Chapter 7

Next morning they breakfasted with Thulin and his family, then gathered up their gear. Thulin asked Janir “You are going through the Westmost Narrows? Is that wise, Janir?” “It is the way we must take.” Janir said, with such an air of finality that the kindly Priest responded “Well, if you must, then Light go with you, Janir – Light go with all of you.” “It will be well with us.” Aiel assured him. “We are on Light’s Way.” “Aiel – before you go – is it permitted for me to see the Lightstone?” “Aye” Aiel smiled, and drew out the Stone. Thulin gazed at it in wonder and Aiel said “Come nearer, Thulin” and when the other Priest obeyed, “Receive Light’s blessing” said the Lightstone-Bearer, and laid the Lightstone to Thulin’s brow. They watched quietly as the soft light filled and overflowed the Stone, bathing Thulin in a shower of light, and then withdrew, leaving, as always, a little of its glow in the Priest’s eyes. Janir’s face showed delight at this gift to his old friend, but it was nothing to the peace and joy on Thulin’s. “Aiel, Lightstone-Bearer, thank you!” he exclaimed “Truly, I have been blessed of Light.” They said their farewells, mounted, and rode out of the walled enclave of the Western Faring House. Heading round behind it Janir, in the lead, aimed for a point that looked impassable, for there the cliffs bit into the land on one side, and the mountains swept down to meet them on the other. As they drew nearer, though, they saw that there was a narrow, rock-strewn track squeezed between the cliffs and the mountains. Janir halted, and turned in his saddle to caution them all.

“There lie the Westmost Narrows” he told them “The most treacherous paths in all Li’is. I would never bring you through them, except at great need. They are constantly changing ; the cliffs break away or the mountainside slips, and the path that was safe yesterday may be a place of peril today. I go first, and you will not let your mounts set foot in any place I have not trodden before you. Do you understand that? It is vital – one false step might carry you over the cliff edge, or under some rock fall. And make no loud noise or sudden movement, for this is the time of year, with the snows melting, when land slips or rock falls are most likely. I warn you now, our progress will be slow, for I will need to think three times about every step!” Impressed by his solemn warning, they spoke their agreement in muted tones, and Janir turned again and began to lead them cautiously towards the Narrows. Aila gasped as she followed the two younger Swordsmen on to the narrow, frightening path. Janir had insisted that Aiel drop back to ride in front of Lin, so that the maidens were surrounded by help if they should need it. Now Aila felt the touch of her father’s Perception, steadying and calming her. Yet he could not do as much for Marla, and Aila wondered how her friend was faring. If,as Janir had warned, the cliff edge were to crumble, with the unyielding flank of the mountain on the other side, there was nowhere to go but over the edge, down the sheer drop to the crashing sea. Aila watched very, very carefully where Janir and Mellin rode, and prayed that Marla was doing the same.

In stressed silence they traversed the first long stretch of the Narrows, and Aila wondered if it were like this the whole way through. She felt that much of this dreadful path would wear out the strongest – and Marla was not strong. At length, though, the mountain wall began to fall back and the track widened, so that they were able to draw cautiously away from the cliff edge. Janir reined in again to tell them quietly, “That is the worst part over – there is nowhere else so narrow. And further on there is a place where we may rest – if the rock falls have not overwhelmed it.” Aila glanced back at Marla and whispered “Marla, is it well with you?” The other girl smiled faintly, and nodded, but Aila was not convinced. There was no way, though, to tell what Marla was feeling. Even without the disguising colouring Marla’s face would never blanch or redden to betray her emotions. They rode on, still closely following Janir’s every step. At one point the path was cracked in two by a recent rock fall, and the young Swordsman deliberated for some time before leading them on to the upper part of the path, hard against the mountain, warning them to do nothing that might precipitate another fall. The worst that happened, though, was that Mellin’s horse stumbled a little, but he quickly collected it, with no harm done, and they went on. At last they reached the place Janir had spoken of, where the path widened out into a kind of blind cave in the mountain, and they were able to dismount to rest . A few stunted, gnarled trees grew there, seemingly out of the bare rock of the mountainside, and to these they tethered the horses, and sat down on their cloaks to rest and eat a little food to sustain them.

Janir let them rest as long as he dared, but, he said, they must get the worst of the journey over before nightfall. So they remounted and continued on their dangerous path. Rounding a bend, Janir gave an exclamation and pointed. Ahead of them the path appeared like a bridge between two gulfs, the sea cliff on one side and a deep gully on the other. Signalling to them to wait, Janir rode cautiously forward to examine the place, then came back to them. “The whole mountainside has fallen away!” he told them. “That gully was not here the last time I came this way. But it is not a new fall. I think we can pass safely. Watch what I do.” He rode forward cautiously. The path was quite wide and seemed solid enough; he crossed and recrossed several times before deciding they could go on. Aila watched these manoeuvres with her heart in her mouth, fearful for her ‘cousin of a cousin’ ,and was greatly relieved when he halted on the far side and signalled for them to cross. Mellin went next, carefully following his cousin’s lead and keeping to the very middle of the path. As he crossed, though, his horse trod on a piece of rock. It was the same foot on which he had stumbled before and, perhaps weakened by that jolt, the beast’s foot rolled and it dropped to one knee, throwing Mellin. Unhurt, he rolled to the side of the path and scrambled to his feet, but as he stood, the edge of the path crumbled under his heels, and he swayed and tumbled backwards into the gully.

