FIRST LIGHT

Epilogue

It had been many years since the final victory over the forces of Darkness and the setting of all of Li’is on the Way of Light. They had been happy years in the main, especially for Brann and Tamorine. Their marriage had been good, and though, like all couples, they occasionally argued, loving and harmonious. Their family thrived, three sons and a daughter, and others of their family and friends had made matches. Tarn’s Sword-Brother Kerrin had married Tarn’s cousin Marama, the Healer, and taken her to the Mountain Fortress. Tamorine’s brother Tamran, though married, had no heir, and when he succeeded his grandfather Tamor, had asked that Brann and Tamorine’s youngest son should be his heir, since their oldest would succeed Brann as Lord of the Harbour and City, and their second son had been chosen to be Lord of the newly built Western Fortress, built to protect the rich Western farmlands and their few small towns. Tarn had wed a Mountain maiden, joking to Kerrin that since his cousin had gone to the Mountains, he must replace her with one of Kerrin’s own. The maiden was indeed kin, though distant, to Kerrin, and she and Tarn were much in love.

Most of those who had fought the Dark Lord, including Gamlin, Brann’s cousins Jamin and Javan, and their other cousin Tavan, were happily settled, and some had wed daughters of the Lightfriends, once the Priestly families were established in their new homes, while Brann and Tamorine’s daughter, named Tamella after her mother and grandmother, was recently betrothed to Rafel’s eldest grandson. Lords Tamor and Baran had both touched Light, so Tamran and Brann had succeeded them. Life was peaceful and happy now, though there were sometimes rumours of Children of Night still lingering, and Brann and Tamorine were content. The Ketai, no longer needed to protect the Lightfriends, now known as the Priesthood of Light, though they would always have a special bond, had been granted the Western tablelands by the grateful people of Li’is. There they had resumed their nomadic life and rearing of cattle and horses, while some of the women had begun again their ancient skill of weaving and dying fine fabrics. Those lands were now known as the Plateau of the Ketai, and some of their warriors also served on the guard of the Western Fortress. The old haven of the Lightfriends, at the edge of the Great Moor, had been kept and rebuilt, and now served as a base for those Priests of Light whose soul watch was the small towns and villages around the Moor, and also as a place of rest for travellers. It was now called the Faring House because of this service.

Brann and Tamorine were standing now on the steps of the Temple of the One Light, the first building which had been completed in the new City. It had been an arduous task, but all had worked for the honour of Light. The hilltop had been cleared and levelled, the caves which had once been a place of refuge from the Dark Lord’s mercenaries, and later a temporary place of worship during construction were incorporated into the building. The main cave , which had been used as a Place of Prayer, had been added to and made into a hidden chamber beneath the floor of the Prayer Room used by the Priesthood. It had been agreed that the Lords of Li’is and the High Priest should form a Council-at-Need of Li’is, to be summoned in times of great danger or great rejoicing, and the secret chamber was to be their meeting place. The walls of the stairway leading to the chamber and of the room itself still bore the writings, in the Old Tongue, and designs from its previous use as a Place of Prayer. Other, smaller caverns were incorporated into the grounds of the Temple as places of burial for those Priests who had touched Light, and the High Priest’s successors. The building of the Temple, with its adjacent Student House where the sons of the Priesthood would be taught their duties, the cluster of simple houses in the grounds where the Priests and their families would live, and the public Hall of Records, had been a vast undertaking, but the workers had been willing. Stone had been quarried and carried here, some from the Eastern Continent, and masons had worked skilfully to shape and fit the blocks together. Metalworkers had cast the beautiful Crucible, and the skilful weavers among the Ketai women had woven wall-hangings, all offering the best of their work to Light.

Only when all the work on the Temple had been finished had the final work begun on the streets of the City. Already the layout had been planned, tree fellers had been busy clearing the slopes and preparing the wood for use, other workers had levelled and consolidated the terraces of the hill ready for building, and laid the groundworks of the avenues. The draining of the disease-ridden marsh had been completed, leaving a level plain criss-crossed with drainage ditches. The ditches made it impractical to use the land for farming, so it was left to grow an abundant crop of wild flowers and herbs, making accidental but beautiful surroundings to the City. In the East, too , Lord Kirnan had worked on building an Eastern Temple for those of the Priesthood and their families who had chosen to live in the East, and creating a City at the Eastern Harbour. Trade thrived between the two continents, and the Lord of the East was a member of the Council-at-Need.

Most of the streets and houses of the City had been completed and occupied, but even now, after many years, some building was still going on, though the City was nearing its final completion. It had engulfed the original small town surrounding the Harbour, and the House of the Lord of the Harbour, where Brann and Tamorine lived with their family, by the Harbour Gates, had been enlarged, and had built next to it the garrison for the Harbour Watch.A large paved area had been added, behind the security of the Harbour Gates, where a market was held, restocked when the ships from the East arrived bearing fresh cargo.

Now they were looking down on the City from the Temple steps, here at the Temple not for the usual prayers, but because Rafel, now High Priest of Light, had summoned them, saying he had something to tell them. The Lightstone-Bearer was elderly now, and Brann wondered if he intended to appoint another as Lightstone-Bearer. They turned and went into the great, airy, columned building, and down one of the aisles between the circular rows of benches to join Rafel in front of the Crucible, with its high, steady golden flame. Rafel turned to smile at them and greet them. There were a few worshippers in the Temple, and some of the Priests about their tasks, but it was not full as it would be at the times of the Morning and Evening Prayers. Brann, after returning the Lightstone-Bearer’s greeting, said, “You summoned us, Rafel. Is there a problem?” Rafel did not answer that, but said, “I have received a visitor, Brann. Mihel.” Brann was startled. The Spirit-in-Light had met with them all only once more after Brann and Tamorine had married, to tell them that now that the Darkness was defeated and the Priesthood establishing the Way of Light in Li’is, he was called back to the Courts of Light in the Joyous Place. “Though I will be watching over the Lightstone-Bearer, and the ones to come” he had added. That was the last they had seen of the Shining One, and Brann wondered if his appearing to Rafel now was a cause for concern.

Seeing that he was about to question further, Rafel said, “Wait, Brann. Come with me to the Prayer Room”. Brann and Tamorine followed him to the Prayer Room, and once inside, he shut and locked the door, and turned to operate the secret mechanism, concealed in one of the lampstands, that opened the way to the chamber below. Brann and Tamorine followed him down the stairs, and were surprised to see that the familiar door of the Council-at-Need’s chamber had been replaced by a new one, made of dark wood, with the Symbol of the One Light, which was also the shape of the Lightstone pendant, three intersecting flames forming an oval at their base, set into the door about two-thirds of the way up. Brann realised that the metal forming the outline of the Symbol was the same as that of the Lightstone pendant, metal found only in Ma’al, and was intrigued. He could see no keyhole, and was about to question Rafel about the new door when the Lightstone-Bearer withdrew from his robe a strange rod of some translucent crystalline substance, bound top and bottom with more metal of Ma’al. He inserted this into the oval at the base of the Symbol on the door, and the door opened. Rafel explained, “This door and its key were made in Ma’al, as the Lightfriends there were directed by Mihel, and brought here by the Dancers, along with one other thing which you will see”. They entered the room, and Brann saw that the table and chairs which stood in it for use by the Council when necessary had been moved to one side, and in the centre of the room something else now stood. It was like a much smaller version of the Crucible and its dais in the main Temple, but instead of a Crucible, it was topped by a dome of the same crystalline material as the mysterious key to this room.

Tamorine exclaimed, “Rafel, what is the meaning of all this? Is there danger for Li’is from the Darkness?” Brann, who had been surveying the room, also had a question. “There are six who form the Council-at-Need, the High Priest of Light, the Lords of the Harbour, the Mountains, the Western Fortress and the East, and the Ket, Lord of the Ketai. But now there are seven chairs at the table. Who is the seventh? Is it Mihel?” Rafel said, “There is no danger to Li’is now, but there will be, many years in the future. That is what Mihel has told me, and he has brought me instructions. There is a prophecy, but it concerns only my descendants, and yours. It is to be written down secretly and passed down among us, the Keepers. That is why I called you here, to explain all this, and give you instructions too. As to the seventh chair, there will be a new member of the Council, one designated by the Dancers.” “The Dancers!” Brann exclaimed, “Will a Dancer join the Council?” “No”, Rafel replied. “The Dancers have learned that there may be danger to them too, when this prophecy comes to be fulfilled. They have decreed that a Gatehouse will be built in the North to guard the way to the Meeting Place, so that none can approach them without their approval, and a pass issued by the Priesthood. One of the Priesthood will be appointed Gatekeeper, and the Gatekeeper will be a member of the Council, and bring any contribution the Dancers wish to make to its deliberations.” He paused, and Tamorine asked, “Has Mihel said who will be appointed Lightstone-Bearer after you? Will it be your son?” “No”, Rafel answered, “there will be no Lightstone-Bearer to follow me. The Lightstone will be kept hidden here until this prophecy – the Secret Word – comes to be fulfilled. Only then will there be a new Lightstone-Bearer, and it is he who will take up the fight against the Dark Lords and the Night Lords.”

“This is all most mysterious!”, Tamorine said, “I see how it concerns the Priesthood closely, but how does it concern our descendants, Rafel?” ” To begin with, Tamella is betrothed to my grandson Irinel, and their descendants will be High Priests of Light. It is one of those descendants who will be the Lightstone-Bearer, but only because he has first been deceived by Darkness and must undo what that deceit has caused. It is all written in the Secret Word. And then, that Lightstone-Bearer will need, as I did, a True Sword. He too will come from among your descendants, a Swordsman of the City, or maybe the Mountains or the Western Fortress. That I have not been told.” “Then the True Sword must be hidden away also?” Brann asked. “Yes”, Rafel said. He turned to the strange domed object and inserted the crystal rod somewhere at its base, and it split into four parts and opened like a flower. From inside the mechanism he took a bundle wrapped in vivid crimson cloth and a wooden box, bound in metal and inscribed with metal lettering. “These are the gifts for the next Lightstone-Bearer”, he said. Brann and Tamorine watched as he placed the objects on the Council table. Rafel unwrapped the bundle and they saw a flattish carrying-case. Tamorine said, “That is a harp-case, a minstrel’s instrument. What has that to do with the LIghtstone?” Rafel said, “It is no ordinary instrument, Tamorine. This is the Harp Not Yet Played, made in Ma’al to Mihel’s instructions. It never will be played, until it comes to the new Lightstone-Bearer. He will need it for the Lightstone Way. The Priests of Light have musicians among them, who make music to honour and praise Light, and he will be one such.” “And the box?” Brann asked. “Read the inscription”, Rafel said. Brann lifted the box, and saw that the inscription was in the Old Tongue. He glanced at Rafel, who said, “The Priesthood have learned the Old Tongue now, and it is our task, and that of the Lordly families of Li’is, to keep it alive. It will be needed.” Brann nodded, and read the inscription on the box aloud. “Bear it in Light, and bear it well.” “What does it mean?” Tamorine asked. Rafel said, “When I touch Light, the Lightstone will be placed in this box, and sealed under this dome, with the Harp Not Yet Played. There it will remain until the Doom of Dark’s Passing falls on the next Lightstone-Bearer, as is foretold in the Secret Word.” He took the box from Brann, wrapped up the harp-case again, and placed both objects back under the dome, which he then closed.

Brann asked, “Are we to hear this Secret Word, Rafel?” The Lightstone-Bearer answered, “Yes. But first, do you remember this?” He had turned to the shelving behind him and lifted down a long, narrow box. Brann said, “Yes, I remember. It held the True Sword.” Rafel said, “The True Sword must also be kept apart. You are the True Sword until you touch Light, but then the Sword must be placed in this box, and taken to the Mountain Fortress for safe keeping.” “It will not stay here?” Tamorine asked. “The Temple is no armoury”, Rafel replied. “You know that the Priesthood are forbidden weapons, and weapons cannot be brought into the Temple.” He turned back to the racks of shelves, and said, “I will show you the Secret Word, now. It is not clear, and even I do not understand it all, but then it is not meant for us. Our task is to keep the knowledge of it alive until it is needed. We, and our descendants, are the Keepers, as Mihel said.” When he turned back to them, he had a scroll in his hand, and he said, “Be seated, and I will read you the prophecy.” Brann and Tamorine obeyed, seating themselves at the Council table, and Rafel unrolled the scroll and read aloud, in the Old Tongue: “Darkness shall appear as Light, guilt as innocence. He is not judged guilty who lets it pass, being innocent of Night’s purpose. Yet to him falls this Way, the doom of Dark’s passing.
In hope and in Light let him go and carry Light with him. Light will empower him against the Darkness.
Let him seek a true sword for companion, a lover of Light, also treasures of the Mountains, ebony and red gold, melody and healing.
Let him keep faith with Light that the lesser light may survive.
Let him hold the harmony of Light against Dark melodies.
And from this shall come a strange thing; Dark and Light in one spirit, a soul divided. He shall hear the Child of Night cry mercy of Light, and Dark powers shall be laid at the feet of Light. Hate shall be transformed to love, and pain to joy.
Before his times end, he shall see two and two and times and Time out of their place, but all for good: Light’s judgement on the Dark World, an end, and a beginning.”


When Rafel had finished reading, Brann and Tamorine, who had been listening intently, each took a quick breath. Brann said “That is a strange word indeed, and beyond our understanding, save that it speaks of future peril, for Li’is, and for those who undertake this Way.” Tamorine said, “It will be hard for whoever this Way falls upon. I wish we could speak to them, and tell them how Light has brought us through the battle with the Dark Lord.” “Perhaps we can”, Brann said. “Rafel, would it be permitted for us to write some lines of encouragement, to go with the Secret Word? It may be that if our descendants know of our victory in Light, our words might help them in their struggle.” Rafel smiled. “It is permitted”, he said, “but use the Old Tongue.” He turned once more to the rack of shelves and brought out a blank scroll and writing materials. “Tell me what you wish to say”, he requested. “I will write it in this scroll, and you shall sign it. Then I will put the Temple seal on it later, and keep it with the scroll of the Secret Word.” Brann and Tamorine conferred for a few minutes, then Brann began, “Write this for us, Rafel ; We write this for the future generations of our line, and the Lightfriend Rafel’s..,” he carried on dictating to Rafel, with interventions from Tamorine, telling briefly of their victory and the prophecy, and finishing with words of encouragement and blessing. When their letter was written, they signed it, first Brann, his signature bold and firm, “Brann, Lord of the Forest, and of the Harbour”, then Tamorine, her signature more flowing, “and Tamorine of the Mountains, his Lady”. “There”, Brann said, “I feel easier now we have done what we can to encourage the new Lightstone-Bearer, whoever he may be.”

“You see now why we must keep the Old Tongue alive”, Rafel said. ” As far as all of Li’is is concerned, it will be kept as the language of ceremony, but when the time comes for the new Lightstone-Bearer to arise, he must be able to read the Secret Word. It cannot be written in the common speech, for any to read.” “That is clear”, Brann said. “I know that your family speak the Old Tongue, and they can teach it to their own families in time”, Rafel continued. “We taught them as part of their heritage”, Brann answered, “not knowing this would happen. No doubt Light prompted us, though we did not know it.” “The ways of Light are not always to be known”, Rafel responded, “but I agree, Brann. ” He sighed, and said, “We cannot know how many years, how many generations, will pass before the Secret Word comes to pass. It would take the Dark Lords many centuries to make another way into Li’is by their sorceries, and in that time much may be forgotten, or turn to myth and legend. We must ensure that our families, the Keepers, know the importance of what is passed down through them, that it does not become mere ritual to them. It is vital that when the time comes, they are prepared.” “We will make sure of that”, Brann said, “and the Ket, the Lord of the East, and the Gatekeeper – the other members of the Council – do they know of the Secret Word?” “They know of its existence”, Rafel answered, “though not its content, and they too will pass on that knowledge. We do not know from which of the Council the next Lightstone-Bearer may need help.” He sighed again, and said, “We have done all we can now – save one thing. We will go into the Temple , and pray – and remember to keep in our prayers – that the Lightstone-Bearer to come will be upheld and strengthened by Light in his task.” As they followed Rafel back to the Temple, Tamorine said, “I wonder what they will be like, these descendants of ours and Rafel’s, Lightstone-Bearer and True Sword?” “That we cannot know”, Brann answered his Lady, ” unless Light grants that we meet some far day in the Joyous Place, and hear their story. But till then, as Rafel says, we can only commit them to Light, and pray for their success, for on that depends the future and freedom of Li’is.”

DANCE THE DARKNESS DOWN

Chapter 1

When the ‘Sea Rose’ had docked in the Harbour of the City, the one they had begun to call the Black Piper was the first passenger off the ship. The crew and other passengers were glad to see him go, for his sinister appearance and the sense of Darkness that he carries was chilling. It was not that he had done them any harm, nor shown any overt sign of malice. He had, indeed, been polite, if distant, towards his fellow-passengers. Yet all of them felt easier for his being off the ship. As he went, he paused by the side of the ship, looked up at the one or two seamen staring after him, and raised his hand in a sardonic salute of farewell that told them he was well aware of, and amused by, their feelings towards him.

The two young Swordsmen in the livery of the Harbour Watch, who stood at the Harbour gates to check the incomers, were suspicious of him too, but as his papers were fully in order and there was no good reason to hold him back, they let him pass. Still, they were uneasy.

The man moved through the bustle of the market outside the Harbour walls, drawing questioning glances and not a few superstitious shudders. To begin with, he was so pale, his face a cold white as if he were very sick. Yet it was obvious, from the speed and agility of his movements, that he was far from unwell. His pallor was emphasised by the dull, sooty blackness of his hair, and the black garments he wore. There were only three points of colour about the Black Piper; his bright, intense green eyes, a slim gold pipe on a black cord around his neck, which had earned him the nickname, and a great red stone, set in a heavy gold ring on the middle finger of his left hand, which seemed imbued with a sense of evil all its own. Then, too, there was his bearing; arrogant, cold, aloof, menacing, he was a man obviously used to commanding instant obedience, and whose retribution for disobedience would be terrible.

The Black Piper left the hubbub of the market behind him and began to make his way up one of the long avenues that radiated out from the hill at the top and centre of the City, where stood the Temple of the One Light. The stranger did not even glance up at the great, circular, columned building that was the heart and glory of the City, and all Li’is. He turned into a side road and followed it among the houses of rich merchants and other well-to-do.

At last he came to a fine house, set back among magnificent if gloomy trees. It was surrounded by high walls, and at the ornately worked metal gates stood a tall, muscular man in a black-and-silver livery, who challenged the Black Piper when he paused at the entrance.

“I am Lak of Ma’al”, said the visitor, in an authorative tone, “I seek the Lady Si-Mara.”

The guard was not impressed. “Many seek the Silver Lady”, he answered, “She may not wish to see you. Have you any token to show her?”

For answer, Lak extended his left hand. The stone in his great ring burned darkly red in the morning sun, and the guard’s manner changed instantly. He bowed humbly, and said, “Welcome, Lord! I am Tamat, the Lady’s bodyguard. If you follow me, I will take you to her.” He opened the heavy gate easily, and led the way to the house. Once through the entrance, Lak followed him through some outlying rooms, richly though decadently ornamented, until his guide paused before a door and unlocked it with a massive key.
“The Night Temple”, Tamat said, opening the door. Beyond lay a vast hall, hung all in black. Dim lights burned in it, and here and there small braziers stood, in which burned pieces of a white substance, giving off a sweet, cloying perfume and a dizzying smoke. The floor was covered with large cushions, couches and low tables, on which stood pitchers of wine and dishes of what looked like sweetmeats. At the far end of the room was a dais, and on it stood a huge, roughly hewn slab of black rock, and a silver couch piled with seacat furs. On the back wall of the dais was a black wall-hanging, worked with strange symbols in silver thread. Lak nodded. “Good.”, he pronounced.

Tamat led him on into the house and at length knocked on another door. A husky, Eastern-accented female voice bade them enter. Tamat bowed again to Lak, and opened the door to admit him, and Lak walked past the bodyguard, and into the presence of Si-Mara, the Silver Lady – or Silver Witch, as her many enemies called her.

