Chapters 1 and 2

Chapter 1

The Harbour Market was very busy. It was not long after the first of the Spring Two-Moon Tides, and the cargo and passenger ships which had been delayed by that natural phenomenon had now reached the City Harbour and unloaded their goods and passengers. Traders and merchants were restocked, trade was brisk, and the market was milling with crowds . Three young people were moving among the merchants’ booths and produce stalls, chatting, laughing, and occasionally arguing good naturedly as they made their purchases. There were two young men, a dark-haired Priest and a red-headed Swordsman, and a girl. The maiden drew many glances, not because she was beautiful, though she was, but because she was that rarity, a daughter of the Priesthood born with Perception, and the clear, piercingly vivid blue eyes that showed it. Facial resemblance and the same dark hair, apart from the Priestly eyes, showed that she and the Priest were brother and sister. The Swordsman, though not resembling either of them, was their cousin, their mothers being sisters. He was Mellin, son of Lin and Krystha of the Fortress, and grandson to the Lords of the Mountains and the Harbour. The brother and sister , Arenel and Aila, were the children of Aiel, the Lightstone-Bearer and son of Arnath, the High Priest, and his Lady, Arentha.

Mellin, who had been in the City visiting his family, had a list of commissions from Krystha, and now they were making their way towards the place where they could buy the next items on the list. It was near to the Harbour Gates, and by those gates a man in black and silver livery was waiting with two other men in similar garb carrying a black-curtained litter. As they watched, a slight, black-cloaked figure, escorted by a bulky woman, emerged from the Harbour Gates and, seemingly weak from the voyage, was helped into the litter. It swung its way past the three watchers, and Aila saw, for a moment, a pale face and a pair of the strangest eyes – green streaked with silver grey -looking out at her. She felt, too, the atmosphere that surrounded the litter – it belonged to Si-Mara, the Silver Witch, Priestess of the Night Temple and consort of her father’s old enemy, Lak, the Black Piper of Ma’al. It was not evil that she felt emanating from the litter, though, but loneliness and despair. Turning to her brother, Aila demanded, “Arenel, did you Perceive that?” “I Perceived a great unhappiness.” her brother answered. “Aila, do you think that was a willing passenger?” “What is it?” Mellin asked, his open face and clear grey eyes, so like Lin’s, now clouded with incomprehension of his cousins’ conversation. When Aila and Arenel explained, he said, “Let us ask the Watchwards.”

At the Harbour Gates stood two Swordsmen in the green-and-gold livery of the Harbour Watch, both well known to Mellin. He went across and spoke to them, while his cousins waited, and returned to them, shaking his head. “They know very little” he informed Aila and Arenel. “The passenger is a Lady, a maiden from the East. She travelled with a companion, but suffered sea-sickness, and kept to her cabin. But if she were a prisoner, there would have been several opportunities for her to say so, and she has not.” “And yet” Arenel said “I would not say that she went willingly to Si-Mara.” “I do not think she was afraid,” Aila answered “just lonely, and sad. But I do not think that she was evil either. She did not feel like a Child of Night.” Mellin sighed, “I wish I had Perception! I might understand better what you meant. If I thought the maiden had been taken against her will, I might ask Linnad my grandfather to rouse the Harbour Watch. But there is no proof.” So they had perforce to abandon the matter, and go on with their business in the market. However, their light-hearted mood was broken, and the strange incident lingered in their minds.

Later, Aila and Arenel, having said their farewells to Mellin and left him at his grandfather’s house by the Harbour, made their way back towards their own home along the wide avenue that led up to the Temple of the One Light which crowned the City Hill. There they lived with their parents in one of the Priests’ houses which stood in the Temple grounds. As they went, they discussed the afternoon’s events, Si-Mara’s black litter and the strange girl from the East, but came no nearer to resolving the matter. When they reached home, they were later than they had intended to be. They could hear their mother’s beautiful voice singing as she went about her household tasks, and called out to her as they came in. Arentha was still as lovely as she had been those many years before when Aiel had met and fallen in love with her on the Lightstone Way. Perhaps there were little lines drawn by laughter, and a few tears, at the corners of her eyes and mouth, and her figure was a little more rounded from child-bearing, but her face was as beautiful, her brown eyes as lustrous, her dark hair still untouched by grey. She and her daughter, so like her, might have passed for sisters. “Arenel, my love!” she exclaimed, pressing her son’s harp-case into his hands “You will be late for the music practice. You must have been enjoying yourselves with Mellin! Aila, Kerith’s little one has a slight fever. I said you would go to him when you returned.” Arenel kissed his mother quickly, took his harp and went out again, heading for the Temple to join the musicians at practice. His father, Aiel, would already be there. Aila, gathering up her Healer’s sack, told her mother, while she prepared the herbs she would need, about the litter and the strange maiden. “Nothing that Si-Mara does means good to anyone.” Arenth said, thoughtfully. “Perhaps you should tell your father, Aila. He may be able to Perceive more, with the Lightstone.” “I will” Aila said, putting the phials of powdered herbs into her sack. “But first I must see what ails the babe.”

As it happened, though, Aiel was called away that evening to attend to some urgent matters on behalf of his father Arnath, the High Priest, and during the next day neither his son nor his daughter had a chance to speak to him about the girl, being occupied, one with his Priest’s, and the other with her Healer’s duties. It was not until the evening that they had time to speak to Aiel, and by that time he had had an encounter of his own with the strange Easterner. He had been leaving the Temple after the evening gathering. It was dusk, and a soft dimness was closing in on the Temple grounds. Turning towards his home, Aiel had seen a slim figure in a hooded black cloak approaching him, and had stopped to wait. The figure did not come very close, but stood looking at him. In the shadow of the hood, he had seen a pale, obviously feminine face – and those strange eyes, green with silver streaks radiating from the pupils. In a way they reminded Aiel of the eyes of Lak, the Black Piper, but there was no evil, no menace, in these eyes. Rather, he Perceived a wave of distress – a mixture of fear, loneliness and sorrow – emanating from the girl. Gently, Aiel asked “What is it, maiden? Do you seek my help?” For a moment the girl seemed about to speak, even lifting one hand as though to reach out to him. Yet then she stopped, and shook her head, and backed away a couple of steps before turning and moving hurriedly away. Aiel, greatly puzzled, went on his way home.

When the family gathered round the table for their evening meal, and Aiel had spoken the Meal-Blessing, Aila began to tell her father about the girl from the Harbour. She and Arenel told of their impressions, and when Aila described the girl, with her unusual green-and-silver eyes, Aiel exclaimed “Why, I have seen her – tonight! And just as you did, I Perceived loneliness, sorrow – and fear, too. Yet though she was alone and could have asked my help, she did not, though I offered it.” “How strange it is!” Arentha commented. “Perhaps” said Aila “she is Si-Mara’s prisoner, and held by the Silver Witch’s powers, though free to leave her house. Maybe that is why she was afraid, or even unable, to speak to you, Father.” “Even so, Si-Mara would not permit her to come to the Temple, where her enemy, the Lightstone-Bearer, is.” Arenel argued. The more they discussed the whole matter, the stranger it seemed. Even with the Lightstone aiding them, joining their Perceptions in the Thought-without-Words, they could not find out more than they already knew. At last Aiel said “Then we can only commit the poor maiden to Light, and pray that she will seek our help, if there is need.” So this they did.

