Chapter 11

When the kindly Healer had led Marla away, Mellin turned to Aiel in anxious enquiry. “Aiel – is Marla truly free? There is no danger to her from Si-Mara still?” Aiel smiled. “You saw for yourself, Mellin. She has attained Light, she is Changed. She is a Child of Light and of Li’is now, and the Darkness and Ma’al have no claim on her. Oh, there may be some danger yet, if Si-Mara should seek revenge on her – but not the thing she feared. As far as it concerns Si-Mara’s foul ‘ceremonies’ and their forcing Marla to become the Bloodstone-wielder, she is completely free and safe. All her Dark powers have gone, and she is useless to the Dark Ones without them.” The tension in Mellin’s body relaxed visibly as the Lightstone-Bearer told him this, and when Aiel stopped speaking, the young Swordsman gave a strange, deep sigh that was almost a moan. Aiel, startled, looked across at his suddenly pale-faced nephew. Aila, who alone of them all knew of Mellin’s love for Marla and the dreadful stress her cousin had been under, realised what was going to happen and said urgently to Janir, who was nearest, “Janir, catch him!” Even so, Janir was only just in time to prevent Mellin from crashing to the floor as he collapsed with sheer relief. Lin cried “Mellin!”, bending in alarm over his fainting son as he helped Janir lift him on to one of the alcove seats. Arenel said, almost accusingly, to his sister “You expected this?” “I expected – something.” Aila answered briefly, as she deftly examined Mellin. Lin hovered nearby , his distressed face showing his deep, though rarely openly expressed, love for his son. “Lin” Aila said, wanting to reassure him, “have no fear for Mellin. He has carried a great burden on this Way, and this is release.” “But why?” Lin asked.

Aila knew that she could not tell her uncle of Mellin’s deep love for Marla, for that was not hers to tell. Of his pledge to the girl, though, she could tell, and it would be enough. Lin would understand and respect that. “Mellin told me” she began “that when he first realised Marla’s search for Light was genuine, he was ashamed of how he had treated her. He told her he was sorry to have doubted her, and to make amends, he told her he would pledge his sword and his service to help her.” She glanced at Lin, and he nodded, to show he understood. Aila continued “Marla accepted that pledge, but asked him for another too. And what she asked was that if she failed to attain Light and there was risk of Si-Mara capturing her – as she would not then wish to live, but might lack the power to die – that Mellin would – would slay her with his sword. Oh, he would not promise at first, he said, but then Marla told him what would be done to her if ever the ‘ceremonies’ came to be carried out – things he said he could not tell me, for they were too dreadful for me to hear! And Marla begged him, not only for her sake, but because of what Li’is would suffer if she were forced to wield the Bloodstone. She told Mellin that there were worse things than to die quickly and cleanly, at the hands of a merciful friend. So Mellin made her the pledge, Lin, knowing that if ever the time came to carry it out, he would be sending her into Darkness forever, because it would mean that all hope of her attaining Light was lost. And that is the burden he has carried all this time.” Arenel nodded agreement, and said “That is true, Lin. He told me about it in the Prayer Room of the Western Fortress before we set out. He asked me to tell no one else, and we carried it to Light together. But he was still sad about it.” Lin reached out to stroke his son’s tousled red-gold hair, so like Krystha’s, and Aiel thought he glimpsed tears in his old friend’s eyes. “Then I am very proud of him.” Lin said. “He is a Swordsman.” “He is his father’s son” Janir said quietly, smiling at his uncle.

Tor-Harat would have arranged for his stewards to carry Mellin to his chamber, but his father and cousin would have none of it , and carried him there themselves, with Aila to make sure all was well with him. Once that was settled, they returned to the Hall. All of them were feeling strange. They had lost a night’s sleep, but events had been so moving and exciting, and it was so early in the day, that to go and rest did not seem possible. They all thought it fitting to go to the Prayer Room, which had been restored to normality in their absence, and pray, and praise Light for Marla’s deliverance. They spent some time there in joyful contemplation and praise of the love and mercy of Light. Afterwards, Arenel asked Zohra, somewhat diffidently, “Zohra – is it possible that you could sing us the Dancers’ Song?” “No” she said, but regretfully. “I think that would not be right, Arenel. It belongs to them alone. I was only allowed to sing with them because it was needful for Marla’s Changing. But I hope one day before we leave I may go and listen to them again.” Aiel said “Zohra, I am not sure that would be wise. If men were meant to hear the Dancers’ Song, all men would have the gift. This was a special blessing.” “But I do have the gift” she said, politely but firmly, “so it must be right for me to hear the Song, Aiel.” It seemed that on this point the Westerner was not to be moved. Aiel said only “Then you must seek the Will of Light in this, Zohra.” and had to be content with her promise to do that.

