Chapter 6

The two days of the wedding festivities were merry and joyful, but the third morning brought partings. It was then that Aila suddenly realised what it would mean to be away from Arenel, unable to reach his Perception. Aiel and Arentha had been amazed and delighted when their beautiful baby daughter had been found to be Perception-gifted, but it had been Arenel, her older brother, only three then, who had discovered the fact, long before her eyes had changed to the vivid blue that marked those with Perception. He had simply gazed into her eyes, made the link, and announced that he could ‘hear’ his newborn sister. That link, made so early, had been constant all their lives, each always aware of the other, never far enough apart that their Perceptions could not bridge the gap. Now, though, they would be truly separated for the first time in their lives.

In the courtyard of the Western Fortress there was a great bustle as horses were prepared, a wagon for the wedding gifts and the other things that the Westerners were taking back with them was loaded and its horses harnessed, farewells made, instructions given. Aiel was talking earnestly with Arenel, Zohra, and the Ket. Mira, Barengian and Janir embraced Shala in turn, and the Lord of the Western Fortress and his son exchanged the Swordsmen’s handclasp with Ket-Tal, his father, uncle and grandfather, as did Lin and Mellin. All the womenfolk took turns in hugging the bride and wishing her well. At last, when Aiel had finished speaking, Aila gave Zohra a quick embrace, then turned to her brother. He held her tightly for a moment, then his blue gaze met hers and his Perception told her of his understanding of her fears, his love, his giving of her into Light’s keeping…’until we meet again, Aila, sweet sister.’. Still, in all the bustle, among all her friends and kin, Aila still felt strangely alone and bereft as the departing Westerners swung out of the gate with Arenel in their midst. His Perception called back to her. ‘Zohra says we will reach the mountains at dusk. Listen for me then.’

She acknowledged his message, then turned and went back inside. She must not forget her duties, and she went to see if all was well with Krystha, and with Marla. They were to wait two more days before they all set out, so that the Two-Moon Tide was safely over, and Aila wondered if Krystha might be worried for Lin, or Marla afraid of the journey she was about to undertake. Krystha, though, was quite calm. The nausea that had been troubling her early pregnancy was diminishing, and when Aila cautiously questioned her aunt about Lin, Krystha said,”Aila, dear, I trust him to Light. I nearly lost him on the first Way, and I do not believe Light would test my faith and love like that again.” Marla too was in a much calmer frame of mind, greatly helped by Mellin’s long-delayed but now total commitment to her cause. So Aila had not much to do to distract her from her feelings of loss at Arenel’s departure. She was greatly tempted , during the day, to reach out for her brother’s Perception, but he had said ‘at dusk’, and so she waited till the sun was setting, and everybody busy about the preparations for the evening meal, or in the Prayer Room, or checking on their horses, or making plans for their journey. Then she climbed one of the turret stairways onto the high wall of the Western Fortress, and reached out for Arenel’s Perception.

Her brother was waiting for her, and their Perceptions meshed immediately. He showed her pictures of the country through which he had been travelling, and the Western Mountains now before them. He told her when and where he and Zohra would rejoin the main party, and he sent her reassurances and little, private, loving memories shared from their childhood days. Aila held the link with Arenel as long as she could, until it was at the limit of their combined Perceptions, and his farewell ‘Light be with you, Aila!’ was the barest whisper of a thought in her mind. If he Perceived her answering ‘And with you, Arenel!’ she did not know, for the distance was now too great to bridge. It was as if a great silence descended on her. Always, all her life, her brother had been there, close, always within reach, their Perceptions linking easily and closely. Now he was gone. It was the first time Aila had ever been really parted from him, for even when she had been in the Fortress with Krystha and he in the Temple with Aiel, it had not been too far for their combined Perceptions to reach. It was growing chilly up on the wall as the sky darkened, and Aila felt cold and lonely. Yet she did not want to go down. She did not know if she could explain her feelings to anyone, or meet her father’s Perception without unease, for she felt that in the face of Marla’s terrible need she would be selfish and thoughtless to seek comfort for what, after all, was a minor and passing unhappiness. So she stayed where she was, and wept a little, and felt the cold breeze chill her damp cheeks.

Suddenly, Aila was startled to hear Janir’s voice behind her. “Aila, it is growing cold. I brought you this.” He slipped a warm cloak round her shoulders, and she snuggled into it gratefully, and looked round at him. He smiled his friendly smile, and lifted a corner of the cloak and wiped away her tears with it, as if he were still the kind, older playmate who had looked after her as a child. “I know” he said quietly, “I am missing Shala, too. But it must be harder for you and Arenel, having Perception. It must feel lonely, to lose that link with each other.” She gazed at him in surprise at his sensitivity to her feelings. Janir said nothing more, but his friendly silence seemed to invite her confidences, and she poured out her feelings of loneliness and loss, and her fears of being selfish and unkind in feeling so, when Marla’s need was so much greater and more important. Aila felt that the years had indeed fallen away. Just as, when they were children at the Fortress, she and the others had run to Janir with their cuts and bumps, now she turned to him with another kind of hurt, and found him just as friendly, comforting and sensible. He spoke to her kindly, gently, not belittling her hurts, but reminding her that her parting from her brother would be short, reassuring her, comforting her with the reminder that she had family and friends all around her.

