Krystha, realising that in all the ado with Marla none of them had eaten since breakfast time, and that Aiel and Arentha had left the City early and had a hard ride to the Fortress, went off to organise a meal for them . Aiel took Janir and Lin aside, to discuss the question of their journey to the Western Fortress. Mellin, who had contributed nothing to their earlier deliberations, stood a little apart, still seeming hostile to and suspicious of Marla, trying not to look at her. Aila had made Marla sit down in a chair, to rest her still tender feet, and was talking to her quietly and comfortingly. Arentha, watching, could not help but contrast the two girls; her own daughter’s dark hair, healthy colour, vivid blue eyes and lively air, and Marla’s paleness, silver-blonde hair, eerie green-and-silver eyes and almost apathetic languor. Krystha had exchanged the filmy, revealing black garments Si-Mara had forced Marla to wear, for an everyday gown, but it was in a pale green, a bad choice of colour, for it made Marla’s pallor seem even more pronounced. Arentha thought about the prospect of a new Way. She was not frightened at the thought, knowing how Light had protected them on the first Way, and had brought joy out of Darkness for them too. She knew Krystha was as happy with Lin as she herself was with her beloved Aiel. They had known that the Secret Word had not been completely fulfilled on that Way, and must be fulfilled in Aiel’s lifetime. They had sometimes wondered how. But still Marla and her need and this new Way had come as a surprise to them. Arentha’s life was settled, happy, placid. A new Way would be a great upheaval. But, she chided herself, she was being selfish. Like her daughter, she felt drawn to the unhappy Marla by bonds of compassion,, and had decided she would do all she could to help the girl.
The food had been brought, and Krystha rejoined them. It was a strange time for a meal, and Mellin’s glowering looks at Marla showed that he was not pleased to have the routine of his home upset by this pale stranger. Aila, feeling the need to compensate for her cousin’s rudeness, and also because of her sympathy towards Marla, spent most of the mealtime talking to her and trying to persuade her to eat, for Marla’s appetite- never large, she confided to Aila – had disappeared again under Mellin’s unfriendly gaze. Aila, seeing this, took Mellin to task for upsetting Marla, and received such an ungracious reply from her usually brotherly cousin that for a moment tears stung her eyes, though she blinked them angrily away. She saw Janir look at her with concern, and tried to smile at him, but her wounded feelings would not let her. Marla whispered to her “Oh, Aila, I am sorry! See, I have brought Darkness with me, among your family. “Perhaps – perhaps I should go from here!” “No, Marla!” Aila answered quickly. “If Mellin wishes to be foolish, let him! It is not your doing, but his own stubborness.” Janir leaned to say something to Mellin, who looked at his Sword-Brother with a startled air, then across at Aila. Some moments later, after a few more words from Janir, Mellin held out his hand to Aila across the table, saying, with some embarrassment, “I-I am sorry, Aila.” Aila smiled, and laid her hand in her cousin’s in token of forgiveness, and he gave it a little squeeze. As he withdrew his hand, Mellin said to Marla – though it was obvious that it cost him an effort – “Heed my cousin, maiden, and eat. You will need strength.” Aila smiled again, this time at Janir – Janir the peacemaker!- she thought, once again, so naturally, taking on the role of ‘older brother’ as he had when they used to play together as children.
The elder four, aware of the undercurrents at the table, had not interfered, leaving the young ones to sort out their differences, while they discussed the ways in which Marla might be disguised and protected on her journey to the Western Fortress. Arentha, like Aiel, noticed her sister’s slight abstraction, and also that Krystha, though she had said she was hungry, did not eat much. Was she too unsettled, Arentha wondered, by the idea of a new Way? She knew that when Krystha was under stress, she could have headaches which made it hard for her to eat. Were Marla’s arrival, and the events it had precipitated, causing Krystha to feel unwell? When Krystha, shortly after the meal had ended, excused herself, and disappeared in the direction of the Healing Place, Arentha was sure she was right. Aiel had called Marla to him to explain what had been decided so far about their journey, while Lin, Mellin and Janir conferred together about mounts, provisions and protection for the travellers. Aila and Arenel joined their mother, and she said quietly to Aila, “My dear, I wish you would go to the Healing Place and see if Aunt Krystha is there, and if it is well with her. She did not seem herself today, ,and ate very little. Perhaps she has one of her headaches.” Aila smiled at her mother, saying, “Surely, I will go.” and turned away towards the Healing Place.