Aila was beginning to find the Prayer Room stuffy. Her temples were pulsing with the beginnings of a headache, and she said “I think I must go to the Gardens for some air, Father. My head throbs!” “Not alone, Aila” Aiel warned her. “The Children of Night are cunning – I remember Soom!” He glanced round at the others, then said “Janir – will you go with Aila, to guard her?” “Yes, Aiel” Janir answered obediently, but with a little sideways glance at Aila. Out in the Gardens, away from the Gatehouse, he took her hands in his, and asked with concern “Is it well with you, Aila? You do look pale.” “It has been a long night and morning” she said “so much happening, so much to feel…” She stopped, feeling it all welling up in her, and turned towards him, “Oh, Janir…” His arms folded her as her tears began – no sorrow in them, but relief, and joy, and weariness, and the overwhelming wonder of what had been done for Marla. Janir stroked her hair, gentling her like a child.”Hush, hush, Aila my heart! It is over now, all done – Marla is safe. All is well, my love.” When she stopped weeping, he cupped her face in his hands and brushed away the wet from her cheeks, awkwardly, with his thumbs, and kissed her. Returning to the Gatehouse, they found breakfast prepared and the others at the table. When they had eaten, Lady Benika insisted that they should all at least lie down and rest, even if they could not sleep, but Aila did drift off to sleep after all.

When she woke ,Aila guessed it to be afternoon. She felt refreshed by her rest, and now fully able to feel the joy and wonder of Marla’s Changing. She stretched, yawned, and swung her feet to the floor. Having smoothed her rumpled hair and gown, she went to the window and looked out at the serene and beautiful Gardens , then up at the Meeting Place. She wondered if any of the others were about, wanting, now she was rested, to talk about the wonders they had witnessed. Aila decided to go down to the Hall. She might find some of the others there, and in any case she felt a little thirsty after her sleep, and knew she would find something to drink there. As she left her chamber, though, she was glad to meet Mellin in the corridor. He too had been walking towards the stairway, but had paused to look wistfully at the closed door of Marla’s room. Aila smiled at her cousin and asked with sympathetic concern “How is it with you now, Mellin? Are you feeling better?” Mellin flushed “I am ashamed! I, a Swordsman, to faint so…” Aila cut him off, but gently “Mellin, it was your body’s response to the lifting of the stress and anguish you had been under. There was nothing unmanly in that.” The Swordsman looked into the face of his understanding cousin “Oh, Aila!” he exclaimed “It is true, really true! Marla is safe and free, and a Child of Light!” She was about to reply when they were both startled by a terrified scream that ripped through the air and was instantly repeated. The cousins stared at each other in horror, realising the sound came from Marla’s chamber, and rushed to her door. Mellin was ready to burst it down, but they found that it was unlocked. Mellin, drawing his sword in the same movement, flung it open and ran in, with Aila following. Marla was sitting bolt upright in her bed, her hands to her face, screaming as if she would never stop, but there was no enemy in the room, nothing in the direction in which she was staring with fixed, frightened eyes.

Mellin,assuming control, said, “Aila, try to calm Marla, while I search.” Aila went to Marla and seated herself beside the girl, embracing her, talking to her calmingly, but Marla seemed both hypnotised and terrified. Mellin made a thorough search, but there was no hidden enemy. Marla’s screams had faded to a frightened whimpering and above the sound the Swordsman said, angrily, “Sweet Light, is her torture not over yet? What Darkness could reach her after what has been done for her? Or is it a reaction to the Changing, Aila, that ails her?” “No, the Dancers said it would not harm her. And my father said she would be safe from Si-Mara and the Dark Ones, unless it were a physical threat to her.” “So it is not an enchantment? Aila, can you not call Aiel?” “Wait” she told him, and tried to follow Marla’s distressed gaze to find the source of her fear. All she saw, though, were the usual furnishings of a bedchamber; a woven rug on the floor, a clothes-chest, a chair, a wall-hanging, a round mirror of bright, polished metal… “The mirror!” she exclaimed “Mellin…” But Mellin anticipated her; picking up a cloak that lay on the chest, he covered the shining surface. Marla’s fixed gaze broke; she turned dazed eyes on Aila and began to weep, holding tightly to her friend. “She must have woken, confused by the Changing, as the Dancers said she might be…” Aila began, and Mellin broke in “And looked in the mirror, and seen a different face. And she was frightened, forgetting what had happened.” “Not even forgetting!” Aila said. “Mellin, Marla has not seen herself in a mirror since the Changing. We did not think of that. She did not know.” She lifted Marla’s bowed head and said, with quiet firmness, “Marla dear, hear me. It is all part of the Changing.” But Marla was looking, not at Aila, but up at Mellin, pleadingly. Her eyes went to his sword and, divining her thought, he blanched, and quickly sheathed it. Marla gave a little half-sob. “The Darkness!” she moaned. “I am not myself – have they made me a Shape-Changer? That was one of the powers they said I would have! Mellin, Mellin, tell me the truth – you must keep the pledge you gave me!” “Marla, no!” he cried. “it is not the Darkness, but the Dancers who have Changed you, through the mercy of Light. It is over, all over, and you are free-you have attained Light! Do you not remember? Can you not feel it in you? Search your spirit, Marla. The Darkness is gone from you.”