Then he smiled again, and held out his hands to her, and said “And for myself … I know I am not Arenel, and cannot replace him. But if you feel the need of a ‘brother’, then for now, till he returns, will ‘a cousin of a cousin’ do?” Aila put her hands in his, smiling back at him, and answered “Janir, yes – and thank you! You are such a friend, and a comfort. You understand so well!” “Then we shall be ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ to each other, in place of Arenel and Shala.” She felt remorseful, then, and exclaimed, “Oh, I am sorry, Janir! I had forgotten you must be lonely for Shala, too.” “A little” he admitted ” but I am glad for her also. She will be very happy with Ket-Tal. He is a fine man, and they love each other deeply.” “Janir” she said, quietly and seriously,”You are a good man too.” But he laughed “Oh, Aila!” and then said “Come now, the evening meal must be ready, and you need something warm, getting chilled up here.” “If you were not a Swordsman” she teased him, as they descended the turret stair, “you would make a good Healer, Janir!”

Arenel too had felt a pang at the separation from his sister, when silence fell between their Perceptions, too far now for the link of the Thought-without-Words, her last farewell the faintest of echoes in his thought. Still, he thought, there were others in plenty to guard her, and they would be reunited in a very little while. He was riding beside Zohra and her mother, and Zohra, perhaps mindful of his leaving his sister behind, had been chatting to him, telling him things about the places they were passing through. Now, as they entered the foothills of the Western Mountains, she pointed up at the high, snow-crowned peaks, and one in particular, an oddly dome-shaped height that rose above the others. “That is where the flame-flowers bloom” she told him “up there at the snowline.” “How strange that such a flower should blossom in so cold a place.” Arenel said “It looks as though it should be fed on hot sunshine.” She smiled “Aye, and it comes first just as the winter turns to Spring. It means hope, the flame-flower – a promise of joys to come.” “Is that why they are used for your festivals?” asked Arenel. “One reason.” Zohra answered. “And what is this festival that is to come – this ‘Night of the Warrior Children’?” he questioned her. “Oh, it is less of a festival than a romp!” she laughed. “It is for the boys who will be starting their Sword-Training. One night to be children still, to play games and tricks, make a little harmless mischief, evade the Watchers. In the morning they will be men and Warriors-in-Training, but for that night they are still children.” “What are the Watchers?” “They are the Sword-Trainers, but they are disguised with masks and long, hooded cloaks. To the Warrior-Children it is part of the game, trying to outwit them and escape them. But it does have a serious side too. The Watchers observe, they note what they see – faults that may need correction, rivalries or unpleasantness between the boys, and these things will be taken into account when the training begins.”

“Will the boys mind my being there, if it is your special time for them?” Arenel wondered, but she said, rather briskly, “Oh no, you will be an honoured guest.” He hoped he had not offended her, for he had forgotten how highly the Westerners valued their reputation for hospitality. A moment later, though, she said with a smile “And I know one who will welcome you warmly, for your father’s sake. Does Aiel remember Taran?” “Yes indeed!” Arenel exclaimed, since his father had often told of the boy’s miraculous healing on the Lightstone Way. “It was one of my father’s greatest joys that Light used him and the Lightstone to heal the boy’s arm.” “Well, Taran is one of the Sword-Trainers now. He will be one of the Watchers.”

It was quite dark now, but the group rode on, some carrying torches to light their way, and those, together with the light of the Shield reflected off the snow-capped mountains, made it quite easy to see where they rode. It was not late, and a few hours more, Zohra told Arenel, would bring them to the Ket’s camp. Arenel, unused to such long riding, shifted uneasily in the saddle, already a little stiff, but ashamed to say so when Zohra and her mother were trotting easily and happily beside him. He was beyond stiffness, aching and very weary, when they finally reached the camp, prepared beforehand for their coming The Ket’s great, colourful gold-fringed pavilion was set in the midst of the other tents – though truly, Arenel thought, they were so huge and so beautifully made and decorated that to call them tents seemed almost an insult .Next to the Ket’s pavilion, one either side, stood the family tents of his twin sons. Beyond those stood the splendid new one that would be Ket-Tal and Shala’s family tent, and the guest tent, which was to be Arenel’s. Then the tents of warriors and elders, and beyond those again the travelling tents of horse-herders and herd-pasturers, who would be moving about the Plateau to tend their animals. Lamps and fires glowed in and among the tents, and it made a grand and colourful spectacle, and a welcoming one at the end of their hard ride.