As she went out into the courtyard, Aila felt the air chill on her face. Though winter was just past, and it was only a month to the Spring Festival, the air was still cold, especially in the Mountains. She could have walked through the corridors indoors, but it was quicker to cut across the courtyard and through the herb garden and side door into the Healing Place, when one was in a hurry. Coming thus unexpectedly into the Healing Place, Aila stopped short, finding her aunt bowed over a basin, retching. Krystha’s face was flushed, her eyes very bright. A fever? “Dear Aunt Krystha, what is it? What ails you?” Aila asked anxiously, one hand automatically reaching towards the racks of dried and powdered herbs on the Healer’s bench. “No, there is no cure for this, child.” Krystha told her. Aila stared at her. Surely Krystha was not smitten by some incurable sickness? “Aila” her aunt said “there will be no Way for me, not this time. You will have to be their Healer. Are you ready?” “Yes, I think so. But you..” Before she could finish, Krystha’s eyes suddenly welled with tears. “Aila, bring Lin to me!”
Leaving her weeping aunt, Aila fled, in a terror of apprehension, to find Lin. She reached the Great Hall where all the others were gathered, and burst in, startling them. Ignoring all proprieties, she ran to where Lin stood with his son and nephew, and tugged urgently at his sleeve. “Lin, oh Lin, come quickly! Aunt Krystha needs you! She begged me to fetch you, and she is sick and says there is no cure, and I must go on the Way in her place. And Lin, she is weeping so…” Aila’s words spilled out in an unhappy torrent. Lin had turned to look at her when she pulled at his sleeve, so only Aila saw the pain and fear in his eyes at her words. “Come, she may need you!” Lin told her, curtly, and was out of the door and striding towards the Healing Place before Aila had time to collect herself, so that she had to run to keep up with him. They reached the Healing Place and Aila followed Lin in, to find Krystha standing where Aila had left her, her face in her hands, still weeping. Lin took three quick strides to her side, caught hold of her hands, and asked in a voice that was hoarse with anxiety, “Krystha, my heart! What is it? What ails you? Aila said you were sorely ill, and needed me!” Krystha stared at his anxious face and glanced in startled enquiry at Aila. “Aunt Krystha, dear, what is it? You said there was no cure, that you could not go on the Way.” “Krystha, in the Name of Light, tell me!” pleaded her worried husband. “Oh!” Krystha exclaimed. “My dears, I am sorry. I have frightened you both, needlessly. I did not think clearly, I was so overwhelmed when I knew for sure.” She stopped, and raised one hand and laid it tenderly against Lin’s cheek. “Lin, dear love, I am not sick. I am bearing a child!” “Ohh!” Aila gasped, realisation and relief rising in her. Lin said nothing but “Krystha!” and gathered his Lady into a fervent, thankful embrace. Over his shoulder, Krystha smiled at Aila, and Aila returned the smile and slipped quietly out of the room, leaving her aunt and uncle to their joy.
For a while Lin did nothing but hold Krystha tightly, and when at last he raised his head to look at her, he had tears in his eyes. “Oh, my love!” he said, slowly, as though he weighed and savoured each word. Then, “Oh, I was so afraid, when Aila said you were sick and there was no cure. I thought I would lose you!” Krystha laughed gently, and teased him, “After all these years, have you not had enough of me?” “My Lady and my love, a hundred years of you would not be enough.” Krystha was touched. Their love was deep, and though they sometimes clashed, for her temper could still be fiery, and Lin’s will strong, he showed his love for her in many ways. But seldom in fine words, for that was not his way. Lin was frowning a little now. “Krystha, will it be safe for you? Tarmeya…” She cut in, quickly, to reassure him. “Tarmeya was some years older than I, her heart was weak, and she had had no proper care because she did not know she was bearing a child. By the time they realised she was birthing, and sent for me, it was too late. I thought” she continued “for a while, that her man would go mad with grief, or hate the child forever. But now the boy is his greatest comfort. Light is merciful, for at least I could save the babe.” “But are you glad, my love?” he asked. “With Mellin a man grown, it will be strange to have a babe again.” She smiled at him. “When the years passed, after Mellin was born, and no sign of another babe, I was a little sad. But I had one fine son, and I had you, my Lin. I was content. But now-” and her eyes sparkled at him, “I am glad, and excited – and just a little afraid…Sword-Brother.” He smiled back. She had not called him that for a long time.
