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 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 them, 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, then 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.

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 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 4

Tarn asked “What is Light?” It seemed that even he, who professed no belief, was intrigued by the Lightfriend’s words. Rafel looked him full in the face, and replied, simply, “Light is all.” Brann felt an unaccountable gladness welling up in him, as though he had been given a treasure which someone had patiently kept for him. He did not question how the Lightfriend knew them, or what else the man might know about them. He exclaimed “I knew! I always knew – there must be more than Darkness, more than the old gods, who were no gods at all!” “I remember you told me that once”, said Tarn. The Lightfriend said “Aye. You are one of those who seek Light, all unknowing, and hunger till you find Light.” “I did not know” Tamorine said, somewhat sadly, Brann thought. Rafel smiled at her, and said “But Light knows you – every hope, every fear, every hurt, Tamorine.” And as the Lightfriend said “every hurt”, he emphasised “every” in a way that made Tamorine stare at him and made Brann wonder what untold hurts she might have that this strange, but not frightening, man seemed to know. Brann asked – not angrily, for it did not occur to him to be angry with this strange new power that was entering his life – but a little wistfully, “How is it, then, that the Power of Light has not been known to us till now?” Rafel smiled again. “I have much to tell and to teach you – all of you. But this is hardly the place for a discussion.” He indicated the narrow passageway, and went on, “Like you, we found this place, and the caverns beneath, seeking shelter. We have been here some while and have made a safe haven to make plans against the Dark Lord. His defeat is the reason we are here, and Light told us that men of Li’is would join us. We have waited for you.” He turned and signed to the silent Ketai, who came forward, lowering their spears to signal they had no warlike intentions. Rafel went on “You see we are well guarded, for all of the Ketai people are with us. You may safely join us. Send one of your companions to bring your men down to safety, and come with me.”
None of Brann’s or Tamorine’s men made any objection, for the mysterious Lightfriend had gained their trust, and they could see that they would be safer in the caverns than the farmhouse above. Marvis and Jamin volunteered to go back and fetch the rest, and Brann said, “Do not forget to close the trap door behind you when you come back here. ” While they went back towards the staircase, Brann, Tamorine and the others followed the Lightfriend through the narrow passageway and found themselves in another large cave, lit by torches, with other passageways and caves leading off. “What was this place?” Kerrin asked. “They were natural caverns, but the ancient farmers enlarged them , digging out stone for building and using them for storage.” Rafel replied. “One of the caverns drops quite steeply and reaches the water table, and it was through that they put their well.” Brann was looking round, seeing some parts of the cave system in use as storerooms, others set up as sleeping chambers, each for several occupants. A number of men were moving purposefully about the caves, under the watchful eyes of more of their guards, the Ketai. Brann saw that some of the men wore brown robes, some striped robes like Rafel’s. None of the men seemed old, which would make sense if they were here to attack the Dark Lord’s garrison. Brann saw that all of the men in striped robes had the same bright, piercing blue eyes as the Lightfriend. One of the smaller caves had a heavy curtain, now pulled back, hung at the entrance. Inside was only one thing, a stepped dais of white stone, supporting a large golden bowl, beautifully worked and carved. And from the bowl rose a tall steady column of golden flame that lit all around it with its glow. Brann, pointing to it, asked, “Is that the Power of Light?”, because, he thought, if it was, it was nothing but another man-made god, no true Power at all. He felt a moment’s bitter disappointment. Then the Lightfriend laughed. “That? No, that is only the Crucible, Brann. A reminder of Light, to draw one’s thoughts, not Light’s own self. How could it be? Has not Light made all things, and is in all things? Are not all things created and sustained by Light? Light cannot be restricted to one place, one time. Light is everywhere, eternal, unchanging. Light is life, as the Darkness is death.” Brann’s hope rekindled, and his friends seemed quiet and awed. Tamorine especially was still uncharacteristically silent, and Brann wondered again what secret hurt she might have, that the Lightfriend knew about. He wished she might have thought him friend enough by now to confide it to him, as she had her desire to avenge her uncle, father and brother.

The Lightfriend Rafel said, “When your men come, I will explain to all of you. Come with me to my Quiet Place first, for I need to collect some things. ” The Quiet Place was another curtained cave adjoining the cave with the Crucible, which Rafel told them was the Place of Prayer. In the Quiet Place were a rack of scrolls, a rough table and benches, some carved chairs which contrasted strangely with the other rough furnishings, and a large metal-bound chest. Rafel motioned to Brann and the others to be seated, and turned to take some scrolls from the rack. He also took a long, thin box from the chest, then looked up, his blue eyes glowing, and said, “Ah, your men are here.” Brann had heard no sound, but perhaps the Lightfriend’s ears were sharper, he thought. As Rafel turned to them again, Brann saw that the stone on his chest was no longer blazing, but had dimmed. Now it looked like nothing more than an insignificant white pebble, save that at its heart there was still a spark of light. Brann looked curiously at its setting, a pendant of three intersecting flame-shapes, the oval at their base forming the seat of the stone, hanging from a chain of finely worked double links. The metal was a strange, silvery one which Brann could not place. Rafel said “Come, you must introduce me to your men, Brann and Tamorine. They are nervous.” It could have been that the Lightfriend had guessed that the little army would be wary, but he spoke with a certainty that made Brann wonder. They followed him back to the larger cavern. The Lightfriend’s companions who had been working there had withdrawn to make way for Brann and Tamorine’s men, though some of the Ketai still stood guard. Jamin and Marvis came to meet them. “We have come down, as you said” Jamin told his cousin, “But some of our men are unsure that it is not a trap. I hope we have done right.” “And we replaced the trap door” added Marvis, “trusting that these are friends and allies, and we will be safe.” “You will be safe” Rafel said, raising his voice, so that all could hear him. “You are in the Place of Light. We too are enemies of Darkness.” Brann came to stand beside him, and Tamorine followed. Brann said, “Hear me, men! Tamorine and I are your commanders, and we have spoken with this man, and find that he and his companions are of one mind with us concerning the defeat of the Dark Lord. They serve the Power of Light, which is opposed to the Darkness which spawned him, and Rafel the Lightfriend will tell us of this Light, and what it is needful for us to do to defeat the Dark Lord.” Tamorine, standing beside him, agreed, “Men of the Mountains and the Forest, that is so. We can trust the Lightfriend. Be still and hear what he has to say, and do not fear him.”
Both of them were aware of a kind of settling among their forces, as though they found it safe to relax their guard. Rafel said. “First I will answer the question Brann asked me, which was why you knew nothing of Light. You had not known Light because it was not yet time. But now that the Darkness has come into your world, only Light can defeat it.” Tamorine asked ” Then the tales are true, that say the Dark Lord is not of our world at all?” “They are true, Tamorine. The Dark Lord is not of Li’is. His is another world, and from that world he has brought Darkness into Li’is. And” he added, looking round at them all, “from that world I and my companions have followed him. I was chosen of Light to be the Lightstone-Bearer, and bring it into this world to aid the people of Li’is in their fight against the Darkness.” “You?” Brann asked, astonished. “You too are from this – ‘Otherworld’?” “I am. I too – and my companions, and the Ketai – am from Ma’al – ‘Otherworld’.” The Lightfriend’s face was sad now. “In Ma’al Light has been rejected. Our Dancers were corrupted by the Dark Lords, and with them most of the people of Ma’al. Those who serve Light now are few and in hiding, in danger everywhere. But of our number, the majority were chosen to come to your world, and bring you the Way of Light, and the Lightstone. Our world now is beyond redemption, and awaits the judgement of Light. But your Dancers are loyal to Light, and Light summoned them to bring us to your aid.” “But – what is a Dancer?” Brann and Tamorine asked, almost together. Rafel looked at them, and out at the assembled company of their men, and said, “In Li’is you have no knowledge of them, but men are not the only created beings. There are Spirits-in-Light, and there are Dancers. The men of Li’is have never seen their Dancers, but the Dancers have always been here with you.” He stretched out one hand, and though he was silent, his blue eyes glowed again, as though he concentrated on something. Brann and Tamorine and all their men were still, feeling a strange sense of awe. As they watched in silence, there began to be a strangeness in the air, as though it shimmered, and suddenly something almost unbelievable appeared.

It was like a flame, even to the shape. It was of a sparkling,translucent blue-green substance, with a glowing heart. It was half as tall again as the tallest man. It was beautiful, awe-inspiring, terrifying and yet somehow not threatening. And it was, despite its strangeness and insubstantiality, very much a living being – they could feel the vitality, the power, emanating from it. Everyone there was frozen. They could not move or speak. The Lightfriend said gently “Brann, Tamorine, men of Li’is, do not be afraid. The Dancer will not harm you.” And then the Dancer itself ‘spoke’. There was no sound, but they all heard its very thought echoing in their minds. “There is no need to fear me, children of Li’is. The Dancers are the friends of mankind, not its enemies.”Brann, still awestruck, gasped, “But what is it?” “The Lightfriend said “It is a living creature, Brann, a creation of Light, as you are. But its body is not made of flesh, but of light and energy.” “Why is it called a Dancer?” Tamorine asked, looking up in rapt wonder at the tall, living flame. It was the Dancer which answered her. “We are not children of the worlds, as you are, maiden” it explained. “We touch upon the worlds, and care for them, but we dance between the stars. And Light has ordained us to be the Singers of the Songs of the worlds, and the Dancers of their rhythms. By the rhythm that we set, the rhythm of life in the worlds is taken. And we follow the harmonies of Light, at the bidding of the Spirits-in-Light. We have them from the very Heart of Light. But” – and there was an unmistakeable aura of sorrow about the Dancer now- “some of those Spirits-in-Light rebelled, led by one Great Deceiver, and became Lords of Darkness, fallen Spirits. And they corrupted our brothers of Ma’al, so that they are lost to us and to Light. And in their turn the Dancers of Ma’al have become the Night Lords, following the commands of the Dark Lords to enslave men instead of serving them, and turning them to Darkness also. So all of Ma’al was turned to Darkness and lost to Light, all but a remnant and the Lightfriends. That is what the Lords of Darkness seek to do in Li’is also, but the Dancers of Li’is are loyal to Light and have withstood the Night Lords, as the men of Li’is, with the aid of the Lightfriends and the Lightstone, must defeat the Dark Lord.” “But why did Light permit it?” Brann asked. The Lightfriend Rafel answered , “Light is full of mercy and love, Brann. It does not please Light that any should go into Darkness. But, desiring children, not slaves, Light made all things to be free in their choice, to serve Light or not. The Choice of Light still stands, even to those in Darkness who repent. But Light will not force love and worship, for that would be no true love or worship at all.” “If there are Dancers in Li’is, why have we not seen them?” Tarn broke his silence now. “Because you have not yet come where we are “, the Dancer answered him. “We have prepared a Meeting Place, in the mountains of the North. But no man or woman of Li’is has come to us yet.” “That “, said the Lightfriend, “is because the people of Li’is must know Light before they know the Dancers. Otherwise, not knowing the greater Light, they would fall into the error of worshipping the lesser.” Tarn agreed. “If you had not told us what the Dancer was, I think even I might have believed it a god.” he said. “Will the Dancers help us against the Dark Lord?” Tamorine asked, hopefully, but the Dancer ‘said’ “It is not permitted, Tamorine. It is for the people of Li’is to reject the Darkness for themselves. The Dancers of Li’is have already done so. If the Night Lords come here, we will fight against them. But against the Children of Night the Children of Light must stand.” “But we are not Children of Light!” Brann cried. the Dancer, though, was shimmering into nothingness again, leaving only a farewell blessing behind. “Light be with you, people of Li’is.”

“But you shall be Children of Light – if you wish” Rafel said. Brann told him soberly “Rafel, Lightfriend, we need the aid of Light to defeat our enemy. Yet I think neither I, nor Tamorine, nor any of our men would wish to follow Light for that alone. That would be dishonourable. If Light is worth the serving, then my service shall be to Light, whatever happens. If I take this – ‘Choice of Light’ that you offer – if Light is the source of my being and my world – I cannot put terms on my acceptance of Light. Oh, I do not know how to say what I want to say, Lightfriend!” The Lightfriend smiled at him. “But Light hears what you are trying to say, Brann. And it is pleasing to Light.” “That is how I feel , too” Tamorine said. “I would not follow Light,as I would not follow any Lord, simply for what I might gain.” Tarn said, “Brann could tell you that I have never set much store in any belief. But this feels right to me, this Choice of Light.” “To me also” Gamlin agreed. Brann turned to their assembled Swordsmen. “Men, you have heard the Lightfriend – the Lightstone-Bearer – and the Dancer. You have heard your commanders. But as Rafel has said, the Choice of Light is a free choice, and each of you must decide for himself. I think we have already made our choice.” “Then Brann, Tamorine, will you take the Choice of Light?” Rafel asked. “Yes!” they answered in unison, and Tarn and Gamlin followed. Some of their men were hesitant at first but slowly, one by one, each of them accepted the Choice of Light, until the choice was unanimous. Brann turned back to Rafel, and said, “It seems all of us are willing to follow Light, but what must we do now?” Rafel said “You must make your peace with Light. In that we Lightfriends will help you. And you must receive the blessing of the Lightstone, to strengthen you in Light.” “How can we make our peace with Light?” Tarn asked. “I am not sure that I even understand what you mean by that.” “First let me summon the Lightfriends, and I will tell you.” Rafel answered. They waited for him to call or send some signal, but he only bowed his head momentarily, and his blue eyes glowed. Yet after a few minutes the Lightfriends, in their blue and white robes, began to return to the cavern. Rafel looked up again, and said ” I must tell you that we who are the Lightfriends – all that is left of the Priesthood of Light in Ma’al – have a special power, a gifting of Light. It is called Perception, and by Perception I have summoned the Lightfriends. You have noticed the eyes of the Lightfriends?” “Yes” Brann said. “They are a strange blue, and very bright.” “Those eyes are the outward sign of our Perception” the Lightfriend explained. “The gift is hereditary to the lines of the Lightfriends. Always the sons, and very rarely a daughter, are born with it. It enables us to see into another’s heart and mind – but only with permission. There are strict laws governing its use – above all, the Vow of Trespass. It also enables us to sense strong emotions in our surroundings. And we can communicate with each other by linking Perceptions in the Thought-without-Words, though we are limited by distance.” “And you wish to use this Perception on us? Why?” Brann demanded. “To help you make your peace with Light, as I said. To help you search out and lay before Light all that is not worthy of a Child of Light, and be cleansed.” “How, cleansed?” asked Tarn. “By Light’s forgiveness.” “But if Light is good, and there is evil in us, how can it be simply forgiven?” asked Tamorine. Then the Lightfriend explained how Light had made provision for this, had promised a future Sacrifice which would wipe out all evil done, a Sacrifice already made as far as Light was concerned, since Light was outside of and contained all of time. “You may claim cleansing by the Sacrifice of Light, as Children of Light.” Rafel concluded.

