There was another reason why Aiel had decided to leave so quickly for the Western Fortress. It would be a month to Shala’s wedding, and during that time Marla would be safely hidden. He had learned from what Marla had told him that the evil ceremonies Si-Mara had planned were centred around the times of the Two-Moon Tides. Those phenomena , though occurring regularly, were infrequent, and came in two clusters, since the particular conjunction of Shield and Hound that caused them happened only in Spring and autumn. One such Tide had happened before Marla arrived in the City. The next, which Aiel guessed to be the destined time of Si-Mara’s ceremonies, would be in just over a week’s time. After that, there would be one more conjunction shortly after the Spring Festival, by which time they should be safely on their way to the Dancers. Once that was past, there would be no danger to Marla from the ceremonies until the autumn, when the Two-Moon Tides would begin again. Why this conjunction was so important to the Children of Night, Aiel could only guess. Since part of the purpose of the ceremonies was to receive the Bloodstone from Ma’al, Aiel supposed that the reason might be as much astronomical as occult. The Dancers, and even the Night Lords, might move at will among the worlds, but the Bloodstone was a different thing, and whatever evil arts were required to move it seemed tied to times and seasons. Did that have to do, he wondered, with the last, most puzzling part of the Secret Word, which spoke of ‘two and two, and times and time, out of their place’?
Mira said “Marla, you shall rest here, and build strength for your journey, and we shall help you all we can. We will not let you be sacrificed to Darkness, child!” She could be as determined as Lin, her brother, when she wished to be, and spoke so fiercely that it startled them to laughter, breaking the tension. Mellin, though, still held himself aloof, distrustful. Aila saw that Marla felt it in him, though he did his best not to show it openly, for she saw the girl glance sadly at her cousin. “Barengian”, Lin addressed his sister’s husband, “Janir has offered to come with us when we leave, for guide in the Western Mountains, and another Swordsman. But I will not take him unless you agree. Mellin and I go too.” “Of course he must go!” Barengian answered. “It is what I would expect of him.” He glanced fondly at his son, and added “He is a Swordsman”, making it an oblique word of praise. “And Krystha and Arentha will need safe escort back to the Fortress, since Mellin and I go with Aiel.” “They do not go on the Way with you, this time?” asked Mira. “No, Krystha is bearing a child. It would not be wise.” Mira exclaimed with delight at this news, and Barengian smilingly promised to escort the sisters back to the Fortress himself. “Is the Ket here?” Aiel asked, and was disappointed when Baregian answered “No.” “I thought the Ket and his people stayed with you during the winter.” Aila said, surprised. “So they do, but they have had their own planning to do for this wedding, and will not return here until nearer the time.” Barengian explained. “I need to speak to the Ket” Aiel said “before I can make further plans.”.”Well, Marla is safe here, and the talking can wait!” Mira told him. “Come, I will show you all where you can sleep.”
“Mira, I hope we are not making too much extra work for you, with Shala’s wedding to arrange.” Arentha commented, but Mira only laughed. “Oh, I am glad enough to have you all here! Even now I am sometimes homesick for news of the City. Besides, there is Marla’s need, which must outweigh all else. And Krystha – you will make me an aunt again? It is so exciting – how long have you known?…” Happily chatting, Mira showed the womenfolk to their rooms, where their luggage had already been carried. Then, settling down for a longer talk with Arentha and Krystha, she suggested “Shala, why do you not take Aila and Marla to see the fabric stores, and choose the stuff for their gowns?” Thus discreetly dismissed, the three girls went to do as they were bidden, passing back through the Hall, where they found Aiel, Barengian and Lin in deep discussion. Janir must have taken Mellin and Arenel off somewhere with him, for there was no sign of them. Shala led them through a long corridor into a large room, one long wall of which was lined with presses and chests made of carved sweetwood. The tree, as well as yielding the strongly sedative sweetwood spice, produced an aromatic wood which was expensive, but very good for keeping cloth fresh and damage-free. Through an archway from this room another room led off , with sewing tables, tapestry frames and weaving looms. Several of the Western seamstresses were busy stitching at heaps of glowing fabrics, and a woman, tall and stately, with a handsome, tranquil face, detached herself from the group and came across to meet the three maidens. “This is Liara.” Shala explained. “She has charge of the fabrics. Liara, these are my friends from the City, who are to be my bridemaidens, with Zohra.” Aila watched the Westerner closely as she greeted them, but the woman showed no special interest in Marla, and Aila relaxed.
“Which is the fabric for your gown, Shala?” she asked, looking at the lovely colours spread out on the table. There was a blue like a summer sky, and a soft deep rose, either of which would have suited Shala perfectly, but the bride-to-be smiled and lifted the edge of rich crimson fabric with a golden motif woven through it. “This” she said, with a smile of pride. “It was specially woven. It is the bridal fabric of the Ket’s family – all their brides wear it. And Zohra will wear crimson too, but plain.” Liara opened press after press to reveal the rolls of fabric within, from heavy, stiff brocades to thin, filmy veiling. The colours and textures were so alluring that even Marla was drawn into the delight of gazing at and handling the lovely fabrics. Shala sighed. “I have tried and tried, but there are so many colours, and my crimson is so striking, I cannot tell which would go best with it.” “Will your bridegroom wear crimson too?” Marla asked, “Yes, crimson and gold.”