The next day, Mellin came for his cousins, who were to return to the Fortress with him. Evidently his thoughts too had been on the strange girl, for as they rode he asked if they had heard any more of her. Arenel and Aila told him of Aiel’s encounter with her at the Temple, and of their inconclusive discussions. Mellin said “Then perhaps she is a spy of Si-Mara’s. Maybe even out of Ma’al – you said she was pale, as the people of that world are. “Oh, Mellin!” Aila laughed “She had been sea-sick. And Arenel and I Perceived no evil, no Darkness in her, only loneliness and sadness. My father said the same, but he felt fear in her too. The Lightstone would surely have revealed it to him, if the girl were a Child of Night.” “I would trust nothing that came out of the Silver Witch’s house!” Mellin said, firmly. “You are too trusting, Aila.” Arenel said, mildly, “Do not be too quick to judge, Mellin. In any case, it is unlikely that we shall see the girl again.”

Once they reached the Fortress, they forgot about the strange girl. There were greetings and messages to be given to Lin and Krystha from Aiel and Arentha, and work to do. Aila, already a competent Healer under Krystha’s instruction, had returned to her aunt to learn some of the lesser used, but still important, Healing skills. Arenel, though not officially sent to do so, knew he would spend part of his visit assisting Trenn, the Fortress’ own Priest, giving him the chance of a rare break from his duties. There would be time for leisure, too. Both brother and sister liked to walk in the Forest surrounding the Fortress, by the Falls of Vandar and the White River. Not only was the Forest a pleasant place, but it was also dear to them because of their memories of happy times spent there in childhood. They had often played there with Mellin and the other Fortress children, and sometimes Mellin’s other cousins, Janir and Shala. Their father, Barengian, Lord of the Western Fortress, was married to Lin’s sister, Mira, who would sometimes make the journey to visit her parents in the City, and Lin and Krystha at the Fortress, bringing her children with her.

On the third evening of their stay in the Fortress, Aila was up on the wall looking down over the Forest and thinking of those childhood days. From her vantage point she could see Mellin and Arenel, who were standing near the edge of the Fortress Level by the great Falls of Vandar. Swinging her gaze in the other direction, towards the Forest edges, Aila caught a slight movement, and instinctively sent out her Perception. Immediately she knew who was there; once more she felt the mingled sorrow, loneliness and fear of the strange girl from the East. There was worse than fear in her now, though, for terror and exhaustion echoed in her mind. Then Aila saw the black-cloaked figure at the very edge of the trees, tiny against the vast backdrop of Forest and Mountains. As if she felt Aila’s Perception, the girl lifted her pale face, just a blur at that distance, lifted both arms as if in silent appeal, then stepped back into the trees. Aila’s Perception scanned the thick Forest; she still Perceived that haunting presence there. Silently she reached out to Arenel, down by the Falls with Mellin. After a moment her brother’s thought answered hers; he too had reached out and Perceived the stranger. Aware that it would soon be dark, for she had been watching a magnificent sunset burning overhead, Aila hurried down from the parapet, waited impatiently while the Watchward opened the small side gate for her, and ran across the soft turf of the Fortress Level to join her brother and cousin at the head of the Falls.

In her father’s day Tamran’s Stairway, the path down from the Fortress carved into the rock beside the Falls, had been extremely steep and difficult. Now that there was more traffic between the City and the Fortress, the way had been made easier with more steps carved into the rock, though it was still the hard way to reach the Fortress, and most travellers, certainly those on horseback, would use the track that wound up the flank of the mountain. Tamran’s Stairway, though broader now, was still not so broad that one man might not defend it if need be, and Mellin. hand on sword-hilt, looked ready to do so. He demanded, as Aila came up to them, “Where is this girl, then?” Arenel had told Mellin, while they waited for Aila, what he and his sister had Perceived, and now their cousin waited while they combined their Perceptions to pinpoint the girl’s position and agreed that she was below them on their left. Carefully descending the Stairway, they discussed what they felt. “There is a Darkness about her.” said Arenel. “But not in her.” Aila said, firmly, and her brother agreed. “It is like nothing I have ever Perceived.” the young Priest said. “It is … as if she had a double nature, and partook of both Darkness and Light!” Mellin snorted “That is impossible! Light has no dealings with Darkness. She must be a Child of Night. Are there others with her?” A moment’s silence, then “She is alone” brother and sister said, almost in unison. Neither Aila nor Arenel could understand what they Perceived of the girl. Fear and hope, a reaching forward and a drawing back, and, yes, both a sense of Darkness and a touch of Light. It was like twin souls, Light and Dark, in a single body.

They found her huddled in the shelter of a large bush, crouched close to the earth like a hunted animal. When she heard them, she started to her feet, and Mellin challenged her “Why are you hiding? What do you want here, on Fortress Ground?” Arenel asked, more gently, “Do you need our help? We will give it if we can. Do not be afraid.” Aila , as gently, offered “Tell us your need, and we will aid you, maiden. We will not harm you. You can see we serve Light.” Mellin, still challengingly, said, “What should she know of Light? I tell you she is a Child of Night!”

The girl had kept silent till now. When she finally spoke, there was a hopelessness in her soft, Eastern-accented voice. “Yes, I am – a Child of Night. Yet I had hoped to seek the aid of Light. But if I am unwelcome here…” “No!” Aila cried, impulsively, “You are not unwelcome. We can give you the Choice of Light, and Light will welcome you.” Then she felt, unmistakably, a wave of sorrow from the girl. “Aila – oh yes, I know you, daughter of Aiel – if only it were that easy for me! But it is your father’s help I need, and I do not know that he will give me aid as readily as you. Yet” she added, half to herself, “it is by the Lightstone-Bearer’s hand that I am – what I am, and I think only he can help me.” Mellin stepped forward, saying impatiently “You speak in riddles, maiden – if maiden you are! And you lie! Aiel has never sent any into Darkness.” “Mellin!” Aila exclaimed, indignant at her cousin’s harshness towards the girl. Arenel said, in his gentle way, “Peace, Mellin! Maiden, you are tired and frightened, and maybe you find it hard to tell your tale. If you wish, I will set my Perception on you…” “No!” the girl broke in sharply. Arenel could perceive her fear, but to his amazement, he knew it was for him she feared, and not herself. “Son of Aiel” she continued “do not try your Perception on me, for it would harm you. There is that in me that might destroy any save the Lightstone-Bearer.”

Lifting one arm, she drew back her hood. Aila cried out, and the two young men stared. In the fading light, the girl stood out like a white stone carving, pale as a dead thing. Her face was beautiful, but so very cold, with scarcely a breath of colour except for those green-and-silver eyes. Her lips were barely touched with the palest rose imaginable, her cheeks colourless. Her shining fall of long straight hair was silver-blonde, pouring like milk over her slim, black-clad shoulders. Mellin said, in a voice shaken with loathing, “She must be of Ma’al. And kin to Si-Mara!” “Aye” the girl said, and her voice was slow and bitter now. “I am born of Ma’al, though I was born in Li’is – in your own City. And it is true that I am – kin to Si-Mara. She it was who bore me, by Lak, the Black Piper of Ma’al. I am not just a Child of Night, Lord Mellin of the Fortress. I am the Child of Night – Marla, heir to the Bloodstone!”