Tamorine asked “Is it painful?” Rafel replied, “What do you mean by painful, Tamorine? It will not hurt you physically, but you may feel pain in your spirit at what Light shows you. Even that, though, will disappear when you make your peace with Light. You must be willing to let us set our Perceptions on you, however, for as I told you, we will never force Perception on those who are unwilling. Only if Light bade us confront a Child of Night would we do that, and that has never happened yet.” There was a moment’s silence as all of them absorbed his words, then Brann said ” I for one am willing to submit to your Perception, Lightfriend, if it will bring me close to Light. Let the others see what happens to me, so they can decide for themselves.” Rafel replied “It will bring you closer to Light, Brann. Light already knows your heart, and sees that you are ready.” “What must I do?” Brann asked. “Come, face me, and look into my eyes” Rafel told him. Brann turned to face the Lightfriend and lifted his eyes to the blue gaze. He felt Rafel’s hands gently cup his face, and it seemed that the Lightfriend’s gaze poured into his mind like a cleansing, refreshing stream. He knew he could direct that gaze, that it would not go anywhere that he forbade it, but he wanted to be open to the Power of Light, and let Rafel’s thought meld with his. As Rafel had said, it was not physically painful, but his mind shrank from the things that Light showed him; impatience, pride, scorn, anger – though some anger, he saw, Light did not condemn, because it was anger on behalf of the weak and the enslaved. Each thing thus exposed in him hurt him, because he knew somehow that it hurt Light, and he knew the pain in his spirit of which the Lightfriend had spoken to Tamorine. His thoughts seemed like a tangled skein, but the Lightfriend’s Perception helped him untangle them, lay them before Light, confess and cast out what was hurtful to Light, and joyfully accept the cleansing and forgiveness Light offered. When Rafel’s Perception withdrew, Brann found that he had tears in his eyes, of both sorrow and release. Before he could speak or question, the Lightfriend said “It is well, Child of Light”, then, “Receive Light’s blessing. Brann.” He lifted the Lightstone on its chain and touched the Stone to Brann’s brow. The stone glowed, and to his companions’ amazement a fountain of light poured out of the stone and surrounded the Swordsman. Hidden in the light, Brann felt an overwhelming sense of love, joy, peace and worship in his spirit, leaving him, when the light flowed back into the stone, feeling uplifted and, as Rafel had said, blessed of Light. When the light withdrew, his friends saw him standing with bowed head, but when he lifted his head, his eyes were glowing, as though the light lingered there, and his face was so transformed by peace and joy that Tarn exclaimed, “Brann – what has happened?”Brann smiled, and said, “It is as the Lightfriend said, Tarn. I have made my peace with Light.”

Now that Brann had set the example, and all could see that he was unharmed, but rather blessed by the experience, they were willing to follow. Rafel signalled to the Lightfriends, and they moved in among Brann and Tamorine’s men, offering their Perception. There were more Lightfriends than Brann had first seen, and he realised it would not take as long as he had thought for their little army to receive the help that he had. Tamorine had come to Rafel, looking trustfully into his face, and said, “I too would make my peace with Light, Lightfriend.” Brann saw Rafel cup Tamorine’s face and set his Perception on her, but then he turned his own gaze away. The Lightfriend had spoken of a Vow of Trespass taken by the Lightfriends, and Brann felt that he himself would be making a kind of Trespass if he watched Tamorine make her peace with Light. He had been willing for the others to watch him because he wanted to show them there was nothing to fear, but this time, he felt, it should be only between Rafel and Tamorine. He knew when it was done, though, because Rafel spoke the same words as to him – “It is well, Child of Light.” He could not resist turning his head back to watch the Lightstone being laid to Tamorine’s brow and see the fountain of light pour over her. Deep within the light he heard her give a long, deep sigh, and though it was an odd notion, he somehow felt as though she had been holding her breath for a long, long time, and was only now drawing breath again. When the light withdrew, she too had that glow in her eyes, and a new peace in her face. Tarn followed, then Gamlin, while the other Lightfriends were setting their Perceptions on Brann and Tamorine’s men, and when he had given the Lightstone’s blessing to Tarn and Gamlin also, Rafel began to move among the others, until eventually every one of the hundred had made his peace with Light and been blessed by the Lightstone, and Rafel came back to where Brann, Tamorine, Tarn and Gamlin stood, discussing their experience in hushed tones. “What now, Lightfriend?” Brann asked. Rafel smiled. “Now you are Children of Light, we will teach you the worship of Light. But there are other things to do first.” He looked out at the crowd before them, Lightfriends and new-made Children of Light intermingled now, and lifted his voice to address them. “Those of us who are Lightfriends know that we were sent into Li’is at the Will of Light, to help you defeat the Dark Lord and drive him back to Ma’al.” He held up the scrolls he had brought with him and continued, “All this is prophesied in the Book of Light, and there is one prophecy that concerns this day especially.”

All eyes were fixed on him as he turned and lifted the narrow wooden box, then said, “Brann of the Forest, come here to me.” Brann obeyed, wondering a little at the Lightfriend’s suddenly formal tone. Rafel said, “It was long foretold that when we entered Li’is, we would find among its Swordsmen who came out to fight against the Dark Lord one who would be the first of them to turn to Light, and he would become Light’s True Sword in the battle against Darkness. Brann, you are that True Sword.” Brann stared at him, astonished at his words. Before he could speak,Rafel said, “Take this box, and open it.” Brann took the box, wondering, and opened it. Inside lay a sword, unlike any he had ever seen. It was slender and beautiful, with a kind of deadly grace. It had obviously been made by a master armourer. It had no ornament on the hilt, but there was a symbol carved on it, and Brann saw that it was the same as the shape of the pendant that held the Lightstone. There were also words carved, and though the sword had surely come out of Ma’al with the Lightfriends, the words were in the Old Tongue – “The True Sword”. The metal from which it was forged was strange to Brann, until he looked again at the Lightstone and realised that the metal was the same, with its strange, silvery sheen. He looked questioningly at the Lightstone-Bearer. Rafel said. “Our vows as Lightfriends forbid us weapons, but on this occasion I may take up the True Sword, to bestow it.” He reached into the box and took out the weapon. “This is now your sword, Brann” he said. “True Sword for True Sword. Take it, and accustom your hand to it, for you must bear it against the Dark Lord.” Beyond astonishment now, Brann obediently set down the empty box and reached out and took the True Sword from the Lightfriend’s hand. It was light, and strong, and though it was unlike any sword he had ever handled, it did not feel strange to him and it fitted his hand as if it had been made for it. But perhaps it had, he thought, still bemused, if Light knew him for the True Sword to bear it. Tarn, watching him, said, “That is the fairest blade I ever saw.” Gamlin asked, “Of what metal is it forged? It does not look like our blades.” Rafel answered. “That metal is found only in Ma’al, not in Li’is. We brought with us only three things made of it, the gifts of Light. The first is the Lightstone in its setting, the second the True Sword.” “And the third?” Brann asked. “The third is the Harp Not Yet Played ” Rafel said, “but that does not concern us. That is kept for another Lightstone-Bearer, who will have to fight another battle against Darkness , in years to come – many years from now.” “And Light has shown you all this?” Tamorine asked. “It is long prophesied.” Rafel replied.

Now that all their men had accepted the Choice of Light, the Lightfriends’ Perception, and the blessing of the Lightstone, and had taken in their initial experiences of Light , there began to be questions. “If you came here from this Ma’al”, Gamlin asked “How did you get here? Did the Dark Lord come the same way? And where is Ma’al?” “We came through a Gate which the Lightstone and the Dancers made. ” Rafel explained. “The Dark Lord came here before us, by the evil enchantments of the Dark Ones. That is why he came from the East, because in Ma’al the East is the seat of their dark powers and where they work their sorceries, a place of terror. The Dark Ones have used much of their power to enslave Li’is, but it is a power that cannot stand against the Power of Light, if the people of Li’is choose to follow Light and reject Darkness. As to where Ma’al is…” he paused, then went on “Ma’al is so far from here that you could not understand the distances. It is on the other side of Light and time. And yet in a way it is the twin of Li’is, and they are bound together by prophecy.” Brann, still holding the True Sword, thought about those prophecies. How had Light known him, known he would be the True Sword? He posed the question to Rafel, who smiled, and said, “It is in the Will of Light, Brann, and that is all we can know. Light cannot be understood, only loved and obeyed.” Tamorine asked “But have you left your families behind in Ma’al? Will they not be in danger if your protectors, the Ketai, have come with you?” “We have left only a remnant of our Brothers-in-Light and their families in Ma’al” , Rafel replied. “Those who volunteered to stay, to keep the service of Light alive in Ma’al, though in secret, and still to offer the Choice of Light to any who would accept it. They are still guarded, though. Two warrior races have always been our guardians. The Ketai are here with us. The Malani also volunteered to stay in Ma’al with the other Lightfriends.” “And your families are here?” Tamorine asked again.”Not here with us, no. We entered Li’is, as I said, by the Dancers’ Gate, to the Meeting Place which they have prepared in the North. That place is unknown to the Dark Lord and his mercenaries, and our families and those of the Ketai have stayed there. The Ketai brought tents with them to shelter those who stayed. They are warriors, but also workers in fine fabrics and tent makers, for they are a wandering people and live in tents.” Brann said “You say that the Lightfriends and the Ketai came through this Gate, but who are the others with you – the men in brown robes ?” “They are men of Li’is who have escaped the Dark Lord and found their way to us,one by one, becoming Children of Light and our students, learning the Way of Light. Some are Swordsmen, and will join us in our battle. Others are farmers, merchants, workers in many trades, even a Healer or two.”

It was obvious that there were many more questions to be asked and answered, but Rafel said “You will learn all we can tell you, in due time. But for now you and your men have had a long journey and many new experiences, and you need to eat and rest.” Brann was still holding the True Sword, and now he drew out his own sword from the sheath and replaced it with the one he had been given. Not sure what to do with the other, he looked at Rafel, who said “Give it to the Ketai, Brann. They will place it in their armoury. It will not go to waste.” At his words, one of the Ketai came forward, smiling. Brann saw that though he was dressed the same as the others,he also had a golden circlet round his brow. Rafel said, “Brann, this is Ket-Jal. He is the Ket – the Lord – of the Ketai.” Thus introduced, Ket-Jal said, “It is good to meet the True Sword of prophecy. We have waited for you, and your co-commander, the Lady Tamorine, and your men.” Brann wondered again how so much was known about them. Was it prophecy, or the Lightfriends’ mysterious Perception, that had told of their coming?”We are glad to meet the Lightfriends and the Ketai, also”, he responded, and handed his redundant sword to the Ket, hilt foremost as courtesy demanded. Rafel said, ” I know you all still have many questions, and we will answer them when the time is right. But, as I said, you need to take time now to rest, and take in what you have learned. ” Brann noticed that a small group of the brown-robed students had come back to the large cave, and Rafel indicated them, and said,”Go with our students now. They will give you food and show you where to sleep.” Tamorine replied, “Lightfriend, we have supplies, we need not take yours.” Rafel smiled at her. “You are courteous, Tamorine, but we have been established here for some time. We have our own sources. You will not rob us.” They obeyed him, and followed the brown-robed men, and as they went, Tamorine said to Brann “I wonder, then, how long the Lightfriends and the Ketai have been in Li’is? If they came first to the North, then travelled here, and have made this their base and built up supplies, and gathered these students, who they say are fugitives from the Dark Lord – how long would all that have taken, Brann? And why did they not make themselves known to us before this?” “I cannot tell” he answered, “but Rafel said more of our questions would be answered in due time. Maybe we can ask him then. It may be to do with this prophecy he told us of.” “And he knew you for the True Sword” she responded,” by that same prophecy. He said he had been waiting for us. It is a mystery.” “It is the Will of Light, Brann said, “so Rafel said. Now we are Children of Light, I think we must be content with that, Tamorine, and with whatever Light chooses to reveal to us.” His mind,like hers, was full of questions, but the feelings of peace and joy he had felt in accepting Light and receiving the Lightstone’s blessing kept him calm and secure. Rafel had said that he had sought Light, unknowing, but now Brann thought that maybe, after all, it was Light that had sought him.

FIRST LIGHT

Chapter 5

When Brann woke next morning, it was still early and no one was yet stirring. He had been allocated a place in one of the sleeping chambers, with Tarn, Gamlin, Kerrin, his cousins, and others of his men. For Tamorine, being the only female member of their force, a bed had been made up in the Lightfriend’s curtained Quiet Place. The rest of their men had been distributed among the various other caverns set aside for sleeping. Brann, feeling secure both in his surroundings and in his new relationship with Light, had slept well. Now he lay still and collected his thoughts, going over the happenings of the previous day. He was still aware of the sense of peace and joy and – yes – completeness from his surrender to Light. He also felt relief that they had found friends and allies, not least that same power of Light, to aid them in their battle against the Dark Lord. He glanced round at his sleeping friends, wondering how their encounter with Light had affected them. Of all of them, the one who had surprised him most was Tarn, the sceptic and unbeliever. That Tarn should have accepted the Choice of Light seemed strange, and yet perhaps it was just that it was the first time Tarn had found anything in which he could truly have faith. Brann knew that Tarn would not have made that choice lightly, and that now it was made, his friend would be loyal to it, whatever it cost. He wondered, now, about his own determined decision to fight against the Dark Lord, which it seemed had been known to Light even before he made it – or perhaps it was Light which had prompted the decision, unknown to him. The Lightfriend had been right, he thought, to say they had much to learn about Light. And, he asked himself, what of Tamorine? What had the Choice of Light meant to her? He remembered that strange , deep sigh she had given, and his own conviction that it had meant some kind of release for her – not the release they had all surely felt in accepting Light, but something deeper, something which the Lightfriend had seemed to know before ever he set his Perception on her.

