Once in the Forest, Aiel let Lin take the lead, since the Swordsman knew the way. It was warm and rather humid under the trees, and the earth had a rich, fruity smell. The first young fronds of bracken were beginning to unfurl, and here and there grew small clumps of a tall, bushy plant with tiny white flowers, a wild herb known as Springfollower, used for healing. As they drew nearer to the stream they were to follow, they saw that it was edged with a rich growth of knee-high greenery, and Lin whispered, “We cannot walk along the bank. We would cut a swathe that a blind man might follow!”
So they walked on the dark earth of the forest floor, but following the course of the stream. It was not all smooth walking, for tree-roots and hook-thorned vines trailed across the earth and might trip the unwary, and the ground rose as they walked, slowly and steadily at first, then more steeply. Their robes were an encumbrance too, and with the ascent, and increasing humidity, both young men were sweating by the time they reached the Axehead Rock. This was where the stream they had been following fell away from the White River, which came rushing down from the Falls of Vandar, where its various sources, rising from underground springs, joined and hurled themselves over the cliff edge. Lin had worn his sword concealed beneath his robe till now, but now he took it out and buckled the belt on over the garment as he told Aiel softly, “This is the farthest I have ever been, since Merhaun forbade us to go further. But now we must follow the River back to the Falls, and Tamran’s Stairway.”
As they came to the other side of the great Rock, they saw a well-marked path running alongside the River. It was evident that the Fortress folk kept their part of the Forest patrolled, and Aiel wondered if they were unobserved.
Suddenly Lin gave a whispered exclamation, “Listen!” Aiel heard nothing, but the Swordsman’s practised ears heard the swishing sound of someone moving through the grass along the path, coming towards them. “We must hide”, Lin murmured, looking round him. Seeing a deep but dry ditch, lined with last year’s dead leaves and overhung by bushes, he indicated it to Aiel, and they stepped into it and crouched down, waiting.
A few moments later, round the turn in the path came two maidens, and Aiel relaxed. But Lin stayed tensed for action, knowing there were women too among the Children of Night. The two girls did not seem to be from among the Festival throng, for they were not dressed for Festival. The taller and, apparently, older of the two girls was one of the loveliest maidens either Lin or Aiel had ever seen. The delicately-boned oval of her face was framed by a fall of glossy hair just a shade away from black. Her large eyes were a dark, lustrous brown, generously fringed with thick lashes. Her skin was clear and rosy-fair. Her mouth and expression were sweet and gentle, with none of the hardness Lin had seen too often in girls who were beautiful, and knew it. Her figure was slim, but womanly, and she moved with casual grace. Her gown, of deep rich blue, was similar to the everyday gowns of the City miadens, but had one ornament they had never seen before; a single wide, floating panel hanging from the waist at the front, and embroidered, as were the gown’s neck, sleeves and hem, with a pattern of white birds, matching her girdle of white braided cord. The other girl was shorter, for if the dark girl, by Lin’s reckoning, was only a little shorter than Aiel, this maiden would reach only to his own shoulder. She was not beautiful, beside the other girl, but her colouring was striking. Her tumbled waves of hair were a burning red-gold, gleaming in the dappled sunlight that slid through the trees, and her eyes were amber-brown. Aiel, watching as carefully as Lin, was somewhat reminded, by the shape and colour of them, of a hill-cat. Her heart-shaped face was dusted with freckles over a pale, creamy skin and rather turned-up nose, and there was a slight pout to her lips and a thrust to her small chin that spoke determination, even stubborness. Her figure was a little rounder than the other girl’s, and she wore a gown identical in design, but of a forest green, embroidered with trails of leaves. Her craft was clear to see, for instead of a girdle she wore a loose leather belt, and strapped to it the herb-sack and small, sheathed knife of a Healer. In one hand she carried a basket, containing sprays of several varieties of leaves, and a few earthy tubers. As the girls came nearer, Aiel reached out his Perception and to his relief found no Darkness in or around them. Still no need, though, to give his and Lin’s presence away unnecessarily, he thought, and kept still and silent.
The red-haired girl was speaking. “We shall need to come again, Arentha, the blueroot is late this year.” When the dark maiden answered, it was in a gentle, musical voice that pleased Aiel’s musician’s ear. “Has Harik enough, for now?” “Yes, but fresh is better. Many people came from the City for the Festival today.” “I wish we were permitted to go down. There was a new music I would have liked to hear better.” “It is better that City and Fortress do not meet” the redhead said, as if she quoted something learned by rote, “and we know the reason – who better?” She sounded sad, and the dark girl asked, as if to change the subject, “Krystha, what else do you need, now?”
“How many times have I told you the herbs and their seasons?” the girl called Krystha teased her companion. “I should set them to a tune, and then you would remember!” And she quoted from the Healers’ List , “These are the nine wild healing herbs of Springtime: starweed, blueroot, grass-of-gold, softwood leaf, climbing fire, Springfollower, crimson thorn, pillow moss and water-bread.” “And which do we lack?” “It is too early yet for the water plants. Otherwise, only starweed.” The red-haired girl looked round her. “It usually grows in this place, by the old ditch.”
