AN END OF DARKNESS

Chapter 8

The next morning, after they had made the Morning Prayers, Zarel walked to the perimeter of the abandoned farm, marked by a broken and rotting fence, and looked out across the landscape of Ma’al. Karis had allowed him to Perceive the route he had taken in his search for Sharamine, so the Lightstone-Bearer could gather some information on the terrain ahead of them. Apart from the cliff and deep hollow where the thing their rescuer had called the Naqad had lurked, the land had seemed largely rough and featureless, with a few hillocks here and there. Behind the farm the way led to the Seacoast Town, but ahead there seemed to be no towns or villages, at least for a while. Karis had not travelled very far, though, and neither the Lightfriends nor the Malani knew much of what lay beyond this, the last of the Lightfriends’ safe havens. Zarel knew that the Lightstone had guided Aiel on his way to the Gatehouse on the Lightstone Way, and he had seen how it had carried his and Whitestar’s Perceptions out over the Darkness of Ma’al to show them where the Children of Light were. Surely he could rely on its guidance now, to help him lead those he had gathered to the place where the Dancers would, with the Lightstone’s aid, make the Gateway that would take them safely into Li’is? He leaned on a still-standing piece of fence and pondered this. “Zarel, Lightstone-Bearer” a quiet male voice addressed him. Zarel turned quickly, startled, and aware that neither Karis nor Karlin were within earshot. “Have no fear” the other said. “I have not come to harm you, but to help you on your Way. I am Mihel.”

So this was Karis’ and Sharamine’s mysterious rescuer. The speaker was a Swordsman, a little above average height, with light brown hair and eyes, a pleasant but unremarkable face, a medium build – there was nothing out of the ordinary about him at all, but that very fact made Zarel suspicious. For somehow, in his Perception, he had a sense that the man’s very ordinariness was a disguise to let him pass unnoticed. In addition, he Perceived some latent power in the Swordsman. Could he be an enemy after all – perhaps even a Lord of Darkness, a Shape-Changer? And yet, Zarel had no Perception of Darkness about the man at all, and Karis had trusted him. Warily, he drew out the Lightstone and let it lie on his breast, in full view of the man, but the stranger showed no fear or anger. No, he was not a Child of Night then – that was the truth. No Darkness, however skilled at dissembling, could withstand the Lightstone. Zarel challenged him. “Who are you? You are more than Swordsman – I Perceive it. Yet I Perceive no Darkness in you.” The Swordsman smiled, and suddenly his light brown eyes were glowing warm like gold, as if he too had Perception. “More than Swordsman, yes, but still your friend and your brother in Light, Zarel. Do not fear me. There is no need.” Zarel felt his Perception drawn to the Swordsman’s gaze. Puzzled, but unafraid, he stepped closer and set his Perception on the man. Instead of his Perception entering into the Swordsman’s thought, though, the golden gaze swept into Zarel’s mind, his Perception, pouring into him a strength and joy in Light and a sense of worship far above anything he had ever felt, even with the Lightstone. Nor was that all. Through the channel of his Perception, love and grace and compassion poured into him, as from the very Heart of Light.

Overwhelmed, dazzled, weeping for joy, Zarel dropped to his knees and looked up at the ‘Swordsman’. For a moment, the other’s face blazed with a glory almost unbearable, but which, his gentle thought told the awed young Priest, was still only the very faintest reflection of the glory of Light, carried with him from the Joyous Place. Then the ‘Swordsman’ was the most ordinary of men again, leaning, in comradely fashion, to help Zarel to his feet. The Lightstone-Bearer, still stunned with revelation, gasped “But…but – you are…” “Yes, I am” answered the Shining One, as Zarel still stared at him, unable to complete his sentence. “But in Ma’al, only you and Whitestar must know it, Zarel. I am sent by Light to aid you, and strengthen you, and fight with you against the Darkness, as I did with your grandfather Aiel before you. I am the guardian of the Lightstone and the Lightstone-Bearer.” “Light honours me almost beyond bearing!” Zarel exclaimed. “Zarel, remember this; I too am a created being and a servant of Light, as you are. I am your brother in Light, not your Lord. Do not forget that, for that is the lie that the Lords of Darkness told the Dancers and the men of Ma’al, to enslave them. Do not give me the honour which belongs to Light alone. And remember too that the others must not know who I am. As far as they will know, I am a Swordsman who has joined you, simply another Child of Light. You may call me by the name I gave to Karis – Mihel.” “Mihel” Zarel repeated. “Very well, I will do as you say.” Mihel smiled “Do not show me deference before them, either. I am here to serve you, Zarel, and to help you fulfill Light’s purpose.” “I am glad” Zarel said. “For though I am the Lightstone-Bearer, I feel the reponsibility for these people very keenly. I can do nothing without the aid of Light.” “You were thinking of the way ahead” said Mihel. “That is why I have come now, to guide you.” “Yes. It seems neither the Lightfriends nor the Malani have much knowledge of what lies beyond this place.” Zarel answered. Somehow, though in his Perception the knowledge of Mihel’s true identity still amazed him, he had fallen quite naturally into conversation with the Shining One, as with the Swordsman he professed to be.

“Karis and Sharamine strayed into more danger than they knew” Mihel went on. “The Naqad? We did not imagine that such a thing could exist” Zarel responded. “The Naqad was a guardian. The thing was not a natural being, but created by the Dark Ones from much smaller, harmless creatures. It was placed there deliberately to trap any who ventured that way.” “But why? What is there that needs such a guardian? Karis saw nothing.” “There is very little to see. Just, further on, a large circle of open land, with its border marked out with stakes. It looks like a pen for beasts. But it is the gathering place for the Night Lords, and where they receive instruction from the Dark Ones.” The Night Lords, Zarel thought, the corrupted Dancers of Ma’al, brought down into Darkness by the Dark Lords. If Karis and Sharamine had been in such proximity to them, they had indeed been in great danger. “That is so” Mihel said, as if Zarel had spoken his thoughts aloud. “The Dancers which are loyal to Light keep the Night Lords at bay. They are bound to Ma’al, unless some Child of Night in Li’is invites them, as did Lak and Si-Mara.” “When Marla destroyed the Bloodstone that Si-Mara intended her to wield, there was a Night Lord trapped inside it” Zarel said. “Is it so with the stones the Dark Ones’ servants bear here?” “It is, but they are not trapped. The Night Lords give themselves willingly to power the Bloodstones, feeding on the evil that is done to give them that power.” “But we will not need to go near the place?” “No, our way lies in a different direction. But there are still dangers. Along the sea coast there is a garrison of the Dark Ones’ mercenaries, ready to defend the place of the Night Lords, and other places important to the Dark Lords. They are the most ruthless of their kind, hand-picked for their evil and callousness. There are a few small towns too, but the inhabitants are in terror of the mercenaries and would not hesitate to betray any they believe to be on the side of Light.” “And the Meeting Place?” asked Zarel. “The Meeting Place is much as it is in Li’is, in the mountains, though the range is not as long. There is no Gatehouse, nor Gatehouse Gardens, of course. We will need to cross the open plain, and that will be the most dangerous part of the journey. But I will defend the Children of Light.” Zarel was momentarily reminded, by this statement, of to whom it was he was talking , but before he could reply, he heard Karlin’s voice calling him, and turned to see the two Swordsmen hurrying towards him. Before they reached them, Mihel warned quickly “Remember that I am just a Swordsman, Zarel!” and Zarel nodded.

Karis and Karlin came up to them, and Karis glanced quickly at Zarel’s companion, while Karlin reprimanded the Lightstone-Bearer. “Zarel, you should not go off alone! We were worried. And who is this with you?” Zarel smiled, and said “Karis knows.” , and Karis said, “It is Mihel! Karlin, this is the Swordsman who brought me and Sharamine back to safety.” “I said I would return” said Mihel. “You did not tell them who you are”, Karlin challenged, though seeing Zarel at ease with him, he realised that Mihel was a Child of Light. “I am a Swordsman, as you see” Mihel answered. “I have some knowledge of the land that lies further on, and my Lord has sent me to help you on your Way.” “And who is your Lord?” asked Karis. “I may not say. But my Lord will be with us on the Way” Mihel answered. Zarel thought that this evasive answer might not satisfy the kinsmen, but they, Swordsmen themselves, recognised that, after service to Light, loyalty to one’s Lord was preeminent, and did not question Mihel further. “Mihel has told me that you were in a place of danger when he found you, for the Naqad was created by the Dark Ones to guard the way to a place where they meet with the Night Lords”, Zarel told Karis. Karis looked startled at this, then turned to Mihel and said, “Then we owe you much, Sharamine and I, Mihel.” He extended his hand towards Mihel, and the other took it, hand to forearm in the Swordsmen’s handclasp. This was so natural to Karis and Karlin that they did not stop to consider that there were no Swordsmen in Ma’al who shared the handclasp, but Zarel noted it. “We had best go back” Karis now said. “The others were concerned that you had disappeared, Zarel.” They made their way back to the farm buildings, and Zarel cast his Perception quickly towards Mihel. It seemed impertinent to be advising a Shining One, but still, that handclasp might betray him. He quickly caught, in his Perception, that Mihel had already noted his thought and thanked him for his observation. It seemed that even the Shining One was not aware of the subtler differences between Ma’al and Li’is. After all, though Mihel was a Spirit-in-Light, he still did not have the omniscience of Light, thought Zarel.

Once back in the refuge, Mihel was introduced to the others as another Child of Light, a Swordsman trained by a Lord loyal to Light, who had joined them. Zarel had wondered if any of the Lightfriends would Perceive that there was something different about Mihel, but it seemed that none did. The Lightstone-Bearer knew that he would have to tell Whitestar the truth, because her Perception was so bound with his, and with her twin’s and Aren’s in Li’is, and also he felt he had to pass on the news of Mihel’s appearance to those in Li’is who were following their progress in Ma’al with concern. Accordingly, when everyone had shared in the breakfast that had been prepared and people were disappearing about their various tasks in preparation for the arrival of any more refugees and considerations for the next part of the journey, Zarel called to Whitestar to come with him to the Prayer Place, and included Mihel in the invitation. If others noticed, he reasoned, they would assume it was because he wanted to find out what Mihel knew about the way ahead of them. When they were alone in the Prayer Place, Zarel turned to Whitestar. “Whitestar, we have something to tell you about Mihel – something no other must know, not even Dorvai, nor Karis and Karlin.” The girl-Priest looked at him, her face puzzled, and asked “Is it something bad then, Zarel?” It seemed this was the only explanation she could imagine for such secrecy. “Oh no!” Zarel laughed, “It is very far from being something bad, Whitestar!” He looked to Mihel for a clue as to how to tell Whitestar who the Shining One actually was, and Mihel said quietly , as if in answer, “Maybe I should just show you, Whitestar.” She gazed at him, still bewildered, as he stepped forward, his golden eyes glowing, and now Zarel saw what his Perception had been too overawed for him to see before, as the young Swordsman briefly metamorphosed into a shining, white-robed, golden-eyed being, awesome yet gentle, breathing peace and purity and pouring love, joy, strengthening and worship into Whitestar’s enraptured Perception.

The girl gasped, and trembled, and Zarel came close and caught hold of her, in case she should fall. Mihel reached out a hand and touched her brow, and said “Peace, Lightfriend, beloved of Light. It is well.” And in an instant he was the young Swordsman again. Whitestar stood awestruck, weeping for joy, as Zarel had at his first encounter with Mihel, while the Lightstone-Bearer held her steady. When she could speak again, she whispered, as if she could still scarcely believe it, “You are a Spirit-in-Light, a Shining One!” “I am, but in this dark world only you and Zarel may know it. I have told him who I am – the guardian of the Lightstone and the Lightstone-Bearer.” Whitestar, knowing he referred to the dark powers that ruled Ma’al, asked, “How is it, then, that you can be here, Lord Mihel, and the Dark Ones not sense your presence?” “Whitestar, do not call me Lord! I am a servant of Light, as you are. I am simply Mihel. As to the Dark Ones – when the Great Rebel and the Dark Lords betrayed Light and were banished from the Joyous Place, they forfeited the Presence of Light and all connection to or knowledge of the Will of Light. The powers of Light are darkness to them, Light’s ways invisible, unknowable. They cannot search out Light’s purposed, for all their sorceries. So they are not aware that the Lightstone is in Ma’al, nor that I am here to guard it and its Bearer.” “We must tell Aren and Moondancer” Zarel said, half-expecting a prohibition, but Mihel said “That is so; since your Perceptions are linked they must know, and the Priesthood of Li’is will be glad to hear you are protected.” Whitestar asked, “But if you are here – could not other Shining Ones have come, and taken us into Li’is, without the Lightstone, and the Dancers, and the danger?” “That was not the Will of Light” Mihel answered. “Whitestar, you cannot outthink Light. What you see as a simple answer, Light sees as the wrong answer. There are laws made and tasks set for Spirits-in-Light, and for Dancers, and for mankind, and all are different. What you may see as fear and pain and danger, Light sees as tests that make you grow in faith, and trust , and in dependence on Light. The Lightstone Way is a way of growth.”

“And when it ends, and we are back in Li’is, and Light’s judgement falls on Ma’al – we will be safe then? The Dark Lords and the Night Lords will be destroyed, and there will be no more Darkness?” Whitestar continued her questioning. “Li’is will be safe” Mihel said. “The Gate will close for the last time. But the Dark Lords will not be destroyed. They once were Spirits-in-Light too, and, like us, are deathless. They will return to the place where the Great Rebel lurks and spins his plots against Light. In time they too will be judged, and imprisoned, but not yet.” “And the Night Lords?” asked Zarel. “The Night Lords? They were once the Dancers of Ma’al. You know that the Dancers are beings of light and energy and their Dance takes them among the stars and worlds. What they are is what sustains them. They can gather their energy from the heart of a sun or the power of a tide. All energy is their sustenance. They are not deathless, but they live as long as a star, so seem so to men. In the end, when all their energy is used up, they will cease to be. The Night Lords, though – they have allowed themselves to be corrupted by the Dark Lords, and now they can only feed on darkness and evil. They will not live long.” He paused, then said, “I have given you much to consider. I will leave you to make the link with Aren and Moondancer and tell them of my presence here. But remember that only you two here in Li’is must know it.” They agreed, and watched as Mihel quietly left the Prayer Place. When he had gone, Whitestar turned to Zarel and exclaimed “I can still hardly believe it, Zarel! We have been talking with a Shining One!” “I know, I felt the same at first. Yet somehow I have come to accept his presence, and see him as just a companion on the Way. And that is how it must be, Whitestar. I do not know why none of the others can know who he is, but that is how Light wills it.” “But he said we can tell Aren and Moondancer”, she reminded him, and he smiled at her. “Yes!”

The travellers in Li’is had been enjoying the welcome of Zohra’s family, for Ket-Tal and Shala and their sons, left to stand in for the Kets who had travelled to the gatehouse with Janir, had been determined to keep up the Westerners’ reputation for hospitality. Now, as they relaxed, Aren was the first to feel the tug at his Perception which meant that Zarel was seeking him. Quickly he drew Moondancer into the Thought-without-Words, connecting with his twin and hers. Aila and Arenel, engaged in conversation with their hosts, did not join the link, this time, but waited with the others to hear the news from Ma’al. When the link had broken, both Aren and Moondancer seemed almost shocked, staring at each other, and the others tensed, prepared for bad news. But then Aren’s face broke into a joyful smile, and he said “Zarel has wonderful news!” Moondancer nodded agreement, but Janna, frowning a little, asked “What can there be in Ma’al that is wonderful?” Aren answered her, with awe in his voice, “They have been joined by a Spirit-in-Light, a Shining One – though only Zarel and Whitestar, in Ma’al, are allowed to know who he really is, since he has taken human form!” “A Shining One?” Mellin asked, in amazement. “Yes. He told Zarel that he is the guardian of the Lightstone and the Lightstone-Bearer. That he has stood with Aiel before against the Darkness, when he was the Lightstone-Bearer, and now he is there with Zarel, to guard him and the others.” “Oh!” Marla exclaimed. “Then he is my Shining One, Mellin – the one who made it possible for Aiel to free me from the Darkness within me!” For a moment her eyes misted with tears at the memory, and Mellin put an arm round her and hugged her. The news made them all joyful, knowing that their loved ones had such protection against the Darkness of Ma’al, and Janna wept a little, from relief at the lessening of the danger to Karlin. Ket-Tal and Shala too exclaimed in wonder at the news. “Then they are no longer in peril?” asked Shala who, though distant from the happenings, had still been concerned for her kinsmen in Ma’al. “There is still peril, but they are protected.” Aren answered. “It seems to me that Light rewards Zarel’s trust. He stepped onto this Way at Light’s bidding, unprepared save for his faith in Light and the Lightstone, and as he has travelled it, Light has provided for his needs. First the Malani, and now this Mihel.” “Mihel?” Arenel asked, and his son told him “That is the name that the Shining One has given them, to call him by.” Moondancer added “The lands they must travel through to reach the place where the Dancers’ Gate will be are unknown to us, for none of the Lightfriends has been further than the safe haven near the Seacoast Town. Mihel has told them that he has knowledge of those lands and will guide them.” “Then we should praise Light for provision and guidance for them” Arenel told them, and none of them was unwilling to join in a prayer of thanksgiving.

Mihel had told Zarel to call together Dorvai, Naton and Whitestar, Karis, Karlin, Corhan and Saban, and meet him in one of the outbuildings. The Lightstone-Bearer did as he was bidden, and the small group gathered, curious as to why they were thus summoned. Only Zarel and Whitestar, knowing Mihel’s true identity, guessed that he had something important to tell them. When they had all arrived, Mihel looked round at them and said “I have called you because I need to tell you what I know of the way we must take from here. I told you I knew something of the lands beyond, but it is more than that. My Lord is opposed to the Dark Lords and seeks to undermine their stratagems. He knows the lands between here and the mountains which correspond to the Dancers’ Mountains in Li’is, and those lands are not unguarded. The Dark Ones have set barriers and traps, and once we pass those we will certainly be pursued.” “Traps? Another Naqad?” queried Karis. “No, praise Light!” Mihel answered. “There was only one Naqad. Light ensured that it could not be replicated.” This cryptic statement passed by all of them but Zarel, since they were more concerned with knowing what ‘traps’ might await them, but Zarel wondered if Mihel himself might have had a hand in the failure of any plan of the Night Lords to create another Naqad. Corhan said “You are sure we can pass these barriers and traps?” “They are set to keep out the curious. They cannot withstand the Lightstone. But the Dark Ones will know that we have passed.” Karlin asked, with some puzzlement, “But are those lands not empty, with no towns or villages? What is there that the Dark Lords guard so fiercely?” “The way to the Meeting Place” Mihel answered, and Karlin said “But the Meeting Place is in Li’is.” Mihel smiled. His eyes seemed to have a golden glow and his voice a richer timbre as he answered “Yes, the Meeting Place is in Li’is, but it also has its parallel in Ma’al. And the Dancers’ Gate joins them. Think, Karlin – do you really believe that the Gatehouse, and the Gatekeeper, and the Meeting Place, and the centuries of care to keep the Darkness from them, was all to protect only the Dancers? The Dancers too are Gatekeepers – not of the Dancers’ Gate on Li’is, a man-made piece of metal, but of the Gate that brought you here, and crosses space and time.” They did not doubt what he said, such was the authority in his voice, but Karis asked “How do you know all this, Mihel?”

“I know because I learned it from my Lord, who learned it of Light”, Mihel replied. He went on “The Meeting Place is the Dark Lords’ target, always. It takes much of their power and sorcery to move anything – or anyone – into Li’is. They need to have contact with Children of Night who will invite the Night Lords into Li’is, since the Night Lords still have the freedom of movement that they had as Dancers. They have a link with Li’is through the ruins of their Dark City there, but the Dancers guard that path. So they expend their efforts in trying to find a way to break through from Ma’al into Li’is from what would be the Meeting Place here, if the Dancers of Ma’al had not submitted to the Dark Lords and become the Night Lords.” “And the land between here and there…?” Karis began, but Mihel said “Is where they carry out their sorceries and the Night Lords make their attacks against the Meeting Place. They do not wish to be observed.” “Your Lord must have great courage, then, to keep watch on their doings” observed Corhan, and Mihel said, with a kind of wonder in his voice, “My Lord will give everything for the Children of Light.” “And he will join us on the Way?” “He will be with us.” Mihel answered. Zarel was considering what Mihel had said. The Shining One had referred to his Lord, and could not have meant a human Lord. He had also said that his Lord ‘will be with us’ on the Way, and this puzzled Zarel. He could only conclude that there were higher echelons of Shining Ones and one of these was Mihel’s ‘Lord’, and would be watching over them from the Joyous Place. Since Mihel had said that his Lord had learned of Light what he told Mihel, the Shining One could not be referring to Light. Yet Mihel had also said that his Lord would ‘give everything for the Children of Light’ – could that be connected to the great mystery of the Sacrifice of Light? The Lightstone-Bearer knew he could not question Mihel about any of this, and if the Shining One knew what Zarel was pondering, he said nothing further on the subject, but still Zarel was full of curiosity. “But what are these traps that the Dark Ones have set?” asked Dorvai. “Are they sorceries?” “Some are”, said Mihel. “Black enchantments to frighten those approaching them, dark visions of evil creatures and fierce warriors. Others are physical barriers. But we can pass them, with the Lightstone’s power.” Zarel commented “The Silver Witch, Si-Mara, tried to overcome my grandfather Aiel with an enchantment at the Spearcleft Pass, but he defeated it with the Lightstone. And later Lak too tried to deter Aiel with his false visions, but again the Lightstone dispelled them. So I know it can overcome such sorceries.”

“You said that the Dark Lords will know that we have passed their barriers” Corhan commented. “So no doubt there will be pursuit?” “There will” Mihel confirmed. “I have told Zarel that there is a garrison of the Dark Lords’ mercenaries beyond the Seacoast Town, along the coast, and they are the most ruthless and evil of their kind. Once past the barriers we must prepare for battle. But”, he added, “they will not expect large numbers, nor any resistance, thinking some inquisitive person has passed through.” “The Dark Ones will not know how many have passed, then?” asked Karis. “They will sense only that the barriers have been passed” Mihel answered, “since they are blind to the Will of Light.” “It is well that you have prepared us” said Corhan,” for it is good to know the enemy’s plans when entering a battle.” “We fight on the side of Light”, Mihel answered, “and Light is with us.” He looked round at them, and said, “We have some surcease for now, though. The Lightstone will call again, and we must wait for those it calls to join us. There is time to rest, and gather strength for the last part of the Way.” It was apparent that the meeting was at an end now, and they began to disperse, but Karis noticed Karlin looking concerned, and asked him quietly ” Does something trouble you, Karlin? I know my Sword-Brother does not fear battle.” Karlin answered, as quietly, “I do not fear battle, but I fear for Janna. She was so desperate at my going, Karis, though she tried to hide it from me. If I should fall in battle, what will become of her? She would be distraught!” Though they had spoken softly, it seemed Mihel had overheard them, for he came to them now and said, gently, “Karlin, Light watches over you and you will not fall in battle. You will return to Li’is and to Janna”. He smiled at Karlin and went on “You will have a long and happy life together, and see your children’s children prosper. Do not fear.” It was only the kind of thing a friend might say in hopes of reassuring their doubts, but somehow the Swordsmen felt that he spoke truly, and were comforted. As they watched Mihel walk away, Karis said, “Strange! It was almost as though he prophecied for you, Karlin!” Karlin replied “Maybe his Lord is a Lightfriend, and has told him more of our Way than he has revealed. But he serves Light, and we can trust him. Did he not rescue you and Sharamine?” “Aye, and from peril greater than we knew!” Karis agreed.

When they returned to the main building, Zarel went to the Prayer Place with Whitestar and, as Mihel had said, the Lightstone began to pulse in his hands, sending out its call to the Children of Light. When the pulsing stopped, Zarel said ” That is the last time, then, that the Lightstone will call. Once the last Children of Light have been gathered, we will be on our way to the Meeting Place, Whitestar!” She smiled at him briefly, but then her face took on a pensive expression. He said “It is a dangerous journey, it is true, but Light leads us on it, Whitestar, and we have the Lightstone, and Mihel. We are protected. The Way will not fail, and we will all be safe in Li’is soon. Are you afraid?” She sighed, and said “It is for you I fear, Zarel. If the Dark Ones learn, once we pass their barriers, that the Lightstone is here, and that you are the Bearer, you above all will be their target.” “I am not afraid” he told her, “and nor should you be. Trust in Light.” “I do” she replied, “but my heart is human, and I – care for you, Zarel. My spirit trusts, but my heart fears for you.” Her words did not surprise him, for as their Perceptions had become more closely connected over the course of the Way, he had been aware of a growing closeness between them that was more than the Thought-without-Words, and it had seemed so natural and inevitable that he had known she must feel it too. So he answered her now, “I know, Whitestar. I care for you too, and I think Light meant it to be so. When we are in Li’is, we will still belong together – and I think that will be true for Aren and Moondancer, also. But for now, my heart, only the Way is important and we must put all else aside. Do you understand that?” “Yes.” she said. “Zarel, I am glad…” she fell silent then, and he leaned and gently kissed her, then said “Soon, Whitestar, all will come right, praise Light!” ” I hope it will be soon” she replied, “for I think this Way, though it leads to a happy end, weighs heavy on all of us.” “If the distance is similar to that on Li’is, it is not so many days’ journey, Whitestar, though we travel more slowly on foot.” Zarel replied. “Still, we must wait here for the last of the Children of Light to join us. And, as Mihel said, we have some respite while we wait. It gives time to recover from the journey so far, so we are fresh when we set out again, and to make sure of the plans for our defence, with the Malani and Swordsmen.” He took her hand, then, and said, “We will go and tell the others that the Lightstone has called. We must watch for those coming to join us.”

Once he was happy that Karlin’s mind was at ease, Karis had gone to seek Sharamine. They had had no time to themselves since their return on the previous day, and he felt that they needed to talk. When he found her and took her aside, she welcomed him with a smile. He felt that the sense he had had, that even after she had accepted his assurances she had been on guard around him, had gone. Maybe, he thought, it had not been he himself after all, but her growing awareness of her feelings for him, that had caused her wariness. He said “Sharamine, my heart, I need to speak with you.” “What is it, Karis? You – you have not changed your mind about your feelings for me? For mine are unchanged.” “Oh, never!” he exclaimed. “I wanted to discuss our future. I know we were wed by the laws of Ma’al, but that is not a real marriage, not to me, and I think not to you. So I wished to ask you – will you be my Lady, Sharamine? When we are safe in Li’is we can be married in a proper way – by the Priesthood, in the Temple, in the sight of Light. Till then, we will count ourselves as simply betrothed.” “Karis!” she exclaimed, smiling, but with a glint of tears in her eyes. “Yes, of course! But…” she paused, and he asked “But what, my love?” “Karis, will your family accept me? Zarel said you were heir to a Lord of Li’is. Would he not wish you to wed someone higher born? Someone born of Li’is?” ” Oh, Sharamine! I do not know how it is in Ma’al, but such things are of no concern in Li’is. And my brother Mellin’s Lady, Marla – Karlin’s mother – was born of Ma’al, though she was born in Li’is. If you are my love, and a Child of Light, they will accept you.” “Then I am content” she said, then ” But – if Mellin’s Lady’s parents were from Ma’al, how were they in Li’is?” Karlin smiled again. “It is a story of the Mercy of Light” he began, and went on to tell her, as briefly as he could, the story of Marla’s Way and her attainment of Light and marriage to Mellin. When the tale had been told, Sharamine exclaimed “How wonderful! I would love to meet Marla, Karis. She was so brave, and so faithful to Light despite her dark inheritance!” “You will meet her, when we return to Li’is” Karis assured her. “And when we are wed, you will be sisters.”

In Li’is the travellers, greatly reassured by the news of Mihel’s arrival to guard Zarel and the others in Ma’al, spent a pleasant and relaxed afternoon with Shala and her family. Her sons, Ket-Shal and Ket-Tai, had enjoyed spending time with their cousins Rentha, Aren, Lira and Janna,and also Mella, whom they rarely saw. Ket-Tal was curious to hear about the Malani, and Aren told as much as he had learned from Zarel, while Moondancer filled in the history of the warrior race that guarded the Lightfriends of Ma’al. “So there is an ancient connection between the Ketai and the Malani”, Ket-Tal asked, “since both we and they were guardians of the Lightfriends once, in Ma’al, but we followed the Lightfriends into Ma’al, and they stayed to guard those that remained?” “That is so” Moondancer said. It was growing near to nightfall, now, and Zohra, remembering her conversation with Moondancer, said ” It will soon be dark, Moondancer, then we will show you our Western skies.” When it was fully dark, they went out on to the Plateau, and told Moondancer to look up. In the clear air, against the velvety darkness of the night sky, the moons, both almost full, glowed, and the icy brilliance of the stars shone clear. Moondancer exclaimed at the beauty of it. “We seldom see the moons and stars in Ma’al” she said. “I would have thought it would be safer for you to be about at night” Mellin said, and she replied “It is, but not when there is moonlight. The skies of Ma’al are often overcast, and on those nights it is safer to go out in the open.” She looked up again at the night sky, and said “It seems to me that the moons here are the same, but the stars are different.” “It would be so” Arenel agreed, “since Ma’al lies far away from Li’is. ” “Yet the Dancers can overcome those distances”, Rentha commented “and will bring the Children of Light safely here.” She felt a little concerned that her father’s words might have caused Moondancer to feel some anxiety about the distance between the two worlds, but Moondancer did not seem to feel any fear. The other girl’s faith in Light was very strong, Rentha thought. When they returned to Ket-Tal and Shala’s family tent, Ket-Tal said “We cannot leave here, but Ket-Shal and Ket-Tai will escort you to the Kets’ Pillars when you leave – though I think Arenel should know the way”. He smiled at his brother by marriage, who said “Ah, it is a long time since I travelled that way, Ket-Tal. I think I will need the guidance of our nephews!” Ket-Shal, the elder of the two brothers, said “We shall be glad to show you all the way, and spend more time with you.” Ket-Tai, quieter than his brother, agreed, then added “We have been honoured to have you with us, Lightfriend of Ma’al. It will be a happy day when all of you are brought safely into Li’is.” Moondancer smiled at him, and Ket-Tal said. “I should be glad to meet some of your Malani, sometime, Moondancer, when you are all settled in Li’is. They and the Ketai must have fought the same battles in ancient times, in Ma’al.”

It was near time for the Evening Prayers, and Arenel, knowing that the Priesthood all over Li’is would be gathering to make them, called Aren, Whitestar and Aila to him to make the Thought-without-Words and send the news of Mihel’s appearance to those who had been praying for the Way. In the City, Aiel and the Priesthood of the Temple received the communication, and when the link was broken, gave thankful praise. Aiel was remembering the time, so long ago on the Lightstone Way, when his Perception, trapped in the dark thoughts of the Black Piper, Lak, had been torn free of that imprisonment by a Spirit-in-Light – that same Mihel, he now realised. The same Shining One that had guarded Arentha’s spirit on the Meeting Place, and later, on Marla’s Way, been the key to Marla’s Changing, and her attainment of Light. And now he was greatly comforted by the thought that Mihel was guarding Zarel, the new Lightstone-Bearer, in the perils of Ma’al. Lin and Krystha were present at the Evening Prayers, as well as Arentha, all the original Way-Sharers. When the Prayers were over, Aiel collected his Lady and his friends together, and told them the news. ” Zarel and the others have been joined by a Shining One, to guard them on the Way” he told them. “The Spirit-in-Light has told them that he is the guardian of the Lightstone and the Lightstone-Bearer – the same one who saved me from Lak, and guarded Arentha, and enabled Marla’s changing. His name is Mihel.” Lin was astonished. “A Shining One? Praise Light!” Krystha said ” The peril is still great, but we can be sure that Light guards them all in Ma’al. Praise Light indeed!” Arentha too was full of praise, thankful that her beloved grandson and Krystha’s son and grandson were thus protected. “They are near to the Seacoast Town in Ma’al, which is where the Merchant Town would be here.” Aiel continued. “Zarel needs to wait for the final gathering of the Children of Light, but then they will be on their way to the Meeting Place. ” “A few days’ journey” commented Lin, “but the most dangerous part of the Way, I think. We must continue to hold them in prayer. ” Aiel agreed, and said “We shall know when they are nearly there, for then the Dancers will come to carry us to the Gatehouse. ” “And when the Children of Light who were left in Ma’al have been brought into Li’is, Light’s judgement will fall on the Darkness of Ma’al?” Krystha asked. “Yes” Aiel replied. Arentha, always tender-hearted, sighed ” It is sad that Ma’al and its people will be destroyed. But Light is just, and they have spurned Light.” “And that will be the last fulfillment of the Secret Word” , Lin said. “The Way that we first set foot on so many years ago will finally end.”

AN END OF DARKNESS

Chapter 7

The chill in the caverns was dispersing with the heat of the fire and the refugees were settling down to eat. When Karis and Karlin returned, Karis asked Zarel “Has the Lightstone called?” “Not yet” the Lightstone-Bearer answered “but it will.” “We also sent the Thought-without-Words to the Lightfriends” Whitestar reminded the Swordsman, “They will know to come here, and bring others.” Dorvai, overhearing, added “And Lorin and Talar, who carried supplies here, will also have told any Children of Light they know.” “The Swordsmen we met when we entered Ma’al?” asked Karlin. “Yes, they are brothers and Children of Light” Dorvai answered. Karis queried “If only the mercenaries and the Malani bear weapons, how are there Swordsmen still in Ma’al?” Dorvai explained “When the Darkness fell in Ma’al, there were some few noble families who fought for Light against the Dark Lords. Their lands were taken and those who were not slaughtered were declared outlaw. The surviving families were in hiding, but still found means to train their sons as Swordsmen. There are very few Swordsmen left in Ma’al, but there are some. Lorin and Talar are the last of their line, but they fight for Light as their ancestors did.” “And they will join us here?” asked Zarel. “Here, or at the next safe haven”, Dorvai said.

Karis, still curious about the two Swordsmen, asked, ” How is it that they are the last of their line? They have no parents or children?” “It is a sad tale” Dorvai answered. “Their family had a homestead where they lived as ordinary folk, subsistence farmers. But the Dark Lords are relentless in their search for those they deem traitors, and somehow Lorin and Talar’s family were betrayed. The Dark Ones’ mercenaries descended on the homestead and spared no one. All were killed and the buildings burned down. Lorin and Talar escaped only because they were helping the Lightfriends with an errand at the time. When the Malani heard what had happened, they warned the Swordsmen against returning, and so they came to us. They were younger then, and felt it very much, especially Lorin, who is the younger. They were not in love or betrothed, and have had no thought of it since. It may be that when this Way is over and we are all in Li’is they will be able to think of a future for themselves, but for now the pain of their loss is all-encompassing.” “That is sad indeed.” Karis said, and Karlin and Zarel agreed. “I hope they may find a place and a future for themselves in Li’is.” the Lightstone-Bearer added. “We shall all need to find our place in Li’is” Dorvai said. “Though we are sure of welcome, as you told us, we will need to learn and adapt to a different world. Even the freedom will be strange to us, Zarel.” “It may be difficult, at first” Zarel replied “but as Children of Light, you will be in the place where you belong. You will soon feel at home in Li’is.”

Karis, who had been aware at the back of his mind of the sound of the sea in the lower caverns, now asked “Dorvai, how long can we stay here? If the Two-Moon Tides here are the same as in Li’is, it is near time for the next. Will these caverns be safe at the Two-Moon Tide?” The Lightfriend answered “In truth, Karis, I do not know. None of us has ever been here at the Two-Moon Tide. I think, though, there would have been signs if the Tide had come up this far in the caverns. But the Tide is not due for a few more days, and we should be on our way again by then.” “Beyond here we have one more safe haven” Naton added “but after that it is unknown territory.Though we have charts made by the early Lightfriends, none of us has ventured so far North.” Zarel responded “Light knows the way, Naton. The Lightstone has called the Children of Light together for this Way, and Light will guide us to its completion.” Sure enough, when they gathered for the Evening Prayers after their meal, the Lightstone began pulsing again, calling to the Children of Light and Zarel commented “The Lightstone knows there are more to join us yet.”