He wondered too about the Lightfriends, with their power of Perception. Surely, if misused, that power could be a terrible weapon, and yet the Lightfriends were dedicated to using it only for the good of others, and the service of Light. It must have been a challenge for them, however dark their own world had become, to obey the command of Light and let themselves be carried into Li’is, with their families. Perhaps even harder for the Ketai, since they had no special powers, but their loyalty to Light and to their guardianship of the Lightfriends had inspired them to make the journey. That brought the Dancers to his mind, the most mysterious of all. ‘Beings of light and energy’, Rafel had called them, and the Dancer itself had said that they Danced among the stars. Brann wondered if they drew their sustenance from those stars, for surely they did not feed as humans did. The Dancer had said, too, that the Dancers of Ma’al – the ones having responsibility for the rhythms of that world – had been corrupted and turned against Light, so they were not perfect beings. They were capable of evil if not loyal to Light. So much to learn, as Rafel had also said!

His musings were interrupted by a sound of movement nearby, and he turned a little to see Tarn, who had been sleeping nearby, wake and stretch and give a mighty yawn. He saw Brann looking at him, and said quietly, “Is it early still? Here in the caverns with only these dim lamps it is impossible to tell day from night!” “I think it is early” Brann replied, “since no one else seems to be awake. I was thinking about yesterday. It was the strangest of days, Tarn, and yet somehow the best. ” “It was a blessing” Tarn answered.”I never held faith in much, Brann, as you know. Yet Light…” He paused, then said, echoing Brann’s thoughts, though he did not know it, “I feel complete.” “I was wondering” Brann went on, “if it was Light called us to this battle. I thought it was my own idea, but if Light knew, as Rafel said, if I was chosen to be the True Sword, I think it must be so, Tarn.” “It was long prophesied, so he said” Tarn mused, “and must have been known to Light. I believe you are right, Brann. This is not our battle alone, but Light’s. That is a good thought. We are not alone in this.” “How long prophesied, I wonder?” Brann responded. “Was it known in this – “Otherworld” the Lightfriends left? We do not know how long they have been in Li’is. We are meeting wonders, Tarn!” Tarn agreed. “There is much to understand, and Rafel said he still had more to teach us. But I have more hope now. When we first set out on this journey I knew we must do something to try to end the Dark Lord’s rule, yet I was not sure that any attempt we made would succeed. Now I feel more sure of victory.” Brann nodded. “So I feel. If the power of Light is with us, we shall succeed. And if the corrupted Dancers of Ma’al attack us,our own Dancers, true to Light, will protect us from them.”

They could hear others beginning to stir around them now, and their conversation was interrupted as a robed figure, one of those Rafel had called students, came into their sleeping place. “It will soon be time for the morning meal and Morning Prayers” he announced. “Prepare yourselves, Swordsmen of Li’is.” They obeyed his instructions, and went out into the largest cave, where they were joined by the rest of their men, and Tamorine. The cave was well furnished with rough benches, and the Lightfriends and their students and some of the Ketai were already there.. Brann glanced at the girl and thought he could see a difference in her expression. She still looked determined, but not as defiant and wary as before. He did not look long, though, in case she thought he was observing her too closely. They were served their food, and before they ate Rafel spoke a blessing on their meal. When they had finished, he drew back the curtain to the Place of Prayer to reveal the Crucible. Why was it called that?, Brann wondered. The other Lightfriends gathered round him, and the Morning Prayers began. Brann, Tamorine and the others were new to the worship of Light, but the beauty of the prayers and the responses of the other Lightfriends and students moved them, and they felt drawn closer to Light. When the time of prayer ended, Rafel blessed them all in the Name of Light, then called Brann and Tamorine and their lieutenants Tarn and Gamlin to him. “We will meet in my Quiet Place in a while, with the Ket, to discuss our plans. I will send someone to call you when I am ready. Meanwhile the students will show you where you may refresh yourselves. “

They found themselves conducted to a set of rough steps descending into the cave that led down to the water table, a large underground lake, where they could wash. They should not attempt to enter the water, though, the student told them, as it was cold and there were undercurrents. Separate arrangements had been made for Tamorine, in a side cavern. The rest of their men followed in relays, and eventually all had bathed and been refreshed, for they had had only limited facilities on their journey here. Returning to the main cavern, they mingled and chatted, their leaders waiting for Rafel’s summons. Varil the Sword-Trainer was talking animatedly with some of the Ketai, obviously interested in their warrior way of life. Some of their men were sitting on the benches, seemingly talking over their experiences so far. Looking round, Brann noticed his cousin Javan standing with Javan’s other cousin, Tavan, and sighed. The two, though close kinsmen, were not always the best of friends, and he hoped there was no disagreement brewing between them. They seemed, though, to be talking together quietly, and he wondered what they were discussing. He was about to look away when he saw them smile at each other, and then join hands in the newly-learned Swordsmen’s handclasp. Intrigued, he went across to them. Javan heard him approach and half-turned, and Brann asked, “Is it well between you, Javan, Tavan?” Javan answered “It is well – now and henceforth. We have realised that we cannot follow Light and disagree with each other.” Tavan added “We have talked out old grudges and forgiven each other, for we see that is Light’s Way. We have never been Sword-Brethren, though we are kin, but now we will swear Sword-Brotherhood.” “Ah, that is good!” Brann exclaimed, relieved. “Do it, then”. He drew out the sword he had been given, and said, “Swear it on the True Sword, for blessing!” So the no longer warring cousins took their vow of Sword-Brotherhood on the hilt of the True Sword, and shared the Swordsmen’s handclasp again. “Praise Light!” Brann said, when it was done, and thought to himself that Light was changing hearts.

He went back to join Tarn, who had seen him talking to the cousins, and said, “Did I see those two swear Sword-Brotherhood? What has happened? They were always so at odds with each other!” “It is Light’s doing” Brann explained, and told him what Javan and Tavan had said. Tarn said “It is true that when the Lightfriend set his Perception on me, I saw things in myself that made me ashamed, things I surrendered to Light. It must be the same with all of us, I believe. Light has cleansed us.” “Yes, it was so with me, Tarn. It is a good feeling.” “It can only help our cause, if any such feelings are dealt with. There can be no arguments or divisions among us, when the time comes to march against the Dark Lord.” Tarn commented. Brann saw Tamorine and Gamlin coming to join them, and said “Here are the others. I wonder what the Lightfriend has to tell us?” Hearing this, Tamorine said ” If the Lightfriends and the Ketai have been here for some time, they have likely spied out the Dark City and its defences. They will have useful knowledge.” “We will know soon” said Gamlin, for they could see one of the brown-robed students approaching them, and sure enough he bade them now join the Lightfriend and the Ket in the Lightfriend’s Quiet Place . They followed him to the curtained cavern, where he drew back the curtain to admit them, and let it fall again behind them. The Lightfriend and the Ket were seated at the table, and Rafel looked up as they entered and said, “Welcome, Children of Light. Be seated.” The four of them joined the other two at the table, and looked expectantly at Rafel, who said. “I Perceive you have many questions – though I do not need Perception to know that. Ask what you will, and we will try to answer you.” Brann said “We were wondering how long the Lightfriends and the Ketai had been in Li’is, and what knowledge you have of the Dark Lord and the Dark City.” “We have been here some years” Rafel answered, “but only recently has Light told us it was time to move against the Dark Lord.” “We have been waiting for the men of Li’is to rise, and the True Sword to be found.” Ket-Jal, the Lord of the Ketai, said.Rafel went on “We came first, as we said, to the North, to the Meeting Place, with the Dancers. We had first to establish a camp there for our families and those of the Ketai who stayed to guard them there. Only then could we move South to await your coming.””Do you have family there?” Tamorine asked him. “Yes. My Lady, and our daughter and son.” He smiled, and added, “My son was desperate to come with us, but he has not yet completed his training. There were other young sons of the Priesthood who felt the same, but none was ready.” “Ah, it was the same with our Warrior Children” the Ket said. “All of them eager to fight against the Dark Lord – but a half-trained Swordsman is a danger to himself and his companions. So they too were left behind, including my younger son, though his brother is with us.”

“Can it be the same Dark Lord, though?” Tamorine asked, voicing her earlier thoughts. “If so, he must be very old.” “That is true” Brann commented, “for it was in my grandfather’s time that he came out of the East and attacked our Harbour Town and drove us out and took it for himself. And others of his forces took the East Coast Harbour and attacked the City and took that too, making it his stronghold. All of that took time. Surely this is his heir, not the first Dark Lord?” Rafel said “It is the same Dark Lord who first came out of the East. What you say would be true, if he were merely man. But he is more than man – or less than man.” “Is he some kind of monster, then?” Tarn demanded. “Even so, we shall not fear him!” “He is a man – a man of Ma’al” Rafel replied. “One high in the ranks of Darkness, who has willingly given himself as host to a Lord of Darkness – a fallen spirit. The spirit gives his body powers. His normal needs are slowed, as is his ageing, though he still must eat and drink and sleep to sustain his flesh. He is also a Shape-Changer, and can appear in different form. He wears a ring, with a certain red stone, and in that stone is the power of a Night Lord, the treacherous Dancers of Ma’al, which empowers his sorceries.” “Light called me a True Sword” Brann said. “Is it I who must stand against this spirit-man?” “No”, Rafel said. “That is not your task, Brann.” “Then whose task is it?” Tamorine said, sharply. “All of us would be glad to stand against the Dark Lord, even if we died in destroying him!” “I know” Rafel agreed, “but not even the True Sword can stand against him, Tamorine. It is I, the Lightstone-Bearer, who must face him, because only the Lightstone and the Power of Light can overcome him. Brann’s task – and yours, and the Ketai’s – is to clear my path to reach him.”

Brann exclaimed , “But you said your vows forbid you weapons, Rafel! How can you fight him, unarmed?” “I have the Lightstone” Rafel replied, “and that is the only weapon I need.” Gamlin asked “The Dark Lord has lived long, you say, but his mercenaries – are they the same, empowered by spirits of Darkness?” Rafel said ” No. They are men. There are Children of Darkness, as well as Children of Light. Those who will accept and follow the rule of Darkness for what they can gain.” Ket-Jal told them “The Dark Lord came first to the Eastern Continent of Li’is, for in Ma’al the East is the seat of all evil and sorcery, and by their sorceries the Lords of Darkness wove a thread between the East of Ma’al and the East of Li’is. They overthrew the Lord of the East and took control of the whole continent. They sent the Dark Lord and his mercenaries into Li’is with the help of the Night Lords, before the Dancers of Li’is were aware of the danger.” Rafel took up the tale again.”When the Spirits-in-Light carried Light’s warning to the Dancers, they drove out the Night Lords. But by then the Dark Lord and his armies were established in the East, and had enslaved its people. Those who would join him were promised power and riches, the others were slain to feed the evil stone he carries, for it is powered by pain and evil deeds. Those of the East who became Children of Night, joining the Dark Lord, are the source of his mercenaries now, trained by those he brought with him at the first. After a couple of generations, it has become normal to them to obey his orders and carry out the foul deeds he commands.” “Then the mercenaries are men of Li’is?” Tarn asked, horrified. “They are men of Li’is who have been corrupted by Darkness.” Rafel said, sadly. “As I told you before, Light gives each created being free choice, and they have chosen to serve Darkness rather than Light.”

“So all of the East is captive to the Dark Lord?” Tamorine asked. “It is” Ket-Jal replied, “and will not be freed until he is overcome, and his sorceries there are broken.” “But if all there are Children of Darkness, mercenaries of the Dark Lord, they will still be a danger to us here.” Tarn said. Rafel acknowledged this, and went on “The defeat of the Dark Lord will only be the beginning. The people of Li’is will need to take back what was taken from them, to rebuild, but above all to accept the Choice of Light.” He smiled at Brann, then, and added, “And in all this Light’s True Sword will be a leader.” Brann said, “If that is Light’s Will – but only with your help, Lightstone-Bearer, and that of my comrades.” Tamorine glanced at him approvingly. Gamlin enquired “What can you tell us about the Dark City and its defences? Tarn thought that perhaps it was not as well-guarded as we thought, since the Dark Lord might feel secure there and become complacent.” Ket-Jal answered him. “The Ketai have made several expeditions to the Dark City to look over its defences, though we had to be careful. It would not have done for any of us to be captured and taken before the Dark Lord, for he would know we had followed him from Ma’al, and be forewarned. Its outer defences are not extensive, but we have learned that there are more guards inside the City than outside.” “To protect the Dark Lord?” Tamorine asked.”Then perhaps he is more vulnerable than you believed.” “Not to protect him” Rafel replied, “His sorceries and the Bloodstone are his protection. That is why only the Lightstone can overcome him. The guards are for his prisoners – the people of Li’is he has taken captive and forced to be his slaves.” “Then perhaps, if we get inside his stronghold, his slaves will rise up and help us.” Gamlin said. Ket-Jal went on “We found an old quarry not far from the Dark City. It was where the stone was quarried to build the City when it was first raised. There are some tunnels from the quarry to the Dark City, made to take the stone there. The quarry and tunnels are disused now, and the tunnels were blocked, but can be cleared with care. It is possible that some may actually lead into the City itself, but if not, at least they could bring us close enough to the City to make a surprise attack.”

“But would it be safe to clear the tunnels?” Tarn queried. “To work so close to the Dark City – would we not be heard and discovered?” “The Ketai have tested that” Rafel told him, “and managed to remove some of the rubble without incident. Though as we near the Dark City, it will become more dangerous and if it seems likely that we will be detected we will stop.” “Then the Dark Lord does not know about this quarry?” asked Tamorine. “It is probable that he knows of its existence, but it has not been used for many, many years, since its only purpose was the building of the City. It is overgrown, and the Ketai have been very careful to leave no sign of their being there. He has no reason to think any person would venture there, an uninviting place and so close to the Dark City. His guards look elsewhere.” Rafel paused, and went on, “In the beginning, when he first took the Dark City, some men of Li’is rose up against him to try to recapture it, using the woods for cover. So it is from that direction that they would expect any attack to come, though since none has dared attempt such a thing for so long, he has grown, as you said, somewhat complacent.”

