FIRST LIGHT

Chapter 3

Next morning Baran and Varil made ready to return to the Forest and select the rest of their fighting force. All concerned had been adamant that no one should be forced or coerced into joining, but such was the depth of feeling in both Forest and Mountains about the actions of the Dark Lord and his mercenaries that it was more likely that there would be more volunteers than needed for the battle, rather than that any should prove reluctant. Marvis was going with them, to guide them back to the Fortress Cave, and three more lads to join the two already tending the horses and bring them back to Baran’s camp. Thirty riders, plus Marvis, had set out from the camp, and there were more mounts to be led back than Baran, Varil and Marvis could have managed alone. While they were away in the Forest, Tamor would send word to his outliers and gather more fighters to Tamorine and Brann. Brann went with his father and the others to the head of the Falls, where they prepared to descend the steep Stairway in the rock face. Baran embraced Brann, and said, “Good hunting on this trail, my son, and whatever gods may be in your favour go with you.” Brann watched his father and the others disappear over the edge of the Stairway, and wondered if there were indeed any gods in his favour. The old gods had failed them and their worship mostly died out; his father’s words were more of a good luck charm than a prayer.

Brann retraced his steps to the gate in the stockade, where the guard admitted him. He found Tarn waiting there with Tamorine and Gamlin. “So, they are safely away” Tarn said, “and begin to gather our forces.” “And the call has gone out to ours”, Tamorine told them. “We should have our force together before too long. And then we set out.” “My father wished us good hunting”, Brann commented, ” and the protection of whatever gods may be in our favour.” “I hold no great faith in gods” , replied Gamlin. “I would rather rely on the skill of our Swordsmen!” “Oh, I do not believe in them, either, and nor, I think does my father, in truth”, Brann answered. “But perhaps he believed we will be in need of whatever help we may find on this way we set out on.” Tamorine was looking thoughtful. “I do not believe in the old gods either”, she said. “I think there must be something greater than us, but whether whatever it is concerns itself with us, I doubt.” Brann laughed. “We are growing philosophical, and we have matters more pressing to deal with than the existence of gods!” Still, he could not help but reflect on his strange inner conviction that if there was a force of Darkness, there must be an opposing force of light, and hoped, despite his scepticism, that if there were, it might be less impersonal than Tamorine had suggested, and be prepared to help them in their battle. Gamlin said “Now the call has gone out to gather our fighting force, we need to plan our manouevres. We should consult our charts and see the route we need to take.” They were all in agreement, so returned to the Great Hall of the Fortress. Tamor was there with some of the other Mountain Swordsmen, and when consulted about the charts he went to find them in a big chest nearby. Returning, he spread them out on the table, and Brann, Tamorine, Tarn and Gamlin gathered round with the others to study them with the aid of a lamp. The charts were quite comprehensive: Brann could see that they included the Forest and the Harbour with its small town, with marsh beyond and the hill above, all surrounded by the Mountains, with the narrow slit of the Spearcleft Pass the only way through them. The Pass had not protected the Harbour, though, from the depradations of the Dark Lord and his mercenaries, coming as they had by sea from the East, landing at the Harbour and further along the seacoast at the small trading town near to the City which they had captured and made the Dark Lord’s citadel.

A second chart showed the other side of the Mountains beyond the Pass, leading down to the Great Moor, a few small villages at its fringes, and the road to the Dark City, beyond the small forest Tamorine had mentioned. It was not so far to go, but on foot and with great caution, it might take several days to approach it unseen. The chart that showed the lands beyond did not concern their goal, but they examined them; the Western lands where there were some farms which had no doubt been raided by the Dark Lord’s mercenaries, as had Marvis’ small farm, for whatever they could obtain in the way of grain and cattle or horses. If any had survived such attacks, they might have made their way to the villages, or taken refuge in the Western mountains or on the high plateau that rose alongside the mountains. The small trading town and its separate harbour were also in the hands of the mercenaries, but far enough away from the Dark City to make an attack on their forces from that direction unlikely, if they could reach the Dark City without detection. When in the hands of the men of Li’is, unsuspecting of grave danger, the City had been relatively unprotected, which was why it had fallen such easy prey to the Dark Lord. Now, though, its defences had doubtless been strengthened and manned, and the problem of how to breach those defences would be the crux of their attack.

Over the next few days Tamor’s outliers began to come in, all of them ready and eager to make the attempt on the Dark City. As in all of Li’is, many of them had lost family members, friends, or goods to his mercenaries and wanted revenge. Weapons were furbished and readied for action, and Forin, with guidance from some of the Mountain men, gathered the healing herbs that grew here, and which he might need to tend any wounded. Lords of both Mountain and Forest brought out of storage leather breastplates and helmets, kept ready with frequent waxing and oiling, had them prepared with fresh oiling, and gathered camouflage cloaks. At last the guards on the Fortress Level heard the signal they had awaited from the foot of the Falls, and let down baskets on ropes to bring up the supplies Marvis and the men of the Forest had brought, followed by the appearance of Marvis , with Varil and the new contingent of fighters who followed them, ascending the Stairway at the side of the Falls. They were eagerly welcomed, and Varil told Brann what preparations had been made on the Forest side and what goods and provisions they had brought with them. Any old suspicion or animosity that might have lingered between men of Mountain and Forest had been thrust aside, as Brann had hoped, in the new alliance against the Dark Lord, and now that all the fighters from both sides had assembled they were prepared to accept and respect each other as brothers in arms.

It was deemed wise to spend some time in training their forces, accustoming them to each other and to any variations of technique between Swordsmen of the Forest and those of the Mountains, and reinforcing their skills. The Swordsmen of the Forest learned the Swordsmen’s handclasp used by the Mountain men, for it might be helpful in recognising friend from foe in a confused situation. As Gamlin had suggested, they divided their force into two units of fifty, comprised equally of men from Forest and Mountain, the first group led by Brann and Tamorine, the second by Gamlin and Tarn, who had grown to like and respect each other. Kerrin, Tarn’s new Sword-Brother, was adamant that he should be part of Tarn’s unit. They spared ten days to consolidate and train their forces, until they were satisfied that they were as prepared as they could be. So at last they were ready to set out on their desperate mission to free Li’is from the subjugation of the Dark Lord. Weapons and supplies were distributed, and after a night’s rest and a morning meal that was enough to sustain but not enough to slow them, they marched out of the Mountain Fortress, with Brann and Tamorine at their head. Tamorine had her hair braided and coiled up beneath the leather helmet, and Brann was thankful that with the helmet, male clothing,leather breastplate and camouflage cloak, she was not recognisable as female,except from very close quarters. He was still concerned about what might happen if she fell into the hands of the Dark Lord’s mercenaries.

They set a steady, rhythmic pace up the Mountain towards the Spearcleft Pass, keeping a wary eye out in case more hill-cats should be nearby, but saw none. They passed the hunting shelter and kept on their upward path, the trees growing thinner. They paused once to take a drink, for the day was warm, but did not stop. Tamorine had told Brann that on the other side of the Mountain was a place where there was a spring of water and a place where they could stay for the night, but first they must traverse the Pass. When they reached the Pass the two Mountain Swordsmen guarding it told them that there was no sign of any activity on the other side or down on the Great Moor, so they passed through the shadowed depths of the narrow col and emerged on the other side. Here, as Tamor had said, the trees were less dense, twisted and stunted by the cold winter winds from the Seacoast Mountains in the East. It was growing towards evening by now, and they would need to make camp soon and rest their troops.

Tamorine easily found the spring she had told them of, and though the water was not abundant, it was sufficient for their needs. “There is more water here earlier in the year”, she told Brann, ” but there is always some, even in hot weather.” They all settled down on the springy grass , in the shelter of the thinned-out trees. The day’s warmth lingered as it grew darker, and the twin moons of Li’is , though neither was full, cast enough light to see by. No need of a fire for heat or light, though they would not have lit one anyway. It did not seem that there were any enemies near, but no need to risk betraying their presence. They would sleep warm enough wrapped in their cloaks, with guards posted at the perimeter of their camp. They were glad to relax and eat their evening meal after the day’s march. Brann looked down over the expanse of the Great Moor and hoped they would be able to cross it undetected. It might be wise to stay close to the edges where the few villages might offer some shelter, but they could discuss tactics in the morning. For now it was a relief to rest and enjoy the quietness of the night. Brann slept well, and woke to a morning that, though still warm, was overcast, though not with a look of rain. As the small army ate their morning rations, he said to Tamorine, “It is as well that it is cloudy. We will cast less shadows crossing the Moor.” Later they consulted with Tarn and Gamlin about their route. Brann mentioned his idea of staying closer to the villages, and the others considered it. “The danger is that the villagers might see us, take us for mercenaries and try to attack us”, said Tarn, but Gamlin replied “The villages are small and peaceful. They would be more like to flee.” “I would not wish that”, Brann said. “They might flee from us and fall into less friendly hands.” In the end they decided that they would stay as close as they could to the cover of the villages, but not near enough to alarm any inhabitants.

They moved on again, down the mountainside to the Moor, the trees, though sparser than on their own side of the Mountain, still affording some cover. Once they reached the Moor there would be no more tree cover, and at the edge of it they divided, as planned, into two units of fifty. Brann and Tamorine led their men out onto the Moor. Its surface was covered with matted vegetation, and Brann was concerned that they would leave a trail, but the tough plants sprang back into place as they passed. The ground beneath was not so hard as to make it uncomfortable for walking, but the vegetation was tangled enough in places to trip the unwary, and they proceeded with caution. They kept near to the inhabited edges of the Moor, as they had decided, but suitably distant from the few villages. Brann glanced in their direction as they passed, but saw no signs of life. It could be that the villagers were in hiding for fear of mercenaries, or maybe the villages were deserted after all, and their inhabitants had escaped from, or been captured by, the Dark Lord’s forces. He commented as much to Tamorine, and she too glanced across at the quiet buildings, and said quietly “It is still best that we keep our distance. Who knows but there may be something hiding there.” The camouflage cloaks they wore were of a sludgy green that blended well with the Moor, and their clothing dull coloured too, and with swords sheathed so no bright flash could betray them, they were hidden well enough . Tarn and Gamlin’s troop had moved out on to the Moor too, well behind them, so that if there were any danger ahead they had reinforcements. The open terrain of the Great Moor stretched before them, and even on horseback would have taken a hard day’s riding to cross. On foot it would take twice that, and Brann knew he would be anxious until all of them had crossed it safely.

When night came they were still only just over midway across the Moor. They were in the vicinity of a small hamlet, and when the darkness showed no sign of lights in the few silent buildings, Brann said to Tamorine, “I wonder if we should send scouts to see if that place is unoccupied. It would make better shelter than being on the open moor, if so.” “They would have to be very cautious, then” she commented, “in case there are mercenaries there, in hiding for any who might take shelter there.” They consulted their men, and there were several volunteers to investigate the hamlet. Forin would have gone, but Brann would not spare their Healer, so Harin and Harith were sent, since as hunters they were used to moving quietly and furtively. There was an anxious wait until they returned to report what they had found. “It is deserted”, said Harith. “It seems the people left in a hurry, for not much has been taken.” ” It does not seem like the work of mercenaries” added Harin. “There is still grain in the storage jars and other things which they would have taken. The people must have left for somewhere safer, maybe one of the larger villages. By the signs they have been gone for some time.” “Then it would be safe to stay there for the night?” asked Tamorine. “By all the signs, yes” , Harith replied. So a runner was sent back to Tarn and Gamlin’s troop to tell them to join the others in the shelter of the hamlet, and Brann and Tamorine moved their men, still cautiously, in among the deserted cottages. It was a small place indeed, barely a handful of buildings in total, and it was easy to see why its inhabitants had decided to move somewhere less vulnerable. As Harin had said, many things had been left behind, as though the departing people had taken only what was most necessary or valuable to them. There was no sign of disorder or panic, though, which suggested that the withdrawal had been made calmly and through choice. They chose a couple of the cottages, close to each other, to shelter their two groups of men, and set a guard. The windows of the chosen cottages had wooden shutters, so it was safe to light the lamps they found there, with their oil supply intact.

Brann and Tamorine conferred again with Tarn and Gamlin. “I am glad of this shelter”, Tarn said. “It has been a long march and we can rest secure for the night.” “We have done well so far” Gamlin commented, “and once we are over the Moor, there is more cover. That will be the worst part done.” “Until we near the Dark City”, Brann said, grimly.”It must be guarded.” “I still believe the Dark Lord will be unprepared for an attack.” Tarn answered. “He has done as he willed for so long, he must think himself fully secure.” Tamorine said, “Can it be the same Dark Lord? If so, he must be quite old, for he has held Li’is in thrall for many years.” “Unless the tales are true, and he is not of Li’is at all” Gamlin replied.”In that case he might not even be a man. Has he ever been seen?” “There are other tales” Brann told him. “When our Harbour Town was overcome and men escaped to the Forest they spoke of a tall, pale man with burning green eyes who was the Lord of the mercenaries.” “Whether it is the same,or his kin, he holds the same power and controls the towns and cities of Li’is through his mercenaries.” Gamlin said. “Does it matter who or what he is? We must defeat him or Li’is will be in bondage forever.”

The night they spent in the abandoned hamlet was uneventful, with the changes of guard reporting no sighting of movement nearby. Next morning they took their meal, checked their weapons, and formed up again in their two companies. Brann and Tamorine led their unit out first as before, Tarn and Gamlin waiting before following. The day was again overcast and Brann was relieved that so far whatever powers might be seemed to be with them, keeping the clouds over them so that they cast no shadows on the surface of the Moor. They kept constantly alert, and paused once at a distant movement, but it proved to be only some of the food-beasts, and they moved on again. If the food-beasts were feeding on the Moor, Brann thought, it meant there was nothing near to alarm them, which was reassuring,and they were far enough away from and downwind of the Swordsmen to be untroubled by their presence and so would not flee from and betray them. So their march across the rest of the Moor proceeded without incident, and by dusk they were at its edge, on the lip of a hollow surrounded by bushes. Tamorine sighed with relief, and said, “We have crossed the Moor!” They edged through the bushes to look down into the hollow and saw that there was a building there, a solid-looking farmhouse with a pair of barns attached, and a well. Beyond lay a couple of small fields. The whole was surrounded by a stone wall with a gate. However, like the abandoned hamlet, this building too showed signs of vacancy and neglect. The gate was wide open and half-hanging off its hinges, some of the stones had fallen out of the wall, and the fields were green not with crops, but weeds, and the wild self-sown remnants of some kind of grain. Brann said “The place looks deserted. We may be able to shelter there, and there is a well, if its water is still sweet.” Tamorine agreed, so once again they sent Harith and Harin to inspect the building. Even though they knew the hunters were moving down the slope, Brann and Tamorine could not see them, so skilfully did they move, and they did not go through the broken gate but must have found some other means of entry, returning as silently and invisibly as they had gone. The report was good; no sign of life in the three buildings, which looked even longer deserted than last night’s hamlet. They could shelter there safely. This time Brann and Tamorine decided to take their men down and out of view of the Moor before sending a message to Tarn and Gamlin to follow.

Reassured by Harith and Harin’s report, they marched boldly down to and through the broken gate and went through the closed but unlocked door into the main farmhouse. It had several rooms and would make a good shelter. One of the Forest Swordsmen went to try the water in the well, and came back with some in a wooden cup. Forin, the Healer, smelled it, then tasted it cautiously. “It is good.” he pronounced. Satisfied, they sent their messengers back to tell Tarn and Gamlin where to come, and set about exploring the place more thoroughly. In the end room, apparently some kind of kitchen, Brann noticed a change in the floor surface, and went to investigate, followed by Tamorine. It proved to be a kind of stone trap door set in the stone of the floor, with a metal ring to lift it. “It must be a basement room, or cellar, for storage.” Tamorine said. Brann bent and pulled at the ring. He expected a struggle, for it must have been unused for years, but it moved easily, which made him wary. “It seems to me that this has been used recently, since it was easy to lift.” he told her. “We had best take care, Tamorine.” “Then we should see if there is danger down there” she replied, “or we might be slaughtered as we slept!” “We will wait for Tarn and Gamlin” Brann said, “and meanwhile leave it as we found it.” So he closed the stone again and they went back to the main room of the house to wait for their lieutenants.

When all their force had assembled in the old farmhouse, Brann and Tamorine took Tarn and Gamlin, with Brann’s cousins Jamin and Javan, plus Kerrin and Marvis, to investigate the cellar they expected to find beneath the moving flagstone. Brann was sure it had been moved recently, and though whoever had moved it might have long since left, he felt it was wiser to have the small group of Swordsmen with them, in case of danger. They went back into the room and lifted the stone, laying it aside. They had brought small lamps with them to light the way, and peered cautiously into the space beneath the gap left by the removal of the stone. The first surprise was that the light revealed not, as Brann had expected, a shallow flight of steps leading to a cellar. Instead, they saw a deep shaft with a circular stone stairway descending into its depths. They glanced at each other, then Brann stepped resolutely down onto the staircase. It was solid enough, and a rope hung alongside to hold on to, though he was not sure whether to trust it, in case it was old and rotten. A couple of tugs on the rope proved that it was in fact quite sturdy and strong, and Brann continued cautiously down, with the others following. It was a long climb down, and their small lamps did little to illuminate the deep shaft, but eventually Brann’s feet touched an earthen floor and he moved away from the foot of the stairway so that the others could get down. Holding his lamp aloft, he saw that another surprise awaited them. This was no cellar, but an underground cavern of some size. It seemed empty but for some old, empty barrels and boxes, but as they moved on to explore further they saw that at the far end there was an arched opening into some kind of tunnel. It was a strange place to find beneath a farmhouse. Perhaps the remains of some old mine or quarry? They had seen and heard no signs of life, but were curious to see where the tunnel led, and what might lie beyond, so the whole group advanced, cautiously and ready to draw their swords at any sign of danger, towards the tunnel.

They moved into the tunnel, whispering their comments as they saw that, as they had suspected from the neatly arched opening, it was not – or not wholly – natural, but had been hewn from the rock. The light from their torches showed the old tool marks on the walls. Then, as they moved into what had been the darkness beyond their torchlight, every hand went to its sword-hilt. Their way was blocked by a man. He was tall and lean, dressed in a strange long robe of striped blue and white cloth. His face had a seeming agelessness, looking neither young nor old. His hair was dark, and held in a thin gold circlet. His eyes, though, were what held their attention, for they were an intense, vivid blue – extraordinarily blue, as if lit from within. Brann felt a moment’s fear, remembering that the Dark Lord’s eyes were said to ‘burn’. But surely those eyes were green, not blue? The man moved his hand, which had been at his breast, and suddenly they saw that it had concealed a white, blazing stone. Again Brann thought of the Dark Lord, and the stories of the magical stone he wielded. Yet this man had a kindly, peaceful air about him, and the stone, though awesome, was not threatening. At first they had thought the stranger was alone, but now they saw that he was accompanied by four men, evidently guards. Not mercenaries though, for none of them had ever seen men like these. Their appearance and clothing were completely alien to those of Forest and Mountain alike. All of them were clothed the same, in leather kilts to the knee and blue cloaks pinned at the shoulder, wearing sword-belts and swords at their waists. Each had on one wrist a band of plaited cords in colours of red, blue, yellow and green, and on the other an open-ended gold bracelet. They were barefoot. and their skin was golden toned, their hair glossy black, their eyes dark brown. And each held a tall spear. Tamorine, as unsure as Brann, whispered to him “Is it the Dark Lord?”

Though she spoke so quietly, the man heard her. He smiled, and answered, his voice soft and gentle, but strangely accented. “No, Brann, Tamorine, I am not the Dark Lord.” “Then who are you?” Brann demanded, “And how do you know us? And what is that?” pointing to the bright stone. “I am Rafel, a Lightfriend and the Lightstone-Bearer” the man replied, “and this is the Lightstone. And I know you because your way is prophecied by Light.” “I do not understand.” Tamorine said. Her eyes flicked questioningly over the men ranged behind Rafel, and she asked, indicating them, “And who are these?” It was one of the four warriors who answered her, speaking, as the Lightfriend had, in the common tongue, but with the same oddness of inflection and speech. “We are the Ketai, the guardians of the Lightfriends.” Brann had felt a strange stirring in him at Rafel’s words, remembering the times he had thought to himself that Darkness could not be all. He recalled how he had said to his friends that there must be a power of Light to balance Darkness, or where would honour and love and joy come from? Now he asked aloud, “Then – there is a power of Light? It does exist?” “Yes, Brann” Rafel answered, “there is a power of Light. Light is the only true power. The Darkness is only a usurper.”

FIRST LIGHT

Chapter 2

Now that they were in agreement over the leadership of their two companies, discussions could continue. Brann proposed Tarn as his second-in-command, and Tamorine introduced as hers the man who had stood up for her so fiercely, Gamlin by name. He was a tall, broad-shouldered man, with a rather plain but somehow engaging face, and Brann liked him for his support of his leader. Brann asked “If we cannot bring horses up here, will you be able to provide us mounts, Lord Tamor? There will be many of us in the end, I think.” Tamor replied, “We have some horses to spare, but not enough for an army. Yet I am not sure that it is wise to go mounted to such a battle. Less likelihood of being seen if you march rather than ride.” Baran agreed with him. “You may reach your goal more slowly, but it is easier to hide men than horses, if need be. And no need to be searching for grazing or fodder.” “There is wisdom in that”, Brann accepted.


It was obvious that there was more to be decided than could be dealt with in an evening, and that the men of the Forest would need to stay here for a day or two, but they had expected that. They could sleep in one of the wooden buildings, and would be snug enough with a fire and their cloaks wrapped round them. Baran, however, was invited to share Tamor’s quarters, out of respect to his Lordship. Brann wondered, idly, whether Tamorine had her own quarters, or would share another sleeping hut with her warriors. She would surely be safe among them, honouring her as they did. He wondered, too, if the supplies of the Mountain folk would stand up to the extra burden of their guests, and wished they had thought to at least bring bread with them, if nothing else. It would shame the men of the Mountain if they could not feed their guests well enough. However, next morning they were served an adequate, if not varied, meal, and one of the Lord of the Mountains’ outlying guards came in with news that could greatly ease the burden of supplying them all. “There are food-beasts on the Mountain!” he told Tamor. This was unexpected, as it was not the season, with the possibility of hill-cats with cubs to feed, that the food-beasts would usually venture on to the Mountain. Harith, one of Brann’s huntsmen, laughed, and said, “So – it seems the gods of the hunt favour our gathering!” “More likely”, Tarn muttered to Brann, “the beasts have been disturbed from their usual place by the Dark Lord’s mercenaries!”‘

It seemed that the food-beasts were scattered about the Mountainside, so they split into two hunting parties, arranging to rendezvous later at a hunting shelter midway up the Mountain. Harith and Harin went with one party of Forest and Mountain men to the lower slopes, being more used to tracking in thicker forest. Brann and Tarn accompanied a mix of their own and Tamorine’s men to the higher places, as much to see the lie of the land as for the hunt, for they would need to pass this way when they set out to battle. Tamorine, however, when Brann asked which group she would accompany, said, flatly and without explanation, “I do not hunt.” ‘So’, he said silently to himself,’ you will not kill an animal, yet are happy to do battle with men.’ But then, he thought, no animal had done her harm, while the Dark Lord’s men had killed her father, uncle, and brother. The Lord of the Mountain and Baran, Brann’s father, came out to wish them good hunting. “Take only what the herd can spare, and never the females with young” Tamor added, speaking the old hunting rule. They rode up the mountainside, Brann and his men on horses borrowed from Tamor, while some of the Swordsmen and hunters ran ahead to flush out the food-beasts. The Mountain men had shown some amusement at Tarn’s short bow and its stubby arrows, designed for use among the Forest thickets, compared to their longer, slimmer weapons. But when the food-beasts came bounding in terror from their hiding places in the forested part of the Mountain, it was his arrow that brought one down, and won their grudging admiration. One of their Swordsmen-hunters knelt and dispatched the beast, then, hunting knife in hand, prepared to disembowel their kill. Brann heard Tarn give a sudden exclamation, and saw his friend, in one quick, fluid movement, notch another arrow to his bowstring, draw and fire. For a moment it seemed he was aiming at the kneeling hunter, but then they all saw what Tarn had seen. A great brindled hill-cat, drawn by the smell of blood, was leaping from hiding at the man who knelt there. His head went up in sudden startled awareness of his peril, but even as it leapt, the beast died, as Tarn’s arrow took it in the heart. The dead beast landed heavily on the Mountain man, knocking him sprawling, and his comrades ran to help him. Brann looked at Tarn. “Your eyes were always quick! I did not see the beast.” Tarn grinned. “Perhaps they will think better of my “child’s bow” now!”

The hunter had been helped to his feet, winded but unharmed, and now he came across and stood at Tarn’s mount’s head, laying one hand on the bridle. The man’s garments were stained with blood, the food-beast’s and the hill-cat’s, but none of his own. The horse fidgeted at the blood-smell, and Tarn calmed him, and looked down at the hunter, who was staring up at him. The man was young and dark and wiry with wide grey eyes that now, looking into the face of his rescuer, held a strange resentment. Was his pride hurt? Brann wondered. The man spoke. “I owe you my life.” Tarn, embarrassed, smiled at him and said, “You owe your life to – whatever gods there be.” Tarn was inclined to take gods lightly, but would not trample on others’ beliefs. The man said again. “You saved my life. Now it is yours”, and, seeing that Tarn did not understand, explained. “You are not of the Mountains, not my Sword-Brother. You owed me no loyalty, yet you gave me my life. With us it is that if an outsider should save one of us, then that man’s life is his, to do with as he shall choose.” Now Brann understood the resentment in the man’s eyes. He waited, saying nothing, wondering what Tarn would do. His friend had his own, instinctive wisdom, and Brann trusted it. Tarn said, “You need not have told me that. I would not have known, and you could have gone your way.” “But not with honour”, the other answered. “And you are an honourable man”, Tarn said, looking into the huntsman’s face. “What is your name, friend?” “Kerrin.” “Then, Kerrin of the Mountains, since your life is mine, and I have no use for slaves, my choice is that I give it back to you. Live a free man, with honour. Only do what good you may, to yourself and to others. And”, Tarn added, with a friendly laughter in his face that broke the tension between them and made Kerrin smile back at him, “You shall swear Sword-Brotherhood with me – if you are willing – so that should I have the misfortune” – he grinned again – “once more to save your life, I shall not have to be setting you free of your obligations again.”

Brann grinned too. Another man might have welcomed the chance to make some kind of slave of Kerrin, or sought to impose some other burden on him. Tarn had given him back himself and an offer – not a demand – of friendship. The two would be bound by that more firmly than by any forced loyalty. Kerrin said, “The men of the Forest, too, know the meaning of honour. I shall be glad to swear Sword-Brotherhood with you. But I do not know my brother’s name.” “I am Tarn”, he said, dismounting. He drew his long sword, and he and Kerrin stood and swore Sword-Brotherhood on its hilt, in the midst of a circle of smiling, approving faces, Forest men and Mountain men alike. When they had sworn, Tarn reached for Kerrin’s hand, but the other man said, “This is the handclasp of our Sword-Brethren”, and took him hand to forearm, as if he tested Tarn’s grip. Tarn copied him. Kerrin explained, “In past times, it was to show that the hand was empty of weapons, when Swordsmen met, that each could be trusted. Now it has become the Swordsmen’s handclasp.” “A good tradition” Brann commented.
Their kill had been dealt with and slung over the back of one of the horses. The hill-cat they left lying, assured by the Mountain men that the carcass would soon be cleared by scavenging animals, birds, even other hill-cats. “A dam with cubs to feed is not such a particular feeder.” Kerrin said. They made their way back down to the hunting shelter to wait for the rest of the hunting party, which soon returned with its own kill. One of the Mountain men said, “A good hunting! Now we shall have fresh meat, and enough over to dry and carry with us when we set out to battle.”

