Aiel did not see Lin’s mouth drop open and his hand fall away from its useless position of defence. As if an explosion of Darkness filled his head, his senses reeled, his mind trying helplessly to grapple with his father’s words. If the Warning had failed him, then that meant – his understanding could not encompass what he knew it meant.
He heard, distantly, Lin’s voice, sharp with anxiety, cry, “Aiel!”, felt a hand grasp his arm, and realised that he had been on the verge of collapse. He jerked himself back to reality with a tremendous effort and stood trembling, looking into the two faces that leaned over him with anxious concern written on them. Yet still his faith in Light was such that he whispered, “No, oh no, the Warning has not failed me – but I have failed the Warning!”
The Warning – Light’s Warning- the first and last words of the Book of Light. Words, as his father had said, that Aiel had heard and read and quoted a thousand times, or more. Had they become only ritual to him, that he had not heeded them when the time came?
“Light is life, to you and your world. Darkness is death, to you and your world. Heed well the true Light, and beware the Darkness that comes disguised as Light. For if Darkness comes to you as Light, and you do not recognise it, it will bring death. Only if your heart is truly in Light at such a time may you take the Way that Light has prepared for you, and save yourself and your world from that death.” Aiel was quoting, in a voice soft with despair, the words he knew by heart, the words that warned him of danger, the words he had not remembered when he needed them – but when, and how, could Darkness have come to him as Light, and he – a Priest, having Perception- not have recognised it?
Lin cried, with cold horror in his voice, “Aiel, my brother – what could you have done that deserves your death? There is nothing – nothing!” Arnath reassured him gently, “Peace, Lin. Aiel is not under judgement of death – he is not under judgement at all. But his now is the Way of the Secret Word.” Aiel scarcely heeded them, aware only that somehow he had failed in the task he had been born to, had betrayed Light and his world. Lin, though, still defensive of his friend, demanded, “What is this Way? Is there danger in it for Aiel? Can I not help him in some way, Arnath? Must I let him bear peril alone?” The High Priest answered, “I know this is hard for you too, Lin, and yes, there may be a way for you to help Aiel. But we must wait for your father to come before we discuss it.”
An uneasy silence fell. All of them were lost in thought, Arnath seemingly pondering the secret things he must now reveal to his son, Lin wondering how he might help Aiel, his thoughts and imaginings chasing each other in circles. As for Aiel, he stood quite still, head bowed, hands open and outspread in an unconscious attitude of surrender, miserably aware of his fault and awaiting Light’s judgement. They were all relieved when the silence was broken by Linnad’s arrival. Lin’s father came int the room, and, as always, it immediately seemed smaller. It was not his physical size, though he was tall and broad-shouldered, but his presence and his rich, booming voice that produce this effect. He was very like Lin, fair-haired and grey-eyed, and wore a beard which made him look much fiercer than he was, for he was the kindest of men.
“What is it, Arnath?” he greeted his old friend, glancing at Lin and Aiel, “Are these lads in some trouble?” “Not exactly” Arnath answered, “Linnad, you remember the news we received from the East?” “Of the Dark One? Yes”, Linnad said, and his face was suddenly grim. “Arnath, what has happened?”
Arnath quickly outlined for Linnad the day’s happenings, paying, Lin noted, particular attention to Renn’s description of the Black Piper, and the kind of force used on poor old Dular. Linnad listened with silent absorption, until Arnath had finished. Then the Lord of the Harbour looked at the High Priest and said, with a groan, “Then it has come at last?” “It seems so”, Arnath answered quietly. “And it falls to Aiel, poor lad?” Linnad’s voice was full of pity, and Aiel’s frightened misery was not eased by this, nor by his father’s quiet, sorrowful affirmation. What was going to happen to him? Then he felt Lin lay one hand on his shoulder, and was somewhat comforted. He knew, as clearly as if his friend had said it, that the Swordsman was determined to stand with him, whatever his fate. He said, plaintively, “Father, Linnad, please – I do not understand! What is it that I have done?”
Arnath told him, “Aiel, listen to me carefully. Renn’s description of his passenger tallies with other facts that have reached us. A Lord of Darkness – a Shape-Changer, with great powers – has come into Li’is from the Otherworld – Ma’al – carrying a reforged Bloodstone and a strange pipe. His purpose, we believe, is to restore the reign of Darkness in Li’is that was broken so long ago. This is the one who has stolen Dular’s thoughts and his papers and assumed his shape, to trick you into giving him the Pass to the Dancers’ Gate.”
Aiel’s head was reeling again. It was legend- black legend – come to life. Ma’al, the Otherworld! The Bloodstone! These were the stuff of his childhood tales. Yet he knew well enough that if this were all true, the being who had assumed Dular’s identity was a thing of such Darkness as he had never met, and might surely be the death of himself, and all Li’is. For the moment, though, his overburdened mind clutched at the one comprehensible strand in his father’s words. “But why the Pass? What would such a one want with the Dancers?”