“Mellin” Aila said “take care of Marla for a moment.” She released Marla and rose, and Mellin took her place, holding Marla’s hands in his and continuing his words of comfort. Aila crossed the room and lifted the mirror from the wall. Turning, she looked at Mellin and Marla. Her cousin was totally absorbed in comforting Marla, and Marla was looking up at him trustingly. Aila was touched. If only Marla could learn to love Mellin as he loved her! She carried the mirror back to them. “Marla, look now, and do not be afraid” she told her friend. “This is your true self, as Light always saw you.” Marla still clung to Mellin’s hands as she peeped hesitantly at the polished surface, gasped, looked away – then resolutely turned her eyes back and looked long and hard at her reflection. At last she spoke. “Is it really me?” They assured her of it, and she said bemusedly “It is my face, and not my face.” “It is the face of Marla of Li’is, Child of Light” Mellin told her. “This is how Light meant you to be.” “Am I – am I beautiful?” Marla asked, hesitantly. “Yes!” Mellin said, fervently, and Aila added “Marla, yes, you are beautiful, but more importantly you are beautiful inside too, in your soul and spirit, because all the Darkness is gone from you and Light reigns there now.” “I did not wish to be beautiful” the other girl said. “Si-Mara is beautiful, but her beauty is a deadly thing, like snow on the mountains, lovely to see, but chilling to the death. And when she said I was beautiful, and was pleased by it, she meant only that I looked like her.” “But now you do not” Aila answered. “It is no cold and deadly beauty, Marla. You look like no one but your own true self, and there is no Darkness in you.” Mellin said again “Marla, you are free! You walk in Light!” Marla smiled at them both, her fears at last stilled. “I know” she said. There was a brief silence, as though she searched inside herself, then she burst out “Oh Aila, Mellin, I have attained Light!” and was weeping again, but now with joy, smiling through her tears. Mellin hugged her, saying nothing, but looking up at Aila with shining eyes, as if he had to share his love and joy for Marla with someone.

There was a tap at the door and Lady Benika came in, looking concerned. “Oh Aila, is it well with Marla? My steward thought he heard her cry out.” “She did” Aila answered, and explained about the mirror and Marla’s fears, and that they were now allayed. “Good.” the other Healer said, and Marla asked “When may I go to the Prayer Room? I must give my thanks to Light!” “Whenever you feel strong enough” Lady Benika told her. “The Dancers said you would be tired, but not harmed, by the Changing. And Mellin” she continued “is it well with you now?” Mellin flushed darkly and muttered something, and Marla exclaimed “Oh, have you been unwell, Mellin?” Aila explained gently “Not unwell, Marla. He was just very glad that you had attained Light and that he would not have to carry out his pledge to you, and the relief of it overcame him for a while, that is all.” “Mellin, I am sorry!” Marla said, contritely. “Have I been selfish? Perhaps I should never have asked such a thing of you. But I was so desperate not to be a tool of Darkness and bring harm to the people of this world. I knew you were a man of honour and an enemy of Darkness and would do what you must to defeat it. That is why I asked you. But if I have hurt you by it, I am truly sorry.” “Oh, Marla!” Mellin said, then, “Yes, it was a hard thing to ask of me, but the right thing, and I honoured you for it. And it would have hurt me to have done it, but if necessary I would have – for it would not have been to you that I did it then. And yes, I am so very glad that it never will be necessary, now.” “Thank you” she said simply “and Light bless you, Mellin.” Aila said “If you do feel well enough, Marla, I will come with you to the Bathing Place, if you wish, and after that we can go to the Prayer Room.” Marla happily agreed that yes, she did indeed feel well enough, and Lady Benika said she would have some fresh gowns provided for them. Mellin smiled at the girls, glad to find Marla in such good spirits now, and said he would find his father and Janir, in case they were concerned for him still.