Gamlin said “But you say he uses dark powers, and sorceries. Will he not detect us by those?” “We are protected from those by the Lightstone” Rafel told him, “since those in Darkness cannot know the Will of Light. The Dark Lords may try any sorcery they choose, but it will not reveal Light’s purposes to them.” “If we can use the tunnels from the quarry, well enough” Brann commented, ” but if we have to approach from the forest, we will need to take care. Any guards are bound to see us, but the longer we can delay that, the better.” “We brought a smaller force so that we were less likely to be observed” Tamorine remarked. “If we are joined by the Lightfriends and their students, and the Ketai, we will have more fighters but will also be more likely to be seen.” “We can make our way to the old quarry, with caution” Ket-Jal told her. “We have established a safe route. If the tunnels prove impenetrable, or if we need to make an additional frontal attack, we can spread out from there.” Gamlin asked the Lightfriend “You say the Lightstone will protect us, and we have all felt its power. But how did you come by it?” Rafel said “We were visited by a man, sent of Light, who brought us designs for the Lightstone pendant, and the True Sword, and the Harp Not Yet Played, to be made by craftsmen true to Light, of the metal of Ma’al. Once they were complete, he said, he would return. We asked how we could tell him they were made, and he said he would know. So we did as we were bidden, and sure enough, when the three things were finished, he did return. With him he brought the Lightstone, and he put it in its setting, and told me that I was ordained Lightstone-Bearer.” He paused, as if remembering, then went on “We still did not understand the meaning of all this. We thought that Light meant to overthrow the Darkness of Ma’al. But then the man told us about Li’is. He said that Ma’al had descended too far into Darkness to be saved, since our world refused to repent of its evil. But in Li’is, he said, though its people did not know Light yet, the Darkness had not gained full control and there were still those who strove against the Dark Lord, and Li’is could be turned to Light, and saved from Darkness. Then he told us about the Dancers’ Gate, and what we were to do.” He paused again , and there was awe in his voice as he said “He came to us as a man, but we believe he was a Spirit-in-Light, a Shining One.”

Tarn said “You mentioned these Spirits-in-Light before, but what are they?” Rafel replied “The created spirits that stayed true to Light when others rebelled. They serve Light and men, bringing us Light’s Word and Will. They are often near us, though we rarely see them. They communicate with the Dancers, also.” Tamorine instinctively glanced round, as if she might see some shining presence near, but Rafel smiled at her, and said, “If you were in the presence of a Shining One you would know it, Tamorine.” “And they will fight for us?” Brann asked. Rafel said “They will do Light’s Will. The task of overcoming the Dark Lord is for the men of Li’is and the Lightfriends – and the Lightstone-Bearer most of all. We need not concern ourselves with anything beyond that. ” “Yet we are new to Light” Tarn said, “and how can we know Light’s Will? ” “You will be guided of Light, do not fear” Rafel, replied, “and remember this, Tarn, always – that the weakest of Light is stronger than the strongest of Darkness.” Gamlin, returning to the question of the Dark Lord’s defences, asked “The Dark Lord’s mercenaries – how are they armed? What are their skills?” “His perimeter guards carry sword and spear” the Ket replied, “and probably knives for close contact. There are a few lookouts on the City Walls, and they are bowmen. Our bows, though, are more powerful than theirs.” “We have bowmen with us also” Brann said, “and hunters, skilful at moving unobserved. Swordsmen too, but none skilled with spears.” “The Ketai are trained with sword, bow and spear” Rafel said, “we will not lack spear-skill.” Tarn said “We must be prepared for any wounded. We have a Healer with us.” Rafel said “Some of the Lightfriends are Healers too. It will be as well if your Healer could instruct them in the use of the healing herbs of Li’is, since some may not be the same as we used in Ma’al.” “I will send Forin to you, then” Brann told him. Gamlin asked the Ket ” You said if he saw you, the Dark Lord would know you had followed him from Ma’al. Are you known, then, as protectors of the Lightfriends?” The Ket said, “No. We were herders of cattle and horses, travellers over our grazing grounds. Our warriors were trained for our own defence. But when Ma’al went down into Darkness, our lands and cattle and horses were taken from us, for even the Ketai could not withstand the Dark Ones’ sorceries. We were cast out, for the Dark Ones work by dividing the hearts of peoples. It was the same with the Malani. The other people of Ma’al were told that we, and they, were different, rootless and lesser peoples, wild dwellers in the woods and mountains. But we stayed true to Light, and found the Lightfriends, and the Ketai and the Malani swore Sword-Brotherhood and the defence of the Lightfriends, as peoples.” “In Light all are equal” Rafel said, “for all are created of Light. In Darkness, as Ket-Jal said, the Dark Lords sow division between peoples, for unity is a threat to them.” “Then Light has called us together” Tamorine said, ” since once we of the Mountains and the people of the Forest and Harbour were enemies, but since the Dark Lord came we have had a common enemy, and now we have come together against him.” “That is so” Rafel affirmed.

FIRST LIGHT

Chapter 6

A thoughtful silence followed, which Brann broke by voicing the question which had been in his mind that morning. “Rafel, the Crucible- why is it named so?” Rafel looked round at them and replied with another question. “When you accepted the Choice of Light, and the Lightfriends’ Perception, how did you feel?” They considered this, then Brann said “I felt as though some things were cleared from my – my spirit.” He hesitated, because he was not sure what word to use. Tarn repeated what he had said earlier to Brann. “I saw things in myself of which I was ashamed. But I felt that Light cleansed me of them.” Tamorine said nothing, but nodded agreement, and Gamlin said “As Tarn said, I felt cleaner.” Rafel smiled, and said “Light is pure, and will drive out what is not pure in you – but only with your agreement, and when you have taken the Choice of Light. And all cannot be dealt with at once. That is why our reminder of the Power of Light is called the Crucible. If one meets with Light there, and opens oneself to Light, Light will burn out impurities, as precious metal is refined in a crucible.” Brann said “I see”, but thought that now the name made sense to him. Tamorine now asked “If the Lightfriends cannot bear weapons, why need they come into battle with us? Will they not be in great danger?” The Ket said “We will protect the Lightfriends. It is our sworn duty. And it is necessary that they come – or at least some of them” “Why?” Tamorine persisted. Rafel said “You will need our Perceptions. We can Perceive the presence of Darkness, and sorceries. And we can convey warnings, through the Thought-without-Words.” “What is that?” Tarn asked. “We can link Perceptions, at need, to pass a message or give a warning” the Lightfriend answered. “It is silent, so no enemy would hear.”

“You said some of your students would join us also” Tarn continued. “Are they Swordsmen?” “Those who are Swordsmen will join us” the Ket replied. “Some of them are not trained to fight, and understand that though they would be glad to join us in the battle, they would likely hinder us. But they will help in other ways.” “There is no one here who would not be glad to help in the overthrow of the Dark Lord in whatever way they can” Rafel added. “So now we need to consider how to make best use of our forces…” Brann was beginning, when Rafel lifted his head and held up a hand for silence. His vivid blue eyes were glowing, and after a few moments he said ” My Brothers-in-Light send a message from your guards, Ket-Jal. There is a small group of the Dark Lord’s mercenaries heading this way.” Brann realised that they had just seen the Thought-without-Words in operation, and that the Ketai must have guards around the apparently uninhabited farmhouse. They must be very skilful at concealing themselves, since his own scouts had not seen them when they approached the place. He asked “Will the Ketai attack them?” Ket-Jal said ” No. We will not betray ourselves, unless there is a real danger to the Lightfriends. Our guards will keep watch. It may be they are in hope of plunder and will turn away when they see that the farm is broken down and untenanted.” “And if not?” asked Tamorine. “That will depend” Rafel replied. “It may be that they will enter the building to make sure there is nothing to be had. Or it could be that they wish only to water their horses and rest for a while. If they are no threat to us we shall not move against them.” “But they are our enemies!” exclaimed Gamlin. Rafel said ” Light bids us do no harm that can be avoided to any, even an enemy, for some may come in time to take the Choice of Light. If it is necessary to slay, it is necessary, but then they will go into Darkness forever, and that is not a thing to be wished for any, even an enemy.””And if they come into the building, and find the stone, and come down here?” persisted Gamlin. “Then we will be waiting for them” said the Ket.

Tamorine said slowly “I think the Lightfriend is right, Gamlin.” Her lieutenant looked at her as if startled, and she went on “We knew nothing of Light until we met the Lightfriend, and we were never on the Dark Lord’s side. Rafel said that these mercenaries have been born and raised under his sway and know no other way. I have reason enough to hate the Dark Lord’s mercenaries, Gamlin, as you know, but I understand what Rafel means. However evil a man may seem, he should at least have the chance to take the Choice of Light. If he spurns it, that is his choice, but he should have the chance.” Rafel smiled at her, and said, “You begin to think like a Child of Light, Tamorine.” Brann said nothing, but felt that in his heart he agreed with what Tamorine had said. Now Rafel lifted the Lightstone on its chain and gazed into it. The stone, which had been quiescent, began to glow, its light reflected in the Lightfriend’s vivid blue eyes. Rafel did not speak, but Brann felt that he was seeing further than this place. All of them felt constrained to silence while Rafel engaged with the Lightstone, and after a while he let it slide from his hand again and lifted his eyes to look at them. The light of the Stone had faded back to a spark , and Rafel said “The mercenaries are in the courtyard, looking round and watering their horses from the well. Only one has entered this building, to see if there is any plunder. I think they will not stay here long.” Tarn, curious, asked “How do you know, Rafel? Did the Lightstone tell you?” Rafel said “The Lightstone augments my Perception, Tarn. As I said, the range of our Perception is limited by distance, but with the Lightstone I can see further. If Light wills to reveal something to the Lightstone-Bearer, it will be revealed.”

Brann wondered about the mysteries of Perception, and of the Lightstone, and how they would help in their coming attack on the Dark City, but felt curiously reluctant to question Rafel further. Gamlin said “If there are mercenaries about, we shall not be able to move out yet. We must keep surprise on our side.” “No doubt they will be bound back to the Dark City after a foraging expedition” the Ket replied. Brann thought of the desolation of Marvis’ small farm and the murder of its inhabitants, and scowled. Tamorine had a pinched whiteness about her face which he did not like; it seemed to indicate that she had also suffered at the hands of the mercenaries and suffered more, if that were possible, than the loss of her kin. If that were so, he thought, then her acceptance of Rafel’s statement that even they should have the chance of the Choice of Light was noble indeed. He wondered again how she had come by that scar along her cheek. The Ket continued “Our guards will watch them. If they go directly to the Dark City and there are no others nearby, we will be able to move out. But not until after the Two-Moon Tide.” Brann agreed “Certainly we cannot go while the moons are together.” For though the peril of the Two-Moon Tides were mainly at the coasts of Li’is, where the seas would be high and perilous, the bright double moonlight of the conjunction of the two moons of Li’is would make the night too bright for them to pass unseen, if any were watching. Go by night they must, certainly. It had been perilous enough for Brann and Tamorine’s small force to travel by day with the chance of being seen, even on foot and with camouflage cloaks, but augmented by the Ketai, the Lightfriends, and those of the Students who would be fighting on their side, their army would be much larger and more visible.

Ket-Jal said “No ships can sail on the Two-Moon Tide and when they are past it takes time to cross the ocean from the Eastern Continent. If we attack as soon as the Tides are over, there is no chance of the Dark Lord augmenting his mercenaries.” “The first Tide will be in two days’ time.” Rafel said. “After that it will be safe to travel to the Dark City. The mercenaries should have returned there by then. They need no cover of darkness and the light of the moons will serve them on their journey.” He stopped speaking and seemed to be concentrating for a few minutes, while the others too kept silent, fearing that he might have heard the mercenaries attempting to enter the caverns. Then, however, he smiled at them, and said “The mercenary has joined the others, and they are leaving. It may be they sought water here, and that was all they wanted.” Tamorine asked ” Then they know this place? I thought you said it was unknown to them.” “They do not know it.” Rafel replied. “No mercenaries have been here before.” “Likely enough” Ket-Jal said, “they were in need of water, and even an abandoned farm has a well, which might not be empty.” “But now they will tell others, and they will come here”, Gamlin answered him. “It is not likely that any will come here before we are ready to leave” Brann said. “And if any should come, the Ketai will be watching them” Tarn added.

“It is the first part of the way to the Dark City that is the most exposed” said the Ket, returning to the planning of their manoeuvres against the Dark Lord. “It is mostly scrubland, and uninhabited, but with little cover. Once we reach the Forest by the Dark City there will be cover, but also the likelihood of mercenaries on guard. But they will be watching the direct approach to the Dark City.” “We will not make a direct approach, though” said Brann, “for you said we would try the tunnels from the old quarry first.” The Ket nodded agreement. “We will approach the quarry by the edges of the Forest, in that direction. A thicket has grown up around the quarry where trees and bushes from the Forest have spread outwards. ” “How shall we pass, then, without leaving a trail?” asked Tamorine. Rafel replied “The Ketai have already been back and forth to the quarry, and made trails, but they have been careful to make trails that look like those of large animals – it is a skill they learned in Ma’al, to disguise their tracks. We can use those.” Ket-Jal went on “We have means to descend into the quarry without disturbing any other vegetation, and the quarry floor is earth and rock. We made few marks there, and were careful to clear them away.” “And the rocks you said you had cleared from the tunnels?They will not betray us?” asked Gamlin. “A few more broken rocks on the quarry floor”, the Ket replied. “Well scattered. No, they will not betray us.” “And we will have our Perceptions extended” Rafel said, “and be ready to warn of danger.” “The Lightfriends will be placed throughout our forces, ready to Perceive any enemy and warn us by the Thought-without-Words” Ket-Jal agreed. Now Brann asked, “How many are your forces, Lord Ket? We number a hundred, since we thought a smaller force had more chance of passing unseen and surprising the Dark City.” Ket-Jal replied “We brought with us all our men of fighting age, those skilled with sword or bow or spear. Two hundred and sixty-one in all.” “And you said some of your Students would fight, Lightfriend?” Gamlin asked. Rafel nodded. “Certainly the Masked Ones will wish to fight, and others may join them.” “Who are these Masked Ones?” queried Tamorine, not quite liking the sound of them. Rafel, perhaps sensing her uneasiness, answered “You need have no fear of their loyalty, Tamorine.” He sighed, then, and went on “All of them have suffered loss at the hands of the Dark Lord’s mercenaries. But what pains them – and shames them, they say, though there is no blame in them and Light does not condemn them – is that through one reason or another, each of them was absent when the evil befell. They have returned to find homes, towns or villages destroyed, friends and kin killed or maltreated, and feel that as Swordsmen they should have been there to fight for them. So, since they found sanctuary with us and came to know Light, and our intention of carrying out Light’s judgement on the Dark Lord, they have joined together and taken an oath. They will war with us against the Dark Lord, but have vowed that to cover what they see as their shame, they will go masked until our battle succeeds and they see vengeance on the Dark Lord and his creatures for what was done to those they loved.”