Aila screamed “Mellin!”, Marla cried out incoherently, Lin started forward with a shout of dismay, but Janir’s voice cut across them all, sharp with command “No! Be still, all of you! You will not help Mellin by going over yourselves!” Startled, they stopped in their tracks. More gently, Janir said “Wait now” and rode cautiously back to the middle of the path-bridge to peer over. They heard him give a great sigh, and a quick “Praise Light!” Then he called “Mellin – Sword-Brother?” Aila felt dizzy with relief when she head a faint, answering groan from her cousin. Janir called back to them “There is a ledge. He fell on that, by the mercy of Light!” As he spoke, he was reaching into his saddlebag, coming up with a coil of light, strong rope. “Lin, here, and hold the rope.” he said, “Leave your horse.” He slid from the saddle , gave Redhawk a gentle pat, and whispered in the beast’s ear. The horse trotted obediently to the other side of the path, and Mellin’s horse followed him, clearing the way. Lin dismounted and went forward to obey his nephew’s orders. His Swordsman’s discipline held him, but his face was pale and strained. Janir had tied the rope around himself, and now Lin, under his orders, lay flat on the path with the rope coiled around him too, to steady Janir as he made the perilous descent. Aila prayed hard that the rope would hold, the ledge not give way, that Mellin was unharmed, that he and Janir would be safe. Behind her, she could hear Marla softly weeping, but there was too much fear in her to be able to offer comfort to her friend. Then, suddenly, the Healer in her came awake and alert, demanding to know what she was doing. If Mellin were hurt, he would need her care, and she cautiously dismounted and loosed her Healer’s sack from its place among her gear.

Janir called something up to Lin, but Aila did not hear what he said. She saw Lin tense to take the strain of the rope, heard a scrabbling, scrambling sound, and then two heads, one chestnut and one red, appeared above the edge of the path. Very cautiously, lest the path fall away again, Janir helped Mellin up as Lin drew them in on the rope till they were safely over the edge and back on the path. Then, for a moment, there was nothing but a confusion of relief. The three Swordsmen had sunk down in a heap, exhausted with effort and emotion, embracing each other. Aila and Marla, who had also dismounted, turned to hug each other, weeping. Aiel came to the two girls, hugging them too, reassuring them, but Aila was sure that it was also because he too needed release from his concern for Mellin. At last the Swordsmen staggered to their feet and Mellin was supported by his father and cousin back to Aila. He had been very frightened, he was dazed and winded, he was scratched and bruised and dusty and muddy and had a gash on one cheek, but otherwise he was whole and unharmed. Aila dressed the cut and scratches with healing salves, and mixed him a draught for the shaking and the shock he had received, and checked very carefully that he had no broken bones. Then, her work done, the delayed shock of it took her and she wrapped her arms around her cousin, holding him tightly, and gasped “Oh Mellin, Mellin!” “Aila , dear, hush!” he exclaimed, embarrassed at her display of emotion , “It is well with me, thanks to Janir.” He returned her hug to show her so, and the moment passed, and she smiled at him and turned briskly to Janir. “Are you hurt, Janir?” But nothing ailed him but a slight rope burn, quickly salved. Meanwhile Marla had been saying something to Mellin in a soft undertone, her eyes still filled with tears. He smiled, seemingly to reassure her, but then gave a little cry of concern. The girl had swayed against him, as if she might faint, and he caught her and called out to Aila. The Healer turned towards them, and looked round at the others. They were all pale with shock, even Janir, who had dealt so well with the whole near-disaster, and her own hands were trembling. She declared that they should all take a draught of the mild calming herbs she had with her, before they went on.

As she crossed the path-bridge, Aila looked down into the gully where Mellin had fallen, and shuddered. She could see the ledge on which he had landed and knew it was nothing but the mercy of Light which had saved him. If he had gone over at any other point he would have crashed to his death on the broken rocks below. Once past that place, though, it seemed their perils were over. Though the ride was tiring and nerve-wracking, they passed safely through the mountain edges, and at last found they were heading downwards. The sea still lay to the West of them, but they lost sight of it as they descended the path. It was widening now as the mountains retreated, and at last they found themselves riding down a slope into a kind of dale. A stream had joined them, running out of the mountains, and they were riding on rough turf. The dale was at least as wide as the tongue of land on which the Western Faring House had stood, and was walled in with rock walls that towered to the sky, honeycombed at the foot with holes and caves, a few stunted trees and bushes clinging precariously to the rock faces, interspersed with sheets of some climbing creeper,now nothing but bare stalks and developing buds, but which must be a carpet of green leaves in summer. There were a few large boulders scattered here and there, but their weather-worn appearance and the mosses and lichens growing on them showed that they had fallen long ago . On the floor of the dale was a scattering of fallen branches and vines near the base of the rock walls, but otherwise little grew there but the rough turf. A few patches of berry bushes, just coming alive after the winter, and two or three darkberry trees , that later in the year would be laden with the small, tart fruits, comprised the only other vegetation. It was a rough, wild place enough, but after the barren, perilous Narrows it seemed a place of refuge and plenty. “It will be dark soon” Janir said “We must make camp here for tonight. There is enough material for a fire, and the caves are safe enough, and should protect us from the cold night air.”

They dismounted and tended first to their mounts, unsaddling them, letting them drink from the stream, then tethering them where they could graze the rough turf. Mellin, Janir and Aila inspected Starstorm’s foot – the one that had caused Mellin’s fall – and found no sign of strain, but just to be sure Aila salved and strapped it up, laughing as the beast nuzzled her bowed head as she did so. Janir helped her up afterwards, and she smiled at him and said, “Janir, that was well done, today!” He smiled back, but did not answer, saying only “I had best make sure no beasts are sheltering in the caves, before we enter them” , and went off in that direction. Mellin and Aila gazed after him, then she turned to her cousin and said “It was well done!” “Aye” Mellin agreed. “I think I knew, even as I fell, that if there were a way out for me, Janir would find it. I have Sword-Brethren who would understand my every feeling, and those who are calm and cool, but none like Janir, who can do both at once – understand the need and the – the despair, feel it with you, yet still be able to find and make the way out of it.” “Were you in despair, Mellin?” she asked gently. “I thought I would die” he answered her, simply, then “For a moment!” he added. “And how is it with you now?” “I am a little stiff, and my cheek is sore. Nothing worse, praise Light!” “Praise Light!” she echoed. And later, when they had eaten, and Aiel made the Evening Prayers for them, he was careful to give thanks to Light for Mellin’s rescue, and for their safe passage through the Westmost Narrows, and for Janir, their guide.