Zohra said softly “Arenel, look up.” He obeyed her, and gave a gasp. He had not realised how high and clear was the sky above the Plateau. The Shield seemed near enough to touch, the stars blazed like cold fires, even the Hound, a faint bright disc in the lower lands they had left behind, was here a clear circle of light, rapidly nearing the Shield. “Oh, Zohra, how beautiful the skies are, here!” Arenel exclaimed. Shown then to the guest tent to unpack his belongings, he would gladly have tumbled on to the fur and cushion covered bed pallet and gone to sleep. But there was a meal prepared in the Ket’s tent, and he could not be absent from it. That would be disgraceful behaviour from an honoured guest. He bathed his face with water from the finely-enamelled jug and basin which stood on a table near the bed, and felt refreshed enough to join the others. In the Ket’s tent, there were presentations and speeches, welcoming both the newly-married couple and their guest, Arenel. The young Priest prayed inwardly for strengthening. He was so very tired, and did not wish, in his tiredness, to do or say anything that would hurt his kind hosts. He was very grateful when, after he had spoken the Meal-Blessing at the Ket’s request and the meal had begun, Zohra slipped away and returned with a cup which she quietly passed to him. “Drink this, Arenel” she whispered”It will revive you for long enough, without keeping sleep from you later.” He smiled his thanks and drank the draught, which did liven him.”You are not a Healer?” he whispered back. “No” she said, with a hint of laughter in her voice “but I do not need to be, to see how weary you are. Poor Arenel!” “Zohra, you are kind!” he said quietly, and she answered, as quietly “And I have asked the Healer to leave some salve in your tent, for your aches!” Then he did laugh, softly, and she with him, but it was a happy occasion, and no one noticed. At last the meal was over, and the last Night-Blessings spoken, and Arenel was able, at last, to retire. He found, as Zohra had promised, a little bowl of clean-smelling salve on the table beside the jug and basin, and used it to ease his aching joints and tender flesh. Then he rolled himself in the soft fabrics and furs of the bed, nestled into the big soft cushions and, despite the unfamiliarity of his surroundings, fell almost instantly asleep.

Next day was the day of preparation for the Night of the Warrior Children, and the whole camp was involved. Zohra took Arenel to meet Taran, now a grown man with children of his own, and he, who had never expected to be even a Swordsman, now a Sword-Trainer. He welcomed Arenel gladly, as Zohra had said, for Aiel’s sake, and now Arenel heard the story he knew so well from the other side, Taran’s side. For Taran, time had not diminished the wonder of it, the joy of it. Yes, his useless, birth-wounded hand had been healed that day many years before, he told Arenel, but a greater healing had happened in his soul and spirit, for the healing had shown him Light’s great love for him. And Taran said “I felt my soul cleave to Light forever, in a love that was shared. A love that still is, Arenel. Tell your father, the Lightstone-Bearer, that. And that I still bear him love, too, for being the channel of Light’s love to me.” “I will” said Arenel simply, his spirit deeply moved by Taran’s words.

Zohra, who seemed to have taken to herself the task of conducting Arenel in the Westerners’ camp, took him everywhere and showed him everything. He was still somewhat stiff and sore from his long ride, but she seemed to take such delight in showing him these things that were so beloved to her that he would not cut short her pleasure by asking to rest. Then, too, being used to Aila’s company, he found that Zohra’s presence comforted him for his sister’s absence. Eventually they made their way to the outskirts of the camp, where the horse-herders had their magnificent beasts contained on the best grazing. Herd-beasts must make do with less lush pasturage, for to the Westerners the needs of their horses were paramount. Arenel admired the beautiful creatures, and Zohra indicated a smaller pen nearby. “There are the horses for the Warrior Children” she explained “They will have them tomorrow, when the training begins.” “Do they choose their own mounts?” Arenel queried. “Oh no, the Sword-Trainers have already chosen, fitting each beast to one boy.” “As the Ket chose Redhawk for Janir?” She smiled. “No, that was a special choosing! It was such a rare colour for one of our Western breed, and so close to Janir’s own hair colour, that my grandfather said Light had surely meant the horse for Janir. These horses are chosen to a boy’s size and strength, but mostly to his temperament. The Sword-Trainers know well what they are about.” “You ride well yourself, Zohra.” he commented. Zohra answered “All we of the West ride almost from birth, Arenel! We are wanderers, travelling the lands Light has given us.” Then she raised her dark brows at him and enquired, seemingly innocently, “And have you recovered from your long ride, Arenel?” But he saw the glint of laughter in her brown eyes, and laughed too. “No, I feel as though I had been sitting on a horse for the first time!”

“Come, let us go back now.” she said. “It will be dusk soon, and the feast will be prepared. Then the Night of the Warrior Children begins!” The feast for the Warrior Children, Arenel discovered, was to be held in the open air. Though the Spring was growing rapidly warmer, up here on the high Plateau the nights were still cool, but that did not matter, for a large area had been roped off in front of the Ket’s pavilion, and the most enormous fire Arenel had ever seen had been lit in the middle of it. Somewhere in the midst of the fire, a few boughs of precious sweetwood perfumed the blaze. On the Ket’s side of the fire the Lord of the West stood with his family, friends and guests, including Arenel, Zohra, Shala and Ket-Tal. On the other side stood the Warrior Children, a body of solemn, sturdy lads, all dressed alike in brief leather kilts, blue cloaks pinned at one shoulder with a plain round brooch, and on their left wrists the plaited band of red, green, blue and yellow cords that was the sign of the Westerners. Now they were poised on the edge of the bridge between childhood and manhood, and this night was their rite of passage – one last night of carefree childhood. Tomorrow they would be warriors in training, men in the making, on their way to exchanging the plaited cords about their wrists for the open-ended gold bracelet of the adult Westerners. Arenel felt a little pang of sorrow for the end of childhood for them, remembering how it had been for him when it was time to go to the Students’ House for his Priestly training.