In the Great Hall, Aila’s urgent plea to Lin, and their hurried exit, had left turmoil behind. Mellin turned to Arentha, his face so distressed that despite her own fears for her sister, she reached out to hug him reassuringly. “Oh Mellin, my dear!” she exclaimed “Surely Krystha would have told us, if..” she stopped, then, unwilling to put all their fears into words. “Aunt Arentha, what could ail her so that she sent for my father, unless it were serious?” Mellin asked, unconvinced. Aiel said “Mellin, trust Light. I do not feel it in me, that your mother is in danger.” Mellin, his fear for Krystha churning in him, found vent for his feelings in anger, directed at Marla. “Nothing ailed my mother until we brought this spawn of Darkness here!” he cried in accusation. Arenel, seeing Marla flinch, said quietly “Mellin, I understand your fear for Aunt Krystha, but you cannot blame Marla.” “Can I not? Who knows what dark powers she has, what witchcraft she may be weaving? We know who her parents were – the witch-whore and the Lord of Darkness! Is that not enough?” Janir’s voice cut across his cousin’s, sharply. “Mellin-Sword-Brother! Will you shame yourself by insulting the guest within your walls?” And then Marla herself spoke. Her voice trembled a little, but she addressed Mellin gently, firmly, but without anger. “Lord Mellin, if I am – what you say I am – then grant me that my knowledge of the works of Darkness must be greater than yours. If there were any deadly sickness in your mother, I would know it. There is none.” Her attempt to comfort him was not well received. Mellin flung round on her, demanding “How should you know if she is sick or no? Are you a Healer? You are born to harm, not heal, Child of Night!”
They were all so aghast at Mellin’s bitter anger towards the girl that Aila had re-entered the room unnoticed. She was about to leap to Marla’s defence when her father spoke. She had never heard such anger in Aiel’s voice; it split the air like a whiplash. All he said was “Mellin – enough!” but his tone was so commanding, as well as angry, that Mellin stared wide-eyed at his uncle and subsided into a white-faced miserable silence. Aila’s anger towards him, for speaking to Marla so harshly, gave way to pity for his misery. She said “Mellin, Marla is right. Aunt Krystha is not sick. I – her meaning was not clear.” Relief washed over Mellin’s face. He asked “Then what does ail her?” “That is not mine to tell. She will be here soon, and you may ask her yourself. And meanwhile” she looked at him as sternly as she could “you owe Marla an apology.” Mellin flushed, but, looking round, he knew by all their faces that he had erred seriously. He turned to Marla and said, very gruffly, “I – apologise, Marla. My cousin is right. I have insulted a guest under my father’s roof.” It was a very grudging and ungracious apology, but Marla smiled faintly and answered “Can I blame you,if you dislike and distrust me? I know I must prove myself to you. And you were afraid and distressed for Lady Krystha.” Aila saw that Marla’s graciousness towards Mellin made a favourable impression on her own family and Janir. Mellin’s only answer, though, was a Swordsman’s stiffly formal bow of acknowledgement. There was still a tension in the air, but it was much less than it had been.
The door swung open again to admit Lin and Krystha. Their joy was so great that the strained atmosphere did not touch them, and it melted away before their smiling faces. “Mother!” Mellin exclaimed.”You are not sick? Aila said – what is it that ails you? She would not say…” His tumbling, anxious words and the loving, protective hug he gave her moved them all as much as his anger had exasperated them earlier. Krystha smiled up at her tall son, then round at her family. “Why, no, I am not sick.” she told them. “It is – I am -” and stopped, surprised at her own confusion, blushing a little and looking up again, this time to Lin, for aid. “Krystha is bearing a child.” Lin explained, and his glance at his wife was tender and proud. Amid the exclamations and congratulations which this unexpected statement produced, Mellin looked dumbstruck . “A child?” he echoed, sounding so surprised that Krystha laughed, and reached up to ruffle his hair, teasing “I am not too old for that, my love, for all you are a man grown!” “A new babe? A youngling?” There was excitement in Mellin’s voice now. “I will teach him to ride, and hunt, and use a sword..” “And suppose he is a she?” broke in his amused father. Mellin looked, for a moment, as though the thought had never entered his head, then said, stoutly, “Then I shall teach her to ride!” Suddenly, in the midst of the ensuing laughter, Aila noticed Marla. The girl had withdrawn to the very edges of the group and stood in an angle of the stone wall, flattening herself into it, half-hidden in the shadows. It was as if this happy family occasion was more than she could bear.