Aila looked again at the fabrics, trying to consider them dispassionately. Then she smiled and said “Shala, crimson and gold is so rich. Perhaps we should wear no colour at all.” “Why, what do you mean, Aila?” Shala asked in surprise. Aila reached for the fabric which had caught her eye, and carefully pulled out the end of the roll. “This?” she suggested.It was an ivory white, with delicate flowers and tendrils of leaves woven into it in gold thread, the gold linking it to Shala’s gown, the white a perfect foil for the rich crimson. “Oh!” Shala exclaimed. “I had not thought of that one. But – yes, you are right, Aila. It is perfect! So simple and- and pure. Too much colour, with that crimson, would be overpowering.” “Oh, but I forgot!” Aila exclaimed in her turn. “Marla – it is white. Can you bear to wear a white gown?” “This white gown, yes I can.” Marla answered, smiling.”For I think it is a symbol of friendship, Aila. I know very little about choosing gowns, for I have never been consulted about my own, as you know. But to me it seems that the red and the white would look very well together.” Shala had been looking curiously at the two friends during this exchange, but asked no questions, and turned to indicate their choice to Liara, who nodded and smiled approvingly. The needlewomen took Aila’s and Marla’s measures, so that work on their gowns could begin, then Shala said “There, thank you both for your help. Now I think I smell food! Our meal must be ready, and I am sure you are hungry after your journey.”
Over the next weeks, Aiel’s plans took further shape in discussion with the three Swordsmen, as wel las Arenel, Barengian, and Ket-Tal, Shala’s betrothed. Aiel liked the young man well. He was brave, merry, and handsome, and it was easy to see why Shala had fallen in love with him. He was also a cool, clear thinker, like his Sword-Brother Janir, possessed of a great fund of commonsense. In addition, though he treated all as equals and was cheerful and friendly to all he met, he had yet a certain dignity about him because he was the Ket’s grandson and, in turn after his twin father and uncle, the Ket’s heir. Shala and Mira, meanwhile, were determined to draw Marla fully into the excitement of the wedding plans, and into the normality of life in the Western Fortress. It was a thing the girl sorely needed, after her tumultuous first days in the City and her escape from Si-Mara and terrified flight to the Mountain Fortress. To be accepted as a guest, as a maiden among other maidens preparing for a friend’s wedding, to lay aside, as far as possible, the weight of her own desperate need for a while, could do her nothing but good. Everyone involved knew it, and did their best for Marla.
The sole exception was Mellin. No longer openly hostile to the girl, he still maintained an aloofness and coldness of attitude towards her. His friends might question him, grow angry or take him to task, but none of these things had any effect on him. In explanation he would say only that he did not trust Marla. He denied, without heat, that he was afraid of her. The young Swordsman even submitted himself to Aiel’s Perception, in an attempt to satisfy them as to his motives, and the Lightstone-Bearer found nothing in Mellin save, as he had said, a deep distrust of Marla. Lin said, later, “I think it must have been Alira’s warnings, Aiel. She was so wounded by her time in Darkness, and so fearful lest Mellin, her beloved grandson, fall into Darkness, that she was always warning him, from his early childhood, of the dangers and terrors of the Children of Night. She had less fear, of course, for Arenel and Aila, born with Perception, and of the Priesthood. Oh, it was done out of love for him, no doubt of that, and well meant. But I did not realise how deeply her words had penetrated.” Aiel sighed, then brightened, and said with a smile “Mellin is your son, Lin, and honest enough to admit his mistake – when he sees it. There will come something which will show him the truth of what Marla says, and then he will believe her, and want to help her. I am sure of it.”
A week to the wedding, and the Ket and his people arrived at the Western Fortress on a breezy morning, riding down out of the Western Mountains. Barengian, Mira, Janir, Shala, Ket-Tal and their guests were assembled in the courtyard to greet them, and quickly escort them inside out of the cold wind. Lin and Aiel found old friends among the party, and they were well known to the folk of the Western Fortress, but Mellin, Aila and Arenel had seen very few Westerners, for they rarely travelled to the City. The Westerners were led, of course, by the Ket, the Lord of the Westerners, who greeted Aiel and Lin, Arentha and Krystha, with pleasure, as old friends, and was glad to make the acquaintance of their children. He was older and greyer now than when they had met him on the Lightstone Way, but no less imposing a figure. He was accompanied by his twin sons and their families. Ket-Lai, his wife, and two young sons, also greeted the four Way-Sharers , and his twin, Ket-Kai, was delighted to see Lin, his Sword-Brother, and Aiel again, and to introduce his own family. Ket-Tal had come forward to embrace his father, mother and sister, and they made a happy and handsome group. The mother was slim but strong-looking, striking rather than beautiful, quiet but friendly. Aila was looking with interest at Zohra, Ket-Tal’s sister, who was to be the other bridemaiden. She too had that slim build and sense of inner strength, though everything about her seemed lissom and delicate, and graceful even beyond the natural grace of the Westerners. The features of her face were finely moulded, her hands long and fine. She seemed a little shy, for from time to time a quick blush would rise into the honey-golden skin of her face, and she would tilt her head so that the shining length of her thick black hair fell across her face like a veil. Zohra’s eyes were the same dark brown as her brother’s, big and expressive. and fringed with an amazing length of lash that made them look even bigger. Aila could not help contrasting, in her mind, Zohra’s dark and golden beauty, and Marla’s natural ice-white loveliness – like the difference between sun and snow.