“Because by their Song, attuned to Light’s harmonies, and by the rhythm of their Dance, all life is set its own rhythm. So Light willed it; so it is. But in Otherworld the Night Lords reign, who once were Dancers, the Dancers of Ma’al, but , being corrupted by the rebellion of those Lords of Darkness who were also once Spirits-in-Light, servants of Light, they too desired to reign where they should serve. Yet still they have Dancers’ powers, though their Song and their Dance are of Darkness, not Light. I believe, Aiel, that this Black Piper plays their music, and means to carry it to our Dancers and force them by it into harmony with their Dark brothers. If he can succeed in this, force them to Dance the Darkness down into Li’is..” “Then – all Li’is will go down into Darkness with them!” Aiel groaned, “Oh, Father, what have I done? What evil have I let loose?”
“Aiel, Light knows all. And you are not judged guilty”, Arnath gently answered. But Aiel, seeming not to hear, was white-faced and despairing. Lin gave him a compassionate look, thinking of that bereaved boy in the garden long ago, for his friend looked just as stricken now. Yet Aiel had heard, for now he gasped, “Why do you say that? I have let this evil pass!” “You have, and because of that it falls to you to follow and defeat it. But you are not judged guilty. This moment, ” Arnath went on, ignoring his son’s protestations, ” is prophesied from the beginning, and from the beginning you are judged innocent.”
“I have never read such a thing in the Book of Light”, Aiel said. “This prophecy – is that the Secret Word?” Lin asked. “Yes. And it is not written in the Book of Light, but handed down among the Keepers”, Arnath answered them both, “Of whom the High Priest of the Temple is one, and the Lord of the Harbour another.”
“Lin, did you know of this Secret Word?” Aiel demanded. His friend silently shook his head. Linnad explained, “There is an age for the knowing, and neither of you had yet reached it.” “But what can it do?” Aiel cried, hopelessly, “Dead words cannot help me undo what I have done!” “The words are not dead, since they are a prophecy of Light”, Arnath reminded them, then, “But it is more than just the words. Come.”
His invitation included them all, and Aiel, heavy-hearted, followed with Lin and Linnad as Arnath led them back along the passageway to the Temple. Arnath did not enter the main Temple, and for that Aiel was glad. He did not think he could have stood before the Crucible. Instead, Arnath turned into the Priests’ Prayer Room, and, when the others had followed him in, locked the door. The room was simple, bare except for a prayer bench, four lampstands, one at each corner of the room, and a great wall-hanging, facing the door. This covered the whole wall, and was worked with a design of leaping flames on a deep blue background. The walls of the room were the same white stone as the rest of the Temple, the floor a mosaic of white, black, and blue-grey stone. In the centre of the room stood a miniature Crucible, flame burning brightly, upright in the still air.
Arnath crossed to one of the lampstands and twisted it. There was a slight, creaking sound. The wall hanging began to belly outwards, and the Crucible flame to bend, as if in a breeze. Linnad seemed to know the secret, but Aiel and Lin again exchanged questioning looks as the High Priest pulled aside the wall-hanging to reveal the hidden doorway beneath.
The doorway led to an ancient stairway; indeed, it seemed older than the Temple itself. The plaster of its walls was painted with strange old pictures, and writings in the Old Tongue, but they were faded, and Aiel and Lin were too distracted to attempt to interpret them. Yet, though so ancient, and worn as if by generations of feet, the stairway was well-kept, lamp-lit, and free of dust, as though it were not disused. At the bottom of the stairway stood another door. It was tall and heavy and seemed to be made of one huge slab of dark wood. Set into it, midway across and at about two-thirds of its height, was a metal symbol. It was the Symbol of the One Light, three flames intersecting at the base to form a single oval. The oval, in this case, was a hollow set back in the wood, and Arnath withdrew, from the folds of his robe, a strange object, and fitted it into the hollow. It was a rod of some translucent crystalline stuff, its circumference the same oval shape, and bound top and bottom with the same silvery metal, as the symbol. As this odd key slotted into the symbol, the door swung open, and they heard the other door at the top of the stairway closing.
Hesitantly, Aiel and Lin followed their fathers through the door. Beyond lay a circular, columned room, like a smaller version of the great Temple above, though it seemed partly hewn out of the bedrock on which the Temple stood. Some sections of the wall were lined with racks of scrolls, like the House of Records, others carried more of the ancient paintings and inscriptions. A large, round table, carrying writing materials, and surrounded by seven heavy, carved chairs, stood to one side. But the one thing that drew their eyes was the object in the centre of the room, corresponding to the position of the Temple Crucible. Like the Crucible, it stood on a stepped dais of white stone, and its base was a golden bowl, beautifully worked. This object, though, was about one-sixth the size of the Crucible, and instead of supporting a flame, it was surmounted by a dome, of the same material as the rod Arnath had used to enter here.
Arnath gave the young men time to look around and absorb the strangeness of the room. Then, indicating the table, he said,” Be seated.” Linnad, Lin and Aiel sat down at the table, while Arnath went to the shelves of scrolls, and presently returned. He was carrying two of the metal cylinders used to protect old or valuable documents. Linnad, again, seemed to know what they contained, but Aiel and Lin leaned forward in anxious anticipation as the High Priest unscrewed the end s of the two cylinders and carefully tipped out their contents. The two scrolls that lay before the friends were written on a strange, thick, rough material. There was a degree of brittleness about it which showed its age as much as the fading of the ink from black to brown. One scroll bore a little metal tag, some kind of seal. “Read them”, Arnath said, “They are for both of you.”