Though it was unlikely that there could be any danger here, the three Swordsmen allotted themselves a watch-period each, deciding that Lin should take first watch, Janir the middle, and Mellin the last , to give him time to sleep and recover from his ordeal. They managed to find enough material in the dale to keep a small fire going, and sleeping fully-dressed, well-wrapped in cloaks and in the shelter of the cave entrance, they were not too cold. Aila, though, despite her tiredness, dozed fitfully, disturbed by fragmented dreams of the day’s events. She was aware of Marla’s even breathing nearby, and was glad that her friend had fallen asleep, no doubt again tired out by the unfamiliar riding. At last she drifted into an uneasy sleep, but woke with a start, seeing again, in her dreams, Mellin tumbling over the cliff edge. Once awake, she felt chilly, and decided to go out to the fire to warm herself. One of the Swordsmen would be there, so she would be safe. Aila rose carefully, so as not to disturb Marla or the others, wrapped her cloak tightly round her, and went out into the open. Sure enough, a shadowy figure was seated on one of the lower boulders by which the fire had been built. He heard her approach and turned a questioning face to look at her , and she saw that it was Janir. “Aila?” he said quietly, his firelit face showing friendly concern “What is wrong? Can you not sleep?” She shook her head and sat down beside him as he made room for her. “I did sleep a little” she said “but then I dreamed of Mellin’s fall, and it woke me, and I was too cold to sleep again, so I came to the fire to warm myself.” He took one of her hands and said, “Yes, you are cold,Aila.” He put a comforting arm around her cloaked shoulders and snuggled her against him. “There, that will warm you.” A memory crossed her mind, and she laughed delightedly. He grinned down at her. “What?” he asked “Why are you laughing?” “I was thinking, this is like our childhood times at the Fortress, Janir. Do you remember how we used to camp sometimes on the edge of the Forest? We would frighten ourselves with imagining there were hill-cats about, and you would snuggle us all into your cloak and tell us we would be safe, you and Mellin would fight off any hill-cats!” “I remember.” he said, smiling.

Suddenly serious, she said “Oh, Janir, I was so afraid for Mellin today! I looked down into the place and saw how small the ledge was, and how steep the rest – surely it was only the mercy of Light that saved him.” “I know” he said, and she felt him give a little, unconscious shudder. “I was fearful he might be only half-conscious, and roll off the ledge before I could reach him, but by Light’s mercy he was clear-headed enough to understand when I told him not to move.” “Yet you kept so calm, and ordered things so well” she told him. ” It was well done, Janir, and no need to be falsely modest when we speak the truth and say so.” “But it was Light’s doing, not mine – I am sure of that!” he protested. “On the Lightstone Way” she told him “Aiel my father was very reluctant to receive the honour done him for his part in defeating Lak. But the Dancers told him that it was Light’s Will that he be honoured, not for his own worth, but for his obedience to Light.” “The Dancers!” he said, with excitement in his voice.”We shall see them, if we are going to the Meeting Place.” Then, musingly, “Do you know, Aila, I saw a Dancer once. When Aiel returned to the Mountain Fortress on the Lightstone Way, my father and mother were there to greet him, with the others of the Council-at-Need. And two Dancers came too, to honour him. I was a babe a few months old on my mother’s arm, yet I saw a Dancer and I remember, Aila! I remember a great, towering, blue-green flame.” “How wonderful!” she exclaimed, then, “Yes, it will be an awesome sight, Janir – but oh, how much more wonderful if they can heal Marla of the Darkness in her.” “Oh, yes!” he answered, and they sat quietly, thinking of Marla’s Way, and how it might end. Aila was warm again now, and sleepy. She leaned her head on Janir’s shoulder, enjoying the warmth and drowsiness, the sharp woodsmoke smell of the fire, and Janir’s quiet, brotherly companionship. She was not aware of falling asleep, still nestled on his shoulder. She half-woke again to the sensation of being carried and gently set down in her place beside Marla again, the cloak tucked round her, then she fell back into a deep, contented, dreamless sleep.

When morning came, the sky was overcast, and they looked at the lowering clouds, and prayed that it would not rain. A chill breeze was blowing from the sea coast, and if there were rain, they would be very uncomfortable. They made a hasty breakfast, and set out again on their journey. The dale in which they had spent the night soon fell away behind them as the land began to rise and they were out on the cliff-tops once more, but now no mountains hemmed them in on the other side; the range was falling away to the East of them, and they were riding on a wide, gently undulating headland. The morning’s threatening clouds had been thrust Eastwards too by the winds coming from the sea, and these had warmed as the morning progressed. When at last the sun came gleaming hazily through, and the sea-mist lifted, Aila thought it was quite pleasant, riding in these solitary far Western lands. Suddenly , Janir reined in Redhawk, then trotted cautiously nearer to the cliff edge. Then he turned to them with a smile, bidding them all come closer – but carefully! When they had gathered enquiringly round him, he said “Look!” and pointed down to the sea. They obeyed, and Aila gave a gasp of delight. A large group of sea-cats – males, females, and half-grown young – were playing in the water below. They all watched, entranced,as the beautiful creatures curved through the water, leaping, diving, criss-crossing each other’s paths with breathtaking natural skill. They watched the sea-creatures for a good while, then reluctantly rode on. Janir said “The sea-cats come close to shore here because it is so deserted and they have no enemies – no hunters to trap them for their skins.” Lin answered “Your grandfather has long tried to stamp out that trade in the City, Janir. He will allow no killing in the Harbour, and no skin-trading in the Harbour market. But the trade does go on, still. And the sea-cats avoid the waters near the Harbour now. I am glad to have seen them again.”