“Ah, I can understand that” Tamorine said, and there was a depth of feeling in her voice that made Brann wonder if she was thinking of her own lost kin. “So” Tarn commented, ” we shall number about four hundred. With surprise on our side, that should be enough. What is known about the Dark City, Rafel? Are there charts?” “There are some old charts of how it was laid out when built” the Lightfriend replied. “But it may not be the same now. The Dark Lord has no doubt altered it and strengthened parts of the wall. ” “It is said that there was a great building at the heart of the City when it was built” Brann said. “My father remembers tales of it from some who had travelled there. It was used for the wise men of the City to meet and make laws for the City, and to deal with those who broke those laws. If I had taken that City I would set up my base there. If that building still exists, it may be that we would find the Dark Lord there.” “Like some great spider at the heart of its evil web!” said Tamorine, and Tarn said “You are right, Brann, it would be the most likely place.” “Then to reach him we will have to fight our way through the streets of the Dark City” said Gamlin. “Four hundred is a good number” Tamorine said, “and enough to deal with any mercenaries we might meet on the way to the Dark City. With numbers and the Lightfriends’ Perceptions we shall certainly reach it. We will need to study any charts there are, for even if some of the layout of the Dark City has been changed, surely the main structures remain, or its fabric would be weakened.” “Do you think it likely that any of the quarry tunnels do lead into the City itself?” Brann asked the Ket. “It is possible” Ket-Jal replied, “since they were used to carry the stone inside the City when it was being built, and may have been put to other uses afterwards.”


Rafel must have used the Thought-without-Words again, for one of the Lightfriends, a younger man, came in with the charts of the City which they needed, and left again, wordlessly. They leaned over the charts and saw that the City had originally been laid out on a circular pattern, its streets concentric rings connected by smaller cross-streets, with the building Brann had mentioned at the centre. It did, indeed, look like a spider’s web, as Tamorine had said. The only entrance seemed to be the gates at the front, with towers on either side, and the first street was marked, in the Old Tongue, as housing the defenders of the towers nearby, along with various artisan workshops. The second street was given over to shops, inns, and a market place, and the others were where the citizens lived. The last street, inmost to the central building, was reserved for the wise men of the City and the administrators. It had once been an orderly and peaceful place, as shown by the charts, but, Brann thought, its people had grown too used to peace and safety, and been unaware of the threat of the Dark Lord until he had come suddenly upon them and taken their City from them. He said “That outer ring, I think, is where the defending mercenaries will be housed, and no doubt the wall has been reinforced.” “Then are you sure they have not used the quarry?” Gamlin asked Ket-Jal. “They would need to get material from somewhere to reinforce the walls.”
“The quarry has not been used for many years, long before the Dark Lord came”, the Ket replied. “There is no sign of recent use.” “They have likely pulled down buildings inside the City” Tarn said. “Many of the inhabitants were killed, or managed to escape, and the rest were made slaves. They would be housed in some kind of barracks then, not allowed to live at ease in their own homes.” “If the Dark Lord dwells in the central building” Tamorine said, “he would try to block access to it. I doubt if all those connecting streets are still open. He would need to leave some for his mercenaries to come to him for his orders, but if I were making my base there, I would block some of the streets, certainly those at my back.” “You are right, Tamorine” Brann replied, ” I would do so too.”

“Then let us hope in Light that the tunnels from the quarry do indeed penetrate into the Dark City” Tarn said, “for otherwise we will have to make a frontal attack on the gates, which will be well defended, and fight our way through the streets, which will give the Dark Lord more warning of our coming. We cannot let him escape!” Rafel said”The Dark Lord will not escape. He will be destroyed by the Lightstone – unless he flees back into Ma’al, by sorcery. In either case, Li’is will be free of him.” “You are very sure of the power of the Lightstone”, Gamlin said. “and of yourself as its Bearer.” “I am not sure of myself”, Rafel answered, “since I am nothing but a vessel. But I am sure of Light and the Power of Light.” “But still, as you said, we must clear your way to the Dark Lord, to enable you to use the Lightstone against him”, Brann said. “And if the Lightstone-Bearer and the Lightstone are the key to the Dark Lord’s defeat, we will need to keep Rafel securely guarded, in the midst of our troops.” Tarn added. Ket-Jal answered “That will be the duty of the Ketai. As I told you, we have sworn to guard the Lightfriends.” He took a piece of the charred wood stick that Rafel used to write with and marked a long box on the table. “If this is our army” he said, “then here” – he marked a circle at the heart of the box – we will keep Rafel, with a guard of Ketai.” He then marked more dots throughout the box shape and went on “Each of these marks a Lightfriend. They will be scattered through the army, each with a Ketai to guard them, to pass on any warning, through their Perception. We will still have enough Ketai warriors to fight, but the Lightfriends must be guarded, for once the Dark Lord is defeated, they will be vital to the rebuilding of Li’is, and teaching its people the Way of Light.” “That is your duty, to guard the Lightfriends,as you said” Tamorine commented, “and your plan seems good to me.” She looked enquiringly at Brann, Gamlin and Tarn, who all agreed.

Brann said “You have sworn your vow, Ket-Jal. We began our plan to attack the Dark Lord knowing nothing of Light, and set out without Light’s blessing – though I truly believe, now, that we were guided by Light, though we did not know it. Now we are all Children of Light, it is in my heart that we should make our own vow to Light, to fight against the Dark Lord not in our own strength, but in the Name of Light.” Rafel smiled. “Indeed you shall, Brann. It is Light’s Will that this army should go out under a vow, and a blessing.” “Before we march” said the Ket, “we will all make our vows to Light.” “Two days until the Two-Moon Tide” Gamlin said. “How soon after can we make our move?” “When the Shield is waning, and the Hound is high and waning too.” answered the Ket. Brann considered this, and said, “Then about the fifth night after the Two-Moon Tide? That is a long time to wait!” “We have waited longer” the Ket told him. “Years have passed since we came into Li’is. But Light knows the perfect time, and we move in the Will of Light.” “It must have been hard for you” said Tamorine, “to live in tents in a land you did not know, and then to move to these caverns.” “The Ketai are tent-dwellers” Rafel replied, “and we have shared their hospitality often enough. As for the caverns, we Lightfriends are used to living in such places. Since Ma’al went down into Darkness, the caverns and wild places are our only safe havens.” Brann said “When, with Light’s aid, we have defeated the Dark Lord and regained our towns, we will make a safe place for the Lightfriends. We will need you to teach the people of Li’is the Way of Light. And the Ketai will be welcome too.” The Ket smiled, and said “You are generous, Brann of the Forest and the Harbour. But the Ketai are not people of towns and cities.” “Then we will give you a land of your own” Brann replied. “Perhaps in the West, where there is land but few people other than farmers.” Tarn said ” These are good thoughts, Brann my friend, but let us win the battle before we distribute the spoils!”

Brann, acknowledging the truth of Tarn’s words, said “You are right, Tarn. Well, since we must wait to make our attack, we have more time to plan, and to learn to fight together.” He turned to Rafel, and said, “May we meet these Masked Ones and find out what sword-skill they have? You said they are Swordsmen, but how well trained?” “We do not question too closely those who come to us for sanctuary” Rafel replied.”They tell us as much as they wish to, and we do not disclose what they tell us. One or two are from noble families, but all are equal in Light. If you will abide by our rules and not ask of them what they do not wish to reveal, you may talk with them.” “If you are sure of their loyalty to Li’is and to Light, we will not question further.” Brann told him. “Then I will ask the Lightfriends to gather them together, and tell them we wish to discuss the attack with them.” Rafel said. He bowed his head and his eyes glowed as he sent out the Thought-without-Words again. The Ket said ” We will not waste the waiting days, Brann. The Ketai have ways to go back and forth without being seen. We will continue to work on the quarry tunnels. In one at least the clearing is far advanced, and we should be able to see if it enters the Dark City before we move out.” “That will help us greatly, if you are sure your men will not be detected” said Tarn. “By now we have a well-established plan of getting to and from the quarry” Ket-Jal replied, “and the Ketai are sharp of eye and ear, Tarn. The mercenaries, unlike the Dark Lord, would not know us as a people of Ma’al even if any of us were seen, but we will not be seen.”

Rafel had raised his head again, and now said “The Masked Ones are waiting.” He led them out of his Quiet Place through the main cavern to one of the dormitory places, where a group of the Students had gathered. More than Brann had thought, about thirty, all in the Students’ brown robes over their everyday clothing, but each with a hood of thin black fabric over his head, only their eyes showing through a narrow slit. It was an eerie sight, but not threatening, since Rafel had explained the reason for the hoods. Rafel said ” These are the Masked Ones, and they will fight alongside you.” No word, yet, from the Masked Ones, though Brann was aware of their eyes on him, and one of them glanced quickly at Tamorine, as if surprised to find a girl-warrior among them. Brann said “We shall be glad of your help. And all of you are Swordsmen trained?” “We are” one of the men said, “and there are other Swordsmen among the Students who will fight with us too.” “Also” said another, “those who are not Swordsmen but skilled artisans, useful at making and mending tools and weapons.” “All of us” a third man volunteered, ” have been trained by Sword-Trainers, and to the highest standard. More than that we will not say, nor our names, till the Dark Lord is defeated, but you will find us loyal to Light, and able in battle.” “Very well” Brann said, and looked across at Tamorine, who said ” We understand and will respect your wishes. Each of us has our own reason to fight against the Dark Lord.” “How many of the Students will join the battle?” Gamlin asked. “With the others we will number around fifty.” the first speaker answered. “You know of the plan of attack?” Brann enquired. ” We have been informed. If possible we will use the quarry tunnels.” “Good” Brann said. “We will have to delay the attack for a few more days, since we cannot move out at the Two-Moon Tide when both moons are full. But the Ketai will be working on the tunnels in the meantime.” “Do you have a leader?” Tarn asked. The man who had spoken second said “We are all equals before Light. We will follow your commands, and the Ket’s, but above all those of the Lightstone-Bearer.” “Then that is settled” Brann said, ” since we too will obey the Lightstone-Bearer above all. We are of one mind, and Sword-Brethren in this enterprise.” “We will speak more in the days to come” Rafel said, “but now that you have met, we will leave you to your duties.” The Masked Ones said nothing, but bowed their hooded heads in a signal of obedience, and Rafel took the Ket and the others back out into the main cavern.

FIRST LIGHT

Chapter 7

The days of waiting, though necessary, were difficult for Brann and Tamorine and their men. They had set out from the Mountain Fortress determined to face the Dark Lord as soon as might be, and with their minds and hearts focussed on the coming battle, and now they were constrained to bide their time. It was not that they were inactive, for there were sword drills to be carried out, and plans to be made, and the welding of their forces with the Ketai and the Students who would fight with them, into one combined army. Then there were the times with Rafel and the other Lightfriends, the morning and evening prayer times, and the other times when they were given more instruction in the Way of Light.

On one such occasion, Brann asked suddenly, wondering why he had never thought of it before, “Rafel, if you and the Ketai came here from Ma’al, and it is another world, how is it that you use the common speech of Li’is?” The Lightstone-Bearer replied “Because it is also the common speech of Ma’al.” “But how can that be, if our worlds are separated by such a great gulf as you say?” Brann persisted. “Others have entered Li’is from Ma’al before the Dark Lord came” Rafel told him, astonishing him. “But – we have used the common speech for so long! The Old Tongue has all but died out…” “That is so” Tamorine agreed. “Only the nobles and the wise men of Li’is continued to use it. And how could any of the Dark One’s people have come into Li’is without being seen by someone, somewhere?” Rafel said ” The Dark Lords had been planning the conquest of Li’is for a very long time, longer than you could imagine, since they are deathless. It was part of their strategy to turn the language of Li’is to that of Ma’al. ” “Then when the Dark Lord is defeated, we will turn it back to our own tongue!” Tarn exclaimed. Brann said ” I do not see how we could do that, Tarn. It is the common speech of Li’is now, and has been for so long. And very few now know the Old Tongue. ” ” If the common speech was the language of Ma’al, it must have been so before Ma’al went down into Darkness, surely?” asked Tamorine, and Rafel said ” It was, Tamorine. It was not created by the Dark Lords, simply used by them. It is not evil of itself, Tarn.” “But if the Dark Lords brought it here…” Tarn began again, and Rafel interrupted him, “Those who brought it here were men of Ma’al, in the pay of the Dark Lords,but not hosting them. They posed as traders, and to trade it is necessary to know the language of those with whom you deal. So they taught their language, and it spread. A simple plan, but efficient. And after so many years, as Brann says, it has become the common speech of Li’is, and we cannot change that ,nor is there need to. More than that” he added, “though the Dark Lords believed they were making a step forward in their plan of conquest, they were being used themselves. For Light meant always to send the Lightstone into Li’is to save it from the Dark Lords, and it was necessary that the Lightfriends should be understood. We have learned the use of the Old Tongue now, but our task is easier since all of Li’is speaks the common tongue. The Dark Lords were serving Light’s purposes, unknown to them!”

Meanwhile, the Ketai were cautiously continuing their exploration of the tunnels in the old quarry, always with a guard set in case of discovery, but it seemed that the place, as they had said, was either unknown to or ignored by the inhabitants of the Dark City. As the Two-Moon Tide passed and they began their preparations for the attack on the Dark City, the Ket brought news from his people at the quarry. “They have finished clearing the tunnel they were working on” he reported. “The main tunnel ends blind, but there is a smaller side tunnel. ” “And does that lead anywhere?” Brann asked. Ket-Jal said ” It does. It seems to have been used in the past as some kind of refuse or drainage channel, but is clear and dry now. There is a pit in the floor of the tunnel with a metal grille covering it, and the tunnel ends in a kind of door with another metal grille in the bottom. Of course, they could use only the dimmest of lamps to see by, but there is a space beyond the grille, and it seems unused. Dust is thick on the ground, and they could see no sign of footprints in the dust.” “Even if we enter that space, though, there is nothing to say that it will give access to the Dark City” Gamlin pointed out. “It might well have been sealed and forgotten long since.” Brann considered, and said ” I think it is likely that it led once to the first or second ring of the City, before it fell to the Dark Lord. If it was a refuse or drainage channel, as the Ketai suppose, it would most probably have been connected to a shop or an inn.” “That makes sense” Tamorine commented. The Ket said ” My people are working to see if they can get through the door, but it is old and stiff and hard to move, and they cannot make much noise.” “No, indeed!” Tarn said. “If Brann is right about the disposition of the Dark Lord’s men, and they are billeted nearby, we cannot risk them hearing the Ketai at work.” “We will hear further before it is time to set out” Ket-Jal added, “and must await their report.”