Lin and Aiel exchanged glances. If the maidens came to the ditch to gather the herb, they would be discovered. Aiel leaned close to his friend and whispered, “I Perceive no Darkness in them.” Lin whispered back, “They are surely from the Fortress. Perhaps they will help us.” The maidens were turning towards them now. Further concealment would be impossible, and the two young men rose from their hiding place. The dark girl, Arentha, stepped back with a little cry of fear, but red-haired Krystha stood her ground, and her hand went to the little knife at her waist. “Who are you?” she demanded, “Why are you hiding on Fortress ground?” Lin stepped lightly and easily up out of the ditch and said, “Softly, maiden. We mean you no harm.” He reached out an arm to help Aiel, who was somewhat hampered by the harp slung on his shoulder, Arentha seemed reassured by the sight of the young Priest, but Krystha said, “I do not know that, Swordsman. A Priest’s robes may be stolen, but the eyes do not lie.” and, to Aiel, “Come out of the shadow, so I may see your face.” Aiel glanced at Lin, who gave a barely perceptible nod. He could not fault Krystha’s actions, for he would have been as wary as she in such a situation. Aiel stepped forward, so that the sunlight fell on his face and lit his blue Priest’s eyes. The red-headed Healer said, “So, you we may be sure of at least, Friend of Light. But who are you, and why did you hide? Do you not know that the Lord of the Mountains will not allow you further than the Axehead Rock, even on a Festival day?”
Lin surmised, by the way she had taken charge, that Krystha might be in a position of more authority than Arentha, who, though she seemed the elder of the two, stayed quiet. He could not help but admire the redhead’s courage and spirit, and suddenly and absurdly had a memory of old Gerrik, his Sword-Trainer, saying of a red-headed Swordsman he had trained long ago, “Fire on the head, fire in the heart!”
Aiel said, “Maidens, we know of Merhaun’s rule. But it is to the Fortress that we are going. We carry an urgent message to the Lord of the Mountains, from Arnath, High Priest of the Temple of Light. See, this letter bears his seal.” Lin added “The matter concerns a threat from the Children of Night, and the messenger may be pursued by them. That is why I accompany him. We heard you coming and hid till we were sure of you.” “You have not yet told us who you are.” challenged Krystha. “I am Aiel, Arnath’s son” Aiel answered her, “And this Swordsman is Lin, son of Linnad, Lord of the Harbour.” Lin gave a slight bow, and said, “We were told that Aiel’s father, and mine, and Lord Merhaun, were friends, and have been sent to seek his help now, for the sake of their friendship.” Which was true enough, without revealing the details of the Lightstone and the Way.
“If you are from the Fortress, will you guide us?” Aiel asked. For the first time Arentha, the dark girl, spoke. “If your message is so urgent, we will take you.” Aiel asked her “Do you know the Lord Merhaun well? I was told that he does not welcome those of the City. Yet I am in desperate need of his help.” Arentha smiled. “As well as any may know him, we do. He is our father.” Aiel flushed. “Oh! Your pardon, ladies. I did not think…” Krystha interrupted, “That we looked like a great Lord’s daughters? Fine fabrics do not wear well on our mountain paths, Aiel son of Arnath. And you need not fear. Merhaun our father has scant reason to love the City, but he is loyal to his friends. He will help you.” “Come”, said Arentha, “we will take you to him.”
“One moment.” Krystha said, drawing her little knife. Lin’s hand moved instinctively to his sword, and she raised scornful tawny eyes to his grey ones, saying, “Do not be foolish, Swordsman!” She pointed to the clump of starweed nearby. “I may as well take back what I came for.” They waited while Krystha quickly cut down some of the stems with their rosettes of leaves and pink-white star-shaped flowers. She laid them with the other herbs in her basket, cleaned and sheathed her knife,and came back to them. Lin said, a little doubtfully, “We were told to go by the Falls of Vandar and Tamran’s Stairway, to avoid attention.” He did not see how the girls, in their long gowns, could pass that way. But Krystha shot him a look that was full of mischief, as if she divined his thought, and said, “Good, that is our way too.” Aiel said to lovely Arentha, as they followed the narrow path by the White River, “Your sister, then, is a Healer.” “Yes, second only to Harik. And he is the best Healer of man or beast in Li’is.” Aiel, a strange idea beginning to nuzzle at his mind, asked, “What is it that you do, at the Fortress?” “I order my father’s household, and oversee the servants and the stores.” the girl answered. “You have no mother, then?” the Young Priest asked, and regretted it instantly, for an expression of grief crossed the beautiful face, though she only answered, briefly, “No.” “I am sorry”, Aiel said, touching Arentha’s arm gently. “I should not have asked. I – my mother is dead too. I know the pain of that loss.”
They had reached the Falls of Vandar, and Aiel paused for a moment to admire the tumbling, roaring rush of white water. Krystha pointed out a steep, narrow series of rough steps hacked out of the rock at the side of the Falls. “Tamran’s Stairway.” she said, then, looking critically at their clothing, “You will need to kilt up your robes.” Lin and Aiel obediently did so, Lin still wondering how the girls would manage. But as Krystha turned to lead the way, she caught up the front panel of her gown, tucking it into her belt, and revealing beneath it a divided skirt. This enabled her to climb without hindrance, and, even though she carried her basket of herbs, she went up the steep stairway nimbly and quickly, obviously practised at the task. Lin was as agile, but Aiel, again hampered by his harp, moved more slowly, and kind Arentha slowed her pace to help him. When all four had reached the top, the two friends found themselves standing on the Fortress Level, a broad, grassy platform on the side of the mountain. In front of them rose the Fortress, surrounded by strong walls and gates. It was a vast place, far larger than either of them had imagined. Not a mountain-top castle, but a whole fortified town lay before them, surmounted by the great Hall of the Lord of the Mountains. The Fortress was as much carved out of the mountain as built on to it. As a Swordsman, Lin was greatly impressed by the Fortress. It was a magnificent place of defence.
Arentha and Krystha were walking towards the Fortress; Lin and Aiel untucked their robes and followed them. They went not to the large main gate, but a small side entrance, where the rust-liveried Watchward challenged them. “Lady Arentha, Lady Krystha, who are these with you?” Arentha answered this time, “A Priest of the Temple and a Swordsman of the City, bringing a message to Merhaun my father from Arnath, High Priest of Light.” “Here is the High Priest’s seal”, said Aiel, producing his father’s letter. As Arnath had said, the seal was sufficient to obtain their admittance to the Fortress. Lin looked around with interest, seeing horses being exercised, Swordsmen at practice, children at play. Aiel, though, faced with the prospect of his interview with Merhaun, was beginning to feel uncomfortable. The two girls led them into the anteroom of the Great hall. “Wait here, while we tell our father of your coming.” Krystha said, “He will send his steward to summon you.”