Aila slipped across to her. “Marla?” “I feel that I do not belong here. I am a shadow on your joy.” “Marla, that is nonsense.” Aila said, firmly. “Is it? Aila, I do not mean to, but I bring Darkness with me. You saw how I divided your family. Lord Mellin -” “Mellin was a fool!” Aila cut in, with some force. “No, he was afraid for his mother. I could feel that. But I know too how much he despises me. I do not think he wants to, Aila, but my being born of Ma’al causes that response. I feel it everywhere I go. People see what I am, and hate me for it.” Aila saw the other girl’s eyes fill with tears, and cried, impulsively, “Marla, we do not hate you!” She put one arm comfortingly round her new friend’s shoulders, and Marla said, “No, you do not hate me, Aila, nor your family. But Lord Mellin is close to hating me – he wanted to hurt me, just now.” “I think it was only that he was fearful for Aunt Krystha and it made him angry – and you were in the way of his anger.” Aila offered. “I know it. I have said I do not blame him.” Marla answered. “But how do you know these things?” Aila queried. “I feel them” Marla explained. “I have a kind of – of Dark Perception, if you wish to call it that. It was born with me, but it is not a gift of Light! I do not do it deliberately, but I can tell what Darkness is in anyone, whether evil or sickness, sorrow, anger, pain, hatred – but not the good emotions. As though the Darkness in me sought out the Darkness in others – oh, Aila, you see! I am attuned only to Darkness!”
Neither of them had noticed Aiel come across to them, but now he broke into their conversation. “I do not think that is wholly true, Marla. You have told us how the deeds of Darkness hurt and shocked you, and you did not respond to Mellin like a Child of Night. Whatever Darkness is born in you, you have sworn to reject. We shall be able to attune you to Light, fully.” Marla smiled faintly at Aiel’s promise, and Aila left her father to encourage the other girl and went to speak to Mellin, hoping that now his fears for his mother were past, he might be more amenable. She saw that he was standing with Janir, and his other cousin was talking to him in a friendly but firm manner which suggested to Aila that he too was taking Mellin gently to task for his treatment of Marla. Mellin looked over and smiled at her as she came near. “Aila!” he exclaimed, and put one arm round her waist, hugging her to his side. “I am sorry I was so unkind to you, earlier. Do you forgive me?” He looked at her with a mock-sorrowful expression and the quizzical lift of his brow that he inherited from Lin, and Aila could not help but laugh. “Oh, Mellin! How can I scold you, dear! Yes, I forgive you.” For all he was older than her, there were times when she felt that her cousin was almost like a younger brother. Now she said, “But to be serious, Mellin, it is with Marla that you should make your peace.” “I have apologised” he said, defensively. “Mellin!” she protested, and before she could say more, Janir interjected “That was hardly an apology, Sword-Brother!” He looked at them both and sighed, suddenly serious, releasing his hold of Aila to make a wide gesture indicative of his own bewilderment. “I know. I am sorry, I know you are probably both right. But I cannot help it, truly. I do not trust her and – she scares me, somehow.” “There is no need to fear what you do not understand.” Janir said gently. “It is not that.” Mellin said. “I cannot explain it. But I will try not to treat the girl so harshly again. Perhaps it is best if you keep her away from me, Aila.” And with that she had to be content.
Now Aiel called Janir to him, and asked for more details of Shala’s wedding arrangements. The group settled into chairs around the table to begin their planning. Aila noticed that Lin drew his chair close to Krystha’s, holding her hand for a while. Aila kept beside Marla, and was glad that Arentha took the chair on the other girl’s side. Mellin kept his distance from Marla, as he had said, but gave her no more hostile looks or words. Janir stretched his long frame in his chair, smiled his warm, wide smile at them all, and began. “The wedding is to take place before the Westerners move up to the Plateau in a few weeks’ time , for the Night of the Warrior Children. They will take Shala back with them.” For a moment there was a strangeness in his voice, as if he contemplated the loss of his sister to her new bonds, and Aila gave him a sympathetic look. Janir went on “I was to ask that Aila come back with me – and Arenel too, if he wishes – so that her gown may be made, if she is willing to be bridemaiden, with Ket-Tal’s sister Zohra.” “And if Marla were to be another, would it cause any difficulties?” Aiel asked. “No” Janir replied confidently. “Shala will be glad to help her, and there is plenty of stuff for another gown – all the Westerners’ store of fabric is at Shala’s disposal for the wedding – and willing hands enough, too, to sew it..” He looked at Aiel, and said “And afterwards, if your journey takes you Westwards, you can be sure of the Ket’s help.” Then, diffidently, ” If you should need another Swordsman on your new Way, Aiel, I would be glad to be of service – to you, and to Marla.” Marla looked at him gratefully, and Aiel said “Thank you, Janir. I have not yet decided, but it may be that I shall be glad of your help.” He looked at his daughter, then, and said “Krystha is right, you must be our Healer, Aila. She cannot risk the dangers of the Way if she is pregnant. Arentha, I think you should stay here, with Krystha. Lin must not be distracted from the Way by fears for her, and I will be happier if you are both safe in the Fortress, with your parents. The Children of Night cannot reach you here.”