When he had gone, Aila took Marla to the Bathing Place, where a servant girl brought them the promised gowns. After they had bathed and dressed, Aila took Marla, as she had said, to the Prayer Room. She wondered, momentarily, whether Marla would feel uneasy, considering their experiences in the Prayer Room during her Changing, but Marla seemed unconcerned, only longing to be able to enter the Prayer Room as a Child of Light, to give thanks to Light. As she pushed open the doors, Aila saw that her father and brother and Lin were in the Prayer Room, and was glad. Aiel turned to see who had entered, and greeted them with a broad smile. “Marla” he asked “is it well with you? How do you feel?” She smiled back. “A little tired still, Aiel, but well, and so thankful to Light! I had to come and offer praise for what has been done for me!” “Come, then” he said, indicating the Crucible. There was none of the hesitancy she had shown before her Changing as she now approached the Crucible. Lifting her arms towards the flame, Marla began to express her love and joy to Light, sometimes stumbling over her words, but with such sincerity and devotion that all of them were deeply moved. When she had finished her prayers, there were tears of joy in her eyes as she turned towards the others. “I belong here now!” she told them, simply, and Aiel spoke for them all when he said “And that is our joy, Marla.” “Aye” Lin added “You are a Child of Light now, Marla, and we are glad for you.” She smiled round at them, but Aila thought she looked a little weary and said “Marla, it is a great blessing, but you still need to gain strength. Come and eat now.” “Aila is right” Aiel told her.”The Changing has taken much of your strength, and you need sustaining. So Marla agreed, and went with Aila, while Arenel too excused himself to attend to matters of his own. The Swordsman saw a thoughtful look on his friend’s face and asked “What are you thinking, Aiel?” “We had not thought beyond the end of Marla’s Way” Aiel said. “Her need to attain Light drove out all other considerations. But what for her now, Lin? She is Changed, and a Child of Light. But she has no family, no home or means to live.” Lin said, surprised, “Why, I had not thought of that either. But we can help her, Aiel. Would she wish to live in the City – would she even be safe there? We would welcome her at the Fortress, there is room enough, and maybe Krystha could train her to be a Healer.” “The City – I am not sure” Aiel answered “she is Changed, yes, but Si-Mara might still recognise her by her dark powers. Though Marla is useless to her now for her dark purposes, she might seek revenge on her. As to the Fortress, that might be safer for her, and it is a kind offer, Lin. But we must leave it to Marla to decide what she wants, though we will not leave her desolate.” He looked at his friend then, and added “But we will not mention this yet. She is still so happy as things are now, and none of the young ones have thought of this. When Marla begins to think of her future, then we will help her to decide.”

Meanwhile Aila and Marla had gone to the Hall, where they found Zohra, who welcomed them both and asked after Marla. She answered that yes, all was well with her and she was very happy, but when she sat down at the table and her friends tried to encourage her to eat, she managed very little, and Aila asked “Marla, are you sure it is well with you?” Marla hesitated, then admitted “Aila, my head aches.” Aila nodded and reached into her Healer’s sack for a little bag of powdered herbs. Mixing some into a cup of water, she passed the draught to Marla. who drank it down obediently. “So much has happened to you, Marla dear” the Healer said “and though it has ended happily for you, it is no wonder you should still feel the effects of it.” Marla said “I truly am very happy, Aila, and I know”, smiling at Aila and Zohra, “that you are my good friends. But forgive me, I feel I must be alone for a little, just to let myself take in all that has happened. I will walk in the Gardens for a while, I think.” Aila agreed, saying “The fresh air will help your headache too” but adding in warning “but do not go too far, Marla, and take care.” “I will, Aila.” the other girl promised, and left the room. Zohra commented “She is right, Aila. She has had barely a moment to herself since we arrived here and she does need time to think about it all.” “So much has changed for her” Aila concurred ” and though it is what she wished, still it must come strange to her. She has been under such a burden for so long, and suddenly it is gone, and she is free. She might even feel lost, in some strange way, now that all is accomplished.” Before Zohra could answer, Arenel came into the Hall. He greeted the girls and joined them at the table to make his own meal. While he ate, he told them that Aiel and Lin had stayed in the Prayer Room, while the younger Swordsman were busy with other matters. Then he asked after Marla, and Aila explained. Arenel agreed with his sister that it was little wonder that Marla should need time and quiet to understand all that had happened to her. “None of us could possibly comprehend what she has gone through” he said. “We saw what happened in the Prayer Room, Aila, what Marla experienced to attain Light, the Darkness that she had to overcome – she must be overwhelmed, though joyful, that all that is over.” Aila was about to answer her brother when she paused, turning her head towards the door. The others did not ask why, for they too had heard the sound of some commotion outside.

Janir entered the room with Mellin, both of them with such grave expressions that Aila cried “Oh, what is wrong?” “Where is Aiel?” Janir asked. “There is danger – one of the Gatehouse Gatewards has been found slain by the side-gate to the Gardens.” “The Children of Night must be inside – nobody is to go out there” Mellin warned. “Oh, Mellin – Marla!” Zohra exclaimed, horrified.”She had a headache, and went to walk in the Gardens…” Before she finished, Mellin had gone, and Janir commanded “Arenel, guard the maidens and call Aiel!” and quickly followed his cousin. Mellin, in terror for Marla, had drawn his sword and rushed headlong out into the Gardens. Once outside, though, his Swordsman’s training reasserted itself and he checked his reckless dash and took firm control of his feelings. He would not help Marla by rushing into peril himself. Instead he moved quietly, carefully through the Gardens, guessing where Marla might have gone, a walk she had enjoyed, flower-strewn and shaded by trees. Mellin had been right. Marla was there, and so was another figure, tall and black-robed, confronting her. Tamat! The Child of Night was holding out one hand, something bright shining on the palm, speaking in a soft, hypnotically enticing voice. “The Bloodstone, Lady! Power lies in this and it is yours by right, by birth. Come, take the stone, and your rightful place of power!” Marla’s voice, when she answered him, was clear and firm, without a tremor of fear. “No, I will not take the loathsome thing. And if I did, I would be useless to you, for I am Changed. I have achieved Light. I am no Child of Darkness now. In the Name of Light, go, and leave me in peace.” Tamat snarled as she spoke the Name, and threatened “Then it will be the peace of death!” Still she stood firm, telling him “Aye, even if you kill me, I shall have peace, Tamat, for I shall touch Light. Do you not understand that I belong to Light now ?” As Tamat glared threateningly at the girl, Mellin stepped suddenly from hiding, drawn sword in hand, placing himself between Marla and her enemy. “Go, Tamat, or it will be your death, if you face my sword again!” Tamat snarled “Fool! This stone will smite you into oblivion, without the Lightstone to aid you!” With a quick movement he slipped the ring on his finger and extended it towards Mellin. Mellin raised his sword, staring in horror at the evil glow of the Bloodstone, his only thought to stop it from harming Marla.