Tamorine said “Even if we can enter the Dark City from the tunnels, I wonder if we should not also attack the gates? It would draw the attention of the mercenaries away from the tunnels.” ” Any of our force making a frontal attack would be in much more danger, though” said Tarn. “Yet I see some merit in such a plan. If we can keep the mercenaries distracted while the rest of our force enters the Dark City – if that is possible – it would take them time to regroup when they realised the incursion. We could make progress in that time.” “If our forces can enter through the tunnels, Rafel and his guard must go with them ” Brann added, “for that will bring him and the Lightstone closer to the Dark Lord. ” “The larger force should go that way, if possible” said the Ket, ” and a smaller force make an attack on the gates. Once the mercenaries have been drawn to defend the gates, our forces can make a feint of retreat, as if defeated, and make to the quarry to join the others.” “Will the mercenaries not pursue them, though, if they think they are in retreat?” Gamlin asked. “I think they would not risk opening the gates, thinking that there might be others in hiding waiting to enter. And they would need to open the gates to pursue us.” Ket-Jal said. “They will believe they have repelled the attack and concentrate on reinforcing the guard on the gates.”

“And which of us is to command this frontal attack?” Tamorine asked. There was a hint of challenge in her question and when Brann said “Not you” there was anger in her face and scorn in her voice as she asked “Because I am a woman?” “No” Brann replied, “because you are all that Tamor has left. ” ” He speaks reason” Gamlin said, ” for our Lord has lost much. If he were to lose you too it would perhaps be a blow from which he would not recover.” “Brann is the True Sword” Tamorine argued ” and surely he should be at Rafel’s side.” “We cannot risk our commanders at such an early stage of the attack.” Tarn contributed. “Gamlin and I can lead the attack on the gates.” “While I hide in the tunnels?” Brann asked, almost as angry as Tamorine now. “You will not be hiding, you will be fighting!” The Ket intervened in the dispute. “And perhaps in more danger than those at the gates. We do not yet know where the tunnel leads, and how many enemies may be at the end.” “It is a battle” Tarn said, ” and whether outside or inside the Dark City, we are in peril, but we must get the Lightstone-Bearer to the Dark Lord’s lair, so that he can use the Stone against the Dark One and defeat him. If any fall, it is worth the cost to free Li’is from his dominion.” Tamorine was calmer now, and said, “Tarn speaks the truth, and I am sorry I was angry. We should not quarrel among ourselves, and divide our forces, for we swore to meld Mountain and Forest into one force, one people.” “I feel as you do, Tamorine”, Brann agreed. “We should not think of pride or prowess, and I was wrong. Only the defeat of the Dark Lord matters. But I would not have you feel I think less of you as a Sword-Brother because you are a maiden. I had hoped I had proved that it was not so.” “You have” she answered , “and I was being over sensitive.” She sighed. “It took me long enough to establish myself as a suitable heir to my grandfather and leader of my people, and it has led me to sometimes see slights that are not there. Forgive me, Brann.” “Willingly” he replied, smiling at her, and she smiled back.

“Then Gamlin and Tarn will lead the assault on the gates while the rest of us enter secretly by the tunnel – assuming that is possible.” Brann said. “Perhaps a hundred to attack the gates – too large a force and the mercenaries will not believe it is defeated when it retreats, too small and they will not be concerned enough to fight.” “I would counsel that any Ketai who go with you stay concealed as far as possible” Rafel said.” We cannot have the mercenaries carrying tales of strange Swordsmen to the Dark Lord, that he will recognise as a people out of Ma’al. He must know as little of our presence as possible until the last minute. The Ketai are formidable bowmen, and can hit a target on the City Wall from a good distance. ” Brann sighed “It is well enough to make plans, but until we know whether we can use the tunnels to enter the Dark City, we cannot confirm them.” “We will know soon” the Ket told him, “certainly before it is time to move out.” “We can select the force to attack the gates, at least.” Tarn said. “You will need bowmen, since the defenders will be on the walls, your own as well as the Ketai” Ket-Jal advised. “They will not come down to fight unless you actually breach the gates.” “Should we try to do so?” Gamlin queried. “That will depend on whether we can use the tunnels” Brann said, “for if not, our whole force must attack the gates. As the Ket says, we must wait for his men’s report.”

It was not until the day before the planned attack that they received the facts they needed from the Ketai who had been exploring the tunnels. They were once more in conference, and Ket-Jal said ” There is news, at last. The Ketai managed to get through the old door. Beyond it they found an unused undercroft of sorts, low-roofed, but with a few steps leading up to another room. They could see a trap door but were not sure if it could be opened, or who might be above. As all was quiet, they risked an attempt on the door. That one too was stiff, but eventually they opened it enough to see through, and found a room filled with discarded and broken weapons and other metal objects. They believe it must be an annexe to a smithy, and the things in it either awaiting repair, or to be melted down. But it is at ground level, and we can get through.” “They have left no trace?” Gamlin asked. The Ket smiled “They are the Ketai! They left all as they found it, even to brushing out their footprints in the dust.” “It is good” Rafel said. “Light has made a way for us.” Brann leaned over the map of the City again and said “There is a smithy marked here, on the first ring, by the side of one of the cross streets. I see no others.” “It is the most likely place for it” commented Tarn, ” near to where the defenders would have been, and with access from the streets for loads of metal.” “So we can enter the Dark City that way” said Tamorine. “We can, but must be cautious, since it is near where the the Dark Lord’s defenders are no doubt still billeted.” Gamlin replied. “We attack at night” the Ket said, ” and have the other attack on the gates to distract them. The mercenaries in the dormitories will need time to waken and come to the aid of the others. They will not expect an attack, having been untroubled for so long, and may have grown careless.”

Since the direct attack on the gates would be the most perilous, they had asked for volunteers rather than order any of their men to make it. One of the first to volunteer had been the Healer, Forin. Brann said “We are asking for fighters, Forin, Swordsmen and bowmen. I do not doubt your valour, but you are trained in neither.” “I am a Healer” Forin said, “and if any are wounded in the attack, I will be needed. The other Healers are Lightfriends, and they cannot be seen by the Dark Lord’s forces, or they will report it to him and our advantage of surprise will be lost.” “The Healer speaks truth” Tamorine said, and Brann replied ” Very well. You may go , Forin, but stay back. You will help no one if you are injured yourself.” Brann’s cousins Jamin and Javan and Javan’s cousin Tavan also volunteered, with many others of their force. Kerrin, of course, was insistent on going with Tarn too, as were some of the Masked Ones and other Swordsmen among the students, and then there were the Ketai. In the end there were more than enough volunteers, and some had to be refused. The larger force, attacking through the tunnels, took more organising. They would have to descend, first, into the abandoned quarry, and the Ketai had been busy adding to the number of rope-ladders they had made for this purpose. The presence of the Lightfriends, necessary to communication, was an added complication, as some of the Ketai would be needed to protect them. Rafel, the Lightstone-Bearer, must be shielded, whatever happened, until he could face the Dark Lord himself. Rafel was unshaken in his belief in Light, and his strong assertion that he would achieve his aim. “And if I die in doing it, I will touch Light” he assured them.” I am not afraid.” Nevertheless, he must be guarded well until they reached the Dark Lord, and the Ket himself, and several of his most experienced fighters, took that task upon themselves. Gamlin had spoken quietly to Brann, when they found themselves alone for a moment. “I swore to my Sword-Brother Tamran to protect his sister, Lady Tamorine, till he returned. But I will not be with her in the tunnels. You are her Sword-Brother too, so I entrust her to you.” “I will do what I may” Brann reassured him, then smiled wryly, and added, “but you know I will risk her wrath if I guard her too closely.” Gamlin smiled too. “I know. She is as valiant as her brother.”

So the night came, and found them as well prepared as they could be. There was little moonlight, but the Ketai knew the way to the Dark City and the quarry well. Rafel had concealed the Lightstone in a soft leather pouch, lest its glow betray them. It seemed, though, that the guardians of the Dark City were lax about observing its surroundings, never expecting anyone to approach it, and they reached the forest and crept through it to the edge of the quarry without incident. Here they divided, Tarn and Gamlin and their men waiting until the rope ladders had been unrolled and the others had descended to the floor of the quarry. Some of the Ketai would remain at the top to help Tarn and Gamlin’s force to descend when they returned. As soon as Brann, Tamorine, the LIghtfriend with his guard, and all the others had entered the tunnel, Tarn and Gamlin, led by the Ketai who knew the way through the forest, headed towards the gates of the Dark City, to make their attack. Forin remained in the rear, as instructed, but moved as silently as any. They paused to station the best of the Ketai bowmen where they had a clear view of the walls, to back them up, and then the rest of the force flung themselves forward with a rush and a roar, to attack the gates. It seemed that for a few seconds the mercenaries guarding the walls were taken by surprise, for at first there was no response to the attack. Then they heard shouts and the blowing of some kind of horn, and men swarmed to the walls. The Ketai bowmen sent off a flight of arrows, some of which found targets on the walls, but it was not long before an answering rain of arrows, along with spears, flew at them from the walls of the Dark City. One arrow rebounded from Gamlin’s leather breastplate and Tarn turned to him anxiously. “Gamlin…” “No harm” the other grunted, ” but how long can we keep this up without loss, Tarn?” “We need to give the others the time they need” Tarn said, ” and we cannot withdraw too soon. The mercenaries must think they have defeated us.” “At least we seem to have drawn them to the walls.” Gamlin commented. That was true, for the number of mercenaries on the walls had increased significantly. Tarn and Gamlin’s forces were battering at the gates, knowing they would not pass them, but giving the impression of an army desperate to break through. Orders were shouted above them and some of the mercenaries disappeared, presumably to strengthen those defending the gates. The hail of arrows from the Ketai continued, but so did that raining down on them from the walls. Their strong leather armour turned aside the arrows, but spears were another matter, and the two commanders did not want to lose men if possible. As it was they had seen two men fall, one of theirs and one of the Students, and be dragged away by their comrades. Tarn hoped that they were only wounded, and Forin was tending them. At last Tarn and Gamlin felt they had bought enough time for the others and ordered their men to retreat through the forest and edge round to the quarry. Behind them they heard the triumphant shouts of the mercenaries, and a few stray arrows followed them but found no target. At the brink of the quarry they regrouped. Forin told them “Two wounded, one lightly and one severely. And one dead, one of Rafel’s students. The spear pierced him through, I could do nothing for him.” “The others?” Gamlin asked. ” In the care of the Ketai” the Healer answered. “Some of them will stay here to guard the way in and out of the quarry. I have told them what to do for the wounded.” “You can stay with them” Tarn said, but Forin’s eyes narrowed and he said ” They will do well with the Ketai. I come with you!” His tone was such that they did not feel inclined to argue, and he joined the descent into the quarry and followed them into the tunnel.

Meanwhile Brann, Tamorine, Rafel and the others had been making their way through the old tunnels. The walls were rough and smelled of rock dust and the floor was a little uneven, but the Ketai had cleared away all obstacles and they made good progress. In the interim between the discovery of the door at the end of the smaller tunnel and their moving out to attack the dark City, the Ketai had greased the hinges of the door and the trap-door in the space above, so that they now moved easily and quietly. They were moving with the dimmest of lights, partly so they would not be seen, and partly so that when they came out into the night again it would not take long for their eyes to adjust. The Ketai warned them to take care crossing the grid in the floor of the smaller tunnel, since they did not know its strength and it might collapse under the burden if too many crossed at once. So they were, of necessity, spread out in the tunnels, and Brann was anxious to get everyone through as soon as possible. He and Tamorine were at the head of their force, just behind the Ketai who led the way, with Rafel and his guard behind them. He gave a sigh of relief when they reached the door with its corresponding grille and the Ketai eased it open. They crowded into the undercroft, and Brann looked round for the exit. He saw the steps and asked one of the Ketai who had been leading them “There is no danger of toppling any of the metals stored above? The noise would betray us.” He had spoken in a whisper, and the Ketai whispered back “No, we were wary of that, but everything is neatly stacked.” “Strange, then, that they had not noticed the trap door” Tamorine said, as quietly. “It is one with the floor, of wooden planks.” said the Ketai. “They may even know it is there, but have no use for it. But we have observed, and no one has come near it.” “Very well, we will move on” Brann said. The Ketai went first, as they knew the operation of the trap door and the surroundings of the building above. Once they had climbed the stairs they could hear distant shouting and pounding and the bee-hum of arrows and knew their diversion was well under way.

Peering through the gloom they could see an open door leading into another building. There was a glow of firelight, and Tamorine whispered ” That must be the smithy.” They crept forward and paused at the open door, seeing a figure bent over an anvil, hammering at a piece of red-hot metal. The sound of the distant battle had masked the sound of his hammering so that they had not realised his presence.”The smith!” Brann breathed. He had thought, like all of them, that the forge would be empty. They hesitated, then he whispered “Wait here”. ” Be careful, Brann!” Tamorine murmured, as he stepped forward. He was in the dim light and the smith had the light of the forge in his eyes. Perhaps he would be mistaken for a mercenary long enough to deal with the man. The smith must have heard him, however, though he moved quietly, for the man looked up, and snarled “I am working as fast as I can, but it takes time! You can whip me as much as you wish, it will not make the work go faster.” Brann was momentarily confused. Then he saw that there was a rough bed pallet in the corner of the forge, and leg irons and chains on the man himself. The Ketai had believed that there were slaves in the Dark City, kept to work for the Dark Lord. A skilled smith would be of use to him, and would have been enslaved. He moved quietly forward and suddenly, before the smith could react, seized his arm and put a hand over his mouth.

The man tried to jerk away, obviously afraid of punishment, but then his eyes took in Brann’s appearance and widened in astonishment. Brann whispered ” Do not speak. Are you a slave of the Dark Lord?” The man’s head signalled yes, and Brann went on “We are not the Dark Lord’s men. We are here to destroy him. Do you hear the sound of battle?” The smith nodded again, and Brann said ” That is others of our army, distracting the mercenaries while we make a secret entrance to the Dark City. They will join us soon. Are you with us?” The man nodded for a third time, and Brann said “I will let you speak now. But if you try to cry out or betray us, your life is forfeit.” He did not intend to harm the man if it could be avoided, but he was taking a risk, and wanted the man frightened enough to obey him. He slowly took his hand from the man’s mouth, and said “What is your name?” “Rull” said the smith, quietly, obviously understanding the need to keep his voice low. ” I was a smith in the Harbour Town on the East coast. When the mercenaries came raiding they captured me and brought me here to work as a slave for them.” The others of Brann’s party had begun to enter the smithy now, seeing that all was under control. Erris and Yarris, the two brothers, were among them, and Yarris asked ” You are manacled, but if you are a smith, could you not have removed your shackles?” “I could, if they were metal of Li’is” Rull answered, “but these are made of the metal of Ma’al, and my skills do not avail against them. Do not think I have not tried! But even if I escaped my bonds, where could I go? The gates are well guarded.” “Then we cannot set you free?” asked Tamorine. He stared at her, obviously surprised to find a woman among their army, but answered her. “Only a blade of the same metal can cut through these”, and indicated the chains. The metal of Ma’al, Brann thought, and drew the True Sword. Rull gasped ” Do not kill me! I will not betray you!” Brann said ” Not kill you, Rull, but free you, I hope. There are those with us who have come out of Ma’al but are the enemies of the Dark Lord. And they gave me this sword, forged in Ma’al. Let me try it on your chains.” Rull relaxed, and pointed out where the weakest point of his shackles would be, and Brann raised the True Sword and brought it down. There was a clash of metal, and they held their breaths, afraid that it might bring the mercenaries down on them. But the chain had split asunder. Rull still had shackles on his ankles, but they pulled the chain out of them, and he was free to move. Brann said ” Can you walk like that, Rull? I do not wish to try my blade on your other shackles, for I might cut off a foot!” “I can” the smith assured them. Erris said ” Did the mercenaries hear you cut the metal, though, Brann?” Rull answered “They would take no notice, Swordsman. This is a smithy, and they force me to work late. A sound of hammering metal from here would not be out of the ordinary.”