Zohra seemed less shy, though when, greetings having been exchanged, the bride-gifts presented, and formalities done with, Shala insisted on carrying off all her bridemaidens to the sewing room to see the progress of their gowns. On the way, she introduced and explained Marla to Zohra, who was instantly friendly and sympathetic. Zohra was also introduced to Aila, not having met her before. The twin concerns of Marla’s search for Light, and Shala’s wedding , drew them all together, and by the time they had tried on their gowns and chatted together for a while, the three girls were well on the way to becoming friends. Meanwhile, Aiel had been discussing Marla’s predicament with the Ket, and explaining his plans. The Ket was warmly interested in Marla’s Way, respecting her courage in defying Darkness and her determination not to be a tool for the attempted domination of Li’is by the Dark Ones. He was fascinated, too, by the continued outworking of the Secret Word in the matter. “Yes, surely Arenel can ride with us, and we will guide him safely down to join you again later.” the Ket agreed. A feast had been prepared in honour of the guests’ arrival, to take place that evening. They assembled accordingly, all the work of settling the guests and stowing their gear, and all the talking and visiting of old friends done with, in the Great Hall. Arenel noticed that Zohra had by her a familiarly-shaped flat leather case, the carrying case for a small harp. When the feasting was over, she stood and took out the harp, its frame gilded and enamelled with the colours of the Westerners, red, blue, yellow and green. Then she left the table and went and stood in the middle of the Hall, and began to play and sing.
Arenel was a Temple harper, as his father was. Both were gifted players and makers of music. Arentha had always had a beautiful singing voice, and on the Lightstone Way both Aiel’s and Arentha’s music had been key in the battle for the Dancers, fighting against the Dark music of the Black Piper. But no music any of them had ever made or played or heard had prepared them for the wonder of Zohra’s music. From the moment her fingers touched the strings she was gone from them into her own world of melody and harmony, her shyness swept away by the need to express the music in her spirit. The instrument seemed an extension of her body as her fingers moved with effortless ease and skill over the strings, and her voice soared and rang through the Hall, pure and clear and sweet, waking echoes from the red stone vaulting and the high wooden roof. The song was her own composition, the bridal song she had made for the wedding of her brother and Shala, played to them now for approval and comment before she played it for all the guests on the actual wedding day. When she had finished playing and singing, she looked round,a little dreamily, as if she returned to them now from that same secret world of melody, and said, not with pride, but with a quiet confidence that she had made something very well. “There, Shala, that is my bride-gift to you.” “Oh, Zohra, it is a beautiful song!” Shala exclaimed, hugging the Westerner as she returned to the table. The others echoed her, and she accepted the praise quietly, as if she knew it to be justified.
Aiel had recognised the natural genius behind Zohra’s music, but there was something more. He Perceived, as the very Thought of Light, that Zohra was, must be, Arentha’s replacement on this Way. He had Aila, for Healing, now he needed Zohra, for melody. Hers was so obviously a Gifting of Light. So it was that later, when the feasting and music were over and the guests all talking together, Aiel sought out the Ket and his son, who welcomed him warmly. Still, Aiel found it very hard to ask what he must of the Westerners. “Lord Ket, Ket-Kai my friend, on the first Way we were bidden to seek healing and melody, as part of Light’s weaponry. Then it was the Ladies Krystha and Arentha who fulfilled that need. This time it is my daughter, Aila, who will be our Healer. And…” he hesitated. “And?” Ket-Kai prompted him. “I have sought Light in this thing” Aiel reassured him, before continuing, “and it is my understanding that it is your daughter, Zohra, who is to come with us, for melody. She is Light-gifted beyond any musician I have ever heard, and Light has told me that she is to be part of our company.” “So that is why!” the Ket murmured. “What do you mean, Lord of the West?” “We have wondered ourselves at Zohra’s gift. We of the West have little need of such music as hers. Simple melodies, herding songs, songs to Light, yes. But we are simple wanderers, and her gift has seemed to me sometimes like riches unwisely spent, yet Light has a meaning in all gifts given. This Way is the meaning of Light’s gift to Zohra.” “She is your daughter, Ket-Kai. What are your thoughts about this?” Aiel asked. “If it is the Will of Light, and if she goes under your protection and the Lightstone’s, and in the company of Lin, my Sword-Brother, I am content.” Ket-Kai answered. Aiel went, then , to the group of young people and called Marla. Zohra and Aila aside. Quietly he explained, as Zohra’s eyes grew wider and wider, his assurance that she was to have a part in the Way, in Marla’s quest for Light. She did not interrupt, and when Aiel finished speaking, she said, “Aiel, Lightstone-Bearer, I cannot think what Light may ask of me in this thing, or what use I may be. But if you say so, and Light bids me go, I will – if my father agrees.” “He does.” Aiel assured her. “Thank you, Zohra” Marla said, and the Westerner smiled at her, and answered “I hope I may be able to help you, Marla.”
