Chapter 4

Aila woke to the sound of a piercing scream that ripped through her sleep. She sat up in bed, startled. “Marla!” she cried. Was the girl under threat, or was it a nightmare? Marla was tossing on her bed, gasping , moaning, but her eyes were tight shut. Then there came a thunderous knocking on the door of their room. Aila tensed with fear, then relaxed as she heard Janir’s anxious voice. “Aila! Marla! What is wrong?” He must be taking his turn on watch, Aila thought, with relief. She scrambled out of bed, threw on a robe, and went to the door. “Janir” she called “One moment.” She unfastened the door and opened it. The Swordsman stood outside, drawn sword in hand, his face stern and concerned. “Aila, what is happening? Is there danger?” “It is Marla” she said, and even as she spoke, another scream came from behind her. “Wait, Janir.” She turned back into the room and cast out her Perception. Marla might be having a bad dream, but Aila sensed something more sinister, and she was right. She Perceived a cloud of Darkness in the room, felt, rather than saw, a pale, beautiful, evil face with burning silver eyes – the Silver Witch! For a moment she thought she would be trapped, and struggled wildly to free her Perception. With a little cry, she broke free, putting such effort into the escape that she half-fell against Janir as she physically pulled away from the enchantment. He caught her, staring at her tense face and frightened eyes. “Aila – what is happening?”

“Si-Mara!” she gasped. “She is setting an enchantment on Marla – but how could she reach so far? Where is my father?” Before Janir could reply, she had flung out her Perception again, reaching for her father’s mind, feeling his first sleepy response, then his quick, sharp reaction to her news. “I am coming, Aila. Whatever happens, do not try to wake her. You cannot match Si-Mara!” Aila tensed as Marla cried out again. Janir asked “Can we not help her, Aila?” “My father is coming. He said I should not try to help Marla till he came, for I am no match for the Silver Witch.” “You are not.” the Swordsman agreed. “You would be in great peril, Aila. Do not attempt it.” “I would not do what Aiel my father bade me not to do.” she promised him, but all the same she went back into the room and bent anxiously over Marla. Janir joined her, though he had sheathed his sword since there was no physical enemy to fight. “Why does she not wake?” Janir wondered, watching as anxiously as Aila the way Marla, even in her sleep, whimpered and spread out her arms as if to push away an unseen enemy. “The enchantment holds her…” Aila told him, then gave a thankful little cry as Aiel came into the room, a robe flung hastily round him and the Lightstone gleaming on his breast. He had Perceived, in the moment that Aila called to him for help, what was happening.

“Janir” he ordered quickly “Lock the door. And guard Aila.” As Janir turned the key, Aila gasped “How could Si-Mara’s enchantment reach so far? She has never troubled the Fortress before!” “We have something she wants badly” Aiel answered “and I do not think she is alone in this, Aila.” He leaned and laid the Lightstone to Marla’s brow, and she cried out, as though it burned her. A dark mist swirled up around her bed, the image of Si-Mara’s pale face and hard silver eyes in the midst. Aila saw the look almost of agony on her father’s face as he concentrated his Perception on the power that lay behind the apparition of Si-Mara. “Father!” she exclaimed, and took a step towards him, but Janir caught her wrist and pulled her behind him. “Aila, you cannot help him – you will only be a hindrance to him.” the Swordsman told her. He kept his shoulder between her and the room, and she begged “Let me see, Janir. I will stay with you, I promise, but let me see what is happening!” Reluctantly, Janir stepped aside a little, but there was not really so much to see. The Lightstone had poured a protective shield around Marla, and now she lay quiet in the midst of the light. Aiel, though, was clearly still battling with some dark thing. The dark swirls of mist – were they really there, or just an illusion, Aila wondered – coiled through the room like a snake. Suddenly, Aila knew that the evil intelligence behind the enchantment had become aware of her, and would try to attack Aiel through her. “Janir” she whispered ” It senses me, my Perception…” Even as she warned him, the dark mist uncoiled and leapt towards her, somehow becoming as it did so the long swirl of silver-blonde hair belonging to the phantom face of Si-Mara, floating evil and mocking before her, reaching out a disembodied hand,,,