“But I shall go to Shala’s wedding!” Krystha declared. They laughed a little at her fierce determination, and Janir said, “Of course you shall, Aunt Krystha. We can surely give you and the others safe escort home. Or Mellin -” Before he could finish, Mellin’s head came up, and he almost glared at his Swordsman cousin. “If my father goes into danger, I go with him!” he said firmly, and earned a smile from his mother. “Arenel comes too.” Aiel decided. “I am sorry to take both our children from you, Arentha, but I may need his help, and his Perception. I think I have an idea for a diversion to throw off any spies of Si-Mara’s, which will need a second Priest..” Arentha said quietly “I must entrust them – and you, my heart – to Light and to the Lightstone. Are you not the Lightstone-Bearer?” Marla said softly “I can still hardly believe that you would do all this, and undertake such dangers, for my sake, Aiel – all of you.” “It is what Light wills for you, Marla” Aiel told her. “It is written in the Secret Word, as I told you.” “What is your plan, Aiel?” Lin asked. “We shall all go to Shala’s wedding, and we shall start as soon as possible. We will leave messages for Merhaun and Alira, and for Linnad and Janira. They will be leaving later for the wedding, and can bring us any fresh tidings of Si-Mara’s activities. Though she cannot leave the City…” “I did not know that!” Marla interrupted “Why is that? Does it mean she cannot pursue me?” Aiel explained “She is bound to the City by the power of the Lightstone. She cannot pursue you herself, Marla, but she can send others, perhaps Tamat..” Aila felt Marla shudder beside her at the name, and patted her friend’s hand to reassure her.
“If Si-Mara’s spies are out, and gathering news from other Children of Night, we must confuse them.” Aiel went on. “If the Ket agrees, I will ask that Arenel goes with them to the Plateau – perhaps one of the Swordsmen too, though he should be safe enough with the Westerners. The rest of us, with Marla, must skirt round by the Western Mountains – the Dark Ones will not expect that. Yes, I think I shall need you, Janir, for guide and counsel in the Western Mountains.” “Gladly, Aiel.” Janir responded, smiling at the Lightstone-Bearer. “If there should be any Children of Night near, it will be reported to Si-Mara that a Priest has gone up to the Plateau with the wedding party. She will think it is me.” Aiel said. “He can join us again later.” Aila,anxious for her brother, asked, “Then will Arenel not be in danger?” “Not with the Ket. And the Children of Night have no Bloodstone this time – yet.” Aiel looked across at Krystha, and asked “Is Marla fit enough to travel?” “Physically, yes , except that her feet are still a little sore. But if we are riding, that is not such a problem.” “Can you ride, Marla?” Aiel asked the girl, who said “I can, though I have not ridden often. Well enough for a short journey, I think.” “You will learn to ride better, at need.” the Lightstone-Bearer assured her. “I had scarcely ridden at all, when I set out on my Way, but I learned, because I had to.” “Still, Marla should retire early tonight, if she is to travel soon” Krystha continued, ” since she has had so much to endure, these last few days.” “Must I sleep alone?” Marla asked. “I am afraid of Si-Mara’s enchantments, Aiel. Oh, I know she cannot leave the City, but she has powers…” and the girl shivered. “You are under the Lightstone’s protection, Marla” Aiel told her. “No enchantment of Si-Mara’s can pass by that, unrecognised.”