The setting out to battle was the focus of discussions once more when the hunting parties had returned to the Fortress and the Lords of Mountain and Forest, with Brann and Tarn and Tamorine and Gamlin, had settled again at the long table to discuss tactics. The question of how many more than their two core groups to take was difficult. “We cannot leave our peoples defenceless.” Baran said. “There must be enough fighting men left behind to guard them.” “Enough must go to make a decent fighting force, but you are right, Baran”, Tamor commented, “we cannot leave Forest or Mountain undefended.” Brann said, “I am thinking we cannot take too large a force. Enough to fight, yes, but the more we take, the more likely we are to be seen and attacked before we reach our target. ” Tamorine agreed with him. “Not a man of ours – or yours – but would be willing to give their lives to defeat the Dark Lord and end his rule, but no sense in losing lives needlessly.” “Besides the need to provision a large force,” Gamlin added, practically. “It is not so far to the Dark City, but we cannot forage on the way.” Tarn considered this, then said, “If we took a force of fifty from each people? One hundred in all? That is a fair number, and I do not think there will be so many defenders at the Dark City. The Dark Lord’s mercenaries are all out about Li’is, harrying and robbing. I believe he is relying on fear and his reputation, and will keep a bodyguard with him, yes, but not a large one, never expecting us to strike at his heartland.”

The others thought about his suggestion, and Tamor said, “That is a large enough force, if it can penetrate the Dark City. And leaves enough behind to defend us if…” he broke off, then, not wanting to mention the possibility of failure, and turned what he had been going to say into “… if his mercenaries should come against us.” But all of them knew what he had really meant. Tamorine said, defiantly, “Better to make the attempt to free ourselves, and die trying, than to live as the Dark Lord’s slaves!” “We will need to call in some of our outliers”, Brann said, knowing that the Mountain folk, like those of the Forest, would not be concentrated all in one place, but in various camps or hiding places, so that the whole of each people could not be attacked at once. Tamor considered. “You and the heart of your force are here now.” he said. “And we can support you for a while. No point in your all going back, and we can continue to make plans.” Baran replied, “There is sense in that. If I return, and Varil with me, he can select the rest of the fighting men, since he has trained them, and knows their strengths and weaknesses. They can bring supplies with them, when they come, to help replenish your stores, and provide for the expedition.” Tamor nodded, and said, “Marvis can go with you, to guide you there and back. Since you return on foot, he can bring you by more hidden ways unsuitable for horses.” “And he is known to our people, they will trust him”, Brann added.

“We will need to cross the Great Moor, once we leave the Mountains”, said Tamorine, returning to the matter in hand, “and that is open land. Yes, it will be as well if we are on foot. Horses would be seen from a distance, and could not be easily concealed. Our cloaks will disguise us well enough against the terrain, at a distance. You have those?” she asked Brann, and he, knowing she meant the cloaks meant both for protection and camouflage, answered, “We do.” She nodded. “Good”. Gamlin said, “It might be as well if we go not as one army, but divided into groups, with gaps between. That way, if either the van or the rear should be attacked, others will be free to come to their aid.” “Maybe”, Tarn commented, “but a smaller group might be more at risk. If we take that course, I would rather we split in two.” “Then half of each force together” , Tamorine said decisively. “We shall not divide into Forest and Mountain again. Our men must learn to live and work and fight together.” Brann agreed, approving her sensible approach, though not in words, lest she should think he patronised her. He wanted her to be sure that he accepted her, now, as his fellow commander of their forces. “There is forest, though not large, on the approach to the Dark City.” Tamorine went on. “The men who lived there before the Dark Lord took it left the forest, for wood as needed, and some shelter from the winds of the Eastern Mountains. That will give us some cover.” She paused, and Brann said “It would be as well to get those at risk into shelter. If we succeed, and any of the Dark Lord’s mercenaries are left loose and masterless, they will be out for what they can get. The hill above the Harbour has caves where we could shelter the old, sick, women and children. Though the Dark Lord’s men hold the Harbour, they do not venture much into the Forest.” “And those at risk here can be brought safe into this Fortress” Gamlin said. “With guards on both places from those we leave behind.”

A smell of roasting meat was wafting through the Fortress Cave, telling them that the evening meal was under way and the day’s kill being prepared. Tamorine stood, and said, “We will continue our discussions when we know who we take, and what is their skill, whether with sword or bow. Do you mean to take your Healer, Brann? It would be as well to have a Healer with us, if any should be wounded.” “I do”, Brann said. “Though he is a Healer, Forin can protect himself if need be, and he knows how to go as quietly as a hunter”. For he remembered Tarn’s appraisal of the young Healer.
“Good” was all she said. But after she had dismissed Tarn and Gamlin, she said, “Come with me, Brann of the Forest. I have a thing to show you.” Wondering what it might be, he followed her, expecting to be taken to some part of the Fortress Cave which he had not yet seen. But she led him outside, away from the protecting stockade, across the Fortress Level, to a place where a great stone slab lay across the green turf. It was bare of names or titles, with only a family insignia carved on it, but Brann guessed what it was before she spoke. “There lie my father and uncle. They died together in battle and are buried together, brothers and Sword-Brethren.” Her voice had been quiet, but now it rose fiercely. “And I will be avenged for them, and for Tamran.” She bowed her head for a moment then, the fierceness gone as soon as it had come, as if she petitioned whatever gods were worshipped here. Brann respected her silence, but when she raised her head again he asked, “Is it certain that Tamran is dead also?” She looked at him strangely, and asked, “How can anything be certain, until it is proved? I do not know if he is dead or alive, until I see him living, or bring his bones home to lie here with them.” She indicated the grave, then went on, “But it is years since he left, on a hunting trail of his own for the Dark Lord’s men, for he had vengeance to take too. And no word for good or ill since. Surely if he lived he would have got some message back, somehow.”

Brann regarded her solemnly, then said slowly, “I have neither brother nor sister, but if I had, I would hope they would be as loyal as you.” She looked back at him, and asked, “Your mother bore no more children?” For she knew as well as he what perils there could be for young children in these times. He shook his head. “She is dead these ten years, of the Swamp Fever. And my father never could love again.” “Oh, I am sorry!” she said, impulsively sympathetic. “My own mother and my aunt are in hiding, for protection”, she added. “And your mother does not mind that you are the Heir, and a Swordsman?” “No”, she said briefly, then, as if to change the subject somewhat, “You have no close kin, then?” “I do”, he replied. “My cousins are with me here, though their father stays to keep the camp, my mother’s brother. And you?” “None that close. My aunt has no children. Only distant kin now, such as Marvis.” She looked him full in the face, her hazel-green eyes unblinking, and said, “My grandfather and I are all that are left of our family. Do you see now why I must fight for us?” “I see clearly”, he answered. “And since we are to be comrades in this battle, I would ask if you will swear Sword-Brotherhood with me.” He thought that for a moment she looked surprised, but pleasantly. Then she smiled at him, and said, “I will, gladly.” Since it was at Brann’s request, they made the vow on the hilt of his sword, and when she extended a hand to him afterwards, he took it in the Swordsmen’s handclasp that Kerrin had shown Tarn. She asked “You use the handclasp in the Forest, too?” “No”, he replied, “We learned it today. Did you not hear what happened on the hunt?” “I heard nothing of the hunt, save that it was successful”, she answered, “I have been in conference with my grandfather and Gamlin.” So he told her of Kerrin, and the hill-cat, and Tarn’s rescue of the hunter, and what happened after. Tamorine smiled, and said, “That was nobly done of Tarn, and Kerrin will be a true Sword-Brother to him. It is good, Brann, that there begin to be Sword-Brotherhoods among us, ours not least.”

It was turning to dusk now, and they began to walk back to the Fortress Cave. As they went she questioned him further. “Tarn is your Sword-Brother also?” “Sword-Brother and bond-brother, since I have no other”, Brann answered promptly. “As near to me in age as makes no difference, and we have been friends almost since birth, since his mother and mine were friends also. And when my mother died, his mother had care of me for much of the time, since my father had still to deal with the matters of his Lordship of the Forest, and Tarn and I grew up together.” “He is an only child, like you?” she asked. “No, he has a sister, a few years younger than us. Poor Marita, she was always at our heels and we tormented her sadly. She always swore she would be a Swordsman too. But she found another craft. We thought she might turn Healer, like her cousin Marama, but she has clever hands and a skill with leathercraft, and apprenticed herself to the man who makes our bridles and gear. She is content there, and now she is betrothed to his nephew.” Tamorine might, he thought, have been merely making conversation, but he felt that her interest was genuine, and she was set on finding out more about her new allies. He questioned in his turn, “And Gamlin? He is another of your distant kin?” “No”, she replied, “but like a brother to me. He was Tamran’s Sword-Brother and close friend – like you and Tarn, I imagine, though he and Tamran met first at the Sword-Training. When Tamran left us…” she sounded sad for a moment, then went on ” he charged Gamlin to have an eye to me in his place, and be a brother to me till he returned.”

A brother? Brann wondered. Or something more? But no, he had seen no sign of anything between those two beyond respect and comradeship, no tenderness. She was Gamlin’s commander and he her devoted lieutenant, that was all. They had come to the stockade now and passed without challenge, recognised by the guards, and into the Hall of the Fortress Cave. Here Tamorine turned and smiled at him. “Time to refresh ourselves, before the evening meal”, she said. “I will see you at meat – Sword-Brother.” She did not wait for a reply but turned and walked away with a light step towards the further end of the Hall.’ And a different meal it will be’ Brann thought to himself, ‘from yesterday’. For already the slight hostility roused by the Forest men’s wonder at Tamorine’s Heirship had disappeared with their – and his – acceptance of her. Somehow the sword bout he had fought with her had been taken by the Mountain men as he had meant it, as his understanding of her as a worthy ally. ‘We begin to understand each other’, he thought again, ‘and we face a common enemy. Yes, I think it will be well.’ For one fleeting moment he felt a pang of doubt, wondering if all this was folly, but remembered Tamorine’s defiant assertion that it was better to die trying to free themselves of the Dark Lord’s reign than to live as his slaves. And that was what all Li’is would become, surely, if they did not make the attempt, at least. Though the Dark Lord was well established, still there were many pockets of resistance, and if once they could take the Dark City and its Lord, the people of Li’is would rise up and rid themselves of his mercenaries and his bondage.

FIRST LIGHT

CHAPTER 1

Brann reined in his horse and stared across the clearing. After a few moments he began to curse, quietly and viciously. The cursing continued as he rode over to inspect the ruins of the turf-roofed bothy, finding, as he had expected, the dead bodies of the occupants nearby, mown down by arrow and sword in their flight. He saw the open gate of the cattle pen and the churned up path made by the animals’ hooves and the hoofprints of the horses of the men who had driven them away. And, trampled into the mud by the passing hooves, another body. A boy of about ten, his head almost severed from his body by the savage side-swipe of a sword, his cattle-tally still clutched in his lifeless hand. Brann felt sickness and fury rise in him. He half turned in the saddle and shouted “Tarn!” His friend came riding in from the Forest, and grimaced at the bloody scene. “It is the Dark One’s mercenaries again!” Brann said. “They will not fight against Swordsmen, but they are very brave against such foes as this!” He indicated the victims. “Old folks, pregnant women, and children.” He cursed again. “Where is the man of this place?” “Away, or taken prisoner”, Tarn answered.

The two young men slid from horseback and went to examine the bodies. The boy and the old couple were obviously dead, but the woman, though a black arrow was embedded in her back, groaned as they touched her. She was still alive, though barely. Brann said “Can we get her to the camp, to the Healer? Or bring him here?” Tarn considered. “One journey there, or two there and back? She is like to die whichever we do. But if we get her to the Healer in time, he may save the babe in her belly.” “Then let you take her to him” Brann said, “and I will see to the bodies. I have known the Dark One’s followers do foul things to the dead. I would prevent that, if I may.” As carefully as possible they carried the wounded woman to the horses. Tarn mounted and took her in the crook of his arm, riding off as quickly as he dared with such a burden. When his friend had gone, Brann turned to his sad task, deciding to carry the bodies into the ruined bothy and pull the remains down over them as a grave-mound, until they could be decently buried. Thinking to get the worst over with first, he took off his cloak and went to the cattle pen, where he wrapped the blood-soaked, mud-plastered corpse of the boy from head to foot, tightly and with great care. He was very much afraid that that hideously-lolling head would fall away completely. He was carrying the piteous bundle back to the bothy when he heard a shout, and turned to see a man at the edge of the celaring, a large bundle of sticks on his shoulder.

Dropping his bundle, the man gazed round wildly. Brann laid down the boy’s body and made a move towards the man, but before he could speak, the other launched himself at Brann, knife in hand, screaming “Murderer!” It was a perilous situation, for Brann dared not use his sword lest he should kill or seriously wound the man, yet was himself in danger from the knife. Somehow he managed to avoid the knife and grasp the man’s wrist, grappling with him, tightening his grip till the knife dropped to the ground. All the time he was shouting at the man, trying to penetrate his despairing fury, but in vain. Once disarmed, though, the man suddenly lost all fight. Staring at Brann with wild, wide eyes set in a face white with grief, the man panted, “Kill me too, then – since you have destroyed all I loved!” Brann, still holding him firmly, gave the man a little shake and said, not unkindly, “Listen to me, man! I did not do this thing! I only found the place so, and was laying the bodies to rest.” “Then what were you stealing?” the man demanded. “I was stealing nothing”, Brann retorted. “It was the child – the boy. I did not want – whoever cared for him – to see him so.” The man’s wild eyes filled suddenly with tears, and he gave a deep groan that seemed to come from the depths of his soul. “My son? My Kerith?”he asked, dazedly, going limp in Brann’s grasp and sinking to his knees.

Brann knelt beside him, putting a comforting arm round the man’s shoulders as they leaned over the pathetic little bundle. “Unwrap him”, the man said at last. Brann protested “Better you do not see him so – better to remember him as he was.” “No!” the other answered. “Better I do see him so, that the memory will give me more strength to hate those who did this. I will find them and kill them for it, I swear!” Silently, unwillingly, Brann unwrapped the corpse. The boy’s father gave one cry of horror that stabbed through Brann’s heart and mind. Then he cradled the ruined little body in his arms and collapsed with it, sobbing, to the ground. Brann rose, leaving the man to his grief, keeping guard over him, hand on sword-hilt, lest there should still be danger. At last the man was done, for now, with mourning his son and, refusing Brann’s help, wrapped the dead boy again in the cloak and carried him into the bothy. He stopped to weep again for the old couple before he and Brann laid them beside the boy. Then, as if suddenly realising, he cried, “But where is my wife, my Lyrine? Oh, gods, if they have taken her…” “No”, Brann said, very gently. “We found her too, wounded and barely alive. My friend has taken her to our Healer. But I doubt she will live.” The man looked up at him. “I love my wife, Swordsman. I left my people, and she hers, for our love. But I would rather she were dead than alive in the hands of those -” he spat out a foul word. “Let us finish our work here and I will take you to her”, Brann told him.

“I am sorry I attacked you”, the other said, ” but I thought you were one of them. You have been kind, to me and mine. I will not forget. Tell me your name, that I may remember you.” “I am Brann of the Forest”, Brann said. “And you?” “I am Marvis. Once I belonged to the people of the Mountains, as my Lyrine belonged to your people. But she and her parents ” – he glanced towards the bodies of the old couple – ” accepted me with love and kindness, and we lived together here, half-way between Mountain and Forest.” As they turned to the task of pulling down the ruined home-place to make a temporary grave-mound for the three bodies, Brann said, “Once your people and mine were enemies, and our ways are different. Yet though we are still wary of each other, we have lived at peace for six generations now, and I think it is time that we spoke together about the Darkness that has come upon us. If the people of Li’is are divided, the Darkness will prosper. If we make an alliance against it, we may defeat it. ” “I would gladly fight with you against the Dark One, Brann of the Forest. I was a Swordsman and a hunter once, though I have been a tender of land and cattle since I wed Lyrine.”

Marvis’ horse had been stolen by the raiders, and they had to share Brann’s mount as they rode back to Brann’s father’s camp. As they reached it, Tarn came towards them, and Brann quickly explained Marvis’ presence, then asked “Tarn, what of the woman – Marvis’ wife?” Tarn shook his head. “I am sorry, Marvis – she is dying. The Healer is with her.” They took Marvis to the Healer’s tent. Lyrine had been made as comfortable as possible, and the Healer was at her side, keeping careful watch over her. Tarn said, “Healer, this is her husband.” The Healer laid a gentle hand on Marvis’ arm. “There is nothing I can do for her. I am sorry”, he said. “But once it is over, I may save the babe – if you go quickly, and leave me to my work. Do you understand?” “Yes”, Marvis said, quietly. “Thank you.” He knelt beside the dying woman and held her in his arms, murmuring endearments, kissing her face. Lyrine’s eyelids fluttered. She managed to look once into her husband’s face, she gasped as though she was trying to speak, and then she went limp, lifeless in his arms, eyes staring sightlessly upward. “Quickly now!” the Healer commanded urgently. “Brann, Tarn, take him away.” They were afraid Marvis would cling to his beloved dead, but he had understood the Healer’s commands and went with them. Outside the tent they tried to comfort him, but all their thoughts were on what was happening inside the tent, as the Healer fought to save the dead woman’s unborn child. At last, they heard the thin, protesting cry of a newborn child. The tent-flap opened, and the Healer stood there. There was blood on his robe, and on his hands, but in those hands lay a small babe, a boy-child, also blood-smeared, but alive, his cries growing louder and stronger as they listened. Marvis gave a little cry and reached out for his newborn son, holding the tiny, living body close to him. With tears in his eyes he stared at the babe, and then at the Healer. “You have brought life out of death for me this day”, Marvis told the Healer, his voice shaking with emotion. ” I thought I had lost all that I loved – but this child is left to me, because of your skill. And your kindness “, he added, speaking to Brann and Tarn.

In the days that followed, they helped Marvis bury his dead, and his baby son – named Lyris after his mother – was put into the care of a kindly woman who nursed him with her own babe. The child thrived, and Marvis had time to grieve for those he had lost, and then begin to make plans for the future. Brann, meanwhile, had been speaking to his father, the Lord of the Forest and the Harbour, about his ideas concerning an alliance against the Dark One. “We have had no quarrel with the Mountain folk for six generations”, Brann said. “And for two, they, like us, have been under this Dark One’s dominion. You are Lord of the Harbour – but who holds the Harbour? Who holds our town there, and patrols the Forest edges? We are hiding here in camps in the Forest, as Marvis’ folk are hiding in the Mountains. Neither of our peoples is strong enough – alone. But together – together, my father, we might defeat his forces.” “An alliance?” his father asked. “And who will lead it? And how shall we find the Mountain folk to propose this alliance, since they are hiding in the Mountains? If we go among their Mountains, they may think we come to attack them – even, that we are some of the Dark One’s creatures.” “We will send Marvis with our message.” Brann said. “He wishes, now, to return to his own people. He has lost his Lyrine, and there is nothing to keep him among us now that she is gone. He feels the memories may be less painful if he is away from the place where it all happened. Oh, he is not ungrateful, my father. But he is lonely, and hurt, and he needs to be with his old friends – which does not mean he will forget the new ones. When the babe is strong enough, he will be on his way. And he will take any message we may have for the Lord of the Mountains.”

“Which still does not answer my other question. Do not think I am opposed to your idea, Brann my son. I too am weary of hiding and oppression. Still, we need to consider this carefully. Who will lead, and who follow? Our people, and those of the Mountains, are brave, but proud. I do not think either will give the way to the other.” “There is no need”, Brann said. “We cannot risk either you or the Lord of the Mountains in battle. There must be someone still to lead our peoples, if the alliance should fail. Let us propose to the Lord of the Mountains that we send two equal forces, under two equal leaders – the Heir of the Forest and the Heir of the Mountains. We shall be allies, making joint decisions. If the Lord of the Mountains and his Heir feel as you and I do, there should be no problem.” “And what is this joint force to do? You talk of defeating the Dark One, but how?” “There is only one thing we can do. Somehow, we must attack the Dark City.” “Brann, my son! This Dark Lord has powers we cannot understand. When he first appeared in Li’is, men fought against him, and were defeated, and brought into slavery. He overcame their city, and turned it into his dark fortress. No one knows where he came from, and some say he is not born of Li’is at all. He is no ordinary enemy, and brave as you and our men are, and those of the Mountains, you may be no match for him.” “Yet we can try! Father, how many men have been killed or enslaved, children slaughtered, women and maidens raped and tortured, goods and lands stolen, by his mercenaries and in his name? We are Swordsmen of Li’is, and if we do nothing to try to stop this thing, we are no Swordsmen at all. I will march against this tyrant, dark powers or no, if I have to go alone!” “Not alone”, said a voice from the doorway of the tent. Tarn stood there, with Marvis beside him, smiling at Brann. “Marvis and I at least will march with you. Is it not so?” he asked his companion. Marvis nodded, but grimly, not smiling like Tarn. “Aye. I owe a blood debt to the Dark Lord.” “Very well”, Brann’s father answered. “You are willing to take a message to your Lord for us, Marvis?” “Yes, I will take the message. He knows I am loyal to him, though I left the Mountains for Lyrine’s sake.”

“Do you think your people will be willing to fight the Dark Lord? They may be afraid of his powers.” Brann’s father said. Marvis replied “Some of our people believe in the old gods still, yet they have failed us. If their power is so little, why should his be greater? I do not believe in sorcery.” “Yet there are stories…” “No doubt spread to frighten us, and keep him in power”, Tarn said. Tarn was a sceptic as far as matters of faith were concerned. Brann had his own ideas. “If it is true that there is a dark power”, he said, “then it seems to me that there must also be, somewhere, a power of light. If there were only darkness in the world, where would love and honour and courage and joy come from? And if we are determined to fight against the darkness, it may be that the light will aid us.” “Well, it may be so”, his father answered. “We are agreed then, on sending a message to the Lord of the Mountains?” Without waiting for an answer , he reached into a small casket which stood on his folding table and produced a little writing scroll, a carved pen, and a cut-down, hollowed and stoppered horn containing ink made from the blackish juice of a purple Forest berry. With them he wrote the message which Marvis was to carry, using not the Old Tongue, but the common speech of all Li’is. “From the Lord of the Forest and of the Harbour to the Lord of the Mountains, greetings. We send you this message by Marvis of the Mountain people, who will tell you of the evil that has befallen him at the hands of the Dark Lord’s mercenaries. It seems to us that since there has been peace between our peoples for many years, since before the Dark One’s coming, and since each of our peoples has suffered under him, we should unite in opposition to him. We are proposing that there should be a meeting between us to discuss this matter, and that the Lord and his Heir of the Forest and Harbour and the Lord and his Heir of the Mountains, with a small number of trusted men, should come together to talk. Since we of the Forest are proposing the meeting, we will leave the choosing of the place for it to you of the Mountains, if you agree to come.” Having signed the scroll, he gave it to Brann, who read it aloud, then asked. “Do you think that will be acceptable to your Lord, Marvis?” “I believe so. It is a fair offer”, Marvis said, “even to his choosing the meeting place.”

It was a few weeks before Marvis was ready to leave for the Mountains with his baby son. Brann and Tarn went with him to the edge of the camp. Marvis had Lyris slung in a carrying-cradle on his back, his small bundle of possessions in his hand, and the vital message to the Lord of the Mountains tucked inside the breast of his shirt. Brann and Tarn wished their new friend well with his journey, and took a regretful leave of him, but Marvis said, with a look at once smiling and determined. “You are not rid of me yet, my friends! I will be back to fight alongside you.” In fact , it was only about ten days before Marvis returned, wearing strangely-cut clothing and riding one of the nimble-footed horses of the Mountains. He was welcomed by all, reassured Lyris’ erstwhile foster-mother that his son was doing well in the Mountains, then said to Brann, “I bring my Lord’s reply to your father. He is in favour of a meeting.” “You were well-received, then?” “Yes, indeed – though there have been some changes – some sad changes- since I left the Mountains. But that is for others to tell, not me.” They had reached Brann’s father’s tent by now, and went in to deliver the message. The Lord of the Mountains, after the customary greetings, had written,”Marvis has told us of the help and friendship he has received among your people and your kindness in his time of need. For this I send you my own thanks, since he is, though I believe he has not told you so, a kinsman of mine. For your proposal, we agree to the meeting, and that it is time to make a stand against this enemy. If we can agree together, it will be good to make this alliance. Since you give us choice of meeting place, we believe it would be safest to meet at our Fortress Cave, high on the Mountain. Come with your company to the Axehead Rock above the Marsh, which marks our boundaries, and Marvis will conduct you from there. After dark, two days from receiving this, is the time of meeting.” “When they had read this, Marvis said “Someone will need to come with us to tend the horses. Part of the journey cannot be made on horseback.” “That is easily arranged”, Brann assured him. “How many men shall we take ? How many will the Lord of the Mountain bring?” “About twenty” Marvis said. “Where is the Healer, Brann? I have a gift for him, from my Lord.” Tarn, who was with them, went out to find the Healer, and Brann asked, “And you are his kinsman, Marvis?” “Just a cousin, Brann. But since the Dark One Came, Tamor has lost many of his kinsmen- and some of his closest.”

Tarn returned with the Healer, who enquired eagerly after the babe. “He is growing fast” Marvis said. “Every time I look at him I thank you in my heart, Healer.” For a moment his eyes misted, then he said, “See, I have brought you a gift from the Mountains.” He had been holding on his arm a pannier basket he had taken from his mount. Now he removed the lid and offered the contents for the Healer’s inspection. To Brann’s uninitiated eyes they were an unimpressive collection of crumpled leaves, withered flowers and muddy roots, but the Healer received the offering with a cry of joy. “Blueroot!” he exclaimed, rummaging in the basket, “And starweed, waterbread, bitterherb – ah!” in delight, finding a handful of crumpled pods, whose dark berries gave off a very strong, sweet smell – ” even sweetwood! Thank you, Marvis. These are treasures indeed!” The Dark One steals the treasures of every people”, Marvis commented, “but in Healing he takes no delight. The healing herbs still grow safely in the Mountains.” “Once we could trade for them safely too”, Brann’s father said, ” but now the Dark One’s spies are everywhere, and even if something is of no value to him, they will despoil it for the pleasure of it. Guard your herbs well, Marvis.” The Healer, still exclaiming with pleasure, carried away his basket of treasures to pound, dry, infuse, or otherwise prepare for use. It was clear that he would have a busy and happy few days. For the others, though, the meeting and proposed alliance loomed large.