“You will dine with us also, when your message is given?” invited Arentha, “It is not too urgent for that? We have so few guests. And perhaps…” her eyes strayed to Aiel’s harp, “would you play for us the new music that was played at the Festival? If you know it?” Lin smiled, “Lady Arentha, surely Aiel knows the music, since it was of his own making!” “Then Arentha will have much to discuss with you, when your message has been given” Krystha said,” for she too is a musician. Hers is the sweetest voice in the Fortress, and she sings for us at all the Festivals.”
As the girls left them to go and find their father, Lin caught such a brooding look on Aiel’s face that he asked, “What is wrong, Aiel? We have come safely to the Fortress; now surely we have respite for a while.” “The maidens.” Aiel said unhappily. “Lin, Krystha is a Healer. And Arentha, a singer.” “What of it?” “‘If I am right’ my father said,’it will be very hard for Merhaun, and he will be most unwilling to give them to you’. The Secret Word bade me seek treasures of the Mountains. ‘Ebony and red gold’- do you remember the words?- ‘melody and healing’.” Lin stared at his friend. “The maidens? Merhaun’s daughters?” “It cannot be chance , Lin, that the daughters of the Lord of the Mountains – surely his treasures- should be one an ebony-haired singer, and the other a Healer with hair of red-gold. And only Light could have foreknown that, when the Secret Word was written.” “But the maidens, Aiel..” Lin repeated, “It cannot be! Would Light ordain two maidens to such a danger as the Lightstone Way? If they were sons, Swordsmen, then, yes, I would agree. But Arentha and Krystha?” “Light chooses women as well as men. You know that. They are descended from Tamorine, Lin.” “That is not my objection.” the Swordsman answered, “Of course not, Aiel! But they must be more at risk from the Children of Night- we know what they are capable of. If the maidens fell into their hands..” and he broke off with a little shudder, “Lin, do you think I have not already had such thoughts? I would not wish it so- but if there is no other answer, I will not gainsay the Will of Light. And what else might there be in this place that fits the Secret Word so well?” “That we must ask Merhaun,” Lin said, “for here comes his steward to take us to him.”
Merhaun did not come to greet Aiel and Lin as they entered his Hall. He waited on a dais at the far end, seated in a high, carved chair, as the steward led them the length of the Hall, bowed to his Lord, and left them standing before him. To either side of Merhaun’s chair stood Arentha and Krystha, and Aiel thought that they too seemed apprehensive about this interview. The Lord of the Mountains was not as Aiel had expected him to be, for somehow the Lightstone-Bearer had thought Merhaun would be big and hearty, like Linnad, Lin’s father. Merhaun, though, was not particularly tall, and quite slim and wiry. His hair was as red as Krystha’s, though his eyes were more hazel than amber. He was also younger than Aiel had expected, certainly a few years younger than his own father, Merhaun’s face might have been pleasant and youthful, but it was set in a brooding, withdrawn expression.
Merhaun spoke no word of greeting. “You have a letter from Arnath for me?” he asked, and held out his hand for it. Aiel gave him the letter, too disconcerted by Merhaun’s coldness and lack of courtesy to speak. The Lord of the Mountains broke the seal and read the letter through, twice. Then he looked at Aiel, and said, “What do you want of me, then?” “Aid”, Aiel answered, “and news, Lord. The Black Piper-” “Has passed through here, in the guise of the Lord Dular, a day and night gone.” Merhaun cut in. “Why should we prevent him, since he had the Pass? He was not Perceived by the Priesthood, so how should we tell? Nor are you over-hasty in your pursuit.” Aiel answered with calm dignity,” Though to me the Way falls, and I am the Lightstone-Bearer, I took the advice of my father and Linnad as to when and how to set forth.” Merhaun did not comment, but glanced at the letter again.” Provisions, horses, clothing, you may have as Arnath asks.”
“Thank you, Lord Merhaun”, Aiel said, then, “There is another thing. ” Merhaun frowned, “What that may be, I cannot tell.” “Lord”, Aiel answered, “You are of the Council, and know the Secret Word. You know that I am bidden to seek ‘treasures of the Mountains’.” Merhaun gave a short, mirthless laugh. “Treasure! We have no hoards of treasure here, son of Arnath. We do not store up what we do not need.” “Lord Merhaun, you know I do not speak of gold or jewels. How could such things be helpful on the Way? I say again, you know the Secret Word, ‘ebony and red gold, melody and healing’. Treasures you have indeed that fit that Word, and most loath will I be to take, or you to give them. Yet I can see no other answer to the riddle.” “What treasures are you babbling of?” Merhaun asked rudely. But it seemed to Aiel and Lin that there was a flash of fear in his eyes as he went on, “Maybe this Way has addled your brain, Aiel. You are over-young to bear such a task.” “Lord Merhaun, do not doubt that I shall achieve what I have set out to do!” Aiel answered, with the first spark of anger he had shown. “If you would have me speak plainly, I believe the treasures of the Mountains are the Ladies Arentha and Krystha, and that they too are ordained to this Way. Though I wish with all my heart it was not so, yet I cannot gainsay the Will of Light.”