She was as pale as he, but with a delicate and exquisite, yet chilling, beauty that made her seem like a statue come to life. Her face and body were perfectly moulded as if in translucent white stone. Her lips were the palest of pale rose imaginable, like the faint tint in a pearl. Her eyes were a shining silver-grey. Even her hair was silver, a shimmering white-blonde. She was very, very beautiful – and as evil and deadly as a tree-viper.

She looked at Lak with an air as arrogant as his own, but there was a spark of interest in her eyes. “So”, she said, “Tamat must be sure of you, to admit you. I see that the same world bred us, brother. But who are you?”

Lak smiled a slow, insolent smile. “I am Lak, whom some have been pleased to call the Black Piper. And yes, I have come out of Ma’al. I am he whom you have awaited, Si-Mara.” And to her, as to Tamat, he extended the blood-red ring.

An unholy joy lit the woman’s face as she gazed exultantly at the stone, and then Si-Mara, the proud and beautiful, slid to the floor at the stranger’s feet and prostrated herself before him. “Rise” Lak said, regally, lifting her to her feet again. “We have work to do, Si-Mara. Tell me of the Night Temple, and the Children of Night.”
“Most are pleasure-seeking fools, easily led, but there are a few who are of use”, she answered him, as he sat down on a couch and indicated that she should join him. Seating herself beside him, she went on, “some who truly serve Darkness, and some who have enjoyed my favours and are either frightened of exposure or anxious to retain my …friendship.”
“I need two men you can trust.” Lak told her. “Tamat will serve for one. Have you another? He must be strong.”
“Soom” Si-Mara answered, “He spies for me, disguised as a beggar.”
“Excellent. There was an old fool from the East on board the ‘Sea Rose’, named Lord Dular. Have them find him and bring him to the Night Temple. He has something I need.”

Si-Mara rose obediently, and went out to give Tamat Lak’s orders. When she returned, she said,”He will find Soom and carry out your orders, Lord. May I fetch you some refreshment?”
Lak shook his head, and signed to her to rejoin him on the couch. When she did so, he reached out to touch her in a caress that was as cold and insolent as himself. “Will you… entertain me, while we wait?” he said, “I do not command, but ask.” Si-Mara eagerly agreed, and the same unholy joy burned in her eyes as she gave herself to his arrogant lips and hands and body.

Meanwhile Shipfather Renn, master of the ‘Sea Rose’, was walking up the hill from the Harbour, heading for the Temple. He had hurried through his duties at the Harbour, being quick, but not careless, for he and all his crew had agreed that he should go to his friend Arnath, the High Priest, at the Temple, and ask that a Priest be sent to make the Cleansing Prayers for the ‘Sea Rose’ before she sailed again. “For I dare swear”, the Shipfather had said, ” that the man Lak was a Child of Night come out of Ma’al, and I would have the ship cleansed of his presence.” And his men had been of like mind.

So it was that, unknowing, Renn followed the same path as his frightening passenger for a while, but where Lak had turned off to Si-Mara’s house, the Shipfather continued up the avenue until he reached the pleasant grounds that surrounded the Temple. For the Temple was not only the centre of faith, but the social and judicial heart of Li’is. In the grounds families strolled, children played, elders sat in the sun and held lengthy discussions. Ahead of Renn rose the beautiful Temple itself, to its right stood the Hall of Records, where records of all kinds, treaties, wills, contracts and all such documents were made and stored, and any disputes over them settled. To the left of the Temple was the Student House, where the sons of the Priesthood learned their duties, for the Priesthood was hereditary – must be so, for the prerequisite of Priesthood was the power of Perception, which was itself hereditary, passed down from the line of the first Lightfriends. Behind the Temple, linked to it by a passageway, was the house of Arnath, the High Priest, and around it the homes of the other Priests of the Temple.

Shipfather Renn began to climb the wide steps that led to the Temple. On the topmost step two young men were sitting, talking. One was average of height and build, though tending to slimness, with fine, unruly black hair, ruffled by the breeze like blown feathers. He wore the blue-and-white robe of the Priesthood, but even without it his piercingly vivid blue eyes, the outward sign of his Perception, would have shown him to be a Priest. He had a fine-boned, sensitive face, saved from femininity by a strong, stubborn chin. His expression was earnest, as if he took life seriously, but when he smiled, as he did now at some remark of his friend’s, his whole face lit and changed. He might have been eighteen or nineteen years old. The other was a Swordsman, in the green-and-gold livery of the Harbour Watch. He looked to be a year or two older than his friend. He was tall and athletic looking, with a fluid grace to his body, even at rest. He had a pleasant, open face, a smiling mouth with an odd but not unpleasing little quirk at one corner, and clear, honest gray eyes. His hair was thick, and straight, and golden as grain at harvest time.

The Shipfather knew both of them well, had known them from childhood, for they were the sons of two of his friends. In fact the young Priest was Aiel, the son of Arnath, whom Renn was seeking. The Swordsman was Lin, whose father was Linnad, the Lord of the Harbour. Renn hailed them, and they returned his greeting. To the Priest, he began, “Aiel…”, then, “Oh, your pardon! I must call you ‘Lord Priest Aiel’ now.” For the young Priest had fairly recently completed his final training and taken up his Priestly duties. Aiel flushed at this gentle teasing and said, “Oh no, it…it would not seem right to me, Shipfather” “Is your father in the Temple, or at home, Aiel? I wished to speak to him.”

“He has gone to visit the Old One in the House of Healing, Shipfather. I doubt he will be back till late.” The Shipfather grinned. He knew the Old One, a very ancient Priest whose fragile body kept him confined to the House of Healing, but whose mind was still quick and strong and lucid. Many came to seek his advice, and if he had a congenial visitor, one with whom he could discuss and debate, he would talk on until his carers forbade it.
“Can I help you in any way, Shipfather?” Aiel asked.
“I came to ask if one would come to the Harbour and say the Cleansing Prayers for the ‘Sea Rose'”, Renn replied, “We had a passenger this voyage, and if he was not a Child of Night, no man ever was. His passage was booked by some agent of his, or I never would have carried him. Ugh! A face dead fish-belly white, and poisonous green eyes, like some hunting animal. He carried a gold pipe round his neck, that I never heard him play. For that, and that he was dressed all in black, the men called him the Black Piper. And he wore a ring, with a great red stone to it – you may laugh at me, Aiel, Lin, but it looked to me as though it were full of the blood of good men foully murdered. I swear I would rather be out on the open sea in the Two-Moon Tide than carry that man on the ‘Sea Rose’ ever again!”
Impressed by Renn’s vehemence, Aiel promised to speak to Sulyar, the Priest who had charge of the Temple today, about the matter. The Shipfather thanked him and went about his business, and Aiel rose. “I had best find Sulyar now, for I must be in the House of Records soon”, he said.

The young Swordsman glanced sypathetically at his friend. Aiel’s usual duties were in the Temple, in the leading of worship and prayer, or , by Perception, the guidance of those burdened or troubled. He was also a musician, making music for and playing the small harp that accompanied the daily worship, and the greater number of instruments at the Festivals. Today, though, through a chain of coincidences involving his father’s absence, the need for Sulyar to replace him, an unfortunate accident which had befallen Sulyar’s own replacement, and the necessity of many of the Priesthood being involved in preparing for the Spring Festival, Aiel found himself in charge of the Hall of Records. Lin knew that the prospect worried him. Sulyar, a strong-minded distant cousin of Aiel’s, was a kind-hearted but nevertheless none too gentle man, who regarded the House of Records as very much his own province, and was not inclined to suffer fools gladly. Aiel was afraid that he might make some error and bring Sulyar’s wrath down upon his head.

Lin went with Aiel to find Sulyar, who received the message from Renn and promised to deal with it. Aiel was surprised when the other Priest, a tall, raw boned man with grizzled brown hair and bear said, “Aiel, do not worry about the House of Records. If you do not know what to do, do nothing. Ask them to come back tomorrow. I had rather have twice the work to do tomorrow, than spend a week unravelling your mistakes!” He sounded fierce, but Aiel knew that he was trying to be kind. “Thank you, Sulyar”, he said, and meant it.

Lin, having the afternoon free, had volunteered to spend it with Aiel in the House of Records, feeling that Aiel might need his moral support, though he had not said so. “I am afraid you will find it dull, Lin” Aiel said, as they walked through the corridor that joined the House of Records to the Temple. “Maybe not”, said Lin, “so many things happen there. What are your tasks today?” Aiel glanced at the list of definte appointments Sulyar had given him, with other comers in between. “A babe to be named”, he smiled, ” a pleasant task! And a pass to the Dancers’ Gate to be collected.” “The Dancers!”, Lin said, thoughtfully, “Aiel, I would like one day to travel to the Gatehouse, and go up to the Meeting Place.”

Aiel looked at his friend in surprise. “I would not have expected you to be interested in the Dancers, Lin.” “How could any man not be fascinated by them?” Lin asked, “Beings of light and energy, singers of the worlds, Dancers among the stars! Are they closer to Light than we are, Aiel – more kin to the Spirits-in-Light?” “Maybe close to Light in a different way, Lin. There are some who would worship them – or the Shining Ones. Yet all these are created beings too, made, like us, to serve Light. Light asks a different service of them, that is all. We have not their abilities, nor they ours. And they too- even the highest of them,as the Book of Light shows – are corruptible.” “I still would like to see the Dancers, Aiel.” Aiel suddenly smiled, “And what reason would a Swordsman of the City give the Temple Elders, that they might grant him a pass to the Dancers’ Gate?” “Ah”, Lin laughed ruefully, “Little enough but idle curiosity, I fear, which would not suffice!”

They reached the House of Records and went in, to be greeted by the two record-keepers. The majority of the building was given over to rows and rows of shelving containing the scrolls of record systematically arranged. These were the record-keepers’ domain. The public part of the building was a large, airy hall, with comfortable padded benches informally arranged, where people might stand chatting, or stroll about, while waiting their turn. Between the shelves of records and the hall was a low platform, on which stood a table and a high-backed chair, flanked by a smaller table covered with writing materials. A small, merry-faced man was already seated at the smaller table, and smiled at Aiel. He was Barit, the Recorder, who would write down all transactions in the Hall of Records.

There were a few chairs scattered near the platform, as well as the benches, and Lin arranged himself comfortably cross-legged in one of these as Aiel conferred with Barit. One of the record-keepers went to open the doors to the public hall, and Lin glanced covertly at his friend as Aiel took the chair behind the larger table. Aiel, though, showed no sign of the nervousness he had confided to Lin. He sat straight and dignified behind the table, every inch a Priest of Light, and Lin was reminded, as he seldom was, of Aiel’s heritage and power.

The first-comers were the young couple with a babe to be named and listed in the records. They were touchingly proud and happy, and Aiel, sensitive to them, managed somehow to turn the simple fact of registering the babe’s name and parentage into joyous ceremony. There were others waiting, but when the young mother asked it, Aiel came down unhurriedly from his seat, and took the babe, and prayed Light’s blessing on the child, and did all without rushing, wanting this to be a happy, memorable moment for them. Lin approved of his friend’s actions, and so, apparently, did others, for there were smiles and pleased murmurs, and one elderly woman wiped away a tear. Aiel himself was inclined to believe that Light smiled on his inexperience, for nothing had arisen that, with the wise advice of Barit and the record-keepers, he could not handle. He was certainly not too proud to ask their advice, rather than disappoint Sulyar, and his willingness to defer to their experience made a good impression on them, though he did not know it. Time passed quickly, and he was surprised when it was time to pause for refreshment. One of the record-keepers brought cups of wine-and-water and little honey-cakes for Aiel and Barit. Aiel did not realise that he endeared himself further to those present by asking, hesitantly, if it was permitted that some refreshment might also be taken to that same elderly lady, who had been waiting some time while the records were searched for her, and looked a little tired. Aiel always had shared what he had, thought Lin, smiling at his friend as the record-keeper went to revive the old woman with wine-and-water. Aiel had relaxed, and , like a cloak, laid aside his air of dignity. He smiled back at Lin, and said, leaning towards him, “I am sorry, Lin, I had all but forgotten you! Have you been bored?” “Not at all.” Lin answered, truthfully, for he had been too interested by what he was learning about his friend, simply by watching him at his duties.

Though Linnad and Arnath were friends, and Aiel and Lin had sometimes played together as children, they had not really been close friends. Then had come the dreadful day that was still etched on Aiel’s heart and mind as if with acid, though it was now some seven or eight years past. He had been a child still, waiting, impatiently, for news of his new baby brother or sister. He had waited and waited, until his father had come to hold him tight and tell him, weeping , that now he had neither brother nor mother, for both had died in the long birth-struggle. In the terrible few days that followed, Aiel had been put into the care of Janira, Lin’s mother. She and her ladies had fussed over him, crying and cuddling him. Aiel had known that they meant it to comfort him, but he did not want the fuss. He wanted to be alone, for his grief was too new and raw and private to share. It was Lin who had saved Aiel from their smothering kindness, Lin who, unknown to Aiel, had interpreted the younger boy’s feelings, gone to his mother, and told her that she was going the wrong way about helping the bereaved child. “Let me take him out to the gardens, and give him space to weep.” Lin had said, and Janira had agreed. LIn had taken Aiel out to the farthest part of Linnad’s grounds, where he had a play-hut built by the lake, and “They will not bother you here”, he had said, then, “I will come back for you in a while. If you do not want me, I will go away again.” Aiel had never been so desperately grateful to anyone as he was to Lin that day. When Lin had gone, he had crept into the play-hut and wept his bottled-up tears, wept and wept until the tight knot of grief in him began to loosen a little, until he began to be able to relinquish his loved ones to the care of Light. When Lin had returned, Aiel had been able to share with the older boy some of his grief and loneliness and fear. It was Lin who had comforted him, and Lin who, much more than Aiel’s equally grief-stricken father, had supported the white-faced boy through the ordeal of the funeral ceremonies.
Lin had appointed himself a kind of honourary elder brother to Aiel after that, and Aiel was glad of his friendship, though for a while the friends had lost touch, during the time that Lin was undergoing his Swordsman’s training and Aiel studying in the Students’ House. One night, though, Aiel, returning from an errand for his father late at night, had unwisely taken a short cut through an alleyway and had been set on by attackers, either thieves or Children of Night, he did not know. He was unable to defend himself, as his vows forbade him weapons, and no match for his attackers. After one desperate, silent plea to Light, Aiel had resolved that he would not give them, should they be Children of Night, the satisfaction of hearing him plead for mercy, however much they hurt him, and was enduring a savage beating, when rescue came. It seemed his plea to Light had been heard, for three figures appeared in the mouth of the alleyway, and Aiel heard a familiar voice demanding to know what was happening. “Lin!”, he cried, and heard his friend answer, “Aiel! Sweet Light, is that you? The cowards! Barengian, Karil, come on!”

Lin, Barengian his sister’s betrothed, and their fellow Swordsman of the Harbour Watch had swept away Aiel’s attackers with the fury of a winter storm, and after a few confused few minutes Aiel, who had slumped half-conscious to the ground, found Lin bending anxiously over him, examining him by the light of a lantern begged from a neighbouring inn. Lin had looked so worried that Aiel, to reassure him, had ignored the dizzy swirling in his head, tried to smile despite his bruised and battered face, and said, painfully, ” Rescuing me…begins to be …a habit with you, Lin!” And, even as his friend smiled back at him in relief, had lost consciousness.
Lin, and his Sword-Brethren, had carried Aiel home, Lin had come to enquire after him next day, and the old friendship had been rekindled. It was a blessing to both of them, for they learned from each other, and from each other’s worlds. Lin still thought of Aiel as a kind of younger brother, admiring his devotion to Light, his sensitivity and empathy with all kinds of people, as evidenced by this morning’s work in the House of Records, while Aiel admired Lin’s courage, honesty, and Swordsmanship.

The break over, Aiel resumed his place at the table, and encountered his first problem. Two merchants appeared, haggling over the interpretation of some obscure clause in a contract. Aiel studied the document and leant to consult with Barit. There was some headshaking, for it was a complicated document, and Lin, watching interestedly, caught the name ‘Sulyar’ as they pondered. Aiel reached a decision, bearing in mind that formidable Priest’s advice, and turned back to the merchants. They too had been muttering together, and their expressions showed that they had little faith in Aiel’s ability to solve their problem. “Sirs”, Aiel asked, “Is the contract an urgent matter?” The older merchant said, “It must be settled by the time the moons rise.” That meant the time of the Two-Moon Tide, giving Aiel about eight days’ grace, thought Lin.

“You may see”, went on Aiel, “That I am young, and inexperienced in matters of commerce. The contract is clearly important, and needs careful consideration by one much wiser than I. Will you be pleased, gentlemen, to let Barit make a copy of the contract, that I may give the lord Priest Sulyar for his consideration, and to return tomorrow for his answer. He smiled at them with the sudden smile that lit his whole face, as he added, “If Sulyar cannot solve it, no one can!”
The merchants too were smiling now. The older said, “Young Lord Priest, you are wise. I will abide by that. You?” , he asked , turning to his companion. The younger merchant nodded, “I agree. It takes wisdom – and courage- to admit to what you cannot do, that another may do better”, he said to Aiel, who flushed self-consciously at this little speech of praise. “Meanwhile”, the merchant continued hurriedly, seeing Aiel’s discomfort, “I too will abide Sulyar’s decision.”

Among the documents neatly piled on Barit’s table in the House of Records lay a metal tube containing a scroll sealed by Arnath the High Priest and the Temple Elders, a pass to the Dancers’ Gate made out to the name of the Lord Dular. While Aiel wrestled with the problem of the merchants’ contract, that same old Eastern Lord was struggling, but uselessly, with the two strong, black-cloaked men who had caught him alone in the street and dragged him to this house, to this frightening, black-hung hall whose air was poisonous with burning drugs. His indignant demands for freedom and explanation were ignored. The old man, though trying hard to retain his dignity, was really very frightened.

Two people entered the hall, a man and a woman. As they came nearer he saw that they were both so pale that they might have been corpses. They terrified him, and he tried harder to pull away. The man came close and said, “Be still, old fool”, and Dular recognised the cold, white face, the burning green eyes. “You!” the old man gasped, seeing the frightening Black Piper from the ‘Sea Rose’. “Yes, old man, it is I” Lak said, smiling mirthlessly. He reached out a hard, bony hand and took the old man’s chin in a painful grasp. His green eyes burned into Dular’s watery brown ones with a devouring, painful intensity. Dular’s mind seemed to burn. He screamed, and tried to pull away from the pain, the other mind that gnawed at his. Eventually, the screaming stopped. When Lak had drained the old man’s mind, he withdrew his burning gaze and looked contemptuously at the babbling shell of a man at his feet.
“His mind has broken”,the Black Piper said, “Old fool! He should not have tried to fight me.” Then, to Tamat and Soom, “Take him out and leave him in some back street.” “Should we not kill him, Lord?” Tamat asked. Lak sighed, and said, as if explaining to an idiot, “A body would cause comment, and investigation. A sick old man found wandering in the street will simply be taken to the House of Healing. “

When the two men had taken away the shambling, broken figure, Si-Mara asked eagerly, “Did you get what you needed, before his mind broke?” He grinned triumphantly, “Aye. Now we are ready to begin.” Anxiously she asked, “Are you sure that Sulyar will not Perceive you, Lord?” Again he grinned. “Sulyar might. But today it is Aiel, Arnath’s cub, who serves in the House of Records. And he is young and inexperienced.”
Lak extended his left hand. The blood-red stone in his ring began to glow balefully. “Now” he breathed, his brow furrowed in concentration. As Si-Mara watched, the tall, black-robed figure began to waver and melt, shrinking, broadening. Colour began to run through the black, swirling, then steadying to a pattern. The black hair turned white, the face grew lined and jowled. Finally, the fiery green eyes turned faded brown. In place of the Black Piper stood the bowed figure of the old Lord Dular in his brocaded robe. “One more detail”, said the Shape-Changer, pulling open the breast of the robe. He touched a bony finger to his left breast, and a purple mark appeared, growing into the semblance of a bird’s head. He closed the robe, took up, from the top of the black stone altar, the documents that had been rifled from the real Lord Dular, smiled at Si-Mara, and, with an old man’s careful gait, left the Night Temple.