There was revulsion in Mellin’s face as he asked “And what then do you want with the Lightstone-Bearer, child of evil? Is it revenge you seek for your father and mother?” For the first time Marla’s face showed emotion, twisting as if in unbearable pain – a pain that echoed in Aila’s and Arenel’s Perceptions, though Mellin seemed unaware how his cruel words had hurt the girl. “I have no father or mother!” Marla cried. “He got me, and she bore me, but I was nothing to her! Father, mother, kin or friends, those I have never had…” she broke off and suddenly was sobbing, hopelessly and bitterly. Aila reached out to comfort her, shooting a reproachful look at Mellin. He stood seemingly amazed at the effect of his words, having expected Marla to rage back at him.

Arenel, sensible and practical as ever, said. “We cannot deal with this ourselves. Let us seek Aiel our father. He will tell us what to do for Marla.” Aila linked Perceptions with him, while he reached for Aiel’s Perception, and once contact was made, withdrew to tend Marla. The Healer could tell how exhausted, overwrought and near to hysteria Marla was, and was intent on calming her, anxious to draw her back. When she had succeeded in quieting the other girl somewhat, she asked “What is it that you would have the Lightstone-Bearer do for you? Do not be afraid, Marla. I am sure he will help you if he can.” “I want him to help me attain Light!” Marla exclaimed. “The Choice of Light will not suffice for me, Aila. The Darkness that was born in me must be burned out, and I believe only he can do that. If I cannot attain Light, there is no hope for me. They will take me back and kill the seed in me. They will give me to the Darkness forever!”

“The seed in you? Are you bearing a child?” Aila asked, trying to make sense of Marla’s words. “No!” the other girl exclaimed, with a mirthless laugh.”If that were all my problem, it would be small indeed. But Child of Night or no, I am as virgin as you – for now!” she shuddered at some inner thought, then went on “It is that when the Lightstone-Bearer met Si-Mara and swept her with the Lightstone’s power, I was already conceived in her. I too was touched by Light, and Light, in mercy, though I was conceived in Darkness, planted in me a seed of Light. I think Light knew that otherwise there would be no hope for me. That seed has kept me through my childhood, though they tried to raise me in Darkness. I have kept my seed of Light, but now I am grown, it is mine to nurture or destroy, that is my choice. I choose Light! I was waiting my time to escape, to be free to come and seek Light, though I did not know how. But now I have no time left! They have forged a new Bloodstone in Ma’al, and the Children of Night intend me to wield it. At the next Two-Moon Tide they will make me undergo dark ceremonies that will defile me, and make my body the dwelling of a Dark Lord. I shall be like Lak, a curse on this world! And all hope of Light in me will be destroyed. I shall be one with the Darkness forever-forever!” When Marla had begun speaking, her voice had been comparatively calm, but she had grown visibly more distressed as she spoke, until her voice rose hysterically on the last words, and she tottered and swayed against Aila.

Meanwhile Arenel, his Perception linked with his father’s, had been watching and listening so that Aiel could Perceive what was happening. Having heard Marla’s words, and seen her obvious distress, Aiel ordered “Take Marla to the Fortress and ask Lin to have her guarded well. Tell her I will come as soon as I can.” Aila, who had Perceived her father’s thought also, relayed his words to Marla, while Arenel told Mellin what Aiel had ordered. The other girl, supported by Aila’s arm, asked, in a dazed way, ” Then – the Lightstone-Bearer will help me? I have hope?” “Of course!” Aila encouraged her. “My father is coming and yes, he will help you, Marla.” Marla said, in a voice that sounded high and surprised, and made Aila look at her sharply, “But I have walked so far. I do not think I can reach the Fortress…” Aila was ready to catch her as she slumped into a faint, but it was Mellin who, despite his hostility to Marla, lifted her out of Aila’s arms and said “I will carry her to the Fortress. But we must use the road, I cannot take her up the Stairway.” First, though, Arenel and Aila sent out their Perceptions, seeking any sign that Marla had been pursued, but found none.

They pushed through the trees to the roadway and up again to the Fortress, Mellin carrying his slight burden easily. Aila had drawn the other girl’s hood up again so that her pallor did not betray her to the Watchwards, and Mellin told the guard only that they had found a maiden sick in the Forest and were bringing her to his mother for Healing. That was accepted, and they passsed back into the Fortress. “Arenel, fetch my father” Mellin requested, as he carried the girl across the courtyard to the Healing Place. Aila held open the door for him, and saw, with relief, that Krystha was in the Healing Place, crushing dried herbs with oil into a salve. She looked up in surprise as her son and niece entered. “You have found someone hurt in the Forest?” she asked, coming towards them as Mellin laid the girl down on one of the couches. Before they could reply, Arenel appeared with Lin, who asked, “Where is she, this Marla?” “Here” Aila answered, indicating the couch. Quickly she told Krystha about Marla, seeing how her aunt leaned over the girl even as she spoke, removing the black cloak, beginning to search for hurts. Lin watched and listened intently as Aila and Arenel explained Marla’s predicament.

Mellin, though, stood aside, his expression showing distrust, contributing nothing. Krystha, whose gentle hands were carefully examining the unconscious girl, looked at her sullen son, and said quietly “Mellin, we give aid here to all who need it. You know that.” He answered, almost defiantly, “I know it. Did I not obey Aiel’s wish and carry her here? But still I mistrust her. It may be some trick of Si-Mara’s.” Lin said “If Aiel wants her here, she stays here. He is the Lightstone-Bearer.” Krystha turned the girl’s head, lifting aside the soft fall of silver-blonde hair, and said “She has certainly fallen foul of Si-Mara – or someone. Look.” The others obeyed, and saw a dark streak of bruising running across the line of Marla’s cheekbone, like a stain on her pale skin. “Poor Marla!” Aila exclaimed angrily. “You said she had trouble walking, Aila?” Krystha asked. “Let us see what is wrong.” Going to the end of the couch, the Healer lifted one of the girl’s small feet. On it was a light, jewelled sandal, unsuitable footwear for walking even on the comparatively smooth stone streets of the City. On the rough ground between the City and the Fortress, the flimsy shoes had been worse than useless. The slender thongs had cut and chafed, the thin soles given no protection. Marla’s feet were blistered, bruised and bleeding. “You see?” Aila said challengingly to Mellin, but her cousin did not reply.

Lin said “Everything so far supports her story. She has been beaten, she has walked her feet raw to reach here, and she is so overwrought and exhausted that she fainted. Yet if she needs Aiel’s help and it was her he met in the Temple grounds, why did she not speak to him then?” “My father will be here as soon as he can.” Arenel said”Certainly by tomorrow. Is it not best to leave the questions to him, and let the Healers tend the maiden and let her rest till then?” “Aye – under guard!” Mellin commented, then “As Aiel himself asked” he reminded them, hastily. Lin said, “Yes, Arenel, that would be best. And you also are right, Mellin. A guard is necessary, whether for her sake or ours. I will arrange it.” The Swordsman left the room, and Krystha said, “Arenel, Mellin, leave us too. I wish to look more closely at Marla.” When her son hesitated, she added “Mellin, she is unconscious. And if she were to wake, and prove a danger to us, we can call you by Aila’s Perception.”