The two girls, understanding little of this , were looking questioningly at each other, but Merhaun’s face had grown dark and angry. His words, though, were not hot, but cold and scornful, and they dripped like slow poison into Aiel’s heart. “You dare ask me such a thing? You who have let this evil loose and are now constrained to follow and undo what you have done? Shall I let you drag my daughters into Darkness after you? No! The City has cost me my wife. It shall not devour my daughters too.” “But, Lord-” Aiel began, only to be cut off with a curt, “There is no more to say. You shall have what I have promised, but not my daughters.” Still Aiel answered, “Lord Merhaun, I beg you to reconsider. All Li’is hangs on the fulfillment of the Secret Word, and what is prophesied in it is the Will of Light. If you stand against that Will, you will only break yourself upon it.”
He was met with stony silence from the Lord of the Mountains. “Lord Merhaun”, Aiel said, “If you have anything further to say to me, you will find me in the Fortress’ Prayer Room.” Aiel’s head was high and his bearing dignified as he turned and walked away, but Lin saw the misery in his friend’s eyes. Astonished at Merhaun’s behaviour, and angry for the hurt done to Aiel, the Swordsman turned back towards the dais. Merhaun sat slumped in his chair, gazing at nothing in particular, as if he were lost in some inner turmoil. The girls stood silently by, but they did not seem happy at the way things had gone. Lin lifted his voice, and addressed the Lord of the Mountains. “Lord Merhaun!” The older man lifted his head with a weary air, “I have nothing further to say, Swordsman.” “Lord Merhaun, if you will not hear me for the Way’s sake,nor for the sake of my father and Aiel’s, who were once your good friends – then still, I have the right to be heard – I claim the right, as Swordsman to Lord!” “You are no Swordsman of mine! Are you of the Fortress?” “I am a Swordsman of the City, and you are still a Lord of the City – or have you forsworn that too?” Lin answered, sharply. Krystha raised her head with a gasp of outrage and glared at Lin, but her father showed no sign of anger. Lin continued “Lord, I should not have to speak so disrespectfully to you, but as your Swordsman, I am ashamed for you! I know, for Arnath told us, that you had been deeply hurt, and blamed it on the City. I am sorry for that, but you cannot hide forever in the Fortress, licking your wounds and keeping the City at bay. You owe a duty to the City, and the doom that threatens the City threatens all Li’is- the Fortress too. If Light ordains your daughters to the Way, will you gainsay it? Will you do less than Arnath and Linnad, who have given their sons, their heirs, to the Way? Lord of the Mountains, are you truly Light’s man, or is it only lip-service ? And as to the manner of your speaking to Aiel, let Light judge you, not I ! For if you know the Secret Word you know that he is found innocent in all of this, yet despite that, Aiel believed that he had betrayed Light, and he was wretched because of it. It took so much to help him overcome that – and you may have undone all that with your harsh words. He would not show how they hurt him, but I saw. The son of your oldest friend – and you may as well have drawn your sword and run it into his heart! And what good will it do you, Lord of the Mountains? It will not save your daughters, for if Aiel fails the Way, all Li’is goes down into Darkness, and what will befall them then?”
Lin stopped then, afraid that he might have gone too far – afraid not for himself, but Aiel, lest he should turn Merhaun further against him. Yet he was concerned too for Merhaun, a Swordsman and thus a brother, as well as a Lord of Li’is. No, he had said only what had to be said, Lin decided. Merhaun stood, and came down from the dais . As he neared Lin, he raised his arm, and for a moment Lin wondered if Merhaun would strike him. But the Lord of the Mountains laid his hand on Lin’s shoulder, and said, quietly, “Son of Linnad, you are right! Let Light forgive me! And Light bless you for your loyalty and honesty. I will find Aiel, and make what amends I can, and I will help you on the Way. And if Arentha and Krystha are ordained of Light to the Way, I will not stand against the Will of Light, whatever sorrow it costs me.” He lowered his arm and reached out for Lin’s hand, hand-to-forearm in the Swordsmen’s handclasp. Then he turned and went out to find Aiel.
Krystha erupted. Almost hurling herself from the dais, she flew at Lin, her small fists beating harmlessly against his chest. “How could you speak so to my father? How dare you? Oh, I hate you!” Lin was too relieved by Merhaun’s capitulation to be annoyed at her childish behaviour, especially since he knew it sprang from her love and loyalty to her father. He caught her flailing wrists and said, sternly, “Krystha, listen to me! I did not wish to speak to your father so harshly, and I know you love him. But as a Lord of the City he is my Lord and commander, and I was jealous for his honour. That is why I reprimanded him.” He had hardly expected her to understand, but to his surprise, he saw that she did.
Aiel, meanwhile, had crossed the courtyard to find his way to the Prayer Room, unheeding of the activity around him. Entering, he had closed the door behind him, shutting out the sunlight and the bustling courtyard. Kneeling before the miniature Crucible with its small, bright, steady flame, he bowed his head, and waited. At first his thoughts were full of his own pain and unhappiness, and his inner turmoil over the problem of the maidens. He was angry too, as well as hurt, at Merhaun’s refusal to let them join the Way. How could one man prevent what Light ordained?
Yet Aiel was aware that his own thoughts and reactions were wrong too. He opened his eyes and gazed at the Crucible, letting his thoughts wander, instead, to the bright flame and the carved cup that contained it. The Crucible – so called because at this place a person might meet with Light, might lay themselves open to the action of that burning love and purity that would melt and refine them like a precious metal. Aiel could not deny his human emotions, but now, as he had opened his eyes to the Crucible flame, he opened his heart to Light, ready to surrender and have burned out of him anything that was not in tune with the purposes of Light. As always, after the first moments of struggle with his own will, Aiel’s surrender and obedience brought peace and contentment to him. Instead of anger, he began to feel a deep understanding of and compassion for Merhaun. The Lord of the Mountains, bereft of his wife and left to raise his daughters alone since their early childhood, was understandably horrified at the thought of their joining Aiel and Lin on the dangerous Way. Aiel had felt the same, and Merhaun’s response was natural. Perhaps, having once suffered loss, Merhaun was less able to trust in Light.