In the House of Recotds, Aiel was noting, with relief, that it was not long before his duties would be finished. Considering, he concluded that he had not, perhaps, fared as badly as he had feared. There was the matter of the contract, but he had followed Sulyar’s advice, and the merchants had been content. Looking up, he was surprised to see that the hall was now empty, save for Lin. He said to Barit, “The old Lord from the East is late. The ‘Sea Rose’ docked early this morning.” As he spoke, a figure appeared in the doorway and shuffled rapidly up to the dais, breathlessly offering profuse apologies. “Lord Priest…so sorry….I was visiting friends in the City….forgot the time…”

“I am afraid you have tired yourself with hurrying”, said Aiel, with grave courtesy, “Will you take a seat, and rest?” “No, no, it will be well with me”, said the old man, in his heavy Eastern accent,”Here are my documents, Lord Priest.” Aiel took the papers, and passed them to Barit, studying the old Lord while Barit perused the documents. He was a heavy-set old man in a richly coloured brocaded robe that was typically Eastern, a harmless-looking old scholar. Yet something about him made Aiel uneasy. It was not that he Perceived anything about the old man, it was nothing that he could pin down. Just that he was uncomfortable about the man. He stared at the sun-browned old face. For a moment he thought he saw a spark of fiery green in the watery brown eyes, and then he found that his head was momentarily swimming, and when his brief dizziness passed, so too did his feelings about the old man. “I must have sat too long in the sun with Lin”, he thought. Lord Dular was regarding him quizzically. “Is something wrong, young Lord Priest?” Aiel shook his head, “I am sorry. My thoughts were wandering. Barit?”
“All in order, Aiel”, the Recorder answered. Aiel smiled at the old man, and said, “There is, then, just the matter of the formal identification, Lord Dular.” The old man smiled too, and opened the breast of his robe. “This is the identification agreed with the Council of Elders. A birthmark shaped like a bird’s head, for which reason my father named me Dular, which is, Falcon, in the Old Tongue.”

Aiel nodded, and as the old man closed his robe again, the young Priest weighed in his hand the cylindrical container that held the Pass. He still felt strangely reluctant about it, but broke the seal, tipped out the little sealed scroll, and handed it to the old man. “Safe journey, Lord Dular. Go in Light.” The old man, smiling, thanked him, gathered up his papers, together with the precious Pass, and walked out of the House of Records. Lin asked Aiel, “Aiel, why did you stare at the old Lord so?” Aiel flushed again, as he did so easily when embarrassed or angry. “Did I? I hope I was not discourteous. I just felt …something I was uneasy about.” “Did you Perceive anything amiss?” his friend enquired. “No, it was not Perception. Just – a feeling.” Aiel gave a half-smile. “I felt dizzy, just for a moment, and then the feeling went. Perhaps I sat in the sun too long, Lin.” “Perhaps.” his friend agreed, “It can be hotter than you think, in the Spring, when the breeze is off the mountains.”

Barit had already gone, and the record-keepers were closing the doors. Lin and Aiel walked back together through the corridor to the Temple, Aiel carrying the copy of the merchants’ contract for Sulyar. “You did well, Aiel”, Lin commented, as they went into the Temple in search of the older Priest. “Let us hope Sulyar agrees with you!”, whispered Aiel, seeing the rangy figure of the other Priest standing by the Crucible with its steady, man-high, golden flame. Sulyar turned as they approached. “Ah, Aiel! How did you fare in the House of Records? No problems?” “Just one” said Aiel, and Sulyar’s face grew anxious, but lightened a little as Aiel explained, ending “I really think the merchants were relieved, Sulyar. I am sure it was you they wanted to see.” “So where is this troublesome contract?” Sulyar demanded. Aiel held out the scroll. “I asked Barit to make a copy. Here it is.”

The older Priest scanned the document, frowning a little in concentration, while Aiel watched anxiously. Sulyar reached the end, and looked up, smiling at Aiel. “Well done, Aiel! You acted wisely. This will take me some thought. If you had foolishly meddled with it, you could have lost the merchants a considerable sum. I am glad you remembered my advice, and were not too proud to follow it.” Aiel gave an audible sigh of relief. Sulyar said, “Come, you have made a good beginning. Humility is a virtue – but do not underestimate yourself either, Aiel.” And there was something like a twinkle in his eye as he bade them farewell and fell to studying the scroll again. Aiel felt quite light-hearted as they walked away. The merchants, and Lin, and now – amazingly – Sulyar, had all praised him, and he did not think that any of them would have done so without cause. Aiel’s natural modesty,as Sulyar had said, did sometimes lead him to underestimate his own abilities. Lin asked, “You will be able to come with me tomorrow, to choose a gift for the little one?” Lin’s sister Mira, now Lady to Barengian, the young Lord of the Western Fortress, had recently borne a son, and Lin was taking his duties as an uncle very seriously. It was soon to be the babe’s Naming Day, and Lin was anxious to find a suitable gift. Aiel answered, “Yes, I will come, as long as it is not too late. I must be back to practice with the musicians for the Spring Festival. What will they name him?” “He is to be Janir, after my mother.” Lin said.

As they reached the main gate of the Temple, Aiel was surprised to encounter his father Arnath, the High Priest, coming hurriedly into the building. He had thought, as he had told Shipfather Renn, that Arnath would be delayed with the Old One until quite late. Father and son were much alike, black-haired, though Arnath’s was touched with grey, and, of course, with the striking blue eyes of the Priesthood. Arnath, though, was stockier and squarer-faced than Aiel, who had inherited his mother’s smaller-boned build and features. Now Arnath said, “Ah, Aiel, good! I was looking for you. An urgent matter has arisen. Were you in the House of Records, as arranged?” “Yes. Is something wrong, Father?” “We cannot talk here. Was Lin with you?” “Yes”, the Swordsman answered, and Arnath said, “Then come with me, both of you.” “But- I am due on watch!” Lin protested. “I will send word to Linnad your father”, the High Priest said, “He will be needed here, in any case.”

Aiel and Lin exchanged questioning glances as they followed Arnath along the passageway to the High Priest’s house. He moved with a sense of urgency, and Aiel had a dim feeling of foreboding. Once indoors, Arnath took the friends into his Quiet Room, his place of study and prayer. There he turned to Aiel and asked, “Aiel, today you had a Pass to the Dancers’ Gate to be collected. Was it issued?” “Yes, to the old Lord Dular.” “Aah!” Arnath breathed, and it was half a sigh, “Was there anyone with him?” “No, though he said he had been visiting friends in the City. Father, what is wrong?” “While I was visiting the Old One in the House of healing, Dular was brought in. He had been found wandering in the City, his mind broken-” “Oh”, Aiel cut in, “that must have been what I sensed – Lin, you remember?” “Yes, you said you Perceived something strange about the old man.” “No, it was not Perception”, Aiel said, “Just a sense of something wrong. Not enough to cause me to withhold the Pass, but – something. It must have been the onset of his illness that I felt.”

“Perhaps not”, Arnath said, “For it was not sickness that broke Dular’s mind. I Perceived that his mind had been subjected to another, very strong, and evil. And he had no Pass, or other papers, when he was found.” Lin told him, “Shipfather Renn came to see you, Arnath, about a passenger on the ‘Sea Rose’ – a man he swore was a Child of Night. Did not Dular too come on the ‘Sea Rose’?Perhaps he fell foul of this man.” “Renn’s ‘Black Piper’? He could have followed Dular”, Aiel said, “But why wait so long? The ‘Sea Rose’ docked early this morning. Why should he pursue the old man all day?” “If he knew he was collecting the Pass, and wanted to steal it, he might”, Lin argued, “Or if Dular were visiting friends, as he said , the other might bide his time. “”Wait!” Arnath said, having heard all this, so commandingly that they ceased their conjecture and waited silently. “Aiel”, the High Priest continued, turning to his son, “At what time did Dular collect the Pass?” “It was late”, Aiel answered, “Near time for the House of Records to close. He said he had been with friends and forgotten the time. He was quite breathless with hurrying – that is why I thought some sickness…” The young Priest’s voice tailed off as he saw his father’s expression.

“Dular”, said Arnath, slowly, was found wandering in the mid-afternoon. He was lying in the House of Healing at the time you say he came for the Pass.” Aiel stared at his father. “But- then who was it who came for the Pass? Father, his papers, everything- oh, they might have been stolen, but the identification – the falcon birthmark-” “Dye…” murmured Lin, but Aiel said, “Lin. it was not dye! I would swear it!” “Aiel, Lin, let me Perceive your memories of this”, Arnath asked, “I must see what you saw, and also what Shipfather Renn said.” The two friends readily agreed, and Arnath set his Perception first on his son, then on Lin. When he had finished, and released from his blue gaze, he pored, frowning, over what he had learned. Aiel and Lin exchanged anxious glances, afraid to interrupt Arnath’s considerations, but sorely puzzled by what he had said.

“Aiel”, his father said at last, and his tone made Aiel stare. Arnath was speaking to him with hushed compassion, as to someone newly bereaved – or fatally sick. “Oh, my son, have you not heard it all your life? Have you not read and spoken it to others? Yet it has failed you now!” “What? What has failed me?” Aiel demanded wildly, beset by a growing sense of doom, while Lin, at his side, gazed grim-faced at the High Priest and his hand hovered above his sword-hilt as though ready in an instant to protect his friend from whatever threatened him.
And Arnath said, “The Warning.”


DANCE THE DARKNESS DOWN

Chapter 2

Aiel did not see Lin’s mouth drop open and his hand fall away from its useless position of defence. As if an explosion of Darkness filled his head, his senses reeled, his mind trying helplessly to grapple with his father’s words. If the Warning had failed him, then that meant – his understanding could not encompass what he knew it meant.
He heard, distantly, Lin’s voice, sharp with anxiety, cry, “Aiel!”, felt a hand grasp his arm, and realised that he had been on the verge of collapse. He jerked himself back to reality with a tremendous effort and stood trembling, looking into the two faces that leaned over him with anxious concern written on them. Yet still his faith in Light was such that he whispered, “No, oh no, the Warning has not failed me – but I have failed the Warning!”

The Warning – Light’s Warning- the first and last words of the Book of Light. Words, as his father had said, that Aiel had heard and read and quoted a thousand times, or more. Had they become only ritual to him, that he had not heeded them when the time came?

“Light is life, to you and your world. Darkness is death, to you and your world. Heed well the true Light, and beware the Darkness that comes disguised as Light. For if Darkness comes to you as Light, and you do not recognise it, it will bring death. Only if your heart is truly in Light at such a time may you take the Way that Light has prepared for you, and save yourself and your world from that death.” Aiel was quoting, in a voice soft with despair, the words he knew by heart, the words that warned him of danger, the words he had not remembered when he needed them – but when, and how, could Darkness have come to him as Light, and he – a Priest, having Perception- not have recognised it?

Lin cried, with cold horror in his voice, “Aiel, my brother – what could you have done that deserves your death? There is nothing – nothing!” Arnath reassured him gently, “Peace, Lin. Aiel is not under judgement of death – he is not under judgement at all. But his now is the Way of the Secret Word.” Aiel scarcely heeded them, aware only that somehow he had failed in the task he had been born to, had betrayed Light and his world. Lin, though, still defensive of his friend, demanded, “What is this Way? Is there danger in it for Aiel? Can I not help him in some way, Arnath? Must I let him bear peril alone?” The High Priest answered, “I know this is hard for you too, Lin, and yes, there may be a way for you to help Aiel. But we must wait for your father to come before we discuss it.”

An uneasy silence fell. All of them were lost in thought, Arnath seemingly pondering the secret things he must now reveal to his son, Lin wondering how he might help Aiel, his thoughts and imaginings chasing each other in circles. As for Aiel, he stood quite still, head bowed, hands open and outspread in an unconscious attitude of surrender, miserably aware of his fault and awaiting Light’s judgement. They were all relieved when the silence was broken by Linnad’s arrival. Lin’s father came int the room, and, as always, it immediately seemed smaller. It was not his physical size, though he was tall and broad-shouldered, but his presence and his rich, booming voice that produce this effect. He was very like Lin, fair-haired and grey-eyed, and wore a beard which made him look much fiercer than he was, for he was the kindest of men.

“What is it, Arnath?” he greeted his old friend, glancing at Lin and Aiel, “Are these lads in some trouble?” “Not exactly” Arnath answered, “Linnad, you remember the news we received from the East?” “Of the Dark One? Yes”, Linnad said, and his face was suddenly grim. “Arnath, what has happened?”

Arnath quickly outlined for Linnad the day’s happenings, paying, Lin noted, particular attention to Renn’s description of the Black Piper, and the kind of force used on poor old Dular. Linnad listened with silent absorption, until Arnath had finished. Then the Lord of the Harbour looked at the High Priest and said, with a groan, “Then it has come at last?” “It seems so”, Arnath answered quietly. “And it falls to Aiel, poor lad?” Linnad’s voice was full of pity, and Aiel’s frightened misery was not eased by this, nor by his father’s quiet, sorrowful affirmation. What was going to happen to him? Then he felt Lin lay one hand on his shoulder, and was somewhat comforted. He knew, as clearly as if his friend had said it, that the Swordsman was determined to stand with him, whatever his fate. He said, plaintively, “Father, Linnad, please – I do not understand! What is it that I have done?”

Arnath told him, “Aiel, listen to me carefully. Renn’s description of his passenger tallies with other facts that have reached us. A Lord of Darkness – a Shape-Changer, with great powers – has come into Li’is from the Otherworld – Ma’al – carrying a reforged Bloodstone and a strange pipe. His purpose, we believe, is to restore the reign of Darkness in Li’is that was broken so long ago. This is the one who has stolen Dular’s thoughts and his papers and assumed his shape, to trick you into giving him the Pass to the Dancers’ Gate.”

Aiel’s head was reeling again. It was legend- black legend – come to life. Ma’al, the Otherworld! The Bloodstone! These were the stuff of his childhood tales. Yet he knew well enough that if this were all true, the being who had assumed Dular’s identity was a thing of such Darkness as he had never met, and might surely be the death of himself, and all Li’is. For the moment, though, his overburdened mind clutched at the one comprehensible strand in his father’s words. “But why the Pass? What would such a one want with the Dancers?”

“Because by their Song, attuned to Light’s harmonies, and by the rhythm of their Dance, all life is set its own rhythm. So Light willed it; so it is. But in Otherworld the Night Lords reign, who once were Dancers, the Dancers of Ma’al, but , being corrupted by the rebellion of those Lords of Darkness who were also once Spirits-in-Light, servants of Light, they too desired to reign where they should serve. Yet still they have Dancers’ powers, though their Song and their Dance are of Darkness, not Light. I believe, Aiel, that this Black Piper plays their music, and means to carry it to our Dancers and force them by it into harmony with their Dark brothers. If he can succeed in this, force them to Dance the Darkness down into Li’is..” “Then – all Li’is will go down into Darkness with them!” Aiel groaned, “Oh, Father, what have I done? What evil have I let loose?”

“Aiel, Light knows all. And you are not judged guilty”, Arnath gently answered. But Aiel, seeming not to hear, was white-faced and despairing. Lin gave him a compassionate look, thinking of that bereaved boy in the garden long ago, for his friend looked just as stricken now. Yet Aiel had heard, for now he gasped, “Why do you say that? I have let this evil pass!” “You have, and because of that it falls to you to follow and defeat it. But you are not judged guilty. This moment, ” Arnath went on, ignoring his son’s protestations, ” is prophesied from the beginning, and from the beginning you are judged innocent.”
“I have never read such a thing in the Book of Light”, Aiel said. “This prophecy – is that the Secret Word?” Lin asked. “Yes. And it is not written in the Book of Light, but handed down among the Keepers”, Arnath answered them both, “Of whom the High Priest of the Temple is one, and the Lord of the Harbour another.”

“Lin, did you know of this Secret Word?” Aiel demanded. His friend silently shook his head. Linnad explained, “There is an age for the knowing, and neither of you had yet reached it.” “But what can it do?” Aiel cried, hopelessly, “Dead words cannot help me undo what I have done!” “The words are not dead, since they are a prophecy of Light”, Arnath reminded them, then, “But it is more than just the words. Come.”

His invitation included them all, and Aiel, heavy-hearted, followed with Lin and Linnad as Arnath led them back along the passageway to the Temple. Arnath did not enter the main Temple, and for that Aiel was glad. He did not think he could have stood before the Crucible. Instead, Arnath turned into the Priests’ Prayer Room, and, when the others had followed him in, locked the door. The room was simple, bare except for a prayer bench, four lampstands, one at each corner of the room, and a great wall-hanging, facing the door. This covered the whole wall, and was worked with a design of leaping flames on a deep blue background. The walls of the room were the same white stone as the rest of the Temple, the floor a mosaic of white, black, and blue-grey stone. In the centre of the room stood a miniature Crucible, flame burning brightly, upright in the still air.

Arnath crossed to one of the lampstands and twisted it. There was a slight, creaking sound. The wall hanging began to belly outwards, and the Crucible flame to bend, as if in a breeze. Linnad seemed to know the secret, but Aiel and Lin again exchanged questioning looks as the High Priest pulled aside the wall-hanging to reveal the hidden doorway beneath.

The doorway led to an ancient stairway; indeed, it seemed older than the Temple itself. The plaster of its walls was painted with strange old pictures, and writings in the Old Tongue, but they were faded, and Aiel and Lin were too distracted to attempt to interpret them. Yet, though so ancient, and worn as if by generations of feet, the stairway was well-kept, lamp-lit, and free of dust, as though it were not disused. At the bottom of the stairway stood another door. It was tall and heavy and seemed to be made of one huge slab of dark wood. Set into it, midway across and at about two-thirds of its height, was a metal symbol. It was the Symbol of the One Light, three flames intersecting at the base to form a single oval. The oval, in this case, was a hollow set back in the wood, and Arnath withdrew, from the folds of his robe, a strange object, and fitted it into the hollow. It was a rod of some translucent crystalline stuff, its circumference the same oval shape, and bound top and bottom with the same silvery metal, as the symbol. As this odd key slotted into the symbol, the door swung open, and they heard the other door at the top of the stairway closing.

Hesitantly, Aiel and Lin followed their fathers through the door. Beyond lay a circular, columned room, like a smaller version of the great Temple above, though it seemed partly hewn out of the bedrock on which the Temple stood. Some sections of the wall were lined with racks of scrolls, like the House of Records, others carried more of the ancient paintings and inscriptions. A large, round table, carrying writing materials, and surrounded by seven heavy, carved chairs, stood to one side. But the one thing that drew their eyes was the object in the centre of the room, corresponding to the position of the Temple Crucible. Like the Crucible, it stood on a stepped dais of white stone, and its base was a golden bowl, beautifully worked. This object, though, was about one-sixth the size of the Crucible, and instead of supporting a flame, it was surmounted by a dome, of the same material as the rod Arnath had used to enter here.

Arnath gave the young men time to look around and absorb the strangeness of the room. Then, indicating the table, he said,” Be seated.” Linnad, Lin and Aiel sat down at the table, while Arnath went to the shelves of scrolls, and presently returned. He was carrying two of the metal cylinders used to protect old or valuable documents. Linnad, again, seemed to know what they contained, but Aiel and Lin leaned forward in anxious anticipation as the High Priest unscrewed the end s of the two cylinders and carefully tipped out their contents. The two scrolls that lay before the friends were written on a strange, thick, rough material. There was a degree of brittleness about it which showed its age as much as the fading of the ink from black to brown. One scroll bore a little metal tag, some kind of seal. “Read them”, Arnath said, “They are for both of you.”