When the young men had gone, and Krystha had locked the door to ensure Marla’s privacy, she and Aila gently undressed the girl. “What are you looking for?” Aila asked her aunt. “Injuries- and proof.” Krystha answered, briefly. There were several more bruises showing dark on the pale skin of Marla’s arms, and across and down one shoulder and breast were deep scratches, like the claw marks of an animal. “I would guess those to be the marks of Si-Mara’s nails.” Krystha said, soberly. She moved down the couch to make a more intimate examination of the girl, then straightened and said, “And she is virgin. That is the truth too.” She smiled at Aila. “I think you were right to take her part, my dear. Poor child! If her story is true – and it seems to be- she does indeed have much to fear.” She sighed, then said, briskly, “Come now, let us make her comfortable.” Between them they salved Marla’s bruises and scratches, and washed and tended her damaged feet. Krystha found her a nightgown, and said “Tomorrow we will find her another gown – that thin black clothing is gloomy as well as unsuitable for a young maiden.”

Aila looked down at the other girl. Now that those startling eyes were closed and she was wearing the white nightgown, Marla looked more than ever like a statue carved of white stone. Aila wondered how old she was. She must be older than Aila herself, older than Arenel or Mellin, for she was the result of Lak’s union with Si-Mara, and Aiel had defeated and destroyed Lak months before he and Arentha, Lin and Krystha, had been married. Marla must be three or four years older than she herself, Aila thought. Yet perhaps because she was so small and pale and seemingly vulnerable, she seemed much younger. “Aunt Krystha, do you think Aiel my father will be able to help Marla?” Aila asked. Krystha answered “I hope so. remember that your father is the Lightstone-Bearer, and Marla has her seed of Light from his encounter with Si-Mara. I think it will be the Lightstone that Marla needs again to aid her, for I do not think the Choice of Light will be enough for her. As she said, it will not be that simple. She is born of Ma’al, for all she was born in Li’is.”

The older Healer tucked a coverlet around Marla with an unconsciously motherly gesture, and as she did so, the girl moaned, and stirred, and came to sudden consciousness again, looking round her with wide, frightened eyes. Before either of them could reassure her, she began to tug frantically at the white cloth of the nightgown which, inexplicably, seemed to fill her with dread, and screamed out “No! No! I will not!” She fought against the coverlet wrapped around her, too, as if it were some bond that trapped her. Aila cried “Marla! You are safe in the Fortress. Do not be afraid. You fainted, and we brought you here. Si-Mara cannot reach you.” Marla looked up at Aila with dazed, fearful eyes that slowly brightened with recognition. “Oh!” she gasped, “I thought – I saw the white robe and I thought they had caught and drugged me and carried me back to the Night Temple for their evil ceremonies.” Krystha asked, very gently, “And part of it would be to robe you in white?” “Yes” Marla answered, bitterly, “A white robe – but it would be white and pure no longer by the end of the ceremonies.” Then she added, very low, so that they hardly heard her “And nor would I.” Aila said, firmly, “Marla, there will be no dark ceremonies for you. Aiel my father is coming to your aid.” Krystha said “You must rest, child. But first you must eat a little. You can have had nothing for a day or two, and you need strengthening.” Marla said, seeming amazed “You are so kind, all of you! And I your enemy!” “Not our enemy” Krystha reassured her “You cannot help your parentage, Marla. And if you renounce Darkness and seek Light, you are one of our own.”

At length the two Healers were able to leave Marla, settled and sleeping. She had eaten a little bread and fruit, and drunk some wine-and-water, and been persuaded to acept a draught to help her sleep, though at first she had been wary of it, even though it was Aila who prepared and offered it to her. “Little wonder” commented Krystha, as they left the sleeping girl. She locked the door of the Healing Place behind them, slipped the key into a pouch on her Healer’s belt, and paused for a word with the stalwart young man in the rust-coloured Fortress livery who stood guard outside the door at Lin’s behest. Then, as she and Aila walked towards the Great Hall, she went on “Knowing the uses the Dark Ones make of drugs and potions to numb the will and bend others to their purposes, it is not surprising that Marla would not accept the draught easily.”

They joined the rest of the family at table in the Hall, able at last to take their interrupted evening meal. Arenel spoke the Meal-Blessing for them, and again they began to discuss Marla. Aila championed her fiercely, Mellin was as fiercely her opponent, and when Aila had to admit that, in truth, Marla had not given direct answers to some of the things she had asked, and Mellin pounced triumphantly on the admission, it seemed as though the two cousins would fall out. Lin, interrupting, forbade further discussion, and changed the subject, but Marla was in the forefront of all their minds. Her enigmatic presence was unsettling, if not threatening, and Lin thought to himself that he would be very glad when Aiel arrived to search out the truth of it.

Chapter 2

The next morning, though all of them had every intention of pursuing their normal tasks, somehow they found themselves lingering in the Great Hall after breakfast, waiting for Aiel’s arrival. Aila and Krystha had visited Marla again to tend her, salving her feet and taking her food and drink and a change of clothing, and again Aila had tried to ask Marla about the mysterious ‘ceremonies’ and the help she sought from Aiel. This time the other girl had said, quite simply, “Aila, there are things I can only tell the Lightstone-Bearer.” Then, smiling a little, she had added, “I know you stand my friend, and I thank you for trusting me. I will not betray your trust.” Aila had been content with that, but knew Mellin would not be so trusting. She did not mention it to her cousin. Hearing the clop of hooves on the courtyard outside, Mellin exclaimed, “Aiel is here!” “No”, Arenel answered, “It is not my father. Aila and I would have Perceived him.” “Perhaps a messenger from Merhaun and Alira, to say when they are coming home”, suggested Lin, for the Lord of the Mountains and his Lady were away visiting friends.

A shadow appeared in the doorway, and Aila, curious, rose from her chair to see who the visitor might be. A young man, obviously a Swordsman, he came bounding down the steps into the Hall. She heard Mellin, behind her, give an exclamation of pleasure, and Lin and Krystha both smiled broadly and hurried to greet him. Awelcome guest, then, Aila thought. She studied him covertly, so as not to seem rude. He was tall, his build, like Lin’s and Mellin’s, muscular but not stocky. His curly chestnut-brown hair, though, made Aila wonder if he were some kin of Krystha’s. He was tanned, too tanned for a Northerner. His eyes were warm and brown, his mouth rather wide, and smiling. The bones of his face, wide cheekbones, straight nose and firm jaw, were a little too strong to make him handsome, but it was a very pleasant, likeable face. To Aila it seemed a vagueky familiar face, too, though she had difficulty remembering at first. Then, as the young man turned towards her and her brother and cousin, she saw the heavy gold open-ended bracelet on his wrist, and the blue, red, green and yellow cords plaited into his sword-belt. Tokens of the West, which gave the final jog her memory needed. Now she knew him; it was Janir, Lin’s nephew, childhood companion of their times at the Fortress, son of the Lord of the Western Fortress and his Lady, Lin’s sister Mira.