Janir, though, stood firm, thrusting Aila roughly behind him, back against the wall of the room, making a shield of his body to protect her. He knew that his sword was useless against the enchantment, but he drew it anyway and held it menacingly against the phantom, while in a strong, commanding voice the Swordsman cried “In the Name of Light!” He must have sensed that that Name was far more of a weapon to him against the Darkness than his blade. The image of the Silver Witch recoiled, and Aiel swung round, the Lightstone blazing now on his breast, his voice loud and deep as a flood of words poured from him, strange awful words that rolled like thunder from his tongue, words that were neither the Old Tongue nor the common speech of Li’is, but a language Aila had never heard before. Though she could not understand what the Lightstone-Bearer said, she knew the words were some holy and terrible rebuke to the Darkness that threatened them, for the phantom of Si-Mara cowered, wavered, broke, and was gone. They all stood, dazed, for a moment. Then Aiel shook his head as if he threw off the last of the enchantment, and laid a hand on the Swordsman’s shoulder. “Janir – oh, brave heart, Light’s true Swordsman! That was well done!” He turned to embrace his daughter. “Aila- is it well with you?” “It is – though I was frightened, Father. Marla was not harmed?” “I think not – Light protected her. Let us wake her, and see.”

Despite her brave words, Aila found she was trembling a little as they stood by Marla’s bedside, and Janir, seeing this, took her hand in his to comfort her. She smiled at him for his brotherly care of her. Later, she thought, she would thank him too for protecting her from the Darkness, but now she was thinking only of Marla. Was the other girl really unharmed? Aiel called Marla gently, until she stirred and opened her eyes. “Oh, Aiel, there was such Darkness here!” she cried. “Have you driven it away? It was Si-Mara – but so powerful – she was trying to draw me back! Was it real? I think I might have died if you had not come – my spirit would have been torn apart!” “Marla, what do you mean?” Aila asked. “She means” Aiel said “that it was far more than Si-Mara that attacked her. It was a Lord of Darkness that joined with Si-Mara to threaten Marla – perhaps the very one that would use her body as its dwelling and tool .That is why the enchantment was so hard to overcome. And when the Dark One saw that I would defeat it, it tried to capture Aila, to have a hostage. Praise Light that you saw the danger, Janir, and knew that the Name of Light, not your sword, was the only weapon you could use against such a foe. ” “I did know that” Janir admitted, “but how I knew it , I do not know. It must have been Light that told me.” “I knew it was something more powerful than her.” Marla said, with a shudder. “It pulled and pulled at my spirit, Aiel, until I knew I would soon have no strength to resist. But then you came.” “But what were those words you spoke, Father?” Aila asked.”Was it Light that gave them to you?” “I do not know.” Aiel said. “Aila, I understand as little as you of what I said. I have only spoken that tongue once before, and that was to defeat Lak. Yes, Light gave me the words, but what language they are – of Ma’al, or the Dancers, or even the Joyous Place, I do not know. But they are powerful before Light.”

“It will not return?” Janir asked. “No. But Si-Mara and the Dark Ones know now where Marla is. That means we must leave tomorrow, and as early as possible. So you must try to sleep again, Aila, Marla. Do not be afraid. You will be safe now.” “And I will still be on watch.” Janir assured them. Still, Aila gave Marla the draught she had brought earlier, to make sure she would sleep. When her father and Janir had gone, she locked the door again, and chatted lightly, comfortingly, to Marla until the girl fell asleep again. Aila doubted whether she herself would sleep, but as she lay and listened to the soft pad of Janir’s boots as he patrolled the corridor outside, the rhythmic, reassuring sound lulled her to sleep. Aila was woken again by a gentle tapping at her chamber door, and Mellin’s voice softly calling her name. Marla was still sleeping, and a glance at the sky through the window told Aila it was not much past dawn. She slipped on her robe and went to the door. When she opened it, her cousin said “Aiel asked me to call you – he told me what happened in the night. Are you sure you are unharmed, Aila?” “Yes, thanks to Janir. Your Sword-Brother has a good head for an emergency, Mellin.” “Aye” Mellin agreed “He lacks neither coolness nor courage.” He smiled at her, then said, more soberly, “I did warn you, Aila, that it might not be wise to share Marla’s chamber. She carries Darkness with her.” “Mellin, if I had not been here, the enchantment might well have entrapped her. Si-Mara had the aid of a Lord of Darkness. It was well that I Perceived her, and called my father.” “And if you had not Perceived her, and she had taken control of Marla, what dark thing might have happened to you then?” her cousin asked. “Marla would never have submitted to Si-Mara – to Darkness. I am sure of that.” Aila told him.” I think she would have died first, struggling till her spirit was exhausted.”