Brann’s father left it to him to choose who to take, and he and Tarn sat under a tree at the edge of the camp, giving an appearance of casual ease, as they discussed the matter. It was obvious that Tarn would be one of the party. He and Brann were Sword-Brethren, had been friends since childhood, as long as either of them could remember. But who else, of all their friends and Sword-Brethren , to take? Brann sat with his back against the tree and his knees drawn up in front of him, leaning slightly forward, which caused his dark hair to flop into his grey eyes as he frowned in concentration. The frown and the strong, square bones of his face, made him look quite belligerent. Tarn, who was sprawling on the grass, looked merely puzzled. He had a rather long, narrow face that could have looked gloomy save that his habitual expression was cheerful and friendly. He had light brown hair and hazel eyes, and in general his appearance led casual acquaintances to consider him a pleasant but rather ingenuous fellow. In this they were wrong, for Tarn was clever and quick-witted, not easily deceived, and though he was a loyal friend, he did not give his friendship lightly, though he treated all he met with equal courtesy. “Erris, for one”, Brann said, and Tarn agreed. Erris was cool-headed, diplomatic, but dogged. “That means Yarris too”, Tarn added, for the brothers were inseparable. “Celon has a good head, too” Brann went on, knowing that Tarn would not push forward his own cousin, Sword-Brethren though they were, as well as kinsmen. He sighed. “And I suppose I must take my own two cousins, though they are so impetuous!” “But honourable, and brave”, Tarn said. “Jamin and Javan will not shame you, Brann.” “That is five”, Brann said, considering. “Roth?” “Maybe” Tarn said, “but he may have other things on his mind.” He grinned as he spoke, for Roth was soon to be wed. “Perhaps someone older, for counsel”, Brann suggested. “The Healer?” “We could not take him away from the camp”, Tarn argued. “His apprentices are not as skilled as he. Perhaps we should take one of them, though – it might be as well to have a Healer with us.” “Not Marama. We cannot take a maiden”, Brann pondered. “Forin, then”, Tarn said, decisively, and when Brann stared at him, he said, “Yes, I know he is quiet, and shy. But that is his advantage , Brann. I know of no one in the camp, apart from the most skilled hunters, who can move as quickly and quietly as Forin. And he is clever – very clever, in his own way. He can find the strangest solutions to problems- and they work.” “I will take your word for it”, Brann said. “Very well, then. Erris and Yarris, Celon, Jamin, Javan, Forin – and you and I. That is eight, and Marvis said about twenty. Who else?” “Does Marvis fight for us, or for the Mountains?” Tarn asked. “Both – and neither”, Brann said. “He is the link between us. We cannot claim him, Tarn. If with any, he fights with the Mountains, but for his own revenge. I think he will not be truly part of either company.” “Let us assume Roth will come”, Brann continued. “My father leads us, and does not count. Tavan, Linnath and Aldaran.” “Tavan and Javan do not always agree”, Tarn commented, “though they are kinsmen.” “If they cannot agree on something as important as this, I will knock their thick heads together!” Brann said, wrathfully. “I need them – the Forest needs them!”

“You suggested elders, for counsel”, Tarn reminded him. “If Kolar will come, that is enough”, Brann said. “He and my father between them hold most of the wisdom of our people.” “Not Sain?” “He is wise, but timid. I think he would not do well if there were a dispute. Oh, of course! We must have Varil!” Brann exclaimed , naming the Sword-Trainer. “Then not his son”, Tarn said. “The Sword-Training must go on.” “And what of the New Swords?” Brann asked. “We have not considered them.” “Should we leave out experienced men to make way for New Swords?” “Ordinarily, no. But I remember Varil saying that there were some promising Swordsmen in the last batch. That tall, red-haired lad, for example – what is his name?” “Larik, I think. Perhaps we should consult Varil.” Brann agreed, and they went to see Varil. Explaining about their plans for an alliance, and the proposed meeting, they first asked him to join him, then asked his opinion on their list of candidates. “You are putting a lot of care into this meeting, Brann.” Varil commented, shrewdly. Brann looked sideways at the grizzled, rugged man and said, slowly, “It is my thought that this company may be the heart of our fighting force, Varil. ” The Sword-Trainer nodded. “I thought it might be.” “We wanted to know about the New Swords. You said one or two had special skill- Larik, was it – the red-headed one?” “Aye. And Gern, the little, quick, dark one. He can make the sword dance in his hand. Not too much inexperience, though, on a task like this.” Varil’s tawny eyes half-closed in thought. “Your Marvis is not the first man to leave the Mountains for love of a Forest maiden.” he said. “Kenan is half of Mountain blood, and knows some of the ways of the Mountains – take him. And do not rely wholly on swords. You, Tarn, are a good archer,as well as a Swordsman. I would take others.” Brann ran through the tally of his Swordsmen, in his head. “Erlin has some bow-skill”, he said, “and a way with horses, which might be useful. Rais?” “Not Rais, if you will take my advice”, Varil said. “He can be clumsy.” “Aman” ,Tarn said, “is my equal with the bow.” “But not with the sword”, Brann answered. “You are seeking bowmen now, not Swordsmen”, Varil reminded him. “Harin and Harith”, Tarn suggested. “They are hunters”, Brann said. “Exactly”, Varil answered him. “Good bowmen, fast runners, silent movers, skilled trackers, and quick and clean with a knife. Swordsmanship is not the only skill, Brann. Be wary that you do not take too much pride in your own skills and look down on those which are different.” Brann acknowledged the truth of the Sword-Trainer’s words, the said, “Let this be our company, then.” He checked them off on his fingers as he spoke. “My father leads us. For counsel, Kolar, and you, Varil. Swordsmen – you and I, Tarn, then Erris and Yarris, Celon, Jamin and Javan, Roth, Tavan, Linnath, Aldaran, and Larik and Gern of the New Swords. Kenan, for Mountain lore, and Forin, for Healer. And bowmen – you again, Tarn, Erlin, Aman, and Harin and Harith for their hunting skills also.” “It seems good to me” ,Tarn said. “Well-balanced.” “To me also”, Varil said. Brann grinned suddenly. “Then all I have to do is persuade them to come!”

In truth, there was not much persuading to do. Everyone was angry at the Dark Lord’s continuing robbery and domination of their towns and lands, and their apparent inability to do anything about it.The chance which Brann now offered them to at least retaliate against their foe, stirred them all. Even Roth, the bridegroom-to-be, was eager to join them. And so, at the appointed time, led by Marvis, they set out for the rendezvous. In elder times, when men spoke the Old Tongue, such an embassy would have of courtesy gone under truce and unarmed, but in these days, with the peril of the Dark Lord’s mercenaries always in mind, there was dispensation, and they went armed with swords, knives, and the shorter bows and stubbier arrows that served better in the Forest thickets than the traditional, more elegant ones. Skirting round the wide, disease-ridden swamp that was the flood plain of the White River, they made their way through thick forest to the Axehead Rock. The huge, wedge-shaped rock, named for its shape, stood in the River’s course, and split off from the main River a small branch rivulet, which slipped down through the trees of the Forest, and was the water supply for Brann’s camp. The Rock marked the boundary between the Forest people and the Mountain folk, and once they were above it, though still in the Forest, they were in strange territory. Here the trees were less dense, and they could see more of the reddish-brown carpet of last year’s leaves overlying the rich black earth which their horses’ hooves churned up. The ground began to rise steeply, and Marvis led them silently upward through the humid shade of the trees, following the course of the River, speaking only to warn them of dangers such as animal holes or the twining, hook-thorned ground-vines, which might cause a horse to fall. As they rode on, Brann became aware of a dull, rushing sound. At first he was not sure that it was not the sound of his own blood in his ears, for he was hot and slightly breathless in the still, humid air. But the noise grew louder and deeper. He called to Marvis, who was riding just a little in front, “Marvis, what is that noise?” “It is the Falls of Vandar”, Marvis said, and glanced up through the trees at the sky. “It is near sunset, and we must be there before nightfall. It is not a climb to be made in the dark.”

Marvis quickened his pace, and they followed. The roaring, rushing noise grew thunderously loud, and at last they rounded one final huge clump of trees, and saw the source. It was cataract in full spate, a wall of white water pouring smoking and roaring over an almost sheer cliff. At the foot of the cliff it flowed frothing and bubbling over stones to run away as the White River. It was an amazing, awe-inspiring sight. Marvis let them admire the majestic spectacle for a few minutes, before he pointed to one side of the Falls and said, “There lies our path. We must leave the horses now.” They followed his pointing finger and saw that there was a rough brushwood corral set up ready for them There were already one or two mounts there, and two lads watching them. Marvis rode across and spoke to them, then returned to say, “The lads will guard the horses. Tamor thinks it best that all your company are present at our meeting. He has sent some of his company ahead to welcome us. The rest will be here soon. Hurry, we must go up before dark.””Up where?” Tarn asked, as they trotted towards the corral.”Up the Stairway”, Marvin answered, pointing again to the side of the Falls. Brann saw then that a faint pathway led up the side of the cliff, taking advantage of a shallow cleft in the rock, with here and there a foothold cut out where there was no natural hold to be had. Though the cliff was not too high for a man to climb, it was very steep, and the path looked a rough and perilous “Stairway” indeed. Once up there, though, they would be safe against any attack, since one man might defend the head of the Stairway against all comers. Marvis started up the steep Stairway, and one by one they followed him. The fitness and stamina of the Forest men stood them in good stead now, even the older men, Varil, Kolar, and Baran, Brann’s father, making the climb without problems.As they reached the top of the Stairway, two of the Mountain men, in clothes like Marvis’, were waiting for them, and greeted them courteously. Brann looked around him. They were standing on a wide, grassy shelf. To one side ran the river that fed the cataract, bubbling up from underground, under the rocky wall of the mountainside that backed the shelf. The shelf led a long way back, and where it ended was a huge cave in the mountainside, originally natural, but bearing signs of enlargement. Several wooden buildings were built on to this natural shelter, and a strong wooden stockade, with thick gates, now open but guarded, surrounded the whole. “This is the Fortress Level”, Marvis explained, and that is our Fortress Cave.”

“We should be safe enough here”, Baran commented. “Is there any other way to this place?” “Many years ago there was a pathway up the flank of the Mountain, but when the Dark One came, my people sealed it off with a fall of rock. The only other way to it now is over the Mountain by the Spearcleft Pass, and that is narrow enough for a small body of men to guard.” It was now growing dark, and they headed for the shelter of the Fortress Cave. Tarn asked “Will the Lord of the Mountains make the climb in the dark?” “No”, Marvis said. “He is above us on the Mountain. We mostly stay between the Falls and the Pass, nowadays.” Entering the cave, they saw that part of it had been closed in , with walls of rock and timber and a wooden roof, to make a Hall. Into this Marvis conducted them. There was a fire, for though the weather was hot the cave was cool, especially now that the sun had set. The two men who had accompanied them lit torches at the fire and placed them in sconces round the walls. A long, rough-hewn table surrounded by benches stood in the middle of the Hall, ready for the discussions. As they stood looking round the Hall, there was a sound of talking and the tread of booted feet outside, and Marvis said, “My Lord has arrived.” They all swung round to face the entrance, and waited. A burly, grey-haired man strode into the Hall, smiling. He had such an open, honest face that they warmed to him at once. Behind him a slim figure, cloaked and hooded so that they saw little of his face, led in the rest of the company of Mountain men. Baran stepped forward. “Tamor, Lord of the Mountains? I am Baran, Lord of the Forest and the Harbour.” “Welcome”, the other said, in a deep rich voice. ” It is time there was peace and friendship between us – especially since we face one common enemy.” There was a pause as some of the Mountain men brought food to the table for the Friendship Meal ; rough bread and cheese, dried meat of the food beasts hunted here, mountain berries, sour wine – for the Dark Lord and his mercenaries took the best of what was to be had. The two Lords seated themselves opposite each other, the two Heirs, with their men, at either end. The torchlight was dim, and it was not easy to distinguish faces. Still, Brann, who was naturally curious to see his counterpart, found it almost impossible to catch a glimpse of the face of the Heir of the Mountains. When they had eaten together, thus confirming their new friendship, the discussions proper began.

Baran called Brann forward, and said,” The proposal we had was this: two equal and allied forces, under two equal commanders – the Heir of the Forest and the Heir of the Mountains. This is Brann, my son, the Heir.” Tamor smiled at Brann, and said, strangely, “Well, we shall see.” He beckoned to the slim, cloaked figure, who came to his side. “The Heir of the Mountains”, he said, nodding to his Heir. The cloak was flung back, and there stood – to Brann’s astonishment – a girl. She wore men’s clothes, and a sword at her side, her honey-coloured hair was pulled carelessly back and pinned close to her head, but undoubtedly she was a girl – a not unattractive one, too, Brann thought, bemusedly. He must have looked slightly scornful, for the girl frowned, her nostrils flaring slightly, and her hazel-green eyes glared at him. A low, hostile murmur ran through the Forest men, and Tavan, never diplomatic, hissed, “It is a trick!” The girl lifted her head and stared at them challengingly. “It is no trick”, she said, in a firm, measured voice, rather deep for a girl, that surprised Brann. “You asked for the Heir of the Mountains, and that is who I am.” Still, her assurance somehow nettled Brann, and he asked, “Has the Lord of the Mountains no male kin, then?” He was instantly remorseful when Tamor answered , “I had male kin, yes. My son, Tamorine’s father, and his brother were killed fighting the Dark One’s forces. Tamran, her brother, disappeared in pursuit of other of his mercenaries, and since that was years ago, is presumed dead also. Tamorine is all that remains to me.” There was no anger in his voice towards Brann, who flushed for shame, and exclaimed, “Oh, Lord Tamor, Lady Tamorine, forgive me! My words were graceless and dishonourable!” Tamorine said nothing, though she smiled faintly – more at his discomfiture, Brann felt, than in sign of forgiveness. Tamor, though, was gracious in his dismissal of the whole matter, then said, “I know it is strange to you to find my Heir is Tamorine. But she has undergone Sword-Training like any other, and is better than most. And she has her own debts to repay the Dark Lord.””Sword-Training is one thing”, Tarn said quietly. “Battle is another.”

The girl turned towards him with a strange smile. Lifting the loop of hair that lay against her left cheek, she turned that side of her face towards the light and said, “Did I come by this in Sword-Training, Forest man?” For down the side of her face lay a long scar, thin and silvery, ending only a little above the curve of her jaw. “I have fought with my people – ask them!” Varil, the Sword-Trainer, said, “Truly, one may judge a leader by their followers.” The Mountain men had kept silence, but now one of the stood, and said, scowling, “What if our Lady Tamorine is a maiden and not a man? She is as brave and honourable and skilled with the sword as any of our Swordsmen. All of us are proud to be her Sword-Brethren.” “But if we are to ride against the Dark Lord, is there not a double danger to her?” protested Brann. “If she were captured…” “If I were captured I would free myself – one way or another”, the girl said, calmly. Brann knew that she meant, though she did not say it, that she would find means to kill herself rather than fall, a woman, into the hands of the Dark Lord’s forces. He did not doubt that she meant it, too. But his own sense of honour still argued against it. The man who had spoken before said, “Lord of the Forest, your proposal is honourable. But there will be no alliance unless we are led by the Heir of the Mountains – our Lady Tamorine.” Tamorine looked Brann straight in the eyes and said, “Perhaps, Lord Brann of the Forest, you would prefer to try my sword-skill for yourself?” There was neither mockery nor challenge in her clear tones, only the offer to match him fairly, not in anger, but in equal contest. And she probably was his equal, he admitted to himself, meeting her candid hazel-green gaze. Now he was really seeing her, not a girl in men’s clothing with a sword at her side, but a warrior of the Mountain people. She had the stance, the poise, the movements of a Swordsman, and – the faint scar down her cheek showed it – a Swordsman’s experience.Accepting her now as an equal, Brann did the acceptable thing in answer to her offer. Taking off his cloak, he flung it to Tarn, then drew his sword and extended it towards Tamorine, but downwards at an angle, so that the point of his blade touched the ground at her feet.

There was an approving murmur from the Mountain men, and Tamorine in turn discarded her cloak, drew her sword, and extended it as Brann had done, so that their swords crossed. Varil, the Sword-Trainer, instinctively came forward to set them in position for the bout, being scrupulously fair about it, even appealing to Tamorine’s men to protest if they found him in the wrong, but none did. A silence fell, but there was no tension in it, only the interest of Swordsmen. Varil gave the signal, and they began. Tamorine did indeed have all the skills her lieutenant had boasted of, and if Brann had still harboured any scruples about fighting a sword-bout with a maiden, they rapidly disappeared. Skilful Swordsman that he was, Tamorine was his match. She made him work hard, moving with speed and agility. Far from being a handicap, her slighter frame gave her an advantage. But Brann too was quick and lithe, and so evenly matched were they that neither could claim a touch on the other. At last Varil declared the bout over,and a dead heat, a decision neither Forest nor Mountain men could fault. Brann, hot and sweating, turned to the equally flushed and perspiring girl, and said, smiling, “You are a noble opponent, Lady Tamorine, but I am glad I shall be fighting alongside you, and not against you.” It seemed to take a moment for her to realise what he meant, his acceptance of her as joint leader of their forces. Then she smiled back. It seemed to change her whole face. Before she had seemed, not quite sullen, but full of suppressed sadness, no doubt at the loss of her kinsmen. Now she was bright and valiant, and though she were a maiden, still a Sword-Brother to trust and be glad to have with him in battle.

LIGHT

Light
You are Light
You are Light uncreated, eternal, unchanging
You are Light pure and blazing, holy, awful;
You are Light gently searching, touching, healing.
Warm Light, easing cold and ache in us,
Cool Light, bidding fever cease in us;
Till with chill and pain of loneliness gone,
With fever of sin and anger stilled,
We may turn to You like flowers in sunlight,
Drawn to you like tides by moonlight,
Bathed in Your Light,
Dumb in Your Light
Like creatures stunned by the light of the noon sun,
Overwhelmed, worshipping, flung to our knees
By the wonder, the beauty, the glory of You
Who are Light unapproachable, incomprehensible,
You Who are Light,
Purely Light.

AN END OF DARKNESS

Chapter 14

A few days passed, and life at the Gatehouse began to take on a rhythm. The Council-at-Need had called together the refugees from Ma’al and officially welcomed them to Li’is, calming the fears of some who had been unsure if they would be welcome in their new world. Prayer times and meal times had fallen back into their accustomed slots. Fed, clothed, and reassured, the refugees began to make new friends and reconnect with old ones, and to make tentative plans for the future. Aiel, with the agreement of the Council and the Lightfriends of Ma’al, had sent the Thought-without-Words through the Priesthood, telling them to now pass on the story of the Way and the rescue from Ma’al, emphasising that it was the Children of Light who had been brought into Li’is. That way, the people of Li’is would be prepared for the newcomers to their communities. Karis and Karlin had been delighted when Talar and Lorin had decided to join the Fortress Watch, along with an older Swordsman, Tabet, his son, still undergoing Sword-Training, wife, and young daughter. Since the Malani had asked for news of their Lord, Saban had come to visit Corhan in the Healing Place, bringing his baby son. “What will you name him?” Rentha had asked. “Darhan” Saban had answered, and Corhan said “That was our father’s name, too – mine and Daria’s.” Saban had reassured Corhan that all was well with the Malani, and there was no need for him to return to the camp until Rentha said he was strong enough. There was to be another important appointment for Corhan, Aiel told his granddaughter when she was eating her evening meal with her family. “The Council have decided that since the Malani are a new people to Li’is, they should be represented on the Council, even though it rarely meets. So we will invite the Lord of the Malani to become a member of the Council. Say nothing to him yet, though, Rentha, for the invitation must come from the Council.” Rentha promised, glad for Corhan and the Malani. It would prove to them that they would be valued by the Lords of Li’is.

Corhan’s fitness and stamina had stood him in good stead. Rentha had been able to unpin the small wound, since it was healing well, and, as she had expected, the few days’ rest and good food and drink had restored his strength. When Karis came to see how Corhan fared, he found him up and dressed, and Rentha said, “It is well enough with him now, Karis. You can return to your camp, Corhan, and I will only need to check the wound in a day or so, to see how the healing goes.” Corhan smiled broadly, and said, “Ah, that is good news! I miss my people. ” “They miss you too”, Rentha said, “though Saban and Daria have done well in your place. ” Karis also smiled, saying, “I am glad you have recovered, Sword-Brother, and can rejoin your people.” Rentha said, “I will come with you to the camp, Corhan, if I may. I would like to make sure all is well with those I tended, and there is no other need.” And, she thought, maybe among his own people he would feel able to speak to her about his vision-dream and her place in it, as he had not so far. “Of course, you will be welcome ,Rentha.” he replied. They made their way through the Gardens, encountering some of the Lightfriends on the way, who were glad to see their protector fit and well again. “It is a very special relationship you have with the Lightfriends.”Rentha commented. “And an ancient one” Corhan replied. “I hope it will not change too much, now that we are in Li’is and they have less need of protection.” ” Once the Priesthood were established in Li’is, in the First Days, they had less need of the protection of the Ketai.” Rentha answered, “But still, there is friendship and respect between the Priesthood and the Westerners. The Lightfriends will not forget you.” Corhan was looking round him at the Gardens now. “This is surely a place of repose and healing”, he said. Rentha smiled. “I had forgotten you had not seen the Gardens. I think you will enjoy the wildflower meadow, where. the Malani are camping.” Sure enough, when they reached the little gate and walked through into the meadow, Corhan exclaimed “You are right, Rentha! This place is perfect.” He looked across at the tents and said “These are the tents your people have provided? They are larger than I imagined.” “The travelling tents are intended for groups of herders, sometimes up to ten”, she explained, ” so they need to be spacious. Saban has set one aside for your return.”

They went first to Saban and Daria’s tent, where Corhan was received rapturously, and Rentha assured herself that all was well with Daria and the babe. She did not miss, though, the quick, questioning glance that Saban cast at Corhan, and the slight shake of Corhan’s head, and guessed that Saban was anxious to know if Corhan had yet broached the subject of his dream with her. Word of their Lord’s return had quickly gone round the camp, and when they stepped outside the tent, the Malani were gathering to welcome him. He assured them that all was well with him now, and added, “See, here with me is the Healer who helped me. If you or your families have need of her aid, she is here to offer it.” There were a few who came forward at that, mostly those concerned for children or older members of their families, and Rentha was glad to be of help. She found no serious problems, and was able to deal quickly with the few she did find, with the contents of her Healer’s sack. As she moved around the camp, with Corhan at her side, Rentha could not but be aware of the glances that came her way. How much, she wondered, did Corhan’s people, other than the Elders, know of his dream? Karis had told her that because of it, Corhan had broken with the tradition of betrothal at manhood for the Lords of the Malani. That, surely, must have demanded an explanation. Yet perhaps Corhan’s people would not, after all, have asked one of him, since it was obvious that he was greatly loved and respected by them. Rentha glanced up at Corhan, thinking how tall he was. She herself was not considered small, but she barely reached to Corhan’s shoulder. As if he felt her glance, he looked down at her and smiled, and she felt a warmth in her cheeks. ‘Light chose well for me’, she thought, no longer doubting that Corhan’s dream had been Light-sent, and that she was the maiden he had seen so long ago. At last he said, “Rentha, you have done enough for today. Do not weary yourself.” “But if there are other needs…” she began, but he said, “I think you have seen to all who asked.” He paused, then said, “I will come back to the Gatehouse with you.” They walked in silence for a while, back towards the little gate, and then Corhan said “It is good of you to take my people on your heart so, Rentha.” How was she to reply without revealing what she knew of his dream? She answered, truthfully, “It seems Light has laid your people on my heart, Corhan.” “Does it?” he said, opening the gate of the Gardens for her.

When he had followed her through, he said suddenly, urgently, “Rentha, do you have time to walk with me here for a while? I must talk to you.” Realising that her words had given him the opening he had needed, to tell her about his dream, she answered, “Of course, Corhan. What is it?” “Do you believe that Light may speak to the Children of Light?” “Why, yes, Corhan! I am a daughter of the Priesthood, remember. Light may speak to us in many ways.” “Years ago, in Ma’al, when I was very young, Light spoke to me, Rentha -” he had got so far, but now he hesitated. They had reached one of the arbour-seats that were scattered throughout the Gatehouse Gardens, and Rentha sat down, and said, “Let us sit here and talk, Corhan. Perhaps you can gather your thoughts better if you are still.” He sat beside her, turning his hands palm up on his knees in a gesture of helplessness. “I do not know how to say this to you, Rentha! yet it is vital that I do.” Rentha took pity on him and knew that it was time to help him, by telling him what she already knew. She reached out her hand and laid it in Corhan’s. The palms of his hands were much paler than the dark skin of their backs, almost the colour of her own hand, so that they seemed to meld together. Corhan looked across at her in surprise. “Corhan”, she said, “I – I know about your dream – Karis told me. Oh, do not be angry with him!”, she rushed on, afraid that her confession might spoil the Swordsmen’s friendship. “It was because he saw that I was concerned that – that I was beginning to feel myself drawn to you.” “I am not angry”, Corhan said, and his hand closed on hers. “I did not know how to tell you about it, Rentha; I was afraid you might disbelieve me. It seems Karis has done me another service. But why did it concern you, that you were drawn to me?” Rentha looked into his black eyes and told him, honestly and openly, “Because I did not understand why, Corhan. All I knew of you was what my brother and cousins had told me – enough to make me respect and honour you, yes, but not to account for – for any other feelings.” She felt herself blush again, but went doggedly on, “I had hardly even spoken to you, then – oh yes, I tended you, but you were unconscious at first, then asleep much of the time. I did not know you, Corhan, so how could I – care – for you? I thought that, like a foolish child, I was falling under the spell of their tales of your bravery, and of your strangeness and your – your beauty -” “My beauty?” he exclaimed, with a laugh. “Why yes, I found you beautiful” Rentha answered, surprised to find that she was growing quite calm and unflurried now that she had actually embarked on the telling. “And I was glad when Karis told me about your dream. I began to understand, then, that it was Light that had turned my heart to you, and to your people, and not some fancy of my own. But I was a little concerned that Karis should have told me what was yours to tell. I challenged him, and he said he had thought about it carefully, and not only for my sake, he said, but yours, he had told me, because you had been through so much and might find it yet another ordeal, to try to explain your dream to me.” “And you believe in my dream, Rentha? You do believe that you are the one Light meant for me?” Corhan asked, anxiously still. “Yes, I do” Rentha assured him. “It explains everything, Corhan.”

He took her other hand in his and said softly “It has been such a long time, Rentha, that I almost began to doubt it myself. And never, never did I imagine that I would have to come into another world to find you!” Rentha had seen another side to Corhan now, a gentler, more vulnerable side, and it woke a well of tenderness in her, so that she said, gently but decisively, “Dear Corhan, it is your world too, now. All Children of Light are children of Li’is too – no matter if they were born of Ma’al.” He smiled at her, and, still softly, spoke her name and leaned closer towards her. They kissed tentatively, shyly, as if each tested the other’s response. But it felt so right that they kissed again, and this time it was an affirmation, as though with the kiss they made a silent vow to each other. Corhan said, with wonder in his voice, “From my early youth I have been in love with the maiden in my dream, but now I have found the reality and it is better, far better, than the vision told me, Rentha, sweet!” Rentha, echoing her earlier thoughts, told him “Light chose well for me, Corhan! For surely Light knew my heart better than I, and that I would love you, even before I knew you.” “We must be betrothed”, he said, simply. “What is the way of it in your world, Rentha? I do not know – oh, there is so much I do not know!” “Then I will teach you”, she said. “It is the custom that you should ask my father, Arenel, if we may be betrothed.” “Oh!” , he half-groaned. “But why should he say yes, Rentha? I have nothing to offer you. We are without place or possessions, my people and I.” “There will be a place for you – for us” Rentha corrected herself, and was rewarded by Corhan’s flashing smile. ” It is custom only, Corhan. My father, Arenel, could not prevent us. But you know that he is of the Priesthood, and will not withstand the Will of Light in this, understanding that I will be happy with you.” “Is your father here? I do not know him.” Corhan asked. “He is here – my mother too. I will take you to meet them.” He nodded, but she saw that he was frowning slightly. “Corhan, something still worries you?” “Karis and Karlin and Zarel had never seen a Malani before. There are no people like us in Li’is?” “No. Does it matter to you?” “To me, no. But will your father and mother accept me as your betrothed if I am – different?” “Oh, Corhan, of course! You are a Child of Light. It is your inner spirit that matters, not your outward appearance. You are loyal to Light. That is all my father will ask of you, Corhan.” “And that is all I need to do? To ask your father?” “And me!” she laughed. ” Oh – Rentha, I am sorry! I should not have taken it for granted…” “Corhan, my heart, I was teasing you!” she broke in, smiling. “Of course I will be your Lady, that is settled. But what of your people? I was wondering, this morning in the camp – what do they know of your dream?” “All of them know a little. The Elders, and the most trusted, like Saban, know everything. But you have been seen with me among them. Those who know have guessed the truth, I think, and the others wonder. That is why I wish us to be betrothed quickly, to end their uncertainty. And there is a betrothal ceremony among the Malani – if you are willing -?” “Certainly, since the Malani will be my people too”, she answered, then, “Come, Corhan, let us go and find my father.”