Aiel unrolled the tagged scroll, and the two heads, black and blond, bent over it. The writing was in the Old Tongue, which Aiel, the Priest, read quite easily. Lin, less adept, had a little struggle. But neither was in any doubt about the signature. “Brann!” breathed Lin. The legendary Swordsman of the First Days, childhood hero of almost every boy in Li’is. There lay his name and title – and another. “Brann”, read the signature, in a bold, firm hand, “Lord of the Forest, and of the Harbour”. And under it, in a more flowing calligraphy, ” and Tamorine of the Mountains, his Lady.” It was a brief letter, simply an accompaniment or introduction to the other scroll. It read: “We write this for the future generations of our line, and the Lightfriend Rafel’s. Though we have overcome Darkness, it has been prophecied that it will once more attempt to break through into Li’is, and that others of our two lines will again take up our battle and prevent it. Also it is written that the battle falls to the one who, though in innocence, lets this evil pass, yet if he is strong in Light, he shall defeat it. This prophecy, being only for his bloodline and ours, the Lightfriends have not written in the Book of Light, lest it cause others to fear, but secretly. Therefore our descendants shall be Keepers of the Secret Word, and of the hidden holy things, until the time comes for these things to be fulfilled. Lastly, to you on whom this Way falls, we write this; serve Light, keep faith, have courage! If we may, we will speak for you in the Joyous Place. Light is merciful. May you go in Light.”

The last few lines of encouragement and blessing warmed Aiel strangely, and made the distant hero seem close, and real. He might, thought Aiel, have been not unlike Lin. Now Aiel and Lin turned their attention to the other scroll. This was the Secret Word itself, and was neither so brief, nor so clear, as Brann’s letter.

“Darkness shall appear as Light, guilt as innocence. He is not judged guilty who lets it pass, being innocent of Night’s purpose. Yet to him falls this Way, the doom of Dark’s passing.
In hope and in Light let him go and carry Light with him. Light will empower him against the Darkness.
Let him seek a true sword for companion, a lover of Light, also treasures of the Mountains, ebony and red gold, melody and healing.
Let him keep faith with Light that the lesser light may survive
Let him hold the harmony of Light against Dark melodies.
And from this shall come a strange thing; Dark and Light in one spirit, a soul divided. He shall hear the Child of Night cry mercy of Light, and Dark powers shall be laid at the feet of Light. Hate shall be transformed to love, and pain to joy.
Before his times end, he shall see two and two and times and Time out of their place, but all for good: Light’s judgement on the Dark World, an end, and a beginning.”

Almost together, Aiel and Lin asked, “What does it mean?”
Arnath said, “Until today, we knew nothing, except that the Darkness would try to break in again, and one of us, in all innocence, might let it pass. Now it seems that the ‘lesser light’ which must survive – for our survival- is the Dancers of Li’is. They are obviously the Dark One’s target.”
“And this Way, this ‘doom of Dark’s passing’ – it falls to me, because I was the one who let it pass?” Aiel asked, very quietly. “Aye, lad”, Linnad said gently, as if he were very sorry for it. “So it is prophesied- you have read it”, Arnath said, “You must follow this Black Piper, and prevent him from corrupting the Dancers.” His face too was grave.

“But Aiel is a Priest, not a Swordsman like Brann. His vows forbid him weapons!” Lin protested, “And what can he know of fighting an enemy? It would be murder, Arnath, to send him unarmed and unready, after such a foe!” Aiel was moved by his friend’s concern, but he said “I would not be afraid to die, Lin, if it would serve the purpose of defeating this evil. For if I died, I would touch Light. But”, this to his father and Linnad, ” as Lin says, I know nothing of such things, and my vows forbid me weapons. I do not understand how I can fight this foe.” “Nor I!” exclaimed Lin. “And I will not let them send you helpless to your death, Aiel!” He stared defiantly at his father and Arnath, and the High Priest said, without anger, “Peace, Lin! Let us explain.”

Lin subsided, and Arnath went on, “Brann called us the Keepers, the descendants of his bloodline and the Lightfriend’s. And as I said, it is more than the Secret Word that we have kept. As to lineage, though every Priest in Li’is is descended from the Lightfriends of the First Days, we, the High Priests of the Temple, are the direct line from Rafel. We are also descended from Brann and Tamorine, for their daughter married Rafel’s eldest grandson. Lin, the Lords of the Harbour are the direct descendants of Brann and Tamorine’s eldest son. Their second son became Lord of the Western Fortress, their youngest, being heir to Tamorine’s brother Tamran, who had no children, Lord of the Mountains, and the Mountain Fortress. Those are the Keepers, today.”

“Barengian knew of this…” Lin murmured, “And did not tell you, no, though you are his Sword-Brother and brother-by-marriage.” Linnad finished for him. “It is the Secret Word, Lin. Even a Sword-Brother may have greater loyalties.” Lin nodded, then said, “But there are seven chairs at the table.” Arnath smiled a little. “Your eyes and wits are sharp, Lin. The full Council-at-Need of Li’is is seven; besides the four Keepers, there is the Lord of the East, the Ket – the Lord of the Westerners, Aiel – and the Gatekeeper, who also speaks for the Dancers, if they have anything to say. But I think the full Council has only assembled ten times in all the years of Li’is.”

“If there is such peril, should it not be assembled now?” Aiel asked. “No, it is already decided what must be done when the Secret Word came to be fulfilled. There would be no time for assembly. Word will be sent to the Lord of the East- he it was who forewarned us of the Dark One’s coming – and to Barengian. For the others, you shall take word, Aiel, for your Way will lie through their lands, and you will need their aid.”
Aiel made no comment. He was realising, now, that he was set on a course that was beyond his control, mapped out for him from the beginning of time. He felt as if he were living in a dream, swept from one event to another, helpless as a ship caught in the Two-Moon Tide. Lin, though, insisted, “Arnath, what will Aiel have to protect him?” “A greater weapon than any Swordsman ever bore.” the High Priest answered. He rose from the table and crossed to the strange edifice in the centre of the room. Using the same crystal rod that had opened the door, he operated some unseen mechanism and the dome slowly split apart, opening out into four quarters that folded back like the petals of a flower. Arnath reached inside and brought out two things; a wooden box inlaid with metal, and a flat bundle of soft, once-crimson cloth, faded with age.

Aiel’s and Lin’s eyes were fixed on him as he walked back to the table. He laid down the cloth-wrapped bundle and took the box in both hands, raising it above his head. “In the Name of Light”, he intoned. Linnad said, as if in response, “Light bless the Bearer.” “Let him go in Light”, Arnath answered, and set the box back on the table. Curious at this little ritual, both young men stared at the box. It was of the same dark wood and silvery metal as the door through which they had passed into this mysterious room. Around the edge of the lid, inlaid in metal, ran words in the Old Tongue. Aiel, with some difficulty since the words were facing away from him, made out the inscription, “Bear it in Light, and bear it well.” In the centre of the lid was the Symbol. This Arnath pressed, and a small click indicated the release of some hidden lock. Arnath lifted the lid, and Aiel and Lin leaned forward to see.

Inside the box was a pad of folded blue and white cloth, like that of a Priest’s robe. On it lay a chain of the silvery metal, strongly made, with fine double links. From the chain hung a pendant in the shape of the Symbol, and set in the oval at its base was a semi-opaque white stone, rather like a pebble. Arnath lifted the chain from the box and held it up. After a moment, a tiny spark appeared at the heart of the stone, and grew until the whole stone was softly glowing. Aiel and Lin looked at each other in wonderment, then back at the stone. “Behold the Lightstone.” Arnath said. But they had not really needed to be told.

“Aiel”, his father called him, and the young Priest rose and went to him, eyes fixed on the Lightstone, as if in a dream. Yet when Arnath told him, “Yours is the Way of the Secret Word, therefore you now become the Lightstone-Bearer”, Aiel drew back. “There is nothing to fear”, Arnath told him, but he underestimated his son. Aiel’s vivid blue eyes lifted to meet his father’s and, “Should I fear the Holy Stone? I am not afraid, Friend of Light”, he said, the formal Priestly title showing that he was addressing Arnath not as his father, but as High Priest of Light. “It is that- it is I who have let this evil pass on Li’is. I am not worthy of the Lightstone.”

Arnath lifted the Lightstone and touched it to Aiel’s brow. Instantly , such a blaze of light overflowed the stone that Lin cried out in alarm, “Aiel!”, afraid that his friend had been stricken where he stood. Then the light faded to a soft glow, but now it surrounded Aiel, pouring forth from the stone, bathing him in its radiance. It was as if he stood beneath a fountain of gentle light. Lin watched, fascinated, no longer feeling any fear for Aiel. “You are the Lightstone-Bearer”, Arnath said again. “Light finds you worthy.” And now the light withdrew again into the stone, but it seemed as though some of it lingered in Aiel’s eyes. Arnath leaned forward and slipped the chain over Aiel’s bowed head, and the stone lay gently glowing on the young Priest’s breast.

“The Lightstone”, Arnath said, “Will attune to you, and you to it, for it seeks out and works with the Light and the Giftings of Light in each one. So, your experience of it will not be the same as Rafel the Lightfriend’s. Be guided by it, and by Light. Or, refuse it, and the Way, for even that is yours to do. Light does not force any to do Light’s work, and the choice is still yours, to accept or refuse.” “There is no choice for me”, Aiel said, “I accept.” , and it seemed to them that the Lightstone glowed more strongly as he spoke.

“LIn”, Arnath said now, turning towards the Swordsman, who came to stand at Aiel’s side.. “You asked me if you might help Aiel on this Way”, the High Priest reminded him, “You have heard the Secret Word now. It speaks of a companion, a Way-Sharer. Aiel, you are bidden to seek a ‘true sword’ and one who loves Light.” Aiel turned to look at his friend. “None truer than Lin, to a friend or to Light”, he said, and there was an unspoken question in his eyes for the Swordsman. Lin, wanting desperately to go with Aiel on this Way, both for his friend’s sake and for the sake of the Way itself, feeling unsure what to do or say in this strange atmosphere of semi-ceremonial, took refuge in a Swordsman’s formality. Bowing to Aiel, as if to his Lord, he said, “Aiel, Lightstone-Bearer, command me!”

“Lin, I do not command you! You are my dearest friend, and-” he smiled a little-“you have a way of always being there, at my greatest need. I ask you to come, as a friend.” Lin answered, letting his concern for his friend break through, “Aiel, my friend, my brother – you did not think I would let you go alone?” Aiel lifted the Lightstone, urged by some inner guidance, and touched it to Lin’s brow. The light flowed from it, enfolding the Swordsman, and Lin, wrapped in that aura of peace, acceptance, love and strengthening, realised what Aiel had felt. His eyes too were glowing as the light withdrew and Aiel said, “Light finds you worthy, Lin.”

Linnad told his son, “If you are to take this service on you, Lin, you must be tied to no other. So you must be released from your vow to the Harbour Watch.” Seeing Lin look a little sad at this, his father quickly added, “Oh, it is only till you return, lad, but you can have no other loyalty beside the Lightstone Way.” So Lin went to kneel before his father, who, as Lord of the Harbour, released the Swordsman, with honour, from his service. Then Arnath bade both Lin and Aiel swear their new vow, before Light, as Way-Sharers. “Remember now”, he told them, as they rose from their knees, “be Light-guided in all you do, for on this Way you will have no Lord but Light.”

Those words stirred Lin, making him think of Brann’s proclamation, centuries ago, in the First Days of Li’is. In those times the once-warring factions of men in Li’is had been united to overcome Darkness, and Light had entered Li’is, and after, the City began to be built. They had wanted, then, to make Brann their King, but he, having learned the Way of Light, had told them,” In Li’is, now and forever, we shall have no King but Light.” And so it had been.

Aiel was thinking of many things; the Lightstone, the Way, what might lie ahead. The thought of the new Brotherhood between himself and Lin, the Way-Sharers, was comforting, as had been the light that enfolded him earlier, yet Aiel still had a sense of oppression, a need to be alone, to think these things through before Light. He asked, “Father, may I go to the Temple now? I would be alone with Light, for a while.” Arnath nodded with understanding, and Aiel began to lift the Lightstone chain, as if to take it off. Arnath stopped him. “No , Aiel. You must wear it always, till it becomes part of you. Do you not understand? You are the Lightstone-Bearer now – not just for the Way, but for all your life, unless Light bids you relinquish it to another. Here”. The High Priest reached under the cloth in the box which had held the Lightstone, and brought out a small drawstring bag of soft leather, such as was used to carry certain healing herbs. “Use this, when concealment is necessary.”

Aiel took the pouch and slipped it over the glowing stone, tucking it inside his robe, and Arnath picked up the two scrolls, replacing them in their cylinders. Returning them to the shelves, he brought back another cylinder. “A copy of the Secret Word, in the common tongue”, he explained. To Lin he gave the cloth-wrapped bundle, bidding him bring it, and, closing the Lightsone’s box, replaced it, and removed the crystal rod. The translucent dome folded shut again, and Arnath led them outside, and locked the heavy door with the rod. Above them , the other door slid open.

When they had ascended the stairway and closed that door too, Aiel left them and went out into the now-deserted main Temple. It seemed to Lin, watching him go, that his friend looked very much alone. He turned to speak to Arnath, but the High Priest said, “Wait till we reach my house.” Once there, Lin asked, “Arnath, can Aiel bear this? He is so young and…” he searched for the right word, but the closest he could come was “innocent”. “He must bear it”, Arnath said, quietly, “The Way is his, and he has accepted it. He will not fail Light.”

“All because it happened to be his turn for duty in the House of Records?” Lin exploded, fear for his friend making him angry, “It is so unfair!” “If you were on Watch at the Harbour, and were wounded by some intruder, would that be unfair?” Linnad asked his son. “It is the same thing, Lin.” “Not quite”, Arnath said, “It may even be that the Dark One, by his evil powers, foreknew that Aiel would be in the House of Records today – that he is young and inexperienced, and might not Perceive what Sulyar or I could have done.” He laid a gentle hand on the Swordsman’s shoulder. “Lin, you have been like a brother to Aiel, and over the years I have had cause to be grateful for your friendship and loyalty to him. I understand your fear for him now. But you are a Swordsman, and perhaps you do not fully understand that Aiel is stronger than you think, though his strength lies inward and cannot be seen. The Priest kind have a different war to wage, Lin, and a special duty both to Light and to our fellow men. That is why we are gifted with Perception.”
Lin said, “You are right, Arnath, Perception, and the Lightstone, are not weapons that I understand.” Linnad asked, “Lin, why do you think the Priesthood are forbidden weapons?” “Why – lest they spill blood and the guilt of it comes between them and Light.” “Partly true”, Arnath said, “But not wholly, Lin. As a Swordsman, you know that it is not a thing to be done lightly, to take a man’s life, though that man be a Child of Night and an enemy. To send a living spirit into Darkness forever is a fearsome thing. That is why your Sword-vows bid you always to seek to turn an enemy to Light, to offer the Choice of Light, maybe even as he dies. But this alone is not the reason. The strength of the Priesthood, and thus of Li’is, lies in union with Light. Obedience to Light, the Word of Light, the Giftings of Light, all worked out through our Perception, both outwardly and inwardly – these are our weapons. To rely on anything else – on worldly weapons- would weaken us. The swords of the Priesthood are forged in the spirit, in the burning fire of Light, and wielded by the will obedient to Light. And the Priest’s will must always be in subjection to Light, and to the good of his fellow men. Love alone keeps this blade’s edge keen – there is no room for anger or revenge.”

Seeing that Lin found this hard to follow, Linnad said, “Lin, you would trust yourself to Arnath’s Perception, or Aiel’s -or any other Priest’s?” Lin looked surprised. “Of course.” “And yet”, his father continued, “if once that Power were corrupted or misused, it could burn out your mind like the strongest acid. Fortunately for us”, and he smiled at Arnath, his old friend, “the Priesthood is incorruptible.” “Only by the mercy of Light”, Arnath said, “We are men, and as open to attack by Darkness as any.” He turned again to Lin, “You will have need of your own weapon, Lin”, he said, “for, if need be, you must defend Aiel against physical attack. I entrust him to you.” “I will”, promised Lin, “With my life, if need be.”

Arnath said, “There is still much we must do and discuss. Aiel has had his space – will you fetch him now, Lin?” As Lin went, Arnath called for his servant to prepare food and fetch the things they would need. To Linnad, then, he said, “It is not so easy, my friend, to send them out, my son and yours, on this Way.” And for the first time, there was a glint of tears in his eyes. Linnad laid an arm for a moment across Arnath’s shoulders. “No, old friend, it is not easy – especially for you”, he agreed, ” but we must not do or say anything to dishearten them,.” Thoughtfully, he added, “For Lin, he has spoken and acted only as I would have hoped – but Aiel astonishes me, Arnath. I would never have guessed him to have such courage and fortitude. I do not think we need be ashamed of our sons.”

Meanwhile Aiel, having entered the quiet Temple, had gone down to stand before the Crucible, gazing up at the tall, steady flame, the symbol of the constant, unchanging Presence of Light. So many things had happened to him in so short a space of time, that he found he could frame no prayer, no appeal to Light. His mind was such a tumultuous jumble of thoughts, emotions, experiences, that in that moment he sought only release. He went to his knees before the Crucible, and, like a weary and frightened child, laid his head on his arms, leaning on its white stone steps, and wept.
Slowly, with his weeping, the tension in him eased and he began to be able to reach inward again. The slight touch of the Lightstone against his skin, concealed under his robe, comforted him. He thought of the light that had touched him, giving some surcease to his troubled spirit. He drew out the stone, freeing it from the concealing pouch, and gazed into it as he used the Priestly disciplines to lay before Light his fears, his feelings of guilt, his need of Light’s mercy. “Light of Li’is, Light of all life”, he whispered, “By the Sacrifice of Light, let me be clean of this thing that I have done. And let Light in mercy grant me the strength and courage I need for this Way.” Though it was painful to him, he was thorough with this cleansing of his soul, knowing that anything hidden from Light was a seed of Darkness growing. He did not know, as yet, that the Lightstone was already beginning to shape and strengthen him. The new acuteness of his Perception he attributed to the strength of his emotions. The temptation to follow it deeper, he resisted. Very few among the Priesthood, and they the most mature and strong-minded, could step easily into the labyrinth of their inner selves, or emerge unscathed if they did.
Aiel hardly heard Lin’s light footfall, but sensed his friend’s presence, and looked up. Lin, seeing the tears shine on his cheeks in the light of the Crucible flame , asked, with awkward gentleness, “Is it well with you, Aiel?”
Aiel rose. “I have made my peace with Light. I am clear what I must do. But, Lin.” he looked squarely at the Swordsman, “I am afraid.” “And so am I”, Lin answered, surprising him. “We should be fools if we were not afraid, Aiel, to face an unknown, deadly enemy. There is a coward’s fear, that deadens the mind, and there is another fear, one which sharpens the wits. The first is a bitter foe, but the second, a strong ally.” “Still, I wish I had more courage, Lin.”
“Aiel, you are making the mistake of thinking that lack of fear is courage. That is not courage,but stupidity. Courage is to feel the fear, but still to finish the battle. You do have courage, my friend.” He paused, then asked, “Are you ready, now? Your father sent me for you. There are things still to do, he said, and plans to make.” “Yes”, Aiel said, “I am ready.” His fingers strayed to the Lightstone, and he slipped it back into the concealing pouch. “The Lightstone, Lin!” he exclaimed, softly. “The last to bear this was Rafel the Lightfriend. Does it seem possible to you? I feel as if I had fallen into legend.”
“To be Rafel’s heir and follow in his steps, to bear the Lightstone”, said Lin, “is an awesome duty. But still, it is an honour before Light, Aiel.” “I know”, the other answered as they walked back towards his home. “That is what I cannot understand. For all that it was in innocence, I have betrayed Light. Yet Light forgives , and gifts me with the Lightstone.” “Not a betrayal. A betrayal is a deliberate thing. And duty comes with honour. The Lightstone is a weapon to be wielded.”

“I know so little of weapons”, Aiel mused, “Lin I am glad you are coming with me. Otherwise I should have been so alone. Yet I am sorry that I must drag you into danger after me.” “Drag me?” Lin exclaimed, “Only the Word of Light could have prevented me!”

Inside the house they found Arnath and Linnad waiting for them.On the table lay the cloth-wrapped bundle and the scroll from the room under the Temple. There were also maps, and some dishes of food and pitchers of drink. “Now”, said Arnath, “You will both need to be very attentive. There is much to learn.” He lifted the faded crimson bundle and held it out to Aiel. “This is also for you. To match against his pipe.”
Aiel took the bundle and unwrapped it. Inside the folds of material lay a familiarly-shaped, flattish case on a wide leather strap. It was the carrying-case for a small harp such as he was used to playing in the Temple and at the Festivals. Aiel unfastened the case and took out the instrument, which was beautifully made of the silvery metal he was coming to know, surprisingly light and strong. The strings were apparently of the same metal spun fine, and either someone had kept the harp meticulously tuned, or the metal itself, or the crystal dome, had some unusual properties, for when Aiel swept an experimental hand across the strings, the chord sounded clear and pure and true, though the harp had seemingly been laid aside for centuries.