Brann asked “Are there other slaves in the City? Men, women, children?” Rull replied, “Yes, the men and youths they take. The children…” he paused, and did not elaborate, but Brann thought of Marvis’ young son, cut down by the mercenaries, and understood his meaning. Rull went on ” As for the women they capture – the mercenaries use them, and slay them. They do not bring women here.” He paused again, then said ” When they came on our town – it was the first time I was glad that my wife was dead. And our daughter married away from the town.” Brann distinctly saw Tamorine give a shudder, but her voice was steady as she asked “Do you know where the slaves are kept? Are others chained as you were?” “No” Rull answered. “They kept me here to keep me at work. The others are not skilled, just labourers. They are all kept in one building, but it is next to the place where the mercenaries are quartered.” “On this ring of the City?” Brann asked. ” No, the next” Rull told them. “Only those who are next on duty at the gates are quartered on this ring.” “And the Dark Lord?” Brann asked. “In the main building, at the centre of the City. The approaches are well -guarded, Swordsman.” By now the Ket and Rafel had come through to the smithy, followed by others of the Ketai and more of Brann and Tamorine’s men. With them were some of the hooded Masked Ones, and Rull looked frightened. “Who are these?” he asked. “You have some strange companions, Swordsman. A maiden, these hooded men, strange warriors, and that one…” he pointed at Rafel. “His eyes … you have deceived me! He is kin to the Dark Lord.” Rafel answered for himself. “No, Rull. I am no kin or friend to the Dark Lord. As he is on the side of Darkness, I stand on the side of Light. I am the Lightstone-Bearer, and his destruction, with Light’s aid.” The Ket spoke now “We are the Ketai. Brann told you of those who came out of Ma’al to fight against the Dark Lord. We and the Lightfriends are those people. The hooded ones are those who have vowed to go masked until the Dark Lord is defeated,men of Li’is who, like you, have suffered at the hands of his mercenaries. ” Brann added “There is nothing to fear, Rull. The Power of Light has come into Li’is, and the Darkness will be defeated.”

“I do not know this Power of Light” said Rull, “but if it is against the Dark Lord and his mercenaries, I am on the side of Light.” “You shall know it, Rull” Rafel told him, “but now is not the time. Our diversion has bought us time, but we must hurry.” “If we can free the slaves, they might help us” said Yarris. “Or hinder us” said the Ket. “You heard what Rull said. They are not Swordsmen.” “But once we begin the attack, the mercenaries may slay them” Tamorine replied, “to prevent them joining us. I am for freeing them.” ” I can tell you the place” Rull said, “and there is only one guard. But you will need to overcome him, for he holds the keys to their prison.” You said the mercenaries are quartered in the next building, though” Erris objected, but Brann said ” Surely they will have been called to the gates when Tarn and Gamlin attacked. Most of them, at least. we can deal with the others. But we should not all go” Brann decided, “for our main objective is the Dark Lord’s dwelling. ” ” Some of the Lightfriends should be among those who go.” said Rafel. “Their Perception will be of use in locating prisoners, and they can warn us by the Thought-without-Words if there is danger to them or to us.” “But if they and the Ketai are seen, the Dark Lord will be forewarned.” said Tamorine, but Brann replied , grimly, “Only if any mercenaries escape to tell him!”

He was ready to go to the aid of the slaves, but Rafel said “You are the True Sword, Brann. You must stay near to me.” “And you and Tamorine are our commanders.” Erris added. “If anything should befall either of you, the other must still command.” Both Brann and Tamorine would have gone, but saw the sense of Rafel’s and Erris’ words and reluctantly let some of the others go, two of the Lightfriends, well-guarded by Ketai, with them. While they waited for news, Brann questioned Rull further. “If we free the slaves, they will be on our side? None would side with the mercenaries, from fear?” “Our hatred of the mercenaries, for what they have done to our friends and kin, is far greater than any fear of them.” Rull answered, bitterly. “Better to die free than live as their slaves!” Rafel lifted his head, blue eyes glowing. “They have reached the place and overcome the guard” he reported. ” They have the keys to free the slaves, and no sign yet of any mercenaries. Gamlin and Tarn have withdrawn their force, but the mercenaries are wary of another attack, it seems, and are staying close to the gates.” Rull, ready to be fearful again, demanded “How can he know that? It is sorcery!” “Not sorcery”, Brann assured him, “The Lightfriends have a special way of communicating, that is all.” He turned to Rafel and said “If they can free the slaves, best if they bring them here. Any who wish to fight with us can stay, and if any are fearful they can be conducted through the tunnels to the Ketai, who will help them escape.” Rafel said “They will do so, Brann. And other Lightfriends report that the rest of your force are now entering the tunnels.” Brann gave a sigh of relief at the news. Rafel continued “The slaves are being brought here, but they must hurry. The order has been given to stand down the mercenaries at the gates and they will be returning to their quarters.” “Then Light grant that they are not seen” said Tamorine, “or our hand will be shown too soon.”

They waited anxiously for any noise of battle from either direction, but heard nothing until a quick, quiet scuffle of feet showed the approach of the contingent with the escaped slaves, who had obviously been warned to keep silence. Yarris, who had led the attempt to free them, was first through the door of the smithy, with the report .”All is well, Brann, though we barely escaped being seen as the mercenaries returned. We have the enslaved ones, and their guard will tell no tales. We locked the doors again and brought the keys away, so it will take them time to discover that their slaves have gone. No losses to us.” Brann asked “You slew the guard?” “The Ketai did, they are fast and silent, and took him by surprise. And we could not let him live to tell what happened.” By now the freed slaves were entering the smithy, followed by their rescuers, still keeping quiet. With Tarn, Gamlin, and their force ready to enter too, the place was growing far too crowded, and Brann stepped forward and said, “Men of Li’is, listen! We are here to end the rule of the Dark Lord, with the aid of Light and the friends who have joined us. If any of you can fight and will do so, you are welcome to join us. Those who do not wish to fight, and the young ones, will be escorted safely away from here and set free.” He nodded to the Ket, who joined him, and said, “We are the Ketai, and stand against the Dark Lord. We will show you how to get away.” Rull spoke up next. “I see some of you I know, from my own town. I can assure you that these men speak truth. They have freed me, and you, and mean us no harm. You can trust them.” One of the freed men, a middle-aged man with his arm protectively round the shoulders of a youth whom they guessed to be his son, said “I know you, Rull the smith. You always were an honest man, and we have nothing left to fear, after what we have suffered at the hands of the Dark Lord’s men. I will trust your friends.” Several others signalled agreement, and Rull said “There are weapons here, for any who will fight. Repaired and awaiting collection, but we will turn them against the mercenaries who owned them!” Seeing that some of the freed men were hesitating, Brann said “No shame to any who do not wish to stay and fight. You have suffered enough, and we have no right to ask that you risk your lives in battle. That is the task we have taken on ourselves.” Rull said ” I will stay”, and Brann replied “But we could not free you of your shackles, except for the chain. You will be hampered by those.” “I have learned to walk in them well enough, these last years” Rull answered. “I can fight, Brann.” One of the other men stepped forward and said “We wish you well, Swordsmen. But some of us have sons here with us, and families dispersed when we were attacked. We need to find our loved ones.” “I understand” Brann said. “Go in Light, and may you find them unharmed.”

When the Ketai had led away those who wished to leave, Brann found that Rull and five others remained. These were men who had seen family and friends destroyed by the Dark Lord’s mercenaries, and wanted to avenge them. Rull found swords for himself and four of the others. The fifth man, though, asked if he had a bow, since he was a hunter and had seldom used a sword. There was no bow in the smithy, but the Ketai found him one of theirs. Once the men had been led out through the tunnels there was room for Tarn, Gamlin, and the rest of their force to come through, and Tarn and Gamlin reported to their leaders. “We lost one man – one of your Students, Rafel, I am sorry” Tarn said. “And two wounded, one badly, but the Healer has tended them and left them with the Ketai for safety” Gamlin added. Brann was relieved that Tarn, Gamlin, his cousins and their cousin Tavan, as well as most of their force, were unharmed. He introduced Rull and the five freed slaves who would be fighting with them, and asked Rull if he had any more information about the disposition of the mercenaries in the City. Rull answered “There are not so many guards in the outer circles. They patrol in small groups, and when not patrolling they wait at the junctions of the circles and the side roads. I was taken once to repair some metalwork on a door in the fourth circle and noted that that is where those who serve the Dark Lord live, in some luxury. The approaches to the inner circles of the City, and the Dark Lord’s stronghold, are well guarded, though. ” “And do you know if there are guards within the stronghold?” Tamorine asked. “I do not know, Lady” the smith replied, “but I believe there must be.” One of the freed men said “It is said that the Dark Lord weaves sorceries to defend himself, as well as being guarded by his mercenaries. You will not find it easy to broach his stronghold.” Brann replied “The Lightfriend Rafel carries that which will stand against his sorceries. And his mercenaries are only men. Light is with us, and we will defat him.” He looked round at them with a fierce intensity of purpose and added ” It is time to begin the assault.”

FIRST LIGHT

Chapter 8

Brann did not need the Lightfriends’ Perception to sense the tension in the air as he spoke; he was a Swordsman and could recognise the feelings of his companions. A mixture of anticipation, eagerness, nervous energy and impatience emanated from them as they prepared to face the battle at last. He said ” The closer we can get to the Dark Lord without being challenged, the better. We will fight when needed, but if we can avoid it and not draw attention to ourselves, we will. Time enough for battle when we reach the Dark Lord’s guardians. Above all, the Lightstone-Bearer must be protected at all times. Without him we have no way to defeat the Dark Lord and his sorceries.” Tamorine, standing beside him, agreed “We will move as quietly as we may. Be alert and prepared to fight, but, as Brann says, we will avoid attention while we can.” They prepared to move out, Rull going with Brann and Tamorine at the head of their troops, as he knew at least some of the roads of the Dark City. As the smithy was on the corner of one of the cross streets, they decided to follow that up through the circles of the City, rather than go round the circle to another street. They knew that the main quarters of the mercenaries were on the next circle, and were not sure if the escape of the slaves had been discovered yet, so proceeded very cautiously. As they came to the corner of the second circle, Brann signalled a halt, as he saw a movement ahead. It proved to be a lone mercenary, but before he could decide what to do, he heard a slight exclamation beside him, and Rull pushed past him and faced the man. The mercenary seemed to recognise him, and said brusquely ” The smith? How were you freed, slave? What are you doing here?” Rull replied, in a quiet voice that still resonated with rage, “Returning your sword!” Before the mercenary could react, Rull had drawn the sword and run the man through. The mercenary gave a strangled gasp, choked, staggered, and fell. Brann, seeing the mercenary was dead, stepped from hiding, and said angrily “That was foolish, Rull! You could have given us away.” The smith looked at him defiantly, and said, “I knew the shock of seeing me would silence him. The man was a brute and a bully. I paid him for many beatings – and not just those I suffered!”

Brann wasted no time in recriminations, but made sure the body was moved to a dark spot where it would not be easily seen, before they moved on. It seemed the mercenary had been late returning to barracks, for they encountered no others, and moved up the street to the next circle, where they listened out for patrols, but heard none. Rull warned “We are nearing the fourth circle next. That is where the Dark Lord’s followers and favourites live. It is there that more guards will be.” They approached the junction cautiously, and as they neared they heard a murmur of voices and caught a glimpse of lantern light. A band of mercenaries appeared at the junction of the circle and the cross street, and froze momentarily, seeing the shadowy figures of the vanguard of Brann and Tamorine’s force. Then they drew their swords and advanced. Brann, Tamorine, and the others had also armed themselves, while Ket-Jal and his Ketai grouped around Rafel, protecting him with their spears. As the mercenaries grasped the number of their attackers, Brann saw one near the back of the group pull out a horn and raise it to his lips. A Ketai arrow took him in the chest, but not before he had time to blow a warning blast. “That will bring them down on us!” Tarn gasped, as they closed with the other mercenaries. Brann smiled grimly, thinking that if not the horn, then the sound of clashing metal as blade parried blade would surely do that. He had to grudgingly admit to himself that the mercenaries were good fighters, and if they had grown complacent within their City stronghold, it had not made them careless. Rafel called, then, “The Lightfriends report that more mercenaries are coming from the barracks. Our Swordsmen and Ketai at the rear are preparing to face them.” The small group of mercenaries they had first encountered were down now, dead or too badly wounded to hinder them further, and Tamorine called across to him “Brann, we must let the others deal with the men from the barracks, and carry on towards the Dark Lord’s dwelling with Rafel.” He knew she was right, and agreed, though he was concerned about leaving some of their force to fight through the streets to join them .