They went quietly, hand in hand, back through the Gardens to the Gatehouse. In the Hall of the Gatehouse they found the two sets of twins, with Zohra. She and her sons had been tuning their harps, and as Rentha and Corhan came into the Hall, they were beginning to play. The music was beautiful, but new to Rentha, and she guessed it was Zohra’s new composition. Corhan whispered to her, “I have never heard music like this – so beautiful! It stirs my heart.” “My mother makes wonderful music, it is her Gifting of Light” she whispered back. “And my brothers, too, are accomplished musicians.” “That Lady is your mother?” Corhan asked. “Yes. Her name is Zohra, and she is a daughter of the Ketai.” Whitestar and Moondancer too were listening to the music, entranced, and Rentha and Corhan stood listening with them, until the music ended. Zohra smiled at her sons and said, “Good. You played well. You have not forgotten your skills, Zarel!” They smiled back, and Zarel looked across at his sister and said. “What do you think of our mother’s new music, Rentha – and Corhan? She has made it to celebrate the end of the Way and the arrival of the Children of Light of Ma’al.” Rentha too smiled, and responded that her mother’s music was as beautiful as ever, but Corhan was full of praise. “I did not know that such music as yours existed, Lady! It is wonderful, I felt it enter my spirit.” Zohra said “Ah, I fear there was no opportunity for Light’s music in Ma’al – but you are in Li’is now, Corhan. And you are the Lord of the Malani? It seems your people were the Sword-Brethren of mine – the Ketai – in the time before the First Days. My father and uncle are anxious to meet you – as was I.” “And I am glad to meet you, Lady Zohra.” Corhan replied. Rentha asked “Where is Father? We have something to ask him.” Zohra said, “I am not sure, since everywhere is so busy, but your brothers can call him by their Perception.” Zarel said, “I will call him, Mother”, for, Perceiving why the couple wished to speak to Arenel, he wanted to forewarn his father. Thus prepared, Arenel quickly arrived in the Hall, smiling in anticipation of Corhan’s request. When he reached them, Corhan stepped forward. “You are Rentha’s father?” “I am, Corhan. I am happy to meet you. I have heard much about you.” Corhan said, “I have something to tell you – ask you…” He stopped, unsure how to go on, and Arenel, remembering his own nervousness when asking for the Ket’s approval of his betrothal to Zohra, felt sorry for him. Laying one hand on the Swordsman’s shoulder, he said, “No need to struggle for words, Corhan. If it concerns Rentha, Zarel has told us about your vision-dream, and that she is the maiden Light intended for you. And Light has turned her heart to you too. It is good.” Corhan looked relieved at this assurance, but went on determinedly, “Still, I need to ask your agreement to a betrothal, and your blessing, Lord Priest Arenel, Lady Zohra. And you may have questions.” Rentha came to Corhan’s side, taking his hand, and smiled at her father. “Corhan, I told you my father would not resist the Will of Light.” “No indeed!” Arenel said. “But you need not think that I agree reluctantly, Corhan. I said that I had heard much about you, and all that I have heard is good. You are a true Child of Light, and Light has given you and Rentha this love for each other. Zohra and I are very happy for you, and gladly agree to a betrothal.” “Then I praise Light, and thank you both”, Corhan told them, then added, “There is a betrothal ceremony among the Malani, and I would wish us to be betrothed in the way of my people – if you have no objection?” Arenel put one arm around Zohra, and said, with a smile, “When I took my bride from among the Ketai, Corhan, we were betrothed in their way, handfasted by the Ket. It is proper that you and Rentha should be betrothed in the way of the Malani.” He could Perceive the relief and joy in Corhan, and added “Surely the ways of Light are wonderful! This Way has fulfilled so many things.”

Aiel, meanwhile, Perceiving the presence of Corhan in the Hall, had called together the Council, in the Prayer Room, and now sent the Thought-without-Words to Arenel, who acknowledged the message silently, then said aloud to the Lord of the Malani, “Corhan, Aiel requests that you go to the Prayer Room, for there is something he wishes you to do.” Corhan looked a little startled, and Arenel told him “There is nothing to fear.” Corhan glanced at Rentha, but she, forewarned by her grandfather, told him, “I cannot come with you, my heart, but as my father says, there is nothing to fear.” “I will show you the Prayer Room”, Zarel offered, and Corhan followed him, somewhat reluctantly, it seemed to those watching. In the Prayer Room they were all waiting; Aiel, Lin, Mellin, Janir, Rujel, the Lord of the East and the twin Kets. When Corhan entered, he looked around questioningly, wondering what these Lords of Li’is could want with him, and took refuge in formality, saying “You summoned me, Lord High Priest?” Aiel smiled. “We did, Corhan. We have a request for you.” “I do not know what I can do for you, but I will do it gladly.” Corhan replied, relaxing a little. Aiel explained, “Corhan, we are the Council-at-Need of Li’is. The Council meets very rarely, except at times of great peril, or great joy. Nevertheless, we represent all the peoples of Li’is. ” Corhan nodded, to show he understood, and Aiel continued, “Now that the people of Ma’al have come into Li’is, we will represent them too. But there were no Malani in Li’is before Light brought you here, and your people must be represented . So we invite the Lord of the Malani to become a member of the Council.” Corhan gasped. “But I am new to Li’is – I do not know your ways. Are you sure?” “We are sure. You will learn the ways of Li’is, and the Malani will become a people of Li’is.” “As the Ketai did, in the First Days.” Ket-Kai added. Corhan replied “It is a great honour . If you are certain – then I accept, for myself and my people.” “Good”, Aiel said. “Membership of the Council , like Lordship, is hereditary, Corhan, so your heirs will become members in the future, as we have succeeded our fathers. This decision will be recorded later, in the House of Records of the Temple,but for now we are glad to welcome you.” Now that the formalities were over, they came in turn to welcome and congratulate the new member of the Council, the Kets especially eager to greet him and learn more about the Malani. As they spoke, Corhan glanced round him at the Prayer Room, and when things were a little quieter, he asked Aiel, “Lord High Priest, I know this is a Place of Prayer. But what is that?” He was pointing to the Crucible, and Aiel said, “Ah, I had not remembered that you have not been to the Prayer Room yet, Corhan.” He explained the Crucible to the Lord of the Malani.” It is to draw our thoughts to Light – not a representation of Light, for that is impossible, but to remind us of the One Light, and set our hearts towards Light when we pray.” Corhan said, ” I see. It is an aid to prayer, then.” “And also a place of focus for important events, such as Festivals…” Aiel paused, then smiled at Corhan, and went on ” and weddings.” Corhan cast him a quizzical glance, and Aiel said, ” I have learned of your betrothal to my granddaughter, Corhan. I am very glad for you both.” Corhan returned his smile, and said, ” You knew of my vision-dream, then, Lord?” “I did. And since you will be my grandson-by-marriage, you must call me Aiel.”

When Corhan left the Prayer Room, Rentha was waiting for him outside. She smiled at him, and said, “You see, I told you there was nothing to fear.” “No, indeed!” he replied. “The Lords of Li’is do me great honour, to invite me to join the Council.” “But you are a Lord of Li’is now, too.” she replied. ” I will return to the camp”, Corhan said, “and tell the Elders about this, and about our betrothal. We must make preparation for the betrothal ceremony. I think Daria will have it in hand.” “Daria?” Rentha asked. He smiled. “It involves my nearest female relative, and since I have no mother, that is Daria. I think she has been preparing for this for many years, to be ready when I found you, my heart.” Since they were alone, he bent and swiftly kissed her, then said, “When all is ready, I will send word for you to come to the camp with your family and kin. It will not be long.” “And then the Malani will know.” Rentha said. “I am glad, Corhan – but a little nervous. I hope that your people will accept me as your betrothed.” “They will”, he answered, decisively. She left him at the door of the Gatehouse, to go back to the Malani camp, and herself turned back inside, wondering what the betrothal ceremony would entail. She knew of her parents’ betrothal in the camp of the Westerners, and wondered if this would be similar. Returning to the Hall, she looked around for her mother, and found her with Aila and Marla. All of them smiled at her as she approached, and guessing the subject of their conversation, she scolded them, but in fun, laughing, “Are you talking about me?” Aila, her Perception sensing Rentha’s happiness, answered her. “What else should we be discussing, Rentha, dear? When Light has done something so amazing in your Life, and Corhan’s, how could we not?” “I am so glad for you, Rentha”,added Marla. “Corhan is a fine man, and a courageous one.” Zohra hugged her daughter, and said, “Now we must wait for the summons to the Malani’s betrothal ceremony. I wonder if it will be anything like that of the Westerners?” “I was wondering that, too.” Rentha said, and laughed again. “Corhan is keeping it a secret, he has told me nothing, except that it will involve his sister Daria, as his nearest female relative.” At that, they naturally fell to discussing the possibilities of the betrothal ceremony, while agreeing that they would have to wait and see.

They did not have long to wait, for next morning one of the Malani women came to the Gatehouse, with the message that Rentha and her family and kinfolk should come to the Malani camp at midday, for the betrothal ceremony. Rentha felt happy, excited, and just a little nervous. It took some time to gather all who were invited to attend, since they were about various tasks in the Gatehouse, but at last they were ready, and at the appointed time the party set off for the wildflower meadow and the Malani camp. They came into the meadow through the little gate, to see that the Elders of the Malani were gathered in a crescent, with Saban and Daria at the centre. Daria had something folded over her arm, looking like a garment, seeming very old and somewhat faded, though clean. The rest of the Malani had gathered behind them, quiet, but with expressions of joyful expectation. Corhan was standing in front of Saban and Daria, and as Rentha came towards them, followed by her parents, brothers, grandparents and other kin, he turned to greet her. “Come” was all he said, as he took her hand, and brought her to stand with him, turning to face her. Her family stood watching as the betrothal ceremony commenced. Saban spoke first. “People of the Malani, Corhan son of Darhan, Lord of the Malani, declares his intention to be betrothed to Rentha, daughter of Arenel of the Priesthood.” Then Daria spoke for Rentha. “Family of Arenel, Rentha, daughter of Arenel of the Priesthood declares her intention to be betrothed to Corhan son of Darhan, Lord of the Malani.” Saban said, “Corhan, that is your intent?” “It is.” Corhan replied. Daria asked Rentha, “Rentha, that is your intent?” “It is”, she replied, following Corhan’s lead. Daria shook out the garment she was holding. It looked like a long, deep shawl, and she took it and wrapped it around both Corhan and Rentha, binding them together. Rentha could feel the warmth and softness of it round her shoulders. Daria spoke again. “We bind you in the betrothal cloth of our family, Corhan and Rentha, to seal your betrothal. We bind you in the protection of our family, Rentha, until you may wed Corhan. We bind you both in the protection of Light.” Cocooned in the cloth, Corhan leaned to kiss Rentha, not on the lips, but on the forehead, and Daria said, “Now you are betrothed.” The Malani behind the elders began to sing, a soft, chorus that grew gradually into a shout of joy, intriguing Zohra’s musician’s ear. When the sound ceased, Daria unwrapped the betrothal cloth from Rentha and Corhan, and folded it carefully. Now the ceremony was over, Rentha’s family came to mingle with the Malani and share congratulations. Corhan explained the ceremony to them. “Life in Ma’al was dangerous, even for the Malani. When a maiden is betrothed, though she still belongs to her own family until she weds, she is also bound into the family of her betrothed. That is because, in Ma’al, some Darkness might overtake her family, and then she would be assured of the protection of her betrothed’s family. Or if something happened to him or his family, her family would take care of those who remained.”

The Malani around them had been voluble in their congratulations, and welcome to Rentha’s family, but suddenly all the noise was hushed, as a shimmering in the air betokened the appearance of a Dancer . The light-being blinked into existence before them all, drawing little gasps of awe from the Malani, unused as yet to the existence of the Dancers. Its thought, though, was extended only to Aiel and Zarel. ‘Aiel, High Priest of Light, and Zarel, Lightstone-Bearer. There is more to be done.’ Aiel’s and Zarel’s Perceptions meshed briefly in wordless query , then the Dancer continued. ‘You must gather the Council and their families, together with Dorvai and his daughters, at tomorrow’s dawn, at the foot of the Dancer’s Mountain. The Spirit-in-Light, Mihel, will come to show you.’ That was all, and the bright being disappeared. Zarel whispered to Aiel “But the Way is over!” “Not quite, it seems”, his grandfather replied. Since none of the others had heard the Dancer’s message, the Malani , not knowing the ways of the Dancers,assumed that it had appeared briefly in celebration of their Lord’s betrothal, and Aiel and Zarel did not say anything to disabuse them. Rentha’s family, though, knowing that a Dancer’s appearance was of great significance, wondered what it might mean. It was not until they were all on the way back to the Gatehouse, though, that they began to discuss it, and Aiel told them of the Dancer’s message, since they would all be involved. Corhan was with them, as custom dictated that he should accompany his betrothed safely back with her family, and Aiel told him, “You are of the Council now, Corhan, so you must bring your family too.” “There is only Daria, and Saban and the babe.” he answered. “Then bring your sister and her man” Aiel answered. “There will be someone to care for the babe for a while?” “Yes.” Corhan said, and, practicalities resolved, they began to ponder what it might all mean, and why they should be visited by the Shining One. Once back at the Gatehouse, Corhan left them, to return to the Malani camp and prepare Daria and Saban for the morning’s doings, while Aiel and the others went in and told the others of the Council. Mellin asked “Is the Way not over? Is there more peril?” “Not with Mihel.” Zarel said, firmly, having learned to put so much trust in his Light-sent protector. The Lord of the East was the only one who could not comply fully with the Dancer’s request, since his family had not accompanied him, and the Kets too had left some of their family on the Plateau, but Aiel reasoned that since all was known to Light, that would not affect whatever was to be shown them by Mihel.

They might have thought that such an early start would be difficult, but in truth most of them were so nervously eager to discover what was to happen that all of them were up and ready before the dawn hour. The Council gathered their families and followed Aiel through the Gatehouse Gardens, collecting Corhan, Daria and Saban from the Malani camp on the way. They came up to the great wrought metal gate at the foot of the Dancer’s Mountain, tallest among the range of mountains that formed the barrier at the end of men’s lands in the Western Continent of Li’is. Here they stopped, and waited silently. The sun was rising, but suddenly a brighter light filled their sight, until they were forced to shut them. A gentle voice spoke. “Children of Light, open your eyes.” When they did, the bright light had faded, and a figure stood in front of the gate. Though they all knew Mihel to be a Spirit-in-Light, he had come to them now in the guise he had worn in Ma’al, an ordinary Swordsman, perhaps to reassure them. “You must come with me”, he said. “What happens now will change Li’is forever, but only for good.” “The Secret Word” Lin murmured,and Mihel smiled, “Yes.” They followed Mihel through the gate at the foot of the mountain, and when they were through it, he stopped, turning to them, and said, “Zarel, Lightstone-Bearer, come with me. The rest of you, stay here.” Zarel followed Mihel to the very base of the mountain, where the Shining One indicated a crack in the rock face to one side of the main peak. “Lightstone-Bearer, touch the Lightstone there,” he said. Curious, but obedient, Zarel stepped forward and laid the stone to the rock, as if to someone’s brow. Immediately there was a great blaze, as there had been on the Meeting Place in Ma’al, and Zarel wondered if another Gate was about to open. The others, watching from a distance, wondered the same. No Dancers appeared, though, and Zarel looked enquiringly at Mihel, who said only, “Wait.” They began to hear sounds, a low rumble, a creaking groan, as though the very rock spoke. Aren, concerned for Zarel, stared at the scene before them, and asked, suddenly, “Did the rocks move then?” That caught all their attention, and they too stared, trying to see through the veil of bright light.

By the rock face, Zarel realised that the crack was widening, spreading out and up. He felt a moment’s fear, but then thought to himself that Mihel would not have led him into danger. “What is happening?” he asked. “Li’is is changing, as I told you”, Mihel replied. “Light is working.” Fascinated but unafraid, Zarel watched as the blaze of light emanating from the Lightstone seemed to drive a wedge through the crack in the rock face, and it continued to widen slowly outwards and upwards. The alteration in the rock was visible to the others too, now, and Aiel, watching intently, said suddenly, “Lin -does not that look much like the Spearcleft Pass?” Lin looked, and answered,” Yes! Is Light creating a pass through the Dancers’ Mountains? And if so – what is on the other side?” That question was in all their minds as the new pass through the mountains opened slowly, inexorably, until it was wide enough for several people to walk through. Zarel had half expected a rock fall or some other sign of the new rift in the mountains, but it had opened miraculously at the Will of Light. Gently and almost quietly the whole rock face had split in half to make the new pass, and now Mihel raised his hand and the light withdrew again into the Lightstone. The Shining One turned to the others and called them to come near, and they crossed to the place, gazing in astonishment at the opening which they had just seen created. Now Mihel turned to face the new pass, and told them, “Come and see.”They looked at each other, nervous as to where they might be going, but obeyed, and followed him through the rift in the rock. Its sides were high and it was cool in their shade. The passage they traversed was quite long, but the pass did not twist like the Spearcleft Pass, and they could see daylight ahead.

When they reached the other side, there were gasps and exclamations as they came out into the early morning sunlight and found themselves standing at the top of a gentle slope, looking out over a whole new landscape. They were in a belt of trees, tall, slender trees with narrow grey-green leaves which gave off a refreshing fragrance instantly familiar to some of them. “Those trees!” Krystha exclaimed, and Aiel said, “Yes, I remember.” Mihel smiled at them, and said, “Barriers to men do not stop birds. Over many years the birds have carried the seeds of those trees across the mountains, and the seeds found a place where they were content, and formed the forest you remember.” They looked down the slope, past the trees. There was an area of rough ground and wild plants, some of which the Healers among them recognised as useful herbs. Then more, different trees and bushes. At the bottom of the slope was a wide valley and they could catch the gleam of a river. On the other side of the valley the land rose again, then levelled out, reaching to the limits of their vision. Mihel said “Light kept this land apart, till now. While Ma’al existed and the Dancers’ Gate needed protection from the Lords of Darkness.” “And now?” asked Rujel, the Gatekeeper. “Now it is given to the people of Li’is. And when people come to settle here, Gatekeeper, they will be part of your Soul-Watch. In time there will be others of the Priesthood,as the people grow in number, but for now it falls to you, and those who follow you.”

Corhan said, slowly, “It is a good land. I think perhaps…” he hesitated, and Aiel encouraged him, “Go on, Corhan, what do you wish to say?” The Lord of the Malani said, “My people and I are newcomers here. I do not know the right thing to do or ask. But we would want to stay together as a people, and it seems to me that, if it were allowed, we could settle in this place.” He glanced at Daria and Saban as he spoke, and they both signalled agreement. Corhan went on “I know there are no others of the Malani in Li’is. A new people for a new place seems good to me. But you may have objections to that?” Zohra said, “When my people, the Ketai, came into Li’is with the first Lightfriends, they too wished to remain together as a people, and they settled the Western Plateau. We are the Westerners, now, Corhan. If you settle here , the Malani will become the Northerners. It is good.” Aiel answered him, “Why should anyone object, Corhan? Light has given this land, and Light brought you out of Ma’al to live in Li’is. It will be your choice, and the Malani’s, where in Li’is you live, as it will be the choice of all the Children of Light who have come out of Ma’al. It would not be Light’s Will that any should be forced to live where they are unhappy.” “The Malani are a brave, strong people”, Karis said. “We know, we have fought alongside them. They are well able to settle this land.” Corhan smiled, then looked at Rentha, and said, “But you will be far from your home and family here with me, Rentha.” “Did not your vision-dream tell you I would be here with you and the Malani, to support and help you – ‘at a time of great turmoil’?” she asked him. “It is the Will of Light that I go where you go, Corhan, my heart. You and your – our-“, she corrected herself, “people. Yes, I will miss my family, but I will see them again, sometimes.” Arenel said, “I know I can trust my daughter to you, Corhan. As she has said, it is Light’s Will.” Lin said, “It is amazing – that these lands have been here for so long, and nobody knew, not even the Gatekeeper.” Mihel answered “They have been seen, from time to time, from the oceans – by ships caught in the Two-Moon Tides.” “The lands where the seacats go!” Janir exclaimed. “That is so. But they were guarded, and could never be found. Now, though, all people of Li’is have the freedom of them.” “And this is the new beginning of which the Secret Word tells us?”, Aiel asked. “No” came the surprising answer. “This is a new beginning, but not the fulfilment of the Secret Word.” “There is more to be done?” asked Zarel. As Lightstone-Bearer, he was wondering what else Light might require of him. “There is” Mihel answered, “but not by you. Come with me, and you will see.”

Obediently they followed him again, back through the pass, and he said, “We must climb to the Meeting Place.” In wondering silence they made their way up to the rock shelf, and gathered together there. Now Mihel shed his disguise; hidden for a few moments in a bright blaze of light, he reappeared, neither as a Swordsman, nor the towering, avenging figure they had seen on the plains of Ma’al, but as they recognised him, gleaming, white-robed, golden-eyed, with an aura of peace, power, love and joy. Around him Dancers began to appear, and ‘said’ to the onlookers, ‘You have come to see the fulfilment of the Secret Word’. Aiel said, “It spoke of an end – and a beginning. We have seen the end of Ma’al. Will you show us the ‘beginning’ now?” Mihel said, “I will show you the beginning. First you must all link through the Perception-gifted, for Light wills that you all hear the Song of this beginning, and only Zohra, Aren and Zarel can hear it.” So Aiel and the Priests and Lightfriends made the Thought-without-Words, and set their Perceptions on the others, so that all were joined in the link. Then they waited. Mihel swept his arm in an arc, and, as though he drew back a curtain, the Dancers’ Gate opened, and another view was before them. They were gazing out on a dark expanse, and then they recognised it as the sight they had looked on after the destruction of Ma’al, the Dark World and its moons shrunken and diminished, empty of life, banished to a distance, its former place in this cosmos empty and dark. Then they heard the Dancers begin to sing. Their Song seemed to flow like a river out into the darkness of those other skies, and it was full of the Presence of Light, of power, and love, and joy. Yet there was also pain in the Song, an intense pain, and a sorrow that seemed at odds with its other elements, and yet they were in perfect harmony. As they listened, awed and entranced, gazing into the blackness beyond them, they heard Mihel’s voice again.” Behold! Light’s new beginning!”

Into their sight suddenly swam a globe, much like Li’is as Aiel had seen it, when the Dancers carried him to one of its moons, mostly blue, but patched with colour, veiled with white cloud. It was accompanied by a single glowing moon, and it settled into the place left by the banishment of Ma’al, as the Dancers sang triumphantly. Mihel said quietly, “It is done.” He swept his arm across their view again, the Gate closed, and the strange new world was lost to their view. The Dancers were no longer on the Meeting Place, and Aiel wondered if they were still out there in that other space, singing to the new world. Zarel said, breathlessly, “Oh, so beautiful! But why was there so much pain and sorrow in the Dancers’; Song?” Mihel answered, “Because they sang of what will happen in that world. There too the Darkness will fight against Light, and because of that, it is in that world that the Sacrifice of Light must be made. As it is in Li’is, all there who accept the Sacrifice of Light will become Children of Light – but that Sacrifice will cost Light everything.”Aiel said “They will have a Priesthood?” “A different Priesthood. Aiel, with different ways, but true to Light. And there will be no more connection between Li’is and there. Ma’al is gone, the Dancers’ Gate has closed for the last time. You will know nothing of what happens on the other side of Light and Time from Li’is from now on. Light has permitted you to see this much, but no more.” Children of Light, all of them, they accepted this, but Zarel, the Lightstone-Bearer, asked hesitantly, “Mihel – does Light permit that we may at least know the name of this new world, so that we may pray for it, and its people?” And Mihel smiled, and answered,”You may. Its people will call it Earth.”

AN END OF DARKNESS

Chapter 13

This had been a day such as none of them, whether of Li’is or Ma’al, had ever experienced, but now it was drawing to a close. Dusk had fallen, and since the Prayer Room could not accommodate all who had thronged the Gatehouse, Aiel led them in the Evening Prayers in the Great Hall, Perceiving as he did so the gladness of the refugees at being able to partake openly in the Prayers. After the Prayers, more food was prepared and given out. Aiel knew that Arentha and Krystha were among those helping to prepare the meals, for many hands were needed. Preference was of course given to the refugees, the others could eat later and the people of Ma’al were tired from their journey and experiences and would soon need to sleep. Rentha used the wait to visit the Healing Place and see that all was well with Corhan. She was surprised when the attendants told her that he had not yet woken. “But he was exhausted” she said, “and I do not think they used sweetwood in Ma’al, so maybe it had a stronger effect on him than usual. The sleep will not harm him.” She had just left the Healing Place when she heard her name called “Lady Rentha!” and turned to see Saban coming towards the Healing Place. His expression was a mixture of concern and excitement, and guessing his errand she asked “Daria?” “Yes, Lady. She thinks the babe is coming.” “One moment” she told him, and stepped back inside the Healing Place to take a flask of prepared blueroot from the Healers’ bench, then came out again to ask “Where is she?” “In the camp,” he replied.

Rentha followed Saban out of the Gatehouse and along the path to the wildflower meadow, where he held the small gate open for her to enter. It was quite dark now, and across the meadow lamps glowed inside the tents and small fires burned between them. It was a familiar sight to Rentha, half of Western stock and used to scenes like these when visiting her mother’s family. Saban led her to the tent he and Daria were sharing, and they went in. The travelling tents of the Westerners were built for groups of herdsmen and quite spacious, well appointed with cushions and coverings. Daria was sitting on one of the big cushions, and seemed quite calm, indeed she looked up and smiled at Rentha as the Healer entered. Rentha smiled back and said “So, the little one is impatient to enter Li’is? How early?” “Little more than a week, by the time of Ma’al.” Daria answered. “I have felt some small pains these last couple of days, but thought it was the discomfort of being cramped in the carts. They grow stronger now, though.” “Good”, Rentha said. “All will be well with the babe, then.” Daria seemed about to speak, but paused and took a deep breath. Rentha guessed that another pain was running its course, and Daria, when asked, confirmed it. When it had subsided she asked.”How is it with Corhan, Lady?” “He is sleeping still, but that will do him only good. I think you do not use sweetwood in Ma’al? It may be that because of that it works more strongly on Corhan.” “I had never heard of sweetwood” Saban told her , “until Karis and Karlin used it to overcome the mercenaries who held a Lightfriend captive.” Rentha raised her eyebrows. “I have yet to hear that tale!” she smiled, “But you need not concern yourself, Daria. Corhan is safe, and you are our concern now. And please, call me Rentha – I am not used to such formality!” She showed Daria the flask of blueroot, and said “I do not know if you use this in Ma’al, either. It is blueroot, and we use it in birthing. When the pains grow strong it will ease them, without harming you or the babe.” Daria nodded. “I trust you, Rentha” she said. “I know you would not harm me.”

Rentha had expected a long night’s work, but Daria’s labour progressed surprisingly quickly. The Malani was strong and healthy and dealt well with her pain, and it was not until the pains came quickly together that Rentha had recourse to the draught of blueroot to ease them for her. Saban too was calm and helpful, supporting and comforting his wife, encouraging her and rubbing her back. Rentha felt a sense of excitement too, realising that this would be the first child born of Ma’al but into the freedom of Li’is. She concentrated on her work, telling Daria when to allow her body to take over, and when to pause. Soon Daria indicated that she felt the birth was imminent, and Rentha guided her through. Daria was groaning, but with effort, not pain, and her strength was apparent. Now Rentha could see the top of the little head, and told Daria to follow her instructions exactly. Daria obeyed, and Rentha was able to bring the babe smoothly and safely to birth. Daria , with one last effort, delivered her child, and Rentha quickly attended to the babe and turned to the Malani, smiling, to say, “You have a son, Daria, Saban! You did well, Daria, I wish all mothers I had delivered had been as calm as you!” “A son!” Saban exclaimed. ” Though I would have been as happy with a daughter, as long as you were both well, my love!” he added. “I am very happy” Daria said, as Rentha placed the newborn in her arms. “Thank you, Rentha. Will you tell Corhan?” “I will, as soon as he wakes. I am glad to have been here, Daria, to see the first of your children born to the freedom of Li’is.” “Oh, yes!” Daria gasped. “I had not thought – our son is born to freedom in Light, Saban! What a blessing of Light!” Rentha finished her tending of Daria and her babe, and gently refused Saban’s offer to escort her back to the Gatehouse. “I will be safe enough” she told him. “This is not Ma’al! Stay and look after Daria, and enjoy your babe. But call me if there is need, though I do not expect any.” “I will. Thank you again, Lady – I mean, Rentha.”