However, they were all surprised when, a short time later, they heard a sound from the cavern entrance. Surely no Child of Light had already answered the call of the Lightstone? It sounded like someone stamping on the hidden door, and Karis and Karlin were ready to defend the refugees, but Dorvai said, “No, it is a signal, Swordsmen. Someone seeks admittance.” They still followed him to the entrance, to be sure of his safety, but the opening of the entrance admitted more refugees. Three of them were Lightfriends, greeted gladly by Dorvai, followed by their families, including four boys, not yet grown, but with the vivid blue eyes that showed their Perception. There were others too, some family groups, and a couple of lone maidens, and they were followed by the young Swordsman Lorin. His brother was not with him, and Karis, having heard their sad story, asked anxiously “Where is your brother, Lorin? I pray Light no harm has befallen him!” “No, Talar has gone ahead.” Lorin explained. “He has gone to escort more Lightfriends to the next safe haven.” Once back in the main cavern, Lorin explained that he and his brother had carried the news of the Way to those Children of Light they knew how to find. The Lightfriends had already been alerted through the Thought-without-Words, and together they had travelled here with Lorin while, as he had said, his brother had gone ahead to collect others they knew of. In turn, Zarel explained that the Lightstone had called, so more Children of Light would be joining them. Then he had to explain the Way again to the newcomers, after which they were given food and drink to sustain them following their journey. The cavern was becoming crowded now, and Karis hoped that the Children of Light who the Lightstone had called would soon arrive and they would be able to move on. However, at least the number of people offset the lingering chill of the cavern, and as there were family groups they would be able to sleep more closely together than if unrelated. They managed, too, to allot a space with more privacy for the girls, and the rest of them disposed themselves as best they could.
It was not until morning that more Children of Light began to arrive. Corhan and his Malani had kept watch for the travellers and brought those they found to the safety of their camp before taking them on to the safe haven. Corhan explained that he had thought it wiser to gather a group of refugees, rather than bring them in ones and twos. “It seems safe enough” said the Lord of the Malani, “and there are no signs that we are observed, but I prefer to be cautious, and make two or three trips here rather than going constantly to and fro as newcomers arrive.” Dorvai, Zarel and the Swordsmen agreed. The Lightstone had not called again, so Zarel knew that when the latest influx of refugees was complete, they would be able to move on. After the new additions to their number had been fed, had the Way explained to them, and received the Lightstone’s touch, he and Whitestar managed to find a corner of the cavern, albeit cramped, where they could link Perceptions and, with the Lightstone’s and the Dancers’ aid, make the Thought-without-Words with their twins in Li’is to tell them how the way was progressing. It was a comfort to them both to be in contact with Aren and Moondancer again and share news of their progress, while Aren and Moondancer in turn were glad to hear that thus far the Way seemed to be going well, and to send their encouragement, prayers and blessings to their twins in Ma’al.

Mellin’s group were on their way up to the Plateau of the Westerners by now, and had camped overnight in the same little valley where Aiel and Lin, Arentha and Krystha, had camped so long before on the Lightstone Way, and been attacked by Children of Night. No such peril threatened them now, though, and they had settled comfortably enough. They had been surprised when Moondancer had told them there was no such feature as the Plateau on Ma’al , but Lira said “The Dancers told us that though much on our worlds was similar, other parts were totally different, so it is not so strange that the Plateau should not exist in Ma’al.” “That is true” Mella agreed, “but no doubt Zarel and the others will find it strange too.” Mellin answered his daughter, with a wry smile, “I think the terrain of Ma’al will be the least of their concerns, Mella!” “And my father and the other Lightfriends will guide them” Moondancer reassured them. Lira told her “When we reach the Plateau, Moondancer, you must look to the night skies. Up there they are so beautiful!” Zohra said, “Oh yes, you must see our skies, Moondancer. ” She smiled at Arenel, and added “There is little I miss of the West now, since I have been so long in the City, but those skies are one thing. ” They had been preparing to pack up and move on, after their morning meal and prayers, but paused for the communication between the two sets of twins. After Aren had told them Zarel’s news, Mellin said “So it seems that all goes well so far, praise Light! The Children of Light are gathering to the Lightstone, as the Dancers said.” “Still” Arenel commented “we need to keep them constantly in prayer. Light is with them, but it is a perilous Way. Praise Light they have the faith and courage to take it.”

In the sea caverns on Ma’al , Karlin was hoping that the last of the refugees would soon arrive so that they could move on. This refuge had never been intended for so many, and though they had managed to clear a way into another, smaller cavern to make more room, it was still very crowded, and some of the smaller children were growing fractious. He, like Zarel, had thought there would be very few Children of Light, apart from the Lightfriends and their families, in Ma’al, but as people had answered the Lightstone’s call and their numbers had grown, the Swordsman had realised that the Lightstone-Bearer’s task was greater than they had imagined. With the refugees they had already gathered, as well as Corhan’s Malani, and more still to come, they would be a large number by the time they had to cross the open plain towards the Meeting Place, and surely could not continue unobserved. He voiced his concerns about this to Karis and Lorin as the three Swordsmen stood guard at the cavern entrance, waiting for any new arrivals. Karis agreed, but Lorin said “Swordsmen of Li’is, I understand your fears. But we of Ma’al who follow Light have to trust wholly in Light. It is true that there have been disasters for the Children of Light, such as befell my family and Dorvai’s wife. But if Light has called us together and sent the Lightstone-Bearer into Ma’al to lead us to safety in Li’is, Light will defend us, somehow. We would not be called together so to be slaughtered. Light is merciful.” In the face of his faith, Karis and Karlin felt ashamed of their fears, and agreed with him. Another stamping sound from above was the signal to open the entrance, and a further group of refugees appeared, led by the Malani. Once again Corhan had caused them to wait and gather in his camp before sending them on to the refuge, and it was a fairly large group. Karis and Karlin were wondering where they would all find space in the caverns, but to their relief the Malani told them that there were no more Children of Light to come as all had been safely escorted here. Karis thought to himself that at least that would mean that they could soon move on. The Malani also told them that Corhan would await their instructions before preparing to break camp. They went back up the stairway and closed the entrance behind them, and the three Swordsmen led the new group of refugees into the caverns, where Zarel, Dorvai, Whitestar and Naton greeted them, explained the Way again, and once more Zarel used the Lightstone to bless and encourage the newcomers.

That done, they were taken by some of the other Children of Light to eat and rest after their travels, while the Lightfriends, Lightstone-Bearer and Swordsmen conferred over plans to continue the Way. “It grows cramped here” Karis said. “It would be as well to move on quickly.” “That is true” Zarel answered “but the day is well advanced now. I think we can manage another night here, and leave early tomorrow.” “Corhan’s Swordsmen said he would await our instructions on when to break camp.” Karlin contributed. “We should send him word.” “I will go” Lorin said. “I will return to help here tomorrow.” “Very well” Zarel responded. “Tell him to be ready to make an early start. We will need to travel under cover of the Malani again, and that grows more difficult as there are so many more of us.” After Lorin had left them to carry their message to Corhan, Zarel and the Lightfriends moved among the refugees to tell them to prepare to move on tomorrow. Karis found Sharamine, and informed her of the plan. “I shall not be sorry to leave this place.” he added. “It is safe, but with so many here it is not very comfortable. And I miss the daylight, even that of Ma’al! Has it been well with you, Sharamine?” “It has” she answered. “I am glad to be safe and among the Children of Light.” Karis had feared, as the refugees gathered, that she would stand out because of her marriage bracelet, but had noted that some of the women who had joined them wore the bracelet too. He had asked Dorvai about this, and the Lightfriend had explained “Those Children of Light who live among the people of Ma’al must behave as those people think normal, so though they have been married by the Lightfriends, they go through the marriage ceremony before the Townmaster when they return to the towns.” So Sharamine now fitted in with the others, and there was no need to explain their sham marriage to any. “We are to move on to the last safe haven” Karis told her, “but after that, I do not know. We can only trust to the leading of Light.” “Where better to trust?” Sharamine said. “Light has called us to Li’is, and will fulfill the calling.” Again Karis felt humbled by the faith of the Children of Light of Ma’al, who had faced so much Darkness yet were still totally trusting of Light. He guessed that many of them, if asked, could tell of trials of faith as great of that of Dorvai and his daughters, of the Swordsmen Lorin and Talar, or Sharamine herself, yet they stayed true to Light and depended fully on their faith. As Sharamine had said, Light had called them and they had heard and obeyed the calling, even though they did not know why or where they were called when they left their places to follow. “You are right, Sharamine” he agreed. “Light is with us, and the Lightstone-Bearer leads us. That is enough.”

They were all relieved that this was the last night they would have to spend in such cramped conditions, and no one demurred at the next morning’s early start. The provisions that had been brought here from what had been carried from Li’is were now very low but should just last them to the next and last of the Lightfriends’ havens, where more had been conveyed for their arrival. Lorin returned from Corhan’s camp to say that the Malani were ready to move, and the exodus from the caverns began. It was not thought wise to move such a large number of people together, so they left in groups, escorted by waiting Malani Swordsmen. Despite their eagerness to leave the caverns behind, Karis and Karlin waited with Zarel, Whitestar and Dorvai until everyone else had been safely evacuated and they could make their own way to join the rest at Corhan’s camp site. The camp had been struck, the travelling sledges packed, and some horses left unladen for those who were less able to walk. As before, the Malani surrounded the Children of Light to conceal them, and the refugees travelled with hoods up or wearing headgear provided by the Malani, to hide their fairer skin. Though the sea was still on one side of them for a while, it gradually fell out of view and the land sloped down, though it still rose and fell in gentle undulations. “We will not reach the haven today” Naton told them. “We will need to camp with the Malani overnight again.” They travelled as before, on foot, with the less able on the few available horses, taking breaks for rest and food. The ground was like rough moorland, but not too difficult to cross, especially as there were no hills to climb. As it drew near to evening they began to think of making camp, and Corhan sent out some scouts to find a suitable place. After searching, they returned with news of a place nearby, more of a hollow than a valley but with a little spring for water and some small trees for cover. The rest of them followed the scouts to the chosen site and again the Malani set up camp with quick efficiency. They were all glad to rest from their travels and after the refugees had eaten a small and simple meal, since their stocks were depleted, the Lightfriends led the Evening Prayers and they went to their rest in the tents allotted them, tired from the journey.

As they set off again the next morning, Karis asked Dorvai and Naton about the next safe haven, with his mind on its defence. “It is an abandoned farm, as we said” Dorvai told him. “The land has long since become too worked out for crops and too poor for grazing. It was never that fertile an area, and bad management made it useless.”
Karlin asked ” Are you sure, though, that no one has sought shelter there since? It may be occupied now. ” “No” Naton said. “The last to farm there spread a bad report about the place, since they had failed to thrive there. They would not admit their management of the farm was to blame, and spread rumours about poisons in the soil and water. It was all nonsense, but it suited us that the superstitious folk believed them. No one will go there now and the place is shunned.” “It has been neglected for many years now” Dorvai added ” and its tumbledown appearance makes it even more unappealing to any passer-by – though in truth, it is seldom that any go near.” Karis and Karlin were still a little concerned about what seemed to them the possible vulnerability of the farm, but since Dorvai and Naton spoke with such certainty, and they had the protection of the Malani if any danger should threaten, they put the matter aside and concentrated on the journey there. The abandoned farm, Dorvai told them, was on an upland, not far distant from the Seacoast Town but out of the way of travellers there. There were a few Children of Light in the Town, and no doubt the Lightstone would call them to join the others. “They know the haven, and how to approach in a roundabout way, so as not to invite inquiry.” the Lightfriend assured them. The Malani too led them by a roundabout route, using, where possible, the cover of dips in the landscape or belts of trees to hide their passage. At last they came to the first sign of the old farm, some tumbledown fencing and a collapsed roofed structure which might have once sheltered farm animals. The soil beyond the fencing, as Dorvai had said, was thin and poor, and hosted only patches of weeds and some scrubby bushes.
Zarel, Karis and Karlin were surprised at the comparative size of the place. The worn out fields stretched for a fair distance, and they could see a group of buildings across them. It looked as though there would be plenty of room for all, after the cramped sea caverns. As they neared the buildings, the Swordsmen tensed, seeing a movement, but Lorin said “It will be Talar and the Children of Light he brought here.” Sure enough, as they came up to the main building, the Swordsman Talar appeared. Lorin went forward, and the brothers embraced. Karis looked around him. Besides the main building, some kind of homestead, there were several large and still serviceable barns. Though all the buildings were in a state of disrepair, they were usable and not dangerous. Zarel said ” I am glad this refuge is so spacious, Dorvai, for I think we will need to stay here a few days, to gather the last of the Children of Light and to plan our strategy for approaching the Meeting Place. We will need to make a careful study of your charts, since none of you have gone much beyond this point.” The others agreed, and Corhan said “We will take one of the barns to hide our gear and the horses, and camp there, since the Malani are not known to travel much in this area.” “Very well” Zarel agreed “and we can allocate the other barns for sleeping and use the homestead for meals and instructions for the Children of Light, for prayers, and for our discussions. ” Karlin asked Talar “Provisions were brought here, I know, but is there water?” “Yes” Talar said. “There is a well, and we have made sure it was clear while we waited for you.” “Then we are well prepared.” Zarel said “That will help us prepare for the final part of the Way.”
For now, though, there was the need to let the weary refugees rest , while sleeping quarters were sorted out and food prepared. Corhan and his Malani drew their sledges into the cover of one of the barns,opting, since they had their tents for cover, for a building with a less weatherproof roof than the others. the horses were loosed and cared for, and they set up camp inside. Whitestar, Sharamine, Varine and Kira , with help from some of the younger women, made ready one of the barns for the use of the lone women in the group. Some of the men prepared other buildings for the families with children and the menfolk, while the Lightfriends and their families prepared the evening meal. Once all was done, they gathered in the homestead to eat, and afterwards to make the Evening Prayers.

Zarel and the Lightfriends of Ma’al had decided, after all the work of getting the haven ready, that they should leave their deliberations about the rest of the journey until the next day, since all were weary and would think more clearly after a night’s rest. So it was not till all the next morning’s tasks had been dealt with that they were able to come together to consider what lay ahead. Dorvai, as Healer, was somewhat concerned. He had been called on to treat some minor but painful consequences of the long journey, sore feet and fatigue among the older and younger refugees being among them. “It is a long way to the Meeting Place, and exposed” he said. “I trust Light and the Lightstone-Bearer to bring us there safely, but it will be hard going for some.” Corhan promised “We will lighten our load as much as possible, to free horses to carry some, but we need to bring some tents for cover for everyone at night, and there will not be room on horseback for all who need it.” “We need more horses” Naton said. “There are carts here, still serviceable, which we could use for those who cannot walk so far, but we need beasts to draw them, we cannot drag them ourselves.” “Then Karlin and I will have to go into the Seacoast Town to buy them, since anyone else might be detected as outlaw.” Karis said, decisively. “Saban and I will come with you, then,” Corhan declared “since you will not know the ways of the Town, and how to haggle with the dealers.” “Thank you, Corhan” Karis answered. Zarel said “Very well, but in the Name of Light, take care! And remember that you cannot mention that Name among the Dark Ones.” The Swordsmen and Malani were soon mounted and on their way. It was a strange journey for Karis and Karlin, for the place they were heading for had its parallel in the Merchant Town on the Great Bay in Li’is. Though neither Karis nor Karlin had been to that place, they had heard Lin’s and Mellin’s accounts of it, enough to have some idea of its layout. They had to remind themselves that though this town might seem half-familiar, this was a different place entirely, and to leave the pathfinding to Corhan and Saban.

As they entered the town, they recognised the likenesses to the Merchant Town. There was no Faring House, of course, but there were merchants’ booths and shops, and an inn or two. At one of these they stopped, to leave their mounts and enquire where horses might be sold. The innkeeper mentioned two places, but recommended one over the other. As they left the inn, Karis remarked “The innkeeper seemed to think highly of that horse dealer.” Corhan laughed. “Ah, you are too trusting, my friend! No doubt he will get some share of any money the dealer makes from sales to those the innkeeper directs to him. We will look at both dealers’ stock.” It took some time to locate the dealers’ premises, and after visiting them both, they took the sturdiest of the beasts each had to offer, four in all, so that they could lead one horse each. Karis and Karlin, though well used to selecting horses, were accustomed to the fine animals bred by the Westerners, or at the Fortress, and were not over impressed by the beasts they had purchased, but since they were to be draught horses, it did not matter that they were not the most excellent of their breed. After arranging for their purchases to be delivered to the inn where they had left their own mounts, they set out to make their way back there.

Quite how it was that Karis managed to drop behind the others he did not know, though afterwards he realised it must have been planned. A stumbling drunkard swaying across his path, one or two other obstacles, deliberately placed, it occurred to him later, and he was half the street’s length behind them. Before he could hurry to catch up with Karlin, Corhan and Saban, he found his way blocked by a thickset man in the leather harness of a mercenary. He wore his employer’s badge on the harness, a badge which said nothing to Karis, though it was obviously meant to. The man smiled at Karis. It was not a pleasant smile. “I have a message for you. It seems you have had the misfortune to displease my master.” Karis knew he was in danger, but kept his voice calm. “How so?” “You have taken something which should have been his.” “I am not aware” said Karis “that I have taken anything from any man.” “You have taken the girl Sharamine” the mercenary said. “She was intended for my master’s marriage bed. Your marriage must be broken.” He smiled his unpleasant smile again. “My master will soon tire of her, no doubt, and toss her back to you.” Karis knew that this was no time to lose his temper and fought back the burning swell of anger that rose in him, hearing this man talk of Sharamine as if she were nothing. A toy, he thought, a plaything, a doll to be used and thrown from man to man, of less value to such men, as he had thought after their sham marriage, than a horse or a hound. He felt sick. He said, with a coolness he did not feel, “And suppose I do not choose to take your master’s leavings? Suppose I will not break the marriage?” “Then” said the other man, still smiling, “your wife will become your widow!” Suddenly there were two other men standing with him, swords drawn, but Karis too had the True Sword in his hand, for the first mercenary’s signal had not been too fast for the Swordsman to see. “Kill him!” the leader of the mercenaries ordered. As the men closed in on him, Karis thought that surely Karlin and the others had realised by now that he was not with them. He yelled at the top of his voice “Karlin!”

For a moment, as he concentrated on parrying his attackers’ blows, he was beset by a dreadful doubt – could the others too have been cut off, and be in danger from other attackers? But then he heard Karlin’s answering cry. The man leading the attack cursed, and ordered “Finish him-quickly!” Karis, however, knowing help was coming, fought fiercely to defend himself. The True Sword found a target, and one of his attackers fell. A blade slashed towards his body, but he leapt back and suffered only a light cut across one forearm. Suddenly, he was in a churning mass of bodies, Karlin at his shoulder, Corhan and Saban fighting to protect his back. Outnumbered now, and with one man down, the mercenaries fled. Karis gave a deep sigh, and wiped the sweat from his brow with his forearm. Karlin, seeing blood on his sleeve, gave an exclamation of concern. “Karis- are you hurt?” “Only a scratch” his kinsman reassured him “thanks to your speedy help. Thank you – all of you.” Saban flashed him a wide smile. Corhan grunted. He was turning over the sprawling body of the mercenary with the toe of his boot. “Dead” he said, decisively. Karis felt a strange sensation in the pit of his stomach. He had never taken a life before, and it was not a good feeling. His Swordsman’s vows bade him kill only at the last extremity. But this was Ma’al, and the laws that governed life in Li’is held no sway here. Corhan, seeing his expression, asked “Is it well with you, Karis?” Karis nodded. “I have never had to do such a thing before” he explained. “It does not come easily to me, Corhan.” Corhan said, solemnly, “If it came easily to you to kill, you would not be the man I know you to be, Karis, my friend.” Karlin said “We should go, before someone comes to investigate the noise!” Saban shrugged. “A brawl in the street – it will be put down to drunken mercenaries fighting.” Corhan, though, asked his friend “Have you seen whose badge the man wears, Saban? He will not let it rest. Karlin is right. Come, quickly.” When they reached the inn where they had left the horses, Corhan said “Best if you and Karlin wait outside, Karis. It might be that someone at the inn betrayed you.”

In a little while the two Malani returned, mounted, and leading the other horses. The kinsmen swung into their saddles and took one of the purchased horses’ halters each, and they trotted out of the town, glad to leave it behind. When they had almost reached the Lightfriends’ hiding place, they dismounted and led the horses by a roundabout way, muddling their tracks to confuse any who might pursue them. As they walked, Karis said “Corhan – you saved my life today – you and Saban and Karlin. We have fought a common enemy, back to back. And, if it pleases you, Karlin and I would be glad to swear Sword-Brotherhood with you.” For he and Karlin had been discussing it quietly as they rode.To their surprise, Corhan asked “What is it then – this swearing of Sword-Brotherhood?” For though the Dancers had warned them that there was no such thing as Sword-Brotherhood among the people of Ma’al, they had thought that surely any Swordsmen among the Children of Light, such as the Malani, would have kept the custom. “You have no Sword-Brethren?” Karlin asked. “Aye, many” said Corhan. “Saban, and all the men of the Malani. They all fight with me against the Darkness.” “That is one kind of Sword-Brotherhood” Karis replied “but in Li’is we have the way of swearing an oath of Sword-Brotherhood with those of our company or kin for whom we feel a special Brotherhood. A Sword-Brother is one that you know to be loyal – to you and to Light – and trustworthy, and courageous, and honourable. A Sword-Brother may even be a valiant maiden, like Tamorine, the maiden who helped defeat the first Darkness that came into Li’is.” “Or Krystha, Karis’ mother, who was a Way-Sharer on the Lightstone Way” added Karlin. “She and Lin, his father, were Sword-Brethren before ever they fell in love.” Corhan was looking thoughtful. “It seems a good thing to me” he said. “How blessed you are in your world of Li’is, to have so many men – and maidens- of such honour and courage.” Suddenly, Karis knew that Corhan was thinking again of his dream, and wondering whether another such valiant maiden as Tamorine might be his future Lady. Karis drew the True Sword and explained the vow of Sword-Brotherhood to the Malani, and they made the vow on the Sword’s hilt. When that was done, Corhan said “I am curious about your sword, Karis. For you have never been in Ma’al , and yet it has a look of the swords the ancient craftsmen of this world made, before it fell to Darkness. “And so it is, Corhan” Karis answered. “For the True Sword was brought out of Ma’al into Li’is by the First Lightfriends and the Ketai, and given to Brann to carry in the battle against Darkness. My father bore it on the Lightstone Way, but gave it to me to bring here, for where the Lightstone goes, so too does the True Sword.”

The four Swordsmen remounted and made their way back to the place of refuge, leading the purchased horses. When they reached the hiding place, the beasts were handed over for stabling, and they went in to join the others, who welcomed them gladly, happy at their safe return. But Zarel, Perceiving that something disturbed his kin, asked “Did something go amiss in the town, Karis?” and Dorvai also queried “Are you hurt?” as he saw the smear of blood on Karis’ sleeve. Karis had hoped not to mention the events that had occurred in the town, for he was afraid that the telling might bring new fear to Sharamine, but now it could not be avoided. So he explained, as briefly as possible, what had happened, and reassured them that, thanks to his Sword-Brethren, he had escaped with only a scratch. “Though in the skirmish I slew one of the mercenaries” he added, “and that weighs heavy on me.” Zarel comforted him “Remember what the Dancers told us before we came here, Karis. You cannot live like a Swordsman of Li’is in Ma’al. There is no fault in what you have done. And we know”, he added, “that those who live by the Darkness of Ma’al are judged of Light, and the Dark World doomed. I think the man had not much longer to live in any case.” Sharamine, as Karis had feared, was looking concerned. He said “We were not pursued, we made sure of that. There is no danger to anyone here.” “And we will set guards, as always” confirmed Corhan. “Everyone will be safe.” Sharamine said “But you were in danger in the town!” “No harm has been done” Karlin assured her. “And we had to go, to get the horses. Now we have transport for the less able.” Karis had not admitted, even to Karlin, that the admiration, concern and affection he had had for Sharamine had gradually grown into love for her. He did not want her to know, not until they were safe in Li’is. He remembered how she had been nervous, after their sham marriage, that he might use it to make demands on her that she did not want. To speak to her of his love, while they were still in Ma’al and she was not yet free of its laws, might make her question his motives again, and he did now want her to fear him.

Zarel was relieved that the four Swordsmen had escaped the attack. He had been concerned about the dangers of the town. But still, he thought, it had, by the Mercy of Light, turned out well in the end, and now they could use the carts to transport those Children of Light who might not have been able to withstand the rigours of a long journey on foot. As they had gathered the refugees, he had begun to realise that there were many more than he had expected. Ma’al was the Dark World, and he had thought the Darkness would be almost total, but the Lightfriends of Ma’al had been faithful and loyal in their service to Light, over the centuries, and though it was death to serve Light in Ma’al, still there were those who followed the Rule of Light, and they were more numerous than the handful Zarel had thought. There were all the Malani, and whole families and small communities of secret Children of Light. It made him glad, but also concerned. Once they reached the large open plain they must cross to reach the equivalent of the Meeting Place, such a large number of people could not but be seen by the Hawks, and no doubt pursuit was inevitable. His hand strayed to the Lightstone, and he felt ashamed of his doubts. Light had sent him here for a purpose, and Light would accomplish that purpose. He was still concerned enough,though, to gather Dorvai and the other Lightfriends, together with Karis, Karlin, Lorin, Talar , Corhan and Saban, to discuss the protection of the Children of light on the way to the Meeting Place. There were few Swordsmen among them, other than the Malani and those like the two brothers. Those that there were had mostly been trained by Corhan’s people, since otherwise, to receive training in the use of any weapon would mean joining a band of mercenaries. The other men were farmers, or had worked at various trades, and though they would no doubt be willing to defend their friends and families, would not have the skills to withstand trained fighters. The Dark Ones’ suppression of women, too, meant that only the Malani women were really capable of fighting, though the younger women would no doubt have done their best if threatened. So what Swordsmen there were must guard the rear and perimeters of the column of refugees, and, the others were very clear, Karis and Karlin must guard Zarel and the Lightstone, as the Dancers had charged them to. The Lightfriends would be positioned throughout the column, both to support and encourage the Children of light, and to be ready to alert the others, through the Thought-without-Words, if there was a threat to any sector of the column. That decided, Zarel felt more at ease. The safety of these people was a responsibility he felt keenly. After the discussions, there was still the matter of harnessing the horses they had obtained to the carts in the outbuildings and getting them used to pulling them, as well as checking that the carts were in good working order and the wheels firmly in place, for it would be disastrous to lose a wheel on the journey, when a cart was full of passengers. Karis and Karlin went to help Naton and some of the men from the Children of Light, and it took some time. Then they went back to the main building, where Dorvai and Zarel led the Evening Prayers, and afterwards, there were the people to be fed. So time passed quickly, and soon it was time to allot sleeping places in the various outbuildings, and to retire.

Karis woke early, startled by a dream of the previous day’s events. He did not feel that he could sleep again, and since Karlin and the other men were still asleep, he quietly made his way out into the air. Instinctively, he glanced round for any sign of danger, but all seemed peaceful. He noticed, though, that the door of one of the outbuildings was a little ajar, and went to see that all was well, since it was there that Sharamine had gone to sleep, with Whitestar and some of the other women and girls. He looked in quietly, so as not to disturb them, but saw that Sharamine’s place was empty. That, and the partly-opened door, caused Karis a moment of near-panic. He tried to assure himself that she had likely gone outside for some good reason, but still his quick gaze took in all the details of the empty sleeping place, searching for clues. Seeing something unusual propped up on a cross-beam above it, he went silently to investigate. It was a message from Sharamine – brief, and written with makeshift materials, soft chalky stone on a piece of smooth bark, hard to read. Karis carried it out into the light, sure of nothing but her name at the bottom. When he was able to decipher it, it said simply ‘I must go. Thank you for everything. Sharamine.’ He gave a little groan. Why had she gone? Had she been frightened by the events of yesterday? Had he, or one of the others, done or said something to drive her away? Or, in spite of the Malani guard, had she been carried off by that evil man or his minions. forced to leave a message to throw them off the scent? He had no doubt of her fate, if that were the case, and everything in him shuddered at the thought. Trying to think calmly, he realised that abduction was unlikely, since Sharamine would surely have struggled or screamed, and alerted the others sleeping there. But whatever the cause, he could not let her go like this.

Hurrying back to the sleeping place he had shared with Karis, he shook his nephew awake. Karlin looked up at his young uncle, startled, and then, seeing the anxiety in Karis’ face. asked “Karis – what is it?” “Sharamine has gone” Karis answered, showing him the piece of bark with its scrawled message. “Karlin, I must find her!” “But if she has gone of her own accord…” “I do not know that she has! And you know that there is danger, Karlin. I cannot let her go off alone!” “Then I will come with you.” “No! Karlin, you must stay. Zarel must be guarded. Whatever happens, he cannot fail.” “Then perhaps you should not go either” Karlin said, but gently. “Perhaps the Way is more important even than Sharamine’s safety.” Karis answered, with anguish in his voice now “I know, I know! But -” he hesitated a moment, then confessed “Oh, I love her, Karlin! If it were Janna, how would you feel? I must find her!” “I thought that might be the way of it” Karlin replied, “but you must set a limit to your searching, Karis – you know that.” “She cannot have got far – a maiden on foot. She would not have taken a horse. And she would not go back, she would go on. I will find her, Karlin.” “Light grant you do, Sword-Brother!” Karlin prayed. He went with Karis to where the horses were tethered, promised to tell Zarel everything, and, before Karis mounted, he embraced him and prayed Light’s protection on him, and on Sharamine. “Go in Light” he said “And in the Name of Light, Karis, be careful!””I will” Karis promised, seeing by Karlin’s expression how much his kinsman disliked his going off alone. He rode away from the decrepit farm and its buildings, alert for any sign of mercenaries or Hawks, but saw none. Hoping that a lone horseman would not be of interest should either appear, he made his way across the rough ground, heading in the general direction of the North. He was sure, as he had told Karlin, that Sharamine would not have turned back towards the towns, where danger lay. Perhaps she was hoping to reach the Meeting Place by herself, He kept alert, but it was by his Swordsman’s instincts alone, since his mind was turning over the question of why Sharamine had fled. He was concerned, too, that there were no landmarks of note to help with any return journey, should he find her, until he came to a range of low hills.

Karis took the risk of riding up onto a rocky outcrop to survey his surroundings. On the other side the land had slipped down a small cliff immediately to his right, while the rest led down into a natural depression, surrounded by rough, scrubby woodland. At the heart of the depression, though, lay something odd, a dark pool so perfectly circular that the Swordsman thought it had to be man-made. He turned his head a little, so that his keen sight was not hampered by the dull hazy glow that so often passed for sunlight in Ma’al, and stared down at the place. It was a round pit filled with a black, scummy, viscous-looking liquid, and, Karis saw with a shudder, containing animal bones, and what he thought, but could not be sure, were human remains too. Was it a place where bodies were disposed of? Round the perimeter of the pit was a mass of strange vegetation. Huge, flat fleshy things that might have been either leaf or fungus, grey-green in colour, in overlapping rows all pointing outwards from the pit. Beyond these again was a ring of thorny hedge, perhaps planted to keep out the curious. Between this hedge and the surrounding woodland was an area of dry, bare earth on which the only vegetation seemed to be a sprawling mass of ground-vines, such as those which were familiar to Karis from his own Forest. Karis rode down, intending to skirt round the woodland and go on, but checked as he saw, in a patch of slimy mud, a few small footprints heading directly towards the trees. The prints showed that Sharamine – if it were her – had stumbled. There were the prints of knee and hand. If it was her, he reasoned, and she was weary or hurt, her impulse might be to hide under the trees to rest, for fear of the Hawks. The horse seemed nervous as he rode into the woodland, which put him on his guard, for the mounts of the people of Ma’al must be well used to the many horrors of the Dark World. It was dark and dank under the trees, quite chilly after the stormy sultriness outside. Karis saw nothing that might make the horse skittish, but thought that perhaps some wild beast had its lair here. In a soft voice that still seemed loud in the dead silence of the woodland, he called “Sharamine, are you here? It is Karis.” There was no reply, and he rode on, finding the going difficult, for the trees were low and grew closely together. Only once did he think he saw a movement at the edge of his sight, but he could not be sure. At length Karis found himself on the inner edge of the woodland, having ridden right through it to the clearing around the sinister pit. Now he was here, he thought, he might as well go out into the clearing and see if there were more footprints crossing it anywhere. He cast a wary eye upward, but no Hawk was to be seen. A few spears of lightning flashed over him, with an accompanying rumble of thunder as they had experienced before in Ma’al. Karis knew that despite the lightning there was little fear of rain. He rode forward into the clearing, saw at once that the dry ground was too hard to show footprints, stopped, and turned a little in the saddle, his amber-brown eyes scanning the edges of the surrounding area.

His mount was fidgeting nervously, its feet dancing among the ground vines, until it stepped on one and almost stumbled. Karis, looking down to steady the horse, watched in stunned disbelief as the limp vine came suddenly to life, lashing up and around the beast’s front legs. Even then the Swordsman did not realise his danger, reaching for his sword to cut away the vine. But then the horse, pulled down by the rope-like vine, dropped to its knees, almost throwing Karis. As he watched, still immobilised by shock and disbelief, more of the vines came to life, some lashing upwards like whips, some squirming along the ground to take a firmer grasp of the imprisoned animal. One brushed his leg, and Karis came suddenly to his senses, his Swordsman’s instincts taking command. Too late to free the horse – perhaps too late to save himself! Thrusting his sword back in its sheath, he climbed up onto the saddle, then scrambled up the frantic beast’s haunches, reached up, and swung himself up into the branches of one of the low-growing trees, praying that the deadly vines were confined to the ground. The horse was squealing in terror, unable to free itself. Karis, having managed to pull himself astride a low branch, gripped it tightly as he watched, horrified, the struggling animal bound up tightly in the vines, which then began to contract, drawing the wretched beast towards the thorny palisade. To Karis’ shocked amazement, a section of this ‘hedge’ now lowered itself, and he saw a mass of sharp spines rise from it, glistening as if with oil. The vines dragged the horse onto these, then released it and relaxed, falling back to lie inert across the clearing again. The animal made one frantic effort to struggle to its feet, but then collapsed, rolled to and fro a couple of times, gave one great snort, and lay quite still – lifeless, Karis thought, and, for the beast’s sake, hoped, not knowing what fresh horror might follow. He soon saw, for the thorny mass lifted again, throwing the animal’s body onto the flat fleshy growths around the pit. From his vantage point, Karis could see these ‘leaves’ move with a wave-like motion, rolling the dead horse inward to the pit. There was an oily splash, a foul miasma arose around the half-submerged body, carrying a terrible, carrion stench up to Karis’ protesting nostrils, and there was only silence and stillness again. Karis clung to his branch, feeling that at any moment he would be horribly sick, but the nausea passed, and he was able to think clearly again. He realised that what he had seen from the ridge was not a man-made, hedged-in pit at all. The whole thing was one enormous, living organism, seeming half-plant, half-beast. At home in Li’is, he recalled, on the desert edges of the Eastern Continent, there were small carnivorous plants that trapped and digested insects. Here was a huge and much more deadly variation. The vines acted as a trap, then drew the victim on to the thorns, which Karis supposed injected some kind of paralysing poison. Then the victim was rolled into the pit to be digested.