Marla said , softly and sadly “The couches in the Night Temple are spread with the sea-cats’ fur.” “Oh!” Aila exclaimed ” And –that couch too, Marla?” Marla nodded dumbly. Janir said “Marla – I am sorry! Have I brought some evil memory to your mind? Forgive me.” “Oh, no.” the girl said, “I was pleased to see the beautiful creatures, Janir. I am just sad that even they have been touched by Darkness, slaughtered to give the Children of Night soft couches for their evil revels.” Mellin asked, as if to take Marla’s thoughts from dark things, “Where do the sea-cats live, I wonder? They must come to land some time, surely?” “Maybe on some deserted Western beach or inlet” Janir answered “but there are tales – brought back, it is said, by seamen who were caught in the Two-Moon Tide and lived to tell the tale-of other lands beyond the West. There are stories that ships have been blown off course, far to the Northwest, and found strange lands, unpeopled. And that, maybe, is where the seacats live.” “Is it possible?” asked Arenel. “It may be” his father mused, “For I know well, since the Dancers took me there, that there are other worlds enough, and yes, unpeopled. And if worlds, why not lands? We know only the Western and Eastern continents of our Li’is, which does not mean there may not be other lands. For instance, no one knows what lies beyond the Meeting Place and its mountains.” “It is an interesting idea.” Lin said. “Maybe one day we shall build better and faster ships, and search for these new lands.”

Now Janir pointed Eastward, and they saw that the mountains had given way to a high, flat tableland. “That is the Plateau of the Westerners” Janir told then. “We are riding to the West of it. We shall follow the edge of the Plateau until we come to the Last Faring House. That is where Zohra and Arenel will meet us.” “The Last Faring House?” queried Aila. “I thought the Third Faring House was the last.” “In distance, yes, but not in time” Janir laughed. “This Faring House was the last to be built, which is why it is so named.” “There were never many travellers along the Western coast” Aiel said. “In time, though, there came to be enough for the Priesthood to build Faring Houses. Still, it must be lonely for their Keepers.” Marla said, quietly, “Sometimes it is good to be in a lonely place, Aiel – to be in quiet and peace, and away from the Darkness in others.” They knew she meant, though she did not say it, that where there were few people, she was less troubled by the operation of her ‘Dark Perception’. Aiel asked her “Is there no way you can control what you receive from others, Marla?” “No” the girl answered “I have tried, Aiel, but it is like trying to dam up a flood, and I have so little strength! And if I do hold it back for a while, it all bursts through in the end, and then it all comes together, instead of a little at a time, and that is even worse. And it is only the dark things, the evil things, that I feel, so that everyone I meet, I see first as evil. I have to learn for myself what good is in them, but the dark things, anger, evil, hatred, pain – those I know at once.” “Poor child!” Lin said, gently, “It must be like being fed constantly on poison!”

Marla nodded, but could not reply, for suddenly a great sob rose in her throat. Mellin, seeing she was too overcome to take thought for controlling her horse, caught her reins, stopped both her mount and Starstorm, dismounted, and lifted Marla down. The others also reined in and dismounted, gathering round to comfort Marla as she leaned against Mellin and wept .Aila tried to imagine having a Perception that was out of her control, and Perceived nothing but evil. Lin had spoken truly, she agreed to herself, it was as if Marla were constantly taking in some slow, cold poison. And perhaps, she thought, it was not a bad thing that Marla had been able to talk, and to weep, about this Dark power, for it would ease her a little. Aiel must have been thinking the same thing, or Perceived her thought, for when Marla’s tears stopped and she was calmer again, he said “Marla, do not be afraid to speak about your feelings and your pains. It is not good to shut them inside yourself. We cannot use our Perceptions to help you, yet, but that is not the only way to ease your hurts.” “I know” Marla replied. “Thank you – all of you. I do not need to be able to Perceive your care for me, to feel it, and I am grateful.” She managed a smile, and now that she was comforted, they remounted and rode on.

Meanwhile, high up on the Plateau above them, Arenel and Zohra too were on the move. They had left the Ket’s camp after the morning meal, accompanied by Zohra’s father. Arenel carried with him a headful of messages for Aiel, from various friends among the Westerners, and the wristband of coloured plaited cords, given him by the Ket, which would tell any Westerner he met that he was a friend of the West, Among Zohra’s gear was the harp which Arenel had given her, and supplies enough to get them to the Last Faring House. Ket-Kai guided them unerringly across the Plateau, though to Arenel it seemed all one vast, featureless expanse of grassland. Once or twice they passed small groups of herders with their beasts, and exchanged greetings, and as they rode, Ket-Kai told Arenel how the Black Piper had passed through their Camp long years ago, leaving his twin brother Ket-Lai alive, yet unconscious as a dead man. “It was the Bloodstone” the Ket’s son said, his voice shaking with memory even now. “And then Aiel came, with the Lightstone, but after Lak…we did not want to hear of any other Stone. My father would not take Aiel’s word, and said that Lin must fight the Sword-Trial with me, to prove what they said was true. I never had an equal – except my brother- among the Swordsmen of the West. I was sure I would defeat Lin! But in the end I was lying at his feet with his sword – the True Sword- at my throat, and waiting to die – for the Sword-Trial was to the death. But Lin did not slay me. He could have done, and his was the right, but he took his sword-point and made a mark the length of my body, and let me go. But if he had cut where he had only scratched, I would have been dead – he knew it, and so did everyone there – the Ket too. Truly, Lin said, without any words at all, “I am the victor, and have the right to kill, and this is how I could do it – but I choose to be merciful, because I am a Child of Light.” Then I knew he was an honourable man as well as a skillful Swordsman, and I took him for Sword-Brother, though we might never meet again.”