Rentha walked back to the Gatehouse, smelling the night scents of the Gardens. There was plenty of light, for both moons had risen and were near full. She should have felt tired, but her mind was still alert and active, happy for Saban and Daria, and wondering about Corhan, and if he had woken. As she approached the door of the Gatehouse the Watchward there looked at her with surprise. “You are out late, Lady”, he commented, then, seeing her Healer’s sack, asked with concern “Is all well in the camp?” Rentha smiled, and said “Very well. I have been at a birth, and it is well with mother and child. A boy-child, and the first son of Ma’al to be born in Li’is.” The Watchward grinned. “Praise Light! A good night’s work, Lady.” He opened the door for her and Rentha went in. She hesitated, then went quickly to the Healing Place. She had the flask of blueroot to replace, after all, and she might just see how Corhan fared while she was there. An attendant was seated outside, and told her that Corhan had woken and taken some food and drink, but was now sleeping again. Rentha thanked him and handed him the flask to return to the Healers’ bench, then went to find the room she had been allocated. Space was limited, and she was once more sharing with Moondancer, but also with Whitestar. She went in quietly, and found they had left the lamp burning for her. The twins looked soundly asleep , curled in identical positions. As she prepared to sleep, Rentha tried to move silently, so as not to wake them, but she had reckoned without their Perception. Moondancer stirred, then sat up. “Rentha! Where were you? We were concerned.” Whitestar , beside her, leaned up on one elbow and added.”Have you been busy all night?” Rentha smiled at them. “Indeed I have! Saban came to call me. Daria has given birth, and they have a boy-child. All is well with them both.” “Praise Light!” the other girls said, almost in unison. “Corhan, too, has woken and taken nourishment, so they told me at the Healing Place. He is sleeping again now.” Rentha added, knowing the special relationship of the Malani to the Lightfriends. She was feeling sleepy now, and , after bidding the twins good night, though it was nearer to morning, put out the lamp and climbed gratefully into her bed.

Unsurprisingly, Rentha slept late, and woke to find the twins had woken and gone, and she was feeling very hungry. Reflecting, she realised that she had missed last night’s meal as she had gone to help Daria, so she quickly got ready and went out into the Hall. She felt momentarily guilty that she had also missed the Morning Prayers, but she had a good reason for that. Once she had eaten, she decided to go back to the camp and see that all was well with the Malani, before she went to tend Corhan. The morning air was warm and fresh, and she enjoyed the walk through the Gardens to the wildflower meadow. She found Saban’s tent and called out to him. He came out, smiling, and invited her in, and she entered to find Daria contentedly nursing her babe. To Rentha’s enquiries, Daria replied that it was well with both her and her son, and thanked Rentha again for her help with the birth. Satisfied, Rentha turned to Saban, and asked, “Will you show me around the Malani camp, Saban? I can see if there are any needs, and would like to be able to tell Corhan how his people fare, when I return to tend him. ” “Of course!” Saban agreed, and they set off on a tour of the camp. Rentha found the Malani to be very thankful to be in Li’is, and glad of her interest, though she found, and tended, only minor problems. Saban said ” You are kind, Rentha, to take such an interest in the Malani.” “Ah, I have heard that you are a special people!” she answered. “It is I who should thank you, for your guardianship of my family’s Brothers-and-Sisters-in-Light of Ma’al, when we here knew nothing of them or the dangers they faced.” “Your people too, though, so Zarel said, were guardians of the Lightfriends once.” Saban replied. “Those who provided these shelters for us.” “Yes, my mother’s people, the Ketai.” Rentha told him. “Though nowadays they are known as the Westerners.” They returned to Saban’s tent, where Rentha bade farewell to him and Daria. Now she felt she could assure their Lord that all was well with his people, and that he could take the time he needed to rest and recover.

Aiel had been conferring with other members of the Council-at-Need. Later that day, they had decided, or perhaps the next, when everyone had grown used to being in Li’is, they would address the refugees and welcome them formally to Li’is, explaining the workings of life here and what options were open to them. Mellin, Janir and Lin were ready to accept any of the few Swordsmen who wished to join the Watch at the Harbour, or Mountain or Western Fortresses. For now, though, such considerations could wait. There were still needs to be met, and all of them, and their families, were eager to help. The hundreds of refugees needed food and clothing, and other necessities, since they had brought little or nothing with them from Ma’al. Karis and Karlin were among the helpers, glad to be of practical use now they had rested after the stress of the Way and the joy of returning and reunion. After he had helped with the distribution of food to the refugees from Ma’al, and eaten his own hasty meal, Karis, leaving Karlin with Janna, went to the Healing Place to see how Corhan was faring. He found Rentha there, standing at the foot of the dark Swordsman’s couch. Corhan was sleeping, and she was gazing down at him. Well, there was nothing unusual in that; she was a Healer, and he in her care, after all. Still, when Karis spoke her name, she started, and a quick flush rose in her cheeks, as though he had caught her in an impropriety.”How is it with my Sword-Brother, Rentha?” he asked. The flush faded, and she smiled at him. “It will be well with him, Karis. He has slept a great deal, for he was exhausted, and he had lost a fair amount of blood. But the wound is clean, no sign of Wound Fever, and he is very strong. A few days’ rest, and food and drink to build up his reserves of strength again, and he will be as fit as he ever was.” Karis nodded, and said ,”He saved my life in Ma’al, Rentha. It is – was – such a place of Darkness, even a Swordsman of Li’is could not have been prepared for all the dangers there. Twice Corhan saved my life.” “A Sword-Brother indeed!” the Healer answered, and looked again at Corhan’s sleeping face. Karis, remembering how certain Corhan had been that Rentha was his dream-maiden,said suddenly, “Rentha, if I ask you something, will you take it that I have good reason to ask, and not as an impertinence?”

She looked at him, puzzled, and said, “What is it that you want to ask me, Karis?” He replied softly, “Do you – or do you think you might – feel anything for Corhan?” The colour flew to her face again, and for a moment she would not look at him. “From anyone else, that would be an impertinence”, she murmured, ” and yet – oh, Karis, why do you ask?” “For a very good reason, Rentha. Will you tell me?” Though it was obvious, he thought, from her reaction, that she did have some feelings for Corhan. The Healer said, slowly, “Karis – yes, I do feel something, yet I cannot say what it is. I feel drawn to him, but I scarcely know him. I am afraid that it is only that he is strange to me – his – his beauty, his colouring, and what I have been told of his bravery, the fact that he fought against Darkness and has come out of Ma’al, in love of Light. Would it not be an insult to him to – to care for him only because of that? And what other reason can there be when I do not know him, have scarcely even spoken to him?” “I believe there is another reason, Rentha ” Karis said. He took her hand and gently drew her to one of the benches, and when they were seated he told her, quietly, about Corhan, and his dream, and how the dark Swordsman had been certain that Rentha was the maiden he had seen in his dream-vision. As she listened, Rentha’s dark eyes grew wide with astonishment, and when Karis had finished telling her about Corhan’s dream-vision, she glanced across at the sleeping man, then asked “And – and you believe I might be the maiden in Corhan’s dream, Karis?” ” I believe you are the maiden, Rentha! Corhan said that his vision was so vivid, he would know her as soon as he saw her. And when he saw you, he was certain.” “But he had been wounded, and was weak, near unconscious, he might not have been right.” “I am sure he was” Karis said. He did not for a moment believe that Rentha doubted it either, only that, as was her way, she wanted to be scrupulously fair and honest about the matter. Now she looked at him and said, with a hint of gentle reproach in her voice, “But was this not Corhan’s to tell me, Karis? Should you have said anything to me at all?” “I wondered that”, he confessed, “yet, in the end, I felt it wise, for two reasons. First, to reassure you that anything you might feel for Corhan was in the Will of Light for you, even though you have not known him long. And second, for Corhan himself. I think perhaps it will not be easy for him to tell you about his dream, and your part in it – even though you are a daughter of the Priesthood. If you are prepared, it may make it easier for him, and I know I can trust you not to mention it till he does, Rentha. He has been through so much, you see, ” Karis added, “they all have. The flight, the attacks, the fear of pursuit – and then to be carried to another world, to watch their own world die, to be unsure as yet of their place or their welcome in ours – it has been a great burden on these poor people. And Corhan must feel it all the more because of his responsibilities, since he is Lord of the Malani.”

There was a slight sound in the quiet room, and they turned to see Corhan beginning to stir from his sleep. Rentha rose and went to the Healers’ bench and , moving with quick efficiency, mixed a draught in a wooden bowl and carried it back to the couch. Karis caught a slight, sweet-sharp perfume from the bowl and recognised it as a reviving draught used after sickness. He had received it himself from Krystha after childhood ailments. He had gone to the foot of the couch and, leaning forward as Corhan’s black eyes opened, smiled, saying, “That is better! How is it with you, Sword-Brother?” “Well, I think”, the deep, musical voice replied, with a slight crack to it. “But I have a sore head, and a throat to match it.” “That is because you need to drink, Corhan”, Rentha said, appearing at his side with the bowl.”You have lost fluids from your body over the last few days, and they need replenishing. Karis, lift up your friend so that he can drink.” Karis obeyed, admiring Rentha’s coolness. Despite their conversation, she gave no indication that she knew anything about Corhan, or had any feelings for him. And this, Karis knew, was to protect Corhan, not herself. Corhan gazed at Rentha as she held the bowl to his lips, forgetting to drink as he took in all the details of her face. She smiled at him, and told him, “Drink the draught, Corhan. There is nothing in it to harm you.” He drank then, but automatically, his gaze still clinging to her face. She signalled to Karis to lower Corhan again, and the Lord of the Malani gave a great sigh, and said, “You are real! I thought I might have dreamed again. To dream of a dream, Karis – would that not be strange?” “You are not dreaming, Corhan ,my friend.” Karis said, softly. Rentha said, with a touch of pretended indignation, as though she had no idea what they were talking about,”Of course I am real! Do you not remember, Corhan? I am Rentha, Zarel’s sister. I am a Healer,and have been tending you. And,” she added, surprising Karis, who had not known, “I have been among your people, and it is well with them, most of them, save that they are weary and have been frightened by the journey. Saban has your camp well in hand, There is a child with a slight ailment, and a grandmother with swollen feet, nothing serious. I have tended them. And there is some good news for you!” “What is it?” Corhan asked, smiling up at her.”I have also been at a birthing. Your sister has borne a boy-child,” the Healer answered.”The babe came a little early, but all is well with them both. The first of your people to be born to your new world, Corhan. And you are an uncle.” “A boy!” Corhan exclaimed. “Daria was right, then, and her man and I were wrong. We told her, since she is such a strong woman, it would be a girl.” Quite suddenly, there were tears gleaming in the darkness of his eyes. “He will be the first of our children born to freedom of worship, in a world of Light!” Karis smiled gently,”A good thought, Corhan!” “Thanks to you, and Karlin, and most of all to Zarel, the Lightstone-Bearer.” Corhan said. “But for your obedience to Light, we would have perished with our world.” Karis shook his head firmly. “No. Light would have saved you somehow, with or without us. It would not have been permitted that the Children of Light should perish with the Children of Darkness.”

Corhan sat up suddenly, saying,”But I must go back to my people…”, but then he sank back again. “Do not move so quickly!” Rentha scolded him.”See, you have made yourself dizzy. You cannot return to the Malani yet, you are still a little weak and need rest and sustenance. I promise you that all is well with them. Wait till you are at full strength, for they are concerned for you, and if you go among them in a weakened state, you will only cause them more worry.” Corhan, recovering from the swirling of his head that his impetuous movement had caused, said, “You are right, maiden – Rentha. But it is hard not to be with them at such a time.” “Saban will come and tell you how it is with them”, she assured him, then smiled, and added, “And he is anxious to show you his son!” She turned to Karis, and requested “Karis, could you find some food and drink for Cothan? He needs to build up his strength.” “Of course!” the Swordsman answered, and left the Healing Place. Returning to the Hall, he found others of his family there, and, going to collect the food and drink for Corhan, told Karlin, Zarel and Aren that Corhan was awake and improving. “That is good!” Karlin said, then, “And what of him, and Rentha? Has he been able to say anything to her? I think it may be hard for him to explain.” “I thought so too”, Karis said. “And so, after consideration, I have told Rentha about Corhan’s dream, and that she is his dream-maiden, She has promised to say nothing until he speaks. I was not sure, but I thought it wise. Rentha is happy, for she had begun to feel a pull towards him, and was concerned about it, since she hardly knows him. Now she understands. She is sensible enough to deal with the matter, and it eases the way for Corhan.” Zarel said, “Yes, I think you were right, Karis. My sister is clear-headed and kind-hearted. I see, too, that it would have worried her that she might care for him, when she did not know why, for she is so honest in her dealings with others.” Karis smiled at him.”I am glad you agree with what I did, Zarel. Now I must take this nourishment back to Corhan, so he may grow strong again. He is very anxious to be with the Malani again, but agreed with Rentha that he should not return until he is at full strength, lest they be concerned for him.”

When Karis had left them, Zarel too considered Corhan’s situation. Aren’s Perception, closely linked with his as always, agreed with his decision to do his part too to help to smooth the way for Corhan. Accordingly, Zarel left the others and went to find Arenel and Zohra. He found them in a side room,with Zohra’s father and uncle, who were taking the opportunity to catch up with her news, now that the immediate urgency of helping the refugees was over. They smilingly welcomed the Lightstone-Bearer, and the Kets of the Westerners, after praising him for achieving the end of the Way, were curious about one thing. “These Malani”, said Ket-Kai. “It seems they are our ancient Sword-Brethren, though we knew nothing of them. It would be good to meet them.” Taking advantage of this comment, Zarel said, “It is the Malani I have come to speak to you about. Especially their Lord, Corhan.” Arenel, his Perception sensing that Zarel had something important to say, asked “I Perceive that you have some concern for Corhan, Zarel. I know that he was wounded, for Rentha told us that she was tending him. He has not taken the Wound Fever?” “Oh, no, praise Light. It is well with Corhan – very well. Father, Mother, I wanted to tell you what he told me, when we first met.” He had their attention now, and he went on, telling them about Corhan’s vison-dream, and how he had recognised that Zarel came from the same people as his dream-maiden. Ket-Lai, listening too, asked, “Then we must find his bride among our maidens of the West?” “No!” Zarel laughed. “For when we came through the Gate from Ma’al, Corhan was near collapse, and we called Rentha to tend him. And when he saw her, weak though he was, he knew instantly that she was his dream-maiden.” “Rentha?” Zohra exclaimed, “How wonderful! But has he told her? It will be hard for him to explain, I think.” “And hard to ask your approval of their betrothal” Ket-Kai commented , “since he and his people are new to Li’is and as yet unsure of their place here.” Zarel said “Karis has told Rentha of Corhan’s dream, because he saw that she was beginning to feel attracted to Corhan, and was concerned about it, because she scarcely knew, or had spoken to, him. She has promised to say nothing until Corhan speaks to her. Karis thought to ease Corhan’s way, and that is also why I have told you. As my grandfather says, he may not find it easy to speak to you of their betrothal.” Arenel smiled at Zohra and said, “Then we will say nothing either, my heart, until they come to us, if you agree. Since it is Light’s Will that they should be together, there is nothing to say to a betrothal but yes – but I am not reluctant, Zarel. From all I have heard of Corhan and his Malani, they are true to Light and courageous against Darkness, and that is all we need to know. If Rentha’s heart is given to him, and she will be happy with him. it is well.” Zohra agreed, and added “How marvellous are the ways of Light! Who would have guessed that Corhan would dream of Rentha, so long ago, in Ma’al, and have to be brought into Li’is by Light to find her.” Zarel laughed again. “Those were almost his words, Mother, when I told him who I was, and where I came from.’How shall I search a whole new world?’ he said. And I told him we could easily find his dream-maiden among the Westerners, never guessing it would be my own sister!”

While Karis went to fetch provisions for Corhan, Rentha busied herself about the Healing Place. Corhan was, of necessity, still wearing the dirty clothes in which he had escaped from Ma’al, and she knew he would feel better for a wash and change of clothing, so she looked out a robe which would fit him. She was outwardly calm, and maintaining the pretence that she knew nothing of what Karis had told her, but inwardly her mind was racing. To know that Light had destined her for Corhan in such a strange and miraculous way, though each of them had been in different worlds, not knowing, save for the dream, that either existed, was amazing. Chiefly, though, she felt relief that the tenderness she felt for the Lord of the Malani had a legitimate basis and was not some fantasy of her own mind. Corhan, moving a little on his couch, exclaimed “What is it that you have done to my arm, Rentha? Oh, I do not doubt your skills, but it feels strange.” She went back to him and told him, “I have pinned it, until it starts to heal.” “Pinned?” he queried. “Oh, perhaps you do – did – not use this in Ma’al.” she said. “We use pins to hold the edges of a wound together, until the flesh begins to knit again. They are small, and made of gold, so as not to cause harm. Maybe you feel them pull at the wound a little, but they will not harm you.” “I see”, Corhan said. Karis came back into the Healing Place with the supplies for Corhan, and Rentha told Corhan, “Now you may sit up again, but slowly. You have lain flat a long time, that is why you were dizzy when you sat up quickly before. Karis and I will help you.” This time there were no problems, and Rentha thought there was probably no need to confine Corhan to a couch for too long. When he had eaten, she said “We will try if you are well enough to stand, Corhan. If you are steady on your feet, I will ask Karis to help you to the Bathing Place – the Healing Place has its own. You will feel better if you refresh yourself there, I think.” Corhan grinned. “Indeed I will! I feel as if I have been in these clothes forever.” The experiment in standing was successful, and Rentha smiled and handed Karis the robe for Corhan, saying, “You can help your Sword-Brother, Karis, only do not let the wounded arm become wet. ” “Gladly” Karis answered, then, turning to Corhan, ” Come then, I will show you the Bathing Place. lean on me if you feel the need.” But Corhan was perfectly able to walk unaided, and Rentha, watching their progress towards the Bathing Place, wondered if she were being unnecessarily cautious.

However, when they returned, although he was still walking unaided, Corhan sank down gratefully on the edge of the couch, whose covers Rentha had now replaced with fresh ones, and said, “I would not have believed such a simple task could tire me so! But I am glad to be clean and freshly clothed, Rentha. It was a good thought.” “Then you need a draught, and more rest”, the Healer replied. For a moment he looked a little alarmed, and she laughed “I am not going to send you to sleep again, Corhan! No sweetwood, just another reviving draught.” He laughed too, and Karis thought that their eyes met and lingered for a few seconds.The Swordsman said, “Now that I know all is well with you, Sword-Brother, excuse me if I leave you. There is work to do.” Corhan smiled at him. “Thank you for your help, Karis. Yes, go and help the others. But do not neglect Sharamine!” “Who is Sharamine?” asked Rentha, who had not yet heard their story. Karis replied, “Corhan can tell you, Rentha. It will help pass the time for him.” And also, the Swordsman thought, give them more time together, and perhaps an opportunity for Corhan to speak to Rentha about his vision-dream . He bade them farewell and left the Healing Place. When he had gone, Rentha ordered Corhan back to his couch, while she fetched the draught for him, though she allowed him to sit up, propped on cushions. When he was settled and had drunk the draught, she pulled a bench round to sit beside the couch, and asked, “Now, who is Sharamine? Why was Karis being so mysterious?” Corhan looked across at her and said “Sharamine is a maiden we rescued from the danger of a forced marriage, and to keep her safe, she and Karis were married, by the laws of Ma’al.” “Married?” Rentha exclaimed. “It was to be a sham marriage, to be broken when she was far enough away from her pursuer to be safe”, Corhan explained. “But there was never opportunity to break the marriage, so in a sense they are still wed. But it does not matter, since they have fallen in love. Karis said they can be properly married, here in Li’is, in the sight of Light, and till then they count themselves as betrothed only.” “Then I am glad for Karis” Rentha said, then smiled, “It is just the thing he would do, he is brave and impetuous and cannot bear to see any , person or animal, being hard used. I mind when we were children, how he berated a merchant he thought had overloaded his horse’s wagon!” “He was your playmate, then?” Corhan asked. “Yes, he and Karlin. Though he is really my father’s cousin, he was so much younger that we were all much of an age, Karis and Karlin, Zarel and Aren, Mella and I.” “Now, who is Mella? It is my turn to ask questions.” “Oh, Mella is Karlin’s sister, another Healer.”

Rentha found she was enjoying chatting to Corhan. When he turned his head momentarily she studied the sculpted planes of his face and the slight sheen of his dark skin. He looked back at her and asked more questions. “And your people, the Ketai? They came into Li’is with the Lightfriends, Zarel said, and from what else he said, it seems their way of life is much like ours.” “They are my mother’s people.” Rentha replied. “Their Kets, like my brothers, are twins. The Ket is the Lord of the Westerners, but because my grandfather and great-uncle are twins, they share the Lordship. The Ketai only use that name now for special occasions and ceremonies. They live on the Plateau of the West, and everyone knows them as the Westerners.” “And they are a people who move around, as we do?” Corhan asked. “Most of them, the herdsmen and horse breeders. They need to find grazing for their animals. The Kets, though, and the Elders, keep a fixed camp, so that any problems or disputes may be brought to them. And all the Westerners gather for the Festivals, and the Night of the Warrior Children.” That intrigued him, so she explained the rituals of that Night, and the Sword-Training that followed. She felt he was not only interested in the Westerners in general, but trying to find out some of her own background. She could see now, though, that there was a weariness about his eyes, and said, “Corhan, I was glad to spend this time with you, but you look tired, and need to rest again.” She could tell he was reluctant, but he allowed her to rearrange his cushions so that he could lie down. She pointed out the bell pull that hung over his couch, as over all in the Healing Place, and said, “If you have need, pull on the bell. The Healing Place attendants will be nearby and help you.” “I will”, he said. “But you will come back, Rentha?” He sounded a little anxious, and she said lightly, “Of course! I am in charge of your Healing, am I not?”

Aiel had been trying to decide what offer to make to the Lightfriends of Ma’al. The fact that Dorvai had decidedly placed them under Aiel’s authority, as High Priest of Light in Li’is, made it easier, but he was still unwilling to force any changes on them that they might not wish. He felt that it would be good if all of them, at first, came to the City. Even the thirty mature Lightfriends would need some guidance as to the service of Light in Li’is, and the younger ones, and the Perception-gifted children, would need to complete their training in the Student House. Aiel wanted, too, to receive the Lightfriends into the Priesthood of Li’is, and gift them the robes and circlets that would show everyone that they were Priests of Light, the women too, though that would take some time for the people of Li’is to understand and accept. The Priesthood, though, having learned of their service in Ma’al, and met Moondancer, were already happy about the change. How to spread the news of what had happened to Ma’al, and how those of its people, though few, who were true to Light, had been saved, was another question he needed to answer. However, he had received news, through the Thought-without-Words, from the Priests of the Third Faring House in the Merchant Town, of developments which might help. They reported that travellers to the Faring House had arrived carrying strange news. The Dark Ruins, it seemed, were no more, had disappeared completely, as though the ground had swallowed them up. And the land around them was healing; the Red Forest was changing as its trees came to life, threw off their tainted foliage and put on new, fresh growth. The earth itself had changed, too, from dry, dusty red to healthy soil on which the first blades of grass and colonising wild flowers were making an appearance. Zarel had told Aiel how the Shining One had said that those Dark Ruins were still a foothold for the Dark Lords in Li’is, save that the Dancers guarded the way. With Ma’al now destroyed and the link broken, it was obvious that this last lingering fragment of Ma’al in Li’is had also been destroyed. The comment it had caused, and the rumours which would no doubt be circulating, Aiel thought, would make a basis for the spreading of the story of the refugees. He had told Arentha, Lin and Krystha the news, and they had been glad. Though nothing would erase the memory of what they had experienced in the Dark Ruins, the fact that that awful place had been obliterated, and the land on which it had stood was healing, was some consolation.

Janir and Aila, Mellin and Marla, had rejoiced at the safe return of Karis and Karlin and the reuniting of Karlin and Janna. The added happiness of Karis and Sharamine , as well as the relief and joy of the successful completion of Zarel’s Way, created an aura of wellbeing and contentment over them all. Karlin and Janna had found each other changed by the experience, but in no bad way. Each of them had fought fear and strengthened faith, and matured. Their love was as strong and deep as ever, but had a new dimension. Karlin had told Janna, privately, of what Mihel had said to him. “He told me we would have a long and happy life together, and see our children’s children prosper, my heart. And he is a Spirit-in-Light! So he spoke a prophecy for us.” Janna had been amazed but happy. Sharamine, nervous at first of her reception, had relaxed and blossomed with the welcome of Karis’ family, and the knowledge of his love for her. The two couples, as Lin had suggested, were already planning a joint wedding, when all the many other matters concerning the refugees from Ma’al had been settled. There still was much to do, though. The next morning all of them would be gathered and formally welcomed to Li’is by the Council-at-Need, who had spent some time conferring and trying to put together a comprehensive list of the options available to them. The Lord of the East would welcome any who wished to cross the sea to his lands, though in view of what he had been told, Aiel wondered of any of the refugees would dare entrust themselves to the Eastern lands when they had always been, in Ma’al, a place to be dreaded and shunned, as the seat of the Dark Lords. There would be places on the Watches for any Swordsmen and their families who wished to take them, and of the twelve, including Talar and Lorin, two were very young, though they had fought valiantly, and might benefit from more Sword-Training. Corhan and his Malani would wish to stay together as a people, and would need to find a place where they could do so. Farmers and craftsmen would no doubt be easier to find places for. But Aiel was adamant that none should be forced or cajoled in their choice of home. “They have lived under oppression long enough, with no freedom to live their lives as they wished”, the High Priest said. Lin said, thoughtfully, “That other place….where Ma’al was. I wonder – all who served Light have left it , and though Ma’al is destroyed, surely it can be nothing now but the realm of Darkness.” Aiel, though, disagreed. “There is Darkness there, yes, but nowhere is out of the reach of Light, Lin, for Light is everywhere. There may yet be hope for that other realm.” “The Secret Word has been fulfilled, though.” Lin answered.” We have seen the end of Ma’al, and surely this is the beginning that was spoken of too, a new life for the people of Ma’al who were loyal to Light.” “That is true.” Aiel responded. “Yet in the First Days, Rafel, Brann and Tamorine penned the Secret Word without knowing what would come of it. There may be things yet to come that we will never know.” He smiled, then, and added, “But you are right, Lin, for we need not concern ourselves with such things. We can rejoice in what Light has done, and make our plans for the present times.”