He must find Sharamine! She was in deadly danger. Karis’ mind refused to accept the thought that she might already have been entrapped and poisoned and thrown into that horrible pit. He moved carefully across the branches of the tree, away from the clearing, and having made sure that the ground beneath him was clear of vines, dropped down. A quick survey showed him that the vines were confined to the bare area around the pit, and it was safe to walk among the trees. At least, he thought, he still had his weapons, the True Sword at his side, and his bow and arrows – praise Light he had slung them on his back and not on his saddle-bow. He began to move carefully through the woodland, calling for Sharamine. He had almost given up hope, trying not to think of the devouring pit-plant, when he suddenly heard a faint, answering cry. He ran forward, then checked as he found himself on the edge of the dreadful clearing once more. He saw her then, peering out at him, pale-faced, from the trees, a little way away, just a few fateful steps across the clearing … “Sharamine, stay there! Do not move! The vines…” he began, but she had already started forwards towards him. He drew his sword and ran towards her. leaping across the vines. He remembered that they had not moved until the horse had actually trodden on one – that must be the trigger. “Oh, Sweet Light, let her not step on them!” Karis prayed as he ran. But just a few seconds before he reached her, Sharamine did tread on a vine . It whipped round her ankles and snatched her feet from under her, but Karis leapt to catch her so that she fell, not amongst the greedy vines, but against him, held firm in his left arm as his right flashed down, his sword slashing through the vine. There was a hissing sound, the severed vine began to writhe and lash about, and black, oily liquid poured from it like blood. The part of it still wrapped round Sharamine’s ankles went limp and fell away, and Karis snatched her to safety in among the trees and dropped with her to his knees, his sword falling to the ground, holding her tightly to him. As well as his relief at finding her, he was overwhelmed by the thought that, if he had not been there, she would have been the pit-plant’s next victim. She was trembling in his arms, but he was shaking almost as much, and the face he had hidden in her dark hair was wet with tears. They clung together in silence for a long few minutes, recovering from their ordeal. At last Sharamine whispered, in a voice that still trembled, “Oh Karis, what was that foul thing ? A snake?” “No, not a snake” he said, hesitant to tell her all, but when she insisted “What was it, then?” he told her, wanting to leave out the part about the horse, but finding that he could not, if he wanted to explain adequately. When he had finished she looked white and sick, and he was sorry he had told her. But she said “Karis, praise Light you were here. I was foolish to go off alone. But can nothing be done to warn others about that – that thing?”

“Certainly we must do something” he said. “If any of those who wish to join us come this way, they are in mortal danger. If it were possible, I would destroy the thing.” He sheathed his sword, and cautiously they crept to the edge of the trees and surveyed the vines spread across the clearing, innocent-looking now, save that from one of them still pulsed the oily black liquid, where Karis had wounded it. More lightning flashed overhead, and Karis looked up, with the germ of an idea in his mind. He looked around, and shook his head, frustrated. “Karis, what are you thinking?” Sharamine asked. “See that black – sap”, he explained, “it has an oily look; I think it might burn. I have means to make fire, but there is nothing here dry enough to catch it.” Sharamine reached into the carrying pouch at her waist and pulled out a handful of dried moss used for kindling. “I have this”, she offered, ” and I can tear off the hem of my underskirt.” “Sharamine, this will serve well” he told her. “Tear the strips, then.” He struggled to catch a spark to the moss, blowing it gently, while behind him he heard the rending of cloth as she tore the undergarment. He took the strips she handed him, wrapped one round an arrowhead, set it alight from his little fire, and, while Sharamine kept the fire alight, fitted the burning arrow to his bow. “Now!” he said, “We shall see, Sharamine.” Karis aimed the arrow into the pool of black liquid which had pumped out of the severed vine. For a moment nothing happened, and the flame flickered as if the liquid would extinguish it. Then there was a sudden flare as the fire caught. The severed vine burned fiercely, but the other vines near it drew back, away from the heat. “It burns” Karis muttered ” but it is useless to attack the limbs. We must aim for the heart.” He scrambled up into a tree, and Sharamine handed up his bow, and when he was ready, one after the other, three arrows tipped with burning cloth. It was a difficult task to draw and shoot a bow, even Karis’ stubby one, among the branches of a tree, but Karis was skilful, and all three arrows fell into the heart of the black pit. He stayed in the tree long enough to see the scummy surface begin to take fire, then dropped down to join Sharamine.

“I think it will burn, now…” he was beginning, when there was a dull, muffled explosion, and a blast of hot air that snatched the breath from them. Karis managed to shout “Sharamine, get down!” and as she obeyed him, throwing herself to the ground, he dropped across her, shielding her with his body. A fiery rain fell around them as gouts of burning liquid exploded from the pit. The vines convulsed wildly as the fire burned down into them. The fleshy ‘leaves’ curled and shrivelled, the thorny hedge took fire and burned fiercely, and a stinking, choking fog arose over the burning pit. “We must get away from this place ” Karis said into Sharamine’s ear, “If we are not burned or choked, that smoke will bring the Hawks down on us!” “There is a small cave” the girl panted, trying not to breathe the acrid smoke, “at the foot of the rock, well hidden – I stayed there last night. I think they will not find us there.” “Come then, show me!” he told her, and they leapt up and ran through the dense-packed trees, stumbling and gasping, until they were out of the woodland and racing across open ground, eyes straining constantly upwards for signs of the Hawks. They were safe in the shadow of the rock face before the first bright sail-wing appeared in the distance, and Sharamine fumbled aside a curtain of hanging creeper to reveal a narrow gap beneath. If not for the imminent approach of the Hawks, Karis might have hesitated, being now very mistrustful of the vegetation in this place. Still, if Sharamine had spent the night here unharmed – and his estimation of her courage rose at the thought – it must be safe enough. She slipped into the cave entrance, and he followed her, the creeper dropping down behind them to conceal the gap in the rock.Inside the cave it was not totally dark, for a pale, ghostly phosphorescence glowed from the walls, giving a light very faint, but enough, once the eyes were used to it, to see a dim outline by. “Sharamine – you slept here?” he asked, thinking how frightened and uncomfortable she must have been. “Oh, it was not so bad!” she exclaimed, as if she had read his thought. “You know I have not been used to lie soft, Karis.”

He found her hand in the darkness. “Sharamine, why did you run away?” he asked. “Did I do anything to frighten you?” “Oh no, no!” she protested. “Then why?” Karis insisted. “I had not thought before” Sharamine answered, “what this sham marriage might mean. I did not realise that what was safety for me might be danger for you.” “You did not say this when Dorvai first suggested it” he said, not meaning it to sound like an accusation, but there was pain in her voice when she answered “oh, I know! It was selfish of me, but I was so afraid! I did not know how evil he was, Karis. I thought if he heard I was married, his fancy would turn elsewhere. How was I to know that he would take it as an insult, and be ready to kill you rather than be thwarted of his lust for me?” “It was not your fault” he responded. “There was no need for you to run away. If I had taken any risk, I did it willingly, and if he had caught and harmed you, it would all have been for nothing.” “I would rather I were harmed than you”, she said. “Being my husband, even if only in name, makes you his lawful prey as far as he is concerned. Ah, Karis, should I see you killed for my sake?” “I am a Swordsman of Li’is” he said. “I can defend myself, as I did yesterday.” “Only with help! And against a man of Ma’al?” she asked. “You are a man of honour, Karis. What do you know of the treachery and evil in a man like him? He would not meet you face to face. It would be the knife in a dark alley, or the poisoned cup paid for with a bribe.” “It does not matter” he answered her. “I have married you, sham or no, and you are under my protection.” “Then break the marriage!” she cried. “It can be done at the nearest town. Free yourself, and be out of danger.” “And you in it?” he answered. “Do you wish to insult me, Sharamine? Do you think I am such a coward?” “Ah, no!” she cried again. “But I wish I had never made this contract with you, Karis.” “Then why did you? And why change your mind now?” he demanded. “I told you why. It seemed the answer to my problem, and I knew you were an honourable man. But that was before…” She broke off, and he asked “Before what, Sharamine?” He thought that she probably would not have answered him, if they had not been in darkness, so that he could not see her face. “Before – before I …” she hesitated, then said, in a rush,” before I grew to love you, Swordsman from the other side of Light.” She said no more, but he could hear her crying. He said gently, “Sharamine, sweet, do not weep. There is no need. I love you too. Oh, I thought my heart and soul would turn to stone when I found you gone! My love, I was so afraid for you!” “Karis…” she said, wonderingly, and somehow he found her in the dimness and took her in his arms and kissed her, and told her again “I love you”, and kissed her once more. But there was still the danger overhead, and he had now to find the means to bring her safely back to where the others were.

Telling Sharamine “Stay here!” Karis moved back to the cave entrance and peered cautiously out between the hanging leaves. The stench of the burning plant-creature and a pall of smoke still hung in the air, but there was no sign of the Hawks now. He said “I think it is safe to move. But take care!” They crept carefully out of the concealed cavern and hurried in among the trees, skirting the burnt area. “We must try to get back to the others” Karis said , “but without horses it will be difficult.” “Oh Karis, it is all my fault!” Sharamine exclaimed. “Why was I so foolish! And why did you follow me?” “You know why” he told her, gently. “Maybe I was foolish too, Sharamine, but I could not bear to let you go off alone. It is pointless to talk like this, though. We must try to find our way back.” He was not happy about the open country they must traverse, though, but he tried to hide his concern from her. They came to the edge of the trees, and halted in alarm. A young man, looking like a Swordsman rather than a mercenary, stood in their path, and he was holding the reins of three horses. Karis’ hand went to his sword-hilt. The man must have companions – where were they? But when the man spoke, his words were reassuring. “Have no fear. I am not an enemy. I have been sent to take you back to the Lightstone-Bearer.” Karis was doubtful – it might be a trap. Yet surely only a Child of Light would know of the Lightstone-Bearer, and he somehow felt the man was to be trusted. Still, he challenged “Who are you, and how do you know of the Lightstone-Bearer?” “I stand on the side of Light” the man replied. “My name is Mihel. There is no time to waste. The Hawks have gone back, but only to report. There will be others here to investigate what has caused the destruction of the Naqad.”Karis decided it was better to trust the stranger, Mihel, than to risk trying to get back to Zarel without help. “Very well” he said. He helped Sharamine to mount one of the horses and swung into the saddle of another. Mihel mounted too, and looked up. The overcast sky had darkened, and again they heard a sharp crack overhead. The stranger said ” Good, there is lightning. Maybe they will think it was lightning that did this.” And as they began to turn away, almost as if he had foretold it a bolt of lightning did hit one of the trees near the thing he had called the Naqad, and set it alight. A breeze sprang up and blew sparks and burning twigs into the still smouldering, oily pit, and little flames reignited. The breeze dropped again as quickly, and Mihel nodded, as if in satisfaction. Karis and Sharamine exchanged questioning glances, but Mihel said “Quickly now, follow me!” and they obeyed.

Karis could not have said how far he had ridden in his urgent search for Sharamine, nor what the surrounding country had looked like, but he was sure that the mysterious Swordsman Mihel must have known a shorter route back to the hiding place of the Children of Light, for they reached it much more quickly than he had expected, As they neared the place, Mihel said “You will be safe now. I must leave you here.” Karis, surprised, asked “You will not come with us to the Lightstone-Bearer?” Mihel shook his head. “Not now. I have other tasks to perform. But I will return. Tell Zarel that I will join you later, to help with the Way. Go in Light, Karis, Sharamine.” He raised a hand in farewell, and turned his horse away from them. Karis called “What of these horses, Mihel?” The Swordsman turned his head and called back “Keep them – I brought them for you. You will need them.” As he rode away, Karis and Sharamine were looking at each other in surprise. They had not given their names to Mihel, and Karis had deliberately not named Zarel, yet the Swordsman had known all. Perhaps, suggested Karis, Zarel and the Lightfriends had used the Thought-without-Words to contact other Lightfriends who had sent Mihel? That might explain it – though how would he have know where to find them? Sharamine agreed that that was the most likely explanation, and they turned back to look at Mihel, But he must have ridden very quickly round the curve of a nearby small hillock, for he was already out of sight. “Let us get to safety!” Karis urged, and they rode up the rough path to the farm. He was not surprised to find Zarel and Karlin waiting for them, guessing that Zarel would have Perceived their approach. As they dismounted, Karlin came forward to embrace Karis, exclaiming “Praise Light you have both returned safely, Sword-Brother!” Zarel too expressed relief, but his welcome seemed more muted, and Karis was suddenly, uncomfortably, aware that in going off after Sharamine, he had likely broken his vow to Zarel, the Lightstone-Bearer. He began to speak, but Zarel said, “Wait, Karis, till we are safely inside.” His tone was not harsh, though, and Karis took comfort in that.

Inside the farm the others were waiting, happy to see them return safely. Only when all the greetings and thankful praises to Light had been given did Zarel say “Karis, Sharamine, come with me” , and lead them to the curtained space which was being used as a Prayer Place. Once there he turned to face them, but before he could speak, Sharamine burst out “Oh Zarel, please – please do not scold Karis! It was my foolishness that caused him to follow me – I was in the wrong, to go off alone, and he only came after me to save me from danger – and indeed, he did save my life! Blame me, not him!” Zarel answered her gently “Sharamine, I am not here to blame. No doubt you had your reasons for leaving, and Karis’ intentions in following you were honourable and courageous. But still, he made a vow before Light and he has broken it. So he needs to repent, and make his peace with Light.” He smiled, then, and said “Light is merciful, and will forgive, and so do I.” “Then I too need to make my peace with Light” Sharamine said “since it was my fault that he broke his vow.” So each of them in turn stood before Zarel, and let him set his Perception on them, and lead them in repentance and surrender to Light. When that was done, he touched the Lightstone to each of their brows, and the light flooded over them in forgiveness and blessing. Afterwards, Karis asked, “Zarel, who was it sent the Swordsman Mihel to guide us back here? Did you and the Lightfriends make the Thought-without-Words?” Zarel was puzzled. “We did, but only to ask if any had seen you or Sharamine. I know nothing of this Mihel.” “But he knew our names – and yours!” Sharamine told him. “And he knew of the Way” Karis added. “He said he must leave us, now we were safe, because he had other tasks to perform, but he said ‘tell Zarel that I will join you later, to help with the Way.'” “That is strange indeed!” Zarel replied. “You were sure of him, Karis? He could not have been some spy of the Dark Lords?” “He said he stood on the side of Light, Zarel. And I did trust him. I do not know why, but I felt we were safe with him” Zarel paused, then asked “May I Perceive your memories of him? If I can see the man as you saw him, I might understand better.” Both of them readily agreed,and again he set his Perception on them in turn. When he had done so, he said “I wonder, where did the Swordsman come from? You are right, Karis, I could Perceive no Darkness in him. Yet still it is strange that he knows so much about us. We will ask Dorvai if he has heard of this Mihel.” When questioned, however neither Dorvai nor any of the other Lightfriends knew of Mihel, or any Child of Light who might have sent him to help Karis and Sharamine. So, thinking that as a Swordsman he might be known to the Malani, Zarel enquired if Corhan or Saban had ever encountered Mihel, but they had no knowledge about him either. “He said he would return” Karis reminded Zarel ” and when he does, we will question him further.” So with that they had to be content, for the time being.

AN END OF DARKNESS

Chapter 6

It was no longer surprising to Zarel when, after they had made the Morning Prayers in the tent set aside for that purpose, he felt led to bring out the Lightstone, and saw it immediately begin pulsing again. Now the Children of Light and the other Lightfriends saw what he and Whitestar had seen, as the Lightstone sent out its call to the Children of Light, and he could sense that it heartened them. “The Lightstone has called” he said ” so no doubt there will soon be others joining us.” “They will know to come to the Malani” Whitestar said ” for safe guidance.” “Then we must wait for them” Zarel answered “before we move on. Light knows all, and we will be led of Light.” Karis, watching the young Priest, thought that he had matured rapidly since they entered Ma’al. No doubt the Lightstone was working in him, making him more confident and yet more reliant than ever on Light. The Lightstone-Bearer had accepted the task laid on him by Light, and was growing in his determination to fulfill it. Now Zarel asked “Dorvai, are there many more safe havens where we can gather the Children of Light?” The Lightfriend told him “There are two main places of refuge between here and the Seacoast Town. Along the coast there are some caverns, not easy to access from land or sea, but the Lightfriends of old created a secret way into them from the clifftops above. And near to the Seacoast Town there is an abandoned farm. The land is worked out and too poor now for crops or grazing, so it was left to fall apart. There is no reason for anyone to come near it, and the Malani guard the way if any should be curious. The Children of Light must live among the people of Ma’al, but they know those who are followers of Light and they are cautious of others.”

“And the Lightfriends?” asked Karis. “Some of us stay at the safe havens, others in other places of concealment. We will meet with the Children of Light when we can, as Naton did, but we must always be wary. To the people of Ma’al, indoctrinated as they are by the Dark Lords and the Night Lords, we are traitors, outlaws, and there are rewards for any who find and betray us. It can be seen at once, of course, that we have Perception, and there is no hiding who we are – though we would not wish to, since that would be to deny our service to Light.” “Have many of the Lightfriends been captured, then?” Karlin queried, concerned for Zarel’s safety. “Praise Light, we have lost none of our number for many years now” Dorvai told him. “We are vigilant, and the Malani protect us as much as possible. Some of the Children of Night have been taken by the Hawks – my wife was one -” he paused for a moment, then continued ” but none of them would betray us. They know what would happen to any Lightfriend who fell into the hands of the Dark Ones – torture, a show trial, and execution.” Zarel said “That threat will soon be past, praise Light! When this Way has ended you will be safe in Li’is and the world of the Dark Ones will be destroyed. You will be free, Dorvai.”

As Zarel had predicted, the Children of Light had felt and followed the call of the Lightstone. Corhan had set his Swordsmen to keep watch for the travellers and guide them to safety. They came in ones and twos, in little families, and one small group accompanied by one of the Lightfriends. Karis, looking over the new arrivals, felt some anxiety. Besides little Kilmo, there were several other small children , a couple of pregnant women, though not in as advanced a state of pregnancy as Corhan’s sister Daria, and some older folk, The Swordsman was concerned over how these more vulnerable travellers would make the long journey to the Meeting Place. True, Zarel had said there was no need of haste, but once they were past the last safe haven and there was danger of pursuit, they would have to make arrangements to get them to safety. There were some horses, but not all of them would be able to ride, and the Malani’s light transporting sledges would not carry a human burden. For now, though, they concentrated on welcoming the newcomers and explaining the journey to those who were not sure why they were there. Zarel touched each of them with the Lightstone as they arrived, to strengthen and reassure them. Once that was done, and the group had been introduced to the others and all had eaten, Zarel and Whitestar left them to return to the Prayer Place and make the Thought-without-Words, to tell those in Li’is how the Way was progressing.

Mellin’s party were on the move again, having left the First Faring House, but halted when the Perception-gifted felt the call of the Thought-without-Words, and dismounted to rest while the communication took place. Aila and Arenel joined Aren and Moondancer in making the link, and were relieved to hear that so far all was going well and the ingathering of the Lightfriends and Children of Light was succeeding. When the link was broken, Aren told the others what was happening. “Zarel says they will not make haste, until it is necessary, for they need to travel at the pace of the slowest. It seems that Light is drawing the Children of Light to him through the Lightstone, as the Dancers said, and more are gathering. They have the protection of the Malani, and safe havens between them and the place where the Merchant Town would be if they were in Li’is, but after that he is not sure.” They had crossed the belt of scrubland beyond the First faring House, and now remounted and headed on towards the Red Forest. The track they had been following had narrowed, and as they neared th e Red Forest they all grew quieter, sensing the oppressive atmosphere of the place. Aren, whose Perception and Moondancer’s had become closely linked by their communication with their twins in Ma’al, Perceived that the girl-Priest was much more uneasy than the rest of them.

They entered the Forest and rode through the sickly-looking trees, until they came to the place where the trees began to turn red, tainted by the ancient Darkness, and here Moondancer gasped “What is this place? I feel the Darkness of Ma’al close here, as I have not felt it since I came into Li’is!” It was Aren who answered her. “It is the Red Forest, and it is blighted by the presence of the Ruins of the Dark City, which the Dark Lords built when they tried to take possession of Li’is. They were defeated, though, by Brann and Tamorine and the Lightfriend Rafel, the first Lightstone-Bearer, and driven out of Li’is. Their city was destroyed, but the ruins are accursed, and nothing will live or grow there.” Aila added “The Children of Night made of it a place sacred to them, to carry out their vile rituals, and on the Lightstone Way my father and mother and Mellin’s encountered great evil here. But since the Night Temple was destroyed and their Priestess Si-Mara killed by the Night Lords, that seems to have stopped. Her body was interred in the ruins, as it was the only place that her presence could not taint, and the few Children of Night that remain fear the place now.” “But if she was their Priestess, why did the Night Lords kill her?” asked Lira, who did not know the story. “Because she failed them” her mother told her. “She was intended to prepare Marla to be a focus of Darkness and the new Bloodstone-wielder, but Marla turned to Light and destroyed the Bloodstone, and the Night Lords took their revenge on Si-Mara. Your father and I saw it happen, at a distance, from the walls of the Fortress.”

Moondancer said “Yet there is still some link between this place and Ma’al, for it is the only place in Li’is that has felt to my Perception like Ma’al itself.” They had continued riding as they spoke, and had now reached a place where they could glimpse the tumbled Ruins of the Dark City. Peering cautiously through the trees in case, despite their assurances, there might be any Children of Night in the vicinity, Aren pointed out the massive, broken stones to Moondancer. She stared at the ruins, then declared that here was the focus of the Darkness that she Perceived, though Aren, Arenel and Aila only felt a keener sense of the oppressive atmosphere. Moondancer, however, was used to the sense of Darkness of Ma’al, and they accepted what she said. “It may be that this place would be a foothold in Li’is for the Dark Ones” Mellin suggested, but that the Dancers guard us from them.” Marla agreed, and said “Maybe once Light’s judgement falls on Ma’al, this place will be set free of their influence.”

Zarel had gathered the Children of Light together again, feeling it wise to tell them something of Li’is, and what would await them there. “You will all be welcome” he assured them, “and Light has prepared the way for you. There will be Priests and Healers and Children of Light to meet you when you come through the Dancers’ Gate, and to tend to your needs.” He went on to tell them the way of life in Li’is, how they would be free to worship Light and to live and move anywhere they wished, without fear. They listened intently, and he could sense their unspoken response – joyful anticipation, yes, but also trepidation about the journey ahead, which was natural. They would be a large enough company by the time they neared the end of their journey to be bound to attract unwanted attention. So the Lightstone-Bearer told them of the plans that had been formulated for the protection of the travellers, to try to assuage their fears. The meeting was interrupted by the arrival of Corhan, with some news from his outlying sentries. “You Lightfriends and Children of Light must stay inside the tents” he warned them, “for our guards have seen mercenaries out on the plain. It may be that some information has reached them that there has been movement near here, for the Dark Ones have eyes everywhere. Our guards will let themselves be seen by the mercenaries, and that will cause them to assume that it was only the Malani who were travelling around, as we often do, and report so to their masters.” “Will not your guards be in danger, then?” asked Karis. “No, the mercenaries know our reputation as fighters. They know also that there is no plunder to be had from the Malani, for we live simply. They would not risk attacking us, with nothing to gain.” The others, though somewhat concerned, seemed reassured by Corhan’s words, and promised to obey his order to stay inside. Karis, though, could not help wondering whether the mercenaries were really investigating suspicious movement, or if they might be hunting for Sharamine, paid by her unwanted suitor. He said nothing, though, not wanting to alarm her. “Light grant that there are no more Children of Light on the way here” said Dorvai “if there are mercenaries nearby.” “My guards have seen no other travellers” Corhan replied ” but they are posted along the likely routes, if any should still need to join us. Even if there are no more to come, we will not move on until we are certain that there is no danger.”

Zarel offered a silent prayer of thanks to Light for the protection of the Malani. When he had first been told that he must go into Ma’al, he had been confused and afraid, but had clung to his faith in Light, knowing that the Lightstone had passed to him for this very reason. The presence of Karis and Karlin with him had been a comfort, but also added to his concern, for he feared for them too. As he had taken step after step of faith, however, he had been rewarded by a growth in his trust in and reliance on Light, while the Lightstone had, as Aiel had promised, strengthened and refined his communication with Light. He felt that as he moved further along the Way which Light had allotted to him, each time he took a step into the unknown, he found that Light had already made provision for it, such as the presence of the Malani. “We shall certainly wait until the danger has passed” he agreed now with Corhan, “for we cannot risk the Way by rushing ahead of Light’s timing.” Despite his faith and trust in Light, though, he found the situation concerning, not for his own sake, but for that of those he was gathering together. He withdrew to a quiet corner and took out the Lightstone, gazing into it for strengthening. When he laid it down he found Whitestar had followed and was standing beside him, her look anxious. “Is it well with you, Zarel? I feel you are disturbed.” That was true, Zarel thought, for he had never missed his twin as much as then, the reassurance that they drew from each other, halves of a whole, the knowledge that if the whole of Li’is had misunderstood him, Aren would not. Whitestar must be feeling the same about Moondancer, for he knew that she would, must, react as he did. In a way he and she too were halves of a whole, as were Aren and Moondancer; another twinning of worlds and times, making possible the fulfillment of the Secret Word that spoke of ‘two and two…out of their place’.

He said softly “I think it is that I am missing Aren now. Are you still as lonely for Moondancer?” Whitestar looked into his face with a serious expression. “I am lonely for her still, yes. And yet, I think – not as lonely as I would have been if you were not here, Zarel.” Zarel knew what she meant. For him too the loneliness had been blunted by her presence. He had expected it to be the companionship of Karis and Karlin, the strangeness of a new world, the honour of being the Lightstone-Bearer, which would make Aren’s absence bearable. All these had helped, but it had been the company of this girl-Priest, who understood exactly what his parting from his twin meant because it was happening to her too, that had comforted him most. He looked back at her, as seriously, and answered “For me also, Whitestar, it is not as lonely as if you were not here.” “I am glad” she said, smiling now, and he smiled back. “I have been concerned, too, for the Children of Light” he admitted ” for they are my responsibility. I know that Light has sent me into Ma’al to bring them safely to Li’is, through the power of the Lightstone, and the melodies of the Dancers, and their ability to make the Gate. I do have faith, I do trust Light, Whitestar, yet still I feel the burden of this Way, for I know I must not fail.” “You will not fail” she said, stoutly, ” or Light would not have chosen you to be the Lightstone-Bearer, Zarel.” “My grandfather, Aiel, has told me how it would be, for he was the Lightstone-Bearer for many years. He said that though his spirit was always strong in Light and had complete faith, still his human heart and mind could be clouded by doubts and fears. It is as though a man were at war with himself.” “I think it is so with all of us who serve Light” the girl-Priest answered. “But I believe also that the battle with ourselves makes us stronger in Light, in the end, Zarel.” “You are wise, Whitestar,” he responded ” and you are right. Light will bring us safely into Li’is, or I would not be here.”

The Dark Ruins safely behind them now, Mellin’s party were on the road to the Second Faring House. None of them had ever been there, though they had heard how the four original Way-Sharers had found help and kindness and much-needed sympathy and tending there, after their horrifying experiences in the Dark Ruins. Aila knew , too, that it was there that Mellin’s grandmother, Alira, had been brought when she had fled in despair from the Darkness that had entrapped her, and had been restored to Light by Aiel with the Lightstone, going on to be reconciled with her husband, Merhaun, and live happily with him until his death. Aila wondered if any of the Priestly family that had given Aiel and the others succour then remained at the Faring House, though it had been many years since then. The road was long and it was late afternoon before they reached the Second Faring House. As they rode into the courtyard, a figure in Priestly robes, the Keeper of the Faring House, came to the door to welcome them. When introductions had been made, the man smiled, and said “So, you are the families of the Lightstone-Bearer and the Waysharers! It is long since I met them. I am Tavis.” Aila said “Oh, I was wondering if your family still kept the House! It is good to meet you, Tavis. It is a long time indeed. I suppose your parents have touched Light?” “My father, Brath, has indeed touched Light” he told them ” but my mother still lives, though she is elderly. She is resting now, but will be at the evening meal, and will be very happy to see you.” “Lady Saditha still lives?” asked Mellin. “My father and mother have fond memories of her. She helped them greatly when they experienced such evil in the Dark Ruins. I will be happy to meet her too.”

“And the Lightstone Way continues, though there is a new Lightstone-Bearer?” Tavis asked. “We received the call to prayer for the transfer to Ma’al, and though I cannot leave the House, my sons and their wives, who are Healers, are making their way to the Gatehouse to help those Light will rescue from there. No doubt you are bound there also?” “We are” Arenel confirmed. “It is my son, Zarel, who is the new Lightstone-Bearer, and when he went into Ma’al this Lightfriend, Moondancer, came to us from there.” Tavis expressed his pleasure at meeting Moondancer, and Arenel went on to explain about the connection between the two sets of twins which kept open the communication between the two worlds of Li’is and Ma’al, and how it was foretold in the Secret Word. Tavis, as thoughtful as his mother, said “Ah, Aren and Moondancer, you must miss your twins. You will be glad whenever you are together again.” They followed him into the Faring House, where he introduced his Lady, Vara. She was accompanied by three small children, which confused them for a moment, till she laughingly explained “My grandchildren! Their mothers have gone to the Gatehouse, and I have the care of the little ones till they return.” “And is enjoying every moment!” Tavis teased her. Tavis showed them all to their rooms, where they could leave their gear and prepare for the evening. Moondancer had chosen to share with Rentha again as the sisters, Lira and Janna, would naturally be together, and Mella was happy enough on her own. As they sorted their belongings, Rentha said to Moondancer “So, it seems Lady Saditha is still here, after all, and you will meet her.” “I shall be interested” the girl-Priest replied, “for from what Mellin said, it seems she made good use of her Perception as a Healer.”

When they gathered for the evening meal, it was an unusual group. The elderly Lady Saditha, refreshed from her rest, had joined them. It was very rare for a daughter of the Priesthood to be born with Perception, so much so that many in Li’is had never seen one. Yet here were three; Lady Saditha, Aila, and Moondancer. Naturally the Keepers of the Faring House were curious, themselves, to know more about Moondancer, and the Lightfriends of Ma’al, and she told them about her life there, rousing sympathy and admiration in equal measure. Asked about her family, she had to tell, again, of the death of her mother, and once more Aren lent her the support of his Perception. Lady Saditha and her family were quick to offer words of comfort too. When the conversation turned to Zarel and Whitestar’s journey in Ma’al, with Karis and Karlin, the Secret Word was discussed again, especially the part relating to the two sets of twins. “It is amazing that the fulfillment of the Secret Word has depended so much on the marriages it led to” said Tavis, “but Light knows all beforehand, and all that Light does in our lives works out for good.” Lady Saditha was looking thoughtfully at Moondancer and Aren. Aila, glancing at her, felt the touch of her Perception and opened her own to it. ‘Two and two’ the other Healer’s thought told hers. ‘Maybe it does not mean only the two brothers and two sisters. Aren and Moondancer, Zarel and Whitestar – I feel they belong together.’ ‘You think they are in love?’ Aila’s Perception asked. ‘Not yet. But I think they will be.’ Lady Saditha’s thought replied, and she smiled at Aila. Aila considered Lady Saditha’s conclusions as she ate. Certainly there was a unique bond between the two brothers and the two sisters, and it was not unlikely that Light meant more by their being together than the outworking of the Secret Word. Loves had come out of the Lightstone Way before, and might again.

Two of Corhan’s Swordsmen had appeared at the camp with a final group of refugees. They had gathered a father and his two sons, one almost grown to manhood, the other younger, and two women, an aunt and niece, found travelling, and escorted them safely away from the mercenaries. All were grateful to reach safety. The man explained that his wife had died of fever some years back. “We have all sought for more Children of Light”, the Malani explained, ” and found these, but no others.” “The Lightstone is no longer calling” Zarel replied. “It seems that all who were to come from hereabouts have arrived. We may move on when it is safe.” “Then we shall go to our next safe haven” Dorvai said. “That is the caverns you spoke of?” asked Zarel. “Yes” answered Dorvai. “The ancient Lightfriends found them, and knew they would be a secure place. The lower caverns are visible on the beach below, but there is no way down to them, and when the sea is high enough for a boat to come in, the lower caverns are full of water and cannot be entered. The only route in from the cliff-top, when they were discovered, was a deep hole, very steep and dangerous. The Lightfriends worked to make it a safe entrance by cutting steps into the sides, and to conceal it they made a door. It is covered with earth and turf, and over the years has grown so that it seems one with the rest of the cliff-top.” Karis exclaimed “But we cannot take horses down there! And if we leave them tethered nearby, surely they might betray us?” Corhan told him “The Malani will keep the horses, Karis. We will not join you in the caverns but camp some way away, for our guards will still be on watch for any incomers, or for any danger to you.” Karis still had doubts, wondering if the children, the elderly, and the pregnant women would be able to descend safely into the caverns, but did not voice them, thinking that they could be helped, at need, and that Light was with them and would keep all safe. “Is it far to the caverns?” Karlin asked, forestalling Karis’ next question. “A two days’ journey” Dorvai replied “but we travel under the cover of the Malani, and in any case there is no reason for any to be abroad in the wild places, to see us.” “And more will join us there” said Zarel. It was not a question, and Dorvai said “You are right, Zarel. The Lightfriends know the place, and will guide the Children of Light.”

Next morning the Malani broke camp once more, and they moved on, heading for the caverns. As they neared the sea coast, Zarel, Karis and Karlin raised their heads as they caught the familiar sea scent, and Corhan looked at them enquiringly. “You Perceive something, Zarel?” “No, it is the smell of the sea, Corhan. It reminds us of home, for our City, where the Temple is, lies on the sea coast by the Harbour, and Karis’ father, Karlin’s grandfather, is Lord of the Harbour.” Yet he thought that even this familiar smell had something different about it, something of the strangeness of Ma’al. Whitestar’s Perception touched his, and he felt her concern that he might be feeling homesick, missing Aren and his home and family. Quickly he reassured her and thanked her for the kind thought. They were on a long ridge, one side falling gently away to a belt of trees, the other slowly widening and flattening out towards the sea. It seemed quite exposed to Karis and Karlin, but Corhan was at ease, so they trusted his judgement. Again they were travelling at the pace of the slowest, and pausing for rest and refreshment, so were still in fairly open country when evening came. The Malani set up camp again, and guards were posted, so that the weary travellers could rest in safety.

At the Second Faring House, the travellers had spent a pleasant evening. Lady Saditha had enquired after Aiel and Arentha, Lin and Krystha, and especially Alira, and was pleased with what they could tell her. Since the Second Faring House had played no part in Marla’s Way, she was glad to meet her and hear her story too. She was also intrigued by Moondancer’s service to Light in Ma’al. “Perhaps” she said with a smile ” it is time that in Li’is too all with Perception served, not just the men!” Arenel smiled back at her. “It is a good thought, Lady. It has never been the intention to exclude those of our daughters with Perception – they are trained in its use, as you know. It is just that there have always been sons to carry on the Priesthood, and it has not been the custom to have women as Priests. But they can act as a Priest, at need.” That was true, Aila thought, for on Marla’s Way she had been able to help both Janir and Mellin make their peace with Light, when they did not feel able to go to Aiel or Arenel. “I am glad to have met you all, and had news of the Way-Sharers, before I touch Light” said the elderly Healer, “for I think I shall not meet you again.” She smiled at Moondancer, and said “Light bless you especially, child, and all who come into Li’is from Ma’al.” “Thank you, Lady” Moondancer responded, moved by the blessing, “and Light keep you.” They went to their beds happy and relaxed, and slept well. Next morning they made the Morning Prayers, ate a good breakfast, and were ready to leave. Lady Saditha was not there, for Tavis told them that in view of her age she tired easily and needed to sleep, but she had given him kind and loving messages to pass on to them. As they rode away, Moondancer said “I am glad we met Lady Saditha. She is a true Lightfriend, even if she does not serve as one, and so kind.” The others agreed, and Aila commented that it was sad that they were unlikely to meet her again, as she was so old. Arenel, though, comforted his sister “We shall meet her again one day, Aila, in the Joyous Place.” Now, they told Moondancer, they must make their way over the Plateau of the Westerners to the Merchant Town on the sea coast. Lira said “Will there be anyone in the Kets’ camp? My father said that he, the Kets, and the Westerners would be going to the Gatehouse with the tents for the incomers from Ma’al.” Zohra told her niece ” We would never leave the Plateau deserted, Lira. There are still herds and horses to tend, and the Kets’ camp must be maintained in case of need. My brother and Shala will surely be there, and some of the Elders.”