There was no brother Priest in the Prayer Room, so Aiel raised his arms and prayed aloud to Light, asking forgiveness for his own anger, strength for his Way, forgiveness for Merhaun also, since he had opposed the Will of Light. “Let Light be merciful to Merhaun”, he asked confidently, knowing the mercy of Light, “He has hurts that must be healed and fears that must be spoken, It is a hard thing that Light asks of him.” Aiel lowered his arms and bowed his head again, waiting. It was not the quiet, inner voice of Light that he heard, though, but a man’s voice – Merhaun’s voice. “A very hard thing.” said the Lord of the Mountains. “Thank you for your prayers, Aiel – and let you forgive me for my harshness to you. You are right. I am – hurt, and afraid.” Aiel looked up, and saw Merhaum standing near him. The man had entered so quietly, Aiel had not heard him, nor Perceived him, being occupied with his prayers. Now the young Priest rose from his attitude of prayer to face the Lord of the Mountains and look questioningly into his face.
Merhaun said, “Your friend Lin spoke to me very forcefully, and showed me my fault – no, do not look dismayed, Aiel. He was only honest with me, as perhaps someone should have been before this. He is a loyal and honourable lad, like his father.” “A true sword”, Aiel said quietly, thinking of the Secret Word. “Aye”, Merhaun answered. Aiel said softly, still a little hesitantly, “Your Lady’s death must have caused you great pain – as my mother’s did my father and me. I can understand that you did not wish Arentha and Krystha to join us on the Way. It is not a thing I would want myself, if the choice lay with me. But the Secret Word speaks clearly to me, Lord Merhaun. ‘Seek treasures of the Mountains, ebony and red gold, melody and healing.’ What can it mean, save the maidens?Unless,” he added, as a sudden hope came to him, “you know of another meaning?” “No”, Merhaun replied, gently and sadly, “Aiel, there can be no other meaning.”
Aiel drew out the Lightstone. “Lord Merhaun, I know the wound you carry is deep, for my father told me so. Yet he said also that perhaps – if you were willing – it might be healed with the aid of the Lightstone. He and Linnad are still your friends.” “I know it. And I am grateful, though I have not shown it, nor deserved that they should stay so true to me. Aiel, did your father tell you that my – my wife was dead?” Something in the way that the Lord of the Mountains asked the question startled Aiel. He looked curiously at Merhaun, and answered, “Why, no. He would tell me only that you bore a deep wound in your spirit, one that you blamed on the City. And when Arentha said that she had no mother, I assumed that she was dead, perhaps of a sickness caught in the City, or an accident there.” “The Lady Alira is not dead, Aiel.” Merhaun said. ” She – turned away from Light, and is gone into Darkness. She left me, and our daughters, and I do not know where she went.”
The pain in Merhaun’s voice tore at Aiel’s heart. It was much worse than the death of a loved one, for if Merhaun’s Lady had died in Light, he would have been sure of a joyous reunion when his turn came to touch Light, though her death would have grieved him terribly. To lose her to Darkness, though, was eternal separation, eternal grief, and Aiel’s sensitive, expressive face showed his own grief and horror at the thought. Merhaun said, “I see you understand, Aiel. Have you time to hear my story, perhaps to help me?” “Of course!” Aiel answered. He seated himself on a bench, and Merhaun sat down beside him, and began, “When I was a very young man, my father sent me to the East for a while, and there I met Alira, the daughter of an Eastern Lord. Oh, she was lovely, Aiel, very much like Arentha is now, and just as sweet and gentle. I was so in love with her, and she with me, and I asked her to be my Lady. I came home to make preparations for our wedding, and when all was ready I sent for her, and we were married in the Temple – your father performed the ceremonies for us. We were so happy, and so glad when our beautiful daughters were born, though I remember Alira was sad at first, when, after Arentha, Krystha was another girl. She wanted to give me a son, an heir to the Fortress. ‘Next time’, she said, ‘it will be a boy’.” Merhaun paused for a moment, his face twisting with sorrow at the tender memory, then went on, “Not long after that, my father died – killed in a hunting accident. I had never expected to be Lord of the Mountains so soon, for my father was a strong, vigorous man. My grief for him, and my new responsibilities, took so much of my time that – oh, Aiel, I have tried to deny my guilt in this, to lay the blame elsewhere, but there is no doubt that I neglected Alira, and contributed to what happened to her.”
Merhaun stopped speaking, and pressed one hand against his eyes, af if to hold back the tears that had gathered there. Aiel said, “Lord Merhaun, if it is too painful for you to go on, you need not.” “I must!” Merhaun exclaimed, “Aiel, I need your help – and Light’s!” Aiel nodded, and said, “Then go on.” “Alira must have been lonely, far from her own family and friends, and her own lands. Janira, and Elandra your mother, did their best to make her welcome and befriend her, but they too had duties, and young children.” He sighed, “When Alira rode to the City, I thought it was to them that she was going – I did not enquire. I loved her, but I felt that my duties to the Fortress and the City must take precedence – that I had to prove myself worthy. I do not think that Alira understood; she saw only that I spent less time with her and was less attentive. She must have felt I loved her less, though I did not. I felt that I was distancing her, but could not tell how to avoid it. So Alira felt neglected, and she found new friends in the City, and one man in particular. He was a Child of Night, though I think – I truly believe – that she did not know it, nor mean anything by the friendship, at first. Yet he lured her away from me, and from Light. I had to travel to the Western Fortress, and when I returned, Alira was gone. She had left our girls in the Healer’s care, taken her jewels and a few clothes, and fled with her lover. She left me a letter – ah, such a bitter, unhappy letter! I destroyed it in my fury, but every word is graven on my heart, and I know that what she said was true, in part. It was I, as much as the Child of Night, who turned her to Darkness.”