When Merhaun and Alira arrived at the Western Fortress with Linnad and Janira, for the wedding, Aiel could not help but wonder how the Lord of the Mountains and his Lady would react to Marla, having been so badly affected in their younger days by the Children of Night. Especially, he wondered about Alira, who had been deceived and led into Darkness by lies and enchantments from which only Aiel, by the power of the Lightstone, had been able to free her and restore her to her husband and daughters. He thought they might prove as distrustful of, and antagonistic to, Marla as Mellin, their grandson, reared on Alira’s warnings about the dealings of Darkness. However, Alira, having experienced those Dark things, seemed to understand Marla, her fear of her intended fate and desperate search for Light and freedom from the Darkness that overshadowed her. So both endorsed her Way, and promised to keep watch from the Mountain Fortress and pass on any tidings of the Children of Night. Linnad and Janira had one thing to add to Aiel’s knowledge, though out of Marla’s hearing. It seemed that the woman who had accompanied Marla from the East had been found drowned in the Harbour in an apparent accident. “I doubt it was an accident” Aiel said, his tone sombre. “No doubt it was her punishment for letting Marla escape from Si-Mara.” “Such are the ways of Darkness” Alira said, heavily. “You are right to help Marla, Aiel, the fate that awaits her otherwise is dreadful.” Merhaun agreed, and said, “And we shall guard Krystha and Arentha well, have no fear. Especially since we may expect a new grandchild.” Aiel said “It is true what the Secret Word says of Marla, and she does not seek Light for herself alone, for she fears what would happen to our world if she is forced to become the Bloodstone-wielder. Indeed, she has said she would rather die, even in Darkness, than wield the Bloodstone.” “Then may Light bless her and free her” Janira responded. “She may be born of Darkness, but she has a noble spirit.”
The day of Shala’s wedding had dawned threateningly cloudy, but to everyone’s relief the morning quickly brightened. Aila, Marla and Zohra went to Mira’s chamber to help prepare the bride, and to dress themselves for the wedding ceremony. When they entered the room, Aila felt a little pang, seeing Shala standing there barefoot, loose-haired, in a simple undergarment. She reminded Aila so of the child she had been when they played together, small, blonde, barefoot, always hurrying to keep up with her brother. Aila felt a rush of tenderness towards her old playmate, and for a moment it seemed absurd that today Shala would be married. Impulsively, Aila hugged her cousin’s cousin, and said “Oh, Shala, dear – may you always be happy together!” “Oh, thank you, Aila!” Shala said. She turned a bright, beaming face to them all. No, Aila thought, there was no doubt that Shala would be happy, she was so in love with her handsome Westerner, so full of joy on her wedding day. They helped Mira to robe Shala in the splendid crimson gown, for the fabric was quite heavy and the folds needed careful arranging. Aila had thought that the colour might be overpowering for Shala’s fairness, but once dressed, she looked magnificent. They lifted the heavy skirts for her to slip on her shoes, and then Mira said “You girls must dress now, while I tend to Shala’s hair. The flowers will be here soon.”
Their gowns were laid ready on the bed, and Aila asked “Have you your colouring, Marla? Best do that first, it would not do to stain the gown.” Krystha had re-dyed Marla’s hair the night before, where the roots were beginning to show pale again, and in the morning’s excitement the other girls had not noticed Marla’s pallor. Now, though, as she turned towards the light to apply the pink colouring, Zohra exclaimed with concern “Oh, how pale you are, Marla! Are you sick?” Shala turned too, and Marla smiled and said “No, it is well with me. You have not yet seen me as I am, a child of Ma’al.” But her smile was only on her lips, and suddenly they trembled. Zohra put one arm round her comfortingly, and said “Do not be sad, Marla! You shall be a Child of Light and of Li’is – very soon.” The others watched, fascinated, as Marla used the pink liquid to colour her pale lips and cheeks, then smiled at the result, assuring her that she looked natural again. Aila helped her friend into the white and golden gown that had been made for her, and slipped on her own, while Zohra put on her crimson one. They helped each other with difficult fastenings, and with the combing out of their long hair, for it was the tradition that bride and bridemaidens should wear their hair loose, adorned only with flowers.
A rap at the door heralded the messenger with the basket of flowers, Western flowers gathered high up on the slopes of the Western Mountains before dawn that morning, kept fresh in sacking packed on snow from the peaks. When Mira brought in the basket and began to unpack it, Aila and Marla exclaimed in wonder as she lifted out a coronet of the most beautiful blooms. Six velvety, flame-shaped petals, rich crimson as Shala’s gown, formed each huge flower, and at their heart was a centre of intense black, surrounded by wiry, curling golden filaments. “Oh, how lovely!” Aila gasped. “What are they, Mira?” But it was Zohra who answered. “They are flame-flowers.” she told them. “We use them at all our most important and sacred ceremonies, because of their beauty.” And indeed, set in Shala’s golden hair the flowers did burn like little fires, crowning her with glory. For the bridemaidens there were delicate cup-shaped blooms, gold in colour but merging into a soft pink at the heart, and very sweetly scented. “This flower” said Zohra “has a name in the Old Tongue, but in our speech it means ‘maidens’ bliss.'” Mira helped them twine the flowers in their hair, though Marla’s was so fine and soft – “Like baby hair, Marla!” Mira laughed- that she had recourse to pins to hold the coronet of flowers in place.