Aiel unrolled the tagged scroll, and the two heads, black and blond, bent over it. The writing was in the Old Tongue, which Aiel, the Priest, read quite easily. Lin, less adept, had a little struggle. But neither was in any doubt about the signature. “Brann!” breathed Lin. The legendary Swordsman of the First Days, childhood hero of almost every boy in Li’is. There lay his name and title – and another. “Brann”, read the signature, in a bold, firm hand, “Lord of the Forest, and of the Harbour”. And under it, in a more flowing calligraphy, ” and Tamorine of the Mountains, his Lady.” It was a brief letter, simply an accompaniment or introduction to the other scroll. It read: “We write this for the future generations of our line, and the Lightfriend Rafel’s. Though we have overcome Darkness, it has been prophecied that it will once more attempt to break through into Li’is, and that others of our two lines will again take up our battle and prevent it. Also it is written that the battle falls to the one who, though in innocence, lets this evil pass, yet if he is strong in Light, he shall defeat it. This prophecy, being only for his bloodline and ours, the Lightfriends have not written in the Book of Light, lest it cause others to fear, but secretly. Therefore our descendants shall be Keepers of the Secret Word, and of the hidden holy things, until the time comes for these things to be fulfilled. Lastly, to you on whom this Way falls, we write this; serve Light, keep faith, have courage! If we may, we will speak for you in the Joyous Place. Light is merciful. May you go in Light.”
The last few lines of encouragement and blessing warmed Aiel strangely, and made the distant hero seem close, and real. He might, thought Aiel, have been not unlike Lin. Now Aiel and Lin turned their attention to the other scroll. This was the Secret Word itself, and was neither so brief, nor so clear, as Brann’s letter.
“Darkness shall appear as Light, guilt as innocence. He is not judged guilty who lets it pass, being innocent of Night’s purpose. Yet to him falls this Way, the doom of Dark’s passing.
In hope and in Light let him go and carry Light with him. Light will empower him against the Darkness.
Let him seek a true sword for companion, a lover of Light, also treasures of the Mountains, ebony and red gold, melody and healing.
Let him keep faith with Light that the lesser light may survive
Let him hold the harmony of Light against Dark melodies.
And from this shall come a strange thing; Dark and Light in one spirit, a soul divided. He shall hear the Child of Night cry mercy of Light, and Dark powers shall be laid at the feet of Light. Hate shall be transformed to love, and pain to joy.
Before his times end, he shall see two and two and times and Time out of their place, but all for good: Light’s judgement on the Dark World, an end, and a beginning.”
Almost together, Aiel and Lin asked, “What does it mean?”
Arnath said, “Until today, we knew nothing, except that the Darkness would try to break in again, and one of us, in all innocence, might let it pass. Now it seems that the ‘lesser light’ which must survive – for our survival- is the Dancers of Li’is. They are obviously the Dark One’s target.”
“And this Way, this ‘doom of Dark’s passing’ – it falls to me, because I was the one who let it pass?” Aiel asked, very quietly. “Aye, lad”, Linnad said gently, as if he were very sorry for it. “So it is prophesied- you have read it”, Arnath said, “You must follow this Black Piper, and prevent him from corrupting the Dancers.” His face too was grave.
“But Aiel is a Priest, not a Swordsman like Brann. His vows forbid him weapons!” Lin protested, “And what can he know of fighting an enemy? It would be murder, Arnath, to send him unarmed and unready, after such a foe!” Aiel was moved by his friend’s concern, but he said “I would not be afraid to die, Lin, if it would serve the purpose of defeating this evil. For if I died, I would touch Light. But”, this to his father and Linnad, ” as Lin says, I know nothing of such things, and my vows forbid me weapons. I do not understand how I can fight this foe.” “Nor I!” exclaimed Lin. “And I will not let them send you helpless to your death, Aiel!” He stared defiantly at his father and Arnath, and the High Priest said, without anger, “Peace, Lin! Let us explain.”
Lin subsided, and Arnath went on, “Brann called us the Keepers, the descendants of his bloodline and the Lightfriend’s. And as I said, it is more than the Secret Word that we have kept. As to lineage, though every Priest in Li’is is descended from the Lightfriends of the First Days, we, the High Priests of the Temple, are the direct line from Rafel. We are also descended from Brann and Tamorine, for their daughter married Rafel’s eldest grandson. Lin, the Lords of the Harbour are the direct descendants of Brann and Tamorine’s eldest son. Their second son became Lord of the Western Fortress, their youngest, being heir to Tamorine’s brother Tamran, who had no children, Lord of the Mountains, and the Mountain Fortress. Those are the Keepers, today.”