“But you did.” Arenel said, fascinated by this telling of a story that he knew well – but not in any detail- from the other side, as it were. For he had never heard exactly what had happened during the Sword-Trial on the Lightstone Way. “Aye” Ket-Kai said thoughtfully “and now Aiel’s Way continues, and again I have a small part in it – and my daughter a greater part.” “We will guard her well, Ket-Kai” Arenel promised. “I know Aiel my father swore that to you, and so do I.” “I know” Ket-Kai answered, smiling at the young Priest, “but do you take care too, Arenel.You are neither Lightstone-Bearer nor Swordsman – you carry no weapon at all, and seem to me to be the most at risk.” Arenel smiled back. “Oh, I will take no foolish risks, Ket-Kai. But I am a Priest of Light, and maybe the Priesthood have another kind of weaponry.” “True” the Westerner admitted, then slowed his pace, seeing another group of herders. “Wait here” he told Arenel and Zohra, and trotted across to speak to them. Arenel glanced at Zohra. She had been very quiet during their ride. Now he asked “Is it well with you, Zohra?” She looked at him questioningly. “Yes. Why should it not be?” “You have been so quiet” he answered, and she smiled at him, and explained “My father was speaking with an honoured guest. It is not the way of my people, that I should interrupt such an important conversation.” At first he thought she was teasing him, but then realised she was in earnest. Ket-Kai returned, looking thoughtful. “That group have been herding near the Western edge of the Plateau.” he told the,. “I asked if they had seen any sign of travellers below, but they have not. I hoped for news of the others. I know Janir was bringing them through the Westmost Narrows, and that is a perilous path! I would have liked to have news of them, to know they were safely through.” “I am sure they are.” Arenel said. “For Light is with them. And the Secret Word says that my father’s times will not end until he has seen everything accomplished that is written in it.”

Arenel had not expected the Plateau to be so vast. They had set out in the morning and ridden almost non-stop, with only a short break for a meal. Now the sun was beginning to sink, and they were still on the Plateau. True, they were travelling across the Plateau at an angle, towards its Northwestern corner, not in a straight line as they would be if heading directly for the Merchant Town, but Arenel had thought they would be at the Faring House by nightfall. Ket-Kai, though, when the young Priest questioned him, shook his head. “No,not tonight.” he said,”We will be off the Plateau , but there is some rough ground to cover between here and the Faring House, and I would not ride that way in the dark. There are some shallow caves at the base of the Plateau that we can sleep in, and go on in the morning.” As Ket-Kai had said, it was quite late before they left the Plateau and found the caves he had spoken of. They lit a small fire and ate their meal, then the Ket’s son told Arenel and Zohra “Go now, and sleep. You will have long journeys ahead of you on Marla’s Way.” Arenel protested “But what of you? You cannot watch all night!” “I shall not” Zohra’s father told him. He patted the soft nose of his horse, and added “This fellow I named Whisper, because his hearing is so sharp. He would not let a stranger near without warning me. I will settle the horses and check there is no danger, then I will sleep – and Whisper shall keep watch!”

By the time Zohra and Arenel were settling down to sleep, the others had reached the Last Faring House. Once the Narrows and the sea-cats had been left behind, there had been only an uneventful ride through the almost unfrequented far Western lands, gradually leaving the sea behind as the coast curved outwards again, until they lost sight of it altogether. They had glimpsed one small, distant, isolated village, but no other signs of life until Janir pointed out the Faring House ahead of them. It was a medium-sized building of a stone that was not white, grey or red, but a pleasant creamy-golden colour that made the building look warm and welcoming, as if it glowed with light. When they arrived at the Faring House, they found that their welcome was indeed warm, not only because this Faring House did not often receive guests, but because the Keepers, the Priest, Cerrin, Fara, his Lady, and their two young children, were so naturally friendly and hospitable. They knew Janir, of course, and had heard of Shala’s wedding, so assumed that their guests were returning from that event .Even to his Brother-in-Light Aiel could not divulge the reason for his journey, though as soon as introductions were made, he could not but be known as the Lightstone-Bearer. He mentioned only that his son and a friend from the Westerners would be meeting them at the Faring House and then they would continue their journey. It was not deceit if Cerrin assumed they would be returning to the City, but even this hiding of the true facts from his brother Priest, though necessary, felt uncomfortable to Aiel. He made amends, though, by imparting the Lightstone’s blessing to the little Priestly family. It was good to be in the calm and pleasant atmosphere of the Faring House, after their tumultuous journey. They all felt it right to go to the Prayer Room and give thanks for safekeeping in danger, and after that they went back to the dining hall of the Faring House and were served a simple but satisfying meal. Unsurprisingly, all of them were weary, but felt it would be impolite to their hosts to retire too soon. However, Cerrin himself said, after a while, “It is good to have you here and to talk with you, but I see that you are all in need of your sleep now.” None of them was inclined to demur, and all went willingly to their beds. Aila shared a chamber with Marla, as before, so that she was at hand if Marla had need. But both girls slept deeply and undisturbed, and woke to a bright morning.

As soon as Aila woke, she was aware of a nudge to her Perception, and at once cast it out, finding Arenel’s. They mingled their delight in reunion, then Arenel told her that he, Ket-Kai and Zohra were underway, and would be with them before nightfall. In truth, Arenel had expected an uncomfortable night, being unused to sleeping in the wild, albeit in the shelter of a cave,and also anticipating the effects of the long ride on his body. It seemed, however, that he had grown used to horsemanship, and he had slept well. Ket-Kai had woken them early, and they had breakfasted lightly before setting off again. As they carefully traversed the rough heathland of which Ket-Kai had warned, Arenel said “The Last Faring House must be little used, then?” “It is not busy” admitted Ket-Kai “but it is important that it is there. Cerrin has the Soul-Watch of some villages that are scattered and lonely. Their people need somewhere to come for Priestly care. Fara, of course, is a Healer, so she meets that need too. Even some of our herders at the Western edge of the Plateau have had need of her skills from time to time.” Arenel nodded agreement, knowing that the Faring Houses outside the City or Merchant Town were usually allotted to Priests who had a Healer wife, so that all needs could be met there. As they travelled, the terrain grew less rough and they moved more quickly. A breeze was blowing from the West and Arenel, City and Harbour born, smelled the sea on it. Ket-Kai glanced at him questioningly as he lifted his head to the familiar scent, and when Arenel explained, he said “Aye, the sea lies West, beyond the Faring House.”