She looked closely at Mellin, and asked “You do not think she brought this Darkness here deliberately?” “I cannot tell. I still do not trust her, Aila. She may not have any evil intent, but nevertheless be an unwitting tool of Si-Mara. The Silver Witch would be glad to take revenge on Aiel, and what better way for her than by harming you? Marla’s friendship for you may be part of some plan of Darkness.” “I think not.” she answered, then, not wishing to be at odds with Mellin again, asked, “But why did my father wish you to call me?” “He said we must make an earlier start than we intended, because the Dark Ones now know where Marla is. You will need to collect your Healer’s supplies and help with the preparations. He does not want to waken Marla, or my mother, yet.” “Will you keep watch on Marla, still?” “I will. Have no fear, Aila. I may not trust her, but if any Darkness should threaten her, I would not let it take her if I could prevent it.” “That sounds more like my Mellin!” she smiled at him, and went back into the room to dress. When she came out again, Healer’s sack and knife on her belt, he said “Aila….this matter of my mother – will it really be safe for her to bear a child?” He did not say “at her age” , but she understood his meaning. “Mellin, dear, do not worry about Aunt Krystha.” she told him. “She is strong, and fit and healthy – and she is not so old, for she was young when you were born. She is not of an age for child-bearing to be dangerous to her.” He looked relieved at her assurances, and said “It will be so strange to have a little brother or sister at my age, Aila. It will be more like having a babe of my own.” “Does it trouble you?” she asked. “Oh, no!” he exclaimed. “I am glad of it – provided no harm comes to my mother. I shall like it, to have a youngling to help to rear” – and he grinned suddenly, mischievously- ” without the responsibility of being its father.” “Good practice for when you have a Lady and babes of your own!” she laughed. “Now, do watch Marla carefully, Mellin. I must go, if we are to set out as early as my father wishes.”

As she made her way towards the Healing Place, Aila cast out her Perception, finding Aiel, who was in the Great Hall with Lin. He told her to meet them there when she had collected what she needed from the Healing Place. Making up her supplies from Krystha’s provisions, she found that there was one thing lacking. The supplies of a herb called springfollower, a useful aid to healing for injuries, were quite low. Normally this would not have mattered, for in a week or two the plant would be growing again in the Forest – for it was a wild herb – and she and Krystha would have gathered fresh supplies. Normally, too, the stock would not have been so low, but Krystha had used up much of it in salves for one of the kitchen servants who had managed to cut his arm quite severely. Aila did not want to leave Krystha’s supplies almost exhausted, not knowing what opportunity there might be to harvest more, and wondered if she might be able to obtain some of the herb at the Western Fortress. She decided to gather the rest of what she needed, then find Janir, and ask him. She flashed a quick explanation to her father’s Perception, telling him why she might be delayed, and asking after Janir. The Swordsman, though up and about, was not in the Hall, so Aila set out to find him. She could have sent out her Perception, but that might have been a Trespass. Instead, she trusted her commonsense and her knowledge of her Swordsmen relatives, and headed for the stables.