“Barengian knew of this…” Lin murmured, “And did not tell you, no, though you are his Sword-Brother and brother-by-marriage.” Linnad finished for him. “It is the Secret Word, Lin. Even a Sword-Brother may have greater loyalties.” Lin nodded, then said, “But there are seven chairs at the table.” Arnath smiled a little. “Your eyes and wits are sharp, Lin. The full Council-at-Need of Li’is is seven; besides the four Keepers, there is the Lord of the East, the Ket – the Lord of the Westerners, Aiel – and the Gatekeeper, who also speaks for the Dancers, if they have anything to say. But I think the full Council has only assembled ten times in all the years of Li’is.”
“If there is such peril, should it not be assembled now?” Aiel asked. “No, it is already decided what must be done when the Secret Word came to be fulfilled. There would be no time for assembly. Word will be sent to the Lord of the East- he it was who forewarned us of the Dark One’s coming – and to Barengian. For the others, you shall take word, Aiel, for your Way will lie through their lands, and you will need their aid.”
Aiel made no comment. He was realising, now, that he was set on a course that was beyond his control, mapped out for him from the beginning of time. He felt as if he were living in a dream, swept from one event to another, helpless as a ship caught in the Two-Moon Tide. Lin, though, insisted, “Arnath, what will Aiel have to protect him?” “A greater weapon than any Swordsman ever bore.” the High Priest answered. He rose from the table and crossed to the strange edifice in the centre of the room. Using the same crystal rod that had opened the door, he operated some unseen mechanism and the dome slowly split apart, opening out into four quarters that folded back like the petals of a flower. Arnath reached inside and brought out two things; a wooden box inlaid with metal, and a flat bundle of soft, once-crimson cloth, faded with age.
Aiel’s and Lin’s eyes were fixed on him as he walked back to the table. He laid down the cloth-wrapped bundle and took the box in both hands, raising it above his head. “In the Name of Light”, he intoned. Linnad said, as if in response, “Light bless the Bearer.” “Let him go in Light”, Arnath answered, and set the box back on the table. Curious at this little ritual, both young men stared at the box. It was of the same dark wood and silvery metal as the door through which they had passed into this mysterious room. Around the edge of the lid, inlaid in metal, ran words in the Old Tongue. Aiel, with some difficulty since the words were facing away from him, made out the inscription, “Bear it in Light, and bear it well.” In the centre of the lid was the Symbol. This Arnath pressed, and a small click indicated the release of some hidden lock. Arnath lifted the lid, and Aiel and Lin leaned forward to see.
Inside the box was a pad of folded blue and white cloth, like that of a Priest’s robe. On it lay a chain of the silvery metal, strongly made, with fine double links. From the chain hung a pendant in the shape of the Symbol, and set in the oval at its base was a semi-opaque white stone, rather like a pebble. Arnath lifted the chain from the box and held it up. After a moment, a tiny spark appeared at the heart of the stone, and grew until the whole stone was softly glowing. Aiel and Lin looked at each other in wonderment, then back at the stone. “Behold the Lightstone.” Arnath said. But they had not really needed to be told.
“Aiel”, his father called him, and the young Priest rose and went to him, eyes fixed on the Lightstone, as if in a dream. Yet when Arnath told him, “Yours is the Way of the Secret Word, therefore you now become the Lightstone-Bearer”, Aiel drew back. “There is nothing to fear”, Arnath told him, but he underestimated his son. Aiel’s vivid blue eyes lifted to meet his father’s and, “Should I fear the Holy Stone? I am not afraid, Friend of Light”, he said, the formal Priestly title showing that he was addressing Arnath not as his father, but as High Priest of Light. “It is that- it is I who have let this evil pass on Li’is. I am not worthy of the Lightstone.”
Arnath lifted the Lightstone and touched it to Aiel’s brow. Instantly , such a blaze of light overflowed the stone that Lin cried out in alarm, “Aiel!”, afraid that his friend had been stricken where he stood. Then the light faded to a soft glow, but now it surrounded Aiel, pouring forth from the stone, bathing him in its radiance. It was as if he stood beneath a fountain of gentle light. Lin watched, fascinated, no longer feeling any fear for Aiel. “You are the Lightstone-Bearer”, Arnath said again. “Light finds you worthy.” And now the light withdrew again into the stone, but it seemed as though some of it lingered in Aiel’s eyes. Arnath leaned forward and slipped the chain over Aiel’s bowed head, and the stone lay gently glowing on the young Priest’s breast.
“The Lightstone”, Arnath said, “Will attune to you, and you to it, for it seeks out and works with the Light and the Giftings of Light in each one. So, your experience of it will not be the same as Rafel the Lightfriend’s. Be guided by it, and by Light. Or, refuse it, and the Way, for even that is yours to do. Light does not force any to do Light’s work, and the choice is still yours, to accept or refuse.” “There is no choice for me”, Aiel said, “I accept.” , and it seemed to them that the Lightstone glowed more strongly as he spoke.