Zarel, Karis and Karlin, with the Malani, were continuing their journey, leading the Lightfriends and Children of Light of Ma’al on the next part of the Way. Dorvai and Whitestar were with them at the head of the column. The few horses that were not pulling the Malani’s travelling sledges carried those less able to walk the long distances, and the Malani surrounded the refugees to guard them. They were now on a wide headland above the sea, cliffs on one side, a steep slope down to the continuing belt of trees on the other. Corhan told them “When we reach the safe haven, we will make camp down there, on the moor beyond the trees. Then we can guard the approaches.” Karis asked “Do the Malani often come this far? Will it not cause comment?” “No” Corhan said. “We wander at will, and it surprises no one if we appear in their vicinity. As I told you, they think poorly of us, and we have encouraged them to think so over the years, as it gives us freedom to protect the Lightfriends.””What of the Hawks?” asked Karlin. “They do not fly this way” said Saban. “There are no towns or routes of travel to spy on, and the air currents near the cliffs are not helpful to their flight.”
Karlin was relieved, for he had been thinking that their column of refugees would be a prominent target for those spies of the Dark Lords.

It was not until almost dusk that they reached the place for which they were aiming. It was not easy to enter the Lightfriends’ safe haven, for it had not been used recently, and the concealing trapdoor had to be freed of enough overgrowth for it to open, without so much being removed that it was visible. The steep descent below looked difficult, and reminded Karis and Karlin of Tamran’s Stairway by the Falls of Vandar. However, there were stout ropes running alongside the steps so that those going down would have something to hold on to. “We must light the way” Dorvai said, and Corhan nodded and turned to call some of his warriors, Following his orders, they lit torches and went nimbly down the stairway to provide light for the others. It took some time, but eventually all of the Lightfriends and Children of Light were gathered in the now well-lit caverns. Corhan and Saban had come down too, to ensure that all was well with them while the Malani made camp. These caverns were neither as well-appointed nor comfortable as the ones they had left behind. The constant flow of the sea in and out of the lower caverns made them colder and damper, and the space was more confined. There was a central hearth for a fire, and some fuel ready for it, but they would certainly be in some discomfort from the smoke of any fire, though it would eventually dissipate through the cracks and crevices in the rock. Karis thought that he would rather have stayed in camp with the Malani, but realised that Dorvai must have a good reason for preferring the caverns.

As the others helped light the fire and settle the refugees, Dorvai and Naton went back towards the entrance to collect the baggage which had been left there. Karlin went with them in case they needed protection, but as they reached the entrance they were surprised to see two of the Malani Swordsmen hurriedly descending the steps. The Malani spent a few moments in quiet and hurried discussion with Dorvai, before he turned to the others with an anxious expression and signed to them to follow him back to the caverns. The two Malani went back up the steps, presumably to stand guard over the entrance, as Dorvai hurried Naton and Karlin back to the caverns. When they reached them, Dorvai said sadly “There is grave news.” “What is it?” asked Karis. “Valin – one of the Lightfriends – has been captured by mercenaries. He had nearly reached us, but they came on him by chance.” “What will they do with him? Will they kill him?” Karlin asked anxiously. Dorvai said “They will not kill him, unless there is risk of him escaping. They will be paid more if they take him to the Dark Ones for a show trial before he is executed, than if they take them a dead body.” “Then there is hope of rescuing him!” Karis said. “A slight chance” Dorvai replied, “but if the mercenaries think they will lose their prize, they will kill him. Still” he added with a sigh “better that, than be taken to the Dark Ones for torture and execution. He would touch Light.”

Karlin, considering this, had a memory come to mind – his mother at her Healer’s bench, filling two phials. “Karis!” he exclaimed “The sweetwood powder!” “Ah, yes!” Karis said. “I had forgotten that, Karlin! That would work, if we can get near enough to use it, without the mercenaries hearing.” Corhan gave him a questioning look. “Another weapon, Karis?” It was Karlin who explained. “Sweetwood – I do not know if you have it in Ma’al. The tree yields a spice useful to Healers. In a draught it can cause sleep, or unconsciousness at need. A Healer might use that if a wound needs to be treated and would cause much pain, for example. In powder form it will render someone almost instantly unconscious, though the effects do not last very long. My mother gave us each a phial of the powder, in case we should need it in Ma’al.” “It needs caution in use, though” Karis added. “It would not do to breathe it yourself, you would be rendered as helpless as your enemy.” “We would need to mask our faces.” Karlin said. “How close are they?” asked Corhan. “There is no danger to this place?” “Valin would have said nothing” Dorvai assured them “and, as I said, the mercenaries were nearby by chance. This place is well hidden. They are in the woods at the foot of the hill. Your guards brought us word, Corhan. They saw what happened, but were not near enough to intervene without endangering Valin.” “Then we must make a plan” Karis said. “It is best if Karlin and I use the sweetwood, since we know how to overcome them and avoid the effects ourselves. As Karlin said, we will need to mask our faces, which may alarm Valin. Corhan, he would trust the Malani, so perhaps it is best if you and Saban free him.” “Then let us hope he is not tied between them” Karlin said “or he will be overcome too.” “In which case we would cut him free and carry him to safety.” Karis replied. “We cannot take horses, for the mercenaries would hear us.” “It is not too far, by what Dorvai says” Corhan commented, ” so no need of horses.”

Plans made, the four Swordsmen climbed the rough stairway. Corhan exchanged a few words in an undertone with the Malani on guard, before the four slipped quietly away from the hiding place in case, despite Dorvai’s reassurances, there should be any observers. All of them were skilled at moving noiselessly, and soon saw the light of the mercenaries’ campfire among the trees. Karis and Karlin tied the masking cloths around their faces and signed to the Malani to hang back. Creeping through the trees, they saw, with relief, that the captured Lightfriend had been tied to a tree on the opposite side of the fire to the mercenaries, so Karlin slipped back to Corhan and Saban and signed to them to go around to that side, then rejoined Karis. Now the kinsmen moved stealthily closer to the mercenaries and saw that they had evidently been celebrating their capture, for an empty wine flagon lay between them. That was good, thought Karis, since the wine might have already rendered them befuddled, before they used the sweetwood. He signed to Karlin, and the two Swordsmen, phials of sweetwood in hand, advanced. Quickly they seized the mercenaries by their necks from behind, forcing their heads down to inhale the narcotic spice. Both men struggled briefly, but then the drug overcame them and they slumped to the ground. “Corhan – now!” Karis called. The two Malani quickly released the captive and hurried him away through the trees, while Karis and Karlin, after making sure the mercenaries were not coming round, quickly followed. As they paused to unwrap the cloths from their faces, they heard a faint footfall. They were instantly ready to fight, but it was not the mercenaries but Corhan’s two Malani guards, coming down the hill towards them “Hurry, Swordsmen” one of them said. “Our Lord Corhan has sent us to deal with the mercenaries. You must get back to shelter.” Karis thanked them, and he and Karlin hurried back to the entrance to the hidden underground shelter.

“Let us hope the mercenaries do not search for Valin”, Karlin remarked. Karis said “The Malani will prevent them”, and each of them understood what he meant. There was a pause, as if each considered what had happened, and Karis, as if sensing an unspoken question from Karlin, said “The mercenaries are a danger, and I know we had them at our mercy. But I think that even in Ma’al, neither of us could kill an unarmed, unconscious enemy, Karlin.” “That is true!” Karlin responded. “No matter that they are mercenaries, men of Ma’al and Children of Night. I could not do it, Karis. The Malani are born to Ma’al and must do what life here demands. They protect the Lightfriends to their honour, and I do not condemn what they must do. I know, too, what the Dancers told us, that we cannot live in Ma’al as we do as Swordsmen of Li’is. But such a deed would cause me much pain.” ” And me!” Karlin responded. “We should praise Light for the Malani, Karlin.” They went quietly through the turf-covered trapdoor and down the stairway. The others had gathered in the main cavern of the retreat, where Valin was seated among his concerned friends. Though shaken by his experience, he was unharmed, despite the rough handling he had received from the mercenaries. Dorvai turned as the Swordsmen entered, and said, smiling,” Here are your other rescuers, Valin!” “We could not have done it without the Malani!” Karis answered, indicating Corhan and Saban. “Is it well with the Lightfriend?” Valin answered for himself. “Praise Light, thanks to your swift action, I was not hurt.” Zarel had been waiting while Valin’s friends assured themselves of his well-being. Now he came forward, and said, “Still, it was a fearful thing that happened to you, Valin.” He drew out the Lightstone, and went on, “I am the Lightstone-Bearer, and this is the Lightstone. Let it sustain you.” He leant over Valin and touched the Lightstone to his brow. The gentle fountain of light poured out of the Stone over the Lightfriend, and they heard Valin give a little gasp, and then a sigh. When the light withdrew into the Stone again, Valin smiled up at Zarel, and said “Thank you, Lightstone-Bearer. I have been blessed of Light.”
Seeing that Valin was safe, and recovering from his ordeal, Corhan said ” We are glad it is well with you, Lightfriend. We will go back to camp now, and set guards to keep you safe. Have no fear.” As he and Saban went towards the entrance tunnel, Karis said “Karlin and I will come to the entrance, Corhan, to make sure the doorway is securely shut.” Corhan nodded, and the kinsmen followed him and Saban out of the main cavern. Once outside, though, Corhan turned to Karis with a questioning look. “Karis, my friend, you know we would not leave the doorway unsealed. Why have you really come?” “I did not wish to alarm the others” Karis replied, ” but are you sure there are no more mercenaries? They have not followed us from the last camp?” “No, the two who captured Valin bore a different badge to the others. They were not of their company.” “Badge?” queried Karlin. ” The mercenaries wear the badge of their employer.” Saban said. “It identifies them to the authorities if there is trouble – there are sometimes drunken brawls and damage caused, and then their employer must pay a fine.” “And those two?” asked Karis, though he thought he knew the answer. “Disposed of” Corhan said, briefly. “They will not be found, nor betray us. I know that it seems harsh to you, living as you do by the laws of Li’is. But in Ma’al it is so different, and even the way we render service to Light may seem to you a darkness, but it is not so.” “No, Corhan!” Karis protested. “We would never condemn what you do – your courage and service to Light are beyond dispute. You are right, and the Dancers told us that we could not live as Swordsmen in Ma’al as we do in Li’is. But it will take us time to overcome our years of training, and to know that we cannot offer the Choice of Light is what we find worst, I think.” He glanced at Karlin, who nodded agreement. Corhan smiled. “You will learn” he answered. “Do not be concerned, our Swordsmen will be on guard for mercenaries, and on watch for Children of Light who are called here. ” He and Saban bade the kinsmen farewell and went up the steps, lifting the covering door and, as they had said, replacing it carefully so that not a chink of light could escape to betray the presence of the hiding place.

AN END OF DARKNESS

Chapter 5

Now Dorvai said “Zarel, you need to learn the disciplines we use to hold the Darkness at the back of our Perception. Whitestar will show you.” Whitestar led Zarel to the Prayer Place and, as Dorvai had instructed, they linked Perceptions so she could share the disciplines with him. It was difficult for Zarel at first, but Whitestar patiently showed him what to do, how to build the mind-barrier that kept the Darkness at bay, until he understood. Then she withdrew her Perception and let him try. It still cost him a little struggle, but eventually he succeeded. Whitestar told him “You will need to do that whenever you feel the Darkness threatening to overwhelm you.” “Thank you, Whitestar” he said, then “Will you make the Thought-without-Words with me, so that we can contact Aren and Moondancer? I would like to tell them about the Malani. I know Karlin’s betrothed, Janna, fears for him, and it might ease her mind to know there are others to protect us.” “Oh, yes!” she exclaimed “And I would like to know how Moondancer fares in your world.” They joined their Perceptions again and reached out to Aren and Moondancer. The two were with the others at the house by the Harbour, sharing a meal, but stopped suddenly and looked at each other as they felt the touch of their twins’ Perceptions. Aiel, Arenel and Aila too felt the pull of the Thought-without-Words, and joined the link.

The rest of them waited while the Perception-gifted communicated. When the link was broken, the others left it to Aren and Moondancer to pass on what Zarel and Whitestar had to say. “It is well with them” Aren told them. “Whitestar has taught Zarel how to overcome the pressure of the Darkness in Ma’al. And they have met a new people, the Malani. Their Lord told Zarel that they are all Children of Light, and their Swordsmen are the protectors of the Lightfriends, from ancient times. He said there were two peoples who guarded the Lightfriends then, but the Ketai – our people, Mother! – came into Li’is with the First Lightfriends, while the Malani stayed to guard the Lightfriends who volunteered to stay in Ma’al and keep the service of Light alive there. So another old legend is true.” Janna exclaimed “Oh, praise Light! Karlin and Karis will not have to defend Zarel alone!” Surprised, Moondancer said “You did not know of the Malani? I thought since you knew the Ketai … oh, I am sorry! If I had known, I could have told you they were our defenders, and perhaps you would have been less anxious for Zarel and the Swordsmen.” Janna smiled at her “You could not have known, Moondancer. This world is as strange to you as Ma’al is to them. No doubt Whitestar has concerns for you too.” She sighed. “I do have faith in my spirit, that Light will keep them safe, but my heart is human, and I cannot help but be anxious for Karlin – and the others, of course – until he is safely back with me.”

In the Prayer Place, Whitestar said “I am glad that it is well with Moondancer. It is still all so strange to her, but she is in the world of Light, and everyone has been so kind to her.” Zarel said “Aren will look after her”. “I know” she smiled. He was still holding the Lightstone in his hands, for they had used it to augment their link with the others. Now he felt his gaze drawn to it, and called Whitestar to make the link again, feeling something was about to happen. As she linked Perceptions with him and he gazed into the Lightstone, suddenly it was as if their joined Perceptions soared out over the lands around them. He heard her gasp, as it seemed the world of Ma’al grew misty black before their gaze. Everything was shrouded in Darkness, but then they began to see, here and there, pinpricks of light, some singly, some in groups. Zarel realised that they were seeing the world of Ma’al as Light saw it, a world of Darkness but with some seeds of Light. The tiny lights they could see must be the Lightfriends and Children of Light of Ma’al. And though they were only a very small part of the people of Ma’al, still there were more than Zarel had thought.

Then they were back in the Prayer Place, the link broken. But Zarel still held the Lightstone in his hands, and now it was not drawing him, but quietly pulsing, from soft to bright and back again. He had never seen the Stone behave like this, and wondered what was happening. Whitestar said softly “It is true that all Light’s Children are known to Light. That is what we saw!” Her words stirred an idea in his mind, and he replied “Look at the Lightstone, Whitestar. It is not calling me, but I was told that it would draw the Children of Light. I have never seen it do this before. Maybe that is what it is doing, calling to the Children of Light in Ma’al.” They both watched the Stone, until at last the light faded back to a small spark again. Zarel asked “If the Children of Light are called, will they come here? Do they know the way?” Whitestar answered “All Light’s followers in Ma’al know where they can find refuge, at need. If the Lightstone is calling them, they will go to those places, here, or in other places where the Lightfriends are.” “Then we must tell the other Lightfriends” Zarel said. “I have not had time yet to make plans for this journey, Whitestar. I had not thought to contact them. “Naton should be back by this evening” she told him. “We can all join together at Evening Prayers and make the Thought-without-Words. We often do that, so that we can share our prayer needs.” “Is Naton a Lightfriend too, then?” Zarel asked, since Dorvai had said only that Naton was Varine’s husband. “Oh yes. My father is our leader – like your High Priest, I suppose. But Naton is next – he would take charge if anything should happen to my father.” She shivered a little as she said it, and he said “Do not fear, Whitestar, we shall bring your father safely into Li’is, by the mercy of Light.” She smiled at him for that, and said “We should tell him what we saw, I think.” “Yes, I would like him to know” Zarel replied, feeling that Dorvai too would be blessed by the revelation.

At the house by the Harbour the meal had finished, and discussions resumed. Although they knew that Zarel and the others would not be setting out yet, Aiel and Lin thought it best that those who would be travelling to the Meeting Place in Li’is should leave as soon as they were ready. Only the Priesthood and the Council-at-Need, for now, knew of the purpose of their journey, and since those people of Li’is who actually believed in its existence associated Ma’al, rightly, with Darkness, they did not intend to make that knowledge public, as yet. Once the refugees from Ma’al had been safely transferred to Li’is, their story could be told. Meanwhile it would be as well for those who would receive them to be ready at the Gatehouse, waiting. Others of the Priesthood, and their helpers, would make their own way there, and Janir and the Kets would lead the Westerners. The Way-Sharers’ party would be large but not, perhaps, unusual-seeming. A Priestly family travelling with two other families,especially since most of the party would be female, could easily be taken for a group setting out to a wedding or other family celebration, and cause no suspicion that anything out of the ordinary was happening. “The Dancers said Healers would be needed there too, so we will be of use” Mella remarked. Moondancer queried “Are you all Healers? Is that your family’s craft?” Krystha laughed. “It all began with me, Moondancer! I trained Aila and Marla, and they have trained their daughters and Rentha in turn. It is always a useful craft to have.”

“And there will be safe places to stay, on this journey?” the girl asked, anxiously. “Of course!” Aren told her. “We can stay at the Faring Houses, or in the villages. But even if we need to camp in the open, you will be safe, Moondancer. You are in Li’is now.” She sighed “I forgot!” Looking round at them, she continued “Forgive me if I am fearful, I am not used to being in a world that is safe. All our lives Whitestar and I have had to hide from danger, and from childhood we were taught where the safe places were and that we should never go outside them. Only once were we caught in a place of danger – and that one time cost our mother’s life!” They exclaimed in horror and sympathy, and she went on ” We were small, and the Hawks came on us suddenly outside . She hid us, but because she stopped to hide us, she could not escape herself, and the Hawks took her.” She shuddered, and there were tears in her eyes, but then she said “But still, it was better that the Hawks took her than that she fell into the hands of the Dark Lords’ mercenaries. The Hawks would kill her quickly, but the mercenaries…” She stopped speaking for a moment and covered her eyes. Rentha came quickly and hugged her, saying “Oh, Moondancer, I am so sorry!” The other girl said “I know she has touched Light, and we shall meet again in the Joyous Place, but sometimes it is hard, remembering. Aiel said, gently, “I know something of what you feel, Moondancer. I too lost my mother when I was young, though not to an enemy – she died in childbirth. But still, I understand.”

As Rentha released Moondancer from her comforting embrace, Aren reached out and took the girl’s hand. His Perception flashed his sympathy and sorrow to hers, and he felt her grateful response. But he was thinking – though he kept the thought well-guarded from her Perception – what kind of life the Lightfriends of Ma’al must live, when the choice could come down to which manner of death was kinder. Arenel said “You have suffered a great deal in Ma’al. Moondancer. You need not fear any more, though, for you will never return there.” Moondancer looked at him as if she did not understand, and Aren said, encouragingly, “My father speaks truly, Moondancer. Li’is is your world now. And Whitestar and your father and all the Lightfriends and Children of Light who remain in Ma’al will join you here, when Zarel’s Way is completed. None of you will have to dread the Darkness again.” She looked almost fearful as she exclaimed “I had not thought that I would not return, when Whitestar and my father are still there.” “But not for long” Aiel told her. “They will come to you here. Trust Light and the Lightstone. I was Lightstone-Bearer for many years, before it passed to Zarel, and I know its power to defeat Darkness. Aren is right, you need not fear for them.” “You are right also, Aiel, I must trust them to Light” she answered. They returned to the subject of their journey, and Mellin asked if Moondancer was used to riding. “I have ridden, but not much” she answered. “We do not have many horses, and they are kept for times when it is necessary to travel further to meet with those who serve Light. We do not make many journeys.” “We will find you a suitable mount” Mellin said. “And since we can take our time over the journey, you will grow used to it.”

Zarel and Whitestar had found Dorvai and told him what the Lightstone had shown them, and how Zarel believed it had called to the Children of Light. He agreed that it was necessary to make the Thought-without-Words to inform the other Lightfriends of Ma’al, since they did not know, yet, about the Lightstone Way, and their part in it. “There will be much for them to understand” he said. They had returned to the main cave to join the others, to find Karis playing with little Kilmo, who had taken a liking to him, no doubt in part because of the honeycake. Karis was happy enough to amuse the little one for a while and give the tired young mother some space for herself. Karlin was watching, relaxed, but ready for action if necessary. Whitestar said “I will go and see how it is with Sharamine” , and left them. Karlin, hearing a movement nearby, swung round with his hand ready to draw his sword, but relaxed again as he saw the eyes of the man who entered and recognised him for a Lightfriend. The man, too, seemed wary for a moment, but then, seeing Dorvai with them, was reassured. Varine, who had also been watching Karis and Kilmo, turned and hurried to the newcomer with a glad cry of “Naton! Praise Light!” Naton embraced his wife, then said “All is well, Dorvai, though I have had a strange message on my way back. The Children of Light have sent word that they feel called of Light to join us here. I do not understand.””Zarel, here, will explain” Dorvai answered, and Naton looked at the Lightstone-Bearer, and asked “A new Lightfriend? Where have you come from, brother? And what have you to tell me?”

Zarel stepped forward and replied “Naton, I am the Lightstone-Bearer – see, here is the Lightstone.” He paused to lift the Lightstone on its chain and show it to Naton, then continued “I have come out of Li’is with these two Swordsmen, Karis and Karlin, who are my kin, at the bidding of Light…” As he went on to tell of the coming judgement of Ma’al, and how Light had sent him to find the Children of Light left in Ma’al and bring them to safety in Li’is, Naton listened intently. Zarel could Perceive that the Lightfriend was astonished, but believed what he said, and trusted in Light. Zarel concluded by telling Naton of how he had been promised that the Lightstone would draw the Children of Light to him, and of what he and Whitstar had witnessed in the Prayer Place. “Your friends have felt the call of the Lightstone” he added, “and that is why they are coming here.” Naton said slowly “That is a great deal to understand, Zarel, Lightstone-Bearer! So much I thought just legend is true – the Lightstone, the World of Light – and now you say we are to be taken to your Li’is?” “So Light wills it” Zarel said. “For Light is just, and will not let the innocent perish with the guilty. All Children of Light are welcome in Li’is. Your Brothers-in-Light of the Priesthood will be glad to have the Lightfriends of Ma’al among them.” “And you are a Priest?” Naton asked. “I am. We are descended from the first Lightfriends who came into Li’is in the First Days. My grandfather, Aiel, who was Lightstone-Bearer before me, is High Priest of the Temple of Light in our City, and many of us serve there, but the Priesthood serve Light all over Li’is, also. Some keep the Faring Houses and all have a Soul-Watch. And the Gatekeeper keeps the Dancers’ Gate, the way to the Meeting Place, where we shall be taken out of Ma’al.” “The Li’is is a very different world to Ma’al!” Naton exclaimed. “It will be your world, soon” Zarel assured him.

Dorvai had stood by while Zarel explained everything to Naton, but now he said “After the Evening Prayers, we must send the Thought-without-Words to the Lightfriends, to explain all this. For the Children of Light will be drawn to the places of refuge, and all must join us on this Way, to reach the place to which Zarel leads us. We have access to the Priesthood of Li’is, also, through the link which Zarel and Whitestar have with Moondancer and Zarel’s twin. They will help us in this, at need.” Naton nodded agreement, looking thoughtful. It seemed he was still pondering what he had been told. Whitestar returned, to tell them that Sharamine was sleeping peacefully. Zarel was surprised that the girl could sleep, when her back was so wounded by the beating she had received. “It will not feel so sore, though, with the salves and draught Dorvai gave her” said Karlin. Karis added “And she looked exhausted when we met her. No doubt she had a long journey here, and in fear all the time, and in pain…she must have been so tired. Now she is safe, the tiredness has probably overtaken her.” Karlin said “I fear many of the Children of Light will have a long journey, also, to reach us. I do believe that the Lightstone calls them, Zarel, but I pray Light will keep them safe. This is a perilous world for those who serve Light!” Naton told him “We are well used to the perils of Ma’al, Swordsman. The Children of Light know the places of refuge, and the secret paths to find them. And if any should be lost, they will touch Light. We will not be afraid, knowing we are doing as Light wills.” “We have the Malani, too” added Dorvai. “They are faithful in guarding us, as they have the Lightfriends of Ma’al all through the centuries. Though all the Malani will need to join us, not just the Swordsmen. The women of the Malani will fight too, at need, but there are still the elderly, the children, and those who are infirm or will find it difficult to travel. Corhan’s sister, Daria, is expecting a child, and I do not think she is the only one.” “Light has not told me that there is any need of speed” Zarel said “since Light is patient, and knows all things. We will arrive at the Meeting Place at the right time. You said that you have places of refuge along the way?” “We have, but only as far as the Seacoast Town. Beyond that it is open country, and you say we must travel through it to find this Meeting Place. That is where the most danger will lie.”

In the City, discussions concluded, Aiel and his family, with Moondancer, walked back through the streets to the Temple. Moondancer still seemed nervous, though those with Perception could sense her fear diminishing. Aren thought to himself that a lifetime of having to hide from danger, even for a Lightfriend with faith in Light, must leave some mark on the spirit, and then there was what she had told them of the loss of her mother. He felt a great compassion for the girl, and her sister, who was still facing the dangers of Ma’al. That fact must be a strain for Moondancer, for he also felt very concerned for his twin Zarel in that dark world, though he was the Lightstone-Bearer. It had been decided that all of them who were travelling to the Gatehouse would meet at the Temple the next day and make their way up to the Fortress. Moondancer asked now, having evidently not wished to question Mellin directly, “We are going to the Fortress – are there mercenaries there?” It was Aiel who answered her. “There are no mercenaries in Li’is, Moondancer. Swordsmen, yes, but our Swordsmen are loyal to Light, and their Lord. They do not sell their swords.” Remembering what the Dancers had told Zarel, Aren, and especially Karis and Karlin, of the mercenaries of Ma’al, he could understand her concern. He added, wishing to be honest with her “There are the Children of Night, those few who remain now that the Night Temple is destroyed, but with no leader they should not be a danger.” The girl-Priest said “Thank you, Aiel. Lightfriends I trust, but with others trust does not come easily to me, even in Li’is.” Aren said “We understand that, Moondancer. As you told us, all your life you have been in danger from the people of Ma’al. It is not a thing you can readily overcome.” Rentha added “I think you are like a bird that has been shut up in a cage, Moondancer. Now that the cage door is opened, you still cannot quite believe that you can fly free.” Moondancer smiled at the Healer, and said “You put it well, Rentha. I think that is just how it is with me.” “You will learn to find your wings” Aren told her. “Light will teach you.”

When they left the next day, Moondancer did seem less wary and more interested in her surroundings. Aiel, Arentha, Lin and Krystha stood on the Temple steps, having given their blessings, watching the new Way-Sharers set off, and Aiel said quietly “I am thankful that they, at least, have no Darkness to face. It is enough that Zarel, Karis and Karlin must travel through Ma’al.” Lin remarked “How long ago it was, Aiel my brother, that we sat on these steps and Shipfather Renn came to ask for prayer. And we did not know then that that was the start of the Way that has led now to this. The ways of Light are beyond our understanding.” The riders heading for the Fortress passed through the Northern Gate of the City and were soon crossing the Plain of Blossoms, starred with the earliest of the Spring flowers. Moondancer remarked on how beautiful it was. “There is little enough in Ma’al that is beautiful” she added. “There are no flowers?” asked Aila, surprised. “Some wild blossoms, in the rough places” the girl-Priest answered, “but the Dark Ones take no delight in gardens. Good land, to them, is for crops, or beasts, for profit. What beauty there was in Ma’al has long ago been cut down or ploughed up or built over.” They rode into the Forest and followed the White River to the Axehead Rock. Mellin told Moondancer “That rock marks our boundary, though City and Mountain are one in heart and faith since the time of Brann and Tamorine.” As they went on, they began to hear the rushing thunder of the Falls of Vandar, and Moondancer, ready to be frightened again, asked what was that noise. “It is the Falls of Vandar” Aren told her. “Nothing to fear.” Soon enough they came to the Falls, and Moondancer could see the tumbling waters for herself. She was awed by the sight, then pointed to the rough-hewn steps of Tamran’s Stairway, at the side of the Falls. “What is that?” Mellin laughed “That is the difficult way to reach the Fortress, but it is a useful means of getting there unobserved. It need not concern you, though, we shall keep to the road.” This they did, and soon came to the Fortress Level. Moondancer seemed surprised at the size of the Fortress, so familiar to the others.

“I thought it would be just a stronghold” she said. “It is a stronghold” Marla told her. “It has grown over centuries and now is more like a small town. But still its main purpose has always been to keep the Spearcleft Pass, and protect the Mountains and the City and the Temple from any enemies that might come that way.” Aren told her “When we are settled in the Fortress, I will show you the view from its walls. You can see to the City and the Harbour, and all around, It is a good vantage point.” They passed through the gates of the Fortress, past the Watchwards, and Moondancer looked around in wonder at the Fortress, its many outbuildings, and busy courtyard. “It is like a town, as you said!” she told Marla. Inside the Great Hall they seated themselves round the main table while refreshments were brought, and Marla went to see to sleeping arrangements for them all. Trenn, the Priest of the Fortress, apprised, as all the Priesthood had been, of the new Way, came to meet Moondancer and welcome her to Li’is. Aren and Arenel knew him well, and were happy to introduce him to Moondancer. She, still learning the ways of the Priesthood of Li’is, asked “The Fortress has its own Lightfriend?” “Yes” Trenn answered, “and Prayer Room.” Naturally, she asked to see the Prayer Room, so the three Priests took her there. She took in the room, with its benches and miniature of the Temple Crucible, and bowed her head for a while. The others were silent, respecting her time of prayer. When she looked up again, she asked “Are there other places like this in Li’is?” “Wherever there are Priests – Lightfriends” Aren explained, “and the Priesthood serves throughout Li’is.” “We have so few Places of Prayer in Ma’al, and they must be carefully concealed” Moondancer said. Trenn commented “The Lightfriends of Ma’al have much to bear, yet you stay faithful to Light and still try to turn the people of Ma’al to Light. And it has been so since the first Lightfriends came to us here in Li’is. I praise Light for your steadfastness and admire your strength.” “It is Light that gives us strength and courage” Moondancer replied. “We could do nothing in our own strength.”

In Ma’al the new day had brought the arrival of the Children of Light known to Naton, escorted by the Malani. It was a group of around twenty people, not counting young children. There was an older couple who seemed to be leaders and explained to Naton how, after he had left them, they had all of them felt a call from Light that they should travel to the hiding place and so, obeying thought they did not know why they were called, they had left in ones and twos and family groups so as not to arouse suspicion, gathering together when they were at a safe distance and knew that the Malani would be near to help them. “The call of Light was strong” explained the man, whose name was Lamak, “and since Naton, when he was with us, had said nothing, we felt there must be some sudden danger.” Beria, his wife, added “We were concerned that we might have been betrayed. Is there peril?” Dorvai told them “There is peril for the Dark Ones, not for the Children of Light.” He indicated Zarel, standing beside him with Whitestar, and told them “This is Zarel, the Lightstone-Bearer. He will explain.” Thus called on, Zarel stepped forward and told the group all that had happened since the Dancers had come to him, Aren and Aiel in the Temple, and he had become the Lightstone-Bearer. He explained the Secret Word and the part played by Whitestar and Moondancer, and he told them of how the Lightstone had called them to the journey they must take, and how they would pass through the Dancers’ Gate into Li’is to escape the destruction of Ma’al. He knew it was a tale he would have to tell many times, as more Children of Light joined them. When he had finished the telling, he looked round at their faces, registering many different emotions. He knew there would be questions, but first, to reassure them, he drew out the Lightstone and showed them, then called each of them in turn to receive the Lightstone’s touch, even the little children. The Lightstone, he knew, would enable them to face the task ahead.

Lamak and the others were awed by the Lightstone but, Zarel saw gladly, blessed and strengthened by its touch, as he had expected. Lamak said “You say it was the Lightstone itself that called us here?” “Yes” Zarel answered “I did not know myself, when Light appointed me to this Way, how I might gather the Children of Light from Ma’al, but the Dancers told me that Light would draw you to me. I was concerned that some might be missed, but now I am assured that all will be called.” He introduced them to Karis and Karlin, who had stood quietly by while the Lightstone-Bearer explained everything to the Children of Light, and Sharamine, who had recovered some strength after her rest, and come to join the others. “We will need to move on from here to the next place of refuge” Dorvai said “now that you have all joined us.” Karis asked “There are no more to come?” “No, not from our area” Lamak said. “The followers of Light are few, Swordsman.” Beria asked “How will we find food for everyone? We could not bring much with us, so as not to arouse suspicion, and there is little enough to forage for at this time of year.” Dorvai said “That is no problem, praise Light! We are well-supplied. The Lightstone-Bearer and these Swordsmen have brought us gifts sent by our Brothers-in-Light in Li’is. We were even able to send some on ahead with our friends. Light has prepared for every need. We will prepare today, and set out tomorrow.” “But how will we move so many, if there is danger of being observed?” asked Karlin. “We will go with our friends, the Malani” Dorvai said. “Like the Ketai of whom you told us, they too travel around and camp in various places. They are a good cover for us, and the other people of Ma’al do not concern themselves much with the Malani.” Zarel, curious, asked “How do the Malani move camp, then? My mother’s people, the Ketai, have special carts to move their travelling tents and possessions.” Dorvai told him “The Malani have established their ways over many centuries. Their tents are light but strong, and can be drawn by their horses on frames woven of thin branches. They keep to the high ground and forests, where carts would be a hindrance. When they reach one of their camping places they know where to find other materials to make their camp more secure. And because they keep to the wild places the people, and more importantly the Lords, of Ma’al take little interest in them. They are considered a wild, strange people, and they encourage that belief, for it ensures that they are undisturbed.” “And able to render us their service as our guardians, without suspicion” added Naton.

The Malani who had escorted the travellers, three young Swordsmen, had been standing by, and one of them now laughed, and said “That is true! We are not considered important enough to trouble the Dark Lords, praise Light!” The second Malani said “Our Lord Corhan has all underway. We are packing up camp and will be ready to move by tomorrow. It will not do for this place to be known, so we will come to escort you to join us.” “We will be ready” Dorvai said, and Zarel told them “Take our thanks to Corhan, for his help.” “We will tell him” said the third Malani . “But it is our pleasure to serve Light – and you, Lightstone-Bearer.” When the Malani had left, Dorvai and Zarel gathered all of them together to plan their preparations for the journey. They could take nothing that was not essential, but as the newcomers had brought no possessions with them, that was not an issue. Most of them could make the journey on foot, leaving the few horses they had to carry the children and the supplies they would need as they travelled. Sharamine, though, was concerned. “I am afraid that that man may send his mercenaries after me” she said “and then I would endanger you all. Perhaps I should not go with you.” “You are a Child of Light” Zarel told her. “Light would not have you go back to be possessed by the Dark Ones!” “We will be safe with the Malani” Dorvai said. “You need not fear, child.” “But he was so determined to have me!” Sharamine exclaimed. Dorvai, looking thoughtful, said “There is one sure way to protect Sharamine.” “Which is?” Karis asked. “If she were married, he could not claim her” answered Dorvai. The girl looked up, her dark eyes scared. “What do you mean, Lightfriend? How could I be married? I will not be tied to any that serve Darkness!” “One of our young men?” asked Whitestar. “They are outlaw. They dare not enter the towns. But these Swordsmen might.” “I could not ask that” Sharamine said. “It would not be a true marriage” Dorvai explained. “When we are far enough away and you are safe it could be broken again. It would only be for your protection.” He looked questioningly at Karis and Karlin. Karis said “Karlin is betrothed. I will do it.” And scarcely knew why, except his admiration of Sharamine’s courage and his anger at the way she had been treated.