When they were all ready, they looked at each other. Shala was so regal, so beautiful, both because of the fine gown and flowers and because she glowed inwardly with love and joy. Zohra was stately , a little solemn now, striking in her own crimson gown with her golden skin, intense dark eyes, and the golden blossoms glowing in her black hair. Aila looked lovely as always in the white and golden gown and golden flowers in her glossy hair, but it was her vivid blue, Perception-gifted eyes that would always hold the attention. Marla’s ice-pale beauty was hidden rather than enhanced by the colouring of her hair and face, but the gown and flowers became her. She looked like an ordinary, pretty maiden of Li’is – as long as she remembered to keep her head and eyes bowed. One sweep of those extraordinary green-and-silver eyes would overwhelm all other impressions. Mira smiled at them all, satisfied. Then for a moment her smile wavered and broke, and tears filled her eyes. “Oh, Shala, my love!” she exclaimed, reaching out to embrace her daughter. Aila said, “Mira, let us go to our own chamber. You need a moment alone.” She led the other bridemaidens into the room that she and Marla had shared. Marla said, “Aila, I am afraid. Do you think I will truly pass for a bridemaiden?” Before Aila could answer, Zohra said, very firmly, “Marla, you are a bridemaiden.”
Soon the summons came to accompany Shala to the Prayer Room, where her bridegroom and guests awaited her. They went down in silence, Mira going ahead, very pretty in her blue gown and jewels, glad for Shala, but still a little sad at the loss of her daughter to marriage. They went softly,quietly, too aware of the joyous sanctity of the moment to speak. Ket-Tal was waiting by the Crucible, almost unrecognisable in his crimson robe, over-robe of gold brocade, and the golden circlet round his brow, as the merry young Swordsman they knew. His dark eyes were very solemn as he turned to gaze at Shala, but she smiled at him and they stepped firmly to meet each other and join hands before turning back to the officiating Priests. As the marriage ceremony proceeded, Aila, who was sitting on the front row of benches with the other bridemaidens, Perceived an intense emotion, not from the couple being married, but from somewhere behind her, so that it made her turn her head a little to see. She sensed gladness and sorrow, affection and relinquishment, and was not surprised to realise that the source was Janir, who was gazing in her direction, but obviously past her at his sister, with an intent, sweetly-sad expression. No doubt he was glad for Shala’s happiness, Aila thought, but also somewhat sad to lose his sister, who would no longer be living at the Western Fortress. Then it occurred to her that she was Trespassing, and she blushed a little, and turned her head again.
When the wedding ceremony was over, Ket-Tal, his face alight with pride and happiness, led his bride out into the Great Hall of the Western Fortress, where there would be feasting, and dancing, and gifts. Their bridal night, and the next, would be spent here in the bride’s home, and then she would set out with her new husband and family for the summer pastures of the Westerners, to begin her life among them with the time of one of their special festivals, the Night of the Warrior Children. It was on this journey that Arenel was to be sent, with Zohra, thus drawing the attention of any spies of Si-Mara’s, to rejoin the others later. As they joined in the celebrations, Aiel, Aila and Arenel kept their Perceptions alert for any hint of danger to Marla, but it seemed that all the wedding guests, even friends’ friends, were genuine. After the wedding meal had been eaten and the festivities began, Aila tried to persuade Marla to join in, but her friend gently refused, and as Marla looked as though she might have things she wished to think about alone, or discuss with Aiel, Aila did not press her. Aila let herself be drawn into the merry chain of dancers, passing from partner to partner, laughing. Even shy Zohra was dancing, and Aila, coming together at one point in the dance with Janir, found him smiling his warm, wide smile at her, and thought to herself that he had put behind him his momentary sorrow at the impending parting from his sister. She noticed, though, that Mellin did not join the dancing either, but stood aside, from time to time glancing in Marla’s direction. Perhaps, though, the Swordsman was only keeping guard in case there should be any threat to the girl. Then she was swept round the room again by the movement of the dance, and when she next looked, both Marla and her cousin had gone.
Mellin had been very watchful of Marla, all that day. Despite the fact that all the others, including his own grandparents, father and mother, seemed totally to accept and believe in her, he was still suspicious of her. His grandmother, Alira, so long and cruelly deceived herself by the Children of Night – and by one in particular – had given him strenuous warnings about them, and their deceitfulness and cunning. So stern had been her warnings that he felt that even to be in the same room with Marla, with her evil ancestry and the marks of Ma’al so clearly on her, somehow defiled him. Then, too, he had his own feelings and doubts about the girl; from their very first encounter he had felt an instinctive mistrust of her, as though if he were to let down his guard for one minute, she might spin some dark enchantment round him. He could not say that he actually feared Marla, but he did not trust her at all. So he had kept her in his sight all through this wedding day. He wondered if she might really be a spy of the Dark Ones, with evil powers strong enough to trick even Aiel. Her story might be a ruse to gain sympathy and make the Lightstone-Bearer drop his guard. She had refused, after all to submit to Aiel’s Perception, which deepened Mellin’s suspicion. She might be part of a plot of Si-Mara’s to have her revenge on Aiel, and on a day like this there were many visitors in the Western Fortress. It was not beyond the bounds of possibility that there might be a Child of Night among them who intended to contact Marla.