“LIn”, Arnath said now, turning towards the Swordsman, who came to stand at Aiel’s side.. “You asked me if you might help Aiel on this Way”, the High Priest reminded him, “You have heard the Secret Word now. It speaks of a companion, a Way-Sharer. Aiel, you are bidden to seek a ‘true sword’ and one who loves Light.” Aiel turned to look at his friend. “None truer than Lin, to a friend or to Light”, he said, and there was an unspoken question in his eyes for the Swordsman. Lin, wanting desperately to go with Aiel on this Way, both for his friend’s sake and for the sake of the Way itself, feeling unsure what to do or say in this strange atmosphere of semi-ceremonial, took refuge in a Swordsman’s formality. Bowing to Aiel, as if to his Lord, he said, “Aiel, Lightstone-Bearer, command me!”
“Lin, I do not command you! You are my dearest friend, and-” he smiled a little-“you have a way of always being there, at my greatest need. I ask you to come, as a friend.” Lin answered, letting his concern for his friend break through, “Aiel, my friend, my brother – you did not think I would let you go alone?” Aiel lifted the Lightstone, urged by some inner guidance, and touched it to Lin’s brow. The light flowed from it, enfolding the Swordsman, and Lin, wrapped in that aura of peace, acceptance, love and strengthening, realised what Aiel had felt. His eyes too were glowing as the light withdrew and Aiel said, “Light finds you worthy, Lin.”
Linnad told his son, “If you are to take this service on you, Lin, you must be tied to no other. So you must be released from your vow to the Harbour Watch.” Seeing Lin look a little sad at this, his father quickly added, “Oh, it is only till you return, lad, but you can have no other loyalty beside the Lightstone Way.” So Lin went to kneel before his father, who, as Lord of the Harbour, released the Swordsman, with honour, from his service. Then Arnath bade both Lin and Aiel swear their new vow, before Light, as Way-Sharers. “Remember now”, he told them, as they rose from their knees, “be Light-guided in all you do, for on this Way you will have no Lord but Light.”
Those words stirred Lin, making him think of Brann’s proclamation, centuries ago, in the First Days of Li’is. In those times the once-warring factions of men in Li’is had been united to overcome Darkness, and Light had entered Li’is, and after, the City began to be built. They had wanted, then, to make Brann their King, but he, having learned the Way of Light, had told them,” In Li’is, now and forever, we shall have no King but Light.” And so it had been.
Aiel was thinking of many things; the Lightstone, the Way, what might lie ahead. The thought of the new Brotherhood between himself and Lin, the Way-Sharers, was comforting, as had been the light that enfolded him earlier, yet Aiel still had a sense of oppression, a need to be alone, to think these things through before Light. He asked, “Father, may I go to the Temple now? I would be alone with Light, for a while.” Arnath nodded with understanding, and Aiel began to lift the Lightstone chain, as if to take it off. Arnath stopped him. “No , Aiel. You must wear it always, till it becomes part of you. Do you not understand? You are the Lightstone-Bearer now – not just for the Way, but for all your life, unless Light bids you relinquish it to another. Here”. The High Priest reached under the cloth in the box which had held the Lightstone, and brought out a small drawstring bag of soft leather, such as was used to carry certain healing herbs. “Use this, when concealment is necessary.”
Aiel took the pouch and slipped it over the glowing stone, tucking it inside his robe, and Arnath picked up the two scrolls, replacing them in their cylinders. Returning them to the shelves, he brought back another cylinder. “A copy of the Secret Word, in the common tongue”, he explained. To Lin he gave the cloth-wrapped bundle, bidding him bring it, and, closing the Lightsone’s box, replaced it, and removed the crystal rod. The translucent dome folded shut again, and Arnath led them outside, and locked the heavy door with the rod. Above them , the other door slid open.
When they had ascended the stairway and closed that door too, Aiel left them and went out into the now-deserted main Temple. It seemed to Lin, watching him go, that his friend looked very much alone. He turned to speak to Arnath, but the High Priest said, “Wait till we reach my house.” Once there, Lin asked, “Arnath, can Aiel bear this? He is so young and…” he searched for the right word, but the closest he could come was “innocent”. “He must bear it”, Arnath said, quietly, “The Way is his, and he has accepted it. He will not fail Light.”
“All because it happened to be his turn for duty in the House of Records?” Lin exploded, fear for his friend making him angry, “It is so unfair!” “If you were on Watch at the Harbour, and were wounded by some intruder, would that be unfair?” Linnad asked his son. “It is the same thing, Lin.” “Not quite”, Arnath said, “It may even be that the Dark One, by his evil powers, foreknew that Aiel would be in the House of Records today – that he is young and inexperienced, and might not Perceive what Sulyar or I could have done.” He laid a gentle hand on the Swordsman’s shoulder. “Lin, you have been like a brother to Aiel, and over the years I have had cause to be grateful for your friendship and loyalty to him. I understand your fear for him now. But you are a Swordsman, and perhaps you do not fully understand that Aiel is stronger than you think, though his strength lies inward and cannot be seen. The Priest kind have a different war to wage, Lin, and a special duty both to Light and to our fellow men. That is why we are gifted with Perception.”