AN END OF DARKNESS

Chapter 12

Now there was time for the refugees to realise where they were, and what had happened, and it was as well that there was such a company of Priests and Healers waiting to tend and reassure them. The Gardens were crowded with a milling throng; the exhausted, half-joyous, half-terrified Children of Light Zarel and the others had rescued from Ma’al, and those of Li’is who had come to meet and welcome them. It was not chaotic, though, as Priests and Healers moved purposefully among the people, directing them to the way stations, and others did what they could to help. Karlin realised that Corhan, whom he and Saban were still supporting, had begun to shake, probably, Karlin thought, with the shock of the destruction of his world, as well as loss of blood. “Karis” he said softly to his young uncle, who was nearby “It is not well with Corhan.” Karis, standing with Sharamine and the two sets of twins, gave a concerned glance at Corhan, and, seeing no Healer near, since Aiel had taken Dorvai to explain the way stations to him, turned instead to Zarel. The Lightstone-Bearer looked across, saw Corhan’s need, and went at once to lay the Lightstone to his brow to sustain him till help could be found. Karis had turned to scan the crowd. Thankfully, he recognised Rentha making her way towards them, some way away, and called out to her. Zarel’s sister came quickly to them, saying “Light be praised that you have all returned safely! But why did you call me? Is one of you hurt?” “It is Corhan, our Sword-Brother. There, with Karlin”, he told her, and she turned towards them, asking “What ails the Swordsman, Karlin?” “He was wounded, back in Ma’al, and did not say, because he would not slow our journey while we tended him. So he tried to mend matters himself” Karlin said. “And then, on the way up to the Meeting Place, he slipped and knocked the place and set it bleeding again. All on top of the stress of the journey, and the pursuit and battles, and seeing Ma’al destroyed.” “Much to bear, indeed. When was he wounded and where?” Rentha asked. It was Saban who answered. “Two days ago. His left arm, on the underside, near the shoulder.” Rentha nodded, as she drew back Corhan’s cloak, and her gentle fingers felt his arm. “Yes, a wound there would bleed quite hard to begin with, and now he has made it bleed even more. He has certainly lost much blood, and no way to tell how pale he might be under that dark colouring, except..” she smiled up at Corhan and said “I think you must sit on this stone, Swordsman. You are too tall for my reach, and the rest will do you no harm.”

Corhan obediently sank down on the flattish ornamental boulder she indicated, his friends still supporting him. Rentha leaned over and very gently turned back his lip and eyelids, to see how pale their lining might be, so she could gauge his loss of blood. But as she did so he gave a start, and Rentha exclaimed “Oh, I am sorry – did I hurt you?” He was staring into her face, but he shook his head. His eyes, though, did not leave hers. Puzzled, she gazed back, laying one hand on his brow, to see if he were feverish. Still he stared, until a soft flush rose in Rentha’s cheeks, and at last he gasped “Who -who are you, maiden?” Still puzzled, Rentha glanced at her brother, and asked quietly “Zarel, why does the Swordsman stare at me so? Are there no Healers in Ma’al?” “There are. It is not that.” Zarel said, as a sudden idea stirred him .” You should know better than I, Rentha, that shock can do strange things” , he added, still unsure if his guess were right. He spoke quietly but clearly to Corhan. “This maiden is Rentha, my sister, Corhan. She is a Healer, and has come to tend your wound.” “Ah!” Corhan gasped. “Zarel – my dream…” “Rentha? Is it Rentha?” Karlin exclaimed. “This maiden – yes!” the dark young Swordsman burst out, then, overwhelmed with emotion, pain, and physical weakness, suddenly reaching the end of his great fortitude and stamina, he slumped unconscious in his friends’supporting arms. They were alarmed, but Rentha was reassuring. “It will not harm him. He needs to rest. He has not taken the Wound Fever, praise Light, but he is weak and exhausted from stress and loss of blood.” “He would not leave Ma’al until the very last, though he sorely needed tending, for he is Lord of the Malani and would not leave until he knew they were all safely into Li’is.” Zarel told her, adding, to assure her about Corhan, “He is a brave and honourable man.” Rentha looked at the unconscious Swordsman as if considering her brother’s words, and said, “He is quite beautiful, Zarel – like a statue carved of dark stone. Are all his people so handsome?” Saban answered her, smiling. He was so glad that Corhan had found his dream-maiden, and that she seemed to like him too, that Zarel could not help but Perceive it. “Many of us are very handsome. But some, like me, are not.” “Oh, I am sure you are too modest!” Rentha laughed, then sobered to ask “I wonder why he gazed at me so – but he said something about a dream, did he not, Zarel? Perhaps, after all, he has been a little feverish, with the pain and loss of blood, and weariness.” Then, as if feeling she showed a little too much concern over a stranger, she became suddenly brisk, telling them to carry Corhan to the way station where those who were actually sick or hurt, rather than just tired or upset, were being tended. She would care for Corhan there, where he would be more comfortable, until he could be taken to the Gatehouse Healing Place, she told them. As Karis, Karlin and Saban obeyed her, Zarel watched his sister closely. Already she seemed to feel some attraction for Corhan, and that, if she were truly the maiden the Lord of the Malani had seen in his long-ago, Light-sent dream, must be Light’s doing.

Once they had conveyed Corhan to the way station and knew he was in safe hands, Karis and Karlin were eager to find their own family among the throng. Karis took hold of Sharamine’s hand and drew her along with them. He had had to gently persuade her, knowing that she was nervous about meeting his parents, but she had listened to his assurances and agreed to come with him. At last they found them; Lin and Krystha, Mellin and Marla, Mella and Janna, searching for them as they had also been searching. As soon as Karlin saw Janna, he ran to embrace her and they clung together. Janna was smiling and weeping together, with exclamations of love for Karlin and praise for his safe return. Karis followed his nephew more slowly, to be embraced by his parents and brother. Mellin hugged him, saying, “Praise Light you are all safe! It is good to see you again – that was well done, little brother!” Sharamine had stood aside, quiet and shy, as the reunions took place, until Mella, turning from embracing her brother in turn, noticed her and said “Oh – who is this maiden? Have you brought her out of Ma’al?” That drew their attention and Karis took Sharamine’s hand again and brought her forward. “This is Sharamine” , he told them, ” and yes, she has come out of Ma’al. She is a Child of Light, and ..” he hesitated, but the atmosphere was joyous, and he could not resist the urge to tease his family, so he continued ” she is my wife.” Krystha exclaimed ” Your wife?” and the others stared. Sharamine, worried by their response, blushed hotly red and said quickly “Oh no, it is not what it seems! Karis, please explain!” Krystha, seeing her discomfort, came and put one arm round her shoulders, saying, to console her, “It is well, Sharamine. Do not be concerned. Karis will tell us all.” Her kindness seemed to calm Sharamine, and Karis, a little shamefaced now, said “I am sorry, I did not mean to cause concern…” and went on to explain the circumstances of his sham marriage to Sharamine, in Ma’al. When he had finished with the telling, Lin nodded and said, “You did right, Karis. Sharamine had need of your protection.” Sharamine’s face showed relief, and Karis said, “That is how it began, but as time has gone on, we have grown to love each other, and wish to be wed properly, in the sight of Light, so that Sharamine really will be my Lady.” Krystha smiled at her younger son and Sharamine, and said, “That will be a joyful thing indeed! It seems Light meant you for each other, Sharamine. So I shall have two daughters-in-law born out of Ma’al!” “Two?” Sharamine asked, glancing at Mella, but Marla said, “Krystha means me, Sharamine! I was born in Li’is, but born of Ma’al. But I was Changed….” “Oh!” Sharamine broke in ,”You must be Marla? Karis has told me your story.” “Indeed I am!” Marla smiled. Lin said “We will be glad to welcome you into our family, Sharamine. ” He gave a wide smile, then, and said, “After all the concern of Zarel’s Way, it will be a blessing to have happy times to look forward to. Though I think Karis’ and Karlin’s weddings will not be the only ones to come out of this Way.” Karis answered him. “I think you are right, Father.” He was thinking of Corhan, and was surprised when Lin said ” The twins, now, have grown very close. I do not have Perception, but still I sense some affection between Aren and Moondancer, and no doubt it is the same with Zarel and Whitestar. I think there will be betrothals.” “I had not thought….” Karis said, then , “It is true, though, that Zarel and Whitestar seemed to find much comfort in each other, but I thought it was because each was missing their twin. But yes, it could well be more than that.”

Mella had been looking away from them for a few minutes, and now said, “I think I see someone in need. I will join you again soon, but I must see if I can help.” She moved away from her family and went across to where she had seen someone sitting on the ground,leaning against a small ornamental tree, as if they were hurt or exhausted. As she drew nearer she saw that it was a Swordsman. Coming up to him, she asked, “Are you hurt, Swordsman? I am a Healer.” The young man looked up at her. He looked tired and worried. “I am not hurt” he answered. “I have lost my brother.” Mella considered this, unsure what he meant. At last she asked gently.” How did you lose him? Was he slain in Ma’al?” “Oh, no!” the Swordsman said. “We both came through the Gate from Ma’al, but we were each helping others, and in the confusion I lost sight of him. And I am so tired…” He sighed, and Mella felt sorry for him. Like the other Healers, she had with her a flask of a reviving draught, for they had known that the refugees from Ma’al had had an arduous and frightening journey. Now she poured from the flask into one of her little wooden Healer’s cups, and handed it to him. “Drink this, it will restore your strength” she said. He thanked her, and drank the draught. She watched as it took effect, and he began to revive. “What is your name?” Mella asked, and he replied “Lorin. My brother is Talar. Thank you, Lady Healer.” “My name is Mella.” she told him. “The Priesthood have set up way stations for the people from Ma’al. We will surely find your brother there. If you feel better now, come with me, and I will show you.” Lorin rose, and thanked her again. As they walked towards the way stations, he glanced at her, and said, “It is strange, Lady Mella, but you seem familiar to me, though I have never been in Li’is.” “But you have fought alongside my brother!” she laughed. “Karlin is my brother, and Karis my uncle. It is a family resemblance you see.” “Ah, that must be it.” the Swordsman replied, and then gave a glad cry. “Talar!” They had reached the line of refugees at the way station, and Lorin saw his brother waiting there. Talar turned, and gave a huge grin. “Lorin! I thought I might find you here!” As the brothers embraced, Mella smiled, and slipped quietly away, back to her family.

When she reached them, and told them about Lorin, Karis said “Those two are valiant Swordsmen, and true to Light, though they have suffered a great loss…” and went on to tell them how the two Swordsmen had returned from a mission helping the Lightfriends to find their entire family had been destroyed by the mercenaries of the Dark Lords. “Then they only have each other?” Mella asked. “No wonder Lorin was so upset to think he had lost his brother!” Lin said “I wonder what the Swordsmen of Ma’al will do now? Are there many of them, Karis?” “Very few, other than the Malani.” Karis said. Karlin, who was nearby with Janna, said “Only twelve in all, Grandfather. There was no means of training Swordsmen in Ma’al, other than those belonging to the hidden ancient families that were still loyal to Light, and those the Dark Lords did all they could to destroy.” Mellin said. “So few! If they are willing, they could take on service to the Watchwards. I would gladly welcome any who wished to join the Fortress Watch, as I am sure would Janir at the Western Fortress.” Karis said ” I too would be glad to have the Swordsmen of Ma’al – especially Lorin and Talar. They have had no place to belong since their family perished. But we must give them time to adjust to being here before we ask them to make such decisions.” Mella turned to Sharamine, and said “We have not asked you, Sharamine, how it is with you. It must be strange and frightening to you to be brought here, even though it is a place of safety, and you are with Karis.” The other girl smiled at her, and said, “You are kind, Mella. It is strange, and to know that Ma’al is destroyed, and my parents with it, though I ran away….they were not always so cruel as recently, though they did not serve Light….” She paused, then, and there were tears in her eyes. Karis hugged her. Sharamine took a deep breath, and went on “But I know I am safe in Li’is, and that all that has been done was in the Will of Light. It will take time to learn to live in freedom and open worship of Light, there is much to learn about my new world. I am thankful to Light that I am here, and for Karis…” she looked up at the Swordsman, and he smiled tenderly at her. “You are part of our family now, and we will help you.” Krystha said. “As they did me!” Marla added. “When Mellin and I were betrothed, Krystha and Lin were the kindest of friends to me, for I too had no parents, and a Dark heritage.”

Aiel and Dorvai were standing by the three way stations, watching the progress of the refugees. Those that needed it were being tended by Healers for bodily, or Priests for emotional, needs, and all of them were being listed and assigned places to rest. Saban had left Daria with the Healers to be checked over, and taken charge of the Malani in Corhan’s absence. It was all being done in an orderly manner. Dorvai asked Aiel “You are the High Priest of Light here, but were Lightstone-Bearer before Zarel, so he said?” “That is so.” Aiel answered. “I bore it on the Lightstone Way, and Marla’s Way. I have had little part in this Way, but have been brought here to see its end, as the Secret Word foretold that I would.” “Then since you are High Priest of Light, we Lightfriends will come under your authority.” Dorvai said, but Aiel replied “Only if you all wish it so! You are the leader of the Lightfriends, Dorvai, and they recognise that. I would not usurp your place. But there will be time for all such decisions later, once we have you all settled and feeling secure in Li’is. I think that will take time, my Brother-in-Light.” “It will”, Dorvai agreed. “Zarel swept us up in the Way, and we obeyed Light’s command and followed him, trusting in Light and the Lightstone. We knew we were coming to Li’is, to a place of safety, but still the Way has been frightening at times, and the journey tiring. All of us, even the Lightfriends, will need time to rest and recover, and to work through all that has happened.” “Even allocating places to stay, for now, is difficult” Aiel commented. “The Gatehouse was never intended to take so many, and some will have to use the tents that the Westerners- who you know as the Ketai – have brought for that purpose.” “That may not be such a problem.” Dorvai told him. “The Malani too are wanderers and used to living in camps. There are many of them, and no doubt they will be happy to use the tents. Corhan their Lord was wounded and has been taken to the Healing Place, but his sister Daria and her man, Saban, will take charge and can answer for the Malani.” “There will be much for us of Li’is to learn too.” Aiel answered. “We knew nothing of the Malani until Zarel told us of them. We knew that the ancient Lightfriends came into Li’is out of Ma’al, with Rafel the first Lightstone-Bearer, and the Ketai, but until the Dancers came to call Zarel to the Lightstone and this way, we did not understand that there were still Lightfriends and Children of Light in Ma’al, believing that that world was wholly of Darkness.” “And we in Ma’al knew nothing of Li’is.” Dorvai responded. “We knew the story of the Lightfriends leaving, but over the centuries, with all we had to contend with, much of the tale was lost, and we did not know where or how, or even why, they left. It was a shock to us when we saw Dancers for the first time, and they told us of what was to happen. I am not ashamed to admit that though I love and trust Light, I was still fearful for Moondancer when the Dancer carried her away from us.” Aiel smiled gently, and said, “You were not alone in that, for we too feared for Zarel, Karis and Karlin. Praise Light that all that is past now, and the Way has ended as Light meant it to, with all of you safe in Li’is.” “Praise Light!” Dorvai echoed.

The joy that Zarel and Aren had felt at their reunion was too much for words, and their Perceptions flowed together in their old accustomed way. As they shared, they could sense Whitestar and Moondancer doing the same, like an echo. It seemed all four still kept that connection. Impossible that either set of twins should not know of the love between Zarel and Whitestar, Aren and Moondancer, but all had expected it to be so, and none was surprised. When their Perceptions drew apart again, the four of them stood in a little group . Aren said, as if to confirm what they already knew. “Moondancer and I – we knew it would be the same with you and Whitestar.” ” And we knew it would be so with you two, also.” Zarel replied. Aren smiled at Whitestar, then said to Zarel “Our mother and father waited in the Gatehouse, while we came to the Gate with Grandfather. Come and show them all is well with you, and let them meet Whitestar.” The four of them moved away, past the way stations, telling Dorvai as they passed where his daughters were going. As they walked through the Gardens, Whitestar exclaimed at their beauty. “The Gatehouse Gardens are designed to be restful and inspiring.” Aren told her, then laughed, and added, “Though they are not so restful now, with so many people here. But that is a blessing, and maybe the peace and beauty of the Gardens will help to soothe the spirits of those who have come from Ma’al. It has been a tumultuous time for you.” They reached the Gatehouse and went in, finding Arenel, who had Perceived their approach, waiting for them with Zohra. Aila, Janir and Lira were waiting too, to welcome them. Arenel stepped forward and embraced Zarel, and as he did his Perception flashed to his son’s the joy and relief he felt at Zarel’s safe return, and the pride in his accomplishment of the Way. Then he turned to Whitestar, and said, “Welcome, my Sister-in-Light! Light be praised you and all of Light’s Children from Ma’al are safely here.” Whitestar thanked him, and Zarel introduced her to the others. She looked curiously at Aila, seeing that she had Perception, but was not of the Priesthood. Aila sensed her thought, and said, “Welcome, Whitestar, Lightfriend. Moondancer has told us how you served Light in Ma’al. In Li’is we daughters of the Priesthood born with Perception are not required to become Priests, since our brothers are so many. But now that you and the other female Lightfriends are here, that may change!” she added. Lira reached out to hug her cousin”Praise Light you are safe, Zarel!” she exclaimed, then turned to Whitestar and embraced her too. “I am happy to meet you”, she said. “Moondancer has told us so much about you.” “I am happy to be here! ” Whitestar said. “It is wonderful to be back with my sister, and to feel the safety we have never known. To receive such a welcome, too, is overwhelming. So many good people!” Janir said “But you deserve it, Whitestar. For so long the Lightfriends of Ma’al have stayed true to Light, and risked all to bring some to be Children of Light, while we were ignorant of it. You are all warriors of Light, and we are proud to welcome you.” Zohra had embraced Zarel in her turn, whispering her praise to him. Now she said, “You have been brave indeed, Whitestar. The Way must have been frightening, and tiring, despite your great faith in Light. ” “It was, but I trusted Zarel” Whitestar said, smiling at the Lightstone-Bearer. “Well, all is done now” Aila said, adding, with the practicality of a Healer, “Come, there are places to rest , and food is being prepared.”

Rentha had had Corhan carried to the Healing Place and laid on one of the couches. His cloak had been removed and she could see the torn, bloodied sleeve and the clotted bandages under it. She would need to remove those, but gently, and the wound beneath would no doubt require pinning. Corhan was still unconscious, but not so deeply that she could tend his wound without causing pain. She moved to the Healer’s bench and prepared a draught of sweetwood, then reached for the sealed container of pure gold wound pins in their cleansing solution. As she did so,she heard Corhan groan behind her. Rentha set the pins down on the bench and went to his couch. Corhan’s black eyes opened and looked up at her, but dazedly. He seemed confused, and asked “What has happened? Where am I?” “You are safe, Corhan”, she assured him. “You and the Malani have reached Li’is, but you were wounded. You are in the Healing Place of the Gatehouse.” “I do not remember…how am I here?” “You were weak and exhausted, and you lost consciousness. You were carried here”, Rentha told him. “And now you must sleep again, so I can tend your wound, and make you fit to return to your people.” She turned to pick up the bowl of sweetwood and took it to him, leaning to support his head. “Drink this”, she ordered. “It will send you to sleep while the wound is pinned.” Corhan seemed hesitant, so she told him “You can trust me, Corhan. I am Zarel’s sister, and a Healer. I mean you only good.” He seemed to relax at that, and drank from the bowl which she was holding to his lips. She laid his head down again, and he gave a sigh and closed his eyes as the sweetwood took effect. The Healer waited a few moments to make sure that the narcotic spice had done its work, then began her task. She cut away the sleeve and carefully removed the bandages beneath, soaking them to loosen them where necessary. When that had been done and she had cleaned away the dried blood from Corhan’s arm, she inspected the wound. There was no signs, thankfully, of the Wound Fever. The wound was small, but deep. Probably made by the tip of a sword, rather than the full blade, Rentha guessed. He had been unlucky that it had caught a blood vessel and caused so much bleeding. It would not require many wound pins. She cleaned the wound with cleansing solution and dusted it with a powdered herb that quickened healing, then joined the edges with wound pins. She needed only three, in the end, and they would not need to stay in place for too long. A clean bandage finished her work, and she looked down at her sleeping charge, and smiled her satisfaction at a task accomplished. To make him more comfortable, she pulled off his boots and set them beside the couch, then covered him over with a coverlet. No more she could do till he woke. She could leave him in the charge of the Healing Room attendants, who would call her, or another Healer, if Corhan had any need. Yet she felt somehow reluctant to leave him. Zarel had told her that Corhan was the Lord of the Malani, the new people he had brought out of Ma’al. Maybe, Rentha thought, it was the excitement of meeting someone so unexpected that made her feel like this, for otherwise she could not understand. She was a Healer and had tended many, some of them very unwell, yet she did not recall feeling such extreme concern and – could she call it compassion? – for any of them. These were strange and emotional times, though, and it was impossible not to feel for the people of Ma’al who Zarel had rescued, and all they had endured in that dark world. She shook her head. She would leave Corhan to the Healing Place attendants, at least for now and – an idea came to her – she would go and find the rest of the Malani, and see that all was well with them. Then she would have good news to bring him, for she was sure that he would be eager to return to his people, and she could not allow that until he was at least almost fully recovered. Thus resolved, she tucked the coverlet more securely round Corhan, and left the Healing Place to give her instructions to the attendants.

The refugees from Ma’al, once past the way stations, were beginning to make their way through the Gardens towards the Gatehouse, guided by the Priesthood and Healers. Most of them walked slowly, looking round at their surroundings, enjoying and being calmed by the beauty around them. The children, though, after so long cooped up in the carts and made to keep still and silent for fear of the Hawks, revelled in their freedom and ran joyfully through the Gardens, leaping and playing. Dorvai, walking with Aiel, watched them, and said to Aiel, “Ah, it is good to see the children free to play!” “They will live and grow in freedom, here.” Aiel answered. “That is a good thought, Dorvai. Freedom and no fear for all Children of Light, now.” Dorvai asked ” There is a Prayer Place at the Gatehouse? Zarel said that there are places of prayer all over Li’is. ” “Yes, the Gatehouse has a Prayer Room.” Aiel replied. “Then we Lightfriends would be glad to go there, when there is time, and give thanks to Light for our deliverance.” Dorvai told him. Aiel smiled. “There is always time to give thanks to Light. When all the Lightfriends have reached the Gatehouse, we will arrange it.” Dorvai looked back to where his sister and Naton were following, with Kira . Little Kilmo was running with the other children, though he kept coming back to his mother, then running back to the others. Aiel could Perceive Dorvai’s gladness for his family before he spoke. “My sister will be so relieved that Naton need not face danger when he goes to teach the Children of Light now. Her daughter’s man was killed . I trust Light that Kira and the little one will fare better now we are here.” “A great sorrow for her”, Aiel said. “As there was for you, so Moondancer said, with the loss of your Lady.” “There was.” Dorvai said. “Though I knew she had touched Light. But to be left alone with my daughters- little more than babes then – and my responsibilities as leader of the Lightfriends- it was a hard time for me, Aiel. But praise Light, I was sustained through it by my faith in Light.” I felt for the maidens, when Moondancer told us.” Aiel answered. “For I too lost my mother at a young age, and though I knew she had touched Light also, the gap in my life remained.” “It does remain” Dorvai agreed. “And will, I think, till we too touch Light and meet our loved ones again.” They had reached the Gatehouse now and went in, to join their families. Aiel introduced Dorvai to Arentha and those of his family that the Lightfriend had not yet met. Arentha smiled her gentle smile, and said, “We are so glad to welcome you all to Li’is!”

Everyone was congregating in the Great Hall of the Gatehouse, finding friends and family and waiting to be shown where they would sleep. Rentha, coming into the Hall, was quickly surrounded by Karis, Karlin, and Saban, anxious to know how Corhan fared. “It is as well with him as may be.” she told them. “I do not believe he has taken the Wound Fever. The wound was small, but deep, so I had to pin it, and to do that I gave him sweetwood. He is still sleeping.” “Thank you, Lady Healer” Saban said. “He is our Lord, and my wife’s brother. We were greatly concerned for him.” He indicated Corhan’s sister Daria, who was seated on a bench nearby. Rentha looked over at her, and asked Corhan “When is the babe due?” “Not quite yet, but soon, I think,” he answered, and the Healer replied “We must look after her, then.” “You may try!” Saban laughed. “She has a strong will, and would be loath to leave our people at such a time, when her brother is already in the Healing Place.” Rentha told him “When you have the Malani settled, I would like to come and see how it is with them, Saban. If I can bring good news back to Corhan, he will not be so anxious to return to them,as I know he will be if not. He needs to rest and heal.” “Certainly!” Saban said. “It is a kind thought, Lady, and we would be glad of your help.” He added, “They told us at the way stations that they would tell us where we could stay, but some would need to use the tents of the Ketai. I have told them that we would gladly use the tents. It is what we are used to, and will make more room here for others.” “Then we should certainly try to persuade Daria to stay in the Gatehouse.” Karis remarked. Daria, hearing her name, rose from the bench and came over to them. “Did you call me?” she asked. “No, we were wondering if it would be best for you to stay here if the Malani are camping.” Karlin told her. “I will stay with my people!” Daria said, firmly. Rentha studied her covertly. She could see that Corhan’s sister was strong and fit, of athletic build. She would have strength and stamina. The Healer said “If you will be more at ease among your people, I would not advise you otherwise. This is your first babe?” Daria nodded, and Rentha went on. “First babes do not often come quickly. There will be time. I have told Saban, though, that I will come and see that all is well with the Malani, to reassure your brother when he wakes. You will let me tend you also?” “Yes, Lady Healer, thank you. ” Daria answered. “I think it will reassure Saban, too.” She cast an affectionate glance at her husband, who laughed. “Indeed!” Karis noted that Saban had made no reference to Corhan’s certainty that Rentha was his dream-maiden. He would not, however, the Swordsman thought, until Corhan was able to explain matters to Rentha. He wondered, though, if Saban had told Daria.

Aiel had left Dorvai and his family, to find Rujel and ask that the Prayer Room, which had been closed while the transfer from Ma’al and all that it entailed was happening, be opened. “The Lightfriends are anxious to stand before Light and give thanks.” he explained. “I know you are very busy, Rujel, but it will mean a great deal to them.” “Gladly!” Rujel answered. He hurried away to carry out the task, while Aiel waited, and returned to say that it was done, and the Lightfriends welcome to go to the Prayer Room whenever they wished. Aiel in turn went to find Dorvai, and said “Are all the Lightfriends here now? The Prayer Room is open for you.” Dorvai looked round, and Aiel could sense his Perception reaching out to the other Lightfriends. Then Dorvai said “We are all here. ” As Aiel watched, the Lightfriends of Ma’al made their way through the bustling Great Hall to their leader. Naton, Whitestar and Moondancer came first, then the others, in ones and twos, including, Aiel noted, more women. When they had all assembled, though, he was astonished at how few, comparatively, there were. Used to the extent of the Priesthood in Li’is, he was surprised that the Lightfriends of Ma’al numbered little more than fifty, and his respect and admiration for them grew. That a number less than the full complement of the Temple Priesthood had kept the service of Light alive in Ma’al, and won some to that service despite the overwhelming odds, humbled him. Dorvai turned to him, and asked, “Will you show us the Prayer Room,Aiel?” “I will be honoured” the High Priest answered, and led the way. As the Lightfriends entered the Prayer Room, he Perceived their joy and excitement. The miniature of the Crucible in the Temple, as in all Prayer Rooms across Li’is, was lighting the room with a soft golden glow, and he explained it to them, not knowing if their Prayer Places in Li’is had had Crucibles. Dorvai responded that they had not, but he was glad to see it, knowing that, as Aiel had explained, the Crucibles had begun with the first Lightfriends who came into Li’is from Ma’al, so long ago. That meant that at some time in their distant past, there would have been Crucibles, though it might have been that they had all been brought into Li’is long ago. Aiel was prepared to leave the Lightfriends of Ma’al to their time of prayer and thanksgiving, but Dorvai said “Aiel, Lightfriend, you are High Priest of Light . Will you lead us?” Aiel was happy to agree, but first he said, “If that is what all the Lightfriends wish, Dorvai.” Their agreement was unanimous, and so he led them, first in the Quieting Prayers, to create a calm atmosphere, and then in thanksgiving and celebration.