“Janir?” she asked, still a little unsure, “It is you?” He gave her a warm, wide smile that was instantly familiar. “Yes, I am Janir. I did not think you would know me, Aila. But I would recognise you anywhere.” He looked over her shoulder at Arenel, still smiling, and said, “Arenel, my friend. You are a full Priest now? I must show you due deference!” Arenel smiled back, and said, “It is good to see you again, Janir.” “Sword-Brother!” Mellin said, reaching out to take his cousin and Sword-Brother in the Swordsmen’s hand-to-forearm grasp, “Arenel is right. It is good to see you.” Aila too held out her hand to her old playmate, and Janir took and held it, saying, “It is strange that you should be here today, Aila, for I had a message to be passed on to you, from Shala, my sister.” “From Shala – for me?” Aila repeated, surprised. “Why, we have not seen each other for – oh, several years!” “We have not”, her cousin’s cousin agreed, “but we remember the old friendships, do we not? Shala is to be married, and I am sent to invite my grandparents, Merhaun and Alira, Lin and Krystha and Mellin, and your family too, to the wedding. And Shala asks if you will be one of her bride-maidens.” “Oh, I would like that!”, Aila exclaimed impulsively, then, remembering Marla, “Oh, but there is – there may be – a problem.” Lin, who had come across to them during this conversation, said, “Perhaps not. Shala’s marriage may help us in this thing. Who knows? Aiel will be here soon, and then we can decide.” Janir was looking at them enquiringly, still absent-mindedly holding Aila’s hand. She did not mind, for it reminded her of happy childhood days. Janir, older by a little than the others, had been the kind and dependable one, who sorted out quarrels, soothed fears, and comforted when scratches, cuts or bruises were suffered as the result of boisterous games. Lin quickly explained about Marla, and Janir responded with quick and generous sympathy for the girl’s plight. It was evident that he was about to ask more questions, when Arenel announced, “Our father is on the Fortress Level. I Perceive him. ” Aila swung out her Perception, and felt her father’s presence, and another. “Our mother is with him”, she said gladly. She knew she would find an ally in Arentha for her championship of Marla’s cause. “Good!” ,Lin exclaimed, “With Aiel’s help, we can begin to solve this problem of Marla.”

They began to move towards the doorway, Janir releasing Aila’s hand with a little smile of syrprise at her that he had kept hold of it so long. Krystha said, “I will go and see if it is well with Marla, and if she feels ready to see Aiel. No, Aila, you ned not come. Stay and explain to Aiel what we have seen and heard.” At that moment Aila and Arenel felt the touch of their father’s Perception seeking and greeting them. Brother and sister came through the doorway into the courtyard, followed by the three Swordsmen, to see Aiel and Arentha dismounting. Their children embraced them, and the others greeted them, but not a word was said about Marla till they were back in the comparative privacy of the Great Hall. “Janir”, Arentha said, delightedly, “I am glad to see you again! But last time you were little more than a boy, and now you are a man – and a Swordsman! And how is Shala?” “Well, and about to be married. I am sent to invite you all to the wedding, and ask Aila to be one of Shala’s bride-maidens.” Aiel said, thoughtfully, “Then I doubt you are here by chance just at this time, Janir. Light knows all things. Now Aila, Arenel, come here and let me Perceive all that you have learned about this Marla.”

Brother and sister obeyed, going to stand before their father while he set his Perception on them, first Arenel, then Aila. When he released Aila from his Perception, he said, smiling, “So, I see Marla already has one friend and champion!” Then he turned to Mellin, asking, “Mellin, will you also permit me to Perceive what you have seen of her?” Mellin looked into the Priest’s face and said, with his usualoutspoken honesty, “I will, Aiel, but you will find that Marla also has an opponent. I do not trust her!” Aiel smiled at the young Swordsman’s candour, and set his Perception on Mellin. When he withdrew it, he said, “No, you do not trust her, Mellin. Why is that?” “Could you not Perceive it, Aiel?” “Mellin, that would be Trespass. You know that.” The Swordsman had a defensive look in hisclear grey eyes. “Aiel, what she claims is – is simply impossible! How can there be Light and Dark in one spirit – a soul cannot be divided so! And how shall such a Child of Night, born of Darkness, seek Light? Yes, there is the Choice of Light, but she refused that.” “No”, Aila protested, ” She did not refuse it, Mellin. She only said that because of who she is, the Choice of Light was not enough to free her from the Darkness in her. She wished that it were!”

“Mellin”, Aiel said gently, “listen to your own words. Do they not remind you of anything?” It was obvious that they did not, but equally obvious that to both Lin and Arentha, Aiel’s question had a meaning. They were both staring at the Lightstone-Bearer with a mingled awe and excitement in their eyes. “Can it be?”, Lin murmured, “Aiel , after so long – the Way continues?” “Father, Aiel -what is it?” Mellin asked. Aiel reached inside his robe and drew out one of the metal cylinders used for record-keeping in the Temple. He tipped out a scroll,unrolled it, and read aloud “From this shall come a strange thing; Dark and Light in one spirit, a soul divided. He shall hear the Child of Night cry mercy of Light, and Darkness shall lay its Dark powers at the feet of Light. Hate shall be transformed to love, and pain to joy.” Aila too stared at her father. “But that is Marla – where is it written about Marla?” Aiel rolled up the scroll and said quietly, “In the Secret Word”. He went on to explain, in answer to their exclamations and questions, “It seems we are entering upon the fulfilment of the next part of the Secret Word. You see, if what Marla says is true, she is what she is because of the Lightstone’s touch- as a result of the Lightstone Way. And that is what the Secret Word says – that out of the fulfilment of the first part of the Secret Word comes the continuing Way – the Way of a Child of Night with a soul divide between Dark and Light. Marla.” Krystha had come back into the Hall, unnoticed, and stood listening. Now she said, as quietly, “I had wondered, Aiel. I too recalled the Secret Word.” “Krystha, how is it with the girl?”, he asked. “She is on a knife-edge, Aiel. She is truly a soul didvide, and if you do not bring her hope, she may go down to Darkness, or madness. Balancing hope and fear in her mind is taking all her energy. We had to give her a draught to help her sleep, and even then, she said, she dreamt fearsome dreams.”

“Or”, Mellin said, his tone cold and slow, “she too knows the Secret Word, and is acting a part on Si-Mara’s behalf, seeking revenge for her father’s defeat and death!” “She could not feign her body’s responses”, Krystha, the Healer, pointed out. “She could feign them by enchantment, or some dark drug”< her son argued. “She might even be a Shape-Changer, as her father was, and not as we have seen her at all.” “Mellin!” Aila protested. “No, let him speak”, Aiel said. “He may well be wrong – very wrong. But it is good to have one doubter among us, to remind us that there might be deception and Darkness here. The maiden could even be under some enchantment of Si-Mara’s and not even know it. Though I think the Lightstone would have warned us.” Janir, who had not yet spoken, said, “I have not seen the maiden, so perhaps I should not speak. But would not Aila and Arenel, having Perception, have sensed any evil intent in her?” ” Probably”, Lin said, ” But I too am not yet convinced. It is true that the Secret Word seems to point to Marla, and she to be free of guile. But the Lady Alira has told us much of what she suffered among the Children of Night, and they are very cunning.”

Aila admitted “I know that Marla has not told us everything. Certain things which I have asked her she has refused to answer, saying she could only tell the Lightstone-Bearer. But I felt that she had a reason for not answering me, and it was not an evil reason.” “I will try her with the Lightstone, and see what I may learn”, Aiel said, “but my feeling is that Marla speaks the truth.” He looked round at them all. “Aila, Arenel, Mellin, Janir – forgive me if I exclude you for now. Too many folk around her may alarm her, and I wish to form my own impression of her.” He made a gesture with his arm that included Lin, Krystha and Arentha. “We four will go to her. We are the Way-Sharers, sworn to the Lightstone. I think we shall know what Light wills for Marla.”