“Is it safe?” asked Whitestar. “He does not look so much like a man of Ma’al.” “It will not matter” Dorvai said. “So long as the Hawks do not scent him as an outlaw, they will not care.” “But where will we find wedding clothes for the maiden?” Karlin asked. He was thinking of his lovely Janna and their future wedding day, and was shocked when Sharamine laughed harshly and exclaimed “Wedding clothes? No, drag me to the Town-Master as I am – ripped gown, whip-weals and all – and he will be more likely to believe in this ‘marriage’!” “Sharamine is right” Dorvai said. “Let her appear an unwilling bride. The Town-Master will be more convinced.” So it was decided that they would travel with the Malani and when they reached the next suitable town, Karis should take Sharamine before the Town-Master, and they would be – by the law of Ma’al – married. This settled, they went to make the Evening Prayers, and after, sat by the low-burning fire and ate their meal. Later, when all the preparations had been made for the next day’s departure, the fire had been dampened down and they were making their way towards the sleeping places, Karis found his way blocked by Sharamine. “Why will you do this thing for me, Karis?” she demanded. “I am a Swordsman of Li’is” he answered her. “I do what I feel Light and my honour would have me do. I abhor the way you have been treated, and wish to keep you safe.” She looked at him, wide-eyed and serious. “Your Li’is must be a wonderful world” she said, and turned back towards her sleeping place without further comment.

Next morning they were all ready when Saban and others of the Malani arrived to take them along the trail Karis and Karlin had followed when they met Sharamine, and further on to the place where Corhan’s people had been camping. Corhan was waiting to greet them, and a woman was standing there too, the first Malani woman they had seen. She was obviously pregnant, but still moved with a stately grace, and she was so like Corhan that they guessed her identity before he introduced her. “My sister, Daria, Saban’s wife.” The Malani were ready to move, their tents, as Dorvai had said, on the sprung frames drawn by horses, other horses carrying belongs, and the people interested and excited by what they had been told about their journey. Zarel took out the Lightstone and showed them all, drawing exclamations of wonder, before imparting its blessing to the gathered people. There were many Malani, and a good number of them were Swordsmen, giving the travellers a sense of security. Once Zarel had used the Lightstone, Corhan ordered them all into a column, hiding the Children of light and the Lightfriends in the middle. Dorvai, Zarel and Whitestar, though, he kept at the head of the column alongside him and Saban, with Karis and Karlin there also, to guard Zarel. Other Swordsmen of the Malani took charge of the rear and flanks of the column, and they set off.

Dorvai and Corhan had said that the Malani kept to the wild places, and that was true. In places their path was difficult indeed, and Zarel, Karis and Karlin could see why the Malani used the light, strong frames instead of carts to carry their tents. They went at a steady pace, not slow, but not too fast for the least able, though all the Malani, even the oldest and youngest, seemed well used to walking. After a morning’s trek they stopped for a meal, seating themselves in orderly groups, then continued until at last they reached the top of a forested rise. The place was evidently well known to tha Malani, and Corhan led the travellers in deep among the trees until they reached a glade, with a stream, and signs that it had been used as a camp site before. Here they stopped and quickly the tents were unloaded and set up, water fetched from the stream, fires built, and in what seemed like very little time at all, the camp was ready. Zarel was reminded of the camps of the wandering herders on the Plateau of the Westerners, also set up with quick efficiency. It was not until they had reached this place of refuge that it was deemed safe to proceed with their plan for Sharamine. There was a town within reach, across the farmlands below the hill, large enough to be under the control of a Town-Master, but not so large that there was any danger of mercenaries being quartered there, or the presence of anyone of high rank in Darkness.

Dorvai explained to Karis what he must do to make his sham marriage with Sharamine. Karlin could accompany him, as Zarel would be safe with the Malani, and Corhan and Saban would go too, as guides.”And you are sure you are not known as the Lightfriends’ protectors?” Karis asked. Corhan laughed. “No! Or we would not venture near the towns. As we told you, by the other people of Ma’al we are seen only a a strange, uncouth people who live in the wild and only visit their towns to trade – and we encourage them to think so. But it would not seem unlikely to them that you could have enlisted our help in obtaining an unwilling bride, for they have a very low opinion of us.” Zarel, thinking of the ordered ways of the House of Records in Li’is, asked “Will not Karis be asked for some identification?” Dorvai replied “He need only give a name, and a town, for himself and Sharamine – let him name Sharamine’s town for himself also, then it will seem more likely that he has carried her off from there.” “That is all?” Karis asked, amazed at the laxity of it all. “Do they not need Sharamine’s consent?” “She is there with you to be married. That is her consent.” Dorvai answered, a little sadly, Karis felt.

Still, it was with much trepidation, and a sense of relief that Corhan and Saban were there to guide them through it all, that Karis and Karlin set off with Sharamine the next morning, on horses provided by the Malani. It was not too far to the town, and Corhan, enquiring the location of the Town-Master from one of its inhabitants, received surly but accurate directions. Karis’ heart was in his mouth as, having tethered their mounts, the five of them went up the steps of the Town Building to appear before the Town-Master, though Corhan had coached him to ‘seem confident – even arrogant!” Karlin wisely kept silent, leaving all to the Malani. The Town-Master, a fleshy and rather bored seeming individual, seemed quite unsurprised by their request for a marriage without prior warning. He took the payment with which Dorvai had provided Karis, turned to a closet, and produced a large record book and the marriage bracelet of which Dorvai and Sharamine had spoken. Karis could hardly believe the brevity of his ‘marriage’ to Sharamine. A few quick questions, as Dorvai had said, regarding names and towns, the answers to which were scribbled in the book in a desultory way, then Sharamine was asked to step forward. The bracelet was sealed on her left wrist and the Town-Master shut his book and said to Karis “The woman is yours”. No word to Sharamine, no congratulations. Karis had to bite back the retort that rose to his lips, to hear Sharamine spoken of thus, as if she were a thing he had bought. Instead, he inclined his head to the Town-Master, who nodded, replaced the book in the closet, and turned and left the room without another look or word. Still burning inwardly, Karis followed the two Malani with Sharamine and Karis back to their horses. Not till they had left the town behind did he feel able to vent his anger.

“That was dreadful!” he exclaimed. “That man spoke as if Sharamine was not even there, as if she were some – some piece of meat I had bought, less than a horse or a hound!” and Karlin agreed. Sharamine looked across at them and gave a strange smile. “Now you begin to understand the ways of Ma’al, Swordsmen of Li’is.” she said, and they continued on their way back to safety. Karis had expected Sharamine to show some relief that she was now out of the reach of her unwanted suitor, but she seemed strangely subdued on the ride back to the Malani’s camp. Perhaps, though, he thought, she was thinking of what would have happened to her if it had been that man who had taken her before the Town-Master. They were all glad to get back to the others and report that all had gone well, though Karis was still furious at the contempt with which Sharamine had been treated, and had to go to Zarel and ask him for help to deal with his emotions. Zarel set his Perception on the Swordsman, and when they had worked the thing through, said “Your anger was understandable, Karis, but even righteous anger may come between you and Light. You are wise to make your peace with Light.” Karis nodded, and said “There is enough Darkness in this world, Zarel”, then, “I thought Sharamine would be glad to be free of the danger of a forced marriage, but she seemed in poor spirits on the way back here. The Lightstone – Bearer said “Karis, you know I cannot tell you anything I Perceive of her. That would be Trespass. You must speak to her yourself.” “I will” Karis said. “And thank you for your help, Zarel.”

It was not until the next mealtime that Karis found an opportunity to speak to Sharamine alone. He noticed she had taken her food and withdrawn into a shadowy corner of the tent, where she sat as if deep in thought, her meal barely touched. He went over and seated himself beside her, thinking she might smile at him, but the look she gave him was questioning and guarded. More sure than ever now that something was troubling her, he said “Sharamine, what is wrong? I thought you would be relieved that you are safe from that man.” She lowered her eyes and did not answer, so he tried again. “What is worrying you? Is it this?” He touched the bracelet on her left wrist, and was surprised to feel her give a little start – no, more, almost a shudder. He looked at her,puzzled, and slowly an idea began to form in his mind. Sharamine had gladly accepted the sham marriage as a means of escape from the man she dreaded, but maybe now that it was done, she was wondering if she had done the right thing. For, after all, she was now bound to Karis by the law of Ma’al, was, as the Town-Master had made clear, his property. She had trusted him as a Child of Light, as the Lightstone-Bearer’s companion and protector, but she did not really know him. Perhaps now she was regretting what she had done, was fearful of what he might do to her. He called her name “Sharamine!” She looked up at him, startled, and he continued, more quietly “You do not fear me, because of this?” He gestured to the bracelet, but did not touch it again. “I promise you, Sharamine, though all of Ma’al considers you my property now, I do not! Do you think I would take advantage of you, abuse you, because of this sham marriage? Oh, I can understand why you might feel so, living in Ma’al, among men like those who desired you. But I would not dishonour you so. I swear to you, as a Child of Light, that I have no evil intent towards you. I would not harm you. What I have done, I have done only to protect you.” She was really looking at him now, and though she was smiling at him, there were tears in her eyes. “Karis – yes, I was afraid, I admit it. I could not believe that you were as honourable as you seemed – as you are! Forgive me.” “Sharamine – if you wish. Though there is little to forgive. I understand your fears. But now, be reassured. And”, he added, ” eat your meal. We have a long journey ahead and need to keep up our strength.”

Later, out of her earshot, he said to Dorvai “I am not sure I understand this matter of marriage in Ma’al. Since the Dark Lords have rule here, I thought they would not wish people to be married. Do they not rejoice in all that is dark? Surely they would prefer licence and promiscuity?” “Only among those highest in their ranks” Dorvai answered. “They are free to do as they wish, men or women. The Hawks, for example, may give their favours to whom they will. But the ordinary people – it is a means of control, of holding women, especially, in subjection.” “Yet Sharamine said the man who wanted her was high in their ranks. If that is how it is with them, could he have just taken her, if he willed it?” “No, praise Light!” Dorvai said, “Or he would have. But the Dark Lords have made rules and laws for their own benefit, not that of the people. A free people might be a rebellious people, and the Dark Lords want subjects, slaves. Even those who think they are privileged and free because they hold high rank are cunningly managed. There is no freedom from the Dark Lords in Ma’al, except for us who are true to Light. Even what looks like liberty is a means of control.” “Yet you said those of high rank are given Bloodstones. Those stones hold power!” Dorvai replied “The stones are powerful, yet even those are not under the control of those who wear them, but of the Dark Lords. They would not let that power pass into the hands of their underlings. Those who hold the stones may think they wield power, but whatever they do with those stones is only what the Dark Lords wish. They can do nothing for their own pleasure or profit, unless it suits their masters.”

The Malani had set aside one tent for use as a Place of Prayer, and after all of them had finished their meal, Zarel said “We should make the Thought-without-Words with Aren and Whitestar, and tell them that we have begun our journey.” So the Lightfriends gathered in the Place of Prayer to contact those in Li’is. They too had been on the move, travelling down over the Mountains from the Fortress , and, deciding against camping out, had turned aside to take lodgings at an inn in a small town on the edge of the Great Moor. They were sitting discussing the next part of the journey, when first Aren and Whitestar, then Aila and Arenel, felt the call of the Thought-without-Words, and opened their Perceptions to it. It was good to share with the other twins and the Lightfriends of Ma’al, and to be assured that, travelling under the protection of the Malani, they should escape the notice of the Dark Lords and their underlings. They were surprised to be told what Zarel had seen of the Lightstone’s way of calling the Children of Light, but all knew that nothing was beyond the power of Light. Zarel did not, though, even to Aren and Moondancer, tell of Karis and Sharamine’s ‘marriage’, feeling it would cause concern. Aren and Moondancer, in turn, were able to tell their twins that things were stirring in Li’is too,as the Priesthood and their helpers, and Healers, began to make their way to the Meeting Place, to welcome and help the refugees. When the contact had been broken, the Perception-gifted relayed to the others what they had been told, and knew that they too were relieved to hear of the Malani’s guarding of the travellers in Ma’al. Zohra said thoughtfully “These Malani – I feel a brotherhood with my people there.” Aren answered. “They were Sword-Brethren to the Ketai, before the First Days of Li’is. Surely they are still, Mother. It will be good to meet them.” Janna repeated her earlier remarks “Oh, I am glad that Karlin – and Karis – have Sword-Brethren there! I did not think that there would be Swordsmen to help them.” “Light still has a remnant in Ma’al,” Arenel commented, “and they will be protected by Light until they reach us here.”

The next morning the group continued their journey across the Great Moor, heading for the First Faring House. Aren noticed that even though Moondancer was growing gradually more used to being out in the open, still she instinctively looked up from time to time, as though anticipating the appearance of one of the deadly Hawks. It was a long ride to the Faring House but the air was growing milder and the sun was shining, so they were not uncomfortable. They paused for a quick meal on the way, and Moondancer was curious about the Faring Houses, so they enlightened her. “The Priesthood set up the Faring Houses many years ago” said Arenel “for travellers to rest, in places where there were no villages or towns suitable to stay in. There are Healers at the Houses too, where people may come for help in sickness, or if injured. Of course there are Priests and Healers in the towns, but where there are smaller villages, they are the Soul-Watch of the Priest-in-Charge of the Faring Houses.” “The only exception is the Third Faring House, which is in the Merchant Town” Aila added. “There are certainly other places there for people to stay, but many would rather stay at a Faring House, and it has a separate Eating House for those who want only a meal.” Having said this, she suddenly thought that perhaps she had woken unhappy memories of their ordeal at the Third Faring House for Marla and Zohra, and glanced quickly at her friends, but sensed no perturbation in them.

“The Gatehouse, too, is unique” Aren said “because it keeps the Dancers’ Gate. Most of those who travel there wish to go to the Dancers, and need special permission from the Priesthood, so their guests are few. Even then, they will only have access to the Dancers if the Dancers themselves wish it.” Mellin replied “It seems the Gatehouse will have a larger number of guests, this time, than it has ever expected!” and laughed. They resumed their ride. The sun sank and as the day darkened to twilight the air grew cooler. They were glad now of their travelling cloaks, and the knowledge that the Faring House was near. Aren had thought that Moondancer might grow more fearful as night came on, but she actually seemed more relaxed. Perhaps, he thought, night time was safer than day in Ma’al, with less chance of being observed. They crested the rise above the Faring House and saw it below them, set in its tree-garth, windows glowing with lamplight. Arenel extended his Perception to the Priest-in-Charge as they rode down into the courtyard, and the man came out to greet them as they dismounted. “Welcome, welcome! We had word of your coming.” He looked round at them, and Arenel sensed his curiosity, before he asked “And which is the Lightfriend from Ma’al?” He was surprised when Aren brought Moondancer forward, and said, “This is Moondancer. In Ma’al all those born with Perception serve, and she is a Lightfriend.” The Priest smiled warmly, and said, “Then welcome again, my Sister-in-Light. I am Sarn. It is good to have you safe in Li’is.” The girl smiled back, and thanked him. He led the way into the Faring House, saying “We have a few other guests, but they need not concern you. Farmers and merchants, staying overnight on their way elsewhere.” When he had shown them the rooms where they would sleep and taken them to the Hall of the Faring House for their meal, he looked round at them and said “Ah, the Lady Aila is Perception-gifted too? It is not often we see two daughters of the Priesthood with Perception.” “I have a twin, still in Ma’al, who also has Perception” Moondancer told him. “Then your parents were doubly blessed” Sarn said. Aila hoped he would not expand on the subject, not wanting Moondancer to be reminded again of the death of her mother, but he did not, turning instead to the seating arrangements for the meal. They were joined,as he had said, by the other guests, who greeted them civilly but were not inclined to make conversation, and they were glad enough, when the meal was done, to say their goodnights and go to rest after their journey.

AN END OF DARKNESS

Chapter 4

The three travellers in Ma’al had also slept, in one of the caves that had had sleeping places built into it. Though assured of their safety by Dorvai, who told them that there would be guards, it had taken them all some time to fall asleep. The strangeness of their situation, the fact of actually being in Ma’al after all the preparation, and uncertainty about what would happen next, left them all wakeful until their tireedness finally overtook them. In the morning Dorvai took them much deeper into the cave system, to a place where there was water. A spring bubbled up and fed an underground stream, which in tun ran into a dark tarn. He told them they could wash in the stream while he collected water from the spring for their morning meal. Karis, used to the Bathing Places of home, wondered if they could not have bathed in the tarn, but Dorvai told them “No, it is too deep and too cold – very cold. If you went into that water it would snatch away your breath and overcome your body with its coldness, and you would drown.” Once they had washed and refreshed themselves, they helped Dorvai carry the water back, but Karis was thinking how many dangers seemed to lurk in Ma’al, where even a simple thing like a tarn had power to kill.

They ate with Dorvai and his family and the other Lightfriends. Afterwards Zarel, feeling again a little of the oppression caused by the atmosphere of Ma’al, felt somewhat shut in by the cavern, safe though it was, and said “I must go outside for a little, for air, and to be alone with Light.” “Not alone” Karis warned him. “Karlin and I will come with you – oh, we will not interfere, Zarel, but we must guard you.” Zarel acquiesced, and the three of them went through the tunnels and stepped outside the cave entrance. Nearby was an alcove in the rock face, shadowed and, the Swordsmen decided, relatively safe. So Zarel stood in the alcove and took out the Lightstone, gazing into it, while Karis and Karlin took their stand, one each side of him, far enough away to give him privacy, but close enough should danger threaten. It was quiet enough, but both Swordsmen kept their guard up, and it seemed they had been wise to accompany Zarel, for suddenly Karis called softly “Karlin!” Karlin turned, to see his young uncle standing poised for action, his hand on the hilt of the True Sword. “Someone is coming” he said, and Karlin quietly joined him. Two men appeared round the turn in the path, and stopped short. Karis’ eyes widened, and his mouth dropped open in astonishment. Karlin followed his gaze, and exclaimed, but softly,”Sweet Light!”

The strangers who faced them, seeming ready to challenge them, were dressed ordinarily enough, and were, by the weapons at their sides, Swordsmen. Their appearance, though, was another matter. Karis and Karlin had never seen men like these. Both were of athletic build, though one was a little stockier. One was taller than the other – very tall, for though Karis was tall, the stranger topped him by half a head. The strangest thing about the men though, to the Swordsmen of Li’is, was their colouring. Their skin was dark brown, with a slight sheen to it, like the rind of the sweet-nuts Karis had gathered in the Forest as a child, their hair black, their eyes also black, the clear whites of them in startling contrast, their faces sculpted, with strong bones and aquiline noses. Karis guessed both men to be close to his own age. “Children of Night indeed!” Karlin exclaimed. The Swordsmen had all but forgotten Zarel, in their surprise, but now the young Priest’s voice came quietly from behind them. “No, I Perceive no Darkness in them. Not all that is dark is of Darkness, Karlin, nor is all that is pale of Light.” The tall man smiled, his teeth very white in his dark face. “That is true” he said. “We are no friends of Darkness. We are the Malani.” “What are the Malani?” asked Zarel. The man stared at him. “Your eyes say you are a Lightfriend, and those eyes do not lie. Yet you do not know of the Malani? And who are these who protect you?” “My kin” Zarel said briefly, since Karis and Karlin were, indeed, his relatives. “The Malani” the man said “are the protectors of the Lightfriends, from ancient times. There are few who dare stand against the Darkness, but we are loyal to Light. How is it that you do not know this?”

Zarel hesitated, unsure whether to trust these strangers. Yet, as he had said, he Perceived no Darkness in them. “We know little of Ma’al” he said, watching for their reaction. The taller man frowned. “I do not understand.” “Zarel, wait” Karis warned. “Let us know more about these visitors first. If they are what they say they are, they will not mind our caution.” “Indeed” agreed the taller man, who seemed to be the leader, for the other man, though vigilant, had not yet spoken. “Why are you here?” Karis asked. “We are seeking Dorvai, the Lightfriend” the other replied. “We have a message for him.” “What are your names?” Karlin queried. “I am Corhan, and this is my sister’s man, Saban. And who are you?” “This – Lightfriend ” – almost Karis had said ‘Priest’ – is Zarel, and I am Karis.” “And your brother’s name?” asked Saban, speaking for the first time, and making the same mistake as many before him. Karlin said “My name is Karlin, but Karis is not my brother. He is my father’s brother, my uncle.” Corhan’s elegant eyebrows arched as if he did not quite know whether to believe Karlin or not. Karis said quickly “He speaks the truth, Corhan. Karlin really is my nephew. And Zarel is the son of my cousin.” “I still do not understand how you know ‘little of Ma’al’ and nothing of the Malani” Corhan challenged. Zarel took a deep breath, made his decision, and answered “Because we are not of Ma’al.” Corhan, not yet understanding, said “Yes, you are Lightfriends and do not take part in the Darkiness of Ma’al, but -” “No” Zarel cut in. “That is not what I mean, Corhan. What do you know of the Lightstone?” “The Lightstone? An old legend. The tale goes that it was given to the ancient Lightfriends to take them from Ma’al to another place, when the Darkness fell, and a people called the Ketai, who were also protectors of the Lightfriends, went with them. But that is all it is, an old tale.”

Zarel moved forward. He had been standing in the shadow of the rock face, but as he came towards them the hazy sunlight of Ma’al fell full on his face, lighting his vivid blue eyes even more against the golden tones of his skin. They heard a gasp from Corhan, and looked to see if anything were wrong. The dark-skinned Swordsman was staring at Zarel, staring and staring, as if Zarel held the answer to some deep longing of his. Surprised, the Priest listened to his Perception. Was it his mention of the Lightstone? No, Zarel was sure, that was not the reason. Puzzled now, Zarel swung his blue eyes to meet Corhan’s dark ones, and the Swordsman did not resist his Perception. Yet Zarel felt only a strange perturbation. He withdrew his Perception and asked “Corhan, what is it? Is something wrong?” “No, you are not of Ma’al! I had not seen before…” Corhan’s rich voice answered. “Lightfriend, where are you from? Where is your land?” “Why do you ask?” interposed Karlin, cautious lest these two strangers should be spies after all. Corhan replied “You know nothing of the Malani, you were surprised at our appearance, yet you are followers of Light. So you must be strangers here. But, Lightfriend…” he gazed again at Zarel, “you could not have been as surprised at my skin as I was at yours!” “Mine?” Zarel asked, mystified. “We are dark, and so are our people. And others are light, like the Swordsmen here. But you are neither. Your skin is golden. And you are not born half of the dark people and half of the light. I would know. Zarel, Lightfriend ” – his voice was pleading now – “I promise you that it is very important to me that I know this thing. Who are you, and where do you come from?”

Zarel looked again into Corhan’s face and the Swordsman let him look, surrendering to his Perception. This time Zarel probed deeper, and Karis and Karlin watched, quietly alert. If Zarel accepted Corhan’s right to question him, all would be well. At length Zarel withdrew his Perception, and smiled at Corhan. “Yes, you are truly Light’s man, and one to be trusted, Corhan. I will answer your question, but first you and Saban must swear to me – before Light, and on your honour as Children of Light – not to speak carelessly of this.” “I will swear that” Corhan answered. Saban agreed, and when they had made the solemn vow, Zarel said “I asked you what you knew of the Lightstone. It is not just an ancient tale, Corhan. The first Lightfriends did take the Lightstone out of Ma’al to another place. They took it to a world called Li’is, to save it from the Darkness from Ma’al which had gained a foothold there. The Lightfriends and the people of Li’is defeated the Darkness with the Lightstone’s aid. All these centuries it has been in Li’is, but now….” he took another deep breath, “it has returned to Ma’al.” Corhan and Saban were staring at him now, as he went on “Many years ago my grandfather, Aiel, became the Lightstone-Bearer when the Darkness again threatened Li’is. Now I have become the Lightstone-Bearer after him, and Light has bidden me bring the Stone back into Ma’al. It is Light’s Will that we gather the Lightfriends and Children of Light that remain in Ma’al, and take them to a place from where they can be carried into Li’is. Then, when only Darkness is left in Ma’al, Light will judge the Dark World.” He reached inside his clothing, where he had concealed the Lightstone, and brought it out. It lay on his breast, softly gleaming, and he said “Here is the Lightstone.”

The two Malani gazed at the Stone in awed astonishment. It seemed too much for them to take in. At last Corhan managed to gasp out “You – you are from another world?” “Yes, I am from Li’is, as are Karis and Karlin. The Dancers of Li’is carried us here, at the Word of Light. Though my world lies on the other side of Light and time from Ma’al, it is in some sense its twin, but in Li’is Light rules. So in my world there is a Temple of Light and a Priesthood, and I am a Priest of the Temple, and my grandfather, once the Lightstone-Bearer, is now the High Priest. I have a brother, my twin, who remains in Li’is, and one of Dorvai’s twin daughters was carried there to join him, so that we have a link between the worlds. There is much more to tell than that. But you asked about my people?” Corhan nodded, dumbly, obviously still trying to grasp what Zarel had told him. “I am a Priest of Light, as I said, and we are descendants of the first Lightfriends, but my mother comes from the people of the West, who are descended from those you know as the Ketai. My other grandfather is also a twin, and he and his brother are joint Kets – Lords – of their people.” “The Ketai!” Saban exclaimed, but Corhan, still seemingly dazed by it all, asked again “Another world?” but this time almost to himself, almost as though he had not heard what Zarel had said. “I thought maybe another land – I could have sought an unknown land. But from a different world – how shall I search a whole new world?” “Corhan, what is it?” Karis asked, concerned by the strangeness of the other Swordsman’s words. But it was Saban who answered for him.

“Corhan is Lord of the Malani” Saban explained. “By the tradition of our people he would have been betrothed when he reached manhood, to ensure that he had a wife to bear him an heir when they married later. But before that time, he dreamed a dream that was more than a dream, it was a vision from Light. Light spoke to him, and showed him the maiden he was to wed, and she was not of our people or the light people. She had black hair and dark eyes, but her skin was golden – like yours, Friend of Light. She was brave and strong and kind, as well as beautiful, and Corhan knew it was more than a dream, for he felt Light tell him that the maiden would be there at a time of great turmoil for our people. She would be his Lady, the mother of our people, and Corhan knew, he said, that from the dream he would know her when he met her, so vivid was the vision. His father took him at his word, and did not proceed with a betrothal. Yet Corhan’s father went to be with Light, and Corhan became our Lord, and still, till now, we have had no proof that such a maiden might exist – except our faith in Light.” “How many prophecies are to be fulfilled by this way!” Zarel breathed in wonderment. “There is the Secret Word, and Whitestar and Moondancer’s prophecy, and now Corhan’s vision-dream.” He smiled at the Lord of the Malani, who still seemed stunned by their news. “Corhan” he encouraged, ” you will not need to search a whole world! The Westerners – the Ketai – live on a high Plateau in summer, herding and rearing herd-beasts and horses. And in winter they move to the Western Fortress and its surrounding towns, and weave fine fabrics for sale in the towns and the City. They are very easy to find, my friend. And , as I said, my kinsmen are their Lords. We shall find your bride for you, Corhan, when we return to Li’is. How many of your people are Children of Light?” Corhan, reassured by Zarel’s words, said proudly “All! There are no friends of Darkness in my camp.” “Then you and your people will need to join us on our journey” Zarel told him. “For we must gather all the Children of Light in Ma’al, by the Lightstone’s power. They must be saved from Ma’al’s destruction.”

Karis said “Corhan had a message for Dorvai. Is it not best to go back to him? More explanations can wait. It is not wise to be too long in the open here!” Corhan nodded. “So you have learned that much of Ma’al! You are right, we should leave here. We will come with you to Dorvai.” The five of them went back into the cave complex. The Malani seemed to know the way well, which showed they were frequent visitors here. When they reached the central cave they found Dorvai and Whitestar there, and as Zarel appeared Dorvai asked quickly “Is it well with you, Zarel?” “Yes, praise Light” the young Priest answered. “We have brought you some visitors, Dorvai.” The Lightfriend had not noticed the others in his concern for Zarel, but now he exclaimed “Corhan, my friend! And Saban. It is good to see you. Do you have news?” “We do” Corhan told him. “We bring you a message. Naton is safe and is returning, but he takes a roundabout route, to be sure there is no danger to you here. Two of our Swordsmen have gone to accompany him.” “Ah, that is good. Varine will be relieved!” Dorvai replied, then, remembering that this would mean nothing to his visitors from Li’is, explained “Naton is my sister Varine’s husband. He has been away to meet with some of the followers of Light.” He smiled, then, and said “I told you we are guarded here, and now you have met our guards.” “The Malani” Zarel said. “We knew nothing of them, Dorvai.” “How should you, since you are not of Ma’al?” Whitestar asked. Corhan said “That is what we did not understand, till Zarel explained to us. But Dorvai, Whitestar, he has also brought me the answer I have sought for so long.” Whitestar exclaimed “Do you mean your vision, Corhan? That is wonderful!” Corhan said “Maybe you had not noticed his colouring, but when I saw – it is so like my dream-maiden’s! And he tells me that though he is a Lightfriend, he is also descended from the people who went with the Lightfriends when they left Ma’al – the Ketai. That is where I must seek my bride – in his world, among his mother’s people.” His companion, Saban, added “It is wonderful indeed – that at last Light has brought us the answer.”


When Rentha woke, Moondancer was still sleeping. Rentha looked across at the other girl. She looked better for the sleep, but Rentha’s Healer’s instincts were still concerned at her thin face and frame. No doubt, though, she thought, here in Li’is where she would be well tended and fed, Moondancer would soon become stronger. Perhaps the girl-Priest Perceived Rentha’s concern, even in her sleep, for now she stirred, and woke, and yawned, sat up and looked round as if startled for a moment to find herself here. Rentha smiled at her, and said, to reassure her, “Does it feel strange to you, Moondancer? You are safe in Li’is.” “Oh yes, I did feel strange for a moment! Almost I forgot … to be here, without Whitestar, away from all I know – it is wonderful and frightening at once!” Kind Rentha went across and put a comforting arm round the other girl’s shoulders. “It must be very strange to you. I wish I had Perception too, so I could help you better. But Aren will understand, I know.” She was right in that, for when they had dressed and joined the others at breakfast, she saw Aren’s gaze catch Moondancer’s and saw that their Perceptions met, and whatever Aren imparted to the girl made her relax and quietly join in the meal. Afterwards, Arenel said “It is time for the Morning Prayers, Moondancer. Come with us to the Temple.” They walked across to the Temple, where Aiel was leading the Morning Prayers, and Moondancer was full of excitement and joy at being able to worship openly, without fear of persecution. As they entered the building, she looked round, taking in all that she had not seen on her brief visit the previous night. Aren and Arenel could Perceive her sense of awe and wonder before she spoke. “It is so beautiful – a fitting place to worship Light.” As the worshippers filled the Temple, and the music and prayers echoed through the building, she seemed quiet, as though absorbing everything, though she joined gladly in the prayers. When all was done, and the Temple was emptying, Aiel came over to them, smiling at Moondancer. “It was good to see you here, Moondancer, where you belong.” “It made my spirit sing, Aiel! Yet it was overwhelming, too. So many Children of Light, such joy, such freedom!”

They had agreed, the previous evening, to meet at Lin and Krystha’s home by the Harbour, to resume their deliberations. Aiel still had some duties to complete at the Temple, as did Arenel, so they suggested that Rentha and Aren should take Moondancer on ahead, to show her the City. The three young people walked down through the broad avenue that led to the Harbour, Moondancer admiring and exclaiming over the buildings and gardens around them. Now dressed in one of Rentha’s gowns, blue in colour, she was not noticeably out of place, though she attracted a few glances because of her Perception-gifted eyes. This scared her momentarily, until Aren, Perceiving her fear, explained that it was only because she was unusual in being a maiden with Perception, and there was no malice in the glances. Once thus assured, she relaxed and enjoyed her surroundings. As they approached the Harbour gates, though, she again turned questioningly to Aren, seeing the Watchwards at the gates in their green-and-gold livery. Quietly he explained their presence, but thought how hard it must be to live as a Child of Light in Ma’al, where nothing and nobody was to be trusted. Around the gates, the market was much quieter than usual, and some merchants absent. They walked down to the Harbour walls. The waves were crashing up against the stonework, still driven by the Two-Moon Tide, and no ships were tied up at the docks. Moondancer was awed by the sight of the fierce breakers, and confessed that she had seldom seen the sea. Rentha told her “Usually there would be many ships here, and the market would be busy. But the ships from the East cannot sail until the Two-Moon Tides are over.” “The East?” Moondancer sounded frightened again. “In Ma’al the Eastern lands are the place of greatest Darkness, a stronghold of the Dark Lords, and a seat of evil sorcery!” “But not in Li’is!” Aren comforted her.

They walked back from the Harbour to the house of the Lord of the Harbour, where Lin and Krystha welcomed them. As there had been little time for social niceties on the previous day, Rentha introduced Moondancer more fully to Mella, her cousin, friend, and fellow Healer. When Marla appeared, though, Moondancer asked, though with deference, if there was time, now, for the story of Marla’s Way to be told. The little she had heard had obviously intrigued her.. Marla smiled at the girl-Priest and said “The story of my Way? It really begins with the story of the Lightstone Way, the first Way…” and went on to tell how she had, though yet unborn, been touched by the power of the Lightstone, and how, because of that, Light had set a ‘seed of Light’ in her, though her heritage was all of Darkness. Moondancer listened, amazed and entranced, as Marla’s story unfolded, culminating in her being set free from the Darkness in her by the combined powers of the Lightstone, a Spirit-in-Light, and the Dancers. “And Light not only brought me out of Darkness, but brought me my love, and my family” Marla ended, smiling fondly at Mellin, who had entered the room while she was speaking. He came over to them, returning her smile, and told Moondancer “All of us found our loves on that Way, Marla and I, Aila and Janir, Arenel and Zohra. Our loves were the gift of Light, but also in the Will of Light, for we are the generations of the Way-Sharers, and now the Way is carried on again by our children.” Moondancer answered “Truly, Light is love, and brings love, and will take any out of Darkness that will take the Choice of Light.” Then she sighed, and told them “There are few enough will take that Choice, in Ma’al. It means danger, and maybe death. I wish there were more, that Light’s judgement need not fall, but the Dark Lords and the Night Lords hold my poor world in sway.”

Safe in the Lightfriends’ caverns, there was more time to talk, and Zarel explained more fully to the Malani the story of the Lightstone Way, from Aiel’s Way to his, and how the Dancers had brought him Light’s summons to come into Ma’al. The Swordsmen were wary at his mention of the Dancers, until he explained that they were the enemies of the Night Lords, the Dancers of Ma’al who had been corrupted by the Lords of Darkness, and were fully on the side of Light. “It is they who help us keep the link open, between myself and Whitestar here and Aren my brother and Moondancer in Li’is” he explained. It is because, as twins, our Perceptions are already more strongly linked than others’, and also because we have inherited our mother’s gift, to hear the Dancers’ Song. Only we three, of all Li’is, can hear it.” “They sing?” asked Saban. Zarel smiled “Oh yes, they sing! They are the Singers of the worlds, Saban – all save Ma’al, where the dark melodies of the Night Lords rule. Light made them to Dance among the worlds and set the rhythms of each one by their Song.” “There is much to learn and understand” remarked Corhan. “We must return to our people and prepare them for this Way that you take us on, Zarel. But I think you have more to teach us yet, about your world.”

He turned to Karis and Karlin and said “Swordsmen of Li’is, come a little way with us and we will show you where our guards will be, should you have need of them before we return. Zarel will be safe here.” Karis and Karlin followed Corhan and Saban to the cave entrance, and the Malani led them along the path on which the Swordsmen had first seen them. Once they rounded the curve, there was quite a growth of bushes and wild plants along the trail. They came to a place where there was another small hollow in the rock face, hardly large enough to be called a cave at all, partly concealed by the bushes, and Corhan stopped and said “Usually we send one of our men here to guard the approach to the Lightfriends’ place of refuge, more if we believe there is danger. While Zarel is there we will set extra guards.” “Thank you, Corhan” Karis said, speaking for them both. He was sure that Karlin felt, as he did, some relief that part of the responsibility for Zarel’s safety had been lifted from their shoulders, though they would not, because of that, relax their guard. They wished the Malani “Go in Light” as they turned away, and watched them till they turned another bend in the path. Turning back themselves towards Dorvai’s refuge, they were silent for a little, then Karlin said “It will be good to have Corhan and his Malani with us.” “That was my thought” Karis said. “For though we are sworn to protect Zarel, they will know the dangers here, and we do not.”