He turned a wretchedly unhappy face to Aiel, who asked gently, “And you love her still?” Merhaun groaned, “Sweet Light – yes, Aiel, I do! If I could find her, I would do anything to persuade her to return to Light, and to me. But it is impossible.” “And the maidens?” “Arentha, I know, feels as I do. She pretends otherwise, but she grieves for her mother. Krystha – she has shut herself off, not only from her feelings about her mother, but every expression of tenderness – save in her Healing.” Merhaun gave a wry grin. “She might tear you to pieces with her tongue, but if you were sick or hurt, she would be the soul of gentle care. She should have been a lad, my Krystha, a Swordsman. She is bright, and brave, and strong. But she will never weep, or admit to weakness, and that is where her strength betrays her, for strength that will not sometimes bend is too brittle. Though Arentha is gentle and tender-hearted, it is Krystha I would be more fearful for, on this Way.” “Perhaps” Aiel said, in an attempt at comfort, ” she will find a love of her own one day, to unlock her emotions.” “No.” Merhaun said, sadly. “Krystha fell in love once, a few years ago, but the young man did not return her feelings. They were both very young, and though he tried to be kind, he was embarrassed, and she was humiliated. She swore never to look a fool again for the sake of a man – those were her words. Oh, I know you will say it was said in anger, but Krystha has sworn, and will stand by her word.” Merhaun, looking at Aiel’s concerned face, added, “Do not let what I have said turn you against my Krystha, Aiel. She is impetuous and sometimes hot-tempered. She has faults. But she is brave and loyal, and nothing will turn her from the path she chooses. She is true to Light. And she is one of the best Healers in the Fortress.” “We can talk of these things later.” Aiel said,then, “Lord Merhaun, you have carried a sore wound these many years. Is it not time to make your peace with Light, and be healed?” “Aye.” Merhaun answered simply, barely above a whisper.
Aiel lifted the Lightstone, and spoke the words of the Calling, “Search now your heart, and make your peace with Light.” Merhaun’s tortured eyes lifted to Aiel’s. “Aiel, Lightstone-Bearer, help me!” Aiel set his Perception on Merhaun, feeling the flow of the other’s unhappy thoughts and feelings, the way in which love and loneliness, sorrow, anger and guilt chased each other round and round his mind, and distanced him from Light. Feeling deep compassion for Merhaun, Aiel helped him work through what he could, then withdrew his Perception, and laid the Lightstone to Merhaun’s brow. The light flowed out, enfolding the Lord of the Mountains. Aiel heard Merhaun, his face invisible within the light, give a strange exclamation, as though he were joyous and bewildered and ashamed all together, and knew that Merhaun was face to face with Light.
Lin found himself alone, for Krystha, having apologised for her behaviour so brusquely that it was hardly an apology at all, had disappeared into the Healing Place. Arentha, more courteous, had apologised again on her sister’s behalf, and excused herself to make some household preparations, suggesting that Lin might like to look around the Fortress. So he wandered out into the courtyard again and watched for a while, until he found himself drawn to the area where the horses were exercising. All Swordsmen were trained to be excellent horsemen, and any Swordsman would tend his mount well, as he would care for his other equipment. But not all Swordsmen loved their beasts, or were knowledgeable about them. Lin was one who did.
The horses of the Fortress were fine animals, with much of the Western strain in them. As Lin came up to the exercise area, he saw a man, small, dark and agile, directing the horses and their riders. Lin smiled to himself at the familiar scene. A few years back, it might have been himself on one of those horses, with Old Gerrik the Sword-Trainer standing there. The Sword-Trainer had always been called ‘Old Gerrik’, though he was not really so old. He had had one of those leathery, ageless faces, and this man, Lin thought, watching him, was really very like him. The man turned, feeling his gaze, and smiled. “Well, Swordsman of the City, what do you think of our horses?” “They are magnificent!” Lin answered, truthfully. “Are they Western-bred?” “Of Western stock, but Fortress-bred.” the man answered. “Oh?I had never heard that the Fortress bred horses. I have never seen them at the horse-sales.” “We breed for our own use.” was the reply. “Would you like to try one of our beasts?” Lin eagerly agreed, and the man considered him closely for a minute or two, then gave a fluting whistle, which brought a beautiful young bay running to him. “This is Mischief.” said the Sword-Trainer. “He takes some handling, but I think you will be equal to him, Swordsman.” The horse’s gear was brought and put on, and Lin mounted. He found that the horse indeed lived up to his name, but once Mischief found that Lin was aware of all his tricks, they quickly reached an agreement, and rode very well together.
Aiel, leaving the Prayer Room with Merhaun, saw Lin riding, and smiled. He was feeling glad, not just because his problems with Merhaun were over, but because Merhaun had found forgiveness, release and comfort in Light, through the power of the Lightstone. Merhaun followed his gaze,and smiled too. “Truly his father’s son!” he commented, “As you are Arnath’s, Aiel. Go and tell him it is well between us now, and I shall go and prepare the things you will need on this Way.” As Merhaun went back towards the Great Hall, Aiel went and stood by the Sword-Trainer. Lin saw him, and wheeled the bay towards him. “Aiel! Is all well, now?” he called, seeing his friend’s smile. He slowed Mischief and stopped, sliding from the horse’s back and holding his head, absently caressing the silky neck as he spoke to Aiel. “It is well.” Aiel answered, “Merhaun bade me tell you that. And he has made his peace with Light.” “Ah, that is good!” Lin said, then gave a little exclamation as Mischief, evidently feeling neglected, gave him a small push. Aiel laughed. “Lin, I swear if I took you in a ship to the middle of the Eastern Sea, you would find a horse somewhere!”