Lin said, “You are right, Arnath, Perception, and the Lightstone, are not weapons that I understand.” Linnad asked, “Lin, why do you think the Priesthood are forbidden weapons?” “Why – lest they spill blood and the guilt of it comes between them and Light.” “Partly true”, Arnath said, “But not wholly, Lin. As a Swordsman, you know that it is not a thing to be done lightly, to take a man’s life, though that man be a Child of Night and an enemy. To send a living spirit into Darkness forever is a fearsome thing. That is why your Sword-vows bid you always to seek to turn an enemy to Light, to offer the Choice of Light, maybe even as he dies. But this alone is not the reason. The strength of the Priesthood, and thus of Li’is, lies in union with Light. Obedience to Light, the Word of Light, the Giftings of Light, all worked out through our Perception, both outwardly and inwardly – these are our weapons. To rely on anything else – on worldly weapons- would weaken us. The swords of the Priesthood are forged in the spirit, in the burning fire of Light, and wielded by the will obedient to Light. And the Priest’s will must always be in subjection to Light, and to the good of his fellow men. Love alone keeps this blade’s edge keen – there is no room for anger or revenge.”
Seeing that Lin found this hard to follow, Linnad said, “Lin, you would trust yourself to Arnath’s Perception, or Aiel’s -or any other Priest’s?” Lin looked surprised. “Of course.” “And yet”, his father continued, “if once that Power were corrupted or misused, it could burn out your mind like the strongest acid. Fortunately for us”, and he smiled at Arnath, his old friend, “the Priesthood is incorruptible.” “Only by the mercy of Light”, Arnath said, “We are men, and as open to attack by Darkness as any.” He turned again to Lin, “You will have need of your own weapon, Lin”, he said, “for, if need be, you must defend Aiel against physical attack. I entrust him to you.” “I will”, promised Lin, “With my life, if need be.”
Arnath said, “There is still much we must do and discuss. Aiel has had his space – will you fetch him now, Lin?” As Lin went, Arnath called for his servant to prepare food and fetch the things they would need. To Linnad, then, he said, “It is not so easy, my friend, to send them out, my son and yours, on this Way.” And for the first time, there was a glint of tears in his eyes. Linnad laid an arm for a moment across Arnath’s shoulders. “No, old friend, it is not easy – especially for you”, he agreed, ” but we must not do or say anything to dishearten them,.” Thoughtfully, he added, “For Lin, he has spoken and acted only as I would have hoped – but Aiel astonishes me, Arnath. I would never have guessed him to have such courage and fortitude. I do not think we need be ashamed of our sons.”
Meanwhile Aiel, having entered the quiet Temple, had gone down to stand before the Crucible, gazing up at the tall, steady flame, the symbol of the constant, unchanging Presence of Light. So many things had happened to him in so short a space of time, that he found he could frame no prayer, no appeal to Light. His mind was such a tumultuous jumble of thoughts, emotions, experiences, that in that moment he sought only release. He went to his knees before the Crucible, and, like a weary and frightened child, laid his head on his arms, leaning on its white stone steps, and wept.
Slowly, with his weeping, the tension in him eased and he began to be able to reach inward again. The slight touch of the Lightstone against his skin, concealed under his robe, comforted him. He thought of the light that had touched him, giving some surcease to his troubled spirit. He drew out the stone, freeing it from the concealing pouch, and gazed into it as he used the Priestly disciplines to lay before Light his fears, his feelings of guilt, his need of Light’s mercy. “Light of Li’is, Light of all life”, he whispered, “By the Sacrifice of Light, let me be clean of this thing that I have done. And let Light in mercy grant me the strength and courage I need for this Way.” Though it was painful to him, he was thorough with this cleansing of his soul, knowing that anything hidden from Light was a seed of Darkness growing. He did not know, as yet, that the Lightstone was already beginning to shape and strengthen him. The new acuteness of his Perception he attributed to the strength of his emotions. The temptation to follow it deeper, he resisted. Very few among the Priesthood, and they the most mature and strong-minded, could step easily into the labyrinth of their inner selves, or emerge unscathed if they did.
Aiel hardly heard Lin’s light footfall, but sensed his friend’s presence, and looked up. Lin, seeing the tears shine on his cheeks in the light of the Crucible flame , asked, with awkward gentleness, “Is it well with you, Aiel?”
Aiel rose. “I have made my peace with Light. I am clear what I must do. But, Lin.” he looked squarely at the Swordsman, “I am afraid.” “And so am I”, Lin answered, surprising him. “We should be fools if we were not afraid, Aiel, to face an unknown, deadly enemy. There is a coward’s fear, that deadens the mind, and there is another fear, one which sharpens the wits. The first is a bitter foe, but the second, a strong ally.” “Still, I wish I had more courage, Lin.”
“Aiel, you are making the mistake of thinking that lack of fear is courage. That is not courage,but stupidity. Courage is to feel the fear, but still to finish the battle. You do have courage, my friend.” He paused, then asked, “Are you ready, now? Your father sent me for you. There are things still to do, he said, and plans to make.” “Yes”, Aiel said, “I am ready.” His fingers strayed to the Lightstone, and he slipped it back into the concealing pouch. “The Lightstone, Lin!” he exclaimed, softly. “The last to bear this was Rafel the Lightfriend. Does it seem possible to you? I feel as if I had fallen into legend.”