Karlin was about to reply when Karis suddenly made a sign to him to be silent. He thought he had seen a movement in the bushes ahead, and there was no wind to cause it. He signed again to Karlin, and the two Swordsmen quietly approached the bushes. Karis made a sudden dive into the undergrowth, and Karlin heard a cry, in what sounded like a female voice. Hurrying to help, he found Karis holding the wrist of a struggling figure, and caught her other wrist. Between them they got her out of the bushes, and found themselves with a frightened captive who begged them not to hurt her. The fact that the listener they had pulled from hiding was a girl, though, did not lessen the Swordsmen’s distrust. Dorvai had warned them of the deadly Hawks, riding the skies of Ma’al on their silent sail-wings. The girl was still pleading piteously, and Karis said “We will not harm you, maiden, but you must tell us why you were hiding there.” “Who are you, and what do you want?” challenged Karlin. The girl looked at them with frightened eyes. “I mean no harm. I thought you were pursuing me. I am – ” she hesitated, as if unsure whether to trust them, then said “I am seeking Lightfriends. My name is Sharamine.” “Are you a Child of Light?” Karlin asked, but she seemed afraid to reply. Karis said “Bring her to Zarel. He will know.” “Come” Karlin ordered the girl. She still looked scared, and her glance took in the sword at his side, but she followed them obediently. She was very quiet, and Karis, glancing sideways at her, thought that she looked unwell. She had a sweet, heart-shaped face, but it was thin and pale, not with a natural pallor, but with a yellowish tinge, as of fatigue or sickness. Her eyes too looked tired, smudged beneath with purple shadows, and her long, dark hair was dull, with no sheen to it. Perhaps, he thought, she was seeking the help of a Healer.

Zarel was awaiting them in the outer part of the cavern, standing alone, and turned at the sound of their approach. Karis still found himself sometimes looking round for Aren, for the twins were so much a single unit in his thought. He quickly explained the problem of Sharamine to Zarel, while Karlin kept her to one side. When Zarel approached her she looked at him, wonderingly. “What is wrong?” he asked her. “Nothing!” she said hastily. “But I have never seen one of the Lightfriends before. I had not seen the Eyes of Light.” To Karis, Karlin, and even Zarel himself, it was surprising that to the girl the Priest’s vivid blue eyes, the outward sign of his Perception, should be so strange and awesome. “How then do you know the way of Light, if you have never met a Lightfriend?” Zarel asked her. “It was told to me by a friend. We followed it together. But one day the Hawks took her. It has been lonely since.” Sharamine answered. Zarel took out the Lightstone, and the girl drew back. Karis thought how instinctive it was, in this world, for the Children of Light to see everything as a potential danger. Zarel said “This is the Lightstone. If you are a Child of Light, you need not fear it.” “The only stones I know of are those the Dark Ones bear” she answered. “You may not be a Lightfriend at all, but one of the Shape-Changers!” “Karlin, show her” Zarel said, and the Swordsman came to Zarel and stood quietly as the Lightstone was touched to his brow. The soft light flowed forth from the Stone and spilled over Karlin, and he smiled gently at the tender, reassuring peace that enfolded him. When the light withdrew, the joyous glow still lingered in his eyes as he turned and smiled at the girl. “You see, there is nothing to fear.”

Hesitantly still, she stepped forward to stand before Zarel, and he lifted the Lightstone again, and touched her brow. Again the light flowed out of the Stone, seeming to embrace the girl. As they watched, she bowed her head within the light, but she smiled softly too. When the light withdrew she looked at Zarel with awe. “Welcome, Child of Light” Zarel said. “Light finds you worthy.” It was evident that Sharamine could not yet speak. Her experience of Light had been too overwhelming. “Come with us” Zarel said, and they led her back along the twisting paths and through the caves and tunnels, to Dorvai and Whitestar. It was a tortuous path, by design, and by the time they reached the main cavern, it was obvious that the girl was flagging. Zarel said to the older Lightfriend “Dorvai, this maiden seeks our aid. The Lightstone says she is a Child of Light.” “What is your name, child?” Dorvai asked. “And what is your need?” “My name is Sharamine” the girl told him, and went on to explain that she had run away because her parents wished to sell her into an unwanted marriage with a man high in the ranks of Darkness, a man evil, cruel, perverted, who had happened to conceive a lust for her. Zarel, Karis and Karlin listened in disgust, but to Dorvai and Whitestar it seemed nothing unusual. Seeing their perturbation at Sharamine’s story, Dorvai explained the way of things in Ma’al. “Only we who belong to Light are wed as you would understand it, in the sight of Light, and our marriages, if known, would not be recognised by the authorities. It is nothing unusual for a girl to be sold by her parents to the highest bidder. Marriage for many is like a slavery; it can be broken at any time, but only by the man. Though it would not be true that every marriage is unhappy, yet many are.”

“But if not by Priests, how then are the people here married?” Karis asked. “By the Town-Master. A bracelet is sealed on the woman’s wrist, and can only be removed by another Town-Master, if the marriage is broken.” “It is a badge of ownership!” the girl Sharamine said bitterly. Her eyes were very bright now; a nervous brightness, or a feverish one, it seemed to Karis. “We will shelter you” said Whitestar. “Yes” said Dorvai. “And we must find means to keep you safe from pursuit. I know of the man you mean, and he is not lightly crossed. He will search for you.” “We have the Lightstone to protect us” Whitestar said. “And Sharamine must join us on this Way.” “Still, I will send word to Corhan for his people to be on the lookout for his mercenaries” Dorvai said. “Come” said Whitestar to Sharamine “I will show you a place where you may rest. You look so tired.” She put one arm gently round the other girl’s shoulders, and to their surprise Sharamine cried out, as if Whitestar’s arm had been red-hot, and collapsed. Fortunately, Karis was standing in front of her and was able to catch her. As he did so, his hand touched her back, under her cloak, and he was shocked to feel bare flesh and a sticky wetness. Karlin helped him lower the girl gently, and when he looked at his hand, he found to his horror that it was covered with blood. Whitestar took off the concealing cloak, and they saw that the back of Sharamine’s gown had been ripped open, and the flesh was criss-crossed with the bloody weals of a harsh beating. Karis was outraged. “What animal has done this?” he demanded. Dorvai looked at him sadly. “Her father, probably, because she rebelled at the marriage he planned for her.” “Her father?” Karis said, unbelieving. He could not conceive it. Could his cousin, Janir, have beaten Lira or Janna so, or his brother Mellin thus abused Mella? It was unthinkable. Whitestar said “The ways of Ma’al are ways of Darkness, Karis. You come from a world of Light. How can you understand?” “You are right, I do not understand!” Karis said, angrily. “I had heard of Darkness, but this world … ah, no wonder Light judges it!” “Be careful, Karis” Dorvai warned. “Yes, Ma’al is under judgement – but Light is the judge, not you.” Karis seemed about to speak again, but stopped, and bowed his head in acknowledgement of the truth of Dorvai’s words. “The maiden should be tended” Zarel reminded them, and Dorvai agreed, adding “Swordsmen, bring her to my Healing Place.” Karis and Karlin, between them, gently lifted the fainting girl and, careful not to touch her damaged back, carried her after the Lightfriend.

Zarel almost turned to speak to Aren before he remembered that his twin was not there. His eyes met Whitestar’s, and he knew she Perceived what he was feeling. “You too?” she asked, and sighed “I am so lonely for Moondancer.” “And I for Aren. It is as one half of me is gone.” “I know” the girl answered. “Oh Zarel, I am glad you are here. No one but you would understand so well.” She glanced at the Lightstone, reached out and touched its silvery chain. “And this is our only link with them.” Zarel glanced down at the softly glowing Stone , and quoted from the Secret Word “Two and two and times and time, out of their place, but all for good.” “Is that your prophecy?” asked Whitestar. “The Secret Word, it is called” he told her. “That is part of it, yours and mine, Moondancer’s and Aren’s.” “Two and two?” she asked again. “That is us?” “Yes” he answered. There was time, now, for sharing, and he recited the whole of the Secret Word to her, then explained it. “The first part, about the Lightstone – that was the word for Aiel my grandfather and his friend Lin. Lak, the Black Piper, was a Shape-Changer and host to a Lord of Darkness, who brought a Bloodstone into Li’is fro Ma’al. He deceived Aiel into giving him a pass to the Dancers’ Gate…” he went on to tell the tale of the Lightstone Way, the part played by the ‘treasures of the mountains’ Arentha and Krystha, of the successful conclusion of the Way and the marriages of Aiel and Arentha, Lin and Krystha. “And the soul divided?” Whitestar questioned further. “Whose Way was that?” “Si-Mara, the Silver Witch, Priestess of the Night Temple, bore a child by Lak, because she was also out of Ma’al. The child was a daughter, Marla. She was sent away to the East, to be reared among the Children of Darkness. But because Aiel had encountered Si-Mara while she was pregnant, and searched her with the Lightstone, Light in mercy planted a seed of Light in the unborn babe. When she was grown, Si-Mara brought her back to the City to serve Darkness, to become another Bloodstone-wielder. But Marla chose Light. She ran away from Si-Mara, seeking Aiel’s help. That was the second Way, for the Choice of Light was not enough for her. She had to be taken safely to the Dancers, to be Changed.”

“How, Changed?” asked Whitestar, fascinated with the story. Zarel replied “Aiel, Aila my aunt, who is Perception-gifted, and Arenel my father met at the Gatehouse with a Spirit-in-Light summoned by the Dancers. Only with the Shining One sharing his Perception could Aiel help Marla to reject every Darkness within her, and free her of her Dark heritage. And even after that, they had to take her to the Dancers on the Meeting Place, so that the Dancers could sing to her. My mother said that Marla’s body had to be sung out of tune with the Darkness of Ma’al and into tune with Li’is and Light.” “Was your mother there too, then?” “Yes, she helped the Dancers, because she was the only one in all Li’is who could hear their Song, and sing it to Marla so that she heard it too. Now, though, Aren and I can also hear it, for we have inherited her gift. That is why this is our Way, since we need to hear the Dancers to make the Gate that will lead us out of Ma’al and into Li’is.” “But did Marla’s Way succeed?” Whitestar queried, a little anxiously. “Oh yes! By the mercy of Light, she was freed of all Darkness and became a Child of Light, and a daughter of Li’is. She destroyed the Bloodstone she was intended to wield. And she married Mellin, Lin’s son. She is Karlin’s mother.” Whitestar gave a sigh of contentment. “Oh, that is a beautiful story! I am glad it ended happily for Marla, Zarel.”

Meanwhile Karis and Karlin had carried the unconscious girl to the Healing Place and laid her, on Dorvai’s instructions, on a makeshift couch made on a rocky shelf, so that the Lightfriend could tend her wounded back. Karlin held the lamp that Dorvai gave him to light his work. Karis surprised Dorvai by deftly supplying him with a bowl of water, soft cloths, and the appropriate herbs from the Healer’s bench. “Our mothers are Healers, mine and Karlin’s” he said, in answer to Dorvai’s questioning look. Dorvai stirred the dried herbs into the water, giving them time to infuse, then soaked cloths in the liquid and began to gently cleanse away the blood from Sharamine’s wounds. After a while he said “This is not her first beating. Look.” The Swordsmen leaned forward and saw that beneath the raw, bruised whipmarks were other wounds, half-healed, and underlying even those, the thin, white, fading scars of other beatings. Karlin said sadly “This maiden must be about of an age with my Janna. How could anyone, least of all her father, so misuse such an innocent?” Dorvai answered “She has been cruelly treated, it is true. But it may have been done as much out of fear as anger.” “Fear?” Karis queried. “As I said, I know of the man she spoke of, the man who wanted her. He is powerful in the ranks of Darkness, and ruthless in obtaining anything he wants. It may well be that he has threatened Sharamine’s father, her family, to force her to wed him. And since she refused, no doubt they fear the consequences, and have tried to beat her into submission.” The subject of their conversation was stirring now, and Dorvai bent to whisper to her reassuringly, and help her to sit up. She grimaced with pain as he applied a salve to her wounds, but made no sound of complaint. Afterwards he gave her a draught to ease her pain, and told her “Rest now, and recover your strength. You are safe here, with the Lightstone and these Swordsmen to protect you.” Sharamine gave them a weak smile and thanked them. Leaving her in the Healing Place, they made their way back to the main cavern. By now Varine, Kira, and little Kilmo had rejoined them, and Dorvai gave Varine the news of her husband’s impending return, drawing a glad little exclamation from her. “When Naton has returned and Corhan has spoken to the Malani, we must begin to plan how to move on from here. But first we must gather the followers of Light” Dorvai said. “Zarel, you said the Dancers told you the Lightstone would draw them to you?” “Yes, though I am not sure how, for now. Yet maybe ” the Lightstone-Bearer said, suddenly thoughtful, ” this maiden, Sharamine, was the first to be called.”

AN END OF DARKNESS

Chapter 3

The night of the second Two-Moon Tide came, the time of departure. Since all the Priesthood now knew what was to happen, the Temple was locked and the Elders and the Priests of the Temple gathered round the Crucible, for though they had already made the Prayer Vigil for Zarel, Karis and Karlin, they still wanted to remain there in prayer for them while the transfer took place. Aiel and the other Waysharers and their families had gathered in the Prayer Room. Aiel was aware, though, of the Lightstone Room below, where all of this had started for him, many years before, when he had received the Lightstone. Now Zarel was the Lightstone-Bearer and Aiel the High Priest, and now Aiel realised just how Arnath had felt, sending him out into the perils of the Way. He had given as much advice as possible to Zarel – and Aren, since the two were inseparable – about the Lightstone’s powers. “But in the end” he had told Zarel ” each one’s experience must be unique, since you will attune to the Lightstone, and it to you, and it will use your own giftings from Light.”

The gifts for the Lightfriends of Ma’al were piled up ready for the Dancers to transport, and Karis and Karlin had their own packs. They and Zarel seemed ready now for their journey to Ma’al, though all were, naturally, apprehensive. Aiel hugged his grandson, and their Perceptions flowed together. Already, Aiel felt, Zarel’s Perception was enhanced by the Lightstone. He poured blessing, encouragement, love into the younger Priest’s Perception, then released him and stepped back. Arenel and Zohra, and Rentha, in turn embraced their son and brother, and lastly Aren. Aiel saw the twins’ gaze meet, their Perceptions meld and hold. Whatever messages they had to give passed in that moment. Then Aren released his twin and said softly “Go in Light, my brother!” The two Swordsmen were also hugged and blessed and bidden farewell. Most poignant of all was the parting of Karlin and Janna. She was ghost-pale, hurting to the heart and not wanting him to see it, and he was stricken both by the parting and his beloved’s agony. They clung together in a farewell embrace until a phalanx of Dancers shimmered into the room. Some enfolded and carried away the gathered supplies, while three approached the Priest and Swordsmen. It was time to go. Janna watched wide-eyed and still as stone as Karlin, Karis and Zarel were also enfolded in the sparkling substance of the Dancers. Then, as the light-beings blinked out of sight, carrying the young men with them, the girl stretched out one arm with a sobbing cry of “Karlin!”, and fell back, half-fainting, against Mellin, who had seen her distress and moved discreetly near enough to catch her. Only now would Janna release the pent-up tears she would not let Karlin see, and Mellin gently gave her into Aila’s arms. Her mother, knowing what might happen, had a draught prepared to calm the distraught girl, and she, Lira and Marla soothed and comforted Janna until her storm of weeping was past. Aren had not wept, but he was very quiet and still, and Aiel asked gently, “Is it well with you, Aren?” The blue eyes lifted to his and the young Priest said “As well as it may be, Grandfather, with the half of me gone! But he is still in my Perception.”

They were diverted from their concerns over the departure of Zarel, Karis and Karlin by the reappearance of one of the Dancers, which comforted them with the news that the three were safe, had been carried without incident to Ma’al, and were now well hidden in the secret retreat of Dorvai, leader of the Lightfriends of Ma’al. And soon, the Dancer continued, they would receive their visitor from Ma’al, the other twin who would cross into Li’is. Aiel thought again of the Secret Word “two and two”. It was only a few seconds before another Dancer shimmered into being in the room, a huddled, cloaked figure wrapped within it. Aiel knew how terrifying it was to travel with the Dancers for the first time, and how hard it must have been for this Lightfriend of Ma’al to entrust himself to a Dancer, having known only the Night Lords, the corrupted Dancers of Ma’al. The High Priest stepped forward, ready to welcome and reassure the newcomer. The Dancer shimmered back, leaving the Lightfriend of Ma’al standing in the midst of them. Aiel guessed that his eyes, hidden by the hood of his cloak, were still tightly closed, and said, very gently and reassuringly, “Child of Light, it is well with you. You are safe in Li’is, and we welcome you, in the Name of Light.” The figure moved. Vivid blue eyes opened and stared out at him from under the hood. For a moment their Perceptions met and he felt a mixture of emotions ; fear, hope, loss, excitement. Then the Lightfriend’s hand lifted to toss back the hood, revealing a delicately-featured face and a tumbling mass of soft brown hair. The Lightfriend, despite the male clothing, was definitely a girl. And after all, Aiel thought, there was no strangeness in that. In a world where the Friends of Light were few, all those born with Perception, sons or daughters, must serve Light, and in a world where men were cruel and untrustworthy, a girl who was also Perception-gifted would go more safely if disguised as a boy.

“Welcome, Lightfriend” Aiel said again. “I am Aiel the – the High Priest of Light’s Temple, here in the City.” He had so nearly said “the Lightstone-Bearer”, but that title was Zarel’s now. The girl smiled, but her smile was tired, her face, though young and quite pretty, pale and thin, chin and cheekbones showing too stark and sharp. When she spoke, she used the common tongue, but with a strange accent and inflection. “I am Moondancer” she told them, “sister of Whitestar, daughter of Dorvai.” She seemed to sway slightly as she spoke, and the Healers glanced at her with concern. Aren came forward and said “I am Aren. Is Whitestar your twin? It is my twin, Zarel, who has gone into Ma’al.” “Yes” the girl answered. “Oh, it is hard, and frightening, to be parted, to go into another world without her!” “I know” Aren said, almost unconsciously reaching out to take her hand comfortingly. “I feel it too.” They looked at each other, strangers to each other, shy, yet each knowing what the other was feeling, and Aiel saw that for a moment their Perceptions met and joined, and each drew comfort from the other. Then the girl sighed, and put her hand to her head and, this time, most definitely swayed. Aren quickly helped her to a bench and turned his eyes in appeal to his aunt. Aila came swiftly to Moondancer’s side. Mellin asked his cousin “Has the journey harmed her?” “Not with the Dancers” Aila replied. “But she is very tired – and very hungry! When did you eat last, child?” “I think – two days ago, except for a few wild berries” the girl answered, shocking them all. “The Hawks were near the place where our food was hidden, and we could not reach it” she added, but the explanation confused them even more. They understood more clearly, though, why the Dancers had said it was necessary for the three young men to take provisions with them.

The Temple was empty now, the Priesthood having finished their prayers and gone their separate ways, and it was decided that they should all return to Aiel’s house, where the stranger could be tended. When they came out of the Prayer Room into the now quiet main Temple, though, Moondancer begged to go and stand for a moment before the Crucible. They went with her, and she stood at the foot of the dais steps, arms raised in prayer, tears running down her cheeks. Afterwards, she turned to them all and said “Oh, this is how it should be!” and for the moment it seemed all her weariness and hunger were forgotten. They returned to the High Priest’s house, and when the girl had been given food and drink – and Mellin thought he had never seen anyone eat so eagerly, though she was obviously trying to control her hunger – and seemed to feel better, they began to gently question her. “Moondancer is an unusual name – though pretty” Aila said “and your sister is Whitestar? Is this the style of names in Ma’al?” “No” the girl-Priest said. “But there was a prophecy spoken for us when we were born. One of the Lightfriends was told of Light that one of us would be danced beyond the moons, and one of us would walk with a white star in Ma’al. That is why we were named so.” “The Dancer carried you here, beyond the moons of your world and ours” Aren said ” and Zarel has taken the Lightstone into Ma’al – that is the white star your sister walks with. Here in Li’is there is a prophecy about you – about us – too. Grandfather?” “Aye” Aiel said, smiling at the girl. “The Secret Word says this ‘Two and two and times and Time out of their place, but all for good'”.

“I still do not understand why I am here” Moondancer said “Except that I know it is the Will of Light.” She looked round at them all. “And the – the Dancers, they are called?” “Yes” Aiel told her. “They said more would be explained here. That my sister and I are halves of a whole. Is that what your prophecy means?” It was Aren who answered. “It is because you and Whitestar and Zarel and I are twins, and the link between our Perceptions, as twins, is so strong and close. Zarel and I can hear the Dancers’ Song too, as only we and our mother can. That means that with the help of the Dancers, we four can make a link between Li’is and Ma’al through our Perceptions, so the Thought-without-Words can run between our worlds, and those who are in Ma’al can access the help of the Priesthood here in Li’is for this Way.” As she absorbed this, Aiel went on “It will also mean that we here can know how the Way goes in Ma’al. The Lightstone-Bearer is called to lead the followers of Light to a certain place in Ma’al that corresponds to a place here in Li’is that we call the Meeting Place. That is where your Perceptions, the Lightstone, and the powers of the Dancers will make the Gate that will bring them into Li’is. We here in Li’is must also travel to the Meeting Place, you and Aren to do your part, and others to receive and tend to the Lightfriends of Ma’al.” Moondancer said “It will be a perilous journey for them. The Dark Lords of Ma’al are always watching for any who follow Light, especially the Lightfriends themselves. Their underlings will obey any order they give, and their mercenaries are ruthless. And there are the Hawks.”

It was the second time she had mentioned the mysterious ‘Hawks’, and Mellin asked “What are these Hawks?” The girl-Priest seemed to be wondering how to explain, then said “They are women who fly. The Dark Ones have given them wings – no, not like a bird. They are made of some fabric, built on a frame and strapped to their bodies. I think women are used because they are lighter to carry on the wings. I do not understand the mechanism. But they glide over Ma’al, and spy for the Dark Ones.” “Ingenious” murmured Lin, who had an interest in new inventions, “but, as you say, a danger.” Moondancer, seeming to Perceive that her words might alarm some of them, went on “However, we have places that are safe, and those who aid us in secret. It is travelling between those places that will be the most dangerous, but we have protectors, and the Lightstone is with them. Once in the havens, they will be safe.” Marla asked “Aiel, I have just thought – when I was Changed, the Dancers had to Sing me into tune with Li’is, with Zohra’s help”. She smiled at the Westerner, and went on “Will it be so for those who come from Ma’al?”

He thought about it, and said “Of that I am not sure, Marla. Those of Ma’al who belonged to Darkness were in Li’is on sufferance, as it were. Everything in Li’is was at odds with them, because they were of Darkness and Li’is is ruled by Light. It may be that in Ma’al it is so with the Children of Light, and they will not need to be – ‘retuned’, if you wish to put it so – to Li’is, because they belong to Light. Or it may be that the Dancers will Sing to them as they pass through the Gate. It has happened before, when the first Lightfriends and the Ketai came into Li’is, and we do not know what happened to them when they came. But Light knows, and it will be done as Light wills.” Moondancer, listening to this exchange, asked Marla “Are you from Ma’al, then?” Marla replied, “I was born in Li’is, but I was born of Ma’al – of Darkness! But Light was merciful to me, and I was made a Child of Light, though it meant another Way, and the use of the Lightstone. I will tell you the full tale, someday.” “And the Ketai? It is true, then, that there was another people that helped the Lightfriends escape Ma’al? Are they still in Li’is?” Zohra stepped forward, and put an arm round Aren’s shoulders. Smiling at Moondancer, she said “Yes, they are still in Li’is, Moondancer. I am of the Ketai, and Zarel and Aren are my sons. My daughter Rentha is here too. You are speaking with them.” The girl-Priest smiled back at Zohra, and said “It is all so strange! I feel as if all the old legends were coming to life!” “That is because the old legends have truth in them – Light’s truth” Aiel said. “And that may be necessary, to give us hope when we need it.”

It was clear that Moondancer had many more questions, but she was also tired, and still somewhat weak from hunger, though she had eaten. Krystha said “Aiel, I think all we Healers would agree that the maiden should rest now. And all of us have had an emotional and tiring day.” She glanced at Janna as she spoke, and her silent look told the High Priest that she was thinking of Karlin’s betrothed especially. “Perhaps it would be best to leave our deliberations for now, and continue tomorrow.” Aiel concurred. He knew that Zarel and the Swordsmen would need time to establish themselves in Ma’al before the Way there could begin, so there was time for more discussion and to prepare for the journey to the Meeting Place. So they arranged a time to meet the next day and parted. Mellin, Marla and Mella went with Lin and Krystha, Arenel and Zohra took Moondancer back with them and Aren and Rentha, and Aila and her daughters stayed with Aiel and Arentha, since Janir was still away in the West arranging with the Kets for tents to be made and taken to the Meeting Place when needed as shelter for the refugees from Ma’al.

Zarel, Karis and Karlin, carried into Ma’al by the Dancers, found themselves in the mouth of a cave looking out on a gloomy mountainside, honeycombed with clefts and more caves. The sky above, though light, was not clear, and they could not see the sun of Ma’al through the hazy cloud. The air was warm, but not pleasantly so; it felt sticky and oppressive. As the Dancers moved away from them and faded back into invisibility, leaving them surrounded by the barrels and sacks of provisions the light-beings had carried, a man appeared. By his eyes they could tell he was a Lightfriend – not a Priest, Zarel thought, for there could be no Priesthood in Ma’al. The Lightstone-Bearer guessed the stranger to be about his father’s age. “Quickly, come!” the Lightfriend told them, and they followed his swift retreat into the cave, realising that his curtness and lack of greeting were due to urgency rather than discourtesy. The man led them across the small entrance cave, then through a confusing maze of rocky tunnels into a large, central cave where there were torches and a fire and a small group of people. There were three other Lightfriends, one a girl, though dressed like a boy – Whitestar, though they did not then know it – two Swordsmen, a young woman with a little boy of three or four, and an older woman. The Lightfriend who had led them through the caves now turned and said “Welcome, welcome in the name of Light, men of Li’is. Light be praised that you are sent to help us!” He smiled at them, and continued, “I am Dorvai, leader of the Lightfriends of Ma’al, few as we are. These others are Yarin and Hant, and this is Whitestar, my daughter, twin to Moondancer, who has gone into your world.”

Whitestar stepped forward, smiling. Zarel returned her smile and said “I am Zarel, and I ” – he hesitated, still unused to saying it – “I am now the Lightstone-Bearer, after Aiel my grandfather. This is Karis, and this Karlin. They are Heirs to the Mountains and the Harbour, and they are, in some sort, my cousins.” For the relationships between the three of them were too complicated to explain now. “Ah, you are brothers” Dorvai said, misled, like many before, by their age and resemblance. Karis glanced at Karlin and said, lightly, “No, Karlin is my brother’s son, my nephew.” The Lightfriend looked at him closely, and Karis said “I am not jesting, sir. I was born late to my parents, and Mellin my brother is older than me by twenty-one years. Karlin is his son, only two years younger than I.” Dorvai smiled at him. “And no doubt you are both weary of explaining it!” Whitestar asked Zarel “You are the other twin – it is to your brother that Moondancer has gone?” “Yes” Zarel answered. “Moondancer is with Aren – and with Arenel my father and Aiel my grandfather, and all the Priesthood of the City in the Temple of the One Light.” While she considered this, Dorvai continued his introductions. “The young Swordsmen are Children of Light also – but they come and go, and it is better that you do not know their names until you know more of Ma’al, and its dangers and spies. In all innocence you might betray them.” Zarel nodded, but he was finding it hard to concentrate on Dorvai’s words. He felt a dizzying pressure on his Perception from the Darkness of Ma’al, an oppression he had felt building ever since he had entered the Dark World. Dorvai went on, indicating the older woman, then the younger. “My sister Varine, and her daughter, Kira. Kira’s man was killed by the Hawks when the boy was only a few months old. He does not remember his father, but he is named for him. he is Kilmo.”

Zarel was not taking in Dorvai’s words. He felt as if his head would burst. Whitestar was looking at him with obvious concern, and Karis and Karlin, following her gaze, saw a strange, tense expression on the Priest’s face. Whitestar said quickly “Father!” and indicated Zarel, and Dorvai stepped forward to face him and said gently “Zarel, you are not used to Ma’al, to the Darkness and oppression here. It is a shadow on our Perception, always, but we are used to it. But you, Zarel, must fight it now, and overcome it, and push it to the background of your Perception and hold it there, as we must always do.” Zarel looked at Dorvai, and nodded. He drew out the Lightstone and gazed into it. He reached out through the Stone, out towards Light, but also out and back to Li’is, to Aren, who was surely there, waiting for him to call at need. And Aren was there,and not just Aren, but Aiel, and Arenel, and Moondancer, linked in the Thought-without-Words, and through Moondancer the link came back again to Ma’al, to Whitestar and Dorvai and Zarel, closing the circle so that the Thought-without-Words, amplified by the Dancers, spanned space and time and joined the two worlds, Li’is and its dark twin, Ma’al. Dorvai drew the two other Lightfriends, Yarin and Hant, into the chain, and at the heart of it Zarel stood gazing into the Lightstone, which was glowing like a miniature sun, and felt the Darkness that had so oppressed him since he entered Ma’al retreat in the face of Light. He raised his voice in the Quieting Prayers, and heard Dorvai, Whitestar and the other Lightfriends of Ma’al speaking them with him. Now Zarel was calm again, strengthened in Light, and in the love of his family and friends. He let the Lightststone fall, sent his thanks along the chain of the Thought-without-Words, and gently let it break. He smiled reassuringly at the Lightfriends, but now it was they who were subdued. He asked anxiously “What is it? Is anything wrong?”Dorvai smiled softly and said “Wrong? No, not wrong, Zarel. It is only that we are moved. None of us in Ma’al have experienced such communication before.” “You do not use the Thought-without-Words?” Zarel asked, astonished. “Oh yes, we use it” Dorvai answered, ” but not with such – such freedom and joy – oh, how free you are in Li’is, Zarel! And it is not often that so many Lightfriends are linked together. And then there was the Lightstone too…but you feel better now, Zarel?” “Yes” Zarel affirmed. He did not question Dorvai or the others further, Perceiving that that would be a kind of Trespass. They needed, first, to understand for themselves what they had experienced.

Little Kilmo was whimpering softly, and Karis asked “What ails the youngling? Do we frighten him?” The young mother smiled wearily. “No, he is hungry. Some of our food is hidden where the Hawks are, and we cannot reach it yet. ” The Swordsman remembered the Dancers’ instructions, and the packs they had brought with them as well as the other provisions. They had laid their own down on a flat stone as they entered the main cave, so as to be unencumbered. Now Karis smiled too. he had insisted that his mother include certain items in his pack, for he had guessed – or had Light told him? – that there might be children among the Lightfriends. And Karis had a heart for children. He retrieved his pack and reached inside for what he wanted – a large flat chunk of honey-cake, neatly wrapped, and a small flask of fresh milk. Yes, there they were! He pulled them out and went to Kira, unwrapping the package. “Ho, little one!” he said, smiling, to Kilmo. “Try this!” He broke off a child-sized piece of the cake and put it in the outstretched little hand. the child was so hungry he would have eaten anything, even stale bread, but when he tasted the firm sweet cake, his eyes widened into great astonished circles, and he gulped the food so quickly he almost choked. “Easy, easy, little one!” Karis admonished, unstopping the flask of milk and tipping it to the child’s mouth. Kilmo took a great swallow of milk, grinned an enormous grin, and held out his hand for more honeycake. They all laughed, and his mother thanked Karis with such emotion that he felt embarrassed. Karlin also fetched his pack, containing Healers’ supplies which Aila and Krystha had prepared, and asked Whitestar “Is there a Healer in your group?” “Dorvai my father is our Healer” she told him. Karlin held out his pack and said “These are sent for the Healer. Herbs and salves, draughts and cups and measures. The other supplies we brought, the Dancers carried, and have left where you found us. They are gifts from your Brothers-in-Light in Li’is, and others who wished to help.” Dorvai gladly took the pack of Healers’ supplies, and the two anonymous Swordsmen and the other Lightfriends went with Karis and Karlin to fetch what the Dancers had brought. As they carried in the goods and they mounted up, Kira exclaimed “You brought all this for us?”

“The Dancers told us that the Lightfriends of Ma’al needed provisions, as much as we could bring.” Zarel told her. “My grandfather Aiel is the High Priest of the Temple of Light. He told the Temple Elders and the Priesthood, and they agreed to send you gifts from the Harvest stores.” “Do your Priesthood grow their own food, then?” asked the Lightfriend called Harn. “No” Zarel smiled. “We buy our food in the market,as others do. But at the First and Second Harvest Horns, those who grow crops and fruit and vegetables, or have stores to spare, bring an offering to the Temple. We preserve and store what they bring, so that any who are poor or hungry can come to the Temple and ask for provisions.” “And all in Li’is follow the Rule of Light?” Dorvai asked, as they unpacked the supplies and began to prepare a meal for the hungry group. “There are a few who are Children of Night, who would seek to establish the Dark Lords as rulers of Li’is, as they rule in Ma’al. But their attempts have always been defeated, and since the Night Temple and its Priestess and her consort were destroyed, they have no real focus for their evil deeds.” “Then Li’is is truly the opposite of Ma’al.” Dorvai told him, “for here it is we Lightfriends who are few, and opposed by all.” “But you here are not the only Lightfriends?” Karis asked. “No, there are others. We have places like this, where we are safe. We keep to the mountains or hills, or abandoned farms where the soil has grown too poor for good crops.” “And the Children of Light?” Zarel questioned. “For I am to gather them all, and I was told that the Lightstone would draw them to me, yet I am not sure how that will be.” “We keep in touch, as far as we are able, with those who follow Light. We cannot enter the towns, for we would be recognised and captured. But we teach in secret places, and some of those we have taught have been courageous and brought others to know Light, though the risk to them is great. If Light is in their hearts, it may be that that is how they will feel the presence of the Lightstone.”

“You have not told us yet what Light intends in Ma’al, and why you have brought the Lightstone here” said the Lightfriend Yarin. Zarel was astonished. “Light has not told you? I thought you would know…” he paused, then continued, “The Dancers brought us word in Li’is that it is time for Light’s judgement on Ma’al. The Dark Ones and their followers have no more time to repent of their spurning of Light. I have been sent to gather the Lightfriends and Children of Light of Ma’al so that they may escape Light’s judgement on this world. We will travel to a place that in Li’is we call the Meeting Place, where the power of the Lightstone and the Dancers will make a gateway into Li’s. We shall pass into Li’is, and then Light’s judgement will fall on the Dark World. ” He thought to himself that, put like that, it sounded so simple – no doubt it was simple, to Light. But for him, and the others, it meant a task that he did not know how to accomplish, as yet, and a perilous journey through Ma’al. The Lightfriends seemed saddened by his words, and Whitestar said “That is a hard thing to hear, for it means that there is no hope for Ma’al.” Her father agreed, but added “Light is merciful, but just. Ma’al has rejected Light, and Light has given time for repentance, but it has not happened. And Light will not destroy the innocent with the guilty, that is why the Lightstone-Bearer is here.” “Light is love” Zarel said, “and takes no joy in the judgement of Ma’al. But the Dark Lords are enemies of Light, and Ma’al has rejected Light and the Sacrifice of Light. They must be judged, or Light is not just. All who accept Light will be taken into Li’is, though, before that judgement falls. That is also the justice of Light. As Dorvai said, the innocent will not perish with the guilty.”