Her instinct had been right. She found Janir tending to his horse, a fine, Western-bred beast, whose colour was a similar rich chestnut to the Swordsman’s own hair. He looked up and smiled at her as she came near, and she admired the horse, and stroked its glossy neck, and remarked on the strange similarity of colour. Janir grinned hugely, and said “The Ket gave me the horse himself – his name is Redhawk. The Ket said we must be kindred spirits, and surely Light meant the horse for me, for he had never seen such a match of horse and rider. As soon as he saw the colt’s coat, the Lord of the West said, he knew it must be mine. And I am grateful, for he spoke truth. When I ride him, we move like one being.” He looked at her, and said, “But you did not come here to discuss my horse, Aila. How can I help you?” “Three things, Janir. First, I have not thanked you properly for your rescue of me, in the night.” “I think that was Light.” he answered quietly.”Light showed me what to do, and I thank Light for it.” “Second, I am sorry if I embarrassed you last night, when I bade you goodnight. It would have been strange to kiss all the others goodnight and leave you out, but I meant nothing by it, Janir.” “Oh, Aila, I was not embarrassed. Just -startled, that you should think of me so kindly.” “Then it is well.” she smiled. “And last, I am in need of a certain herb for our journeys…” She explained to Janir about the springfollower, and he said “Now, that is strange! If you had asked me anything else about our Healing Place, I would not have known, but this I do know. For last spring we had such a growth of this herb that it was like to be a pest in the farmlands – I think it was because the river had flooded during winter, and left the ground damp, and it is a plant that likes damp.” He looked enquiringly at Aila, who nodded, and he continued “The farmers were for burning it down, but our Healers said that would be a wicked waste. So my father asked them to cut down the herb and bring it to the Western Fortress, and he would pay them for it as for a crop, and afterwards they could grub up the roots. So everyone was content, and the Healing Place was full for weeks with drying springfollower. A good, clean smell – but one may tire of it in time!” he laughed. “So I know we have enough and to spare of this herb, Aila.”

She said, with wonder in her voice, “How great is the provision of Light, Janir! Did Light know I would have need of this herb, at just this time, and place it there for me?” He replied, musingly, “Light knows all things, Aila. If Marla’s Way is prophesied from the First Days, that is such a marvel that certainly we may expect lesser marvels too – as in the matter of this herb.” Aila exclaimed “I am forgetting that I promised my father to meet him in the Great Hall, as soon as I could. I think it would be well if you came too, Janir, if you have finished here. There is still much to do, and we must set off earlier than we planned.” Janir nodded. “I know. I am ready.” They joined Aiel and Lin in the Great Hall, and found Mellin there too. Aiel asked his daughter “You have all you need?” “Yes, save the springfollower, and Janir tells me there are ample supplies at the Western Fortress.” She glanced at Mellin, and asked, “Is Marla awake, then?” “Yes, she woke, and was a little frightened that you were not there. I did what I could, but I am still uncomfortable with her, and she knows it. But then Aunt Arentha came to find you, so I put Marla in her care, and she has taken her to bathe.” Aila smiled at her cousin’s honesty, and said “I am sure you will trust her in time, Mellin. And thank you for trying.” As they spoke, servants were hurrying in and out, preparing an early breakfast. Lin said, “Janir, did you ask the Horse-Master to prepare the horses, as I asked you?” “Yes, they will be ready, Lin.” his nephew answered.

Arenel entered the Hall, and Aiel turned to his son “Arenel, we must go to the Prayer Room. I cannot trust any message save the Thought-without-Words to tell your grandfather where we are going, and why. Come and help me make the link.” The two Priests left them, and Lin asked “Is it well with you, Aila? I have heard of your perils in the night.” “It is.” she answered “Janir defended me well.” “I heard of that too” Lin said, looking at Janir with approval. “Aiel said that it was well done, and it was, Janir.” Janir said quietly. “It was the mercy of Light, not my skill, Lin.” Now Arentha brought Marla into the Hall. Marla had applied the lip and cheek colouring which Krystha had given her, and the disguise was quite effective. Arentha greeted her daughter and the Swordsmen, and Marla did so too, but very diffidently when it came to Mellin. Her Dark Perception was obviously working, conveying to her his distrust, though he tried hard to hide it. She thanked Janir for his help in the night, then took Aila aside and said “Aila, Lady Krystha came to the Bathing Place. She said it was well with her, but I know that she was feeling quite uncomfortable. Can you help her?” “I will try” Aila said, then, “You see, Marla, even your ‘Dark Perception’ can be used for good, if it is surrendered to Light.”