A little later Ket-Kai pointed across the flat landscape and said “See, there is the House. We have made better time than I thought.” At first Arenel, not as keen-sighted as the Westerners, could not see the building, but then a gleam of low sunlight caught its honey-coloured stone and showed it up among the surrounding healthland. Arenel sent out his Perception again, and found Aiel’s and Aila’s . “We can see the Faring House now. We will soon be there.” he told them, silently. And indeed it was not long before they reached the Faring House and found the others waiting. After relieved and delighted greetings they went inside, where Ket-Kai greeted Cerrin and Fara as old frineds, and tousled the children’s hair affectionately. He would eat and stay the night at the Faring House and then return to the Plateau. While the younger members of the party exchanged stories of their journeys, Ket-Kai conferred with Aiel and Lin about the route they would be taking, telling them that none of his outlying herders had so far seen any signs of Si-Mara’s emissaries. “But the Dark Ones are cunning at hiding their tracks” he said. “My herders have been told to misdirect any strangers enquiring after you, or us.” They would need to cross the lands that skirted the Plateau, and the farmlands outside the Merchant Town, and that would mean one or two nights camping in the open, Ket-Kai told them. But the weather was good, and any Westerners they might meet, for some of them would travel to the Merchant Town for provisions from time to time, would know Zohra and Janir and recognise their party as friends of the West, so would give any help needed.. “And the country is not too rough” he added “there are places of shelter and streams for water.” He had drawn a rough map to help them. Aiel was thinking that whatever the journey might bring, at least they need not go near the Red Forest, or the Dark Ruins where such Darkness had met them on the Lightstone Way.

Aila, overjoyed by her brother’s return and eager to share his news, did not notice at first that Janir had slipped quietly into the background again. Only later, when talking was done and they were about their various tasks, did she realise that her friend and comforter seemed to have drawn away from her. Why?, she wondered. Perhaps he did not wish to intrude on her reunion with Arenel, or perhaps he felt that his duties towards her were finished with her brother’s return. What concerned Aila, though, was that Janir might feel himself unwanted, not needed, now. She would not like to hurt her warmhearted ‘cousin of a cousin’. Accordingly, she went in search of Janir and found him in the harness room, strengthening a fitting on Redhawk’s bridle. When he looked up and saw her, his smile was as warm and welcoming as ever. “What is it, Aila? Do you have a message for me?” “No, I wished to speak to you, Janir.” “Then I am listening.” “Janir” she began, trying to find a way to frame her words, “when we were children playing in the Forest, if I hurt myself I would run to you and you would comfort me for my scratches and bruises. Then I would forget, and run away to play again. But I am not a child now.” “I am not sure that I understand, Aila.” “You offered me comfort because Arenel was gone, and I was glad of it. You have been very kind to me, and I thank you for it. But I do not like to think that you believe I would use your friendship so, and forget you again now my brother has returned. You told me that you are not Arenel, but no more is Arenel Janir.” Aila smiled, and held out her hand “I still need my friend Janir, my ‘cousin of a cousin’ – unless you wish it otherwise now.” Janir took her hand and held it, saying “I will always be your friend, Aila.” “I am glad” she said “and perhaps I will be able to do something for you, too.” “Indeed you can” Janir answered, turning her hand over in his and looking at it. “Aila, your fingers are smaller and more skillful than mine” – he pointed at his work on the bench – “If you could hold this strap here, so..” he smiled broadly at her, and they both laughed. “Gladly!” she said, placing her fingers where he indicated, and they bent over the bench together in companionable silence as he finished his work.

When they all gathered again for the evening meal, Ket-Kai said he would be rising early to set off on his journey back to the Plateau, but they need not. However, when morning came, Aiel and Zohra were also up early, to bid him farewell, while the others slept. Zohra hugged and kissed her father, and he gave her blessings for the Way. Aiel thanked him again for his help, and once more promised to guard Zohra carefully. When they came to the door of the Faring House, though, and Ket-Kai waited for his horse to be brought, the Westerner looked up at the sky with concern. Though the weather had been good so far, this morning the sky was grey and lowering, and a brisk wind blew in from the sea coast. “Aiel, a storm is brewing” Ket-Kai said, wise in the weather lore of his people, “and these sudden storms can be fierce. I would not advise you to travel today. As I said, you will need to camp out between here and the Merchant Town. If you set out today, you may well be soaked through and find little shelter. That will be good for none of you, but especially Marla.” Aiel knew what he meant. Though born in Li’is, Marla’s blood heritage was the Darkness of Ma’al, and with it came a response to Li’is that left her always a little tired and weak, though she had learned to overcome it. If she could shake off her Dark heritage, he thought, no doubt it would be well with her, but for now she needed more care than the others. Musing thus, he said “You are right, Ket-Kai. And there is not the urgent need there was on the Lightstone Way, where I had to reach the Dancers before Lak could harm them. Marla’s need is great, yes, but we can delay if necessary. I thank you for your advice. But should you not stay, also?” Ket-Kai laughed. “We of the West are out in all weathers, Aiel, and prepared for all. I can take shelter with the herders, if need be.”

Whisper had been brought now, and after a final hug for his daughter and a farewell to Aiel, Ket-Kai swung easily into the saddle and set off across the heathland. Aiel Perceived Zohra’s sadness at the parting, but also her determination to help with Marla’s Way. She came of good stock, he thought, standing beside the girl as she watched until her father and his mount were a faint, far dot in the distance. When they went back into the Faring House, he was not surprised when she came with him to the Prayer Room to make the Morning Prayers. Soon the others were awake and joined them for the morning meal, Arenel going first to the Prayer Room to make his own Morning Prayers. Ket-Kai had made a hasty breakfast before leaving, but Aiel and Zohra had waited for the rest of their party. When Aiel told them about the change in the weather and Ket-Kai’s advising against travel that day, they were disappointed, but accepted the wisdom of the Westerner’s advice. Perhaps, Aiel thought, glancing at Marla, it might not be a bad thing that she should have a day’s enforced rest from travel. So it was a matter of finding something to do with their unexpectedly free day. Aila offered to help Fara with her Healer’s tasks, since there were always salves to be made up and draughts to be mixed, and Fara gladly accepted. First, though, Aila went to Marla to see how she fared, and if the journey had tired her, but the girl seemed in good enough spirits. She was naturally a little disappointed at the delay, but,like the others, saw the wisdom of it, and did not complain. Zohra stayed with Marla, to chat and keep her company, and Cerrin and Fara’s little ones, curious about their visitors and coming to see them , were a welcome distraction too. Aiel and Arenel were discussing Priestly matters with Cerrin, who had little physical contact with his brother Priests, though there was always the Thought-without-Words, at need. The three Swordsmen, having checked on the horses and gear, had been running over the possibilities of staying overnight in the open on the way to the Merchant Town, and what they would need.