It was growing calmer in the rest of the Gatehouse too. The refugees had been given a meal, though in shifts, as the Gatehouse kitchens could not cope with so many at once. Then they had been shown to the places where they would be staying, for now, until they decided where they wanted to go. Since the Malani had volunteered to take most of the tents out on the wildflower meadow, the rest were given to those who were alone or in pairs, such as Lorin and Talar, leaving room in the Gatehouse and its outbuildings for families and those with children. Every available space was filled with refugees and helpers, but somehow everyone had been fitted in, and the unique joy of the occasion made any small inconveniences worthwhile. Zarel, Karis and Karlin, now that the Way was completed, though they could scarcely believe, at first, that it was over, were beginning to relax and enjoy the reunion with their families and loved ones. Aila and Janir, cousins to Karis, had been introduced to Sharamine and heard the story of how they had met, been married by the laws of Ma’al, to protect Sharamine, and then found themselves truly in love. “Then maybe you two and Karlin and Janna will have a joint wedding.” Janir suggested. “Since you and Karlin seem to do everything together, Karis!” Karis laughed, and Janir looked at him fondly. He remembered the night Karis had been born, when his Lady, Aila, had been the Healer tending Krystha, and how he had been taken to see the new babe the next morning. Now that baby cousin was a strapping young Swordsman, had shown his courage and prowess in Ma’al, and would soon be married. Janir said “I am proud of you all – you and Karlin and Zarel. It was well done!” “I think Zarel was the braver” Karis answered. “Karlin and I – we are Swordsmen, we had training. But Zarel – he had the Lightstone, true, but he had not Aiel’s experience of it. Yet Light chose a worthy Lightstone-Bearer – his faith in Light was so strong, and we have seen him grow so much in that faith, in Ma’al. I was astonished by him at times, and humbled.” Lin looked round him at the crowded Great Hall, and said “All of you did well, and here is the proof. The Children of Light and Lightfriends of Ma’al, brought safely here to live in Light. The Secret Word is finally fulfilled.”

AN END OF DARKNESS

Chapter 11

The next day came, and after the Morning Prayers Aiel and the Way-Sharers waited in the High Priest’s house for the promised arrival of the Dancers. After some time had passed, in which they discussed Zarel’s Way, and how soon the end of it might come, Aiel felt a tug at his Perception, and followed it, then announced to his Lady and friends “The Dancers are here. They await us outside.” He realised that the towering Dancers could not enter the low-ceilinged house. The four of them stepped outside the door, carrying their travelling packs, and found the glowing light-beings waiting for them, hovering on the green of the Temple grounds in which the house stood. The Dancers’ thought reached out to all of them. ‘Are you ready to depart?’ and Aiel answered, for all of them, “We are.” As the four Dancers drew near, one for each traveller, all of them instinctively closed their eyes. Aiel remembered what Tor-Harat had told him, years ago. “I have travelled with the Dancers many times, and I could never yet bear to keep my eyes open!” They could not know when the Dancers enfolded them, or feel any movement as the light-beings ‘travelled’in their mysterious way, but it was the briefest of times possible before Aiel felt their thought again. “We are at the Gatehouse.” As the Dancers moved back from them and they opened their eyes, they found themselves standing in the courtyard of the Gatehouse, the solid building in front of them, and their families, with Rujel the Gatekeeper, waiting for them. Once they had been welcomed and embraced by their families, Aiel turned to Rujel. “It is good to see you again after so long, Rujel, old friend. I hear you have been very busy making ready for our new arrivals.” Rujel laughed. “It has been a great task indeed, Aiel. We were very thankful for Janir and the Westerners, who have helped us greatly – your families too, since they arrived here.”

They followed Rujel into the Gatehouse Hall, where Janna turned to Aiel and asked “Grandfather, since you are here now, is the Way over?” Aiel, Perceiving that she was still anxious for her beloved Karlin, said gently. “Not quite, Janna, child, but very soon, I promise you.” Moondancer, standing nearby with Aren, said “I hope it will be soon! I long to welcome my father and Whitestar into the freedom of Li’is.” Arentha smiled. “My dears, you will both be reunited with your loved ones soon. Trust Light.” Aiel observed Aren’s hand tighten on Moondancer’s, as if in comfort, but his Perception sensed the new affection between them. He turned his thoughts elsewhere, lest he should Trespass. “You had a good journey here?” he asked Mellin. “We did” the Swordsman answered. Aila added “And we met Lady Saditha, Father! She is very elderly now, but still lives. Her son Tavis keeps the Second Faring House, and we met her there. She remembers you all, and sent her love and prayers to you.” “Lady Saditha?” Lin exclaimed “We four have never forgotten her help and kindness, when we were in such distress after what happened in the Dark Ruins.” “She was a blessing to us then.” Krystha commented, and Arentha said “She was indeed. I am glad you have met her, Aila. Was it well with her?” “As well as may be, at such a great age.” Aila said. “Only that she tires easily. But she was very interested in Moondancer, and the new Way.” “I found her a true Lightfriend.” Moondancer added. Arentha had been looking round her at the Gatehouse. ” I can see that you have made many changes here.” “Only temporary ones, to house the incomers from Ma’al, and accommodate our Brothers-in-Light and the Healers who have come to help them.” Rujel said. “You must come and see what we have done, Aiel, and meet my family.” So Aiel, Arentha, Lin and Krystha followed him to inspect the arrangements for the refugees, while the others went on with the work they had been doing to help.

In Ma’al, Zarel, despite the threat of more barriers to overcome, was feeling hopeful. He could definitely see a distant range of mountains now, surely where the Meeting Place would be. The dale they had been riding in had widened into a plain again, but no longer featureless. Ranges of hills on either side rose steadily up towards the distant mountains. Karis and Karlin had been concerned that there might be more danger lurking in the hills, since the attack on Zarel, but the Lightstone-Bearer had assured them that he did not Perceive any Darkness there. The sight, finally, of the place they had been aiming for helped to hearten the travellers, and as night drew on with no danger or disturbance, they felt safe enough to stop for the small rations they now had, and a night’s rest, though they still drew into a defensive huddle with guards posted. Next morning the skies were unusually clear for Ma’al, and their goal , more clearly visible now, seemed closer than ever. The column set off again in a more confident mood than for several days, and Zarel could Perceive a lightening of the tension among them. He still kept his Perception extended for any Darkness ahead, though, for he felt sure that as they grew closer to the Meeting Place, forbidden to all of Ma’al by the Dark Lords, there must surely be more attacks. Karis and Karlin too were on guard, and as the column of refugees continued through the plain and there were no signs of danger they grew more, not less, uneasy, sure that the hiatus meant that their enemies were planning some major confrontation that was taking time to organise. Zarel, seeing Karis glance back towards the tail of the column from time to time, said “Karis, the Lightfriends will warn us if they Perceive Darkness. I Perceive none, as yet, though it will surely come.” “That is what I fear” Karis answered. “I am concerned that this pause means some major attack is being planned.” “No doubt it does” Zarel replied, “but we will be ready, and we are protected by the Lightstone. Trust Light, Karis.” “I do trust Light, Zarel” the Swordsman replied. “But I will be glad when we reach the Meeting Place. I think perhaps another day or so will bring us there.” “I think so too” the Lightstone-Bearer told him.

The travellers had gone further still before Zarel felt a tension in his Perception, and said to the Swordsmen “Ah, now I sense something, Karis, Karlin . It begins.” There was no signal from the Lightfriends, but Zarel was sure that he felt Darkness near. It must lie ahead of them. He withdrew his Perception long enough to send the Thought-without-Words back through the Lightfriends in the column, to prepare them for danger, then extended it again, seeking to understand what it was he Perceived. It did not feel to him like the sorcery he had battled before, nor the delusion they had banished. The clear sky ahead was dimming and darkening, seeming to thicken too. As it grew darker, they could see flashes of red . Karis asked ” Is it a sorcery, Zarel? Have the Dark Ones called up a storm?” “It does not feel like a sorcery, to my Perception.” Zarel answered. He had a sense of something alive within the dark clouds, which seemed to be drawing nearer. Then the darkness ahead began to separate and coalesce, and he knew what it was that confronted them. Three shapes appeared, flame-shaped like Dancers, but sooty black, shot with red sparks. He had never seen them before, nor had the Swordsmen, but all three knew what they were. “Night Lords!” exclaimed Karis. The corrupted Dancers of Ma’al, under the control of the Dark Lords, the deadliest of enemies, faced them now. Zarel hesitated, unsure what to do, but as he did, he felt Mihel’s thought touch his Perception. Suddenly, incongruously it seemed to Zarel, his memory flew back to the very beginning of his Way, to that night in the Temple, standing with Aiel by Arnath’s bier, and the appearance of the Dancers. He recalled himself and his twin listening to the Dancers’ Song, that only they and their mother, of all Li’is, could hear. And then he knew what to do. He stepped forward confidently, hearing Karis, behind him, give a cry of alarm. “Zarel! Take care!”, but knowing he was protected and Light would be with him.

The others watched anxiously as Zarel stepped out, alone, to face the Night Lords. He looked so vulnerable. The Lightstone was glowing on his breast, and then, to their relief, the light poured out of it and surrounded Zarel, enclosing him in a Light-Shield. In the midst of the light they saw him raise his arms, as if in worship, and then, to their astonishment, the Lightstone-Bearer began to sing. The notes seemed to echo off the surrounding hills and the music was strange, but very beautiful. The whole column was still, held not by fear, but by the power of the music. The Night Lords, however, ranged in opposition to the Lightstone-Bearer, were now beginning to twist and contort, as though the sound were very painful to them. Then, shimmering down around Zarel, came more flame-shapes, but these were bright, sparkling blue-green, with glowing hearts, and they surrounded the Night Lords, pressing in on them. “Dancers! ” Karlin gasped, finally understanding. “Zarel is singing the Dancers’ Song!” The Night Lords, under attack from Zarel and the Dancers, could not sustain their menacing presence, but wavered and shot upwards into the sky of Ma’al, disappearing with a thought-scream of rage that echoed in their minds. Zarel’s singing had ceased, and the Light-Shield withdrew as the Dancers surrounded him. He felt their thought in his Perception. “Lightstone-Bearer, the Night Lords will not return. But you will be pursued even more strenuously, now that the Dark Lords know that Dancers have been seen in Ma’al. We will await you on the Meeting Place.” Zarel replied “Thank you for your help, Dancers. Is it far to the Meeting Place now?” “A day’s journey” the light-beings replied, before blinking out of their vision. Zarel returned to the head of the column. He could Perceive a sense of awe, and was uneasy. He did not want the others to give him the honour that belonged to Light. Karis said “Zarel, you saved us from the Night Lords!” “Not I , but Light” the Lightstone-Bearer answered. “It was Light alone that told me what to do, Karis. I could not have done it in my own strength.” “You sang the Dancers’ Song” Whitestar said. “Karlin said so.” “Yes” Zarel replied. He did not elaborate,but his Perception reached for Mihel’s thought with his gratitude to the Shining One, knowing that it was Mihel who had shown him what to do.

He was still uneasy that the others seemed to be in awe of what he had done, but perhaps, he thought, it could be turned to good, in that the refugees might have more confidence in his leadership. He said “I am thankful for the help of the Dancers, but they have warned that the Dark Lords will make greater efforts to pursue us , now that they will know that Dancers have been seen in Ma’al. ” Not wanting to cause them too much concern, he added “The Dancers have told me that it is only a day’s journey to the Meeting Place now, and they will await us there. Even if the pursuit is close, we will reach the Meeting Place before they can catch us, I believe.” “We will.” Mihel stated confidently, and the certainty he showed encouraged them all. Once more they moved on, heading for the mountains now clearly to be seen ahead of them. Despite Zarel’s triumph over the Night Lords, everyone was alert for danger, knowing the Dark Lords of Ma’al would not let them reach the Meeting Place unimpeded. Karis wished that they could have gone faster, so as to reach their goal more quickly, but knew that was not possible. “A day’s journey” the Dancers had told Zarel, but this day was already part gone, and they would need to allow the refugees to rest by night. It would not be till next mid-morning at the earliest that they could reach the Meeting Place.

The Gatehouse was prepared, and awaited the arrival of one more, with his retinue, to join those waiting to greet the newcomers from Ma’al. Such an important event , they had decided, demanded the attendance of the full Council-at-Need of Li’is, and the Lord of the East had set sail, after the run of the Two-Moon-Tides, not to the City Harbour, but the Merchant Town, as nearer to the Gatehouse, accompanied by a group of the Priests of the Eastern Temple, who also wished to greet their Brothers-and-Sisters-in-Light from Ma’al. They had almost reached the Gatehouse, and then the tally of the Council would be complete; the Lord of the East would join the High Priest, the Lords of the Harbour, the Mountain Fortress and the Western Fortress, the Kets, and the Gatekeeper. Aiel wondered whether they would now add another member to the Council, to represent the people of Ma’al who escaped to Li’is, but such deliberations would wait for another time. Much would depend on the state of the refugees, too, for any formal welcome must wait till needs had been met. They had set up way stations near the foot of the Dancers’ Mountain to assess any physical needs, and to list the names of the newcomers and assign them to the places where they could eat and sleep. The Healing Place of the Gatehouse could take any who needed more than basic care, but from his communication with Zarel, Aren had learned that most of the refugees would have only minor hurts from the journey; the principal concerns were the pregnant women, especially Corhan’s sister Daria. The Healers had made up preparations of blueroot, in case of imminent births, and were well stocked with other healing herbs. As much had been done as could be, and now they were eagerly waiting for the signal that the Dancers’ Gate would open and Zarel and the others pass through into Li’is.

Zarel had decreed that the refugees should stop and try to rest for a while as soon as night fell, for he knew pursuit would soon be near and it was unlikely that they would have long to sleep. He himself slept only fitfully, and around the middle of the night he came fully awake with his Perception stirring. He sat up and drew out the Lightstone. Karlin, who was taking his turn to guard the Lightstone-Bearer, saw this and said quietly “What is it, Zarel? Are they coming?” Zarel said “One moment, Karlin.” and bent his gaze to the Lightstone, using it to augment his Perception as he searched for the source of his disquiet. He found, as he had expected, a great cloud of darkness, at a distance behind them but growing nearer. The Dark Lords’ mercenaries were again on their trail. He withdrew his Perception and looked up at the concerned face of the Swordsman. “Yes, Karlin, they are coming. Distant yet, but we must rouse the others and move on, even though it is still night.” Karlin turned to waken Karis, while Zarel roused Dorvai and Whitestar, and they sent their Perceptions through the other Lightfriends. Karis and Karlin went to call the other Swordsmen and the Malani to their defensive positions round the perimeter of the column as the Lightfriends woke the others and they formed up again in travelling order. Zarel was thankful that they were travelling over comparatively smooth terrain, as it was night, and neither of the two moons of Ma’al was full, so there was not that much light. They could not light torches, as those would betray their position to their pursuers. He was glad to see the sky begin to lighten after some hours of travelling. The mountains were much nearer now, but he could see something else – the last obstacle of which Mihel had warned him. The whole plain of the wide dale was blocked by a solid barrier, a high stone wall. From this distance it looked unbroken, but Mihel had said there was a way through, though narrow, and Zarel relied on the Shining One’s promise as he led the refugees towards it. He felt a check, though, in his Perception, and sent it out again, finding their pursuers, much closer now – they must have ridden fast. “The Dark Ones’ forces are near!” he said. “We must get through the barrier.”

He could sense the fear among the refugees as the barrier loomed ahead, and again sent the Thought-without-Words through the Lightfriends, telling them to assure the people that they would be able to pass it. They reached the wall and found the exit, a narrow, slanted, high-walled passage, designed to look, from the approach, as though there was no way through. Now they had to unload the carts, unharness the horses, and funnel everyone through the narrow passage. As they began, Karis looked back and gasped. The pursuit was closing on them. A great cloud of reddish dust marked the progress of the hordes of Darkness, and in the sky above them and to the fore hung a cloud of bright dots, growing steadily larger and closer – the Hawks! Karlin, hearing his exclamation, looked too, and said urgently “Light grant we get through before they reach us!” “We will” said Mihel, with calm confidence. His words reassured them, though not knowing who and what he was, they did not know why, only that he always seemed to speak peace into them. Some of the crowd, though, had also seen their pursuers, and there were exclamations of fear. Zarel paused in helping the refugees through, turning to face the rest, and suddenly the Lightstone was blazing like a sun on his chest. “See, Light is with us, and we move at Light’s bidding” he called to the crowd. “Light will not forsake us, and the weakest of Light is stronger than the strongest of Darkness!” They increased their pace through the passage as much as possible, but there were those who could not hurry now that they had abandoned the carts and horses. Some of the Malani and others dragged the carts across the entrance to the passageway behind them, piling them up as far as possible, to slow their pursuers. Now they were facing the mountains, and Zarel led them forwards again. They had seen the mountain in front of them, and many of them had, in various ways, thought to avoid it – swing away from it, or skirt round it. When Zarel led them to the very foot of the mountain, and pointed out the narrow, twisting, treacherous-looking path that was the only way up its flank, there were some cries of protest. “Do not fear, Children of Light” Zarel said, with quiet confidence. “Their lies our path.” Even Corhan , however, challenged “How will we get this crowd up there, with the Hawks ready to snatch them off? And where will we go then, if you do succeed?” Mihel answered. “You will go to the Meeting Place, and through the Dancers’ Gate into Li’is.” Such was the authority in his voice that the Lord of the Malani did not doubt what he said, but still asked , “How do you know this, Mihel?” “I know because I learned it of Light.” Mihel answered.

Zarel ordered them, “Karis, Karlin, and you other Swordsmen, stay back until all the people have climbed the path, and help them. I will be safe, and the mercenaries will not reach us before we are on the Meeting Place, but it will reassure the people if they see you ready to defend them. ” “Zarel”, Karis protested, “Our task was to guard you!” “And you have done it well” the Lightstone-Bearer assured them. “But now I am where I should be, and Light will guard me. You must do as I say, Karis.” Despite the few protests, the crowd had now quieted and was moving up the path, slowly, picking their way by ones and twos. Corhan had sent his Malani to assist the less able, and now he and Saban, Karis, Karlin, Mihel and the other Swordsmen dropped back to confer and to guard the rear of the column as Zarel had ordered. “Zarel is right, the foot of the path must be guarded.” Corhan said. “If they come up with us before all the people reach the place where Zarel is heading, we will need to hold them off. And I still do not understand. The place where Zarel is heading – he called it the Meeting Place, and said there would be a gateway there, but I see only a great ledge, halfway up the mountain, and no gateway. Where we will go from there I do not know. If Zarel were not the Lightstone-Bearer, I would think he was mad!” Mihel said “Corhan, that ledge connects to the Meeting Place in Li’is. Zarel and the Dancers will make the Gate, and through it you will go into Li’is.” “That is good” Corhan said, not questioning how he knew. “Still, it seems some of us must still stay behind, to guard the path.” “Corhan!” Saban said, concern in his voice “You cannot stay! You are Lord of our people. And what of your dream? You must lead our people into this new world. I will stay.” “And leave Daria, and the new babe?” Corhan asked. Mihel said “Peace, Swordsmen of Li’is and Ma’al. None of you will stay. You must all go through the Dancers’ Gate. It is the Will of Light. You are already numbered among the redeemed of Ma’al, Corhan, Saban. You will pass into Li’is.” He spoke with such authority that they all stared at him, hardly daring to question what he said, and then they were all distracted by a sudden great blaze of light from up ahead of them, where Zarel stood with Whitestar on the Meeting Place, with more and more people scrambling up to join him every minute. As the Meeting Place filled, the light was pouring, flooding, out of the Lightstone, and forming a rippling curtain of light against the sheer, solid rock wall that backed the Meeting Place. And then the Dancers began to appear, shimmering into being around Zarel, dozens on dozens of them. The crowd was silent now, awed and hushed. The Swordsmen had been silent and staring too, standing watching with their backs to Mihel and the fast-approaching hosts of their enemies. Now Mihel’s voice came from behind them, gentle yet commanding. “See, the Dancers’ Gate is opening. You must go. I will keep the path.” Karis swung round, a protest on his lips, “No, Mihel! You cannot stand alone! You will be…” His words died as he faced Mihel, and the others, hearing him stunned to silence, turned too, and were at once as awed and silent as their Sword-Brother. The very ordinary-looking young Swordsman was gone. The figure before them now, golden-eyed, white-robed, beautiful, blazing with glory, surrounded by an air of purity and power, though he was like nothing they had ever seen, woke some dormant ancestral memory that had them all on their knees. “No!” he said, and it was somehow still Mihel’s voice and Mihel’s smile. “Do not kneel to me! It is not permitted. Worship only Light.” When they rose, albeit reluctantly, still staring in wonder, the powerful figure said, “You see, I thank you for your concern, Karis, my brother in Light, but I will not be killed. What is not mortal cannot die. I will keep the path for you, and if Light permits it , I will see you again in Li’is. “But you are a Spirit-in-Light!” Karlin exclaimed. “But still your friend and brother in Light” Mihel told them. “Go up the path now. You may look back at me when you reach the Meeting Place – but only then!”

In Li’is that morning had brought Dancers to the Gatehouse, with a message. The time had come. Aren, Moondancer, and Aiel were to climb to the Meeting Place and the others to gather at the foot of the Dancers’ Mountain, Priests, Healers, and helpers, to welcome and tend the Children of Light and the Lightfriends of Ma’al, entering their new home in Li’is. Aiel felt excitement building in him. It would be a new day, a new beginning, for all of Li’is, not just the refugees from Ma’al. As High Priest, he called everyone together for the Morning Prayers, and then assigned them to their tasks. It would be easy to overwhelm the newcomers with too much attention, however kindly meant, so some of the Priests and Healers remained at the Gatehouse, ready to follow the others if called. Arentha, Lin and Krystha, as the original Way-Sharers, must come to the Dancers’ Mountain to see the end of the Way, and Zarel,Karis and Karlin’s families to welcome their return. Aiel, knowing how overcome Janna would be at Karlin’s safe return, told Mellin “Take Janna with you. We will not expect her to take on Healer’s duties at this time, nor Marla and Mella if they do not wish it. They must be allowed to welcome Karis and Karlin home, and there are Healers here to spare” “Thank you, Aiel.” Mellin said . “I trust Light, but I too will be greatly relieved to have them back safely – as you and Arenel and Aren will Zarel.” Those who were going to the Dancers’ Mountain and the Meeting Place set out, along with the Priests and Healers who had been assigned. Some of the Priesthood had been asked to stay at the way stations and gather details of the incomers, with Healers at hand to help if needed. The others accompanied Aiel and the families of Zarel, Karis and Karlin, to the metal gates at the foot of the Mountain, now opened wide in welcome. Aiel, Aren and Moondancer ascended the narrow path. Aiel could Perceive the echoes of the younger pair’s excitement and relief at the end of Zarel’s Way. They reached the Meeting Place, and waited. After a few moments a large group of Dancers appeared, and ‘said’ “Aren, Moondancer, it is time to make the link with Zarel and Whitestar, so that we can build the Gateway. When you hear us begin to sing, Aren, then reach for Zarel’s Perception.” Aren simply bowed his head a moment in acknowledgement of the Dancers’ instructions, and turned to Moondancer. Aiel saw their eyes meet and their Perceptions meld, waiting for the Dancers’ signal. He waited in eager anticipation for the opening of the Dancers’ Gate.

The Swordsmen were constrained to go, under Mihel’s orders, with Karis and Karlin, Corhan and Saban the last of all to ascend the difficult path. They were still too full of awe and wonder to speak as they scrambled up, and because they were so silent, Karis suddenly became aware of the fact that Corhan’s breathing seemed somewhat strained, and that from time to time he grunted with effort as he mounted the path. Till now the dark Swordsman had always been fit and strong, and Karis, concerned that his Sword-Brother might now be unwell, was about to ask Corhan what ailed him. Before he could speak, though, Corhan seemed to stumble on something and fell awkwardly against the rocky wall of the pathway, automatically putting out his arm to steady himself. As his hand jolted against the rock he gave a sharp yelp of pain and dropped to his knees, bent over, groaning, while his three friends leaned anxiously over him. For a moment they thought he had broken a bone, but Karis remembered that Corhan had already seemed rather weak on the way up the path. The Healer’s son felt gently, as he had watched his mother do, along the suspect arm, with no response until he reached nearly to the shoulder. Then Corhan flinched, and under the cloak his sleeve gave under Karis’ fingers to reveal the ridge of something beneath, and, further up, a stiffness of the fabric that caused him to throw back the cloak. This revealed the ripped sleeve over a hastily-improvised bandage, both of them clotted and stiff with dark, dried blood. But still the centre of the patch was damp and sticky where Corhan still bled, or else the jolt had started the bleeding again. Saban cried “Corhan!” and Karis, knowing how anxious he must be for his friend and Lord, said “He will mend with Healing, Saban. But he has not helped matters by telling no one and trying to tend it himself.” To Corhan he said quietly, “When was this wound got , Corhan? At that last skirmish?” Corhan looked up at them, nodded, and smiled weakly. “It will be well with me” , he said. Karlin, who had been uncharacteristically silent till now, said “If you do not take the Wound Fever! That has been two days untended – why did you not go to Dorvai?” “He had enough to do, and I did not wish to slow us down” Corhan answered. “When our task is accomplished, I will have the wound tended – surely there are Healers in Li’is?” They helped him to his feet and up to the Meeting Place, where Zarel stood with Whitestar and the Dancers by the Dancers’ Gate and the crowd silent before it. Dorvai was waiting near the top of the path, and as they reached the Meeting Place, he said “There, you are the last! But where is Mihel?” At this, the four Swordsmen turned almost as one to look back down the mountain, to the bottom of the path where they had left the Spirit-in-Light. He was not there, but out on the plain, beyond the wall that stood in front of the mountains, the hordes of Darkness stood silent, still, as if paralysed, and before them, facing them, towered an amazing, awesome figure. They knew in their spirits that it was the Shining One, Mihel, but he was changed out of all recognition. His gleaming feet touched the earth of Ma’al, his head seemed to brush the sky, his hair flowing out like mist on the wind. He looked as tall as the mountain, glowing like white fire, robed in lightning. He spread out great, over-arching, six-fold wings whose pinions seemed to be not feathers, but shining blades of silver, and to reach from East to West. His arms were stretched out and up, as if in worship of Light; his right hand held a sword of living flame and lightning danced and flowed and leapt from the fingers of his left hand. The armies of the Dark Lords were helpless before him; the plain was one silent unmoving mass of Dark mercenaries, with here and there little crumpled, brightly-coloured heaps showing where the Hawks had plummeted from the skies in the same paralysis of awful terror that gripped their companions on the ground.

Karis broke the silence. “There is Mihel” he said, and pointed. The others turned, and looked, and gave a cry of wonder, and slowly the crowd and Lightfriends of Ma’al, who had been too wonder-struck by the miraculous forming of the Gate to realise that another miracle was happening behind them, began to turn, and point, and stare, and exclaim. Dorvai said, in a hushed voice, “Then – all this time we have been walking with a Shining One, a Spirit-in-Light, without knowing it?” “I knew” came Zarel’s voice. He had come up behind them with Whitestar, and took her hand, continuing, “And because I knew it, Whitestar knew, and Aren and Moondancer. But he bade us tell no other in Ma’al. He told me he is the guardian of the Lightstone and the Lightstone-Bearer.” “He said he will come to us again in Li’is, if Light permits it” Karis told Zarel, “Because he is still our friend and brother in Light, though he is a Shining One!” “And the sooner we go into Li’is, the sooner his task here will be ended ” Zarel answered. He turned back towards the wall of the Meeting Place and the rippling veil of light, saying “Come, Whitestar.” As the two of them reached the light, Karis noticed that the Lightstone on Zarel’s breast was quiet now, the faintest spark only lighting it, as if all its power was being poured into forming the Dancers’ Gate. Zarel and Whitestar stood facing each other, their Perceptions joining, linking with Aren and Moondancer in Li’is. There were some moments of silence, then Zarel raised one hand, as if he signalled to the Dancers. The living flames of blue-green light responded, forming into two lines on either side of the veil of light, then slipping through it by two and two. After the last pair had gone through, there was a moment’s pause, then the light-veil too seemed to melt into the rock wall, leaving a great archway in the rock. For a moment they were looking into the thickest, blackest darkness they had ever seen, a darkness that seemed almost tangible, while in Li’is Aren and Moondancer and Aiel too had seen the Dancers form lines and disappear, followed by a blaze of light , and then the archway appear, and the thick blackness beyond it. For those in Ma’al, the darkness was gone after that moment, though their eyes almost ached from the intensity of it, and through the rock archway they could see another landscape that seemed the mirror-image of the place where they stood. It was so close that two people, one on either side, might have reached through and joined hands, yet they knew that in truth it was so far away that the thought of the distance involved would have made them dizzy. On the other side of the archway – the Dancers’ Gate – lay the Meeting Place in Li’is.