As the stone flashed, Mellin heard Marla cry “No!” and felt himself thrust aside. He felt another impact, seeming to come through his sword, and the right side of his body went completely numb. At the same time he heard a deep and terrible wail, but it was a man’s voice, not Marla’s. With all feeling gone from one side of his body, he dropped helplessly to the ground. He managed, with great difficulty, to turn his head a little, and saw Marla sprawled on her back, as if pushed aside by some giant hand. He tried to call her name, but not even his voice would respond. Certain she was dead, his eyes filled with tears of overwhelming loss, he lay still, utterly vulnerable and sure that at any moment his despair would be ended by the slash of Tamat’s sword. The expected blow did not come, though. Instead, after a few moments he heard Janir’s voice exclaim “Mellin – Marla – Sweet Light, are they dead, Aiel?”, and Aila, who had ignored his instructions to stay behind and run to help with the others, cried, “Oh, no-Father…” Aiel said “They live, Janir. But the Child of Night is dead. Aila, Janir, tend to them. This is strange…” A moment more and Mellin found himself gently lifted and supported on his cousin’s arm. “Mellin!” came Janir’s worried voice. “Cousin, Sword-Brother, can you hear me?” Mellin tried to speak, but could not. Panic-stricken, he looked up into Janir’s face and moaned softly. Janir tried to speak comfort to him, lifting Mellin so that he was leaning against him. But Janir’s look was anxious as he watched the way Mellin’s right arm and leg hung limp and heavy, and the right side of his face drooped. Janir looked across to where Aila was kneeling beside Marla. Though Marla was conscious, Aila’s look too was anxious, for Marla was staring up into her face without any sign of seeing her friend. Aila passed her hand before the green eyes with no response, and knew Marla had been blinded. “Aila” Janir called softly “Mellin cannot move!” And Marla cannot see!” Aila replied. “What evil thing has happened to them?”

Hearing Aila’s voice, Marla clung to her. “Aila – did I save Mellin? Oh, say he is not dead – he is my very heart!” Her voice rose to a pitiful cry, and Mellin could not help but hear. He tried desperately to call her name, but could not, and Janir, seeing his cousin’s need, lifted Mellin nearer to Marla, so that his good left hand could at least hold hers. Mellin’s hand clasped Marla’s and Aila, very moved, said “Marla, Mellin is not dead. He is here – feel his hand. But he cannot move one side of his body, and you are blind. Oh my dear, what has happened to you both?” Relieved tears poured down Marla’s cheeks. “It does not matter!” she gasped “As long as he is alive – the Lightstone will heal us, for it was the Bloodstone that did this.” At that moment Aiel came back from examining Tamat’s body, looking as though he felt rather sick. “Marla, child, what has happened to Tamat?” he asked gently. Though she could not see his expression, Marla knew what he meant. “Tamat tried to use the Bloodstone. I knew about the Bloodstone, Aiel, for they expected me to wield it. I knew if I could split its power, it would fail. It was new-forged and – had not yet been fed.” “But Tamat’s body is like that of a man long dead, not newly slain.” Aiel said. Marla answered “As evil as he was, he was not evil enough for the Bloodstone. He tried to power it with the Darkness within himself, and it was not enough. It has sucked the life and soul and spirit from him.” She sighed, as though she were very weary. “That is what they would have had me wield, that evil, evil…” and she broke off, with a sob. “But you are blind!” Aila exclaimed again.” And Mellin is paralysed!” “Aiel, the Lightstone will heal us” Marla told the Lightstone-Bearer. “But Mellin first – please!” Aiel said “As you wish, Marla.” He knelt and laid the Lightstone to Mellin’s brow. The light flowed out over him, and they heard him gasp. As soon as the light withdrew they could see that the paralysis had left him. He waited quietly, holding Marla’s hand tightly, while Aiel laid the Lightstone to her brow in turn. Its healing light swept over her too, and withdrew, leaving her green eyes clear and bright once more, and she blushed as she met Mellin’s ardent gaze.