The meal had been prepared, and Dorvai spoke the Meal-Blessing before they ate. Zarel, Karis and Karlin could see that it was the first good meal that the others had eaten in a while, and were quietly glad that they had been able to supply the need, though they said nothing. As they ate, Zarel asked “Are there maps of Ma’al? Do you have any?” “We have some charts, yes” Dorvai answered. “Those drawn up by ourselves, and others before us. The official maps are held in the towns, and we have no access to them, for we cannot go there, as I told you. We mark places of peril, and of safety, and routes that are safe to travel. But do you need maps? We will guide you.” “I know” Zarel replied . “But I need to see – to compare the terrain of Ma’al with that of Li’is, for the Dancers told us that while some places in Ma’al correspond to those in Li’is, others are totally different. I need to see where the Meeting Place lies, and how we can get there.” “How strange it is”, remarked Whitestar, ” that our worlds should be so like, and yet so unlike.” Karis said “When the Dark Lords ruled briefly in Li’is, before they were defeated by the Lightfriend Rafel and Brann and Tamorine, with the Lightstone and their armies, they had a City. It was not where our City is today, and it was destroyed, but the Ruins remain there. The land and forest around those Ruins are tainted by their presence still. I wonder if the Dark Ones’ city here is in the same place?” “The Dark City is inland and well guarded” Dorvai told him. “Then it may well correspond to the Ruins in Li’is” Zarel said. “For our City and Temple are on the hill above the Harbour, by the sea coast.” “There is a harbour on the seacoast here” one of the Swordsmen of Ma’al answered “but there is no city there, just a trading town.” They had finished their meal now, and Dorvai said “I will fetch the charts, and you can see for yourselves.”

From what he had said, the three Way-Sharers had expected the charts to be roughly drawn and sketchy, but they proved to be meticulous and neat. The Lightfriends of Ma’al had evidently taken great care over them. Bending over them by the light of a lamp, they tried to puzzle out the similarities to, and more importantly the differences from, the terrain of Li’is. There was, indeed, a harbour marked where theirs stood, and a small town round it, and a river running down which would correspond to the White River, but all around was forest, marshes and mountains. No sign of any building where the Mountain Fortress stood in Li’is, and both Karis and Karlin felt strangely uncomfortable at its absence. Along the edges of what would have been the Great Moor on Li’is stood a chain of small towns, and a symbol was marked on some of them. When Zarel queried what it meant, Dorvai said “Those are towns where the Dark Ones’ mercenaries are quartered.” The land outside those towns was marked off into fields for grazing herd-beasts to supply the towns, and of course there were no Faring Houses for travellers such as the Priesthood kept in Li’is. Zarel looked for the Westerners’ Plateau, but it was not there. That was the first strangeness. The use of the Moor for grazing was not such a change, but that a feature as dominant in their own landscape, and as important, should be missing from that of Ma’al, reinforced the fact that they were no longer in their own world. Karis looked for the Dark City, in the place where the Dark Ruins lay in Li’is, and sure enough, he found it. So, he thought to himself, those two Cities must have been linked together, in the First Days, before the Dark City on Li’is was destroyed.

The mountains of Ma’al closely resembled those of Li’is, but the chain of the Eastern mountains was longer, and curved strangely. They glanced at the land to the West, with its mountains and river, which did not look so different, though seeming largely uninhabited, but they did not linger over it, for they would not be travelling that way, so it did not concern them overmuch. A great deal of the chart, though, did look unfamiliar, with strange features, but they were concentrating on what they could recognise, to help them on their journey. Karlin looked for the Great Bay and found a similar but smaller feature, with a harbour and town, which he pointed out to Zarel. Once that was found, they could trace a path to the North, and found a range of mountains, which must be where the Meeting Place would be if there were such a thing in Ma’al. Karis, though, looked anxiously at what seemed to be a great open plain on the approach to the mountains. “How can we bring a great company through there without being seen and pursued?” he asked. Dorvai admitted that not much of what lay between the bay and the mountains had been mapped in detail, since the Lightfriends did not venture that far North, so what lay there might be unknown. Zarel, unmoved, said “If it is Light’s Will, Light will provide a way.”

Karlin asked, suddenly, “What of the Eastern Continent, Zarel? If it exists here, how shall we gather the Children of Light from there? They would need to cross the Eastern Sea!” He saw Whitestar give a little shudder at his words, and Dorvai said gravely “The Eastern lands exist here, yes, but you would find no Child of Light there. They are the stronghold of the Dark Lords, and forbidden to all. It is where they work their sorceries and train their underlings, and where their evil amulets are forged.” “Amulets?” queried Zarel, and Dorvai said “Those they have tested and trust in high positions are given a certain ring which marks them out, and demands obedience.” “The Bloodstone!” Karis exclaimed. “That is not what we call it, but yes, the stone is red, and it is fed by evil. Bloodstone is an apt name. How do you know of it?” “Because the Black Piper bore a Bloodstone, when he came into Li’is in an attempt to regain control of our world for the Dark Lords” Karlin answered. “And my mother, born in Li’is, but born of Ma’al – it is a long story – was intended to wield another Bloodstone, but refused it, and turned to Light, with Aiel’s help, though it was a long struggle for them both.” Dorvai looked thoughtful, and said “Then maybe you know more of Darkness than I thought. It is well that you are not unprepared.” It was not easy poring over the charts by lamplight, and their eyes began to grow weary, but by now they had seen enough to begin to understand where their Way would take them. The charts were rolled up and taken away by Dorvai, and Karis, thinking to turn their talk to lighter things, asked Whitestar “How is it that you and your sister have such unusual names?” So Whitestar told them of the prophecy that had been made for them, and how they came to be named so. Then she pointed to the Lightstone, gleaming on Zarel’s chest, and said “And there is my white star!”

Kira had excused herself from the group and taken little Kilmo away to settle him to sleep, and now Dorvai returned and said “We must share what you have brought us, Zarel. Our Swordsmen will take some supplies to others of our people, and tell them they must join us on this Way.” So they busied themselves making smaller packages of provisions for the Swordsmen to stow in their saddlebags, and bade them “Go in Light!” as they left on their errand. Now that immediate needs had been dealt with, Dorvai, Whitestar and the other Lightfriends showed them around their hiding place. The small entrance cave and winding passage behind gave the impression, from outside, that there was no substantial space beyond, but that was far from the truth. The larger cavern they were in had other passages and caves leading off, some used as stores for some of what few provisions they had, now resupplied by what the Way-Sharers had brought. Dorvai explained that there were caches nearby where their helpers could leave them supplies, so as not to betray the hiding places. It was one of these that was in an area that had unfortunately recently been overflown by the Hawks, so that the supplies could not be retrieved. Other small caves were set apart as sleeping places, made as comfortable as possible with limited resources, and one separated by a curtain, was their Prayer Place. There was, of course, no Crucible, but Zarel could Perceive the sense of Light’s Presence there. He felt an immense respect for these Lightfriends of Ma’al, staying true to Light in the midst of Darkness, braving so much to turn any they could to Light. He remembered that the Dancers had told them that, in the First Days, when the First Lightfriends came into Li’is from Ma’al, certain of their number had chosen, voluntarily, to stay in Ma’al and keep the service and Name of Light alive there. Those must have been the ancestors of Dorvai and the others, he thought, and their descendants were heirs to their courageous spirit.

In Li’is, where the time of the Evening Prayers had brought Zarel’s urgent appeal through the Thought-without-Words, all those with Perception, apart from Moondancer, had felt shaken at first by their sensing of the oppression he was under, but had cast that feeling aside to strengthen and reassure him. Once the link was broken, Aiel said “It is hard for you in Ma’al, Moondancer. I was glad of the Thought-without-Words, not just for Zarel’s sake, but to link with my Brothers-in-Light there.” Aren, glancing at Moondancer, said “It is good that we can Perceive them. I did not realise what it must be like, to live in such a world of Darkness.” Moondancer replied “We have to grow used to it, to push the oppression always to the back of our Perceptions, and hold it there.” “But here you need not.” Arenel told her. “It seems almost strange to me” the girl replied, “though wonderful. I think I will need time to grow accustomed to such freedom.” “Soon, I hope, you will all be free of the Darkness” Aiel told her. He remembered how the Darkness had fought him on the Lightstone Way, how he had struggled all of one day, fighting back the oppression that beset him – and that had been only one day. What it must be like to live constantly like that he could scarcely imagine, and he cast a quick prayer to Light for Zarel, in that atmosphere of Darkness.

When they returned home and had taken their evening meal, a bed had been moved from the twins’ room to Rentha’s, and prepared for Moondancer. Aren, feeling very strange, alone in the room he had shared with his twin from their birth, hoped that having Rentha with her would help Moondancer, since he was certain she must be feeling the same, away from her own twin. Rentha had taken charge of Moondancer, and in her room she looked at the other girl and said “Yes, we are much of a size. I can give you a nightgown, and a gown to wear tomorrow.” “I have seldom worn a gown” the girl-Priest said, smiling at Rentha’s friendliness. “If you would rather, I am sure we could find you some other clothes” Rentha answered, then, laughing, “though all of the men in this family wear Priests’ robes!” “No, I am content with the gown” Moondancer said. “It is just that in Ma’al it is safer for my sister and I if we are dressed as lads.” Rentha gave her the nightgown and took her to bathe, and when they had returned to Rentha’s room, Moondancer asked “The Lady Aila – she is your aunt?” “Yes, my father’s sister.” “She has Perception, yet she does not serve in the Temple?” “No, she is a Healer.”

As Moondancer seemed to be considering this, Rentha told her “It is very rare here for a daughter of the Priesthood to be born with Perception, and there are always sons to carry on the Priesthood. I do not think that the daughters are deliberately excluded, just that there has never been the need for them to serve, as in Ma’al. If a daughter is born with Perception, she is of course given instruction in its use and powers, just as her brothers are, but not expected to become a Priest. Usually those with Perception become Healers, like Aunt Aila, because they can use their Perception to help those who are sick at heart, as well as those who have bodily ills. I have only ever known of two women with Perception, and both were Healers.” “Your aunt is one, who then is the other?” “On the first Way, the Lightstone Way, my grandfather and his Way-Sharers encountered great evil in the Ruins of the Dark City. The Healer of the Second Faring House, Lady Saditha, was Perception-gifted and helped them overcome their feelings of grief and guilt. But that was many years ago, and it may be that she has touched Light by now.” “I see I have much to learn of Li’is” Moondancer said, then, “Rentha, I am glad you are here. It feels so strange not to be with Whitestar. And no doubt your brother feels the same, without Zarel.” Rentha smiled at her, and said “I know that Light has linked you to Aren, as Whitestar to Zarel, because you are two sets of twins and have that bond between your Perceptions, and also because Aren and Zarel, like our mother, can hear the Dancers’ Song, as no others can. You four have a Light-given purpose. But still, if you are lonely for a sister, come and talk to me.” “Thank you, Rentha!” Moondancer exclaimed “You are very kind!” “And you must be very tired” Rentha replied. “Let us sleep now.”

AN END OF DARKNESS

Chapter 2

In the Temple Aiel and Arenel, who had come together after their own evening meals to contact Aila, so that the party from the Western and Mountain Fortresses could be forewarned, spent a few moments in silent prayer before the Crucible. Then Aiel asked “Is it well with Zarel? Is he afraid?” “No” Arenel assured him. “At the moment he feels only the joy and honour of being the Lightstone-Bearer – though he is still concerned that he has taken it from you. And we do not know yet that there is anything to fear.” “There is nothing for his spirit to fear. He is the Lightstone-Bearer” said Aiel, with the conviction of one who knew. “Yet the human soul is subject to emotion even when the spirit is strong in Light. I know well enough that to be the Lightstone-Bearer does not set a man free from his emotions – including fear. But Light gives strength to overcome them.” “If the Way continues, must there always be danger?” Arenel asked. “The Way is always a battle against Darkness, and Darkness is not an honourable foe” Aiel replied. “There is always the danger of sorcery and treachery if nothing else. The Black Piper and Si-Mara and Tamat are dead, and the Night Temple destroyed, but the Night Lords may not have given up all hope of achieving the rule of Darkness in Li’is. There are still Children of Night.” He sighed, then said “We shall know tomorrow. Arenel, reassure Zarel, if you can, that he has not taken the Lightstone from me. It is Light’s gift, to be bestowed as Light wills. The lad’s doubts do him honour, but they are unfounded.” He smiled, then, and said “Zohra is right, those two have all the noble qualities of the West. It is as though they combine the best of a Swordsman with the inheritance of a Priest. I am not surprised that Light has chosen them to take up the Way.” Arenel returned his father’s smile. “I too am proud of my sons. Yet I hope there is no rashness in their courage, if it comes to be tested.” “I believe they are too disciplined for that” Aiel said. Still, as he bade goodnight to his son and returned home, Aiel could not help remembering how he had told those two earlier that they had not yet endured that testing of their faith which would strengthen it. It seemed it had, as he had fleetingly thought, been a prophecy for them after all.

The next morning was bright and clear. It was Spring, approaching the time of the first run of the Two-Moon Tides, and the soft sunlight poured into the sleeping chamber as Aiel woke. For a moment he felt a sense almost of nakedness at the lack of the Lightstone’s slight weight against his chest, but then he remembered, and prayed a swift prayer for Zarel, the new Lightstone-Bearer, before rising. Arentha was already up and gone, no doubt organising her household for the day’s doings. Aiel dressed, donning his Priest’s blue and white striped robe, of fine fabric today, since it was a day of important ceremonies. He would carry with him the High Priest’s gold collar and the gold circlet, slightly broader than his ordinary Priest’s circlet, that were his from today on, for as part of Aranath’s funeral ceremonies he would be recognised as his father’s successor. And he thought, suddenly, that there was wisdom in the Lightstone’s passing to Zarel just at this time. A High Priest who was also the Lightstone-Bearer might, despite his own wishes, been revered to excess by some, might have received something close to the worship which belonged to Light alone. Aiel was glad he had been spared such adulation. The Temple would not be opened, even to the new High Priest, until the time for the ceremonies to begin, so Aiel made his Morning Prayers in his own Quiet Room before joining Arentha at breakfast.

Shortly afterwards Lin and Krystha arrived. Lin, though his hair was now silver, was as tall and tanned and clear-eyed as ever. Krystha was little changed either, only a little thinner – she had lost weight after Karis’ birth and never regained it – and her red-gold hair had faded, not to silver, but a soft sand-colour. Aiel was glad of his friends’ early arrival, for he needed to explain to them what had happened, and was about to happen. Lin, greeting him warmly – for they were still more like brothers than friends – gave Aiel the opportunity when he remarked “So you are High Priest now, Aiel. It is a great responsibility, but the Lightstone has prepared you for it.” Aiel answered “Yes, I am High Priest, Lin – but I am no longer the Lightstone-Bearer. The Stone has passed to another.” “But I thought it was yours to bear till death!” Krystha exclaimed. “It was never mine, Krystha, always Light’s gift. And by Light’s Will, it has passed to Zarel, and he continues the Way, though Aren will somehow share it.” “Zarel and Aren?” Lin mused “Are they the ‘two and two’, Aiel? What happens now? How does the Way continue? And what of us? We are no longer young, my friend!” “It is not our Way to walk, now” Aiel answered. “Only to advise and help. As to the rest, we do not know yet.” And he went on to explain to the Lord of the Harbour the previous evening’s events, and what was to happen today.

In their own home near the Temple the twins had woken simultaneously, as they usually did, as they had done since they were babes, except on the rare occasions when they had been separated, or one of them had been sick. As they woke, before they even spoke or looked at each other, their Perceptions were already flowing together, turning over the matters of the Lightstone, the possibility of danger, curiosity as to the Way, determination in their duty to Light. Then Aren said, as if they had spoken, “You know that whatever happens I will be with you, my brother.” “I know” Zarel confirmed, smiling at his twin. It never seemed strange to him that Aren’s face and his own were the same, though others stared, for there were very few identical twins in Li’is, and certainly none among the Priesthood but them. The gazes they attracted were not hostile, but could sometimes be disconcerting.

Zarel still felt overwhelmed, though, by the awareness of the Lightstone round his neck. Its physical weight on his chest was slight, its presence, however, heavy with meaning. The young Priest was wondering so many things about this Way, knowing as he did the stories of what had gone before this. He knew that Aiel had twice defeated the Darkness that threatened Li’is, and tried to imagine what the new threat might be. Would it mean another journey to the Dancers’ Gate and if so, who now would be the Way-Sharers? Since Aiel was no longer the Lightstone-Bearer, did it mean that the old vows no longer held? His head was buzzing with questions, his own and Aren’s, since their Perceptions were almost one. Useless though, he knew, to try to outguess the ways of Light, and felt Aren’s unspoken agreement. Together they lifted their hearts and voices in praise and prayer to Light, as always, before they set about their preparations for this new, strange day. Later, sitting with their parents and sister after the morning meal, Zarel asked Zohra “Why should it be, that Aren and I can also hear the Dancers’ Song?” “There was a reason for me” his mother replied “and that was to be a link between the Dancers and Marla’s spirit when they sang the Changing Song for her. If you have inherited the Gift, it is for Light’s purposes. You two, like me, must be meant to be a link between the Dancers and the world of Li’is – maybe even Ma’al. They will tell us.” Arenel added “We shall know soon, when the Dancer returns. But first we must do honour to the dead in Light.” Discussions ended, Zohra fetched her harp, for she would be singing a composition she had made to honour Arnath’s passing, and she and Rentha joined the three Priests on the short walk to the Temple.

The great building was full ; family, friends and Priesthood, and the people of the City, had come to remember and celebrate Arnath’s life and share his passage into Light. Lords of the City and farther afield were all present, and those of the Priesthood who could not leave the places where they served to attend were linked into the Perception of their brother Priests through the Thought-without-Words. When the prayers and music and eulogies were over, though, it was Arnath’s heirs, Aiel, Arenel and Zarel, with Aren, who accompanied him to the special garden in the grounds of the Temple which held the mausoleum where all the High Priests of the Temple were laid, when their time came to touch Light. After that they returned to the Temple for a second ceremony. Aiel was led to the Crucible, where he knelt while the High Priest’s collar and circlet were placed round his neck and on his head. Then, officially High Priest of the Temple and the Priesthood, he led the Quieting Prayers for the gathered crowd of mourners. Strange it felt to him, to be in his father’s place, to be no longer Lightstone-Bearer, to be at the start of a new Way. He needed the Quieting Prayers as much as any of them. For besides his new responsibilities, his mind was running over the things to come, the promised return of the Dancer to tell the Way-Sharers and their families about this new Way. He wondered what Light would require of him, but especially of Zarel – and Aren, for the Dancer had said he would share his twin’s Way.

Nothing had been said, yet, to the elders and Priesthood of the Temple. Time enough for that when they knew what to expect, and how much to pass on. Aiel had, though, requested that when all the funeral ceremonies and his confirmation as High Priest were over, and the Temple shut up, he and his family and friends should be allowed, for a while, the use of the Prayer Room. Of course his request had been granted, his fellow Priests no doubt thinking that the families desired some time in private to mourn Arnath. But Aiel had with him the crystal rod that was the key to the Lightstone Room, and once all of them were left in the Prayer Room, and he had locked the door, he crossed, as his father had so many years before, to the lampstand that was the lever to open the door behind the wall-hanging. Only he and Lin, of them all, knew what lay beyond, and led them all down the stone steps to the mysterious door, aware of little whispers and glances behind them. Aiel could Perceive the curiosity all about him as he used the strange key to open the door of the Lightstone Room, and motioned them all to enter. The secret room beneath the Temple was crowded now as it had never been, even when the Council-at-Need of Li’is had met there. The Council-at-Need was well represented, though, at this gathering. The High Priest, the Lord of the Mountains, the Lord of the Western Fortress and the Lord of the Harbour were all here, all members of the Council. Only the Lords of East and West and the Gatekeeper were missing.

Aiel looked round at the gathering. He and Arentha, Lin and Krystha, the original four Way-Sharers, all of them grown older and greyer now. Their children, partakers of the second Way – Marla’s Way. Marla herself, who had been so miraculously Changed by Light and freed of her Dark heritage to become a Child of Light, with Mellin, Lin’s son, who had begun by hating and ended by loving and marrying her. Karis, Mellin’s brother, born only days before Mellin’s marriage, had had no part in that Way, but might in this. Karlin and Mella, Mellin and Marla’s son and daughter, both fair like their parents , but Mella with Mellin’s grey eyes and Karlin, Marla’s green ones. Mella was a Healer, like her mother and grandmother, and very close to her cousin Rentha, Aiel’s granddaughter, also a Healer. Rentha stood with Arenel and Zohra, and her twin brothers, who were at the heart of the group with Aiel. Then Aila and Janir, with Lira and Janna, Healers too, like their mother. Janna stood hand in hand with Karlin, her newly-betrothed. All of them waiting now, and wondering what news and instructions the Dancer would bring, what this third Way might mean for Zarel, the new Lightstone-Bearer. They had not long to wait, for soon the air in the room shimmered and thickened, and not one, but two Dancers glimmered and coalesced into being. The younger ones, who had not seen the light-beings before, gazed in wonder. As always, Aiel was unsure whether one or both ‘spoke’ to the assembled company. “Greetings, Friends and Children of Light”.

There was a pause, and Aiel asked “What have you to tell us, Dancers, of this new Way?” The Dancers’ thought stayed extended to them all as they ‘said’ “It is time for the final fulfillment of the Secret Word. Light has decreed judgement on Ma’al, the Dark World. But first the Lightstone must return to Ma’al for a short time.” There was a collective gasp. Aiel said “Ma’al? Light would send Zarel into Ma’al?” Aren stared wildly at his twin, their Perceptions melding in bewilderment and consternation. The Dancers confirmed “Zarel – and Karis and Karlin too, to protect him, until they are established there.” Now it was the Swordsmen’s turn to gaze at each other questioningly, while Janna gave a little cry of fear. They were all silent, though, as the Dancers went on “Though most of the Lightfriends of Ma’al came into Li’is in the First Days, a few volunteered to remain in Ma’al, to keep the service of Light alive there, and the Choice of Light open to any that might still be willing to take it. So there are still Lightfriends and Children of Light in Ma’al, and they must be brought out of Ma’al into Li’is, so that they do not perish with the Darkness of Ma’al.” “But why can they not be brought out of Ma’al as the first Lightfriends were?” asked Mellin. concerned for his brother and son and Zarel. “Because the Lightstone and the Lightstone-Bearer are key to the making of the gateway between the worlds, and to bring them here, it must be done from Ma’al.”

Zarel spoke for the first time. “If it is Light’s Will, it must be so. But how shall we come into Ma’al? And we do not know that world, or anything in it. How shall we go about this task?” The Dancers ‘said’ “Some of us will carry you into Ma’al. We cannot stay there, for the Night Lords would sense us, but we will remain as near as we can, on one of Ma’al’s moons, to make the link between you and Aren and so between Ma’al and Li’is.” “What is this link?” asked Aren. “First, listen” the Dancers told him, and then, for the others, there was silence. But Zarel and Aren were obviously hearing and reacting to something, and Aiel knew that the Dancers were singing to them again. Zohra, though, looked puzzled, and whispered “But I do not hear them!” When the Dancers’ Song ended – and it was not long- they told her “You did not hear, Zohra, because what we sang to the twins was their life theme. When we sang to you and Arenel on the Meeting Place, though you shared the Song, you each heard in it only your own life theme. You are not permitted to hear another’s – even your sons’.” Then they continued “Zarel, Aren, that life theme is the key to the link we will make for you, so that though Zarel is in Ma’al and Aren in Li’is, your Perceptions will be joined. And through that link, at need, Zarel and the Lightfriends of Ma’al will have access to the Priesthood of Li’is.” “So we can stand with them in prayer!” Aiel said thankfully.

There was more to tell. For the Dark World that lay on the other side of all things – Light, time, space – from Li’is, was yet in some strange way the dark twin of their world – its mirror image. Places and people of Li’is had many parallels in Ma’al, though some were so distorted as to be unrecognisable. Some, though, had almost identical counterparts. And in Ma’al as in Li’is there were twins born with Perception, Lightfriends. As with Aren and Zarel, one of them would stay in Ma’al and one cross into Li’is. And Aiel pondered in his heart again the words of the Secret Word “two and two and times and time out of their place, but all for good.” There was also, in Ma’al, a place that corresponded to the Meeting Place in Li’is, the Dancers told them. Zarel’s task was to join the Lightfriends of Ma’al, to gather them and those few in Ma’al who were Children of Light, loyal to Light, and bring them to that place. There, with the Lightstone’s power and the Dancers’ Light-given abilities, the gateway would be made to bring the refugees into Li’is. Zarel worried that they might not be able to achieve this, to find all the Children of Light in time. The Dancers, though, told him that he need not search. “The Lightstone will draw them to you” they ‘said’ “by the power of Light.” Aiel asked, because he Perceived that all wanted to know, but none dared ask, “When will this be, Dancers? When must the young men go into Ma’al?” “At the second of the Two-Moon Tides” was the reply. ‘The second of the Two-Moon Tides!’ Aiel thought, trying to calculate quickly. Lin, Lord of the Harbour and conversant with the movements and tides of the sea, guessing what he was doing, moved closer and murmured to him “Six weeks, Aiel – seven at most.”

The Dancers’ instructions continued. While the three were in Ma’al with its Lightfriends, making their way towards that world’s equivalent of the Meeting Place, those in Li’is would make the same journey, to welcome the refugees from Ma’al. Aiel wondered how he could leave his new duties as High Priest to make such a long journey. However the Dancers told them that he and Arentha, Lin and Krystha, would not travel with the others, but that the Dancers would come and carry them to the Meeting Place when the time was right. The four Way-Sharers were all a little relieved that they need not make the journey, though they would have liked to accompany the others if they could have. Before the transfer to Ma’al was made, the Dancers ‘said’, the Priesthood of the Temple and of Li’is should be informed, so that they could make a Prayer Vigil for the Lightstone-Bearer and his companions. The Kets of the Westerners would also need to be informed, both as members of the Council, and because their help would be needed. The Gatehouse could not house all the refugees, and the Westerners would be asked to bring their travelling tents there to provide them with shelter. Priests and Healers would also be needed there, to counsel and tend the Lightfriends and Children of Light of Ma’al who had come into Li’is. For the rest of the Council, word could be sent to the Lord of the East, and the Dancers themselves would inform the Gatekeeper. Aiel knew that since Tor-Harat and Lady Benika had had no close family, the Gatekeeper’s mantle had fallen to Rujel, one of his contemporaries, who was kin to Tor-Harat. Rujel was calm and sensible, and would do whatever the Dancers told him.

All of them listened without further comment. It was so much for them to understand, and they were silent, trying to absorb the Dancers’ instructions. Finally, the Dancers added, Zarel, Karis and Karlin would need to take as many provisions with them as possible. “We will carry the load” the light-beings ‘said’ ” For the Lightfriends of Ma’al are outlaw, and live on very little. They cannot enter the towns, for they would be seized and executed. They have only what their secret followers can bring them, or they can grow or forage for themselves.” The Dancers stopped ‘speaking’, but all of those present were aware of a sense of compassion and understanding emanating from them. It was clear that the light-beings knew how hard it was for them to take in the enormity and complexity of what was soon to happen. “We will come again” the Dancers’ thought told them ” before it is time for the transfer to Ma’al, to give you more advice, Aiel, Zarel, and the others. Meanwhile, prepare as best you may – and trust Light above all!” With this the Dancers shimmered out of sight, leaving their hearers amazed and perturbed. Aiel looked round at the others. Zarel and Aren seemed to have recovered some of their composure, but Aiel could see that most of the others were still struggling with the thought of Zarel, Karis and Karlin entering the Dark World of Ma’al. Janna, though quiet and still, clutching Karlin’s hand, was radiating such distress that Aiel could not help but Perceive it.

“Come” he said, taking the lead. “Come back to our house, all of you. We can discuss this there.” The rest of them, subdued and thoughtful, followed him as he ushered them out of the Lightstone Room, locking the door behind them, and led them out of the Temple and back to the High Priest’s house in its grounds. Once there, knowing that only he and Marla had any idea of the realities of Ma’al, and wondering how she must feel, to have to send her son into the Darkness she had escaped, he asked gently “Marla, how is it with you?” Her face was serious, but she said “Aiel, you know – none better – how Light saved me from the Darkness of Ma’al and Changed me, so that I became a Child of Light. If I was thus protected, can I doubt that my son and Karis will be, too?” He saw that Karlin and Janna were still standing close together nearby, and Perceived that Marla’s answer seemed to ease Janna’s distress slightly. He could also sense that though the girl was still very upset, she was determined not to show it before Karlin. Mellin slipped across to his cousins, and said quietly “Janir, Aila – let Janna stay with us. She and Karlin have so little time before he must go. Let them have what time they can together,” Janir answered “That is a kind thought, Sword-Brother, and I agree. But Aila, my heart, would it not be best if you and Lira stayed too, to support her? I know my daughter, Mellin, and she will be in torment inside, knowing the danger he faces, yet she will not show it and dishearten him. If Aila and Lira are with her, she will be able to share her fears and imaginings with them.” Mellin nodded, and Aila said “You are right, my love. But what of you?” “Ah, I will have to leave you. I must go back to the Western Fortress to send word to Ket-Kai and Ket-Lai.” “But are you not fearful for Karis and Karlin, Mellin?” Aila asked. “I cannot deny it” her cousin replied “but I remember that both my father and I were at peril of death from attacks by Darkness, he on the Lightstone and I on Marla’s Way. We both suffered, but Light was merciful, and we both lived. More, we found our loves because of it. So I trust my son and my brother to the grace and mercy of Light.”

Aiel had been watching these interactions, giving them time to take in what was happening, and talk among themselves. He noticed that the twins had not spoken, but sensed their Perceptions flowing together, though he would not Trespass on their deliberations. Now, though, he called for everyone’s attention, and said “We must set things in train for this Way. Janir will take word to the Kets of the Westerners, and the Lord of the East must be notified also. I will speak to the Temple Elders and the Priesthood. The Dancers said that the Lightfriends of Ma’al have need of provisions, so I will ask that a donation be made from the Harvest gifts in the Temple’s stores. Lin, Mellin, I am not a Swordsman, but it seems to me that it would be wise for Karis and Karlin to receive extra training. Any enemy they meet in Ma’al will not be an honourable Swordsman.” “Aye” Lin added, “with bow as well as sword, Mellin.” For Lin, impressed by the bow Ket-Kai had given him, intended mainly for use from horseback, had had copies made and added to the Fortress armoury. Mellin and Karis nodded agreement, Karis seeming, now, quite calm about the Way that awaited him. Aiel sensed too that Karlin was more concerned for Janna than for himself. Krystha had been quiet so far, but now she said “Karis and Karlin will not fail you, Zarel.” The young Priest replied “I could not wish for better guardians, Krystha.” Aiel continued “Until the Dancers return, we must make what preparations we can. For now, though, we all need time to understand what has happened. Best, I believe, to return home, and reflect, pray, and yes, prepare.”

Zarel stepped forward to stand beside his grandfather, and drew out the Lightstone. Still a little unsure, he said to Aiel “Grandfather, I feel it in me,that I should use the Lightstone…” “Do as you feel guided, Zarel” Aiel told him “You are the Lightstone-Bearer.” So Zarel went to each of them in turn, beginning, Aiel noted, with Janna and Karlin, and laid the Lightstone to each one’s brow, and the light spilled out over everyone he touched, bringing peace and blessing. Last of all he came to Aren, then Aiel, and when all of them had been touched by the Lightstone he gazed into it himself until he too was enveloped by the gentle glow. There was a silence in the room then, as always seemed to happen after the Lightstone had been used, but Aiel could Perceive a lessening of the tension and fear that had been there. “Thank you, Zarel” he said. “You have strengthened us for this new Way.” He spoke a blessing on them all before they dispersed. As they were leaving, Lin intercepted his sons, and said “Mellin, Karis, before you return to the Fortress, come to the Harbour now.” So, after telling the others from the two Fortresses that they would follow them in a while, Mellin and Karis accompanied their parents back to the house by the Harbour. Krystha had said little until now, but once in their own home, she embraced Karis and said “I trust you to Light, my love, but you must take care! And obey Zarel above all, for he is the Lightstone-Bearer.” Karis returned his mother’s hug and promised to do as she said.

Lin, meanwhile, had gone to another room and, coming back to them, he turned to his younger son with something in his hands. It was a sword-belt, and he drew the sword from its sheath and raised it in the air. “The True Sword” Lin said. “This goes where the Lightstone goes. Take it, Karis, you must accustom yourself to it, for it is like no other sword.” Karis was overwhelmed, knowing how much the True Sword meant to Lin. “Father…are you sure?” “It was never mine, Karis, as the Lightstone was never Aiel’s. Both were lent to us for a while, for the purposes of Light. Now it is time for the Stone and the Sword to move on. There is a new generation of Way-Sharers.” “But Mellin is the elder” Karis said, uncomfortable lest his brother should feel slighted. Mellin answered “Karis, you heard what our father said. The True Sword is not an inheritance to be passed down, but a gift to be bestowed as Light wills. Did you think I would be jealous of you, little brother?” He smiled at Karis, who was relieved. Mellin only called him ‘little brother’ when he wanted to show affection. “You – and Karlin – must be Zarel’s True Sword, as I was Aiel’s” Lin told him. Mellin said “I wish I went too! No, not for the Way’s sake, but because I must let the two I love, my son and my brother, go into danger and Darkness, and I not there to aid them.” “So I feel, too” Lin said, “though I grow older and slower now, and like enough would be of little use.”

“I will guard Karlin for you” Karis promised his brother. “He is my nephew, and my Sword-Brother.” “I know you will” Mellin said, putting his arm round his brother’s shoulders in affectionate embrace, “but who will guard you for me? Take care, little brother, as our mother told you! Remember that you are a Swordsman of the Fortress and the City, but do not take unnecessary risks.” Karis was moved. He had been born when Mellin was already grown and betrothed, had been a babe in arms at his brother’s wedding, playmate to his brother’s son, almost more of a son than a brother himself to Mellin. He had adored his brother – his hero – all his childhood, and still loved him dearly. He had not quite realised though, till now, how deeply Mellin loved him too. Lin held out the True Sword and Karis took it, weighing it in his hand, awed and excited that it had come to him. “Aiel was right” Lin said. “You and Karlin must train hard for this Way. You must both be the very best you can be. And you must learn how to handle the True Sword, Karis.” “I will do all I can” Karis promised ” to prepare for this Way – and to encourage Karlin. It will be hard for him, Father, to part from Janna. I am glad you invited her to stay with us until it is time for the Way, Mellin.” Mellin nodded. “I was not sure – having her here might have discouraged him, but it seemed so cruel to part them now. I think my son is Swordsman enough to cope.” “I am sure he is!” Karis exclaimed, in loyalty to his nephew and Sword-Brother.

“Six weeks – seven at most”, Lin had said of the appointed time, and those few weeks flew past. In the Fortress the two young Swordsmen were undergoing rigorous extra training in the use of bow and sword, as Mellin and the Fortress Sword-Trainer sought to prepare them for the kind of enemy they might face in Ma’al. In between Karlin spent as much time as he could with Janna, both of them refusing to discuss the dangers ahead in detail, only taking comfort in their closeness and love, and the kindness of those around them, though Karis was the recipient of Karlin’s, and Aila and Lira of Janna’s, secret fears and anxieties about the Way. Marla, after some consultation with Mellin, had added to the Swordsmen’s weaponry. Krystha had trained her, and her daughter Mella in turn, as a Healer, and now she gave the two Swordsmen a phial each of a powdery substance prepared at her Healer’s bench. “It is sweetwood powder” she explained. “At need, it will subdue an enemy long enough for you to escape – but be careful not to breathe it yourselves. I know how effective it can be!” She shuddered inwardly at the memory of how that same powder had been used to drug her and her friends so that Si-Mara’s emissaries could carry them off, and Mellin, who had helped rescue them on that occasion, saw her overcome the memory to smile at Karis and Karlin. He thought to himself that in a way it was apt that what had been intended to bring her back into the power of Darkness, she should now turn to a means of saving her son and his young uncle from it.

In the Temple the Priesthood had been informed of the Way, arrangements made for the Prayer Vigil , though most of the Priesthood had begun their own prayers for the new Lightstone-Bearer and his Way-Sharers as soon as they had been told, and provisions gathered from the Temple storehouses for their needy Brothers-in-Light in Ma’al. Aiel was spending as much time as he could find between his High Priestly duties in guiding Zarel, as far as he could, in the use of the Lightstone. He reiterated, though, that Zarel would not find his experience of the Lightstone the same as Aiel’s, since each Lightstone-Bearer was unique, and so Zarel must let his Perception attune to the Lightstone, and follow where it led him. With a scant week until the time of the transfer to Ma’al, all of them were to gather again for the Prayer Vigil. Aiel had received a message from Rujel through the Thought-without-Words that before the Vigil, the Dancers would return as promised to prepare Zarel and Aren, Karis and Karlin, with more instructions about the Way, and what to expect in Ma’al. So the young Swordsmen had arrived before the others and joined the twins and Aiel in the Lightstone Room. They waited in anxious anticipation until the light-beings appeared, wondering what more they might learn of the Way that lay before them. When the Dancers finally glimmered into appearance in the room, and greeted them all, Aiel asked, for all of them, “What have you to tell us, Dancers?”