The Sword-Trainer looked up. “Lin? Are you the son of Lord Linnad of the Harbour?” “Yes. Do you know my father?” “My brother trained him – and his son!” the man said, grinning. “Gerrik? Old Gerrik is your brother? I was only just thinking how like him you were.” “Aye, Gerrik is my brother. I am Verrin, Horsemaster to the Fortress.” “I mind Gerrik telling me once of a flame-haired Swordsman he had known- it came to mind when I met the Lady Krystha. Did he mean Merhaun, then?” “Aye, no doubt he did. And Lady Krystha, now, would have made a fine Swordsman. She has her father’s spirit.” “She is certainly spirited!” Lin exclaimed, a little ruefully. Verrin said, “Her tongue may be rough, Lord Lin, but her hands are gentle – she is a wonderful Healer. And she is brave, and loyal.” “I believe she is.” Lin answered. Aiel said, “Lin, we should rejoin Merhaun now.” Lin handed Mischief’s reins to Verrin, and patted the horse. “Verrin, thank you for letting me try him. He is a wonderful beast.”
As they walked away, Lin asked, “You were able to help Merhaun, then, Aiel?” “Not I, but Light”, Aiel answered. “Through the Lightstone, Light healed him, Lin.” “I am glad of that.” “But you began it, Lin. Merhaun told me that it was the way you spoke to him that made him see his fault.” Lin said, “Aye, I was rough with him, I am afraid, Aiel. But it was for his own good that I spoke so. I think no one else had dared to speak to him like that in many years. But he was wasting himself, and I did not like to see it.” “You see, you did what I could not, Lin. You spoke to him as a Swordsman, and he understood.”
Returning to the Hall, they found the two girls awaiting them, to take them to Merhaun in his private room. There, with the door locked behind them, he said, “Now, Aiel, let us forget what is past, since I have sought and found pardon, and begin anew. How may I aid you on your Way, Lightstone-Bearer?” Arentha stood quietly by, though her eyes were full of questions, but Krystha, though she too kept her silence, seemed like to burst with curiosity. Aiel said, “Lord Merhaun, since your daughters do not know of the Secret Word and the Lightstone, and since it seems that these things will concern them deeply, perhaps it is best that I explain.” Merhaun agreed, and Aiel told in detail what had befallen him through the Black Piper, and how he came to be the Lightstone-Bearer and pursuer of Darkness, and how his Way must end. Then he quoted the whole of the Secret Word aloud, and when he came to the part about the ‘treasures of the Mountains’, Arentha’s dark eyes opened wide, and Krystha gave a little gasp. When Aiel had finished, Krystha said, “Then that is why you said that we had a part in the Way, Aiel? Are we to go too?” “It seems it must be so, though I mislike it, at heart.” Aiel answered, “Yet it is the Will of Light, and we cannot stand against it.”
Lin, seeing the gleam of excitement in Krystha’s tawny-brown eyes said warningly, “To you it may seem a great adventure, Lady Krystha. But it is into Darkness and danger that we must take you, and it will be no play-battle, but stark reality.” “We are not afraid, Arentha and I!” Krystha declared, with that defiant upward tilt of her chin that Aiel and Lin were coming to know too well. “We do not doubt your courage”, Aiel answered calmly, “but you must be willing to be guided.” He turned to Arentha, and asked, “Have you nothing to say about your part in this, Lady?” Arentha lifted dark, serious brown eyes to his and said, “It is the Will of Light. What more is there to say?” Aiel smiled, and put his hand into his robe, and drew out the Lightstone, sliding it free from its concealing pouch. “Behold the Lightstone!” he said. Both girls gazed at the Stone in awe, but it was Krystha who half-reached out one hand towards it, and so it was to her that Aiel turned first, and touched the Lightstone to her brow. The light blazed out around her, and he heard her gasp, and though when the light withdrew Krystha stood with bowed head, the light that lingered in her eyes when she lifted them again was like bright sparks of fire. But around Arentha, when she came under the Lightstone’s touch, the glow of light was gentle, and afterwards it was soft in her eyes, and misted with unshed tears. “Light finds you worthy.” Aiel told them both.
Now Merhaun turned to the great carved, iron-bound chest that stood behind him, and lifted out several scrolls, and laid them on the table. Then he bent again over the chest and took out from the very bottom a strange, old-looking key, which he also laid on the table. Crossing the room, he pulled aside a wall-hanging, and his hands moved deftly over the panelled wood beneath, until a hiding-place sprang open, a tall, narrow niche from which Merhaun extracted an equally tall, narrow wooden box. As he brought it back to the table, Aiel and Lin saw with a thrill of anticipation that it was of the same dark wood and strange metal that they associated with the Lightstone. “Not only the Priesthood are Keepers of the ancient things”, said the Lord of the Mountains.”Nor is it only the Lightstone-Bearer who is gifted on this Way. This is Brann’s Gift, left for the Way-sharer.”
He took the key which he had laid on the table, and opened the box, and unwrapped that which lay inside, wrapped in cloth of faded crimson, such as had held the Lightstone Harp. It was a sword, like none that Lin had ever seen. Long and slender in shape, like the leaf of grass, sharp as the bite of a frost-ridden wind, supple as a young bough in Spring, its deadliness was almost beautiful, with a cold grace, and it was forged of that same strange silvery metal, light and very strong, of which the Lightstone chain and Harp were made. There was no gilding or enamelling or other decoration on the hilt, only the Symbol carved, and two words in the Old Tongue. Aiel bent and read them, then translated aloud, “The True Sword.” “True Sword for True Sword.” the Lord of the Mountains said, as if he quoted something. “Lin, this is for you. It is Brann’s sword that the Lightfriend gave him in the caverns beyond the Dark City, before he and Tamorine and all their company went out against the evil that dwelt there. The Lightstone, and the Harp, and the True Sword, were all forged in Ma’al before the Darkness fell there, and the Lightfriends brought them into Li’is. The metal of which they are made is found only in Ma’al, and all that there is of it in Li’is is what the Lightfriends brought. It is light and strong, as you know, and will bend and never break, though it is hard, and it does not tarnish or rust or otherwise perish. When the Temple was made, the Holy Stone and the Harp not yet played were hidden there, but the Fortress had the keeping of the True Sword. And now it falls to you to bear it, Lin, Swordsman of the City and True Sword of the Lightstone Way.”