Before Mellin could speak, though, Lin burst onto the scene, his face taut with concern, saying “Arenel Perceived that Mellin and Marla were hurt.” He went to his knees beside Mellin, who was still supported by Janir, exclaiming “Mellin, my son!” “It is well with me now, Father” Mellin reassured him. “But you owe my life to Marla.” Lin reached out and laid one gentle hand on Marla’s head. “Light bless you, Marla!” he said, in a voice choked with emotion. Janir, moving a little to one side to make room for his uncle, had encountered something hard in the grass, and now held it up with an exclamation of surprise. It was – or had been – Mellin’s sword. Now it was fused and melted to the point where the weapon it had been was barely recognisable. “What has happened to Mellin’s sword?” Janir asked in amazement. “I tried to direct the Bloodstone’s force into the metal, away from Mellin.” Marla explained. Mellin released her hand, rose to his feet, a little unsteadily still, with the help of his cousin and father, and knelt beside Aila, smiling at her briefly, but now nothing mattered to him but Marla. He reached out for her and Aila gladly gave the girl into her cousin’s outstretched arms and hear him whisper “Marla, my heart – I love you.” Aila rose to her feet, reaching automatically for Janir’s hand in the emotion of the moment. Mellin gathered Marla to him, burying his face in her hair, and her arms came up and round him, holding him tightly.

Aila glanced at her uncle, watching for his reaction as Mellin tilted Marla’s face up to his and kissed her tenderly. She did not really believe that Lin would have any objection to Mellin’s love for Marla, but there was a faint, lingering doubt in her mind. Lin, though, was watching the young couple with a gentle smile, and Aiel, who had also looked across at his old friend, guessed that Lin was thinking of their own Way, and his love for Krystha, a love which had also found recognition only in the face of danger and the threat of death. Marla, however, it seemed, still had doubts. Even as she lovingly caressed Mellin’s cheek, she exclaimed “Oh Mellin, my heart, it is impossible! You are a Lord of Li’is and Heir to the Fortress, and I am nothing, nobody! I have no family, no name, no home, no – no belonging-place.””This is your ‘belonging-place’ ” Mellin told her, holding her tight. “In my arms and my heart. And the rest I will provide for you.” “But what will Lin say – and your mother?” Marla asked, forgetting Lin’s presence. Mellin looked up at his father as if asking for aid, and the older Swordsman knelt too and took Marla’s hand, smiling at her. “Marla, my dear, do you really think that Krystha or I would have any objection to Mellin’s feelings for you? Dear child, “Marla of Li’is” is the most honourable name I know. We were born to Li’is and to Light, but you have fought your way out of Darkness to attain them, besides refusing to be the means of letting the Bloodstone loose on our world. If Mellin’s heart is set to have you for his Lady, and you agree, we shall be proud of such a daughter!” “Oh, Lin!” Marla smiled, but her eyes had misted with tears. Mellin said softly “You see? Marla, will you be my Lady?” “Oh Mellin, yes!” she answered joyfully.

Aila, ready to weep too with joy and relief, turned to Janir. “Oh, I am so glad!” she said “Mellin has loved her so long!” “And that was the secret you kept for my Sword-Brother? But he has not loved Marla as long as I have loved you!” For a moment, Aila almost thought Janir’s remark was an accusation, but then, as he slipped his arm around her and pulled her close, she realised his meaning. No reason now for their love to remain a secret, and Janir was prepared to wait no longer. Politely but firmly he said, “Aiel, I have something to ask you.” As her father turned towards them, she saw a broad smile on his face. “Yes, Janir, I will be happy for Aila to be your Lady.” “But- how did you know?” the young Swordsman asked, surprised. “Oh, my children!” Aiel laughed. “You could not hide your love from me, though it was your determination not to let it interfere with Marla’s Way that showed it was mature as well as strong and true.” He put a hand on Janir’s shoulder. “You are too honest and transparent, Janir, and I know my daughter too well, for me to be deceived.” They laughed too, and Marla said, smiling at them, “Then you two also…” “Yes” Janir smiled back. “We also, Marla!” Mellin grinned hugely and called to Janir “Ho! Is it well with you, Sword-Brother?”, and Janir, holding Aila close, grinned back and answered “It is very well with us. Is it well with you, Sword-Brother?” “Well, and very well.” Mellin replied, contentedly, and after the fear and danger, it was good to be joyful. Arenel and Zohra too, now the danger was over, had hurried out to see for themselves that their friends were unharmed by the encounter with Tamat, and joined in the happiness and congratulations.