Lin still only half-believed what was happening. His practical, sensible mind shied away from this seeming foolishness – an unarmed Priest going out to fight a deadly foe with a white stone and a harp. Yet deep in his spirit, which was wholly given to Light, he believed, and felt wonder, and though sad and even fearful for his friend, was very glad that he himself could accompany Aiel on his Way.

Aiel put down the harp, rubbed his brow, and sat down rather suddenly. They looked at him with concern. “I am sorry”, he said, ” I felt …strange.” Lin thought about it. “Aiel, you have scarcely eaten all day, and you are overburdened. You need strength. Eat something now.” “When did you become a Healer, Lin?” Aiel asked, trying by light words to ease their concern for him. But then he said, more sombrely, “I do not know if I can eat….” Still, he took the food Lin passed him, and began to nibble at it, while Arnath said, “You will leave on the morning of the Spring Festival.” Aiel gasped, “But that is the day after tomorrow! I thought we would leave at once!” “The Black Piper will have two days’ start!” Lin exclaimed.

“No” Linnad said, “First he must feed the Bloodstone.” “Feed it?” Aiel asked, faintly. “Is that why it is called the Bloodstone?” He pushed the food away from him, feeling sick.
“Not in the way you mean”, Linnad answered, “The Bloodstone is charged by evil acts or emotions. Somehow it is attuned to such things, and draws power from them. The Lightstone is self-sustaining, drawing its power from Light. It is an expression of Light. But the Bloodstone must draw on the evil that is in evil men and women to recharge itself with power.”
“Hidden somewhere in the City”, Arnath said, ” there is a Night Temple, where the Children of Night meet. The Silver Witch, Si-Mara – herself born out of Ma’al – is known to be their Priestess, though she is too clever to give us any means to prove it. The Black Piper will go there to charge the stone at their unholy ceremonies. It is not likely that he will leave before dawn.”
“That is still a day’s start.” Lin said.
“There is reason for the delay”, Arnath told them, “And the Bloodstone must be fed continually, as he uses up its power – and it takes much power to sustain a Shape-Changer in his disguise. So, he must pause on the way to gather the Children of Night, or – find some other way to feed the stone.”

“What – ‘other way’?” Aiel demanded, dreading the answer. His father answered, softly and sadly, “Sacrifice.” Aiel looked into his eyes, and did not need to be told what kind of sacrifice. He felt a hard, hurting tightness in his throat. Lin, because he had seen Aiel’s pain and wanted to take the thing from his friend’s thought, asked, “Arnath, you said we must go to some of the Council?”
“Yes. You will need safe passage through the Mountains, and the summer pastures of the Westerners. And you cannot reach the Dancers without going to the Gatekeeper.”
Lin thought, suddenly, of the idle wish he had expressed – was it only that day? – to Aiel, to see the Dancers. He had never expected to have it granted in such a way. Mention of the Mountains, though, had brought another memory to mind. He said, “I have heard that Merhaun, the Lord of the Mountains, does not welcome those of the City.”

“You are right” Linnad agreed. “Old Gerrik told you, I suppose?” “Yes. He said that Merhaun would tolerate our Forest training, since Swordsmen must be trained, but we would not be permitted beyond the Axehead Rock.”
“I do not think he will welcome you”, Linnad said, “but for the Way’s sake, he will help you.” Aiel asked, not liking the sound of this unfriendly Lord, “Must we go that way?”
Lin told him, ” The Mountain Fortress guards the Spearcleft Pass. It is the only way through the Mountains.”
Arnath explained, “Merhaun carries a deep wound in his spirit, that he blames on the City. We three were good friends once. I would hope that for my sake and Linnad’s, as well as the Way’s, he will help you. And it may be that with the Lightstone you can heal his hurt, Aiel.”

Aiel said, “The Secret Word bids me seek treasures in the Mountains. Do you know what they are, Father? And if Merhaun is as anatagonistic as Linnad says, why should he give them up to me?” Arnath answered, “I cannot be sure. I might guess, but if I am right, it will be very hard for Merhaun, and he will be most unwilling to give them to you. Yet in the end he must – or lose them to Darkness.” He shook his head. “I will not say, Aiel. I dare not tell you the wrong thing, and must not influence you in this, lest I am wrong. Let Light alone guide you.”
Now Arnath and Linnad unrolled the maps, and began to outline the route they must take. At various places throughout Li’is the Priesthood kept Faring Houses where travellers might stay. Staying in these, or with those to whom the Way took them, they would be secure. But outside of these places, in inns or villages, or camping out in the open, would be the places of danger. They must make what speed they could, but much of the country was rough, and Aiel, like many of the Priesthood, an unpractised horseman, though Lin rode superbly well, even for a Swordsman. Leaning over the maps, the two friends began to realise the extent of the task they faced.
“From the Fortress, you must go on through the Forest, cross the Mountains by the Spearcleft Pass, and go down their Northern flank. Then you will need to cross the Great Moor.” Linnad began. “On the far edge of the Moor, near the eastern farmlands, is the First Faring House. Mell, the keeper of the House,will give you fresh provisions.” continued Arnath.
“Once you leave the Faring House, you will be in a place of danger, “Linnad warned, ” For your road runs through the Red Forest and past the ruins of the Dark City. Those places are accursed. Do not you, nor your beasts, eat anything that grows there, and drink no water you find there.” “Above all, beware of the ruins.” Arnath said solemnly, “They are sacred to the Children of Night, and the Dark One will surely go there. Take care!”
“But once you pass them safely, you will come to the Second Faring House, though the road is long. From there it is quite a ride to the summer pastures of the Westerners, and all uphill, for the camp of the Ket is on the high plateau beyond the Western Mountains. The Ket is wise, and will give you good counsel.”
“Once past the plateau”,Arnath took over the instructions again, “the land narrows – you are in a plain bounded by the plateau, the far edges of the Western mountains, and the Great Bay.” He showed them, on a map, where the seacoast swept in on the east in one huge curve, with fishing villages dotted along, “It is rich land, and there is a sizeable Merchant Town there, which is where the Third Faring House lies. It may be a place of danger. It is not as easy to reach, by sea, as the City Harbour, but more convenient for those who wish to avoid questions.”
“After that, though the area is large, it is not good farmland. So it will be only rough country, with odd farms or villages, until you reach the Gatehouse. There will be caves sometimes to sleep in, but it will be rough journeying.” Linnad concluded.

By the time they had gone over and over their instructions and spent time in studying the maps, Aiel’s head was spinning. He had seldom even left the City. Now he was to travel from one end of the Western Continent of Li’is to the other. All the details of places, people, mountains, towns, jangled together in his head. It had been a long, eventful, frightening day. Aiel was physically exhausted and mentally drained, and Lin, too, was wearied by unaccustomed emotion. Arnath, realising this, said , “It is growing late. Linnad, Lin, you must stay here tonight. I will make the arrangements”, and went out to find his servant.

Aiel, left alone with the two Swordsmen, said unhappily to Lin’s father, “I shall never remember it all, Linnad.” Linnad, feeling a tug of pity for the young Priest, said, “There will be friends to guide you, along the Way, Aiel. And the Lightstone and our prayers go with you.”
Aiel nodded, and was silent, closing his eyes, sitting still and pale-faced while Linnad and Lin exchanged glances of concern. Presently Aiel’s blue eyes opened again, and he said, “Linnad, I am sorry I must take Lin into this danger.” “Aiel, lad, I am glad he is going with you. I could not bear to see you go alone!”
Arnath returned to announce that the sleeping arrangements had been settled. “Lin, we have put up a bed for you in Aiel’s room. Linnad, the guest chamber.” The High Priest looked at his weary son, and said, “Rest will profit us all. We will continue tomorrow.” He murmured a night blessing, then said, “Aiel, Lin, go and sleep.”
It was as well that Lin had often stayed with Aiel, and was as familiar with his friend’s house as his own. For Aiel, between his utter weariness and his burdened thoughts, had to be all but guided to his own bedchamber. The friends spoke very little as they prepared for bed. Lin was afraid that Aiel, haunted by the prospect of the Lightstone Way, might be unable to rest, but the young Priest was too exhausted not to sleep. His sleep was not peaceful, though, and Lin lay on his bed in the dark worriedly listening to Aiel’s restless turnings and mutterings, until he himself fell asleep.


























DANCE THE DARKNESS DOWN

Chapter 3
Aiel woke with a sense of oppression, and the knowledge that his dreams, though he could not remember them, had not been pleasant. For a moment, he could not remember why. Then he opened his eyes, and saw Lin’s green-and-gold livery neatly folded on the clothes chest beside his own blue-and-white robe, and Lin himself asleep on the other bed, tousled blond head resting on one tanned arm. Seeing his friend, Aiel’s memory of the previous day’s events came rushing back, and he gave a little groan. He sat up in bed, and felt a slight, unfamiliar weight slide over his chest. The Lightstone!
Slipping it free of its pouch, Aiel took the softly gleaming stone between his hands and gazed into it, wondering. Once more a thousand conflicting thoughts seemed to be hammering at his mind, and he fought to find in himself the strength to contain them.

The Lightstone was glowing brighter, and the light held him, gently. It was not an imprisonment, for he knew he could have pulled free at any time. It was like sharing his Perception with another, like the Thought-without-Words that ran, at need, between brother Priests. It was as if Aiel’s own Perception meshed with another, far greater and wiser, yet more tenderly loving, than he had ever known. Before that Other, though a man and a Priest, he was like a little child; yet he did not feel ashamed to admit it. He and the Other explored together Aiel’s fears and anxieties, examined them honestly, finding answers to some, admitting that to others there were no answers – yet – and that to have no answers need mean not despair, but a strengthening of hope and faith.
Lin, waking quietly, and instantly alert, remembering, turned to look for Aiel, and saw him gazing raptly into the Lightstone, as if he held some communion with it. The light of the Stone, reflecting on Aiel’s face, seemed to wash out all yesterday’s pain, and he looked very young, and trusting. Lin felt a wave of sorrow at the thought of all his friend must endure, which made him close his eyes and pray silently, fiercely, for Aiel, and for himself, that he would not fail his friend. When Lin opened his eyes again, Aiel had let the Lightstone fall and was sitting quietly. His face was still tranquil, and Lin said softly, “Aiel?”

When the young Priest looked up, the Swordsman asked, “What were you seeing, in the Stone?” Aiel smiled tenderly. “Peace”, he said, then, ” and strength, and love – Lin, I think I saw the Spirit of Light.” He slipped out of bed and came across to Lin, bending over his friend to touch the Lightstone to Lin’s brow. The gentle light enfolded the Swordsman, and, like Aiel, he seemed to find himself in a Presence that encouraged, strengthened, where necessary chastised, but without anger, and, above all, loved him. Lin had loving parents, a devoted sister, good friends and loyal Sword-Brethren, had thought himself in love once or twice. But he had never felt the kind of love that Light offered him through the Lightstone. It was a love true and strong and unfailing. Yet it was a clearsighted, honest love, that knew his faults and failings, did not try to excuse them, but loved him still, despite them.
Lin had been loyal to Light all his life, but he had never known that the relationship could be like this, so personal and intimate. It was as if some great Lord and commander shared his heart with the lowest of his servants. When the light withdrew and the Presence faded, Lin knew a moment of aching loss. Then he realised that something remained with him, and his spirit rejoiced. He felt as if he had been armed for the battle he and Aiel were about to undertake.

The two young men, having washed and dressed, went quietly, with one accord, along the passageway and into the great Temple. It was still very early, and though some of the Priesthood were about, the outer doors had not yet been opened. As Aiel and Lin knelt quietly before the Crucible, each felt a hand gently laid in blessing on his head. Aiel glanced up, expecting to see his father, but found that it was Sulyar. For a moment their Perceptions met, and Aiel became aware that his distant kinsman somehow knew of his Way, and wished him well. He was surprised, too, to find that the other Priest had a far better opinion of him than he could have hoped, and a fondness quite unexpected. Sulyar smiled at him, and turned to go, but Aiel rose and caught his sleeve, “Sulyar…”, and drew out the Lightstone and offered it to Sulyar’s Perception, hardly knowing why, except some inner prompting.
Lin rose too, watching as the older Priest bent over the Stone and let his Perception be drawn to it. There was nothing really to see, but something was happening. Tears gleamed in Sulyar’s eyes, and the Stone glowed brightly. When at last his gaze disengaged from the Lightstone, Sulyar sighed, and looked at Aiel, and said, more quietly and gently than Aiel had ever heard him speak, ” Aiel – Lightstone-Bearer- thank you.” They watched as he turned and walked away, head a little bowed, as if he were quietly pondering his experience of the Lightstone.

Lin asked, suddenly, “Aiel, what is it like, to have Perception?” Aiel smiled. “How can I say? What is it like to have sight, Lin, or hearing? When a sense is born with you, how can you say what it is like?” “But does it never scare you, to know the power of it? My father said that if ever it were turned to evil, it could burn out a man’s mind. Perhaps that is the Black Piper’s power, Aiel, a kind of – of Dark Perception.”

Aiel said thoughtfully, “You may be right in that. The Shipfather said his eyes burned, and he destroyed Lord Dular’s mind. But Perception is meant to help, and heal. You know that the Priesthood do not step into another’s mind without permission, nor try to mould another’s will to ours. The Gift makes us servants, not masters.” “And yet your father told me that Perception is the Priesthood’s weapon, that the reason you are forbidden arms is to cause you to rely on Light.” “On Light, yes, not Perception. To draw Light’s strength into you, and move in Light’s power, not your own. For only the power of Light is a power untouched by Darkness, or partiality, or injustice. The best we may do, of ourselves, is only Darkness, compared to the perfection of Light.” He smiled at his friend, and added, “But I think, Lin, you felt something of that power yourself, in the Lightstone.” Lin said, a little ruefully, “Aye, As a Swordsman, I prided myself that I was a man of skill, and honour, and integrity. When I looked into the Lightstone, I felt like-like a grubby little boy again, playing at honourable deeds with a sword of sticks!” “But still, that Light loved you?” Aiel asked. “As I have never known love.” Lin agreed.

The two friends returned to the High Priest’s house in thoughtful silence. They found Arnath and Linnad waiting at the breakfast table and joined them. The High Priest flashed a glance at his son, their Perceptions meshed for a moment, and Arnath seemed satisfied. Linnad, not having Perception, asked gently, “how is it with you, Aiel?” “It is better”, Aiel said. “Already I draw strength from the Lightstone, Linnad. I cannot say that I am not afraid, but I trust Light.” “Good lad!” Linnad said approvingly. They ate their meal quickly and quietly, and Lin was glad to see that Aiel seemed to have regained some of his appetite. When they had eaten they resumed their planning, going over the first part of the journey in more detail.

“Lin”, Arnath began, “It is a long time since your Forest training. Do you remember your way in the Forest?” “As far as the Axehead Rock, no further.” Lin said, pointing out to Aiel on the more detailed map Arnath had produced. The huge rock, named for its curious shape, split the White River in two where it ran through the Forest beneath the Falls of Vandar. Lin went on, “But need we touch the Forest? The road to the Fortress…” His father cut in, “You will not use the road, Lin. You will be on foot. You cannot take horses, or provisions. You must get those from Merhaun at the Fortress. Lin looked dismayed. “Not take Shadow?” For his own beloved, intelligent, mist-grey stallion was the only horse he would ride, given the choice. Linnad said, “You will find his equal at the Fortress, I promise you.”

Arnath explained, “We cannot risk the Way, Lin. We do not believe that the Dark Ones know of the Secret Word. But if they should come to know of it, they will realise that Aiel must be the Lightstone-Bearer. That is also why we have delayed your setting out. It is safer if you go out, on foot, with the crowds for the Spring Festival. The Plain of Blossoms will be full of people, and you will be able to slip into the Forest unseen.” “Once past the Rock, follow the White River, then you must take Tamran’s Stairway, up by the Falls of Vandar.” Linnad continued, one finger on the map to point the way. “That will take you up to the Fortress level, though it is a difficult climb.”

“You will of course be challenged by the Watchward”, Arnath said, “I will give you a letter to carry to Merhaun. Show the Watchward my seal, and it should suffice. ” “How will you know the Fortress Watch?” Linnad demanded of Lin, “What is their livery, Lin?” “Rust-red, the colour of autumn leaves.” Lin responded promptly, and Linnad gave a grunt of satisfaction and said, “Well remembered!”

“I will ask Merhaun to supply you with horses, provisions, and spare clothing. It will be well if you do not wear your robe to travel after you leave the Fortress, Aiel. You cannot disguise your eyes, of course, but from a distance you will not be recognised as a Priest.” “Why is it necessary?” Aiel asked, as reluctant to surrender his Priestly robe as Lin his horse. “Whether the Secret Word is known to them or not, you will be sure to meet with Children of Night, and to need to use the Lightstone. And once the presence of the Lightstone-Bearer is realised, they will be watching for you. You know that there are few wandering Priests, my son, and none of them as young as you.” “Now”, said Linnad, bending over the map. “We will go over your route again, once you leave the Fortress.”

The whole morning passed in memorising all that the older men could tell them concerning their journey. They memorised maps and places and names, where friends – or enemies- were likely to be found. They listened to advice and warnings, for Linnad and Arnath were anxious that they should have every scrap of information that might help them on their Way. And of course, there was the whole of the Secret Word, with its cryptic meaning, to be memorised too. It was very tiring, mentally, and after several hours of it, both Aiel and Lin were flagging. Linnad advised, “Arnath, these lads are weary. Let them go out in the air for a while.” To his son, he said, “Did you not have some errand to carry out today?” Lin answered, “I meant to choose a Naming Day gift for Mira’s babe.” He sighed, “It does not seem important, now.”

“It will be important to Mira.” Linnad said, “She will not know, yet, about the Way. She will be hurt if she thinks you have forgotten.” “For all of Li’is, life goes on.” Arnath added. He smiled a strange smile. “There will not be many who know what is happening, though it is for their sakes that you are going. And if you succeed, though you save all Li’is, there will be no public rejoicing. They will be unaware of what you have done.”

Aiel thought of the people in the House of Records yesterday – was it really only yesterday? The young couple with their baby, the elderly woman, the anxious merchants. The Way was as real as that – not some mystical crusade, but the means of preventing the enslavement of a world and its people. Its aim, and its reward were one and the same. “Come,” Aiel said to Lin, “Let us go and find a gift for the babe.”

As the two friends walked down towards the market, their path lay close to the House of Healing, and Aiel said, on an impulse, “Lin, let us go and see Lord Dular.” “But why?”, Lin asked. “I wish to – to know, to satisfy myself, how closely the other resembled him.” So they turned aside and went in. Aiel said to Handar, the Healer, “May I see the old Lord from the East? He was brought in while my father was here yesterday.” Handar said, “You may see him, but we have had to give him sweetwood, to calm him. He is sleeping.”
The Healer led them to the chamber where the old man lay, and left them. Priest and Swordsman bent over the sleeping figure, and carefully examined his appearance. Aiel even pulled back the covers gently, to look at the falcon birthmark. Replacing them, he stared into Lin’s face. “Lin, it is the same man! There is no difference at all.”

“Sweet Light, Aiel, what is this Black Piper, that he can steal a man’s mind, and his form?” “A Shape-Changer, my father said.”, Aiel answered, “Therefore a Dark Lord of great power, and both more and less than man. But still I must defeat him, Lin.” The figure on the bed, perhaps disturbed by their talking despite the narcotic spice whose sweet scent lingered on his breath, began to move a little, moaning fretfully. Aiel, moved by pity, drew out the Lightstone, and, seeing Lin’s questioning gaze, said, “It may ease him. Should not the Lightstone undo what the Bloodstone has done?” Without waiting for an answer, he slipped the Lightstone from concealment and laid it to Dular’s brow. The light grew, spilling out of the stone to surround the old man, and when it subsided he lay peacefully sleeping. Aiel hid the Lightstone in its pouch again, and they left the room, bade Handar farewell, and went on their way.