“To be Rafel’s heir and follow in his steps, to bear the Lightstone”, said Lin, “is an awesome duty. But still, it is an honour before Light, Aiel.” “I know”, the other answered as they walked back towards his home. “That is what I cannot understand. For all that it was in innocence, I have betrayed Light. Yet Light forgives , and gifts me with the Lightstone.” “Not a betrayal. A betrayal is a deliberate thing. And duty comes with honour. The Lightstone is a weapon to be wielded.”
“I know so little of weapons”, Aiel mused, “Lin I am glad you are coming with me. Otherwise I should have been so alone. Yet I am sorry that I must drag you into danger after me.” “Drag me?” Lin exclaimed, “Only the Word of Light could have prevented me!”
Inside the house they found Arnath and Linnad waiting for them.On the table lay the cloth-wrapped bundle and the scroll from the room under the Temple. There were also maps, and some dishes of food and pitchers of drink. “Now”, said Arnath, “You will both need to be very attentive. There is much to learn.” He lifted the faded crimson bundle and held it out to Aiel. “This is also for you. To match against his pipe.”
Aiel took the bundle and unwrapped it. Inside the folds of material lay a familiarly-shaped, flattish case on a wide leather strap. It was the carrying-case for a small harp such as he was used to playing in the Temple and at the Festivals. Aiel unfastened the case and took out the instrument, which was beautifully made of the silvery metal he was coming to know, surprisingly light and strong. The strings were apparently of the same metal spun fine, and either someone had kept the harp meticulously tuned, or the metal itself, or the crystal dome, had some unusual properties, for when Aiel swept an experimental hand across the strings, the chord sounded clear and pure and true, though the harp had seemingly been laid aside for centuries.
Lin still only half-believed what was happening. His practical, sensible mind shied away from this seeming foolishness – an unarmed Priest going out to fight a deadly foe with a white stone and a harp. Yet deep in his spirit, which was wholly given to Light, he believed, and felt wonder, and though sad and even fearful for his friend, was very glad that he himself could accompany Aiel on his Way.
Aiel put down the harp, rubbed his brow, and sat down rather suddenly. They looked at him with concern. “I am sorry”, he said, ” I felt …strange.” Lin thought about it. “Aiel, you have scarcely eaten all day, and you are overburdened. You need strength. Eat something now.” “When did you become a Healer, Lin?” Aiel asked, trying by light words to ease their concern for him. But then he said, more sombrely, “I do not know if I can eat….” Still, he took the food Lin passed him, and began to nibble at it, while Arnath said, “You will leave on the morning of the Spring Festival.” Aiel gasped, “But that is the day after tomorrow! I thought we would leave at once!” “The Black Piper will have two days’ start!” Lin exclaimed.
“No” Linnad said, “First he must feed the Bloodstone.” “Feed it?” Aiel asked, faintly. “Is that why it is called the Bloodstone?” He pushed the food away from him, feeling sick.
“Not in the way you mean”, Linnad answered, “The Bloodstone is charged by evil acts or emotions. Somehow it is attuned to such things, and draws power from them. The Lightstone is self-sustaining, drawing its power from Light. It is an expression of Light. But the Bloodstone must draw on the evil that is in evil men and women to recharge itself with power.”
“Hidden somewhere in the City”, Arnath said, ” there is a Night Temple, where the Children of Night meet. The Silver Witch, Si-Mara – herself born out of Ma’al – is known to be their Priestess, though she is too clever to give us any means to prove it. The Black Piper will go there to charge the stone at their unholy ceremonies. It is not likely that he will leave before dawn.”
“That is still a day’s start.” Lin said.
“There is reason for the delay”, Arnath told them, “And the Bloodstone must be fed continually, as he uses up its power – and it takes much power to sustain a Shape-Changer in his disguise. So, he must pause on the way to gather the Children of Night, or – find some other way to feed the stone.”
“What – ‘other way’?” Aiel demanded, dreading the answer. His father answered, softly and sadly, “Sacrifice.” Aiel looked into his eyes, and did not need to be told what kind of sacrifice. He felt a hard, hurting tightness in his throat. Lin, because he had seen Aiel’s pain and wanted to take the thing from his friend’s thought, asked, “Arnath, you said we must go to some of the Council?”
“Yes. You will need safe passage through the Mountains, and the summer pastures of the Westerners. And you cannot reach the Dancers without going to the Gatekeeper.”
Lin thought, suddenly, of the idle wish he had expressed – was it only that day? – to Aiel, to see the Dancers. He had never expected to have it granted in such a way. Mention of the Mountains, though, had brought another memory to mind. He said, “I have heard that Merhaun, the Lord of the Mountains, does not welcome those of the City.”
“You are right” Linnad agreed. “Old Gerrik told you, I suppose?” “Yes. He said that Merhaun would tolerate our Forest training, since Swordsmen must be trained, but we would not be permitted beyond the Axehead Rock.”
“I do not think he will welcome you”, Linnad said, “but for the Way’s sake, he will help you.” Aiel asked, not liking the sound of this unfriendly Lord, “Must we go that way?”