But then, in the midst of their rejoicing, Aial, Arenel and Aila all flung up their heads, blue eyes blazing with the stirring of their Perceptions. “Father!” Aila exclaimed, and Aiel responded “Yes, child, I feel it too. There is Darkness near!” Marla said then, with such certainty that they did not think to doubt her, “Aiel – it is the Bloodstone! It strives to renew itself – oh, quickly, we must destroy it before it can live again!” She broke free of Mellin’s embrace and scrambled to her feet, crying “Aiel, come, bring the Lightstone.” They followed her to where Tamat’s body lay, and those who had not seen the corpse gasped in horror at the sight. Shrivelled, dried, teeth bared by the withered facial flesh, it looked like a mummified, centuries-old thing. On the outflung left hand was the Bloodstone ring, the stone now dull and dark against the glittering gold, almost black. But as they watched, the faintest spark of red appeared for a fraction of a second, then faded again. “You see?” Marla whispered. “It fights to live. Aiel, touch me with the Lightstone.” The girl seemed to know exactly what she was doing, so Aiel did as she asked. As he touched the stone to her brow, a glowing Light-Shield formed around Marla, and stayed with her as she knelt and lifted the dead man’s hand. She tried to ease the ring from his finger, but though the finger was shrunken almost to the bone, and the ring should have slipped off easily, it clung tenaciously to Tamat’s hand. “Mellin” Marla said, at last. He came to her, and she said “You must take a sword and cut off the finger. It is the only way. But do not strike the stone.” Janir proffered his sword, and Mellin took it and carefully did as she asked. There was no blood, for as Marla had said, the Bloodstone had sucked every life-giving thing from Tamat. Marla picked up the severed finger. The ring, which had clung so tightly before, now loosened and would have slipped off the finger and out of her grasp, but she held it firmly, and looked around her. Nearby was a part of the Gardens where ferns and other ornamental plants grew among a tumble of rocks. Most of the rocks were too big and heavy to move, but there were some smaller ones at the edges. “Now, can you Swordsmen lift one of those rocks over here?” Marla asked. It took an effort, but with Arenel helping too, they managed to do it. Marla instructed. “When I lay down the ring, drop the rock on it. But quickly, before it can roll away.” Marla had spoken, all the time, as though the ring were alive, and they had only half-understood. They expected the ring to be crushed, nothing more. What happened next amazed and scared them.

First there was a dreadful crashing, splintering sound, as though the rock had fallen not on a ring, but a mountain of crystal. The sound of shattering persisted for a while. Then the rock – the rock which it had taken the combined strength of the three Swordsmen and Arenel to lift – was tossed aside by a powerful blast, from which the Light-Shield, which had now extended to cover the whole group, protected them. Lastly, most dreadful of all, a Darkness rose from the spot where the ring had lain, where now a deep hole gaped. Like a thick smoke, it towered above them, menacing but powerless to harm them because of the Light-Shield. It rose like a parody of a Dancer, tall, flame-shaped, but sooty black, shot with red sparks. And Aiel, who had fought against such a thing before, knew what it was. “It is a Night Lord!” he exclaimed. “A corrupted Dancer of Ma’al!” As he spoke, the air shimmered and a group of Dancers appeared. They surrounded the Night Lord, closing in on it, and the Dark thing suddenly shot upwards, disappearing out into the emptiness beyond the skies of Li’is. The Dancers ‘spoke’. “The Dark One has returned to its own place. The Bloodstone is destroyed and the danger to Li’is is over.” Having given this reassurance, they shimmered out of sight again, and the Light-Shield withdrew into the Lightstone, leaving them all a little dazed at what had happened. Marla rose to her feet and turned towards Mellin, almost falling into his outstretched arms. Aila hurried to her friend, concerned that Marla might faint. She did not, but both she and Mellin seemed stunned and confused – no wonder, thought Aila, in view of all they had endured, the turmoil of different emotions they had experienced, in such a brief space of time. “Mellin, Marla, come to the Healing Place” she ordered, and led them away towards the Gatehouse. The others followed her, finding Tor-Harat the Gatekeeper waiting anxiously. Rather than explain all that had happened, Aiel linked Perceptions with him , and when he had been apprised of all that had happened, they made arrangements to deal with Tamat’s body.

While the others went inside the Great Hall to recover, Aila took Mellin and Marla to the Healing Place. As much as the reviving draught she intended to give them, she felt that they needed time to be alone together. So much had happened to them so quickly – the fear, the injuries caused them by the Bloodstone and reversed by the healing touch of the Lightstone, the discovery of their love, the renewal of danger and the relief of overcoming it. All this in the space of such a little time, and no chance to take in what had happened or be quiet together. Even their first declarations of love, their first kiss, had been before others. So the Healer led her cousin and his love into the Healing Place and turned to smile at them encouragingly. They stood hand in hand, still quiet and seemingly dazed by it all. “Now” Aila said briskly. She went to the Healer’s bench and mixed two draughts of blackbark. She did not often like to use this strong stimulant, but this time she felt it necessary. She gave one bowl of the rich purple liquid to each of them and ordered “Drink this.” The draught was quick-acting and soon Mellin and Marla revived and began to be able to think and talk about what had happened. After a while, Aila told them “My dears, you do not need me now. But you do need to be alone together for a little while. You have so much to say to each other, and have had so little chance to say it. I will come back for you in a while.” When the door of the Healing Place closed behind his thoughtful cousin, Mellin turned to Marla, who said “How kind Aila is.” “And she is right” Mellin said. “We do need time together…” his voice softened as he drew Marla to him. “Oh, my love!” he said, and kissed her. When he let her go, he saw that she was weeping, and asked anxiously “Marla, my heart, what is it?” “Maybe I am foolish” she exclaimed “but oh, Mellin, I loved you so, and I thought you would never, never…” “Love you?” he finished for her, and when she nodded, said “But I did – I do. Only you had such a burden to bear and you had been so hurt – I did not know how to tell you. Especially” he added sadly, “when I had been so cruel and hurtful to you in the beginning. I do not know how you could have loved me after that.”