As they passed the Harbour Gate, where two Swordsmen in the green-and-gold of the Harbour Watch stood guard, Aiel asked, “Lin, will not your Sword-Brethren miss you and ask where you are?” “They will be told I have been sent elsewhere, on my Lord’s command. They will not ask further.” Lin said, then sighed, “Still, I wish I could have bidden them farewell, since I do not know when – or if – I may see them again.” Aiel said, regretfully, “Lin, I am sorry I must take you away from all you care for.” His friend told him, “Nothing a man holds dear, whether family, friends, or possessions, should become more important to him than Light. Otherwise they will become a hindrance, not a blessing to him. Does not the Book of Light tell us this? I would not put anything above the command of Light.” And Aiel was comforted by his words. Then Lin added, with just a hint of mischief in his smile and voice, “And, laying aside that I would go in any case for Light’s sake and yours, what Swordsman, save Brann himself, was ever on such a Way, Aiel?” And Aiel smiled back.

They had entered the market area now, and went about the business of choosing suitable gifts for Lin’s sister and her babe. It was while Lin was considering a toy horse of stuffed leather with as much care as he would have given to the purchase of a real mount, that Aiel noticed a man in a tattered black cloak, hunched up on the corner of a street, a begging bowl beside him. Aiel had seen the man many times before; he was a fixture in the market area. But this time Aiel saw, around the man, a kind of dark mist. He shook his head and closed his eyes, thinking the sun was in them. Yet when he opened them again, the same darkness clung around the black-cloaked beggar. Aiel glanced round him, then back to the man. He saw the darkness nowhere but there, and the young Priest realised that, through the power of the Lightstone, he was Perceiving the Darkness in which this man walked, that the beggar was not just a Child of Night, but a devoted servant of Darkness.

Lin hade made his purchase and was regarding his friend curiously. “Aiel, what is it?” Aiel explained as best he could, and Lin exclaimed, “Why, I have passed the beggar many times – even dropped a coin in his bowl now and then – and never guessed him to be a Child of Night! It is a clever disguise, Aiel. Who notices a beggar in the street? What better way to spy for the Children of Night?” Aiel said, “I am glad to know that the Lightstone enables us to recognise our enemies, Lin. I think we shall have need of that gift.”

At that moment there was a disturbance on the edge of the market crowd, which parted to make way for a litter hung with black curtains, carried by two men in black and silver livery. It was preceded by a tall man with a cruel, handsome face, wearing the same livery, a sword at his side. Aiel looked, and was assailed by a clamour of spiritual impressions. It was not just that the same darkness clung to the whole party as to the beggar on the street corner. The aura that came with the black litter was a stench in the air he beathed, a poison that churned in his stomach.

The curtains of the litter parted, and a woman leaned out, very pale, as silver against the black cloth as the trimmings on her servants’ liveries. She extended a languid hand and dropped a coin in the beggar’s bowl, saying something in a quick undertone as she did so. Then, as if she felt Aiel’s gaze, she swung her head like a snake to look at him. Her eyes were hostile, the silver of them hard, like metal shields to hold her thoughts from his Perception. And over all the Darkness and evil Aiel felt in her there was another darkness; a strangeness about her that set his teeth on edge and his neck-hairs on end, as if she were utterly alien to him and all he believed in.

Lin, who had also turned to look at the group, had not seen the effect that it had had on Aiel. He whispered to his friend, “It is Si-Mara. The Silver Witch.” Aiel tried to anser, but he was so shaken by the impressions that he was receiving that his voice came out as an odd grunt, and Lin turned to look at him with concern. Aiel recovered himself with an effort, and said, a little shakily, “Lin, she is so evil! I have never felt such Darkness!” “Aiel, it is not well with you. Let us go now.”, Lin urged, but Aiel straightened, holding his head high, and said, “No! I am a Priest of Light, and the Lightstone-Bearer. Shall I falter at the first true Darkness I meet? I shall have far worse than this to face before the Way ends.” He gave a slight smile. “When you trained as a Swordsman, Lin, did you give up the first time your sword hand slipped? I too must learn to face an enemy now.” Then he added, rather sadly, Lin thought, “I did not think I had any enemies, till yesterday.”

The black litter and its entourage were swinging out of the market. The beggar stayed where he was, and Aiel and Lin resumed their tour of the market. They kept an unobtrusive watch, though, on the beggar, and saw him, after a while, pick up his bowl, lurch to his feet, and shuffle away. They had no doubt that he was carrying out some order of Si-Mara’s – or perhaps the Black Piper’s. Lin found a necklace of filigree metalwork and sea jewels for his sister – “It will remind her of the Harbour and the Sea”, he said – and a small chest of carved sweetwood for the babe’s clothes. Their task completed, they made their way back to Aiel’s home.

Arnath and Linnad were waiting for them, and listened with interest as Aiel told of his experiences in the market place. When he had finished, Linnad promised to set a careful watch on the activities of the beggar, and the High Priest said, “Aiel, my son, it is good that the Lightstone enables you to Perceive the true servants of Darkness. But you must set your spirit to lodge in Light, so that you can withstand the Darkness in them.” “I was not – I do not think I was – afraid.” Aiel answered, “The Darkness in Si-Mara was like – like a sickness to me.” “Aye, because it is out of tune with Light, and all who follow Light.” Linnad said.

“Aiel, Linnad’s words remind me that you must be at the music practice for the Festival.” Arnath told his son. “Remember, everything must be as normal. The Temple Elders know of your Way, but not your Brothers-in-Light. But take the Lightstone Harp. It is as well to accustom yourself to it now.” “But will not my friends be curious about it, and ask me?” Aiel wondered. “What shall I say? I cannot lie to them.” Arnath smiled. “Say that I gave it to you, which is true. They will think it is a Festival gift.” “And – am I to keep the Festival vigil tonight?” Aiel asked. “Oh, yes; it would seem strange beyond understanding if you of all the Temple priesthood were missing.” Arnath told him. “I am glad.” Aiel said thoughtfully, “For it is a good beginning to such a Way. Only, I wish that Lin might join me.” Arnath answered, gently, “Aiel, you know that is not possible. This night is to the Priesthood alone.” Lin said, “Do not be sorry for it, Aiel. I shall keep my own vigil tonight. It is good to wait before Light with your brothers. Yet sometimes it is good, too, for a man to be alone with Light, and his own heart.” “You speak wisely, Lin.”, the High Priest told him, “I will arrange for you to use the Prayer Room.”

When Aiel had collected the Lightstone Harp and gone to the Students’ House for the music practice, Arnath said to the Swordsman, “Lin, come with me to the Temple.” Lin glanced at his father and then followed the High Priest,thinking that they were going to make the arrangements about the Prayer Room. Arnath, though, led him into the main Temple. There were, as always, Priests about the business of the Temple, some counselling the troubled, some praying with worshippers, some preparing for the night’s solemn vigil. There were visitors to the Temple too, people of the City and all Li’is, Children of Light. Arnath took no notice of the others in the Temple, though, but led Lin down to the Crucible. Then, turning to the Swordsman, he said, “I bring you here because I have a thing to ask you, and I wish you to think about it deeply, before Light. Lin, when I asked you to defend Aiel on this Way, if physical danger threatened him, you answered me, ‘with my life, if need be’. Now, here before Light, search your heart, and be sure that this is true; that you spoke from your devotion to Light and your honour as a Swordsman, and not just as you felt you should answer.” He paused, and Lin would have spoken then, but the High Priest signed him to silence, and went on, “I do not doubt you, Lin, that I ask this. I know your honour and integrity. But you are young, and life is sweet, and much of it you have not tasted yet. Do not make the vow lightly.” He paused again and smiled gently, even tenderly, at the young Swordsman. “I do not ask this for Aiel my son, dearly as I love him”, Arnath continued, “but for the Lightstone-Bearer, and the sake of the Lightstone Way. Do not think it is easy for me to say this to you, Lin. If you were to give your life for the Way, I would grieve deeply. No, do not answer yet. Consider, and then speak.”

Lin bowed his head. Arnath watched him with affectionate concern, wondering, since it would have been Trespass to use his Perception, what thoughts were passing through the bent blond head on which the Crucible flame threw its golden light. Lin was considering, as Arnath had said, the question he had asked. The love and joy and power he had felt in the Lightsone that morning, when Aiel had touched him with the holy thing, filled his memory. He did not doubt his own commitment to Light, to the Way, and to Aiel. But – to the death? Lin’s plans for his own life had been simple; to give honourable service to his Lord and to Light, to be, by Light’s mercy, the best man he could, some day to find a maiden to love and marry and have children to follow him, and eventually – but not for a very long time, he hoped, for he loved his father – to succeed Linnad as Lord of the Harbour.

Arnath’s question opened a new dimension before him. As the High Priest had said, Lin was young, and the matter of death had not yet concerned him much. Though he was a Swordsman, his duties were more those of a guardian than a warrior. There were no real battles in Li’is nowadays, no present threat of danger. Attacks by thieves or Children of Night, such as had once befallen Aiel, were his only experience of true violence. But now, he knew, with a leader and a hope to spur them on, the Children of Darkness might rise up against the innocent. As for that leader, all that he had learned of the Black Piper so far showed him to be truly evil, unmoved by suffering, delighting in Darkness. If his plans succeeded, the peace Lin had known might well be nearing its end. Lin knew, like every Child of Light, that to die was to touch Light; he might be afraid of the moment of death, but not its consequences. To die was to be with Light in the Joyous Place, which was better than life. And yet, if he died, he would grieve, not for himself, but for those he left behind, family and friends. He would be sad for duties unfulfilled, for promises not kept, for the love unfound and the children unborn.

Lin found that as he could not separate his duty to Aiel, the Lightstone-Bearer, from his loyalty to Aiel, his friend, no more could he separate his spirit’s loyalty and love for Light from his human fears and failings. He lifted troubled grey eyes to Arnath’s blue ones, offering himself to the other’s Perception, and speaking, not as to his friend’s father and his father’s friend, but to the High Priest of Light. “Friend of Light, help me to carry this thing before Light, for truly, I cannot tell. I think I will not fail the Lightstone-Bearer, but let Light tell me so. I dare not trust my own thoughts.”

To his surprise, Arnath smiled at him, and said, “Good, Lin! That is the right answer. If you were sure of yourself, you would be self-reliant, and might fail. But knowing your weakness, you will lean on Light.” Taking Lin’s face between gentle hands, the High Priest set his Perception on the Swordsman, and felt how Lin laid himself open, putting aside anything that might hinder, leaving his thought, his emotions, his very soul, transparent to Arnath’s Light-guided Perception. Lin had never asked others how they experienced Perception; that too would have been a kind of Trespass. But for him, the blue gaze seemed always to flow, like a cooling, cleansing stream, into his mind. Now, feeling the flow of Arnath’s Perception, Lin felt also the loving Presence that he had felt in the Lightstone, and knowing Light’s care for him, found his problem resolved. He must simply, as Arnath had said, trust not in his own strength, but Light’s.

When Arnath withdrew his Perception, he rested his hands on Lin’s shoulders,and exclaimed, “Well does the Secret Word call you a’ True Sword’ Lin. For Light knew you fully, your loyalty and love, and ordained you to this Way, before ever you came to be.” Lin said, quietly, “May Light grant me the faith I need, to be true.” He glanced round the Temple at the ranks of benches, the Priests and people who were going about their tasks all unknowing of the doom which threatened their ordered world. Nearby some of the Priesthood were preparing for the Festival Night Vigil, and as Lin watched they carried in a stand, and set on it the Book of Light, from which they would read throughout the night. Lin thought about the Book, and about the Secret Word, and Arnath was silent as the Swordsman pondered, respecting his meditations.

The Book of Light – the truths of Light, some gathered and some written by the first Lightfriends – contained many things to feed the soul and spirit. There were words of wisdom, of guidance and comfort, encouragement, prophecy and warning. Above all, there was set forth in it all that Light required of men, and Light’s great Promise. For knowing all things, and that Darkness would enter into what Light had made and attempt its destruction, Light had forewarned the earliest Lightfriends that it would come to be impossible that men might keep the Rule of Light. For those that chose deliberately to forsake Light and follow Darkness, for the Children of Night who delighted in evil, there was no pardon – unless, offered the Choice of Light, they took it, and turned from Darkness to Light. Then for them, as for all Children of Light, there was forgiveness and pardon, for Light is merciful. Yet Light, also, is bound by the Rule of Light, and must be, to be constant. So, because the Rule of Light demands just punishment for evil done, Light had promised that all would fall on one great Sacrifice. In the day that Sacrifice was made, its effects would reach far back to the beginning of time, and forward to the end, and that day itself would be an end and a beginning of time. Meanwhile, all mankind might plead mercy and cleansing by the Sacrifice of Light. Yet when and where that Sacrifice would be made, and what it might be, none knew but Light.

Now, thinking on these things, Lin asked Arnath – asked in a whisper, because the idea was too dreadful to speak aloud- “Arnath, it is not possible – that Aiel might be the Sacrifice of Light?” Arnath replied, “No, Lin. That Sacrifice, whether it be spirit or Dancer, man or beast, must be the purest thing that ever lived, on which Darkness has not even breathed-pure as Light. It is not Aiel.” Lin asked again, “Yet why should Light let such thing be? Why is there Darkness in the worlds at all, that the Sacrifice need be made?” “Because all living things that Light made were made free, with wills of their own. Light made all things to rejoice in Light’s service, not to servitude. Light wills not slaves, but Children. Yet of the Great Spirits set to serve Light, one fell into pride of his own beauty and power, and thence to disobedience, and willed to rule the world himself. Thus he created in himself the Great Rebel, and with his Darkness tainted many Spirits-in-Light, so that they became Lords of Darkness. And they went down into Otherworld and corrupted its Dancers, and set them to rule Ma’al as the Night Lords, and the men of Ma’al – Otherworld- became Children of Night, save those Lightfriends and those faithful to Light who escaped through the Gate that the loyal Dancers made, bringing the Rule of Light and the Lightstone into Li’is, to save it from the fate of Ma’al. The truths of this are written in the Book of Light, for those who will gather their meaning.”

“And that is what the Great Rebel wills to do in Li’is?” “Yes. And once, as you know, he almost succeeded, setting a Dark Lord in man’s shape as ruler here, empowered by a Bloodstone, but he was defeated by Brann and Tamorine and Rafel the first Lightsone-Bearer.” “Then Aiel’s foe is not a man at all?” Lin asked, remembering that Aiel had said of his enemy ‘both more and less than a man’. Arnath answered, “He is a man, a man of Ma’al. But he is more than man, because he has given lodging to a fallen spirit, willingly, and become a Lord of Darkness. Yet still this unholy alliance cannot stand against the Lightstone.” “Does Aiel truly understand what his foe is?” Lin demanded, fearful that his friend might have vowed to defeat an enemy more evil and powerful than he knew. “Oh yes, he understands.” Arnath replied. “That is why he grieved so bitterly that this enemy deceived him and that, unwitting, he has aided the Dark One’s plans.” Lin said, “And he told me, Arnath, that he wished for more courage. If he took up the Lightstone Way, knowing the full power of his enemy, then he is braver than any Swordsman I know.” “He is strong in Light.” Arnath said, and would say no more, but turned their conversation to the preparations for Lin’s own vigil.

Aiel had been making a new music for the Spring Festival, but the final shaping of it had eluded him. Now, though, as he practised the ancient Festival songs with the others, the theme he had sought came to him, and when that part of the practice was finished, he stood and played his new music as it had completed itself in his head. And amid the sweetness and joy of Spring in the melody was twined a thread of tender melancholy for the beauty that would soon be past, yet also a lift of hope, onlooking to the fullness of summer and harvest. The Lightstone Harp, too, had the purest tone he had ever heard, and the music flowed from the strings as though the instrument played of itself. When Aiel ceased playing, there was a moment of breathless silence, and then his friends gathered round with applause and congratulations. Though those did not move him as they would have done so short a time ago, he was glad that he had made one lovely thing that might endure, before he began the Way. For though he had spoken words of courage and comfort to Lin, and though he had no doubt of fulfilling the Way, still he felt that at the end of it, in defeating his enemy he might himself be killed, and go out of Li’is into the Joyous Place. He knew well enough,as Arnath had told Lin, that his enemy was more than man, and evil beyond man’s thought.
His fellow musicians took up his new melody and played it over and over, and he with them, until it was ready for the next day. Then the Music-Master said, “Aiel, we will play this new music of yours tomorrow. Shall you lead us?” Aiel, though, made his excuses, and because his friends knew that he was modest and perhaps a little shy, they did not press him. However, he was thinking that he and Lin must be able to slip away into the Forest, and he could not be in a position near the head of the procession, where all eyes would be on him. Aiel thought to himself that a few short days ago his only concerns had been his service in the Temple, and his music. Now he was overridden by the doom of the Lightstone Way, and though these were his brother musicians and Priests, even among them he felt lonely, set apart. He was deeply grateful that Light permitted him a companion on the Way, and that it was to be Lin. Otherwise, he felt, the loneliness would have been harder to bear than any danger he might encounter. After the practice his fellow musicians crowded round him again to renew their praise for his music, and, as he had expected, to admire and question him about the Lightstone Harp. Obedient to Arnath’s advice, he said what his father had told him to say, but felt sick at heart that he must tell half-truths to his Brothers-in-Light, even for the most compelling of reasons.

It was dusk now, and Aiel returned to his home, not to eat, for the Vigil was kept fasting, but to prepare himself. His father, Lin and Linnad were waiting there for him, but Lin’s father must now return to the Harbour, having already been absent far longer than was usual. He enveloped his son, then Aiel, in his massive embrace, and said, huskily, “Light go with you both. All Li’is is in your hands!” Lin asked, “You will send my gifts to Mira and the babe? And my love to my mother?” “Aye, lad”, Linnad answered, ” though how to explain your going to her – Lin, take care! And guard Aiel well!” He hugged his son again, and Lin promised, “I will, Father. You shall have no cause to be ashamed of your son.” “Dear lad, I know!”, Linnad answered, and bade them again, “Go in Light!”, and turned, and went out, shaking his head a little as he went, because there were tears in his eyes and he did not want Lin to see him wipe them away. Lin said, forlornly, “I wonder if I ever shall see Mira’s babe, Aiel?” “For Mira’s babe, and all the babes of Li’is”, Aiel said, thinking of the child he had named yesterday, “we must succeed, Lin. Else what will they inherit but Darkness and slavery?”
Lin, since he kept his own vigil, would not eat either, and so they went each to their vigil, Aiel with the Priesthood in the Temple, and Lin alone in the Prayer Room. Each of them, through that night, wrestled with fears and forebodings, and laid themselves inwardly naked in surrender to Light, and fought to hold fast to faith and obedience. Each, though they did not know it, upheld the other in his struggles, through prayer. And both shed tears. Yet by morning, both of them were strengthened and comforted and blessed of Light, and when their vigils were over and they returned to Arnath’s house to put on their Festival clothing, they looked into each other’s faces, and each saw the change in the other. “Light has prepared us for our going, Lin”, Aiel said, “and the first steps of the Way will be the hardest.”
Because of the journey that lay before them, they ate and drank then, though it was not customary to break the fast till after the Festival gathering. Aiel was wearing his Priest’s robe, with the Lightstone and Arnath’s letter to Merhaun concealed beneath, and the Lightstone Harp slung on his back. Lin wore a Festival robe in shades of green, chosen so that it might not show up among the greenery of the Forest. As they swallowed the last of their hasty meal, they heard the horns sounding for the rising of the sun and the start of the Spring Festival. They joined the throng as Arnath led out the Priesthood, the musicians in their midst. Aiel took a place near the back, while Lin slipped into the forefront of the following crowd, staying as close as he could to Aiel. The young Priest uncased his harp and waited for the signal to play, and when it came, moved forward with the others, hardly knowing or caring that it was his music they were playing.
The joyous procession wound through the streets of the City, down to the North Gate, which had been opened ready, and out onto the beautiful Plain of Blossoms. The Plain had come to be almost by accident, when in building the City in the First Days of Li’is, Brann and his fellows had caused many ditches to be dug to drain the disease-ridden marshes around the mouth of the White River and the Harbour. Once drained, the soil was fertile, but because of the criss-crossing ditches it was difficult to cultivate, and the farmers preferred the clearer lands of the West. So the Plain had been left to whatever wild things might grow there, and in summer it was a blaze of vivid colour. Now, in the spring, starred with the more delicate shades of the season, it was a fitting and lovely place to celebrate the Spring Festival, the time of rejoicing and thanksgiving at Light’s goodness in making all things new and bringing life again after the cold emptiness of winter.