When their elders had gone, the four young people were left to discuss the strange events and the problem of Marla. They had all known, of course, of the Lightstone Way and the Way-Sharers, but it had been long ago to them, before any of them but Janir had been born.It was difficult to imagine their parents, aunts and uncles, having a part in such an adventure, or to understand that there might now be a time for them to take up the Way again. Eventually, though, with Aila and Mellin again taking opposing views of Marla, the discussion threatened to become heated, and Arenel, in his sensible way, said, “Let us wait until our parents return, and see what our father has to say of her. In the mean time, Janir, tell us about Shala’s wedding.” “She is to marry Ket-Tal, the Ket’s grandson. His father it was who fought the Sword-Trial with Lin on the Lightstone Way, and afterwards became his Sword-Brother.” Mellin looked interested. “I have heard my father tell of that! Is the son a good Swordsman too?” “He is, and my Sword-Brother. He has been serving with us in the Westward Watch, and that is where Shala met him. He has a younger sister, Zohra, who has a wonderful gift of music. She is to be Shala’s bride-maiden too, with Aila, and sing at the wedding feast.”

Meanwhile Lin, Arentha and Aiel had followed Krystha to the Healing Place, where they found Marla just as Krystha had left her, the food beside her on a table barely touched. She drew back a little as they entered, but then she saw Aiel, and leaned forward again, her strangely coloured eyes lifting to his with a mixture of hope and fear. He said, “You should have spoken to me at the Temple, child. There was no need to fear me.” “Lightstone-Bearer, can you – will you- help me?” Marla asked. “If I can, I will. And with the aid of Light, I hope that I can.” Arentha, always gentle and compassionate, bent and carefully smoothed back the girl’s silver-blonde hair, looking into the pale, unhappy face. “Poor child!”, she said, “You must have been so lonely and afraid!” “Are you Aila’s mother?” Marla asked, “You are so like her.” When Arentha smiled and nodded, Marla went on, “Aila is truly blessed of Light. I wish…”, then stopped, and bit her lip, as if what she wished were too painful to express. Arentha, tenderhearted as her daughter, gathered Marla in a warm hug, then turned to her husband and said “Aiel, we must help her!” “Then she must help us to help her”, Aiel answered. To Marla, he said, “Marla, will you tell us all of the truth? We cannot help you otherwise. Aila said you evaded her questions.” “I did, Lightstone-Bearer, and that was deliberate. There are things I could not tell her – or the young men. I would not defile them with such knowledge. I who was born to Darkness suffer from what I have learned and experienced. It is not fitting that I should tell Aila such things.”

Aiel was impressed by what she said. He answered, “Then I thank you for your thoughtfulness towards my daughter, Marla. But you can unburden yourself to my Perception.” “Lightstone-Bearer, I forbade Arenel to try his Perception on me, and I am not sure if even for you, it would be safe. I have a kind of – Dark Perception of my own. And there are powers in me, latent now, and I would not use them deliberately – I long to be rid of all! But if the Darkness chose to work through me, would I be able to prevent it? I would not wish to harm you, though I do not intend to.” “You might also”, Lin pointed out, “wish to avoid Aiel’s Perception.” “I might”, she admitted, “if I were not what I say I am. Do you disbelieve me, Lord Lin?” “I am undecided”, he answered her honestly, “But if you are speaking the truth, you will not find me an enemy, Marla.” “I thank you also for your warning, Marla”, Aiel said. “Tell us your story now, the we can decide what is to be done.”

Marla looked from one face to another, then, seeming reassured, nodded and began “Do you know that I was born on your wedding day? I suppose not. The Dark Ones rejoiced – oh not for my sake. I was nothing. But I was a body that was to be prepared for Darkness to inhabit…” Briefly then she told them of her early life; sent away by the evil mother who had no use for her except as a dwelling for Darkness when she was grown, the babe had been sent to the Eastern continent of Li’is to be raised unseen. At first she had been given to a nursemaid who was not a Child of Night, but who harboured no illusions about her pale, sickly nursling. Despite that, as Marla had grown older and stronger, the nurse had tried to sether on the road to Light, even, when she was old enough, taking her to the Eastern Temple. “But the Priest of Light there called me a child of evil, and told her to take me away, for I would defile the Temple”, Marla said, her voice trembling with remembered rejection and hurt. “That was the first time I was aware of my Dark Perception, for I could feel his anger and fear towards me. It was – it was that memory,partly, that kept me from you at the Temple, Lightstone-Bearer.” Aiel nodded, then said, “Marla, my name is Aiel. Call me that. ” She smiled fleetingly at him, and went on.

She had been reasonably happy with the nurse until she was about twelve years old, when men had come to take her away to the Children of Night. The nurse, upset and frightened for Marla, had refused to let her go. But in the night, Marla said, they had come again. She had woken to shouts and screams and the tread of feet that came to her door. Confused and frightened by the noise and the whirlwind of dark emotions that she sensed, Marla had been carried off. Looking back, she had seen the little house ablaze, with no sign of her nurse. “I did not need to look”, Marla said. “I knew she was dead – oh, Aiel, I felt her die, and it was dreadful! ” She could not have feigned the pain in her voice. Aiel put a comforting hand on her shoulder, and Arentha reached out and held Marla’s pale, cold hand. Marla told them that she had been taken to the house of one of the Children of Night, a woman, a courtesan, and in that house her ‘training’ in the perversions of the Children of Night was begun. Though, mercifully, she was not expected to take any part in it, it would have been impossible that she should not realise what was happening in the house, nor was any attempt made to hide it from her; in fact it was flaunted before her as part of her ‘training’. There also she was made to learn the mixing of drugged potions, to weaken the will and bend the recipient towards Darkness, and of more deadly potions.

When she herself had reached womanhood, Marla said, the occasion had been marked with a coarse ribaldry that embarrassed and upset her. Two years on, the question had been raised of whether Marla’s ‘training’ should go further. Was she too – like her mother, Si-Mara – to become a courtesan? “There was a man”, Marla explained, her voice shaking with the memory, “Much – oh much older than me, and – quite disgusting, Aiel, I could not tell you…this man saw me, and he – he wanted me. They sent word to Si-Mara, to see what she would have them do with me. I had to wait for their message to reach the City, and her reply to come – and it was delayed by the Two-Moon Tide. And all the time the man was coming to the house, and – and lusting after me – he would leer at me and try to touch me. I was so afraid! It made me ill – I was so sure Si-Mara would say yes, I must go to his bed that I went to where the potions were made, and stole some poison. If they said I must go to him, I meant to kill myself! When the letter came, I was in an agony of terror, especially when they sent for me and the man was there! Then they told him Si-Mara was planning some great ceremonies of Darkness in a few years’ time and i must be virgin for them, so he could not have me. I could feel his anger, and his lust, and his hatred for me because he could not have me. Then I fainted – oh, they thought I was sick, but it was because it had been so terrible, and now it was over.”

Krystha, while Marla had been speaking, had gone quietly to her Healer’s bench and drawn a bowl of clear spring water from the pump. Into it she stirred some powdered herbs and brought the reviving draught to Marla. The girl smiled at her gratefully, and drank, then set down the bowl and drew the back of one hand across her brow, pushing back her hair as if she were weary. Arentha said, “Aiel, should she not rest a little, now?” “It would be best if she went on”< her husband answered, but looked questioningly at Marla as he said it. “Aye, let me finish with the telling!” Marla exclaimed, as though it were something she wanted over and done with, and she continued with her story. Though she was not made to join in the activities at the woman’s house, nor at the Night Temple of the East, where she was frequently taken, Marla had been made to watch. What she had seen in the Night Temple, and the knowledge that she was expected to preside over such doings after Si-Mara’s ceremonies, had horrified her. Haltingly she told them of the acts of the Children of Night, their total abandonment to Darkness and their own lusts, of suffering wantonly and gloatingly inflicted, foul sacrifices carried out before her eyes, while she was helpless to intervene.