What she said then astonished him. “But I loved you even then” she said quietly. “I loved you almost from the first time I saw you, Mellin.” “How could you?” he gasped. “Marla, I had nothing to say to you but angry words, and I treated you like – like the dirt beneath my feet! How could you have cared for me?” “Mellin, all you said, all you did, even if hurt me, sprang from your implacable hatred of Darkness. Do you know what that meant to me? Yes, Aiel and Arenel and Aila hate Darkness, but they are born of the Priesthood, and have Perception. But you are a man with no Priestly heritage, none of their powers, and you chose Light, loved Light, so much that you would not touch even the edge of Darkness – would not touch me until you were certain I was not on the side of Darkness. Oh, you were so different from the evil men I had seen in the East, so clean and true and honourable. And I loved you for it. But how could I dare to hope you would love me, when I had been raised with no hope of anything but one day to be forced to serve Darkness?” Marla’s voice trembled, but it was Mellin who was weeping now, as she went on “How could I ever think myself worthy of your love? I would never have said a word if I had known you could hear me, but oh,” with a catch in her voice, “I was so afraid you were dead!” “Marla!” he said, his voice choked with tears, “Do not – do not say such things! You unworthy of me ? Sweet Light, it is I who am unworthy of your love! Praise Light I did hear you say you loved me, or I might never have had what is most precious of all things save Light to me – your heart. I cannot understand, dear love, how you could have felt as you did for me while I was treating you so badly, but I thank Light for your true and constant heart.” Then, all explanations done, they stood quietly in each other’s arms, finding reassurance and healing, as Aila had wisely known, in being together.

Meanwhile in the Great Hall the others had also overcome their reactions to the recent events, and Aila said “Praise Light that the Bloodstone is destroyed.” “They expected Marla to be its wielder, not its destroyer.” Aiel said. “No wonder her Way was prophecied, for she has been an instrument of Light.” Janir said thoughtfully “I understand now why Mellin was so overcome with relief after Marla’s Changing. Hard enough to think of having to slay a friend in mercy, but a beloved – ah, that would be pain beyond belief.” Aila answered “I never believed that Light would ask that of him. But I also believed that if he had to, he would have done it, because he loves her, and would not want her to go through what was intended for her by the Children of Night.” Then she smiled, and added, “But no need to speak of such dark things, for all is well with them.” Lin leaned back in his chair and said thoughtfully “Yet still, Mellin has surprised me. Oh, I meant what I said to Marla, and I am happy for them, but he seemed to despise her so at first, and even after he accepted the truth of her longing for Light, I imagined he thought of her only as a friend. I did not imagine that he would fall in love with her.” Aila said “He told me that he was angry and afraid, because he felt her tug at his heart and was afraid that she was weaving some sorcery round him. He tried not to love her, for even after he knew her search for Light was real, he still felt that somehow he wronged Light in loving her, since she was born of Darkness. Then, of course, there was the threat of the pledge he had made her. He was very unhappy. But I helped him carry it to Light, and he gained some measure of comfort and reassurance, and accepted that his love for her did not contradict his love for Light.” Lin smiled at her, and said “So you comforted Mellin and kept his secret. Thank you, Aila.” She smiled back and said, “Ah, but he kept my secret too, for I confessed only to him that I loved Janir.” And Janir gave her a loving look, leaving her feeling blessed. “I will see if they have recovered now” Aila said, and went back to the Healing Place. Tapping on the door first, she went in , and found Mellin and Marla much revived, and happy now that they had talked things out. They followed her back to the Great Hall to join the others. Zohra whispered something to Arenel and slipped away, returning quickly with her harp case. “A little calming music, I think” she said, and began to play. As always, her power of music had a quietening yet uplifting effect on them, and they began to relax and put the morning’s events behind them. If Arenel, always quiet and calm, spoke little, nobody took much notice. But he was torn between joy for his sister and Janir, Mellin and Marla, in their love and happiness, and the sorrow he felt because he saw no prospect of his own love for Zohra coming to such a happy conclusion. ‘For we must return soon’ he thought ‘and she will go back to her own place and her own people. And in time, no doubt, she will wed some Western warrior, and I will be only a faint memory -if that.’ Later, though, Aila, who had sensed something of her brother’s mixed and perturbed emotions, did come to him to ask if anything was wrong, but he could not tell her, only smiling lovingly at her, and telling her “Oh, it is nothing, Aila – nothing to disturb you. It will be well with me. Do not fret over me, dear sister, go and be happy with Janir. He will be good to you, Aila.” “I know” she said softly, and kissed her brother’s cheek, and went away as he bade her, guessing, quite wrongly, that perhaps he was sad to lose her companionship, though he rejoiced in her happiness with Janir.

Published by afaithbasedfantasytrilogy

I'm first and foremost a Christian. I'm also a widow, mother of 5, grandmother of 9, and a retired school librarian.

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