Aila went, not to the Bathing Place, but to the Healing Place, guessing that her aunt would go there , after her bathe. She was right, and a glance at Krystha’s face showed that Marla’s diagnosis had been right too. Seeing Aila, Krystha made no effort to disguise how she felt. “I had forgotten” she gasped “how bad this sickness made me feel…” “Sit down.” Aila ordered her aunt. “I will be the Healer for now.” Quickly she mixed the draught that would gently alleviate Krystha’s nausea without risk to her unborn babe, and gave the wooden bowl to her aunt, who drank it gratefully. When she felt a little better, Krystha asked “You guessed I would be feeling ill, then?” “No” Aila admitted “I should have done, but after last night…no, it was Marla. She told me you had pretended to be well, but she knew you were not.” “Her ‘Dark Perception’?” Krystha asked, and when Aila agreed, said “That talent of Marla’s might be useful to a Healer, Aila.” “But at what cost to Marla?” Aila asked sombrely. Krystha said “What did you mean – ‘after last night’? Has something happened, Aila?” Aila explained, and added “My father said it was not Si-Mara alone. He said a Lord of Darkness was empowering her. He had a great battle! And then the Dark One turned on me, trying to attack my father through me. But Janir protected me, with his body and his sword, and cried out to the Dark thing in the Name of Light, and it retreated. Then Aiel my father spoke strange, terrible words, and it vanished.” Krystha nodded. “That is how it was with Lak.” she said.

“It means we must set out today, earlier than we had planned, because the Dark Ones know now where Marla is.” Aila explained. “Breakfast should be ready. Do you think you can eat? You know you should, if we are to travel.” “I think so, now.” Krystha said, then, softly, “Aila, try to speak to Lin. I know he will be concerned – perhaps afraid – for me. But I do not want him to cosset and fuss over me. Oh, I know it is because he loves me, but still, I do not want it. Will you try to tell him for me, somehow? I know he will not listen to me, not in this matter.” Eventually, they were all assembled in the Great Hall. The two Priests had sent their message to Arnath, who had promised to explain to Merhaun and Alira when they returned, and to convey the invitation to Shala’s wedding to them, and to Linnad and Janira, her grandparents. The Lords of Mountain and Harbour would be able to bring any news of the activities of the Children of Night when they came to the wedding. They ate their meal and prepared to leave, gathering their gear while the horses were brought. Lin came to Aila while Arentha and Krystha were busy with the baggage, and asked “Aila, is such a journey really safe for Krystha?” “Of course.” Aila answered. Here was her chance to act on Krystha’s request, and she added “Lin, the worst thing you can do is to fuss and worry over her. It will upset her, and cause her stress, which is the only thing that might be harmful to her.” She looked into her uncle’s grey eyes and said, with a smile, “Aunt Krystha is as fit as a woman years younger. And she is not really so old, for childbearing. Women bear babes all the time, and very, very few are harmed by it, you know.” “I know” he said quietly “But I love her so, Aila!” Touched, she reached out and squeezed his hand. “Then show it by letting go of her, and trusting her to Light.” she told him.

At last they were all mounted for their journey, the baggage dispersed among them, and ready to depart. Janir led the way on the handsome Redhawk, and Aila saw what he had meant about his relationship with the beast, for horse and rider seemed to flow into unity as they moved. Aiel’s family had their own mounts, brought with them from the City, Arentha and Aila on two gentle golden mares, Arenel a quiet grey, Aiel on a more spirited successor to the sturdy Greymouse given to him by Merhaun for the Lightstone Way. Lin had taken to the Fortress both his own Shadow, and Mischief, also the gift of Merhaun, and now rode a grandson of both, named Seamist. Mellin’s black, Starstorm, so called because he had been born on a night of shooting stars, was as quick, brave, and sometimes stubborn, as his owner. Krystha’s pretty white mare had a delicate appearance that belied her speed, when necessary. Lin had been tempted to protest that his pregnant wife should ride something slower and quieter than Snowblossom, but had heeded Aila’s advice and held his tongue, comforting himself with the thought that the horse was very obedient, and that Krystha would not take unnecessary risks. Aila felt a quick flutter of nervous excitement as they set out, knowing that this was the first step of a new Way. She glanced at her father, wondering if he were really as calm as he looked, then at Marla. Lin had given the girl a quiet little mount, light bay in colour, assuring Marla that the horse was not easily ruffled. Marla seemed quite comfortable, but her eyes had that wide look that Aila was learning to associate with some inner unease in her friend. Marla’s natural pallor, and the colouring with which it was disguised, made it impossible to guess at her feelings otherwise, unless Aila sensed them, for she would never blush or go pale. Janir, their guide to the Western Fortress, rode first, followed by Aiel and Arenel, Aiel bearing the Lightstone openly, gleaming on his breast, lest they should encounter any Darkness on their journey. Aila and Marla, Arentha and Krystha, came next, and Lin and Mellin rode rearguard on their party.