“Let Marla share my chamber.” Aila suggested. “She will not be alone, and I will Perceive any Darkness that comes near her.” Mellin looked as though he were about to protest that she might be in danger from Marla, but Aila’s Perception sensed him make an effort and contain the comment. Aiel agreed, but on the condition that a guard be kept at the girls’ door in case of danger. The three Swordsmen, Lin, Mellin and Janir, feeling this to be a duty they should undertake themselves rather than leave it to the Watchwards, arranged the details of the guard among themselves. Arentha and Krystha were conferring about what they should take with them to the Western Fortress, for Arentha, though she had brought some clothing with her to the Fortress, had not expected to be invited to a wedding. Mellin, overhearing, suggested “There will be time enough to send back here for what you need.” but Aiel said, “No, Mellin, I would prefer that we send no messages back and forth, unless by the Thought-without-Words. The less clues Si-Mara has to where Marla is, the better.” “In any case, we can provide anything you may need at the Western Fortress, as I told you. ” Janir added. They had spent so long in discussions and planning, that it was almost time for the evening meal. While it was being prepared, Krystha told Aila and Arentha to bring Marla to the Healing Place. Once there, she said, “Now, child, let us see what we can do to make you look more like a daughter of Li’is.”
They watched, fascinated, as she pounded what looked like tree-bark with water to a smooth paste, though at one point she had to give the bowl to Aila to continue mixing, since the smell of it was making her nauseous again. Eventually, though, it was ready, and Krystha wet Marla’s silver-blonde hair thoroughly, then carefully applied a thick layer of the paste. “It needs time to work.” she told them, and reached for a phial of rosy liquid from the Healer’s bench, which she showed to Marla. “This is a cooling draught for babes and young children, very mild.” she said. “But it also stains red. See, if you mix a little in water…” she demonstrated on the back of her hand, leaving a pink stain there. “A little on your cheeks and lips – not too much, just enough to lift that paleness, Marla.” Deftly she dabbed on the liquid, and Marla’s face took on a much more natural appearance.”But it will wash off easily” Krystha warned “When you bathe, or if you weep – even in heavy rain, Marla. I will make up a phial and you must keep it with you, a cloth to apply it and a little mirror, too.” Now it was time to wash the paste from Marla’s hair, which Krystha did carefully, tipping the girl’s head back over the bowl so as not to wash off the pink colouring from her face. They watched, amazed, as the dark brown paste washed away to reveal Marla’s hair dyed a soft blonde. “That will last several weeks” Krystha told them “though it will wash away eventually.” They showed Marla her reflection, and she exclaimed with surprise. “It changes you, truly.” Aila told her. “From a distance, you may not be recognised. But close to, your eyes will give you away, and you must be careful.” “Aye” Marla commented, a little bitterly. “My eyes show what I am.” “And so do mine!” Aila comforted her. When they returned to the Hall to show the menfolk the changes Krystha had wrought in Marla’s appearance, they were all impressed, even Mellin making a brief but approving comment.
During their meal, Aila noticed how Janir set out to put Marla at ease, and at the same time to relieve Mellin of the task of entertaining a guest with whom he was so ill at ease. When Marla once more voiced her doubts about being an extra bride-maiden, he smiled at her, and said “No, it will look very well, Marla. Shala is blonde too, and Aila and Zohra both so dark. Two fair heads and two dark ones – a good balance.” Aila smiled, in her turn, at her cousin’s cousin. She had not forgotten this skill of Janir’s, which he had had even as a boy, of bridging differences, being a buffer, making peace. She remembered, suddenly and vividly, a thing she had long forgotten – how once she had quarrelled bitterly with Mellin over some trivial thing, both of them still children then, and how Janir, coming in on them in their angry silence, she in tears, her cousin flushed and sulky, had seated himself between them, speaking first to one, then to the other, then letting them speak to each other through him, until they were talking again, then laughing together at the absurdity of their quarrel, and embracing and forgiving each other.”And he is still the same” Aila marvelled, seeing how he gradually drew Mellin in, so that if Mellin were not speaking directly to Marla, at least he was addressing her through Janir, so that Marla did not think Mellin excluded her entirely. Later, when the meal was over, while the two Priests took Marla to the Prayer Room and the Swordsmen went to choose horses for the journey Westwards, Aila went with her mother and aunt to help decide what to pack for the journey and their stay at the Western Fortress. As they worked, she commented to them about Janir’s skill and tact, and they agreed. Krystha said, smiling fondly, “I love my son dearly, but he is so blunt – like to speak first and regret it afterwards. Oh, like me, I suppose!” and she laughed at herself, then added “But I do wish he were as steady as Janir, sometimes.” “Janir is older” Arentha reminded her. “Mellin may change, as he grows older.” “Maybe the babe will change him.” Aila suggested. “He seemed so pleased at the idea of a tiny brother or sister, for all that he is a grown man. And anxious to share in its rearing, too.” At her comment, of course, their conversation turned all towards the prospect of Krystha’s babe, and for a while, Marla and her problems were almost forgotten.