Merhaun lifted the sword with both hands and gave it, not to Lin but Aiel, saying, “Let the Lightstone-Bearer bestow it.” Aiel felt a moment of disquiet, for his hand had never touched a weapon, in accordance with his vows. Yet he felt by the peace within him that this was right, and he lifted the sword as Merhaun had done, and turned to Lin, and said, “Lin, Way-Sharer, True Sword of the Secret Word! Receive now the Gift of Brann, the True Sword, to bear on this Way, as he willed.” And he placed the sword into Lin’s outstretched hands. Lin took the beautiful, deadly thing, and the hilt fitted his hand as though it were made for him, and though the weapon was lighter than any he had ever borne, it did not feel strange to him when he weighed it in his hand. “I am honoured, Lord Merhaun. to bear Brann’s sword and be entrusted with it.”, he said, but his words could not speak the half of the wonder that was in his eyes and heart at this happening. “Bear it in Light, and bear it well.” Aiel said, blessing his friend with the words on the Lightstone casket. After that he turned to Arentha and Krystha, and had them take the Way-Sharers’ vows before Light, and even volatile Krystha was quiet and spoke her vows with solemn sincerity. “Now we are a company”, Lin said, “from City and Harbour, Forest and Mountain, just as it was in the First Days.” And Krystha smiled at him.
Merhaun gathered them round the table and spread out the scrolls of maps. “This first part of your journey is most exposed,” he said, “though you may ride in the Forest almost to the Spearcleft Pass. The Pass itself is narrow, and a good place for an ambush. That is our strength, for we could hold it against many. I would have sworn that none could pass that way, but since the Black Piper by his Shape-Changing has deceived us and passed through, we do not know if he has drawn the Children of Night to him, to waylay you, Aiel.” “It is our belief” Aiel answered,”that our setting forth is not yet known.” “Pray Light it is so!” said Merhaun. “If once you safely clear the Pass, there is less cover on the other side of the Mountains, for the trees are more sparse and twisted there. The cold winds blowing from the Seacoast mountains to the East injure them. And the Great Moor is, of course, open and bare, and overlooked by our Mountains, and those to the East. You must keep to the paths, for it is easy to stray, when all the Moor is so alike. Still, on the Moor, you may be taken for travellers or merchants, and be safe. The First Faring House stands at the Northern edge of the Moor, and is kept by Mell. There are a few villages around, which are his Soul-Watch. Rest there, but not too long. And after comes the most perilous part of your journey, for you must pass the Dark Ruins. But in that Mell will guide you.”
Next they discussed what provisions, clothing and horses they would need, and Merhaun said that Verrin must choose their mounts, since as well as the Sword-Trainer he was the Fortress’ most expert Horsemaster. Krystha listed the healing herbs and salves and Healers’ tools she would need, and Arentha the small stores they would require to carry them to the Faring House. By the time all of this was arranged, it was growing dark, and Merhaun bade them follow him, and led them up onto the Fortress walls which faced the City. There most of the Fortress folk had assembled, and Aiel knew why. For always, on the Festivals, the huge Northern doors of the Temple, that were otherwise closed all year round, were opened, so that the light of the Crucible shone out towards the Mountains. Though Aiel had shared in the ceremonies almost every year of his life, only now did he realise their full meaning. Suddenly from the South, from the crown of the City where the Temple stood, came a faint gleam of light that grew wider and brighter as the doors opened fully, until it blazed like a beacon on the hilltop. And answering, a beacon was lit on the highest tower of the Fortress, and the Fortress and the City shared the Light of the Spring Festival, rejoicing in the coming again of all that was made by Light, after the winter’s sleep.
Beside them, Arentha lifted her voice in the ancient song of rejoicing, and the sweet purity of her voice made the music new and fresh again, and the whole Fortress listened in silence. And after, Aiel, remembering her request, and feeling it was right, took out the Lightstone Harp and played his new music for the Festival, and still the people listened quietly, though they murmured with approval as he finished. Then Merhaun gave a signal, and the people of the Fortress broke into songs of praise and joy. Merhaun listened awhile, then led them back again to his Hall, where the Festival meal was laid.
Later, when the meal was over, and the entertainments done, and the Fortress folk were drifting away to their sleep, Merhaun gathered the four Way-Sharers round him and said, “It is good that we have kept this Festival before the Way continues. To celebrate life and Light gives strength to the spirit. Aiel and Lin, I thank you again for having the courage to show me the truth about myself. I am more grateful than you can know.” He smiled at Priest and Swordsman, then said, “Go now and rest, Lightstone-Bearer and True Sword, and gather strength for your journey.”
Aiel and Lin bade him goodnight and followed the steward to the chambers allotted to them, but as they left the Great Hall, Aiel glanced back and saw Merhaun draw his daughters to him, an arm around each, and begin to speak to them gravely and tenderly. The young Priest felt a brief stab of sorrow, seeing this. He wished again that he did not have to take Arentha and Krystha from their father, who had already lost so much. “Light is merciful”, he murmured to himself, ” and will not let them come to harm.” And, comforted by the thought, went to his bed.