Marla wept bitter tears of shame as she described the victims’ fear and pain and her own helplessness to aid them. Krystha and Arentha tried, to comfort her, and Lin looked at Aiel, who saw that his friend’s face was grim, not with condemnation of Marla, but angeragainst those who had subjected her to such horror and mental pain. Aiel was remembering, and knew Lin was too, the girl they had found dying, a victim of the Children of Night, in the Ruins of the Dark city, many years before on the Lightstone Way. The anguish and distress and feelings of helplessness they had experienced then were what Marla was describing, but her experiences had been worse. Not only had she seen similar foul deeds many times over, she had not even been able to express her hurt and revulsion, fo she had been expected to join in the Dark Ones’ gloating enjoyment of their victims’ torment. Now she looked into Aiel’s face and asked unhappily, “Was there really nothing I could have done to save them, Aiel, or was I a coward? Will Light forgive me this?” “Light is merciful”, he answered her, “And I do not think there was anything you could have done, a maiden alone, Marla.”

She was bringing her story towards its conclusion. “Some months ago Si-Mara sent for me, and I knew the time was coming when she would want me for the ceremonies. I was afraid, and yet – I was curious too, to see what she was like. I knew what a mother should be like – my old nurse had shown me that – and I had always known it was not like that with her and with me, for I knew she did not love or care for me, and I felt nothing at all for her. So I had told myself that I could not be her true daughter, but some foundling she had raised for the purposes of Darkness.” The sea voyage had made her ill, Marla continued, and she had to rest for a day in Si-Mara’s house before she was fit to meet her mother. Meanwhile women had been sent to make her new clothing. “On the second day she summoned me to her – oh,like a servant, not a child! She was in the Night Temple, which is a great black hall in her house. It was dark, and she was on a dais at the end. There were lamps where she was, but I had to walk through the darkness to reach her, and I could feel the evil in the place. When I reached the dais, she was lying there, by the Black Altar, on a silver couch, and Tamat her bodyguard stood at her side. I looked at her, and she at me, and I could not pretend any longer. It was almost like looking in a mirror – oh, her face was older, and crueller, and my eyes are different, but it was my face! Then she smiled, and that was cruel too, and she said I was beautiful, and was pleased. But she meant only that I looked like her! She said, “We are flowers of Darkness, you and I. We are born of Ma’al, and too much of Li’is and its accursed Light will sicken us.” Then she began to tell me…”

Si-Mara had told Marla of Lak and the Bloodstone, of Aiel and the Lightstone, of her own encounter with Aiel, and Lak’s destruction. And Marla said, “Oh, you do not know how much she hates and fears you, Aiel! But I knew you were my hope, for it was then I came to understand how the seed of Light had been born in me. I was already conceived in Si-Mara when you searched her with the Lightstone, and through it Light touched me too, and left me hope.” “I felt it!”, Aie lexclaimed, remembering. “Marla, I felt you! When I searched Si-Mara, I Perceived something strange, unformed, in her, that Light touched through me. I did not understand it then, but it must have been you, newly conceived.” “Aye”, Marla said quietly to this confirmation. “That is why I told Aila that you made me what I am, though I do not think she understood. And I knew that only you could help me, because if you had destroyed the Darkness that was my – my father, surely you could burn out the Darkness in me too.” But then, Marla said, Si-Mara had told her the worst news. A new Bloodstone had been forged in Ma’al – the Otherworld – and she, Marla, was intended to wield it,as Lak’s heir. The ‘ceremonies’ which the Children of Night were preparing would be twofold in purpose; to receive the Bloodstone from Ma’al, and to make her the instrument of Darkness to use its powers. When they exclaimed in horror at this, Marla cried out passionately, “Oh, believe me, I want no part of it! Do you know what they will do to me, to make me a fit bearer of this loathsome thing, this curse on Li’is?”

She told them what Si-Mara had told her, of the sacrifices that would be made first, of Marla’s coming in the white robe that would be ritually defiled with the blood and dung of the animal sacrifices, a robe that would eventually be stripped from her before the Children of Night, so that her body should be as ritually defiled. As she spoke now the girl’s face bore the glazed, terrified look of one in a waking nightmare. “I will be made to give myself – to be available – to anyone there- for anything at all- I must be ceremonially defiled-to make me Dark enough. They will – they will call a Lord of Darkness – to inhabit my body and wield the Bloodstone. And there will be murder – the Bloodstone must be fed…” Marla broke down into tears again, sobbing and trembling. Arenth sat beside her on the couch and hugged her, looking up at her husband with angry yet pitying eyes. “Aiel, do not let her go on! You have heard enough. Poor child! Oh Marla, poor ,poor child!” Marla sobbed “They will destroy my seed of Light and make me all Darrkness. I will not be the Bloodstone-Wielder and bring Darkness into Li’is! I shall kill myself first!” “Hush, Marla, child!” Krystha protested. “Do not distress yourself. You are safe, here in the Fortress. Aiel will find a way to help you, and Si-Mara cannot withstand the Lightstone-Bearer.” Marla, a little calmed by the Healer’s reassurances, gasped, “How can I bear it , that she is my mother – oh, I will not call her that, but I cannot deny it! While I was with her, they brought my new clothes – courtesan’s clothes, oh, shameless things! She told me to take off my gown and put them on, to show her how I looked, and I asked her to send Tamat away first. She laughed at me at first, then, when I insisted, she grew angry and cursed me for it. She said she would not have such ‘prudishness’ and if I persisted, she would beat it from me. She came down from the couch and slapped me, and then she ripped the gown from me with her own hands.” Marla’s hand went to the scratch marks at her shoulder and breast as she went on, “She tore me with her nails. She said I must get used to men looking at me, touching me. She made me stand still and told Tamat to -to touch me. It was horrible!” The girl buried her face in her hands , as if ashamed, for a long few moments, then, seeming to recover a little, she continued, “When he grew – aroused – she said that but for the ceremonies she would have let him take me, but meanwhile she would show me what to do. I was naked, and helpless, and – oh, Aiel, she made me watch while she let him take her there, in front of me, on the silver couch. But he – he was looking at me, and I knew that in his mind it was me on that couch, and that when the ‘ceremonies’ came, he would be the first to want to take me.” She shuddered, and Arentha, who was still embracing her comfortingly, felt a chill herself, as though it were a death shudder that ran through the girl. Marla said, “When it was over, and she had made me put on the clothes, she let me go. I ran to the Bathing Place, and I was sick till I could be sick no more, and I washed and washed myself, but I could not feel clean. That night I ran away, to find you, Aiel.”

She paused again, looking round at them all, then confessed, “I was afraid! I came to the temple, and I longed to go in, to see for myself what the place of Light was like, to find the Lightstone-Bearer, and ask for help – for peace! But I remembered the Priest of the Eastern Temple, and, hurt as I was, I did not want to suffer any further hurt. I could not have borne to feel hatred and rejection. And there were so many people there – that frightened me too. Then I heard someone speak to you as you left the Temple, Aiel, and I knew you, and followed you. I was desperate for your help, but when you turned to me, I drew back. I could not overcome my fear! Yet when I saw Aila, earlier, I was not afraid. I saw that she too had Perception, and I felt -somehow in my heart I felt that if I could only speak to her, she would understand, and help me to speak to her father, the Lightstone-Bearer. Maybe – I do not understand these things, but if Light wished to help me, maybe Light turned her heart towards me in friendship. I followed her here, and the rest you know.” Marla finished speaking, and gave a great, deep sigh, as though the telling had wearied her, body, soul and spirit.