The womenfolk brought platters of breads, vegetables, fruits and cheese, and sweetmeats, while the men tended the meat roasting over the great fire. The Watchers, cloaked and hooded and masked in black, slipped in and out among the preparations, causing little stirs and murmurs and nervous giggles among the assembled boys. When the feast began, though, Arenel noticed that whatever anticipation the Warrior Children might be feeling, it did not seem to dull their appetites. He remarked quietly to Zohra on this, and she laughed “They know they will be in strict training soon. Very few honey-cakes will come their way then!” After they had all eaten, the Ket began to call the boys to him, one by one. To each he spoke a word, and gave a blessing with his hand on the boy’s head, and then dismissed him. To Arenel’s astonishment, as this little ceremony began, a strange wailing broke out among the women. He said anxiously to Zohra “What is it? What is wrong?” “Nothing is wrong.” she told him. “It is the tradition that the mothers wail and mourn because they are losing their babes, their children, to manhood. But it is only a part of the ceremony. In truth, they are proud of their growing sons” she smiled .”They will do the same for their daughters when they are betrothed to marry, but they will still be proud, not really sad at all.” When all the boys had been dismissed, Arenel asked “What happens now?” “Now we pretend that all is ordinary and normal.” Zohra said, with another smile. “But it is best to be prepared for anything. The Warrior Children have licence for any mischief tonight, and not even an honoured guest is safe, Arenel!” There was laughter in her voice again, and he laughed too as he said “Then I must beware of these fierce young men of yours, Zohra! But am I free to walk around the camp?” “Yes, indeed” she answered warmly” it will please the Warrior Children that you take an interest in them.”

So Arenel who, as well as his interest in the night’s events, felt the need to stretch his legs, walked away from the brightness of the fire, across the soft grass. He lifted his face to the heavens, gazing up at the velvety dark sky, the ice-bright stars, the full moons that seemed so much nearer and more clear here on the Westerners’ high Plateau. The high piercing beauty of it stirred him so that his spirit lifted to Light in silent praise. He heard a slight movement behind him, and turned. Two of the boys, the Warrior Children, stood there. There was no sign that they were bent on any mischief; rather, they were standing politely silent, feet shuffling on the grass, waiting for him to turn and notice them. One was a little shorter and stockier than the other, his face rather squarer, but both had the glossy black hair, golden skin and dark eyes – eyes big and solemn with the importance of this night – that marked the Westerners as a people. Arenel smile encouragingly , and the taller, slimmer boy stepped forward. “Lord Priest – we had heard that you have come from the great Temple in the City?” “I have” Arenel confirmed. “My grandfather, Arnath, is the High Priest.” “Then your father is Aiel, the Lightstone-Bearer? The one who healed the arm of my uncle, Taran, when he was about my age?” “Yes, he is.” said Arenel, seeing that Aiel had become a part of Taran’s family history.

“The Temple must be very beautiful” said the other boy. “We have never seen the City, or the Temple. When we need the Priest kind, we go to the Prayer Room of the Faring Houses, or the Western Fortress. Or the Priesthood come to us. But I should like to see the Temple.” Aiel smiled again. “You may, one day,” he told them “the Temple is beautiful, yes. But you need no Temple here, children of the West.” He stretched up his arms, half in indication, half in praise, towards the star-blazing dome of sky above them. “Our Temple in the City is made by men’s hands, but this is the work of Light. Does it not say more to you about Light than any man-made building?” “Yes, it does” the taller boy agreed “Only Light can kindle light! But we did not really come to ask you about the Temple, Lord Priest. We wished to ask, my friend and I – will you pray for us, this night that is so special to us? For we will be warriors and men soon – and we would be Light’s men before all, he and I.” Arenel was touched. “Gladly!” he exclaimed. “And if that is your wish, and you carry it always in your hearts, you will be true and brave in all you do.” He put one hand on each bowed dark head, feeling love rise in him that was more than his own, knowing Light loved these boys through him. He spoke first the words of prayer, and then a special blessing, spoken in the ringing, powerful cadences of the Old Tongue. When he had done, he asked “Do you know the Old Tongue? Did you understand?” “Enough to know it was a Swordsmen’s blessing” the stocky boy answered. “No more.”