All day long Mellin had watched her, and all day she had seemed, to him, to be uneasy. He admitted to himself that, if her story were true, her uneasiness might be due to the part she was playing and to fear of being recognised. Her disguise might enable her to pass as a daughter of Li’is, but those startling green-and-silver eyes would instantly betray her to anyone who really knew her. As the dancing began, Mellin saw the girl slip quietly out of the door. His suspicions further aroused, Mellin waited a moment, then followed. Were his imaginings to be proved right after all, and Marla on her way to meet some messenger of Si-Mara’s? The slight figure in the white and golden gown was not hard to keep in sight, and Mellin followed her in skilful silence. She did not look round, and Mellin felt certain that she was so intent on whatever she was doing that her ‘Dark Perception’ – if she truly possessed such a power, he thought – had not warned her, and she was unaware of his presence. Mellin followed her to the Prayer Room, where she opened the door and went quickly and quietly inside. Mellin hesitated. What might she be doing in the Prayer Room? It did not seem a likely place for a plotters’ meeting, unless the Children of Night intended some act of desecration. Mellin went after her, as silently as a shadow.
When he entered the Prayer Room, Mellin saw that there was no on else there – yet. The Prayer Room was quiet and peaceful, lit only by a few lamps and the Crucible flame, the air sweet with the perfume of the banks of flowers that remained from Shala’s marriage ceremony. All the light was at the front of the room, and Mellin slid onto one of the benches hidden in the deep shadows at the back. He saw that Marla was standing in the light, before the Crucible. As he watched from his concealment, she raised both arms above her head, and the Swordsman tensed. Would Marla attempt the use of some Dark power here? But when the girl’s voice came, it was in urgent and agonised appeal. “Light of Li’is, Light of all life! Are you here? Do you hear me?” She paused, as if listening, then cried out again, “Oh, how can I know if you hear me? I am not a Child of Light – I cannot hear your voice as they do. But Light is all I desire – do not leave me in the Darkness, I beg you – take me out of it, so that I may serve Light!” The desperate longing and pain in Marla’s voice could not have been feigned, and Mellin, shocked by the sudden realisation of her sincerity in seeking Light, and what it cost her, was overwhelmed, too, by his own guilt and shame. He saw, as if Light laid it bare within him, how his own hostility and unkindness – his enmity, in truth – had added to the burden and sorrows that Marla carried. He felt his cheeks redden with shame in the darkness, and almost groaned aloud in his distress. “Oh, Light forgive me!” he begged, silently and inwardly.
But, he told himself, his concern now must be for Marla. He hesitated, wondering what to do. He was ashamed to go on spying on her, but did not want, either, to leave her alone in her need. Now the girl dropped to her knees, and in the silence of the Prayer Room Mellin clearly heard the rustle of her skirts. She raised her voice again in appeal, a note of anguish in it now. “Oh Light of Li’is – see, if I presume too much to stand before you in my Darkness, I kneel to you now. Will you not tell me, somehow, that I may attain Light?” She knelt there, face upturned to the flame, and Mellin thought he saw tears gleam on her cheeks in the soft light. ‘Surely Light will answer her now!’ the Swordsman thought, for if he were moved by her pleas, how much more must Light be? Yet it seemed Marla still received no answer to her prayer, for after kneeling in silence for a few long moments more, she spread out her arms as if she made a final appeal, and when she spoke again, her voice was quiet with the coldness of despair. “Then give me this answer, Light of Li’is. I will serve you, or none! I will not serve Darkness, nor be the Bloodstone-wielder. If you will never accept me, if I can never attain Light – then let Light in mercy slay me now, that I may never be tainted with the Bloodstone and become a curse on this world!”
She slid to the floor, arms outstretched, spreading herself out on the cold stone floor as if she offered herself for sacrifice. The garland of flowers tumbled from her head and her hair spilled across the mosaic of the floor. Her body was taut with fear and longing, poised for the death blow that might come. Mellin could not bear to stay still and silent any longer. He was astounded by Marla’s desperate words, torn by his own guilt and shame and by compassion and concern for the bitterly unhappy girl, even half-fearful lest Light’s answer might indeed be death for Marla. He rose from his bench, went down to where she lay, and knelt beside her, putting a gentle hand on her shoulder. At the touch, her whole body jerked in shock, as though the thunderbolt she had begged for had struck her. Softly the Swordsman said “Do not be afraid, Marla. See, you have your answer. Light has not slain you.” Her eyes were closed, and she was still too full of emotion to realise who was speaking to her. She murmured “Is it so? Did Light hear me? Maybe I am not worthy that Light touch me, even to slay me.” “Marla” he begged her, “do not think of such things! Light is life, and Aiel has promised that there will be a way for you to attain Light, and we shall find it. Why else are we taking this journey? Your Way is the Way of the Secret Word, and it will not fail. Take comfort in that, Marla.” She allowed him, then, to lift her up and help her to her feet, but when the light fell on his face and she realised who he was, he felt her shrink away from him. “Oh, L-Lord Mellin!” she stammered. “I-I did not know it was you!”