Lin told him, ” The Mountain Fortress guards the Spearcleft Pass. It is the only way through the Mountains.”
Arnath explained, “Merhaun carries a deep wound in his spirit, that he blames on the City. We three were good friends once. I would hope that for my sake and Linnad’s, as well as the Way’s, he will help you. And it may be that with the Lightstone you can heal his hurt, Aiel.”
Aiel said, “The Secret Word bids me seek treasures in the Mountains. Do you know what they are, Father? And if Merhaun is as anatagonistic as Linnad says, why should he give them up to me?” Arnath answered, “I cannot be sure. I might guess, but if I am right, it will be very hard for Merhaun, and he will be most unwilling to give them to you. Yet in the end he must – or lose them to Darkness.” He shook his head. “I will not say, Aiel. I dare not tell you the wrong thing, and must not influence you in this, lest I am wrong. Let Light alone guide you.”
Now Arnath and Linnad unrolled the maps, and began to outline the route they must take. At various places throughout Li’is the Priesthood kept Faring Houses where travellers might stay. Staying in these, or with those to whom the Way took them, they would be secure. But outside of these places, in inns or villages, or camping out in the open, would be the places of danger. They must make what speed they could, but much of the country was rough, and Aiel, like many of the Priesthood, an unpractised horseman, though Lin rode superbly well, even for a Swordsman. Leaning over the maps, the two friends began to realise the extent of the task they faced.
“From the Fortress, you must go on through the Forest, cross the Mountains by the Spearcleft Pass, and go down their Northern flank. Then you will need to cross the Great Moor.” Linnad began. “On the far edge of the Moor, near the eastern farmlands, is the First Faring House. Mell, the keeper of the House,will give you fresh provisions.” continued Arnath.
“Once you leave the Faring House, you will be in a place of danger, “Linnad warned, ” For your road runs through the Red Forest and past the ruins of the Dark City. Those places are accursed. Do not you, nor your beasts, eat anything that grows there, and drink no water you find there.” “Above all, beware of the ruins.” Arnath said solemnly, “They are sacred to the Children of Night, and the Dark One will surely go there. Take care!”
“But once you pass them safely, you will come to the Second Faring House, though the road is long. From there it is quite a ride to the summer pastures of the Westerners, and all uphill, for the camp of the Ket is on the high plateau beyond the Western Mountains. The Ket is wise, and will give you good counsel.”
“Once past the plateau”,Arnath took over the instructions again, “the land narrows – you are in a plain bounded by the plateau, the far edges of the Western mountains, and the Great Bay.” He showed them, on a map, where the seacoast swept in on the east in one huge curve, with fishing villages dotted along, “It is rich land, and there is a sizeable Merchant Town there, which is where the Third Faring House lies. It may be a place of danger. It is not as easy to reach, by sea, as the City Harbour, but more convenient for those who wish to avoid questions.”
“After that, though the area is large, it is not good farmland. So it will be only rough country, with odd farms or villages, until you reach the Gatehouse. There will be caves sometimes to sleep in, but it will be rough journeying.” Linnad concluded.
By the time they had gone over and over their instructions and spent time in studying the maps, Aiel’s head was spinning. He had seldom even left the City. Now he was to travel from one end of the Western Continent of Li’is to the other. All the details of places, people, mountains, towns, jangled together in his head. It had been a long, eventful, frightening day. Aiel was physically exhausted and mentally drained, and Lin, too, was wearied by unaccustomed emotion. Arnath, realising this, said , “It is growing late. Linnad, Lin, you must stay here tonight. I will make the arrangements”, and went out to find his servant.
Aiel, left alone with the two Swordsmen, said unhappily to Lin’s father, “I shall never remember it all, Linnad.” Linnad, feeling a tug of pity for the young Priest, said, “There will be friends to guide you, along the Way, Aiel. And the Lightstone and our prayers go with you.”
Aiel nodded, and was silent, closing his eyes, sitting still and pale-faced while Linnad and Lin exchanged glances of concern. Presently Aiel’s blue eyes opened again, and he said, “Linnad, I am sorry I must take Lin into this danger.” “Aiel, lad, I am glad he is going with you. I could not bear to see you go alone!”
Arnath returned to announce that the sleeping arrangements had been settled. “Lin, we have put up a bed for you in Aiel’s room. Linnad, the guest chamber.” The High Priest looked at his weary son, and said, “Rest will profit us all. We will continue tomorrow.” He murmured a night blessing, then said, “Aiel, Lin, go and sleep.”
It was as well that Lin had often stayed with Aiel, and was as familiar with his friend’s house as his own. For Aiel, between his utter weariness and his burdened thoughts, had to be all but guided to his own bedchamber. The friends spoke very little as they prepared for bed. Lin was afraid that Aiel, haunted by the prospect of the Lightstone Way, might be unable to rest, but the young Priest was too exhausted not to sleep. His sleep was not peaceful, though, and Lin lay on his bed in the dark worriedly listening to Aiel’s restless turnings and mutterings, until he himself fell asleep.