Arenel said “It is from the Book of Light – always spoken in the Old Tongue. It was the blessing that Rafel the Lightfriend gave to Brann and Tamorine and all their company, before they went out against the Dark Lord.” and he translated “Go in Light, and always in Light. Hold to what is right and true. Destroy all Darkness, but do no man harm. If an enemy must die in Darkness, it must be so, but try always to give the Choice of Light, even to the Children of Night. Then you will do Light’s will, and be blessed of Light and true Children of Light.” “That is a word to keep in one’s heart.” said the taller boy. “I do not know your names” Arenel said “to keep you in my prayers.” “I am Jareth” answered the stocky boy ” and this my friend, Hannin.” “And I am Arenel.” he told them. When Jareth and Hannin had thanked him again and left him to go on their way, Arenel turned back towards the camp with a feeling of contentment. It had been good to be able to contribute something to those boys’ special night. If they were so devoted to Light now, he thought, they would surely, as he had said, grow into men who were brave and true. He encountered no more of the Warrior Children himself, though he passed one or two little whispering, hurrying groups, and once one of the silent Watchers. He thought he would find Zohra and tell her about Jareth and Hannin, for he felt sure it would please her. So he went towards her family tent to look for her. On his way Arenel saw the Ket, laughing with a small group of the Warrior Children. Others of the Ket’s retinue were about too, and the newly-weds, Ket-Tal and Shala, stood hand-in-hand by the fire, but Arenel saw no sign of Zohra.

He went on towards her family tent, and paused at the curtained entrance. He could hear no sound inside, and, unsure as yet of the etiquette of the Westerners’ camp, he called softly “Zohra? Are you there? May I come in?” He was answered only by a muffled sob from inside the tent. Alarmed lest any harm should have befallen the girl on this strange night, he entered the tent and looked around. Zohra was crouched on the ground, huddled over something cradled in her arms. Arenel could not see what it was , for her head was bent over it, and her long, loose black hair hid it. She was weeping quietly. Arenel wondered if some pet of Zohra’s had been killed; it seemed as though she held something which had lived, and was dead. However, when he gently called her name and she lifted her head to look at him, he saw what it was that she held. It was a tangle of splintered, brightly-coloured wood and broken strings – the remains of her beloved harp. The useless stupidity of such wanton destruction, the pain it had caused to Zohra, sent a hot flash of anger through Arenel, and he said, sharply, “Zohra – who has done this?” “Some of the Warrior Children” she answered “There are those of them who do not think my music is a thing for warriors. It moves them, and they resent…even fear…that. I have seen them cry at my music, and be angry afterwards, that they wept. Some of them think…I am strange, I have some kind of power over them, through my music.” Her speech was broken by small, suppressed sobs.

“Then what good does it do, this Night of the Warrior Children?” Arenel asked, still angrily. “If this is the kind of thing that comes of it…” indicating her broken harp with a wave of his arm ” what purpose is there in that, Zohra?” “It does have a purpose, Arenel. The Watchers watch, and see what use the Warrior Children make of their licence. That knowledge will be used to shape their training.” “Will they be punished, then, for this?” he asked more calmly, pointing again to her broken harp. “Not punished, no. They will be – made aware of their excesses. In time, they will learn to be ashamed of what they have done. Then they may wish to make retribution themselves.” She looked up at him. “Do not judge all the boys by the foolishness of one or two, Arenel. Despite my harp, I am proud of our Warrior Children.” “No, I would not, Zohra. Some of them are so close to Light. Two boys I met, named Jareth and Hannin…” and he told her of the two solemn boys who had asked for his prayers and blessing under the starlit sky. Zohra smiled. “I know those two. The purpose of the Warrior Children’s training is as much to bring them closer to Light as to make them warriors. I think Jareth and Hannin have not so far to go.” “But what will you do now?” Arenel asked, gently touching the broken harp. “How will you obtain another? Or perhaps on Marla’s Way…” “Oh no, Arenel!” she cut in “I go on the Way for Marla’s sake. And how could I consider such a foolish thing as a new harp, beside Marla’s great need? Only if Aiel said I needed it for the Way would I even think about it, and I think it is my voice he needs, not my playing skills. No, I shall have to wait till the next Trading Time.” She touched her fingers to her brow and said “It does not matter, the music is all in here.” She sighed, and went on, “It is just that the harp was mine, my hand was accustomed to it – and it was precious to me. Maybe it is better though, in the sight of Light, that one is able to hold one’s possessions loosely.”

“Wait.” Arenel said, an idea coming to him. “Wait for me, Zohra. I will come back.” He hurried to the tent that had been set apart for him and quickly rummaged through his pack of belongings. Finding what he sought by touch, he lifted out the familiar carrying case and drew out his own small harp. It was unusual, a copy in silvered wood of the Lightstone Harp his father used, and had carried on the first Way, years ago. It was precious to Arenel because of that, but it would be easy enough to have another made when he returned to the City. In any case, he felt that a gift must cost something, whether its value were in price or feeling. Zohra’s words about holding one’s possessions lightly had moved him. Arenel slipped the instrument back into its case and carried it to Zohra’s tent. She still sat curled over the broken harp, but looked up and smiled enquiringly at him as he entered, her tears over now. Arenel leaned and took the wreckage of her own harp from her with one hand, and with the other laid his harp in her lap. “For you.” he said, simply. She knew what it was, of course, and glanced quickly at him before unfastening the case and lifting out the harp. “But this is beautiful – and it is yours, Arenel! I cannot take it.” “You can, Zohra. I want you to have it.” “Arenel, what will you do without your harp?” “I will not need it on Marla’s Way. And I can have another made when I return to the City. It is a copy of the Lightstone Harp that my father carried on the first Way.”