The beginning of the journey was full of memory for the four original Way-Sharers, as they wound through the Forest, waking now from its winter sleep, and up to the narrow Spearcleft Pass, the only way through the Mountains. Aiel, remembering his encounter here with Si-Mara, looked back at her daughter, who had been touched in that moment by the Lightstone’s power, a child newly-conceived, as yet unformed, yet gifted by Light with such a precious hope. He half-turned in the saddle, and called “Marla!” “What is it, Aiel?” “It was here, at the mouth of the Pass, that Si-Mara tried to stop us, on the first Way. This is where I searched her with the Lightstone. This is where you received your seed of Light, Marla!” Her strange eyes glowing, the girl exclaimed “Then this will always be a holy place for me, Aiel!” Once through the Pass, they stopped for a quick meal, then resumed their journey, aiming now not directly down to the Great Moor, but across the North-facing foothills of the Mountains towards the Moor’s Western edge. There was a village there where they could find lodging for the night, Janir told them. It was too early, too cold, yet for them to comfortably spend the night out of doors, as they had on the first Way. It was growing dark by the time they left the Mountains behind, and night had fallen before they reached the village Janir was seeking. For a village, it was large, and there was a comfortable, hospitable inn, where Janir was evidently well known. If the innkeeper were at all put out by the arrival of such a large group, he did not show it, nor did his equally pleasant wife, who quickly produced a plain but delicious meal which they all sorely needed, having had only one light meal since their very early breakfast. Even Marla seemed genuinely hungry, after the day’s fresh air and exercise. Neither Aiel nor his children had any sense of Darkness near, and thus reassured, they went to a peaceful rest in the clean, comfortable beds provided for them.

Next morning they set off again. Around the village there had been grazing land for animals, green but rough. As they rode Westward the grasslands became softer and lusher, and they began to see the rise of the Western Mountains, which divided the Western Farmlands from the Plateau of the Ket and his Westerners. The mountains. still topped with snow, were smoother and more rounded than their own Mountains, certainly a contrast to the bitter, sharp-toothed Seacoast Mountains of the Eastern coast. Aila thought that everything seemed softer and smoother as they rode further West; the land, the mountains, even the air. They crossed a wooden bridge over a loop of a wide, lazily meandering river. This was the Snake River, so called because of its many twists and loops, its sources a number of streams that flowed gently out of the Western Mountains. It lacked the hurtling energy of the White River which flowed out of the crashing Falls of Vandar near the Fortress, but if the winter rains were heavy, Janir explained, the Snake River could flood quickly over the low-lying land, as it had the year before, bringing the glut of springfollower he had mentioned to Aila. Usually, though any flooding quickly dispersed, and only left the land richer, after it receded. Certainly they were now riding among fields of rich soil – so rich they could smell it – already showing tiny green shoots as the seed sprouted. Aila glanced at Marla, wondering what she made of it all. If these Western lands were strange to Aila, they must be stranger still to Marla, raised in the Eastern continent. Though Aila had never been to the East, she knew it was very different from her own land. A great chain of mountains split the whole continent in half, and the contrast between the two halves, one colder and wetter, the other hotter and drier, was much greater than the subtle changes between East and West, North and South, in the Western continent. Aila did not wish, though, to ask Marla about the East, fearing to waken dreadful memories for her friend.

Janir pointed. “There is the Western Fortress” he said, with a tinge of pride in his voice. They looked. It was still some distance away, but clearly to be seen, commanding a rise on a loop of the Snake River, overlooking a plain on which three small towns, compact and sleepy, sheltered under its protection.The Western Mountains were nearer and clearer now, and Aila thought she could see something moving up on the slopes – perhaps a hunting party. She turned her attention to the Western Fortress, as they drew nearer. It was quite different from the Mountain Fortress, which was built partly inside the Mountains, taking advantage of a great natural cavern and shelf, which in Brann and Tamorine’s day had housed only the Great Hall to which the Lord of the Mountains and his people retreated in times of danger. Over time, though, the Fortress had grown into a mountaintop garrison containing its own small town within stout walls built of the grey, hard mountain rock. The Western Fortress had no such natural defences, built on the only high ground in this flat, fertile flood-plain. The rock of which it was built was red, carved from the Western Mountains. Its walls were very high, with walkways and battlements for the Watchwards, like the Mountain Fortress, but also high towers which were unnecessary in the Mountains. From a distance, perched on its hill, the Western Fortress had looked to Aila like a toy, but as they came nearer she realised how big it was.