Lin, though, was looking up at the Mountains that rose beyond the Plain of Blossoms. They were covered in forest almost to the tops, and somewhere among the trees, high up, was concealed the Fortress Level. Above the trees the Spearcleft Pass opened like a great gash in the otherwise unbroken wall of rock, but these mountains at least were smooth and rounded by centuries of gentle rains, unlike the Seacoast Mountains of the Eastern coast, which ran jagged and cruel, capped with bitter snow in winter, for great lengths of the coastline.

Arnath led the Festival throng as near the Forest as he dared, then gathered them around him. Once only he glanced at Aiel, but in that glance the High Priest’s Perception flashed instructions, farewell, and blessing to his son. Aiel, turning towards Lin, who had managed to keep at his elbow, whispered, under cover of stowing away his harp, “When my father calls the people to prayer, we are to slip into the Forest.” Lin nodded. Arnath raised his hands, and the people stood, heads bowed, eyes closed, for blessing. Aiel and Lin had already contrived to arrange themselves on the outer edge of the crowd, and now they edged silently into the cover of the trees. Behind them, they could hear Arnath’s voice, raised in the Festival Blessing.


DANCE THE DARKNESS DOWN

Chapter 4

Once in the Forest, Aiel let Lin take the lead, since the Swordsman knew the way. It was warm and rather humid under the trees, and the earth had a rich, fruity smell. The first young fronds of bracken were beginning to unfurl, and here and there grew small clumps of a tall, bushy plant with tiny white flowers, a wild herb known as Springfollower, used for healing. As they drew nearer to the stream they were to follow, they saw that it was edged with a rich growth of knee-high greenery, and Lin whispered, “We cannot walk along the bank. We would cut a swathe that a blind man might follow!”

So they walked on the dark earth of the forest floor, but following the course of the stream. It was not all smooth walking, for tree-roots and hook-thorned vines trailed across the earth and might trip the unwary, and the ground rose as they walked, slowly and steadily at first, then more steeply. Their robes were an encumbrance too, and with the ascent, and increasing humidity, both young men were sweating by the time they reached the Axehead Rock. This was where the stream they had been following fell away from the White River, which came rushing down from the Falls of Vandar, where its various sources, rising from underground springs, joined and hurled themselves over the cliff edge. Lin had worn his sword concealed beneath his robe till now, but now he took it out and buckled the belt on over the garment as he told Aiel softly, “This is the farthest I have ever been, since Merhaun forbade us to go further. But now we must follow the River back to the Falls, and Tamran’s Stairway.”
As they came to the other side of the great Rock, they saw a well-marked path running alongside the River. It was evident that the Fortress folk kept their part of the Forest patrolled, and Aiel wondered if they were unobserved.

Suddenly Lin gave a whispered exclamation, “Listen!” Aiel heard nothing, but the Swordsman’s practised ears heard the swishing sound of someone moving through the grass along the path, coming towards them. “We must hide”, Lin murmured, looking round him. Seeing a deep but dry ditch, lined with last year’s dead leaves and overhung by bushes, he indicated it to Aiel, and they stepped into it and crouched down, waiting.
A few moments later, round the turn in the path came two maidens, and Aiel relaxed. But Lin stayed tensed for action, knowing there were women too among the Children of Night. The two girls did not seem to be from among the Festival throng, for they were not dressed for Festival. The taller and, apparently, older of the two girls was one of the loveliest maidens either Lin or Aiel had ever seen. The delicately-boned oval of her face was framed by a fall of glossy hair just a shade away from black. Her large eyes were a dark, lustrous brown, generously fringed with thick lashes. Her skin was clear and rosy-fair. Her mouth and expression were sweet and gentle, with none of the hardness Lin had seen too often in girls who were beautiful, and knew it. Her figure was slim, but womanly, and she moved with casual grace. Her gown, of deep rich blue, was similar to the everyday gowns of the City miadens, but had one ornament they had never seen before; a single wide, floating panel hanging from the waist at the front, and embroidered, as were the gown’s neck, sleeves and hem, with a pattern of white birds, matching her girdle of white braided cord. The other girl was shorter, for if the dark girl, by Lin’s reckoning, was only a little shorter than Aiel, this maiden would reach only to his own shoulder. She was not beautiful, beside the other girl, but her colouring was striking. Her tumbled waves of hair were a burning red-gold, gleaming in the dappled sunlight that slid through the trees, and her eyes were amber-brown. Aiel, watching as carefully as Lin, was somewhat reminded, by the shape and colour of them, of a hill-cat. Her heart-shaped face was dusted with freckles over a pale, creamy skin and rather turned-up nose, and there was a slight pout to her lips and a thrust to her small chin that spoke determination, even stubborness. Her figure was a little rounder than the other girl’s, and she wore a gown identical in design, but of a forest green, embroidered with trails of leaves. Her craft was clear to see, for instead of a girdle she wore a loose leather belt, and strapped to it the herb-sack and small, sheathed knife of a Healer. In one hand she carried a basket, containing sprays of several varieties of leaves, and a few earthy tubers. As the girls came nearer, Aiel reached out his Perception and to his relief found no Darkness in or around them. Still no need, though, to give his and Lin’s presence away unnecessarily, he thought, and kept still and silent.

The red-haired girl was speaking. “We shall need to come again, Arentha, the blueroot is late this year.” When the dark maiden answered, it was in a gentle, musical voice that pleased Aiel’s musician’s ear. “Has Harik enough, for now?” “Yes, but fresh is better. Many people came from the City for the Festival today.” “I wish we were permitted to go down. There was a new music I would have liked to hear better.” “It is better that City and Fortress do not meet” the redhead said, as if she quoted something learned by rote, “and we know the reason – who better?” She sounded sad, and the dark girl asked, as if to change the subject, “Krystha, what else do you need, now?”
“How many times have I told you the herbs and their seasons?” the girl called Krystha teased her companion. “I should set them to a tune, and then you would remember!” And she quoted from the Healers’ List , “These are the nine wild healing herbs of Springtime: starweed, blueroot, grass-of-gold, softwood leaf, climbing fire, Springfollower, crimson thorn, pillow moss and water-bread.” “And which do we lack?” “It is too early yet for the water plants. Otherwise, only starweed.” The red-haired girl looked round her. “It usually grows in this place, by the old ditch.”

Lin and Aiel exchanged glances. If the maidens came to the ditch to gather the herb, they would be discovered. Aiel leaned close to his friend and whispered, “I Perceive no Darkness in them.” Lin whispered back, “They are surely from the Fortress. Perhaps they will help us.” The maidens were turning towards them now. Further concealment would be impossible, and the two young men rose from their hiding place. The dark girl, Arentha, stepped back with a little cry of fear, but red-haired Krystha stood her ground, and her hand went to the little knife at her waist. “Who are you?” she demanded, “Why are you hiding on Fortress ground?” Lin stepped lightly and easily up out of the ditch and said, “Softly, maiden. We mean you no harm.” He reached out an arm to help Aiel, who was somewhat hampered by the harp slung on his shoulder, Arentha seemed reassured by the sight of the young Priest, but Krystha said, “I do not know that, Swordsman. A Priest’s robes may be stolen, but the eyes do not lie.” and, to Aiel, “Come out of the shadow, so I may see your face.” Aiel glanced at Lin, who gave a barely perceptible nod. He could not fault Krystha’s actions, for he would have been as wary as she in such a situation. Aiel stepped forward, so that the sunlight fell on his face and lit his blue Priest’s eyes. The red-headed Healer said, “So, you we may be sure of at least, Friend of Light. But who are you, and why did you hide? Do you not know that the Lord of the Mountains will not allow you further than the Axehead Rock, even on a Festival day?”
Lin surmised, by the way she had taken charge, that Krystha might be in a position of more authority than Arentha, who, though she seemed the elder of the two, stayed quiet. He could not help but admire the redhead’s courage and spirit, and suddenly and absurdly had a memory of old Gerrik, his Sword-Trainer, saying of a red-headed Swordsman he had trained long ago, “Fire on the head, fire in the heart!”

Aiel said, “Maidens, we know of Merhaun’s rule. But it is to the Fortress that we are going. We carry an urgent message to the Lord of the Mountains, from Arnath, High Priest of the Temple of Light. See, this letter bears his seal.” Lin added “The matter concerns a threat from the Children of Night, and the messenger may be pursued by them. That is why I accompany him. We heard you coming and hid till we were sure of you.” “You have not yet told us who you are.” challenged Krystha. “I am Aiel, Arnath’s son” Aiel answered her, “And this Swordsman is Lin, son of Linnad, Lord of the Harbour.” Lin gave a slight bow, and said, “We were told that Aiel’s father, and mine, and Lord Merhaun, were friends, and have been sent to seek his help now, for the sake of their friendship.” Which was true enough, without revealing the details of the Lightstone and the Way.

“If you are from the Fortress, will you guide us?” Aiel asked. For the first time Arentha, the dark girl, spoke. “If your message is so urgent, we will take you.” Aiel asked her “Do you know the Lord Merhaun well? I was told that he does not welcome those of the City. Yet I am in desperate need of his help.” Arentha smiled. “As well as any may know him, we do. He is our father.” Aiel flushed. “Oh! Your pardon, ladies. I did not think…” Krystha interrupted, “That we looked like a great Lord’s daughters? Fine fabrics do not wear well on our mountain paths, Aiel son of Arnath. And you need not fear. Merhaun our father has scant reason to love the City, but he is loyal to his friends. He will help you.” “Come”, said Arentha, “we will take you to him.”

“One moment.” Krystha said, drawing her little knife. Lin’s hand moved instinctively to his sword, and she raised scornful tawny eyes to his grey ones, saying, “Do not be foolish, Swordsman!” She pointed to the clump of starweed nearby. “I may as well take back what I came for.” They waited while Krystha quickly cut down some of the stems with their rosettes of leaves and pink-white star-shaped flowers. She laid them with the other herbs in her basket, cleaned and sheathed her knife,and came back to them. Lin said, a little doubtfully, “We were told to go by the Falls of Vandar and Tamran’s Stairway, to avoid attention.” He did not see how the girls, in their long gowns, could pass that way. But Krystha shot him a look that was full of mischief, as if she divined his thought, and said, “Good, that is our way too.” Aiel said to lovely Arentha, as they followed the narrow path by the White River, “Your sister, then, is a Healer.” “Yes, second only to Harik. And he is the best Healer of man or beast in Li’is.” Aiel, a strange idea beginning to nuzzle at his mind, asked, “What is it that you do, at the Fortress?” “I order my father’s household, and oversee the servants and the stores.” the girl answered. “You have no mother, then?” the Young Priest asked, and regretted it instantly, for an expression of grief crossed the beautiful face, though she only answered, briefly, “No.” “I am sorry”, Aiel said, touching Arentha’s arm gently. “I should not have asked. I – my mother is dead too. I know the pain of that loss.”

They had reached the Falls of Vandar, and Aiel paused for a moment to admire the tumbling, roaring rush of white water. Krystha pointed out a steep, narrow series of rough steps hacked out of the rock at the side of the Falls. “Tamran’s Stairway.” she said, then, looking critically at their clothing, “You will need to kilt up your robes.” Lin and Aiel obediently did so, Lin still wondering how the girls would manage. But as Krystha turned to lead the way, she caught up the front panel of her gown, tucking it into her belt, and revealing beneath it a divided skirt. This enabled her to climb without hindrance, and, even though she carried her basket of herbs, she went up the steep stairway nimbly and quickly, obviously practised at the task. Lin was as agile, but Aiel, again hampered by his harp, moved more slowly, and kind Arentha slowed her pace to help him. When all four had reached the top, the two friends found themselves standing on the Fortress Level, a broad, grassy platform on the side of the mountain. In front of them rose the Fortress, surrounded by strong walls and gates. It was a vast place, far larger than either of them had imagined. Not a mountain-top castle, but a whole fortified town lay before them, surmounted by the great Hall of the Lord of the Mountains. The Fortress was as much carved out of the mountain as built on to it. As a Swordsman, Lin was greatly impressed by the Fortress. It was a magnificent place of defence.

Arentha and Krystha were walking towards the Fortress; Lin and Aiel untucked their robes and followed them. They went not to the large main gate, but a small side entrance, where the rust-liveried Watchward challenged them. “Lady Arentha, Lady Krystha, who are these with you?” Arentha answered this time, “A Priest of the Temple and a Swordsman of the City, bringing a message to Merhaun my father from Arnath, High Priest of Light.” “Here is the High Priest’s seal”, said Aiel, producing his father’s letter. As Arnath had said, the seal was sufficient to obtain their admittance to the Fortress. Lin looked around with interest, seeing horses being exercised, Swordsmen at practice, children at play. Aiel, though, faced with the prospect of his interview with Merhaun, was beginning to feel uncomfortable. The two girls led them into the anteroom of the Great hall. “Wait here, while we tell our father of your coming.” Krystha said, “He will send his steward to summon you.”

“You will dine with us also, when your message is given?” invited Arentha, “It is not too urgent for that? We have so few guests. And perhaps…” her eyes strayed to Aiel’s harp, “would you play for us the new music that was played at the Festival? If you know it?” Lin smiled, “Lady Arentha, surely Aiel knows the music, since it was of his own making!” “Then Arentha will have much to discuss with you, when your message has been given” Krystha said,” for she too is a musician. Hers is the sweetest voice in the Fortress, and she sings for us at all the Festivals.”

As the girls left them to go and find their father, Lin caught such a brooding look on Aiel’s face that he asked, “What is wrong, Aiel? We have come safely to the Fortress; now surely we have respite for a while.” “The maidens.” Aiel said unhappily. “Lin, Krystha is a Healer. And Arentha, a singer.” “What of it?” “‘If I am right’ my father said,’it will be very hard for Merhaun, and he will be most unwilling to give them to you’. The Secret Word bade me seek treasures of the Mountains. ‘Ebony and red gold’- do you remember the words?- ‘melody and healing’.” Lin stared at his friend. “The maidens? Merhaun’s daughters?” “It cannot be chance , Lin, that the daughters of the Lord of the Mountains – surely his treasures- should be one an ebony-haired singer, and the other a Healer with hair of red-gold. And only Light could have foreknown that, when the Secret Word was written.” “But the maidens, Aiel..” Lin repeated, “It cannot be! Would Light ordain two maidens to such a danger as the Lightstone Way? If they were sons, Swordsmen, then, yes, I would agree. But Arentha and Krystha?” “Light chooses women as well as men. You know that. They are descended from Tamorine, Lin.” “That is not my objection.” the Swordsman answered, “Of course not, Aiel! But they must be more at risk from the Children of Night- we know what they are capable of. If the maidens fell into their hands..” and he broke off with a little shudder, “Lin, do you think I have not already had such thoughts? I would not wish it so- but if there is no other answer, I will not gainsay the Will of Light. And what else might there be in this place that fits the Secret Word so well?” “That we must ask Merhaun,” Lin said, “for here comes his steward to take us to him.”

Merhaun did not come to greet Aiel and Lin as they entered his Hall. He waited on a dais at the far end, seated in a high, carved chair, as the steward led them the length of the Hall, bowed to his Lord, and left them standing before him. To either side of Merhaun’s chair stood Arentha and Krystha, and Aiel thought that they too seemed apprehensive about this interview. The Lord of the Mountains was not as Aiel had expected him to be, for somehow the Lightstone-Bearer had thought Merhaun would be big and hearty, like Linnad, Lin’s father. Merhaun, though, was not particularly tall, and quite slim and wiry. His hair was as red as Krystha’s, though his eyes were more hazel than amber. He was also younger than Aiel had expected, certainly a few years younger than his own father, Merhaun’s face might have been pleasant and youthful, but it was set in a brooding, withdrawn expression.

Merhaun spoke no word of greeting. “You have a letter from Arnath for me?” he asked, and held out his hand for it. Aiel gave him the letter, too disconcerted by Merhaun’s coldness and lack of courtesy to speak. The Lord of the Mountains broke the seal and read the letter through, twice. Then he looked at Aiel, and said, “What do you want of me, then?” “Aid”, Aiel answered, “and news, Lord. The Black Piper-” “Has passed through here, in the guise of the Lord Dular, a day and night gone.” Merhaun cut in. “Why should we prevent him, since he had the Pass? He was not Perceived by the Priesthood, so how should we tell? Nor are you over-hasty in your pursuit.” Aiel answered with calm dignity,” Though to me the Way falls, and I am the Lightstone-Bearer, I took the advice of my father and Linnad as to when and how to set forth.” Merhaun did not comment, but glanced at the letter again.” Provisions, horses, clothing, you may have as Arnath asks.”

“Thank you, Lord Merhaun”, Aiel said, then, “There is another thing. ” Merhaun frowned, “What that may be, I cannot tell.” “Lord”, Aiel answered, “You are of the Council, and know the Secret Word. You know that I am bidden to seek ‘treasures of the Mountains’.” Merhaun gave a short, mirthless laugh. “Treasure! We have no hoards of treasure here, son of Arnath. We do not store up what we do not need.” “Lord Merhaun, you know I do not speak of gold or jewels. How could such things be helpful on the Way? I say again, you know the Secret Word, ‘ebony and red gold, melody and healing’. Treasures you have indeed that fit that Word, and most loath will I be to take, or you to give them. Yet I can see no other answer to the riddle.” “What treasures are you babbling of?” Merhaun asked rudely. But it seemed to Aiel and Lin that there was a flash of fear in his eyes as he went on, “Maybe this Way has addled your brain, Aiel. You are over-young to bear such a task.” “Lord Merhaun, do not doubt that I shall achieve what I have set out to do!” Aiel answered, with the first spark of anger he had shown. “If you would have me speak plainly, I believe the treasures of the Mountains are the Ladies Arentha and Krystha, and that they too are ordained to this Way. Though I wish with all my heart it was not so, yet I cannot gainsay the Will of Light.”

The two girls, understanding little of this , were looking questioningly at each other, but Merhaun’s face had grown dark and angry. His words, though, were not hot, but cold and scornful, and they dripped like slow poison into Aiel’s heart. “You dare ask me such a thing? You who have let this evil loose and are now constrained to follow and undo what you have done? Shall I let you drag my daughters into Darkness after you? No! The City has cost me my wife. It shall not devour my daughters too.” “But, Lord-” Aiel began, only to be cut off with a curt, “There is no more to say. You shall have what I have promised, but not my daughters.” Still Aiel answered, “Lord Merhaun, I beg you to reconsider. All Li’is hangs on the fulfillment of the Secret Word, and what is prophesied in it is the Will of Light. If you stand against that Will, you will only break yourself upon it.”

He was met with stony silence from the Lord of the Mountains. “Lord Merhaun”, Aiel said, “If you have anything further to say to me, you will find me in the Fortress’ Prayer Room.” Aiel’s head was high and his bearing dignified as he turned and walked away, but Lin saw the misery in his friend’s eyes. Astonished at Merhaun’s behaviour, and angry for the hurt done to Aiel, the Swordsman turned back towards the dais. Merhaun sat slumped in his chair, gazing at nothing in particular, as if he were lost in some inner turmoil. The girls stood silently by, but they did not seem happy at the way things had gone. Lin lifted his voice, and addressed the Lord of the Mountains. “Lord Merhaun!” The older man lifted his head with a weary air, “I have nothing further to say, Swordsman.” “Lord Merhaun, if you will not hear me for the Way’s sake,nor for the sake of my father and Aiel’s, who were once your good friends – then still, I have the right to be heard – I claim the right, as Swordsman to Lord!” “You are no Swordsman of mine! Are you of the Fortress?” “I am a Swordsman of the City, and you are still a Lord of the City – or have you forsworn that too?” Lin answered, sharply. Krystha raised her head with a gasp of outrage and glared at Lin, but her father showed no sign of anger. Lin continued “Lord, I should not have to speak so disrespectfully to you, but as your Swordsman, I am ashamed for you! I know, for Arnath told us, that you had been deeply hurt, and blamed it on the City. I am sorry for that, but you cannot hide forever in the Fortress, licking your wounds and keeping the City at bay. You owe a duty to the City, and the doom that threatens the City threatens all Li’is- the Fortress too. If Light ordains your daughters to the Way, will you gainsay it? Will you do less than Arnath and Linnad, who have given their sons, their heirs, to the Way? Lord of the Mountains, are you truly Light’s man, or is it only lip-service ? And as to the manner of your speaking to Aiel, let Light judge you, not I ! For if you know the Secret Word you know that he is found innocent in all of this, yet despite that, Aiel believed that he had betrayed Light, and he was wretched because of it. It took so much to help him overcome that – and you may have undone all that with your harsh words. He would not show how they hurt him, but I saw. The son of your oldest friend – and you may as well have drawn your sword and run it into his heart! And what good will it do you, Lord of the Mountains? It will not save your daughters, for if Aiel fails the Way, all Li’is goes down into Darkness, and what will befall them then?”