She still protested, “Arenel, you cannot wish to part with such a thing!” But her fingers were already gently touching the strings, drawing rippling little chords and harmonies from them with effortless ease. Arenel smiled at her. “Zohra, I will be without a harp for a little while. And I will be like a workman without one of his tools. But for you to be without the means of making music would be like-like a bird with broken wings.” “Arenel, you are so kind!” Zohra exclaimed, and to his surprise and embarrassment, her eyes filled again with tears. “Oh no, do not weep, Zohra!” he said quickly. “Come, if you must thank me, let me hear you play.” So she played, and sang too, a joyous, familiar praise-song often used in the Temple. Arenel, who knew it well, began to sing with her, for his voice, if not a match for Zohra’s, was pleasant and light, and he was used to singing as well as playing in the Temple. Suddenly from the doorway the Ket’s rich voice said “Good, very good! But why do you not come outside and sing to us?” Arenel started a little, still unsure whether it was seemly, in the Westerners’ eyes, for him to be here with Zohra. Zohra, though, showed no alarm. “Oh, Grandfather, I was just trying this harp – see, some of the Warrior Children have broken mine, and Arenel was kind enough to give me his…” “I know.” the Ket said quietly “I heard what he said, and he was right, child.” He smiled at her, and then at Arenel. “Zohra is right too, Arenel. It was a kind gift.” Arenel said “I wanted Zohra to have her music. And does not Light bid us undo harm done, when we can?” He felt a little abashed at the Ket’s praise. He wondered how much of his conversation with Zohra the Lord of the West had overheard. Still, Arenel thought, at least the Ket had seen that there was nothing unseemly in his being alone in the tent with Zohra. “Come out now, and sing for us.” the Ket requested “and Arenel, will you make the Evening Prayers for the camp?” “Of course, gladly!” Arenel said.

Now it was time for Aiel and the others to set out on Marla’s Way, rejoining Arenel and Zohra at the Last Faring House, which lay beyond the Western Mountains. They would be going by a very different route to that taken by the Ket’s party, skirting round between the Plateau and the Western Mountains. It was not a route taken by many, especially at this time of year, and Barengian warned them that they must pay close attention to Janir’s guidance, and go exactly where he led them. “There are places that are treacherous, even dangerous” said the Lord of the Western Fortress “but Janir knows them all. He has been riding in these mountains all his life.” So two mornings after the Ket’s party had left, the rest of them left the Western Fortress too. Aila had made sure of her Healer’s supplies, and they had food in plenty to last them to the Last Faring House. In fact they had had to refuse much of what Mira had tried to press on them. The hardest part was the farewells; Mira had wept anew at Janir’s going, telling him to come back safely. Barengian had tried to limit his display of emotion, but then had suddenly hugged his son, exclaiming “Go in Light, Janir, and take care!” Arentha had bade farewell to her family lovingly and calmly, kissing them all, rock-steady as ever in her confidence of Light’s care. Lin had spent time with Krystha the night before, saying their private goodbyes. Now, having taken his wife in a tender embrace, he turned to Arentha, who would stay with her till he and Mellin returned. “Arentha, take care of Krystha for me.” he asked, adding, as he embraced his wife’s sister, in a quick undertone that only she heard “You know she is my life!” Arentha hugged him back, and said, smiling reassuringly, “I will, Lin, have no fear.” “And we will give them both safe escort back to the Fortress” promised Barengian.

Aiel kissed Arentha, and their hands clung together for a moment, but their faith in Light was strong, and neither doubted the other’s safety. Aila, though, had found it harder to part from her mother, having already been separated from her brother, but both Mellin and Janir seemed to understand her slight sadness, and joined forces to distract and comfort her. Marla, having no kin or friend to bid farewell to, stood a little to one side. She looked lonely, and somewhat sad, but brightened a little when Janir’s parents and Aila and Krystha all embraced her and wished her Light’s blessing on her Way. Still, as they trotted out of the gates of the Western Fortress, she seemed to be watching the others with concern, and sighed when she saw them glance back at their loved ones before the gates closed again behind them. “What is it, Marla?” Aiel asked. “I am so sorry to take you all away from those you love. I feel the sorrow of parting in you, and I am sad that I have caused it. Yet I must seek Light, Aiel!” “Marla, it is sad to leave them behind, but we trust them to Light, as they do us.” Aiel told her. “And they understand how important this Way is – for all Li’is, as well as you, Marla.” Lin added. “Oh Lin, I wish you had not had to leave Lady Krystha just at this time!” Marla exclaimed. “She would not have had me stay and not go to your aid.” Lin answered. “You are so young, and in such peril, and for now you need me more than Krystha does.” Mellin said thoughtfully “Marla, beware of the Darkness. Surely it will try to turn you from your Way, and to make you feel guilty, when there is no guilt. You seek Light, and it is our joy to serve Light in helping you. We are your friends.” She looked at him, then said “Yes, you are my friends. I never had friends before. You must all of you be a gift of Light to me – even though I am not Light’s child.” “Yet!” Aila said, firmly, but she was deeply moved, as they all were, by the unconscious pathos in Marla’s simple statement “I have never had friends before.”