“There will be more guards ahead” Rull warned, but Brann had realised that must be so, as they neared the Dark Lord. The sounding of the mercenary’s horn would have alerted those ahead, he knew, and there would be no easy passage before them. As he thought this, Rafel said “I Perceive more danger ahead, Brann, Tamorine”. All of them were prepared, and the mercenaries’ ambush came as no surprise. If the Dark Lord’s men had thought to take them unawares, they were disappointed, as their attack was met with fierce opposition and many of them fell before the determined onslaught of Brann and Tamorine’s forces. But there were casualties on both sides, and though none of their own side were killed, a few were wounded. These the Healers tended as best they could in the midst of the fighting. Brann saw that the mercenaries were pulling back, but only, he felt sure, to gather reinforcements and renew their attack. It gave them a brief respite to push forward, but in the midst of it he was startled to hear a sudden sharp cry from Rafel. He turned, anxious that the Lightstone-Bearer might have been wounded, and asked “What is it Rafel? Are you hurt?” Rafel drew a deep breath and answered “Not I – but one of the Lightfriends near the rear of our force has been killed, and I felt it. It is a hard thing to Perceive the death of a Brother-in-Light.” Ket-Jal gave a little groan, and exclaimed “Then the Ketai have failed you! Forgive us, Lightstone-Bearer.” “No” Rafel said gently, “the Ketai have not failed the Lightfriends. Your men fought to save him, but were killed or wounded. No shame to them, Ket-Jal. And our brother has touched Light.”

A brief silence followed, as they moved on to the next circle of the City, where again they were met with an onslaught from the mercenaries. “We must get through” Rull gasped, “for the next circle is where we will find the Dark Lord.” “We will!” Brann said, with grim determination. He glanced across at Tamorine as he said it and she gave a slight nod in recognition of his comment. Rafel said ” As we near the Dark Lord, it is likely we will meet with some of his sorceries. If so, your weapons will not defeat them, and I will need to use the Lightstone. Be prepared.” They fought fiercely, but their opponents were as determined to keep them from the Dark Lord’s lair, and it was a prolonged and bloody battle. Some of Brann and Tamorine’s men fell, but they had no time to spare to see if they were dead or only wounded, as they pressed on with the attack. Brann had never fought for so long at a stretch and felt his sword arm beginning to ache with the effort. The rest of their force had now dealt with the mercenaries behind them and closed up to join the fight. Tarn had forced his way through the melee to fight at Brann’s side, with Kerrin and Gamlin there too. Again Brann glanced across at Tamorine and saw her fighting with single-minded intent. They all knew they were closing on their goal and were determined that nothing would stop them reaching the Dark Lord and facing him. He noted that one of the Masked Ones had closed with a mercenary and seemed determined to make an end of the man, focused on his adversary alone. Brann wondered momentarily if the Masked One had recognised the mercenary as one who had done him or his kinfolk personal harm, but he had no time to spare for such thoughts as another of the enemy came at him and he had to defend himself. He felt a sharp sting across his cheek as the other man’s sword caught it a glancing blow, but he was faster and the mercenary fell. Brann felt a trickle of blood and wiped it away with the back of his hand. The mercenaries, with many of their number killed or wounded, were falling back before the onslaught as Brann and Tamorine’s forces approached the last circle of the Dark City , where the building lay that housed the Dark Lord. They were not retreating, though ,but regrouping to defend the place.

The building they were approaching had a wide flight of steps leading up to the main door and the mercenaries were ranging themselves on the steps to defend the doors. Brann thought that they would be at a disadvantage if their enemies were above them on the steps and barked out orders to his men prevent this. They fell on the mercenaries and some of Brann and Tamorine’s force managed to get past and behind them, preventing them going further up the steps. The Dark Lord’s defenders were now surrounded and fighting fiercely, but their opponents were determined to reach the doors and gain entry. Tarn and Gamlin managed to clear a way through for their leaders and the Lightfriend, who reached the doors but found them sealed. They could see no handle or keyhole, and Rafel said quietly “The doors are held shut by sorcery, as I suspected.” He drew out the Lightstone, and gazed into it. The stone began to glow, brighter and brighter, and the Lightstone-Bearer lifted it on its long chain and touched it to the centre of the doors, where they joined. The light from the stone ran like a rivulet along the join of the doors and slowly, reluctantly it seemed, they began to open inwards. Brann peered through the crack as it opened. Were there more defenders inside, or was the Dark Lord relying solely on his sorceries? They soon saw, for as the doors opened they saw figures struggling to force them shut again, but the power of the Lightstone was inexorable, and the mercenaries inside gave up the attempt and drew their swords. They were not numerous, and Brann and the others soon overpowered them, and leaving part of their force to finish dealing with those outside the doors, went on into the building. Tamorine, looking across at Brann, and seeing him properly, since this was the first time they had had to draw breath since the attack began, exclaimed “Brann-you are wounded?” Tarn glanced at his friend with an anxious expression, but Brann said, lightly, “Only a cut, Tamorine.” and his friends relaxed.

They were following a wide corridor, lamp-lit and paved with stone, that led towards another door. Brann wondered if that door was also sealed, but as they neared it they saw it was partially open. Rafel, however, paused, and said “We must be careful. I Perceive Darkness ahead.” “The Dark Lord?” Ket-Jal asked, taking a firmer grasp of his spear. “No, but his sorceries”, Rafel answered. As he spoke, there was a sudden roar, and the corridor between them and the doorway filled with flames. Instinctively they flinched back, and Tamorine gasped ” He has set the building on fire!” “Then why do we not feel the heat?” Brann asked, recovering from his momentary fear. “Flames so high should scorch us where we stand, yet I do not feel them.” “You are right, Brann” Rafel said. “The flames are only an illusion. The Dark Lord has set a delusion to make us turn back. They are only there as long as we believe in them.” “Then we shall show him we do not believe in them!” Brann answered, and before anyone could respond he strode determinedly forward into the apparent conflagration. His friends watched with concern, but as soon as he stepped into the fire and it was obvious that no harm came to him, they saw that the flames flickered and disappeared, and the way was clear once more. “Well done, Brann!” the Lightstone-Bearer commented, as they followed him past the place and on into the building. He looked round at them all, and added ” His other sorceries will not be so easy to overcome. It may be that that was just a test, to see how determined we are. And there may be other mercenaries to guard him too. Do not let your guard fall.” “We shall not” Tamorine assured him. They moved on, alert for danger, but all was surprisingly quiet and still. Brann did not like this apparent lull in the battle. He was sure the Dark Lord was aware of their progress and planning further traps.

Now the corridor they were following began to turn, and as they rounded the bend more guards came at them and the fight began again. There were not many guards, but they seemed intent on keeping the attacking force from the next set of doors. Brann saw their leader, a burly man, step back and quickly slot a bar into place across the door, then take his stand in front of it. His companions fell, dead or wounded, but the man did not move. His sword was in his hand, and as Brann’s forces moved towards him, he laughed. “You will do me no harm!” he challenged “I keep the doors and you cannot pass.” Brann saw that he was right; somehow every sword blow and arrow, even the spears of the Ketai, seemed to glance off the man as though he were surrounded by an invisible shield. Rafel said “It is another sorcery.” The man laughed again. “My Lord protects me as I protect him. No weapon of Li’is can harm me.” No weapon of Li’is, indeed, seemed capable of touching the man, but, Brann thought, he himself bore the True Sword, and that was no weapon of Li’is, but had come out of Ma’al with the Lightfriends. He raised his arm and called to their forces to cease attacking the man, who said gloatingly, “So, you see sense and surrender? Good.” “I do not surrender” Brann said calmly, and strode forward with the True Sword ready. “Do you wish to die?” the other man asked, sneeringly. “I tell you, you cannot defeat me.” His face changed as Brann lunged with the True Sword, trying to disarm him, and caught the knuckles of his sword hand. He stared in disbelief as a few beads of blood swelled along the cut. “What…” he began, then stopped and parried Brann’s next blow. The others watched in apprehension, unable to help Brann, as the sword fight progressed. The mercenary leader was quick and skilful, but Brann was the better Swordsman, and at last his opponent went down, and the way to the doors was clear. Brann wiped his brow, and gasped to Rafel “Now I see the purpose of the True Sword!” “As Light must have known it” the Lightstone-Bearer answered. They lifted the bar that was holding the doors shut, and opened them cautiously.

Beyond these doors the corridor suddenly split into three branches. Brann said “Now we have need of your Perception, Rafel. Which path should we follow? For I feel that two of these ways will lead to dead ends and traps, and even the correct route will be suspect.” Rafel nodded, and bent his gaze to the Lightstone, blue eyes glowing. After a while he lifted his head, and said “The left-hand path leads to the Dark Lord, but there are more snares ahead. We must be careful.” They moved on into the corridor he had indicated, ready for another attack from mercenaries or more illusory dangers set by the Dark Lord, but though the way twisted and they were ready for danger at every corner, they met no resistance. Brann did not like this easy progress, fearing it was meant to put them off their guard when they encountered more peril. After a while, though, Brann’s keen hearing caught a strange sound. “Rafel, do you hear it?” he asked quietly, and the Lightstone-Bearer answered as softly “I hear it, Brann. I do not know what it means, but it does not bode well.” Ahead of them were more doors, and from behind those doors, which were, ominously, not barred but partly open, came the sound Brann, and now all of them, heard. It was an eerie music, which had a beauty to it, but also a strangeness which set the hairs on Brann’s neck on end. But they could not stop now, and he stepped forward and cautiously pushed open the doors. Beyond was a large hall, hung all in black cloth embroidered with strange symbols in silver thread. In the middle of the otherwise empty room stood a huge block of black stone and beside it stood a woman. She was tall and slender and very pale, her pallor made more pronounced by a mane of dark hair. Her eyes were like none they had ever seen, of a strange glowing shade of violet. Her clothing, like the room, was all of black trimmed with silver. She was the source of the strange music, for she was playing a kind of flute or pipe, golden in colour, which hung round her neck on a red cord. She looked up as they entered, but did not cease playing. They crowded into the black-hung hall, unsure of what this might mean, but feeling that one unarmed woman could not stop them. Brann thought that whatever sorcery the woman might weave could be overcome by the Lightstone. Still, he had a feeling of foreboding as he looked at the strange woman, who seemed unmoved by their presence, though she must have seen them. He made to move forwards towards her, but found he could not. He felt as though he was stuck to the spot. He glanced at Rafel, willing the Lightstone-Bearer to move, to use the Lightstone to free them from this enchantment, but the Lightfriend seemed as immobile as the rest of them. Only Tamorine shifted slightly where she stood, but as yet did not attempt to move.

Now the woman lowered her pipe and came towards them, and her previously expressionless face turned to an evil smile. “You behold the Priestess of Night, men of Li’is” she told them. “Look well, for I am your death. No man can resist my powers, and I shall summon my Lord to destroy you all.” She stood in front of them, gloating at their helplessness, playing with the golden pipe. She saw Rafel, surrounded by the Ketai, all of them motionless under her enchantment, and said, triumphantly, “So- somehow you have followed my Lord from Ma’al, enemies of Night. But your accursed Light cannot aid you now, for I tell you again, no Swordsman or Priest can resist my powers. We shall be rid of you all!” The witch’s attention had been on Rafel, and she had not seen Tamorine, on the edge of the frozen group, stealthily drawing her sword. Brann gazed at Tamorine in astonishment. Why was she not affected by the enchantment? Then, even as she lunged at the other woman, he understood. The Priestess shrieked in terror and rage as Tamorine’s blade pierced her body, and Tamorine laughed, “No Swordsman can resist you – but I am a Swordswoman!” As the Priestess fell dying at her feet, Tamorine tore the pipe from her neck, snapping the cord, dropped it on the floor, and crushed it under her foot. Immediately the others found themselves free and able to move. Brann came close to Tamorine and said quietly, because he knew she would not want him to praise her openly before the others, “Well done, brave heart! I chose my Sword-Brother well!” and she smiled briefly at him. Rafel, looking somewhat shaken, said “Praise Light for Tamorine! For even I could not withstand the Dark Priestess, though I am the Lightstone-Bearer.” Tamorine said “Rafel, you told us that Light knows all things, so surely Light knew that I, a woman, could overcome her, though no man could. The Dark Lord is not so clever after all, since he did not reckon that a woman would come to fight against him.” “It is true that the Way of Light is often beyond our understanding” Ket-Jal commented. Brann, thinking of those they had left behind to fight in the streets of the City, asked “Rafel, can your Brothers-in-Light tell us how the battle goes outside this building?” Rafel lifted his head, eyes glowing, and they knew he was making the Thought-without-Words. After a pause, he said “They have made progress towards here, but the mercenaries have called out the Children of Night who live on the fourth circle, and they have armed themselves to join the battle. Our force is still hard-pressed.” He looked round at them, with determination in his face, and said “We must go on, find the Dark Lord, and bring this to an end!”

Tarn, looking round the black-hung hall, asked “But where is the way out of here towards him? Everywhere looks the same, and I see no door.” “There must be one, behind the hangings” Gamlin answered him. “We shall have to search.” He took a step towards the black stone slab, then stopped. Around the slab there seemed to be a darkness forming. Brann ordered “Wait, Gamlin! It must be another sorcery!” More illusory fire? he wondered, for the darkness at first looked like smoke. But then it began to form into shapes; tall flame-shapes, but not the glowing Dancers they had seen before. “What are they?” Tamorine whispered, as the dark flame-shapes materialised. They were sooty black, shot with angry-looking red sparks, threatening, a palpable sense of evil about them. Rafel said “They are the Night Lords, Tamorine – the corrupted Dancers of Ma’al.” Brann gasped, remembering what Rafel had said of these beings before. “How can we defeat them?” he asked. “The Lightstone?” Rafel did not answer, but raised his arms, eyes glowing again. For a few brief moments everything was still. Then, as the threatening dark shapes began to eddy towards them, there was a sudden shimmer in the air, and a phalanx of Dancers appeared between them and the Night Lords. All of them felt the thought of the Dancers echo in their minds “Do not fear the Night Lords, Children of Light. They will feed on your fear. Set your thoughts on Light only.” There was a moment’s silence, then Rafel began to pray aloud, though softly. Ket-Jal murmured “He speaks the Quieting Prayers. Follow him”, and so they spoke the words of the prayers after Rafel, though they had not yet learned them. As they prayed the Dancers began to press forward against the Night Lords in a silent attack. All of them could sense the tension between the light-beings and their Dark counterparts. The Quieting Prayers finished, Rafel encouraged them to praise Light and support the Dancers, and they complied as best they could. They could see the noiseless but purposeful advance of the Dancers, and watched in growing hope as the dark flames that were the Night Lords slowly and unwillingly retreated before them, until at last they were surrounded. Pressed on all sides by a growing number of the light-beings, the Night Lords could no longer resist, and eventually they began to blink out of existence, singly at first, then in a sudden rush. The thought of the Dancers echoed again in their minds. “We have driven the Dark Ones back to Ma’al. They will not return. You must go on with your Way, Lightstone-Bearer and warriors of Ma’al and Li’is.” “Will you come with us?” Brann asked aloud. “No” was the reply. “The Lightstone-Bearer summoned us to deal with the Night Lords, and that we have done. The rest of the battle is yours, not ours.”