The threatened storm did indeed blow in with a ferocity that was surprising, and Aiel and the others were glad to have taken Ket-Kai’s advice. They had hoped it would eventually abate, but with no sign of that by nightfall, Aiel wondered whether they would be forced to stay another day at the Faring House. At least, he thought, they seemed to be safely hidden here, and he had received no word of danger. Gradually, though, it seemed the winds began to die down, and the heavy rain to cease. Eventually Lin went to the door of the Faring House and looked out. The sky was clearing, and he could see the Shield, though haloed with remaining cloud, but not the smaller Hound. Returning to the others, he said “I think the storm is passing Aiel. If the weather holds, we should be able to set off again tomorrow.” Relieved that they should be able to continue on Marla’s Way, knowing how much was at stake, they gathered in the guest room of the Faring House. Aiel and Arenel had made the Evening Prayers with Cerrin, and now he and Fara had left their visitors to themselves and gone about their various tasks in the Faring House until the evening meal. “Sing for us, Zohra” Lin suggested “Your sweet music will refresh us all.” Zohra smiled at him and took up the harp that Arenel had given her. She tried a chord, then deftly, lovingly, tuned its strings that had slackened a little with travelling. Once more she struck a trial chord or two, then, seemingly satisfied, began to play and sing in earnest. Aila, watching the Westerner, thought again how unique was Zohra’s music. She felt that music was as much a part of the other girl’s very being as Aila’s Perception was of her own. Aila was used to being surrounded by music, for Aiel, Arenel and Arentha were all skilled musicians. Aila’s family were craftsmen in music, but Zohra was a musician by nature, instinct, and the Gifting of Light. As she sang for them now there was no sense of performance about her. In fact Aila felt that Zohra, once her fingers touched the harpstrings, had all but forgotten the existence of the others in the room. For those others, though, Zohra’s music was part of the peace in which, for the time being, they were enfolded. Tomorrow the journey and the Way would begin again, the dangers, fears and pains must be faced. However, tonight there was the peaceful, warmly-lit guest room of the Faring House, and Zohra’s song, which somehow twined the peace and warmth and comfort, the hope and blessing of Light, the comradeship and fierce intent of the Way, into a melody that though sweet and tender, was yet a battle cry to the spirit that walked in Light.

Aila felt herself so moved by Zohra’s music that she glanced round at her companions, curious to see how the music might be affecting them. Her Perception caught, from her father, an echo of her own feelings. Aiel was seated at a table with Lin, between them lay Ket-Kai’s sketched map, which they had been consulting. Her father was smiling gently, Lin’s face was relaxed and his eyes closed as he leaned back in his chair, listening. Next Aila looked at Marla, hoping that the music might bring her peace. Her friend seemed to be listening intently, her eyes, too, closed, her head leaning right back against her chair so that her long straight fall of blonde hair hung down over its back like a curtain. To Aila, Marla had the look of someone in a deep sickness momentarily lulled by a healing draught. Aila’s eyes went next to her brother, who felt the touch of her Perception and smiled at her. She felt his shared delight in Zohra’s music. Mellin, her cousin, seemed, like Aila herself, to be watching the others’ reaction to the music; at the moment his attention was on Marla, and his face showed a touch of concern. Last of all, Aila looked across at Janir. Her ‘cousin of a cousin’ was sprawled across his chair, brown eyes half-closed, mouth curved with a smile of pleasure. The same steady, kind, dependable Janir, but there seemed to Aila to be something different about him, which she could not, for a moment, pin down. Then she realised that it was not Janir, but her awareness of him, that was different. The smallest details – the unruly chestnut curls at neck, ears and brow, the firelight on an angle of his strong-boned face, the nails of his capable hands- seemed imbued with a strange significance. Was it an effect of Zohra’s music, an unusual stirring of her Perception? Aila looked round again at the others, but there was no strangeness with them. Puzzled, she looked back at Janir and felt an odd, soft warmth in her, as if she were a piece of wax melting in a gentle flame. Janir, seeming to feel her gaze, looked across and smiled at her. It was his usual, familiar smile, yet it so affected Aila that she felt as though she received a blessing. Finally realising what was happening to her, Aila thought, astonished at herself, “I am in love with Janir!” Confused, she ducked her head, feeling her cheeks burn hot and red.