At first they followed the same route as the Ket’s party had done, and though Aila had never come this way before she recognised some of the places that Arenel had shared with her through his Perception. These rich Western farmlands had long earned the name of the ‘Golden Quarter’, for in harvest time they were one vast sea of golden grain, but now, in early Spring, they were just veiled with the tender green of the new shoots. The lazy Snake River meandered along, even the melting snows from the Western Mountains doing nothing to speed it on its way. As Janir had told them, a heavy melt would produce only a widening of the river, a gentle flooding that was beneficial, rather than harmful, to the farmlands – was in fact one of the sources of their richness and fertility. They passed through one of the small, contented towns that sat under the shelter of the Western Fortress. Janir, who was in the lead, waved greetings to several folk as they passed in response to their salutations, for here the young heir of the Western Fortress was well known and liked. Mellin was riding at his cousin’s side, delighted, despite the gravity of their task, to be sharing this adventure with his Sword-Brother. Aiel rode behind the two young men, keeping his Perception extended for any hint of Darkness that might threaten Marla. Behind him were the two girls, and Lin rode rearguard. Before Shala’s wedding, Krystha had again dyed Marla’s hair so that its white-blondeness should not betray her. It had become natural to Marla by now to use the pink colouring Krystha had given her, and except under very close scrutiny, she passed well enough for a daughter of Li’is. In addition, the fact that Aila was Perception-gifted meant that it was she who attracted attention. Perhaps one daughter in two or three generations born to the Priesthood carried Perception, making Aila unusual enough to draw comment, though it was usually kindly and approving.

Once past the towns, they swung in a Westward loop towards the mountains, forded a bend of the Snake River, and passed the start of the wide green track that led past the Eastern foothills of the mountains and up to the Plateau of the Westerners. Here, then, was where her path parted from her brother’s, Aila thought, as Janir led them on along the edge of the mountain range. The farmlands ended abruptly, to be replaced by tracts of sandy heathland. The ground was uneven, and covered with the young, tightly curled shoots of some variety of fern or bracken. They crossed the river again, or rather one of its tributaries, scarcely more than a pebbly stream. They could see its source in the mountains to their right, a green-edged trickle of water that seemed to slide down the reddish-brown rock face. Certainly it had none of the energy of the Falls of Vandar, near Mellin’s Fortress home. Mellin remarked as much to his cousin, adding, teasingly, “This is a fat land, a lazy land, this West-land of yours, Janir!” Janir laughed good naturedly and said “Tell me that again when you have passed through our Western Mountains, Sword-Brother!” They were still travelling Westward, and ahead of them the sun was sinking. It had been quite warm all day, for early Spring, but now a cool wind blew towards them, carrying a salty tang that dried their lips. Like a great wall a tall, red cliff, furthest flank of the mountains, loomed across their path and as they came into its shadow it was like passing back from Spring into winter. They pulled their cloaks closely round them until Janir led them round the high curve of the cliff and back into the evening sunlight which, pallid though it was, felt warm and welcome after the mountain’s shadow.

Now they had turned and were facing North, for they were on the farthest edge of the Westlands. Ahead, the heathlands ended in red cliffs that fell sheer to the sea – no safe haven here for ships or fishing boats. To the East of them rose the rounded red peaks of the mountains, the highest of them, still crowned with snow, glowing in the red light of the dying sun. On the triangle of land that stretched from the seacoast cliffs to the edge of the mountains, in front of them now, was a solid, square building of the red mountain stone. It was built low, and huddled into a little hollow, surrounded by a high stone wall for protection against the sea winds. It was not much bigger than some of the larger farm-holds they had passed on their journey, but it was a welcome sight at the end of their long day’s ride, for it was the Western Faring House. Janir led them towards the Faring House, and as they approached, the door opened, and the Priest-in-Charge appeared. He was a small, round, balding man, a little older than Aiel, perhaps Lin’s age. He was smiling warmly. He turned back for a moment to say something over his shoulder into the recesses of the Faring House, and as they reached the steps, two men came out to take the horses. Janir dismounted, and went to the Priest with the air of one confident of welcome.