The Watchwards at the Fortress Gate – one a Westerner, the gold bracelet on his wrist, golden skin, dark eyes and hair marking him out – shouted welcome and greetings to Janir as he led his party in, and Aila was relieved to see that no curious glance was directed at Marla. So far, her disguise held. They dismounted, Janir shouting orders to the stable lads who came to take their horses, then he led them into the Hall. Their arrival must have been noted by the Watchwards on the walls and the news conveyed to their Lord, for Barengian, Lord of the Western Fortress, and his Lady, Mira, Lin’s sister, were there to welcome them. There was a whirl of greetings and embraces, from which Marla stood shyly aside until Mira, who had been hugging her brother fondly, noticed her and exclaimed “Oh, who is this?” She smiled at Mellin and Arenel, and asked “A sweetheart of one of you cousins?” Aila could have laughed at the notion of Marla being Mellin’s sweetheart, when he was so suspicious and unfriendly towards her, if she had not been unhappy with the situation for Marla’s sake. Mellin answered, indignantly, “Aunt Mira, I have no sweetheart!” but Arenel explained, in his gentle way, “It is a maiden who needs our help, and we have brought her here hoping you will help too. Let Aiel my father explain.” “Somewhere less public than here!” Aiel said. “And we shall need the agreement of Shala and her betrothed.” “As you wish, Lightstone-Bearer.” Barengian said, “But Ket-Tal is on Watch, that was him you passed at the Gate.” “Here is Shala.” Mira said, as Janir, who had gone out into the courtyard again to oversee the collection of their baggage, came back into the Hall hand-in-hand with his sister, a sweet-faced girl, slim, blonde, barely reaching to her tall brother’s shoulder.

When Shala had greeted them all, hugging Aila with particular affection, and saying how glad she was that Aila could be bride-maiden, Barengian took them into the large room off the main Hall where he saw to the day-to-day business of the Western Fortress, the problems of farmers and townspeople, and other such matters. “Now” he said, but with a smile, “What is this mystery you have brought among us, Aiel? And what bearing can Shala’s wedding have on the matter?” Aila felt Marla, always conscious of the possibility of rejection because of her parentage, move closer to her, as though for comfort, as Aiel began to tell her story. Barengian’s face grew stern and solemn as he listened, and Mira wept. Shala, who was as good-natured and sympathetic as her brother Janir, though shyer, slipped across to stand with Aila and Marla. She did not speak, so as not to interrupt Aiel, but reached out and gave Marla’s hand a brief squeeze, to show her sympathy, causing Marla to give her a swift, startled smile for her kindness.

Aiel finished telling of Marla’s Way, and Barengian glanced round at his family, then said, firmly. “I am sure we are all agreed, Aiel, that we must do all we can to help Marla. But why need she risk appearing as a bride-maiden – why not hide her among the guests?” “Because if there should be any here who might betray her to Si-Mara, that is where they would look for her, never expecting her to appear before all eyes as a bride-maiden. Krystha’s dyes disguise her well enough for her not to be recognised from that distance. They will be looking – if there is anyone to look – for a pale-skinned, silver-blonde girl.” Marla said , with a slight tremor in her voice. “Aiel – you…you have not asked the bride yet if she wishes her bridal day to be – touched- by my presence.” Shala answered for herself. Putting one arm round Marla’s shoulders, she smiled, her grey eyes meeting, unperturbed, the green-and-silver ones. “Marla, do not speak so!” she protested. “You are fighting the Darkness, not aiding it. Of course I will help you – and Ket-Tal will feel as I do. See, Aunt Krystha has made your hair the same colour as mine, and it will look as though we are kin, you and I. What more natural than to have a kinswoman as bride-maiden?” “You are so kind!” Marla exclaimed. “No, you are brave!” Shala answered. “Besides, do you not do good to us all, Marla, rejecting the Darkness and the Bloodstone that would do us harm?” “Indeed!” Barengian commented. “Have no fear, Marla. You are among friends here.”

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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