“We are here to tell the young men more of the dangers of Ma’al. There will be others there to instruct them, for we will carry them to the secret place of the Lightfriends of Ma’al. But still, on occasion they may find themselves, for a while, alone, and will need to be on guard.” The two Swordsmen glanced at each other, the twin Priests did not move or speak, but Aiel sensed their Perceptions turning this over. The Dancers continued their warnings. “You must always remember that Ma’al is the mirror image of Li’is – its complete opposite. Good is bad there and bad is good, Darkness supreme and Light the enemy. Evil continues unchecked, while the Children of Light are hunted down, killed or imprisoned. Which means that you must turn your whole way of thinking around, especially the Swordsmen. For the values by which you live have no meaning in Ma’al.” “How so?” Karis demanded. “There is no prizing of honour or courage there. There are few who are what you would call Swordsmen, except among the few Children of Light. The rest are simply fighters, mercenaries for sale to the highest bidder, with no sense of loyalty to comrade or Lord. You can trust no one unless they be a Child of Light. In Li’is you may have an honourable opponent. In Ma’al there is no such thing.” Karlin was struggling with this. As the Dancers had said, these facts were turning his ideas of Swordsmanship on their head. He asked “Are you saying they would even betray their own Sword-Brethren?” It was the most unthinkable concept he could find with which to challenge the Dancers. But the light-beings, unperturbed, answered “Karlin, we are saying that there is no such thing as Sword-Brotherhood among them. It is each for his own skin. If you and Karis were fighters of Ma’al – even kin as you are – and one was wounded in fighting, the other would flee to save himself, without thought of helping the injured one – would leave them to their fate at the enemy’s hands.”

Both Swordsmen were silent now, looking into each other’s faces, each trying to imagine what might bring them to desert the other in such a way, and failing utterly to grasp it. At last Karis said, slowly, “It must be an evil world indeed, then.” “And an evil thing to live in it” Karlin added. The Dancers were continuing with their warnings. “You honour Zarel as a Priest of Light and as the Lightstone-Bearer. And you, Zarel and Aren, know that the Priesthood is treated with respect, and that is how you expect it to be, because the Priesthood are servants of Light. But you must realise that in Ma’al the Friends of Light are regarded as enemies and renegades. Any who join them are outlaw. There is no Priesthood in Ma’al because there are no recognised Prayer Rooms, certainly no Temple of Light. Those who worship Darkness will stand no rivalry! The worship of Light is forbidden, a crime against the Dark Lords – except that in Ma’al they are simply “the Lords of Ma’al”. Understand that very well, for your lives will depend on it. You cannot even mention the Name of Light.” Zarel, silent and listening till now, broke in ” Oh, Dancers, how shall I not speak of Light? To praise and pray to and worship Light is my whole life – the meaning of my whole life, for I am a Priest of Light. It is as natural to me as breathing. How can I stop breathing, as long as I am alive? And only if I die can I cease speaking of Light!” “But you will be with the other Lightfriends” the Dancers replied. “You cannot go elsewhere, for your eyes would betray you. It is Karis and Karlin who may need to go near the towns, and must guard their tongues most.”

“And if we may not speak of Light”, asked Karis, “how then shall we accomplish this task which Light has given us? How shall we help Zarel to find the Children of Light in Ma’al, and save them from Ma’al’s destruction?” “They will come to you” was the reply, “for the Lightstone will be in Ma’al, and it will draw the Children of Light to it. They may not even know they are called, but they will be guided of Light. Their spirits will hear the call, and follow.” Karlin pondered this, and asked in turn “What if they are known, and followed, Dancers? If I sought an enemy and knew that his friends could lead me to him, I would follow them. Might not the Dark Lords’ mercenaries do the same?” “There is that danger, yes. But Light will protect you, and there are those among the Children of Light who will protect and aid you, if it comes to battle. But remember this, Karis, Karlin, your Swordsmen’s vows do not hold in Ma’al. You cannot let any escape to betray you. And even if an enemy is mortally wounded, you cannot offer the Choice of Light.” Even Zarel and Aren, who were not Swordsmen, were shocked at this. Karis gasped “But then they would go into Darkness forever!” The Dancers’ tones seemed sympathetic to the Swordsman’s dismay, as they answered “Karis, those of Ma’al are already in Darkness. And they are already doomed to destruction with their world. They have refused Light for so long that they have no more time to repent.”

Aiel, Perceiving the distress and confusion that the Dancers’ warnings had stirred in all of them, said gently “I understand that this is strange and upsetting to you all, but though Light is loving and merciful, Light must also be just and true to Light’s own laws. The Lords and people of Ma’al have rejected Light and the Sacrifice of Light to go their own way. Light gave them free will to choose, and they have chosen the path of Darkness. So there is only one end for them.” “That is so” the Dancers confirmed, “and whatever your own feelings, you must follow where Light leads you.” “We will follow Light” Zarel vowed, firmly, and the others, though subdued, agreed. The Dancers, having given their warnings, now offered encouragement and advice. “Remember, you will not be alone in Ma’al. You will be among the Lightfriends and Children of Light, few though they are in comparison to most of the people of Ma’al. And though you are the Lightstone-Bearer, Zarel, you must let yourself be guided by the Lightfriends, for theirs is the experience and the knowledge of Ma’al.” “I will” Zarel promised. “For I know nothing of Ma’al and I am inexperienced as the Lightstone-Bearer. I would certainly bow to their knowledge.” “Then you are wise.” was the reply. “Now you must all prepare yourselves through the Prayer Vigil. In one week we will return, and the transfer will take place.” With that, the Dancers blinked out of their sight, leaving them all grappling with what they had been told. Aiel, Perceiving their need, called them to him, and led them in the Quieting Prayers, until they were somewhat settled again.

It was a heart-wrenching time for them all. To send the three young men into the Darkness of Ma’al, into all that was opposed to Light and the deadly enemy of Light’s Children, was a horrifying prospect. And yet it must be done, and they had need of all their faith in Light and Light’s mercy. Marla and Aiel were the only ones who truly understood what kind of place Ma’al was, and he knew it must be so hard for her, despite her faith and trust in Light, when she had fought so hard and been through so much to escape, now to let her son step back into that Darkness. Janna was, quite simply, bereft. Knowing the need, she had made no outcry, though what she had said or if she had wept when alone with her betrothed, none but she and Karlin knew. But as the dreaded day approached, despite her courageous attempts to hide her feelings, she moved and spoke and acted like someone in a daze, a waking nightmare from which she could not rouse herself. Karis had promised Marla and Janna that he would guard Karlin with his life, and he meant it. He would probably have been quite indignant had he heard his mother’s whispered conversation with his nephew. ” Karlin, you know Karis, he is brave but impetuous. And he will feel he must be the boldest, because he is the elder of you. But remember he is only a little older than you, uncle or no – and guard him for me, Karlin, as he will guard you for Marla.” Karlin had kissed his grandmother and promised her gladly, for Karis was, in his eyes, Sword-Brother first, and father’s brother second. Zarel and Aren were in the strangest position of all. They were to be separated physically, but the bond of their Perceptions, strengthened through the Lightstone and the Dancers’ Song, would be maintained. Thus they would be both better and worse off than the others. They would still be in contact – but Aren would be constantly, piercingly aware of his twin’s dangers and activities in Ma’al. Aiel and Arenel had agreed that he would need as much support as they could give.

AN END OF DARKNESS

Chapter 1

It was dark in the City, and in the great Temple of the One Light shadows settled between the columns and the benches. Only at the Temple’s heart, the Crucible, was there light. The Crucible flame burned tall and steady, and lanterns burned too, standing at the head and foot of the bier that stood before the Crucible. On the bier, covered in white cloth to the breast, lay the body of a very old man – a Priest, for he wore a Priest’s striped robe, though the vivid blue, Perception-gifted eyes were now closed in death. The face was lined, but very serene. Beside the bier stood another Priest, his bright gaze fixed on the still figure. His hair was iron-grey, and he was well past middle age, though he could not yet be called old. In his hands he turned a broad golden collar bearing the Symbol of the One Light, and round his neck hung a chain of silvery metal carrying a replica of the Symbol, at whose centre was set a white stone, seemingly an insignificant pebble – save that at its heart burned a spark of light like a tiny white fire. Aiel, the Lightstone-Bearer, stood quietly gazing at the body of his father, Arnath, the High Priest. But Arnath was dead, and now it was Aiel who was High Priest of Light.

It had not been unexpected, this death, for lately Arnath had grown daily frailer – not through any sickness, for Light had spared him that, but simply his great age, and the quiet slowing and wearing out of his flesh. If his body had been weak, though, his spirit had grown stronger and more indomitable daily. Arnath had known he was dying, but he had not been afraid, for he was a Child of Light. When he died, he would touch Light, he knew, and be reunited in the Joyous Place with Elandra, Aiel’s mother, who had died so many long years ago in childbirth, and the child that had died with her. He had spoken words of love and encouragement to his son and to his family, and prayed with and for them, each night. And two nights ago, after this time of family sharing, he had gone to his quiet sleep and never wakened, slipping peacefully into the Presence of Light. Aiel mourned his father, the love and guidance and encouragement he had received from Arnath, all his life, even when he was a grown man, a father and grandfather. He could not, though, be sorry that Arnath had touched Light, was in the Joyous Place with those he loved. Aiel knew that his time would come to touch Light, and then he would see his father again. Meanwhile, tomorrow Arnath would be laid to rest, with family and friends coming to do him the final honours, and it would be, despite the sorrow, a time of celebration of Arnath’s life and service to Light.

Lost in his sad-sweet musings, Aiel had not noticed the approach of two young men in Priests’ robes who had come down the passageway which led from the Priests’ quarters into the Temple. Though they stood patiently behind him, he did not Perceive their presence, nor know they were there, until a pleasant young voice said, hesitantly, “Grandfather? Is it well with you?” “We were concerned” added the other young man, his voice almost identical to his brother’s. Aiel turned, and smiled at his grandsons. Those grandsons, Zarel and Aren, were unique even among a unique Priesthood. They were identical twins, a rarity in Li’is and never before known among the sons of the Priesthood. Aiel’s son Arenel had married Zohra, herself the daughter of a twin, and granddaughter of the Ket, the Lord of the Westerners. Zohra’s own unique gift was that she – alone of all in Li’is – could hear the Song of the Dancers, the beings of light and energy who shared the world of Li’is with men. She was an accomplished, instinctive musician, and her sons also delighted in music. Zohra’s beautiful, haunting compositions were often played in the Temple worship by musicians including Zarel and Aren. Zarel was the firstborn twin, by a few minutes, and so would be High Priest one day, after Aiel and Arenel. But there was no telling the twins apart if they did not wish it, even now they were grown, and as children even their father, mother and sister had occasionally been mistaken. The young men were average in height and build, with the sturdy grace of their Western heritage, quick and easy of movement. Arenel’s cousin Mellin, Swordsman and Lord of the Mountains and Fortress, had once commented “If those two were not born to the Priesthood, they would have made fine Swordsmen.”

Born to the Priesthood they were, though, as their vivid blue, Perception-gifted eyes showed. The thick black lashes that fringed those eyes, their glossy black hair, and the golden tint to their skin they owed to the Western heritage of Zohra, their mother, though the fine bones of their face ,like their Perception, came through Aiel and Arenel. Zarel and Aren were gentle, compassionate young men, wholly given to their service to Light, though they could be fierce in defence of the right, or in defiance of injustice. To their parents, and especially their grandparents, they were loving and respectful. Aiel was very fond of his grandsons, but, sometimes, puzzled by them too. Beyond the unique bond always shared by twins, they also had the link of their Perceptions. So close was that link that it was largely involuntary and semi-permanent. If Aiel set his Perception on one twin, the other was always there, like an echo. It was a strange experience. Their sister, Rentha, seemed to regard them with an amused motherliness, though she was over two years younger. Though they loved their sister, the twins were so much a unit that had she been another kind of maiden, Rentha might have felt shut out by their completeness. Aiel’s granddaughter, though, was a happy, sweet-natured girl, very like her beloved grandmother, for whom she had been named. Though she had her mother’s Western colouring, the shape and sweet expression of her face, and her expressive brown eyes, as well as her tender heart, reminded Aiel very much of Arentha, his Lady, when they had first met.

Aiel saw his other grandchildren less often, since his daughter was married to Janir, the Lord of the Western Fortress, whose mother was Mira, the sister of Aiel’s friend, bond-brother and Way-Sharer, Lin. Janir had a special place in Aiel’s heart, not only for his own noble qualities, but because he had saved Aila’s life on the continued Lightstone Way. He and Aila were very happy, loving each other devotedly. Aila’s only regret was that both their children were girls; she would have liked a son for Janir’s sake. If he were disappointed, though, there were no signs; he doted on his daughters, Janna and Lira. Janna too was very like her mother and grandmother, and she and Rentha were more likely to be taken for sisters than she and her real sister, Lira. Janna was dark-haired, with dark brown eyes, but Lira favoured Janir’s colouring, with waving chestnut hair and lighter brown eyes. She had a bolder spirit, too, than Janna, and was often the leader, though she was the younger. Well, tomorrow they would all be here, and all Lin’s family too – Lin and Krystha, Arentha’s sister, his Lady, their son Mellin with his Lady Marla – Marla whose birth had been in Darkness and whose desperate search for Light had been the continuing Lightstone Way, happily resolved at last. They had a son, Karlin, and daughter, Mella. There was Karis, too, the late-born son of Lin and Krystha, who was little more than two years older than his nephew, and more likely to be taken for Karlin’s brother.All the Way-Sharers, their families and friends, would be here tomorrow, to honour Arnath’s long life of service to Light. All these thoughts flashed through Aiel’s mind in the few moments before he answered Zarel and Aren.

“It is well with me” he said, “though I thank you for your concern. I was thinking of tomorrow, and all those who will be here.” “I wonder…” Zarel pondered softly, “Grandfather, do those in the Joyous Place know – will our great-grandfather know that we love and mourn and honour him?” “In one way or another, surely he will” Aiel answered. “And I rejoice that he will be reunited with Elandra my mother, and the babe that died with her. It has been a long parting for him.” Aren said “He was so old and frail, but so strong in Light. I have sometimes felt ashamed that beside his, my faith seemed so weak!” His twin nodded agreement, and Aiel smiled at them, and said “You are young, Zarel, Aren, and have not yet endured that testing of your faith that makes it stronger.” And somehow, as he spoke, he felt a strange tingle in his Perception, as though, without knowing it, he had prophesied for them. He was about to bid them go back to their home, now, when he felt, quite definitely, a strangeness touch his Perception. He saw that Zarel and Aren Perceived it too, and the three Priests stared at each other. He felt their unspoken question in his Perception, and then, quite suddenly, he knew what it was that he Perceived, though it had been so long, he had been slow to recognise it. Quietly he watched as the air beside the Crucible began to shimmer and seemed to thicken. He heard the twins’ astonishment and wonder echo in his Perception as, beside the Crucible, another flame took shape – a tall, beautiful, blue-green flame of living light, with a glowing heart – a Dancer.

One of the twins gave a gasp of wonder, both of them stared at the light-being as it hung sparkling in the air. The Dancer’s thought extended to them all. “Greetings, Aiel, Lightstone-Bearer. Greetings, Zarel and Aren, Priests of Light. Honour to Arnath, the dead in Light.” Aren asked, aloud, in a hesitant voice. “Have you come – has Light sent you – because of Arnath? That is an honour indeed!” “I am here because Arnath has touched Light, yes, and I honour his life in and for Light, but that is not the reason that I came.” “Is it the Lightstone-Bearer that you seek, then?” Aiel asked. “Yes, that is so.” Aiel asked again “Why are you here, Dancer? Is it time for the Way to continue, at last?” But he was thinking to himself that, though still healthy and able, neither he nor Lin were the young men they had been, and each had new responsibilities. Would they be able to take up the Way again? The Dancer ‘said’ “Aiel, Light-Friend, the Way continues – but it is no longer yours to walk it, only to be a guide to those who do, and a helper at the Way’s end.” Aiel felt mingled relief and disappointment. The Dancer went on “As to my presence here, I have come at the bidding of Light. I am here to sing to Zarel and Aren.” Two pairs of vivid blue eyes widened, two pairs of dark brows arched in enquiry, as the twin Priests gazed up at the light-being. Aiel could Perceive the bursting curiosity in them. he said “Then sing, Dancer.” He watched his grandsons closely. He guessed the reason for the Dancer’s errand – to confirm whether Zarel and Aren had inherited their mother Zohra’s unique ability to hear the Dancers’ Song.

Aiel could not, of course, hear the Song himself, but he knew as soon as the Song began, because the two younger Priests were instantly gone from him, rapt and lost and totally absorbed in the Dancer’s Song. Aiel sent out his Perception, knowing it could not disturb the enraptured pair, to their father Arenel. “Arenel, a Dancer is here, in the Temple. It is singing to Zarel and Aren. And they hear it!” He felt his son’s startled response, and then Arenel’s “Why?” “It is to do with a new Way. Come, Arenel, and bring Zohra!” The Dancer was still singing when Arenel entered the temple. Zohra was with him, but her expression was as rapt as her sons’. She stood still by the door as soon as Arenel released her hand, and he explained to Aiel “Zohra began to hear the Song as soon as we entered the Temple.” “The Dancer came at the bidding of Light, it said”, Aiel told him, “to sing to the twins. It must be to find out if they have Zohra’s Gift – and it seems they have.” The Dancer, its Song ended ,’said’ “That is so, Aiel.” Aiel and Arenel saw the twins, released from the thrall of the Song, simultaneously give an odd little shake of their heads, like a swimmer breaking the surface of the water, and stare at each other. Zohra, by the door, gave a little sigh, then went to her sons and put her arms round them. She smiled at Arenel. “See, I am no longer alone” she told him. “Our sons hear the Dancers’ music too.”

“Aiel” the Dancer ‘said’, and Aiel knew that its thought, now, was extended to him alone, “It is time to relinquish the Lightstone.” Aiel felt a pang. The Lightstone had become so much a part of him! On the day he had received it, his father Arnath had told him that he would bear it always, all his life, unless Light bade him relinquish it to another. Somehow he had never thought anything but death would take the Lightstone from him. But it was not his, never his, only and always held in gift from Light to do Light’s work, and if it was the Will of Light that he hand it on to another, he could not and would not gainsay it. His Perception told the Dancer “If it is Light’s time for me to relinquish the Lightstone, I will. But if it concerns the twins – they are two, and the Lightstone is one. They cannot both be the Lightstone-Bearer.” “It is Zarel” the Dancer told him “who will be the Bearer. Yet Aren will share his Way in a manner you would not think possible!” And suddenly Aiel remembered the prophecy of the Secret Word – “Two and two, and times and Time out of their place, but all for good…” He did not realise he had spoken the words aloud, until Zohra asked “Aiel, what is it? What are you saying?”

“It is the Secret Word, Zohra, the last part of the Secret Word, and it is about to be fulfilled. There is a new Way, but it is not for me, this time. It is to be Zarel and Aren’s Way. And Zarel…” He beckoned to his grandson, who came to him. Arel reached inside his robe and took out the Lightstone. Holding it in his hands once more, for the last time now, he gazed into its glowing heart, drawing the strength to do what he must. He raised the Stone on its chain, and Zarel stood quietly, not yet understanding, expecting only to receive, as he had before, the Lightstone’s blessing. Only when Aiel lifted the chain over his own head and held it out towards Zarel, did the young Priest begin to comprehend, almost shying away, startled. Quietly Aiel said “Zarel, it is the Will and the Word of Light. You now become the Lightstone-Bearer.” Zarel let Aiel place the chain around his neck, then, but still he whispered, as Aiel himself had done, so many years before, “I am not worthy of the Lightstone!” And Aiel in turn, just as Arnath had then, lifted the Stone and placed it to Zarel’s brow in blessing, and watched the light overflow from it and pour over the young Priest like a fountain. When the light had withdrawn, he looked into Zarel’s glowing eyes, and told him “Light finds you worthy, Zarel. Bear it in Light, and bear it well.” All sense of loss was gone from him now. Instead he felt love and gladness for Zarel, the new Lightstone-Bearer. Yet he wondered about Aren. Quickly he cast the net of his Priestly sense towards the other twin, but found only his astonishment, his wonder, and his delight for his brother. No, Aren would not be envious. Aiel would not really have expected it. All of them had been so taken by surprise by the train of events that none of them questioned what was happening, or why. Now, though, Zarel asked, in some bewilderment, “But – Dancer, Grandfather…what is it that I am to do?” The Dancer ‘said’ “Tomorrow, after the ceremonies for Arnath and Aiel, I will come to you again, and explain. Aiel, you must gather all the Way-Sharers, and their families. All must be there. Wait for me on the Lightstone Room, and I will bring you Light’s bidding for this new Way. Meanwhile, give Zarel and Aren what guidance you can.” Before they could question further, the Dancer shimmered into nothingness again.

After they had watched the Dancer disappear, Zarel turned to Aiel, and asked, gravely, “Grandfather – why should it be, that I am to be the Lightstone-Bearer? I do not wish to rob you of it!” “Dear lad, you do not rob me!” Aiel answered, lovingly. “The Lightstone was never mine, only held in trust from Light. I knew, as you will too, that I must relinquish it when Light bade me to.” “Does it mean danger for Zarel?” Aren asked, concerned for his twin. Aiel answered, honestly, “It may. If the Way continues now, it is in battle against Darkness, that is for sure. The Way is Zarel’s, yet the Dancer told me you would share it ‘in a manner I would not think possible’. And certainly, it has something to do with your inheritance from Zohra” – and he smiled at his son’s Lady – “of her Gift of hearing the Dancers’ Song.” Zohra said “I know my sons have the spirit of the West, though they are Priests of Light. If there is danger they will not fear to face it.” Zarel replied “That is true, Mother – yet I would put my trust in Light and the Lightstone, not in my own courage. That might fail me, but Light never will.” Aren was nodding agreement, and Arenel commented “If you think like that, you are wise Zarel. But the Secret Word speaks of ‘two and two’, Father. Here are two, but who are the others?” “For that we must wait until tomorrow, when the Dancer will tell us” Aiel answered. “But first we must honour the dead.” They all glanced at Arnath, quiet on his bier before the Crucible.Almost it seemed as though his death had been a catalyst that had triggered these strange events. Remembering his father’s words to him so long ago, when Arnath had himself bestowed the Lightstone on his son, Aiel told Zarel “Never take off the Lightstone, Zarel. You must wear it always, so that it becomes part of you. It will first attune to you, and to your own strengths in Light, and then it will build new ones in you. If you gaze into it, and let it fill your Perception, you will learn from it. But your experience will not be mine, as mine was not Rafel’s, for the Stone does not overmaster us, but works with us, with all that we are, mind and soul and spirit.” Zarel asked, almost shyly “But I may come to you for advice, at need, Grandfather?” “Of course!” Aiel smiled. He put a hand on each twin’s shoulder and murmured a blessing on them both, then said “Go home now, and rest if you can. We do not know what strength you may need for tomorrow, when the Dancer comes again.”

He watched as Arenel, Zohra and their sons walked back through the corridor, talking quietly together. They would go out of the Priests’ entrance and back to their own home, as would Aiel, soon. From tomorrow, though, the High Priest’s house would be his home. It was prepared, for it had been tenantless for a time, while Arnath passed his last days among his family. Aiel reflected on the many changes that had happened in the last few years. Arnath was the last of three old friends to touch Light, and it had brought upheavals for the Way-Sharers and their families. Merhaun, though the youngest of the three, had died first, leaving Lin and Krystha’s elder son, Mellin, as Lord of the Mountains and the Fortress. This had made Mellin quite uncomfortable at first, since he felt he was ousting his father, Lin, but Lin had reasonably pointed out that he had been only a guardian till Mellin was of an age to become Lord, and he himself had no claim whatsoever on the Mountain Fortress. All had been resolved when Linnad, lin’s father, followed his friend to the Joyous Place, and Lin became Lord of the Harbour. Lin and Krystha had left the Mountain Fortress to live in the pleasant house by the Harbour, and though they had both loved the Fortress, and still often visited it, they also came to love the bustling Harbour and its market area in a way they had not when they were younger. To Lin’s added sorrow, as well as his father and father-in-law, he had lost his brother-in-law and Sword-Brother Barengian too. A strange fever had been epidemic in the western farmlands, and Barengian had taken it in its most virulent form. Despite the devoted nursing of his son’s Lady Aila, the Healer, he had succumbed to the fever and died. So there was a new Lord of the Western Fortress too, Janir, Aiel’s son-in-law. New Lords, a new High Priest, and now a new Lightstone-Bearer.

And then there were those left behind ; Janira, Lin’s mother, had gone to the Western Fortress to live with Mira, his sister and Barengian’s widow. The two widows, mother and daughter, were a comfort to each other, and Janira was very welcome to share Mira, Janir and Aila’s home, though Janir sometimes laughingly protested at being outnumbered by so many women, his grandmother, mother, wife, and two daughters. Alira, Merhaun’s widow, divided her time between the homes of her two daughters, Krystha and Arentha, glad to be with them and, as she grew older herself, to be always close to the Temple of Light, where she went constantly to give thanks for her deliverance from Darkness and the happy years she had shared with Merhaun after their reconciliation. Karis too, Lin and Krystha’s younger son, contentedly divided his time between his parents at the Harbour and his brother’s family in the Fortress. There had been changes farther afield, too. The Ket, the Lord of the Westerners, had died also, gone to the Joyous Place in the way of his people, for these wanderers of the high Plateau did not bury their dead, but set them on funeral pyres. The more respected the dead, the greater the fire, and the night-time blaze of the Ket’s going had lit the Plateau like day. Now his twin sons, one of them the other grandfather of Aiel’s grandchildren, ruled the Westerners jointly. But Light had been merciful to the four original Way-Sharers, Aiel thought. They still had each other, he and Arentha, Lin and Krystha, though they were older and greyer, and they still had their friendship.

Now Aiel turned and went back through the passageway, out to his own house, where Arentha waited, still and always his lovely Arentha to him. And she was lovely still, for her gentle and quiet spirit was not marred by the years, though her dark hair had turned now to silver, and her skin was lined with the tracks of many smiles and some few tears. Tonight they were alone, for Alira was with Krystha, though she had come to the Temple early in the day to say her farewells to her old friend Arnath. As they ate their meal, Aiel told Arentha what had happened in the evening quiet of the Temple. She exclaimed “Zarel? But I thought you would always be the Lightstone-Bearer!” “I think I did, too” he told her, wryly, “but it is Light’s Will. I am not sad, or jealous – oh, I was for a moment”he added, honestly, “but then I felt joy for the lad, and I believe it was Light’s joy. Yet I am afraid for him too, a little. I wonder what it is that Light will ask of him. He has not given entrance to any Darkness, that he need defeat it. I hope I have not, by my actions so long ago, imperilled him now.” “Light is just, and would not ask payment for one man’s fault from another” Arentha said stoutly. “In any case, your fault, if there was any, was wiped out long ago by your obedience to the Lightstone Way. We must wait till tomorrow, as you bade Zarel do, and then the Dancer will tell us.”

In the Mountain Fortress, meanwhile, where news of Zarel’s accession to the Lightstone was not yet known, his aunt and uncle and their family had arrived to spend the night with their kin and friends before attending the funeral ceremonies at the Temple the next day. At the Fortress too that day had brought momentous events and changes in the lives of some of the younger members of the families. Now, as they settled at the table in the lamplit Great Hall to take their meal, despite their grief at Arnath’s death, there was a stronger joy for the living, a joy that shone particularly in the faces of two young people seated closely side by side, one a fair-haired, green-eyed, open-faced young Swordsman, the other a lovely, dark-haired, dark-eyed girl. Their mothers were seated nearby, so like their son and daughter that there could be no mistaking, and the closest of friends. Marla, the green-eyed blonde, Lady of Mellin, Lord of the Mountains – the same Marla who had fought her way out of Darkness every inch of the renewed Lightstone Way, and had at last attained Light despite danger and the sorceries of the Silver Witch, Si-Mara. Si-Mara had given birth to Marla, but never been a mother to her, wanting her only as a potential wielder of a reforged Bloodstone. It had been Aiel, with the aid of the Lightstone, the Dancers, and a Spirit-in-Light, who had finally freed her from her Dark heritage. The other was Aila, Aiel’s daughter, herself a Perception-gifted Healer, whose staunch friendship for and championship of Marla had been one of her friend’s greatest sources of strength on that Way. Because Aila and Marla had become such dear friends during Marla’s Way, they spent as much time together as was possible, despite the distance between the Western and Mountain Fortresses. Aila would take her daughters to stay with Marla, or Marla bring Karlin and Mella to holiday at the Western Fortress.

One such trip had occurred when Karlin had just finished his formal Sword-Training – though he had been learning from his father and grandfather and alongside his young uncle all his life – and taken his vows to the Fortress Watch. He had worked hard and done well, and Mellin had decreed a holiday and sent him off with Marla and Mella to visit Janir and Aila. To everyone’s astonishment Karlin and Janna, Janir and Aila’s elder daughter, had become inseparable, and at the end of the visit declared themselves to be in love. Since Karlin was so young, and Janna even younger, their parents had treated them gently, sympathetically, but, not expecting this first love to last, had not taken them too seriously. However, the young lovers had remained constant. Though they were rarely together, they seemed to live only for those brief visits, and lost no opportunity, when messages needed to be passed between the Fortresses, to send their own. There were many young men at the Western Fortress, Swordsmen, some of them Westerners, but Janna cared only for Karlin. And there were pretty girls in the City, but Karlin ignored them, and spent his off-duty time in the City with his Sword-Brethren, or choosing little gifts to send to Janna. After four years their love still lived, and now that Janir and Aila, with both their daughters, were arriving to stay at the Fortress in order to attend the funeral ceremonies for Arnath, Karlin was overjoyed. Mellin, who had had no objections to a match except that Karlin and Janna had been so young, thought that he must speak to Janir about the matter when his cousin arrived. Karis, who was in a unique position regarding Karlin, had already spoken to Mellin. Being, by virtue of his youth, so close to Karlin, more like a brother than an uncle, he had been the boy’s confidant. Yet, because he was Mellin’s brother, he also had the right to speak to the Swordsman as an equal, regarding Karlin’s welfare. “Mellin”, he had championed the young couple, “Have they not proved that their love is a lasting thing, not childish imaginings?” And Mellin had smiled affectionately at his younger brother, and said “Peace, Karis! Marla and I have already decided to discuss this with Janir and Aila when they arrive. But say nothing to Karlin yet!”

Karlin had been almost the whole afternoon on the Fortress walls, watching for the arrival of the party from the West. Karis watched him pacing there with compassion. He had seen the carefully kept letters from Janna, heard Karlin’s hopes and longings, helped him in the choosing of gifts. Gazing up at his impatient young kinsman, Karis hoped that today might bring him good news. If Janir were of a mind with Mellin, this visit might end all uncertainty for the young couple. Karlin called down from the wall “They are coming!” and came leaping down the stairway, eyes glowing. Karis smiled at him and said “Not long to wait now, Karlin.” It was almost like looking into a mirror, to look into Karlin’s face. Both young men had inherited Lin’s muscular, lean build and thick golden hair – though Lin’s had now faded to silver. Both had his open, honest face and the same slight quirk to a smiling mouth. Save that Karlin had the green eyes of Marla, his mother, and Karis, Krystha’s amber-brown ones, they were so alike that they might have been, and often were, taken for brothers instead of uncle and nephew. The fact that Karis was only a little more than two years older than Karlin aided the confusion. The two young men joined their family in the Great Hall to await the guests’ arrival. Karlin’s bright face and obvious impatience awoke little smiles of sympathy and tender amusement as they waited. At last the moment came when Janir and Aila appeared in the doorway with their daughters behind them. Janna’s lovely face, so like her mother’s and grandmother’s, was as lit with joy as Karlin’s. Her brown eyes flew straight to his face, her sweet mouth curved in a delighted smile. Behind her Lira, her sister, hung back a little, as if knowing that this moment was Karlin and Janna’s.

As they greeted each other, Karlin somehow remembered to be correct, greeting Janir with the Swordsmen’s handclasp, saluting Aila, giving Lira a perfunctory hug and kiss. But when he turned towards Janna and she to him, it was clear that no one else in the room existed for them now. He held her tightly to him, her arms clung round his waist. She bowed her head on his shoulder, he turned his face into the glossy dark fall of her hair. They were lost in each other. It was plain to see, now, that to keep them apart any longer would be as cruel as it was unnecessary. Janir, for whom too Aila had been his first and only love, perfectly understanding Karlin’s heart, turned to his cousin, reaching out to clasp him hand to forearm, as was the Swordsmen’s way, and when the greeting was over said softly “Mellin, I think they have proved their love. Is it not time to talk of a betrothal?” “Marla and I had been thinking the same thing” Mellin answered, smiling. “Then let us not keep them in misery any longer” Janir said. “Mellin…” “She is your daughter, Sword-Brother” Mellin broke in, laughing, “and yours to give to him!”

It took some moments to disengage the couple’s attention from each other when Janir called them to him. They came hand-in-hand, the joy in their faces touched with an apprehension at his summons that moved Janir and made him feel a wave of tenderness for them. They were so young, so in love, on the verge of their life together. If his beloved daughter found as much happiness with Karlin as he himself had with Aila, she would be happy indeed, Janir thought. “Karlin” he said “four years ago you asked me if Janna might be your Lady. Not from any unkind feelings towards you, but because you were both so young, I said no, bidding you bide your time. But Mellin and I have discussed this further, and since you are still true to each other, and your love as strong – then, if you both still wish to be betrothed, now I will say yes.” If they wished it! he thought, as he finished his formal little speech. Their faces were so bright with relief and love and joy, they could have lit a dark room. Janna exclaimed, with tears of joy, “Oh, Father! Oh, Karlin!” and could say no more but, overcome, turned back to the shelter of Karlin’s arms. He, though, holding her tightly, looked Janir in the eyes and said solemnly “Janir, this is the most precious gift that ever I was given – and one I will guard with my life.” Janir was touched. he laid a hand on Karlin’s shoulder, and gave it an affectionate squeeze. “Aye, dear lad, I know you will. Light bless you both.”

In this way the young couple’s dearest wish had been granted, and now, as the family shared their evening meal, the joy that had intoxicated Karlin and Janna all afternoon and evening had settled on all of them. Tomorrow there would be the solemnities of Arnath’s funeral, but for now all was gladness and contentment in the Mountain Fortress. Aila smiled on her blissful daughter, and glanced sideways at Janir, thinking to herself that Janna would be blessed in her choice of a husband ; Karlin went back to the same good stock as Mellin and Lin, as Janir did on his mother’s side – all of them brave, honest and honourable men – open-hearted and loyal to Light, to friends and Sword-Brethren. As indeed had been Barengian, her father-in-law, she added to herself. Janir had never failed her earliest expectations of him, yet had never shown any pride in the noble qualities which endeared him to her so much, remaining constantly and joyously surprised that Aila should have loved and married him. Suddenly, Aila was aware of a stirring at the edges of her idle thoughts, and knew that someone was reaching for her Perception. She realised it must be Aiel, or Arenel, and opened her Perception. It proved to be both her father and her brother, joined in the Thought-without-Words to reach out to her, telling her of the evening’s events, and that she should prepare the others for what was to happen tomorrow. Her eyes widened as she listened, and Janir, seeing this, exclaimed “Aila, my heart, what is it?” His words drew everyone’s attention to her, but she signed them all to silence until Aiel and Arenel’s message was finished. Then she looked round at their curious faces, and said “The Lightstone Way continues…” going on to explain what she had been told.