turned then to Arentha, taking the girl’s face in her hands, and said softly, “Ah, yours is a softer spirit than your sister’s. You will bend but not break, like a reed in the wind.” Releasing Arentha, she turned to pour something into a small bowl, which she handed to the girl. A sweet perfume filled the room, and Arentha looked at the Healer with startled eyes. Lady Saditha nodded. “Aye, it is sweetwood, and I do not use it without cause, child. Sleep and forgetting for your healing too. Drink now.” Arentha obediently drank the draught and allowed herself to be helped to the couch beside Krystha’s. Lady Saditha covered her over, quietly, and so potent was the sleep-inducing spice that the girl was asleep in minutes .Now Lady Saditha moved back to Lin’s side, and asked, gently, “What will ease your pain, Swordsman? For surely some deep evil has befallen all of you, and you so young to bear it.” It was not a question, and Lin, startled by the certainty of her statement, gazed at her, and, for the first time, saw that Lady Saditha’s eyes were clear, piercing, vivid blue….

He did not know why he should be so surprised. Though it was the sons of the Priesthood who always carried Perception, now and then a daughter was born with the Gift. And often enough those that were, having been trained in its use but not being expected to enter the Priesthood as their brothers did, made good use of their power by becoming Healers and counsellors. Now he said, “You are right, Lady. We have seen much that is foul and evil and bitter this day. If you are willing, you may Perceive it, but I fear I cannot talk of it.” For, like Aiel, he was not yet ready to frame words for the Darkness he had seen. Lady Saditha took his face gently between her hands, as she had Arentha’s, and said, “I will Perceive it, though you have walked through Darkness this day. I can better heal the hurts I understand, Swordsman.” She set her Perception on him, and Lin was glad of it. The cool blue gaze spilt like cleansing water into his mind, seeming to wash away some of the Darkness and hurts of the day. He could feel the Healer’s compassion for him, and in the face of it the day’s bitter memories seemed less keen, the sharp edge of his pain somewhat blunted. When Lady Saditha withdrew her Perception, Lin saw that her face was pale, her blue eyes brimming with tears. “Things foul and evil and bitter indeed!” she exclaimed. “You have endured such Darkness – poor children, no wonder you are all so burdened.” Almost, he said, “We are not children, we are the Way-Sharers.” But that would have been churlish in the face of her kindness, and Lin held his tongue.

There was a tap at the door, and Aiel came in, asking “Lin, how is it with Krystha?” It was the Healer who answered. “She fainted because she was so overburdened. I will do nothing till she wakens and I can see how she fares. Her sister, though, should recover with rest. I have given her a draught of sweetwood, so that she sleeps deeply.” She glanced sypathetically at them. “And for you, Lightstone-Bearer, and the Swordsman too, let sleep bring relief and forgetfulness for now. It will bring you strength to deal with the pain tomorrow.” She mixed them each a draught – not the strong sweetwood, but a less potent aid to sleep- and sent for Tavis to conduct them to a comfortable bedchamber, where he left them with a quiet blessing. Swordsman and Priest spoke very little, except to commit each other to Light’s keeping. The combination of physical weariness, emotional exhaustion, the weight of grief, and the Healer’s draught had made them so tired that they reeled to their beds like drunken men and fell quickly and deeply asleep.

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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