He realised then, as he had not before that moment, how far he had distanced himself, so that with him alone of all of them, she felt constrained to use the formal, respectful ‘Lord’. He said “Just ‘Mellin’, Marla, if you will. And please, do not be afraid of me – though I know I have given you cause enough.” He looked at her sadly, and added, “Oh, I am ashamed and dishonoured! I have disbelieved you, and insulted you, and added to your burdens by my unkindness to you. I have been your enemy, when you needed a friend. But if you can forgive me, I will be your friend from now on, and give you all the help I can.” She gazed up at him in astonishment. “It is true!” she exclaimed.”I feel no hatred in you for me now. You do not want to hurt me any more.” Mellin flushed, ashamed that his former antagonism had been so simply exposed. “Oh Marla, truly, I am sorry! Will you forgive me?” “Yes.” she answered, unconditionally, and he continued “And you will not talk any more about dying?” She looked at him again, her face serious. “Mellin, do not think that I wish to die – of course not! But if I cannot attain Light, I would rather die than be forced into Darkness, defiled and made to wield the Bloodstone…” she stopped, her eyes brimming with tears, and Mellin flinched at the pain in her face. “Marla, how can you bear it? I think I would go mad!”
“That would be no escape.” she said “The only hope I have is Light – or death. Those are my only choices, Mellin. That is why I say that if I cannot have one, I must take the other. Do you think I shall attain Light, Mellin? Do you really think so?” Aiel has said so.” Mellin said, firmly, wishing to deflect her thoughts from what seemed to him to be a morbid direction. “And we will all help you. For myself, I will pledge my sword and my service to your Way.” “Will you? That is kind.” Marla said, smiling tremulously. “Will you make me another pledge , Mellin – on your honour as a Swordsman?” “What is it?” he asked. She looked straight into his eyes and said “If you are truly my friend…if I cannot attain Light , if I come to the choice between Darkness and death and have not the power any more to choose death – then you must promise to give me death, with your sword.” Mellin gave an exclamation of horror, but Marla said quickly “Oh Mellin, you are a Swordsman. You must know that if one is mortally wounded, there are worse things than a quick and clean and merciful death, at the hand of a friend.” And then she told him exactly why she asked such a dreadful thing of him. In a trembling voice she described to him, in all its horrible detail, what Si-Mara’s ceremonies would mean for her, and he realised why she would rather die than face that degradation, knowing that at the end of it not only would she be defiled and bound to the Darkness forever, but would be forced to enslave Li’is also. She, though, looking at his shocked, unhappy expression, misinterpreted it, and said, miserably, “Now you will hate me again!”
“Oh Marla, no, not you – but those who would do this to you!” he protested, catching hold of her hands to reassure her. He was silent, then, wondering if he could ever bear to do what she had asked of him. He imagined having to pierce her heart with his sword, the white gown stained red with her blood. But as she had said, it would be quick and clean and kind, not like the other things she had described to him. “Please, Mellin – for me, and for your world.” she begged again. At last he said, though heavily ” Marla, I will give you the pledge you ask of me, though everything in me shudders at the thought. And Light grant I never need to keep it!” “Then you truly are my friend.” she said, with a long sigh, as though she were very weary. His promise brought a strange kind of peace to her pale face, its false pink colour washed away by her tears, and she tried to smile. Mellin gazed at her. She seemed so small and young and vulnerable, yet so burdened and weary that she seemed to carry the weight of centuries. “How old are you?” he demanded, suddenly. Marla seemed to sense the reason for his odd question. “Do I seem so old to you, then? I was born on the day that your parents and Aila’s were married. I am little more than two years older than you, Mellin.” He thought of all she had endured in that short life, and wondered whether he could have done so, Swordsman or no. “Marla,” he exclaimed “I think you have more courage than any Swordsman!”
“Only because it is not for myself alone that I seek Light. I will not be the means of bringing all Li’is into slavery to Darkness.” “The Secret Word says” Mellin said, more musing aloud than directly speaking to Marla, “that you will lay your Dark powers at the feet of Light.” “Willingly!” she answered, vehemently. “I want nothing of Darkness, Mellin. All I want is Light. For now I am nothing, and belong nowhere. I will not serve the Darkness I was born to, yet I cannot serve the Light I long for.” “Dark and Light in one spirit, a soul divided” Mellin answered her. “That is what the Secret Word says of you also.”It speaks truly” Marla responded,”Oh, I am so afraid, Mellin. No, not of anything I might have to do to attain Light, or even of death. But the Darkness, the Night Lords – to be bound to them, to have them use my body as a dwelling and a tool for evil, to be a curse on this world and its people- that I fear.” Mellin felt a great sense of the misery and injustice of Marla’s position, and if he felt it so, surely Light felt it more? He said “Light is never cruel, Marla. Light works in reason and justice and mercy. There must – there will be a way for you to attain Light. Trust Light, and try not to be afraid.” He realised that Marla was shivering, with cold, fear, or emotion, perhaps all three. He put a warming arm around her shoulders, and took her hand in his free one. It was very cold, and he said, “Marla, I am no Healer, but I know it is not well with you. You are cold as stone, and you have been very unhappy. Come, come back to the Hall now. Have you eaten anything today?” “No – no, I was not hungry.”