Aiel, with Arenel for helper, had taken Marla across to the Fortress’ Prayer Room. “Come” he told her, “You must begin to learn more of Light.” At the door, though, she hesitated. “What is it, child?” Aiel asked. “Are you afraid?” “There is no need to fear Light, if you truly seek Light’s mercy.” Arenel added. She gazed at them, and her face was wistful. “I am only afraid that I will sully this place with my presence.” she told them. Aiel smiled at her. “You will not.” he said firmly, and led her into the Prayer Room. “Have you ever been in such a place before?” he asked her. “No” she said “I was taken only the once – and they would not let me in.” She looked around her. “My old nurse told me, though – is that the Crucible?” and she pointed to the golden, flame-topped bowl. “Yes, it is a smaller copy of the Temple Crucible” Arenel answered. “But its meaning is the same.” Aiel went on. “It is a representation of Light – not to be worshipped, Marla, for it is not the reality of Light, but its purpose is to draw one’s thoughts to Light.” The Prayer Room was warm and serene, lit with lamps and the glow of the Crucible flame. Aiel indicated that she should sit down on one of the benches at the centre of the room, near the Crucible, and asked “How much do you know of Light, Marla?”She looked at him, and said “My old nurse tried to teach me things. Others I have heard…maybe I have not heard aright.” Arenel sat down beside her, and gently took her hand, since he could not use his Perception to help her. “Tell us what you have learned of Light, Marla.” he said. “Do not be fearful – if you have something wrong we are here to teach you the truth, not to chide you.” He glanced up at his father and their blue eyes met for a moment. He Perceived Aiel’s approval of his words, then Aiel said “What Arenel says is true, Marla.”
She gave them a grateful look, and began to speak quietly,. “Light is eternal, Maker and Measure of all things, Ruler of all worlds, Healer of all ills, Righter of all wrongs, Avenger. Light is everything. Light is full of love and mercy, so men say “Light is merciful”. Yet Light is also pure and just, hating and destroying all Darkness…” for a moment the girl’s voice faltered. Arenel said softly “Go on, Marla.” “Light made all things to be Light’s friends and companions, but some have fallen into bondage and Darkness through rebellion. Darkness fights always against Light, but the weakest of Light is stronger than the strongest of Darkness. And to any that are in Darkness but repent of it” – and suddenly Marla’s voice was strong with hope – “Light offers the Choice of Light, and forgiveness by the Sacrifice of Light, and welcome.” She sighed. “There was more, but I think I cannot remember it now.” “That is enough, for a beginning.” Aiel told her. “We shall teach you more as we go. But this is a Prayer Room. Now that you are starting your journey into Light, you must learn to pray to Light.” “I?” she asked, aghast. “I cannot presume so, Aiel! I am not yet a Child of Light.” “Light loves you, even so” Aiel said “and will hear you, if you are earnest in your desire to seek Light.” “Oh, I am – you know I am, Aiel! But – what should I say?” “Whatever you feel.” the Lightstone-Bearer told her. “Whatever is on your heart – the truth, Marla.” “How?” she asked, then, and for a moment Aiel was nonplussed, because it was so natural , so instinctive to him to commune with Light, it was as if someone asked him how to breathe. Arenel, though, answered her “As if you spoke to another person, Marla. Light is here with you. Speak to Light, as to a great and wise friend.”