When she lifted it again, Janir had turned his eyes away from her, back to Zohra, and she studied him again, but covertly, under her lashes. She tried to trace the beginning of this love for him, but could not , for it had sprung on her full-grown. To this very moment he had been friend, confidant and brother-substitute, cared for, yes, but only as a friend. She thought of the many times he had held her hand or slipped an arm around her shoulders to comfort her for some small hurt; now she felt that his touch might make her tremble. Really, Aila thought to herself, she must find some way to regain control of her thoughts, or she would be broadcasting her feelings to all in the House who had Perception! She left her chair and slipped quietly from the room, resolutely not looking again at Janir, and made her way to the Bathing Place. She looked in the polished metal mirror that hung there, and saw a flushed face and glowing eyes reflected back at her. Going to the pump, she drew cool water and splashed her face. She had often heard love referred to as a sickness and laughed at the notion; now she felt as though, in truth, a fever burned in her. Again she looked in the mirror, and saw that she looked cooler and calmer now. Cautiously she let her thoughts stray to Janir, and found herself murmuring his name. “Sweet Light” she prayed softly “You know all things. You knew I loved him before I did. Teach me to control it, until he learns to love me too. I would not shame him!” For, knowing Janir’s kind and honourable nature, she knew it would distress him greatly to learn that she loved him if he felt only a friendly, brotherly affection for her. When she returned to the guest room, Zohra’s song had ended, and she was talking to Marla. Aila did not want to approach her father or brother, still afraid that they might Perceive her new emotions. She did not want, either, to be too near Janir! Aila joined the other girls, and said “Zohra,your music is so beautiful.” “Yes, it is” Marla agreed, “and it helps me, Zohra. Your music has healing in it.” “I am glad” Zohra said, simply. From the corner of her eye, Aila glimpsed Janir approaching them, She said “Oh, I am thirsty!” and escaped to a nearby table, where she poured a cup of water and buried her face in it. She heard Janir congratulating Zohra on her music – Sweet Light, even the sound of his voice had power to move her now- and then he was coming towards her. She could not retreat from him again, it would be too obvious, too hurtful to him. She heard his gentle, concerned voice “Aila, is it well with you?” She set down the cup and turned resolutely to meet his gaze, and suddenly all fear and confusion died, leaving her with only two strong certainties; that she loved Janir with all her heart and that, whether he came to love her or not, he would never do anything to hurt her.

Truthfully, she said “No, Janir, I am a little feverish and thirsty. But do not be concerned for me, it is nothing that can harm me.” He frowned a little, and touched his fingers to her cheek. “You do feel a little warm, Aila. Should you not rest?” “I will” she promised him, then, to lighten the mood, “See, I told you that you would have made a Healer, Janir.” A servant came to summon them to the evening meal, and Aila took her usual place with Marla and Zohra, chatting to her friends.She was facing Mellin across the table and Janir was on her cousin’s left, her brother on his right. Aiel spoke the Meal-Blessing and the meal began. In her new-found love for Janir, she was very aware of him, watching him in the lulls of conversation as they ate, noting the familiar things about him; his quick, warm smile, the firm, deft movements of his hands, the brown eyes that seemed always watchful of others’ welfare. Yet she was seeing, too, things about him she had not noticed before, small things – a little scar on his brow, a slightly crooked front tooth – insignificant details, as though she mapped him in her mind and heart so that she would know him through and through. When she had first seated herself at the table, he had given her a concerned, enquiring look, as if he asked if it were well with her now, and she had smiled at him in reassurance. Then he had returned her smile, and turned to speak to Mellin. She was happy enough, once the first shock of discovery was over, to sit chatting with her friends and, between times, to explore her feelings for Janir. Once or twice in the past she had thought herself in love, but it had always been some attribute of the man that had attracted her; a handsome face, a ready wit, eloquence – once a young Priest who had a beautiful voice and fine command of language had taken her fancy. In the Temple he prayed and sang with a Gifting that lifted the soul, but outside it she had found him to be a shy, rather dull young man, sadly lacking in humour.

With Janir, though, she could not separate one thing and say “This is why I love him.” Though he was certainly not ugly, nor could his strong, warm face be called handsome. His frame was fit, strong and pleasing to see, but no more so than many another Swordsman. He was devoted to Light, a good and honourable man, but so too were others- Mellin, for instance, his cousin and hers. His warmth, concern and gentleness, his friendly nature, though so much part of him, were not unique either. He had a sense of humour, could be merry or teasing, but she had known men who could use their wit like a sword. And his speech tended more towards the blunt and factual than to the eloquent. Having thus catalogued Janir, Aila knew it was everything about him that she loved, therefore the man himself, not any one facet of him. And knowing that, she knew her love for him was true, totally different from her youthful early fancies. Could she hope that he might love her in return? There had been no indication that he had a sweetheart, but he might have. If he had not, could he care for her, Aila wondered. He had been kind and gentle to her, offered himself as a substitute for Arenel, comforted her at times – but was that only a continuation into their adult life of the way in which he had acted as an ‘older brother’ to them all during their childhood? If he still saw her as a ‘sister’, it might not even occur to him to consider her as a beloved. Aila sighed. Well, she had entrusted it all to Light, and must await Light’s Will. After all, had not her father and mother, and Lin and Krystha, found their love for each other on the first Way? And that had surely been Light’s doing. She comforted herself with that thought, and took up her conversation with Zohra and Marla.

Later, though, when they had gone to their beds – early, on Aiel’s insistence, since after this they would be sleeping in the open for two or more nights – Aila found herself unable to sleep. Her thoughts were full of Janir and her feelings for him. By now she had become used to including him in her goodnight embraces and to exclude him now would be unthinkable, but she had to be very careful to give him only her usual quick,light kiss. She had been afraid her lips might linger on his cheek and betray her. It was a long time before she fell asleep, and the last thing in her thoughts before she did was Janir’s face. Next morning Aila rose early, determined to take her feelings in hand and be sensible. Going to the Prayer Room, she spent a long time before the Crucible, silently pouring out her feelings, her longings, her fears, and her unwillingness to let them interfere with Marla’s Way. She was open to Light, and felt in her spirit that she received an answer; calming, reassurance and trust rose in her. She could safely leave her love with Light, and Light’s answer, whether yes or no, would be the right answer, for her, and for Janir. After that, she turned her thoughts and prayers to Marla’s Way, and found that soon she was joined by her father and brother, come to make the Morning Prayers. One by one the others , too, drifted into the Prayer Room to commit their journey to Light. Even Marla, still a little hesitant about entering before the Crucible, came, encouraged by Zohra. Aiel felt that Light called them all together, to draw strength from prayer before they set out again. “Before we reach the Merchant Town” he promised “I will send the Thought-without-Words.to the Gatekeeper, to ask the Dancers what we should do for Marla.”

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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