“Come” he said again, drawing her gently towards the door, “There is no strength or warmth in you. I know enough of my mother’s craft to know that you should come back to the fire to warm yourself and eat something – perhaps drink a little wine- while I find Aila to tend you.” Just outside the Prayer Room, though, they met Aila herself, for having noticed Marla’s absence, she had come looking for her friend. She was surprised to find Mellin with Marla, but all her attention was on the other girl. “Marla, what is wrong? You have been weeping.” she asked, then said accusingly to Mellin “Mellin, have you been unkind to Marla again?” Mellin found himself so disconcerted by the guilt he still felt that he could not reply, but Marla said, quickly, “Oh, Aila, no. I was distressed, it is true, but it was no fault of Mellin’s. Indeed, he found me here, and has been so kind to me.” Mellin found his voice, and requested, “Aila, I wish you would look to Marla. Should she not warm herself, and eat? Or perhaps she needs a draught? She has been very upset, as she said, and she says she has not eaten all day, and she was trembling. It is not well with her.” Aila looked questioningly at her cousin, surprised by his new concern for and friendliness towards Marla, but she reached out and felt the other girl’s hand. “You are right, Mellin,” she said. ” come back to the Hall, Marla.”
Between them they led her back to the Great Hall and brought her some food and wine, and made her warm herself by the fire. Then Zohra came to help Aila tend Marla, and Mellin left her in their care and went to find Janir and Arenel. His heart was still heavy at his treatment of Marla, and the promise she had extracted from him. Janir was chatting to some of the Westerners who had accompanied the bridal party, but Arenel was alone, and Mellin joined him. The young Priest looked at his cousin in concern. “Mellin, what is troubling you? There is a heaviness about you.” Mellin said “I am ashamed, Arenel, that I did not believe Marla, and have been so cruel and discourteous to her.” Arenel asked gently “Have you made your peace with her?” “Yes.” “And with Light?” “Not yet.” “I will come with you to the Prayer Room, if you wish.” So Priest and Swordsman sought again the privacy of the Prayer Room, where Mellin recounted all that had happened there, including his promise to Marla. Then Arenel set his Perception on his cousin, and helped him make his peace with Light. Afterwards Mellin said “Arenel, please – do not tell the others, even Aiel, of the pledge I made to Marla.” then, “Cousin, do you think I was right to do it? Can it ever be right to kill another, unless it be inevitable in battle against Darkness? I did not seek the Will of Light before I made the promise!” “I do not think you will be asked to keep the pledge.” Arenel comforted him. “Did you not say that Marla asked Light for death, if she could not attain Light? And she was not smitten. Nevertheless, if it should be that you ever have to strike the blow she asked of you, it truly would be in battle against Darkness – that Darkness that would pollute and possess Marla, and seek to enslave Li’is through her. If that should happen, Marla – the real Marla – would die in any case. You would not be slaying her, but denying the Darkness the use of her body.”
When Priest and Swordsman returned to the Hall, they found that the guests were listening to Zohra’s music. Mellin cast a quick glance at Marla, and was relieved to see that she was listening as raptly as the others, with little sign of her earlier unhappiness. As Aiel had told Lin, Mellin was too honest to pretend to himself that his previous behaviour towards Marla had been justified, once he realised that his mistrust of her was groundless. Though he had made his peace with Light over the matter, he still felt a pang of shame. When the music was over, Aila came to her cousin and asked, forthrightly, “Now, Mellin, what is it that has happened between you and Marla? She will tell me only of your kindness to her, and I am curious to know why you should suddenly behave to her like this, when you have been so set against her till now? It is not a trick to try to trap her? Because if it is, I think it is very cruel!” When she saw the distress in Mellin’s look, though, she knew he had truly had a change of heart, before he spoke. “Oh Aila, do not remind me of my dreadful behaviour towards Marla! I am so ashamed- even though Arenel has helped me make my peace with Light.” Much more gently, she said “Mellin, dear, I am sorry if I chided you without cause. But you will own that it must seem strange to me.” “Oh yes” he said sadly “I know. Even today I did not trust her, Aila. I saw her leave the room earlier, and I followed her, thinking she had some Dark purpose….”
He told his cousin how he had followed Marla to the Prayer Room, of hearing her agonised prayers, and how the girl had prostrated herself before the Crucible, begging for Light, or for death. He actually had tears of shame and pity in his eyes as he said, “Aila, can you think how I felt, to know I had been so hard and cruel to her, when her need was so great? I had to go to her, and help and comfort her. I was dishonoured, but that was nothing to her need, which I had been so deliberately ignoring. And I have been unkind to you too, because of it. Aila, I am so sorry!” “Hush!” she exclaimed, squeezing his hand in token of her forgiveness. “Mellin, you have admitted your fault, and made your peace with Light. And I know you will help Marla all you can now. You have already helped her, by believing in her. She was so unhappy that you disliked her so, not just for her own sake, but because she felt she was causing a division among us.” “Then you think she has forgiven me?” “Of course, and so have I.” “I am glad of that!” he answered, “I do not like to be at odds with you, Aila.”
He slipped his arm round her waist in a brotherly hug, just as Janir came up to them. Mellin said “Janir….cousin, Sword-Brother, I owe you an apology too.” “Why?” Janir asked in surprise, and when Mellin explained, he laughed, and said “Oh, if you believe in Marla now, I forgive you anything, Sword-Brother!” They reached out to take each other by the Swordsmen’s hand-to-forearm handclasp, and Aila smiled with contentment, glad to see her cousin no longer distanced from his friends and kin. Behind them, the music began again for another dance, and Mellin, as if determined to do all he could to make amends, went to Marla and gently persuaded her into the ring of dancers. Aila and Janir shared an amused smile, and he drew her into the circle to join Mellin and Marla. Looking over Janir’s shoulder, Aila saw Lin looking at his son with such surprise that she had to stifle a giggle.