The others were silent too, trying to take in all she had told them, and the horrors she had experienced. Arentha still held and soothed the girl, while Krystha watched her with a Healer’s care. Lin, now convinced of the truth of Marla’s story, stood with a grave and thoughtful face, considering it all. Aiel too stood looking at Marla thoughtfully. He did not for a moment doubt the truth of her story and was determined to help her, if it were possible, but he did not yet know how. He was only sure that Light had sent Marla to him in fulfilment of the Secret Word, and that he would need Light’s guidance. Now Marla was gazing up at him, her strange eyes full of urgent pleading, an Krystha, Lin and Arentha had switched their attention to him too, to see what he would do. Aiel reached inside his robe and drew out the Lightstone. He held it out on its chain so that Marla could see it. “Marla”, he said, “this is the Lightstone.” It was quiescent now, an unimpressive white stone, semi-opaque, like a pebble, save that at its heart burned a tiny spark. Marla, though, was looking at it with rapt attention. “Look”, she breathed, “it has a seed of Light in it too, like me.”

“Let us see what the Lightstone has to say of you”< Aiel said, smiling at her so that she would not be afraid. He was anxious to know how the Stone would treat the girl. Would the light embrace Marla, as it did the Children of Light, or search her with blazing brilliance, as a Child of Night? But when he laid the Stone to Marla’s brow, and the light poured forth, it took no form he had seen before. The light encircled Marla, without touching her, keeping its distance from her yet surrounding her completely. It made Aiel remember the Lightshield that had protected him on the Meeting Place as he fought Lak for the Dancers. Then he understood. The light withdrew into the Lightstone, and Marla cried, “Light would not touch me! oh, Aiel, Light rejects me!” “No!2, he answered her, quite sharply, because he could see she was on the edge of despair and he wanted to snatch her back. “Marla, hear me! Light does not reject you, it protects you. Did you not see the Lightshield around you?” Marla looked at him hopefully, and he continued, “Marla, there is Darkness in you, but it is not of your choosing. Though Light cannot touch you till the Darkness id driven out of you, Light will protect you from the Darkness that would enslave you. Do you understand?”

Marla shook her head. Aiel went o patiently, “As you know, for you the Choice of Light is not enough, for you have already chosen Light against Darkness. It is – it is as if you were born with some sickness. Though you wished to be well, it would avail nothing unless you went to the healers for treatment.” Marla asked, “Then who – or what – will heal me of Darkness, Aiel?” Aiel answered, “I have asked this of Light. Marla, it is in my heart that we must take you to the Dancers. THey alone of all created beings know the rhythm of life in both Li’is and Ma’al. They will know how to rid you of the rhythms of Darkness and attune you to Light, and to Li’is.” Marla exclaimed, “Oh, Aiel – you have brought me the first hope I think I have ever had in my life! How shall I ever thank you?” He smiled at her. “When you are free to stand before the Crucible in the Temple with me, and praise Light as one of Light’s Children – that will be all the thanks i need, Marla.” Arentha told the girl, “Light foreknew you too, Marla. It is written about you in the Secret Word. Light has prepared the way foryou.” “A Secret Word that speaks of me? Truly?” Marla breathed, and Aiel took the scroll and read it to her. Her eyes grew wide with awe, and she burst out, “Then Light does know and care about me? How wonderful!” Then she said, more doubtfully, “But Aiel, Si-Mara will be searching for me.How shall I make the journey without being captured by the Children of Night? And will it not be dangerous for those who travel with me? Will you four also be my Way-Sharers?” “In all these things wemust seek Light”< Aiel told her. “But Janir of the Western Fortress is here, on an errand which may help us. Krystha, is Marla well enough to join us in the Great Hall?” “I think she will be, now that you have eased her mind and her story is told, Aiel. She has had a darught to help her. But How do you feel in yourself, Marla, child?” “I think I can”< Marla said, then, “It is always my instinct to hide myself away, because of what I am. But with you all I feel safe.” She smiled shyly at them. “You have all been so kind to me – even Lord Mellin, who does not trust me, has helped me.”

So Aiel led the way back to the Great hall, where the four young people were waiting, full of curiosity. Aiel told them, “I believe we can help Marla attain Light, but to do that we must take her to the Dancers. And,as she herself has reminded us, Si-Mara will be searching for her, so we will need to be circumspect. Janir, your errand may help us.” “Shala’s wedding? Of course I will help in any way I can, Aiel, but I do not see the connection.” “You have come to invite us to the marriage, and to ask Aila to be Shala’s bride-maiden. But how if we take back two bride-maidens?” “Marla!”, Janir exclaimed, “Yes, of course, Aiel!” “They will not expect us to take her to the West, “Lin said thoughtfully. “It is a good idea, Aiel. We can go in a roundabout way from the Western Fortress.” “And even if they should suspect, there will be many guests returning home, afterwards”, Janir added, “in all directions. They cannot watch everyone!” “But – everyone will know me for what I am, a child of Ma’al”, Marla protested. “The bride will not want such a one for bride-maiden!” “Shala will not reject you, Marla, when she knows your story”< Janir told her. “I know my sister – she will want to help you.” “And there are ways to change your appearance, child”, Krystha said. “I had thought of it anyway. There are plants that will yield dyes for your hair and cheeks to make you look more like a daughter of Li’is.”

“Then who is it that goes with Marla to the Dancers?” Aila demanded. “Father, I want to go with her,to help her and be her freind.” Marla smiled gratefully at her, and Aiel said. “Perhaps.It will be dangerous, Aila, even with the Lightstone.” “So was the first Way”< Aila said. “If Mother and Aunt Krystha are going with you, surely I can go too. And i have Perception.” “We have not yet decided anything”< Aiel reminded his insistent daughter. “Janir, the Ket is to be at the wedding, since it is his grandson Shala is marrying?” “Yes, he will be there”, Janir answered. “Then we will make our plans for getting Marla to the Western Fortress safely, and when we are there I will speak to the Ket. He will be able to give us guidance on our journey”,Aiel said. Krystha said, “Will you need ‘melody and healing’ on this Way, Aiel?” “The ‘Treasures of the Mountains’?”Aiel quoted back at her, with a smile<“Are you ready for another Way, Krystha?” But all she said was “Perhaps”, and there was something in her tone that tugged at his Perception. He looked closely at her. She was her usual self, though. Perhaps a little pale, which would not have been surprising given the strange happenings of the last two days, but it was hard to tell with her clear, creamy skin. Perhaps she was concerned for Lin, Aiel thought, since her husband had come so near to death on the first Way. “Janir, when is the marriage to be?” Arentha asked. “In a month’s time, before the Westerners move back to the Plateau”< Janir said, “but I was to ask if Aila could come back with me now, so that her gown could be prepared. ” “Then we will all need to go, within a few days”. Aiel said. “Arentha and I brought some gear with us, in case of need. I will send the Thought-without-Words to Arnath my father to explain. Janir, the Western Fortress must support a few more guests until Shala’s wedding.” “No problem in that”<Janir said.

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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