“Janir, lad!” the Priest greeted him, in a voice as warm as his smile “It is too long since we have seen you!” He gave the young Swordsman a fatherly hug in greeting, and then exclaimed “But what a large party you have brought with you!” Janir smiled too, and turned to introduce the others. “This is Thulin, Priest-in-Charge of the Western Faring House – and an old friend of mine, since I was old enough to sit a horse. Thulin, this is your Brother-in-Light Aiel, from the Temple of the City.” “Aiel? The Lightstone-Bearer?” Thulin queried, and Aiel smiled and nodded. Thulin said, “Then twice welcome, my Brother-in-Light.” Janir continued his introductions. “Lin, my uncle, and Mellin, my cousin, from the Mountain Fortress.” The Swordsmen came forward to be greeted. “And these maidens are Aila, Aiel’s daughter, and her friend Marla.” Thulin looked, and smiled again. “We do not often have such pretty faces about the Faring House” he complimented them. “And Aila has the Gift? Light bless you in it, child.” “Thank you, Thulin” , Aila said, warming to the friendly Priest, and glad that Marla’s disguise held. Thulin led them inside, still chatting to Janir. To their relief, he asked no questions about their journey. The Western Faring House had heard of Shala’s marriage, and Thulin simply assumed that their journey had something to do with the wedding. Orders were given for a meal and sleeping chambers to be prepared, and Janir asked “But where is the Lady Niara, and little Thara?” “They are in the Healing Place, with a child who was brought in for tending. But Thara is not so little now, Janir. Maybe it is longer than you remember, since you visited us.”

And indeed, when Thulin’s wife and daughter joined them, the maiden proved to be a small, shy girl just growing into womanhood, not yet at ease with her newly blossoming self, but showing promise of future beauty. At first, Janir was inclined to mingle praise and teasing, but Aila, aware of what Thara was going through at this time in her life, aware too, as Janir and the girl’s parents were not, that the child-woman might care more for Janir than he knew, said to him softly “Janir – please, treat the child gently!” And it was typical of him, she thought, that he did not question or argue, only gave her one warm glance, and nodded, and did as she bade him. Aila saw Thara relax, and the family shared their table for the evening meal with no further sign of discomfort on the girl’s part. Janir addressed her as another adult, and only after she had left them and gone to her rest, and they were dispersed about the room, chatting, did he ask her “Aila, why did you say that – about Thara? Do you think I said something to hurt her? I would not deliberately do that – I am fond of the child, that is all.” She smiled at his concern, and answered “Aye, I know, Janir. But sometimes it is painful to be growing from a girl into a woman, and can make a maiden very self-conscious. I think perhaps you embarrassed her. And you know the maiden is halfway to being in love with you?” “Thara?” he asked in astonishment. “Oh no, that is impossible, Aila!” “It is not” she told him “You are a friend, and a Swordsman, and kind to her. Enough to impress a maiden of her tender age.”

“Then what shall I do?” he asked anxiously “For I wish neither to encourage her nor hurt her,Aila.” “Do not worry, Janir” she reassured him “We will be gone tomorrow, and it is her dream of you she cares for, not you as you are. She will forget, once she has grown a little older and wiser, and will find a love who is not a dream. There is nothing you need do.” She looked at him , and said suddenly “Janir- you do not mind me speaking to you like this? It is only what I would say to Arenel in such a case – and we said we would be ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ to each other, so you must forgive me if I usurp a sister’s privilege.” “Oh, I do not mind” he responded “I am glad of some sisterly advice in this matter!” He looked thoughtful, then, for a moment, and added “And maybe it is true enough that sometimes the very young do fall in love, perhaps more deeply than we can know.” There was something in his voice that made her ask “Is that your own experience, Janir?” But though she asked kindly, he coloured a little and did not answer, and she regretted the question, as if she had Trespassed, and changed the subject. LIn and Mellin had been talking with Marla, while Aiel conversed with his Brother-in-Light, but now Mellin came up to Aila and Janir and said, “Aila, Marla seems very weary. She is not used to much riding, either. Perhaps you should look at her?”

“Of course!” she exclaimed, and Janir added “Yes, you must tend Marla, Aila.” So she went across to Marla and felt immediately that however physically weary the girl might be – and it was obvious,as Mellin had said, that she was very tired – whatever she had been discussing with Lin and Mellin had served to cheer and relax her. Still, Aila said “Marla dear, you are tired and should rest. And if you ache from the riding, I will give you a salve.” Marla smiled “It is strange, Aila, I was very stiff, when we first arrived here, but now the ache has gone. I am tired, though.” And so, when she thought about it, was Aila, so the two girls retired. Marla said, sleepily, as she pulled the covers over her,”I am so glad of you all, Aila! Lin and Mellin were so kind and encouraging to me tonight, and you are all doing so much to help me. I did not know there were such – such caring people in Li’is.” “Yes, we care for you, Marla, but so does Light. And often Light uses us to care for each other, and cares through us. Remember that, Marla. Light is the source of all love.” “Light is love” Marla repeated, already half-asleep, and when Aila spoke to her again, she found that Marla had fallen peacefully asleep. “Aye, Light is love.” Aila whispered, as she put out the lamp and snuggled down among her own covers. It was a good thought to sleep on.

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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