She looked at him for a moment, then stood and walked to the Crucible. They heard her draw a deep breath, then, looking steadily into the Crucible flame, she began “Light of Li’is, Light of life…” another deep breath, and then, in a desperate rush of words, “Oh, I want to belong in this place – I long to be a Child of Light. Help me, help me! Burn out the Darkness in me, and take me for your own – this is my prayer. Let it be pleasing to Light!” There were tears in her eyes as she finished her first prayer, and Aiel said reassuringly, “Marla it is well. Surely your words were pleasing to Light.” “Do you really believe Light has heard me?” she asked, and when they both answered her confidently, she sighed with relief. Momentarily the tears overflowed her eyes, and she rubbed them away, and Krystha’s pink colouring with them, so that her cheeks were ghost-pale again. Aiel told her “We have a long journey ahead, Marla, and you need to gain strength. I think it is time you went to your rest.” The two Priests took the girl back to the Great Hall, but none of the others were there, so they enquired from a servant the whereabouts of Krystha, Arentha and Aila, and took Marla to them. Arentha looked up and smiled at her husband and son as they entered the storeroom with Marla. Aila glanced enquiringly at Arenel, and as their gaze met her brother’s Perception quickly flashed her the picture of all that had happened with Marla in the Prayer Room. Aila smiled, satisfied.
Aiel said “I think Marla should sleep now. And you three should not be too late about your work – especially our mother-to-be.” Krystha looked up, ready to be a little angry with him. “Aiel, dear friend, I shall not break into little pieces, just because I am bearing a child-” and then realised he was teasing her, and broke off, laughing. “Your chambers should be ready” she said “Let me just go and see.” They followed her back to the Hall, where Lin, Meliin and Janir were now seated. It had been decided that they would take turns to guard the maidens’ room, and Lin was to watch first. “In deference to my age, I think” he remarked wryly to Aiel “Those lads imagine I could not survive being woken to stand guard in the middle of the night!” Aila took the opportunity to express to Janir her thanks for his kindness to Marla and his efforts to make her feel at ease. “Much more than Mellin, whose guest she is!” she remarked, with some asperity. “Oh, Mellin has explained why he feels as he does” Janir defended his Sword-Brother “and he will relent eventually, Aila. You know he will. You should not quarrel with Mellin ” he went on, seriously, “when you know you love him, at heart. You were always so, even as children.” Aila laughed. It was true enough. She and Mellin loved each other like brother and sister, and while he might tease or argue with her, he would defend her to the death if need be. “Oh, Janir!” she exclaimed”And even as a child yourself, you were always the peacemaker between us.” And when Krystha came to announce that the room she was to share with Marla was ready, perhaps it was those childhood memories that made her include him in her family goodnights, giving him, as she had to Aiel and Arentha, Lin and Krystha, Arenel and Mellin, a quick, light kiss on the cheek. Afterwards, though, she saw him look so self-conscious, a little red, his fingers touching his cheek in astonishment, that she felt concerned. Perhaps his family was not so demonstrative, she thought. She must remember not to do it again, for she would not like to embarrass him.
When the girls retired, Aila brought with her a draught to help Marla sleep, in case she should need it. “But better not, if you are able” she said to the other girl “One may grow dependent on these things, unable to sleep naturally.” “I will try” Marla said “Aila, thank you for being so good to me. I knew, somehow, I could trust you, from the first time I saw you in the Harbour market. I could see you looked at me with concern then.” “I could Perceive that you were lonely and unhappy” Aila answered. “I wanted to help you then, Marla, but I did not know how.” Marla smiled at her. “It is good to have a friend.” she said “I never had a friend before, Aila.” “We are all your friends, Marla.” Aila told her. “We all want to help you achieve Light.” “Except Lord Mellin.” Marla replied, a little sadly, Aila thought. “Mellin will come round , in time” she said, echoing Janir’s words to her earlier. “once he realises beyond doubt that you truly seek Light. He is stubborn, Marla, but not wicked. And I think he is already a little ashamed of his attitude towards you.” Marla said, thoughtfully “Perhaps Light will show him that, since he is a Child of Light. Aila, how do you know when Light hears you?” “Light always hears, Marla.” Aila assured her. “Sometimes there may not be an answer , but if so it is because Light knows that what we have asked would not be for our best, and withholds it. Light has surely heard you, Marla, and you shall attain Light. Do not doubt it.” “Oh, I hope so!” Marla exclaimed, but she still sounded unsure. “Marla, dear, all will be well.” Aila promised her. “Now try to sleep, for if we are leaving for the Western Fortress soon, we have a long journey ahead of us.” Marla obediently snuggled into her bed, but when Aila reached to put out the lamp, the other girl begged her to leave it alight, saying “I cannot be in darkness – even with you here, Aila.” “Then we shall have light.” Aila said gently.”Now sleep, Marla.” But she could not rest herself until she heard the other girl’s breathing settle into the deep steady rhythm that showed she was asleep.