Zarel, still holding Whitestar’s hand, moved towards the Dancers’ Gate. “We must go first” he told her, and she nodded. The crowd around fell silent as they stepped towards the Gate – towards Li’is. And as they did so, there on the other side of it appeared Aren and Moondancer. It was like facing their own reflections. As they moved through the Gate there was no flicker, no feeling, to indicate on either side the vast, strange times and distances they were traversing. Zarel and Whitestar simply walked through the Gate and into the embrace of their twins. Karis had been looking round for Sharamine. When he found her, he called her to him, wanting her to enter Li’is hand-in-hand with him. It would be symbolic of their future. But he was concerned, too, about Corhan. There was no doubt now that the Swordsman’s wound had been reopened by his fall against the mountainside, and it was bleeding badly, his sleeve soaked again with fresh blood. Dorvai and the other Lightfriends were now ushering the people through the Gate, group by group. They had tried to keep the pregnant women and children separate and send them through to safety first, but none of them would be parted from their menfolk. Only the unattached went first. Corhan’s Malani, though, insisted on waiting for their Lord, until he raised his voice in command, telling his sister , “Daria, take the women and children through! And then you men – I will not leave this place until I know all my people are safe in our new world.” “Corhan”, Karlin said urgently, “Sword-Brother – you need a Healer’s care!” But Corhan obstinately would not stir until he was sure that all the Malani had passed safely through the Gate that Zarel and the Dancers had made between Ma’al and Li’is, and though they upbraided him for it, his Sword-Brethren respected his choice. Even then he insisted that Karis take Sharamine through the Gate, and only after that did he allow his iron will to falter, leaning, with a weary sigh, on Karlin and Saban, and permitting them at last to help him through the Gate.

As soon as the last of the refugees were through, they, Aiel, Aren and Moondancer heard a tremendous shout from the other side of the Gate. Everyone, whether of Ma’al or Li’is, was constrained to look towards the Gate, and saw the Spirit-in-Light, Mihel. It was as though the focus of the Gate had altered from the Meeting Place on Ma’al to the plain below, where Mihel stood. Mihel gave another triumphant shout. Lightning leapt from his upraised hands to the far horizon and the heavy skies of Ma’al, and fire flashed from his sword to the red earth. There was a terrifying, rushing, roaring sound. A dreadful wind, stronger than the strongest hurricane, swirled up around the tall figure. It snatched the dark hordes of Ma’al up from the plain and sent them hurtling into the sky, and after them every other living thing, then the trees and plants, the rocks, the very soil and water of the Dark World. All that lived on or gave life to Ma’al boiled off on that cosmic wind into the dark between the stars, leaving nothing but the bare bones of the planet. Its veil of cloud gone, its air snatched away, the sky of Ma’al turned midnight blue. And then Ma’al itself was tossed away from them, its red rock crumbling to dust with the force of its flight, with its dulled and shrunken moons still circling it, till it settled in a new orbit, gleaming like a baleful red eye. There was total silence. The sight of the utter destruction of Ma’al, on top of all else that they had endured, left the refugees shocked and dumb.The Shining One reappeared on the other side of the Gate, once more as the Swordsmen had first seen him, white-robed and peaceful. Some of the people flinched in fear, but Mihel said gently “Have no fear, Children of Light! You have seen Light’s judgement on the Dark World, but first Light has brought you out, so you should not share the Dark Ones’ fate. Rest now, and find your place in your new world. Light is with you.” That was all. Suddenly the bright being was gone, and the Dancers’ Gate blinked out of existence, and they were staring only at the rock wall of the Meeting Place. Zarel glanced at Aiel, who indicated that he should take the lead again. Aren, Whitestar, Moondancer, Aiel and Dorvai joined him, and the crowd followed them down the path to the foot of the mountain and the Gatehouse Gardens.

AN END OF DARKNESS

Chapter 10

As they moved on into the forbidden lands, everyone was alert for signs of pursuit or further obstacles. Zarel kept his Perception extended, aided by the Lightstone. All the Swordsmen and the warriors of the Malani were poised for action, and the Lightfriends ready to pass on news of any danger caught by their Perceptions. Apart from Whitestar, there were two other women among the Lightfriends, and they had been nominated to walk alongside the carts, in case any of the children should be frightened and cry, possibly giving away their presence. If so, the Lightfriends could use their Perceptions to help settle the children. In addition, a female presence would be welcome if there were any problems with the pregnant women. Now, as they progressed, it seemed that there was, as yet, no response to the breaching of the Dark Lords’ first barrier, and they relaxed somewhat. Zarel, however, was alert for signs of anything unusual, remembering Mihel’s warning of traps and sorceries. They crossed the untravelled landscape in silence, broken only by the sound of the horses’ harnesses jingling slightly as they trod, and the creak of the carts. Eventually the higher land on either side fell away again and they were traversing a seemingly endless plain that stretched away as far as they could see, with no landmarks, but no sign either of any barrier. Here, if anywhere, thought Zarel, was where they might encounter sorceries set to prevent movement through these lands, for the construction of any physical barriers would have been an immense task.

As they went further, there seemed to be a mist rising from the ground ahead. Karis said quietly to Zarel ” We should be cautious, Zarel. That mist might indicate marshy ground. It would not do to get the carts mired in it.” Zarel agreed, and Karis went on ” I should ride forward and test the ground.” Zarel was reluctant to allow the Swordsman to ride ahead alone, but could see no alternative. “Very well, but be cautious, Karis!” he instructed. He watched anxiously as Karis trotted carefully closer to the misty area and then walked his mount very slowly forward. He half-expected to see the beast’s legs sink into the ground, but nothing happened, and Karis rode safely back to them, shaking his head. “The ground is firm enough.” he stated. “Maybe it is just a heavy dewfall evaporating, but I would not trust anything here, Zarel.”
There was nothing to do but go on forward, but Zarel felt an unease in his Perception . They moved onto the misty ground and at first all seemed well, with only pale wisps of mists curling round the feet of the travellers and their horses. Soon, though, the mist began to thicken and change colour, and suddenly they were surrounded by a thick, choking, yellow fog that seemed to boil up from the ground. It coiled around them like some amorphous beast, so that they could hardly breathe or see. “This is no natural fog!” Zarel exclaimed. “It is one of the Dark Lords’ sorceries!” He drew out the Lightstone and gazed into it, calling on its strength to defeat the sorcery. As he did so, he felt the lightest of touches in his Perception, and light though it was, he knew that Mihel’s power was behind it, joining his Perception in the fight against the sorcery. Grateful for the Shining One’s help, he concentrated on sending the power of the Lightstone into the fog which the Dark Ones had summoned. The Lightstone blazed in his hands and his blue Priest’s eyes glowed as he focussed all his attention and his Perception on the task. The others watched as the Lightstone-Bearer fought silently. For a while it seemed the eerie fog would resist all his efforts, but then a great flood of light poured from the Lightstone, and as soon as it touched the yellow pall, it began to thin and lessen and sink back down into the ground. Before long all was clear again, and the light withdrew into the Lightstone. Zarel lifted his head with a weary sigh, and said,”It is safe to go on, now.” The others could not know how much effort it had cost him to overcome the sorcery, but he gave a grateful glance at Mihel, and in return felt the touch of the Shining One’s thought, strengthening and encouraging him.

The Lightstone-Bearer looked up at Karis and Karlin, guarding him on either side, and said “Now we have defeated their sorcery, the Dark Lords will be aware of our presence here. We must be more on guard than ever.” Karis glanced back towards the tail end of the column, but as yet there was no sign of any enemy. “We will keep careful watch”, he promised Zarel. Ahead, the land seemed featureless as ever, and Zarel wondered if it had been deliberately levelled at some time in the past of Ma’al, for it seemed unnatural to him that there should be no change in the landscape for so long. As the column of refugees proceeded, Swordsmen and Lightfriends kept watch, in their different ways, but there was no pursuit as yet. Zarel was not relieved by this, though, as he felt that the Dark Lords might be considering how to deal with this incursion before they attacked. Even as he thought this, suddenly there was a red blaze in their eyes, and a wall of flame rose up in front of them, making the leading horses paw the ground nervously. “How…?” exclaimed Karis, steadying his mount. Karlin looked, and said “Wait…if the land is afire, why does the grass not shrivel and burn? Look, it is unchanged. It must be another sorcery.” “But sorcery or not, will it still burn us?” asked Dorvai. Karis, remembering his encounter with the Naqad, said “Let us see, Dorvai.” He lifted his bow, slung in front of him for ease of access, and asked “Dorvai, do you have cloth in your Healer’s sack?” Dorvai handed him a strip of cloth, and Karis tied it round an arrow and shot the whole into the edge of the fire. They watched the arrow’s flight. It fell into the flames, but lay there untouched, the cloth not even singed by the flames. “There!” Karis said. “It does not burn. The flames are an illusion.”

Zarel remembered the time he had spent with Aiel, learning all that his grandfather could teach him about the Lightstone and its powers, and of his own experiences with Darkness and sorceries on the first Way. Recalling something Aiel had said, Zarel told those around him “It is a delusion set on us by the Dark Lords, not a sorcery. As long as we believe the delusion, it is there, but if we resist it, it will fade. We must make the Thought-without-Words and tell the Lightfriends to instruct the people how to overcome this – that we have proved that the flames are not real, and they must not believe in them.” It took time to accomplish this, and longer yet for the Children of Light to understand and obey. Karis wondered why they could not have just pressed through the flames, but guessed that it was because the refugees, afraid of the illusory flames, would have been loath to follow. Finally they saw the flames before them begin to waver, thin, and ultimately vanish, and Karis gave a sigh of relief. Any delay made it easier for the Dark Lords’ followers to catch up with them, and he was glad to be on the move again. Zarel felt a thought touch his Perception, and knew it was Mihel. The Shining One told him ‘You have done well, Lightstone-Bearer. But now the Dark Lords are aware that their barriers have been deliberately breached and there is an incursion into their forbidden lands. There will be attacks.’ Zarel’s Perception acknowledged this, and he told those with him at the head of the column “We have passed three barriers now, and are sure to be attacked soon. Be watchful at all times.” Karlin answered “Zarel, we have travelled far today and the people are likely weary. Should we pause for a while and let them rest while we are still free of pursuit? It will be difficult to withstand attack if everyone is exhausted!” “That is true” Karis commented, and Zarel could see the sense of their words. The open land made it difficult to defend the column, so they gathered everyone into a large group and stationed guards round the outside while they rested and ate. It was not safe to stay too long, but the respite was welcome and put fresh heart into the refugees.

When they moved on, there began to be a change in the landscape. Once again the land on either side was beginning to rise, and soon there were definitely small hills to be seen. Zarel was not sure whether or not to welcome this change. The hills might be hiding places for an enemy, or a place to defend their own numbers with higher ground at their backs. He said as much to Karis, the Swordsman, who searched the higher land with his keen eyes, and replied “Unless there are garrisons of mercenaries in the hills, I do not think attack will come from there, and Mihel said he knew these lands. He would have told us if such were there. If we are approaching the mountains, these may be foothills, Zarel, or maybe we have just reached a change in the terrain. I prefer it to those endless plains.” As they went on , the hills drew in around them, and they found themselves moving through another wide dale, but without lake or watercourse. Karis was thinking that if they stopped to camp, they would at least have the protection of the higher ground, when he heard cries of alarm from behind him, and turned in the saddle, just as Zarel called “There is danger approaching!”, having received a message from the Perceptions of the Lightfriends scattered through the column.
Karis saw that two Hawks were approaching rapidly, and seemed to be bearing down on one of the carts carrying the younger children. For a moment he hesitated, but then he heard Mihel’s voice. “Karis, they are no ordinary women. They are Darkness through and through, and the tools of the Dark Lords.” The words firmed his resolve, though he wondered momentarily how Mihel had discerned the antipathy his Swordsman’s training had bred in him to any attack upon a woman. He reached for his bow and wheeled towards the disturbance, and saw Karlin follow suit. Thankful for Lin’s insistence that they receive extra training with bow as well as sword before entering Ma’al, both Swordsmen fitted arrows to their bows and fired. One arrow tore through one sail-wing, the second found its mark as the Hawk struggled to control the damaged wing, and the Hawk plunged to the ground as the startled crowd drew back from her. The second Hawk, though, wheeled away and was gone, escaping the arrows that followed her.

Karis looked down at the dead Hawk, glad of the strange visored helmet that covered most of her head and face, glad too that neither he nor Karlin could know which arrow had killed her, so closely together had they fired. He glanced at Karlin, and saw that his face, though a little pale, was determined. “It had to be done” he told his nephew, and received a nod of assent. “We must hurry” said a familiar voice, and he saw that Corhan had come to join them. “And we must prepare for battle. The other Hawk will return to the Dark Lords to make a report, and their mercenaries will soon be in pursuit.” Karis and Karlin returned to their places with Zarel at the front of the column, and the Lightstone-Bearer looked into their faces and said firmly , “It is well, Karis, Karlin. You fought against Darkness.” “Aye”,Karis agreed, ” and will need to do so again. Corhan says we will be pursued.” Mihel told him “Once we entered these lands, pursuit at some point was inevitable, Karis. But Light will keep us.” They moved the column on, skirting round the dead Hawk and leaving her lying there. Karis asked “How long before the other Hawk can get back and raise the alarm?” “Impossible to say” Dorvai told them, “since the Hawks ride the air currents, and skilful though they are, must follow the prevailing wind. We do not know, either, where she is bound, whether to the Dark Lords or the stronghold of their mercenaries. It will take time, too, for her to make a report and an army to be raised to pursue us. But better to prepare for an early attack.” “Could the Dark Lords cause winds to rise, to carry the Hawks?” wondered Karlin, but Mihel said firmly “No! They may be masters of dark sorceries, but only Light can control the winds and tides.” “The Hawks, then, will return with the mercenaries?” wondered Zarel. Dorvai answered “It is not likely, since one has been killed. There are far fewer Hawks than mercenaries, and they are more valuable to the Dark Ones, as spies, and because they bring fear. I think they will not risk losing another.”

Now there was a difficult decision to be made. Because of the great likelihood of pursuit and attack it was important to make as much progress as possible, yet the Swordsmen among them did not think it wise to travel so fast that the defenders of the group might be tired when the necessity to fight came. So they kept a medium pace, with occasional breaks to rest while it was still safe. Night came, and they had to stop and allow the refugees to sleep, if they could. Corhan thought it unlikely that the mercenaries would attack a large group by night, but still they drew the column into a more compact huddle under the shelter of one of the small hills, and posted guards in shifts around the edges, while Zarel and Whitestar, with the aid of the Lightstone, sent out their Perceptions into the surrounding country, but found no danger yet. It was not till early morning, after a fitful night’s sleep, that they Perceived the approach of the mercenaries, sensing them as a cloud of darkness. Immediately they warned the Swordsmen, who prepared the guards, then conferred. Many of the refugees were still asleep, and to rouse them and move on would take time they might not have, they decided. “Safer to make a stand here ” Corhan said “We are already in a position of defence, and we can tighten our perimeter.” Karis agreed, but said “Zarel, you and Whitestar and Dorvai must not stay near the edges, nor the other Lightfriends. Go into the midst of the group. Karlin, you must guard Zarel, and Mihel, you are our only guide in these lands. We cannot risk you, so go with them and help guard Zarel.” They agreed to this, though Zarel could Perceive that Karlin was not happy to let his uncle and Sword-Brother fight alone. He was not sure what, if any, part Mihel might have taken in this battle, if Karis had not ordered him to stay with Zarel, but guessed that, without knowing it, Karis had been Light-guided in assigning the Shining One to Zarel’s protection.

They used the time they had in preparing for the onslaught, gathering the group more tightly together and placing the Malani, Karis, and the other Swordsmen to protect them. Karis saw that there was a second line of defence, for the younger Malani women had stationed themselves behind the men, armed not with swords, but long, keen knives. In the distance now they saw a cloud of dust, evidence of the oncoming mercenaries, and Karis threw a quick prayer to Light for protection, and unsheathed the True Sword. Zarel had called the Lightfriends together and they led the frightened Children of Light in the Quieting Prayers, and the prayer for the covering of the Sacrifice of Light, as the enemy approached. Karis found himself next to Corhan, with Saban further along the line, some of the Malani and the young Swordsmen Lorin and Talar in between. He gazed towards the approaching riders, trying to gauge the strength of the enemy. There were not as many as he had feared, but he remembered what Mihel had said of this contingent of the Dark Ones’ mercenaries – “ruthless, and the worst of their kind”. The mercenaries swept down on the group with a triumphant yell, and Karis thought that they had not expected any resistance, for some of them checked when they saw the Swordsmen, but then came on again. He had never been in battle, but fought by instinct and his Swordsman’s training, knowing he was fighting for Light against Darkness. Suddenly he heard a clash of metal by his ear, and turned his head to see that Corhan had intercepted a blow aimed for his neck, which would surely have killed him. Their eyes met for a moment, then Karis turned back to his opponent, while Corhan dealt with Karis’ attacker.

The mercenaries had obviously not been prepared for a battle, expecting an easy victory. Ruthless and evil they might have been, but also concerned with preserving their own skins. As the Swordsmen and Malani cut swathes through their number, and the Malani women with their long knives proved equally lethal, the attackers faltered and at last, shouting curses and threats of retribution, retreated and made off. Corhan looked at Karis, and they shared a grim smile. “We are safe – for now!” gasped the Lord of the Malani. “But they will return in force.” As they cleaned and sheathed their blades, Karis said “I am in your debt again, Sword-Brother- twice now you have saved my life!” “Ah, you would do the same for me” Corhan replied, with a careless air. “Let us see if we have any losses or wounded.” It seemed Light had been with them, though, for though the dark mercenaries had taken many losses, their own company was intact, with only a few minor injuries. But then, thought Karis, if all of these were intended to go through the Dancers’ Gate and into Li’is, their lives would be protected by Light. They quickly got the column ready to move on again, but with more of their fighters towards the rear, since that was the direction from which any other attack would most likely come. Karis rejoined Zarel, Karlin, and the others, and Karlin said “Light was with us! Praise Light that all escaped with little hurt.” Karis did not want to alarm his nephew, so did not mention Corhan’s intervention, which had saved him from almost certain death. They left the bodies of their fallen opponents behind, and all were glad when they disappeared from view. Mihel warned them now “There are more of the Dark Lords’ traps ahead of us, but we can evade them. When we draw near our goal, though, there is a place where we will have to abandon the carts, for the way through is too narrow.” “Then we shall be delayed?” asked Karlin.”It will take time to get all these through a narrow gap.” “It will, but it will also slow any pursuers” Mihel answered” We can pull the carts across the way behind us too, as we did the travelling sledges, which will delay them even more.”

Their supplies were becoming limited, but they had handed out food to be eaten on the way, as they did not wish to wait for a meal before setting out, in case the mercenaries regrouped and attacked again. However, there was no sign of their enemies as they travelled on. Ahead, the hills were rising higher and drawing together, funneling them towards a gorge between high, sheer cliffs. Karis was uneasy. Such a place would provide an enemy with a perfect spot for an ambush, and he was concerned that the Dark Lords’ mercenaries might have made their way here to renew their attack. Zarel, though, sent out his Perception and reassured the Swordsman. “It is safe, Karis. No enemies are there.” He was correct in his assessment, and they brought the column through the gorge, and out into another, wider dale. The hills were rising higher now, and on one side of the dale a waterfall flowed down, feeding a small river which ran across the terrain ahead of them. They paused, considering this obstacle. “Another sorcery or delusion?” asked Karlin, but Mihel answered, “No. This is a natural feature, and the waters are not too high now. We can ford it.” “But still, it will delay us.” Karis commented. This was true, for to cross even such a relatively shallow watercourse involved preparation.
The carts could not cross while laden, and their passengers had to be ferried across on horseback by the Swordsmen and Malani. Those who were on foot had to remove footwear and kilt up their clothing, so as to stay as dry as possible as they passed through, and then dry their feet thoroughly before replacing their footwear. There was still plenty of walking to be done, and they did not want rubbed, sore feet. There was some anxiety about getting the carts across, even without a load, but with the horses pulling them and others to steady them when needed, they reached the other bank of the little river safely. Once the column was back in order, with the passengers back in the carts and their defenders positioned, Zarel breathed a sigh of relief. Looking into the distance, he saw the hills continuing to rise, though the land between them was widening out again. It was hard to see far, in the gloomy atmosphere of Ma’al, but he thought he glimpsed a far-off view of mountains, and hoped he was seeing the range where they would find the way to the Meeting Place. “I think there is not so far to go, now” he told Whitestar, who was at his side. “Pray Light it is so”, she responded.

They had travelled on for about an hour when Zarel suddenly felt a sense of darkness near, and warned the Swordsmen. “What is it, Zarel?” Karis asked,”Can you tell?” But before Zarel could respond, there was the sound of horsemen close by and a small group of mercenaries swept down out of the hills. Ignoring the rest of the column, they made straight for the head, where Zarel was. Karis shouted “They are attacking Zarel!” and Karlin, Corhan and Saban, quickly followed by Lorin and Talar, rallied to surround Zarel, Whitestar and Dorvai. Zarel, knowing he had Mihel’s protection, and seeing the Swordsmen and Malani now going forward to encounter the attacking mercenaries, sent his thoughts to the Shining One in appeal. “Mihel- protect them!” No one but Zarel saw the ‘Swordsman’ Mihel quickly vanish from his side and reappear in the midst of the other Swordsmen, who were now fighting hand to hand with the mercenaries. The sword he drew looked like any other, but all his power was behind it, and the mercenaries, filled with a terror they could not explain, faltered, broke ranks, and rode off as fast as they could. Karis and the others seemed momentarily bewildered by their enemies’ retreat. Karlin gasped “Is Zarel safe?” “It is well with Zarel”, Mihel told him. “But the Dark Ones have realised his presence here – and the Lightstone’s. He is their target now.” Corhan said ” You Swordsmen, get back to Zarel and guard him. Saban and I will see if any harm has come to the others.” Without waiting for a reply, he rode off towards the back of the column, followed by Saban, and disappeared from their sight for a while. When Karis, Karlin and Mihel reached Zarel, Karis said “You are in peril, Zarel! Mihel says that the Dark Lords must have realised that you and the Lightstone are here in their lands, now that their sorcery has been overcome. You must take great care.” Zarel glanced at Mihel and felt the Shining One’s thought touch his. “Do not fear, Zarel. I will protect you, and the Way will succeed. But there are still trials that you must face.” Lorin and Talar, following the other Swordsmen, came up to Zarel, and Talar asked “Is it well with you, Lightstone-Bearer? Shall we stay here to guard you too?” “It is well with me” Zarel answered them. “And the Lightfriends and Children of Light still need guarding, Talar. We are forewarned now. I thank you for your concern, but I think it is best that you go back to your posts.” Karis and Karlin nodded agreement. Talar said “As you command, Lightstone-Bearer.” and the two brothers turned their horses and rode back along the column to their assigned positions. Karis, Karlin and Mihel took their places around Zarel, Whitestar and Dorvai. Zarel said “We still have dangers to face, but I believe the journey will soon be over. I am almost certain that I saw the mountains far ahead. We shall reach the Meeting Place before too long.”

In the Temple of the One Light, Aiel was also thinking that surely it could not be much longer to wait before Zarel and the others reached the Meeting Place. He had put arrangements in place for the time when he and the Way-Sharers would be carried to the Gatehouse, not knowing how long he might need to stay there. Now he was standing before the Crucible, head bowed, in silent prayer for all those belonging to Light in Ma’al, and their journey to freedom in Li’is. It was dusk in Li’is, and the Temple was quiet, though soon it would fill with those coming for the Evening Prayers. He felt another’s Perception touch his, and opened his Perception to it. It proved to be Sarn at the First Faring House, relaying, through the Thought-without-Words, a message from the Gatehouse. “Lord High Priest, all is prepared at the Gatehouse, and the Dancers will come tomorrow to carry you and the Lord of the Harbour and your Ladies to the Gatehouse, to await the return of the Lightstone-Bearer and those from Ma’al, and to see the end of the Way.” Aiel acknowledged the message and thanked Sarn. He resumed his contemplations. Not so long, then, as he had surmised, until Zarel’s Way was finished. Lin, Krystha and Arentha would be at the Evening Prayers, so he could tell them of the summons then. He had already begun making plans to welcome the Lightfriends of Ma’al into the Priesthood of Li’is – his responsibility, as High Priest. He knew they were not many, but they would have their own customs and hierarchy, and he did not intend to force them to conform to the ways of Li’is if they did not wish it.

The time of the Evening Prayers came, and the Temple filled. Arentha had come through from their home in the Temple grounds to sit with her sister and Lin, and when the Evening Prayers were over, and the Temple emptying again, Aiel joined them and said ” I have received a message from the Gatehouse. The Dancers will come for us tomorrow, to carry us there, as they said.” “Then the Way nears completion?” asked Lin. “It does, but this is the most – difficult – part ” Aiel replied. Almost he had said ‘dangerous’, but since Lin’s son and grandson were so closely involved, he did not wish to alarm his friend. Lin was not to be duped so easily, though, and Aiel Perceived that he understood the peril to those in Ma’al, but also that he had confidence in Karis and Karlin’s abilities to deal with it. Aiel said “We shall be there instantly, as you know. The Dancers do not move as we do.” Lin smiled. “Ah, you three may know that, but you forget that the only time I was carried by a Dancer, I was unconscious, Aiel !” “I had not forgotten.” Aiel said, feeling, momentarily, the fear he had had then for Lin’s life. “That is long behind us.” Krystha said firmly. “Do we know how long we will be at the Gatehouse, Aiel?” “No, though all is ready for the return from Ma’al.” Aiel said. Arentha said, thoughtfully, “Aiel, we had best take some extra clothing in case of need. The Gatehouse will be stretched to its limit to accommodate everyone, and we should not burden them further.” “Still our storekeeper, Arentha!” Lin laughed. “But you are right.” “All is arranged with the Temple Elders for my absence.” Aiel said. “What of the Harbour, Lin?” “The Watchwards are prepared.” Lin answered. “I will tell the Head of the Watch tonight.” “Then bring what you need and come to our house tomorrow, after the Morning Prayers.” Aiel told his friends. “I was not told a time for the Dancers’ arrival, so we will await them there.” “I will be glad to be at the Gatehouse” Arentha said. “I am concerned for our families, especially Janna. She has been very brave, and I know she trusts Light, at heart, but she will never be at ease until Karlin returns. Aren, too, must be concerned for Zarel, though they have the link of their Perceptions through the Dancers. It will be good to see them all again, and await the return of the others, and the Children of Light of Ma’al.” “Who would ever have thought the Lightstone Way would end like this?” said Krystha. “When we set out on the first Way, we thought it concerned only Li’is.” “It is true that when we began, we saw only the first few steps” Aiel said thoughtfully, “but as we trusted Light and obeyed, more of the path was revealed. That at least is my own experience, and I hope it has been Zarel’s.”