Lin stopped then, afraid that he might have gone too far – afraid not for himself, but Aiel, lest he should turn Merhaun further against him. Yet he was concerned too for Merhaun, a Swordsman and thus a brother, as well as a Lord of Li’is. No, he had said only what had to be said, Lin decided. Merhaun stood, and came down from the dais . As he neared Lin, he raised his arm, and for a moment Lin wondered if Merhaun would strike him. But the Lord of the Mountains laid his hand on Lin’s shoulder, and said, quietly, “Son of Linnad, you are right! Let Light forgive me! And Light bless you for your loyalty and honesty. I will find Aiel, and make what amends I can, and I will help you on the Way. And if Arentha and Krystha are ordained of Light to the Way, I will not stand against the Will of Light, whatever sorrow it costs me.” He lowered his arm and reached out for Lin’s hand, hand-to-forearm in the Swordsmen’s handclasp. Then he turned and went out to find Aiel.

Krystha erupted. Almost hurling herself from the dais, she flew at Lin, her small fists beating harmlessly against his chest. “How could you speak so to my father? How dare you? Oh, I hate you!” Lin was too relieved by Merhaun’s capitulation to be annoyed at her childish behaviour, especially since he knew it sprang from her love and loyalty to her father. He caught her flailing wrists and said, sternly, “Krystha, listen to me! I did not wish to speak to your father so harshly, and I know you love him. But as a Lord of the City he is my Lord and commander, and I was jealous for his honour. That is why I reprimanded him.” He had hardly expected her to understand, but to his surprise, he saw that she did.

Aiel, meanwhile, had crossed the courtyard to find his way to the Prayer Room, unheeding of the activity around him. Entering, he had closed the door behind him, shutting out the sunlight and the bustling courtyard. Kneeling before the miniature Crucible with its small, bright, steady flame, he bowed his head, and waited. At first his thoughts were full of his own pain and unhappiness, and his inner turmoil over the problem of the maidens. He was angry too, as well as hurt, at Merhaun’s refusal to let them join the Way. How could one man prevent what Light ordained?

Yet Aiel was aware that his own thoughts and reactions were wrong too. He opened his eyes and gazed at the Crucible, letting his thoughts wander, instead, to the bright flame and the carved cup that contained it. The Crucible – so called because at this place a person might meet with Light, might lay themselves open to the action of that burning love and purity that would melt and refine them like a precious metal. Aiel could not deny his human emotions, but now, as he had opened his eyes to the Crucible flame, he opened his heart to Light, ready to surrender and have burned out of him anything that was not in tune with the purposes of Light. As always, after the first moments of struggle with his own will, Aiel’s surrender and obedience brought peace and contentment to him. Instead of anger, he began to feel a deep understanding of and compassion for Merhaun. The Lord of the Mountains, bereft of his wife and left to raise his daughters alone since their early childhood, was understandably horrified at the thought of their joining Aiel and Lin on the dangerous Way. Aiel had felt the same, and Merhaun’s response was natural. Perhaps, having once suffered loss, Merhaun was less able to trust in Light.

There was no brother Priest in the Prayer Room, so Aiel raised his arms and prayed aloud to Light, asking forgiveness for his own anger, strength for his Way, forgiveness for Merhaun also, since he had opposed the Will of Light. “Let Light be merciful to Merhaun”, he asked confidently, knowing the mercy of Light, “He has hurts that must be healed and fears that must be spoken, It is a hard thing that Light asks of him.” Aiel lowered his arms and bowed his head again, waiting. It was not the quiet, inner voice of Light that he heard, though, but a man’s voice – Merhaun’s voice. “A very hard thing.” said the Lord of the Mountains. “Thank you for your prayers, Aiel – and let you forgive me for my harshness to you. You are right. I am – hurt, and afraid.” Aiel looked up, and saw Merhaum standing near him. The man had entered so quietly, Aiel had not heard him, nor Perceived him, being occupied with his prayers. Now the young Priest rose from his attitude of prayer to face the Lord of the Mountains and look questioningly into his face.

Merhaun said, “Your friend Lin spoke to me very forcefully, and showed me my fault – no, do not look dismayed, Aiel. He was only honest with me, as perhaps someone should have been before this. He is a loyal and honourable lad, like his father.” “A true sword”, Aiel said quietly, thinking of the Secret Word. “Aye”, Merhaun answered. Aiel said softly, still a little hesitantly, “Your Lady’s death must have caused you great pain – as my mother’s did my father and me. I can understand that you did not wish Arentha and Krystha to join us on the Way. It is not a thing I would want myself, if the choice lay with me. But the Secret Word speaks clearly to me, Lord Merhaun. ‘Seek treasures of the Mountains, ebony and red gold, melody and healing.’ What can it mean, save the maidens?Unless,” he added, as a sudden hope came to him, “you know of another meaning?” “No”, Merhaun replied, gently and sadly, “Aiel, there can be no other meaning.”

Aiel drew out the Lightstone. “Lord Merhaun, I know the wound you carry is deep, for my father told me so. Yet he said also that perhaps – if you were willing – it might be healed with the aid of the Lightstone. He and Linnad are still your friends.” “I know it. And I am grateful, though I have not shown it, nor deserved that they should stay so true to me. Aiel, did your father tell you that my – my wife was dead?” Something in the way that the Lord of the Mountains asked the question startled Aiel. He looked curiously at Merhaun, and answered, “Why, no. He would tell me only that you bore a deep wound in your spirit, one that you blamed on the City. And when Arentha said that she had no mother, I assumed that she was dead, perhaps of a sickness caught in the City, or an accident there.” “The Lady Alira is not dead, Aiel.” Merhaun said. ” She – turned away from Light, and is gone into Darkness. She left me, and our daughters, and I do not know where she went.”

The pain in Merhaun’s voice tore at Aiel’s heart. It was much worse than the death of a loved one, for if Merhaun’s Lady had died in Light, he would have been sure of a joyous reunion when his turn came to touch Light, though her death would have grieved him terribly. To lose her to Darkness, though, was eternal separation, eternal grief, and Aiel’s sensitive, expressive face showed his own grief and horror at the thought. Merhaun said, “I see you understand, Aiel. Have you time to hear my story, perhaps to help me?” “Of course!” Aiel answered. He seated himself on a bench, and Merhaun sat down beside him, and began, “When I was a very young man, my father sent me to the East for a while, and there I met Alira, the daughter of an Eastern Lord. Oh, she was lovely, Aiel, very much like Arentha is now, and just as sweet and gentle. I was so in love with her, and she with me, and I asked her to be my Lady. I came home to make preparations for our wedding, and when all was ready I sent for her, and we were married in the Temple – your father performed the ceremonies for us. We were so happy, and so glad when our beautiful daughters were born, though I remember Alira was sad at first, when, after Arentha, Krystha was another girl. She wanted to give me a son, an heir to the Fortress. ‘Next time’, she said, ‘it will be a boy’.” Merhaun paused for a moment, his face twisting with sorrow at the tender memory, then went on, “Not long after that, my father died – killed in a hunting accident. I had never expected to be Lord of the Mountains so soon, for my father was a strong, vigorous man. My grief for him, and my new responsibilities, took so much of my time that – oh, Aiel, I have tried to deny my guilt in this, to lay the blame elsewhere, but there is no doubt that I neglected Alira, and contributed to what happened to her.”

Merhaun stopped speaking, and pressed one hand against his eyes, af if to hold back the tears that had gathered there. Aiel said, “Lord Merhaun, if it is too painful for you to go on, you need not.” “I must!” Merhaun exclaimed, “Aiel, I need your help – and Light’s!” Aiel nodded, and said, “Then go on.” “Alira must have been lonely, far from her own family and friends, and her own lands. Janira, and Elandra your mother, did their best to make her welcome and befriend her, but they too had duties, and young children.” He sighed, “When Alira rode to the City, I thought it was to them that she was going – I did not enquire. I loved her, but I felt that my duties to the Fortress and the City must take precedence – that I had to prove myself worthy. I do not think that Alira understood; she saw only that I spent less time with her and was less attentive. She must have felt I loved her less, though I did not. I felt that I was distancing her, but could not tell how to avoid it. So Alira felt neglected, and she found new friends in the City, and one man in particular. He was a Child of Night, though I think – I truly believe – that she did not know it, nor mean anything by the friendship, at first. Yet he lured her away from me, and from Light. I had to travel to the Western Fortress, and when I returned, Alira was gone. She had left our girls in the Healer’s care, taken her jewels and a few clothes, and fled with her lover. She left me a letter – ah, such a bitter, unhappy letter! I destroyed it in my fury, but every word is graven on my heart, and I know that what she said was true, in part. It was I, as much as the Child of Night, who turned her to Darkness.”

He turned a wretchedly unhappy face to Aiel, who asked gently, “And you love her still?” Merhaun groaned, “Sweet Light – yes, Aiel, I do! If I could find her, I would do anything to persuade her to return to Light, and to me. But it is impossible.” “And the maidens?” “Arentha, I know, feels as I do. She pretends otherwise, but she grieves for her mother. Krystha – she has shut herself off, not only from her feelings about her mother, but every expression of tenderness – save in her Healing.” Merhaun gave a wry grin. “She might tear you to pieces with her tongue, but if you were sick or hurt, she would be the soul of gentle care. She should have been a lad, my Krystha, a Swordsman. She is bright, and brave, and strong. But she will never weep, or admit to weakness, and that is where her strength betrays her, for strength that will not sometimes bend is too brittle. Though Arentha is gentle and tender-hearted, it is Krystha I would be more fearful for, on this Way.” “Perhaps” Aiel said, in an attempt at comfort, ” she will find a love of her own one day, to unlock her emotions.” “No.” Merhaun said, sadly. “Krystha fell in love once, a few years ago, but the young man did not return her feelings. They were both very young, and though he tried to be kind, he was embarrassed, and she was humiliated. She swore never to look a fool again for the sake of a man – those were her words. Oh, I know you will say it was said in anger, but Krystha has sworn, and will stand by her word.” Merhaun, looking at Aiel’s concerned face, added, “Do not let what I have said turn you against my Krystha, Aiel. She is impetuous and sometimes hot-tempered. She has faults. But she is brave and loyal, and nothing will turn her from the path she chooses. She is true to Light. And she is one of the best Healers in the Fortress.” “We can talk of these things later.” Aiel said,then, “Lord Merhaun, you have carried a sore wound these many years. Is it not time to make your peace with Light, and be healed?” “Aye.” Merhaun answered simply, barely above a whisper.

Aiel lifted the Lightstone, and spoke the words of the Calling, “Search now your heart, and make your peace with Light.” Merhaun’s tortured eyes lifted to Aiel’s. “Aiel, Lightstone-Bearer, help me!” Aiel set his Perception on Merhaun, feeling the flow of the other’s unhappy thoughts and feelings, the way in which love and loneliness, sorrow, anger and guilt chased each other round and round his mind, and distanced him from Light. Feeling deep compassion for Merhaun, Aiel helped him work through what he could, then withdrew his Perception, and laid the Lightstone to Merhaun’s brow. The light flowed out, enfolding the Lord of the Mountains. Aiel heard Merhaun, his face invisible within the light, give a strange exclamation, as though he were joyous and bewildered and ashamed all together, and knew that Merhaun was face to face with Light.

Lin found himself alone, for Krystha, having apologised for her behaviour so brusquely that it was hardly an apology at all, had disappeared into the Healing Place. Arentha, more courteous, had apologised again on her sister’s behalf, and excused herself to make some household preparations, suggesting that Lin might like to look around the Fortress. So he wandered out into the courtyard again and watched for a while, until he found himself drawn to the area where the horses were exercising. All Swordsmen were trained to be excellent horsemen, and any Swordsman would tend his mount well, as he would care for his other equipment. But not all Swordsmen loved their beasts, or were knowledgeable about them. Lin was one who did.

The horses of the Fortress were fine animals, with much of the Western strain in them. As Lin came up to the exercise area, he saw a man, small, dark and agile, directing the horses and their riders. Lin smiled to himself at the familiar scene. A few years back, it might have been himself on one of those horses, with Old Gerrik the Sword-Trainer standing there. The Sword-Trainer had always been called ‘Old Gerrik’, though he was not really so old. He had had one of those leathery, ageless faces, and this man, Lin thought, watching him, was really very like him. The man turned, feeling his gaze, and smiled. “Well, Swordsman of the City, what do you think of our horses?” “They are magnificent!” Lin answered, truthfully. “Are they Western-bred?” “Of Western stock, but Fortress-bred.” the man answered. “Oh?I had never heard that the Fortress bred horses. I have never seen them at the horse-sales.” “We breed for our own use.” was the reply. “Would you like to try one of our beasts?” Lin eagerly agreed, and the man considered him closely for a minute or two, then gave a fluting whistle, which brought a beautiful young bay running to him. “This is Mischief.” said the Sword-Trainer. “He takes some handling, but I think you will be equal to him, Swordsman.” The horse’s gear was brought and put on, and Lin mounted. He found that the horse indeed lived up to his name, but once Mischief found that Lin was aware of all his tricks, they quickly reached an agreement, and rode very well together.

Aiel, leaving the Prayer Room with Merhaun, saw Lin riding, and smiled. He was feeling glad, not just because his problems with Merhaun were over, but because Merhaun had found forgiveness, release and comfort in Light, through the power of the Lightstone. Merhaun followed his gaze,and smiled too. “Truly his father’s son!” he commented, “As you are Arnath’s, Aiel. Go and tell him it is well between us now, and I shall go and prepare the things you will need on this Way.” As Merhaun went back towards the Great Hall, Aiel went and stood by the Sword-Trainer. Lin saw him, and wheeled the bay towards him. “Aiel! Is all well, now?” he called, seeing his friend’s smile. He slowed Mischief and stopped, sliding from the horse’s back and holding his head, absently caressing the silky neck as he spoke to Aiel. “It is well.” Aiel answered, “Merhaun bade me tell you that. And he has made his peace with Light.” “Ah, that is good!” Lin said, then gave a little exclamation as Mischief, evidently feeling neglected, gave him a small push. Aiel laughed. “Lin, I swear if I took you in a ship to the middle of the Eastern Sea, you would find a horse somewhere!”
The Sword-Trainer looked up. “Lin? Are you the son of Lord Linnad of the Harbour?” “Yes. Do you know my father?” “My brother trained him – and his son!” the man said, grinning. “Gerrik? Old Gerrik is your brother? I was only just thinking how like him you were.” “Aye, Gerrik is my brother. I am Verrin, Horsemaster to the Fortress.” “I mind Gerrik telling me once of a flame-haired Swordsman he had known- it came to mind when I met the Lady Krystha. Did he mean Merhaun, then?” “Aye, no doubt he did. And Lady Krystha, now, would have made a fine Swordsman. She has her father’s spirit.” “She is certainly spirited!” Lin exclaimed, a little ruefully. Verrin said, “Her tongue may be rough, Lord Lin, but her hands are gentle – she is a wonderful Healer. And she is brave, and loyal.” “I believe she is.” Lin answered. Aiel said, “Lin, we should rejoin Merhaun now.” Lin handed Mischief’s reins to Verrin, and patted the horse. “Verrin, thank you for letting me try him. He is a wonderful beast.”

As they walked away, Lin asked, “You were able to help Merhaun, then, Aiel?” “Not I, but Light”, Aiel answered. “Through the Lightstone, Light healed him, Lin.” “I am glad of that.” “But you began it, Lin. Merhaun told me that it was the way you spoke to him that made him see his fault.” Lin said, “Aye, I was rough with him, I am afraid, Aiel. But it was for his own good that I spoke so. I think no one else had dared to speak to him like that in many years. But he was wasting himself, and I did not like to see it.” “You see, you did what I could not, Lin. You spoke to him as a Swordsman, and he understood.”

Returning to the Hall, they found the two girls awaiting them, to take them to Merhaun in his private room. There, with the door locked behind them, he said, “Now, Aiel, let us forget what is past, since I have sought and found pardon, and begin anew. How may I aid you on your Way, Lightstone-Bearer?” Arentha stood quietly by, though her eyes were full of questions, but Krystha, though she too kept her silence, seemed like to burst with curiosity. Aiel said, “Lord Merhaun, since your daughters do not know of the Secret Word and the Lightstone, and since it seems that these things will concern them deeply, perhaps it is best that I explain.” Merhaun agreed, and Aiel told in detail what had befallen him through the Black Piper, and how he came to be the Lightstone-Bearer and pursuer of Darkness, and how his Way must end. Then he quoted the whole of the Secret Word aloud, and when he came to the part about the ‘treasures of the Mountains’, Arentha’s dark eyes opened wide, and Krystha gave a little gasp. When Aiel had finished, Krystha said, “Then that is why you said that we had a part in the Way, Aiel? Are we to go too?” “It seems it must be so, though I mislike it, at heart.” Aiel answered, “Yet it is the Will of Light, and we cannot stand against it.”

Lin, seeing the gleam of excitement in Krystha’s tawny-brown eyes said warningly, “To you it may seem a great adventure, Lady Krystha. But it is into Darkness and danger that we must take you, and it will be no play-battle, but stark reality.” “We are not afraid, Arentha and I!” Krystha declared, with that defiant upward tilt of her chin that Aiel and Lin were coming to know too well. “We do not doubt your courage”, Aiel answered calmly, “but you must be willing to be guided.” He turned to Arentha, and asked, “Have you nothing to say about your part in this, Lady?” Arentha lifted dark, serious brown eyes to his and said, “It is the Will of Light. What more is there to say?” Aiel smiled, and put his hand into his robe, and drew out the Lightstone, sliding it free from its concealing pouch. “Behold the Lightstone!” he said. Both girls gazed at the Stone in awe, but it was Krystha who half-reached out one hand towards it, and so it was to her that Aiel turned first, and touched the Lightstone to her brow. The light blazed out around her, and he heard her gasp, and though when the light withdrew Krystha stood with bowed head, the light that lingered in her eyes when she lifted them again was like bright sparks of fire. But around Arentha, when she came under the Lightstone’s touch, the glow of light was gentle, and afterwards it was soft in her eyes, and misted with unshed tears. “Light finds you worthy.” Aiel told them both.

Now Merhaun turned to the great carved, iron-bound chest that stood behind him, and lifted out several scrolls, and laid them on the table. Then he bent again over the chest and took out from the very bottom a strange, old-looking key, which he also laid on the table. Crossing the room, he pulled aside a wall-hanging, and his hands moved deftly over the panelled wood beneath, until a hiding-place sprang open, a tall, narrow niche from which Merhaun extracted an equally tall, narrow wooden box. As he brought it back to the table, Aiel and Lin saw with a thrill of anticipation that it was of the same dark wood and strange metal that they associated with the Lightstone. “Not only the Priesthood are Keepers of the ancient things”, said the Lord of the Mountains.”Nor is it only the Lightstone-Bearer who is gifted on this Way. This is Brann’s Gift, left for the Way-sharer.”

He took the key which he had laid on the table, and opened the box, and unwrapped that which lay inside, wrapped in cloth of faded crimson, such as had held the Lightstone Harp. It was a sword, like none that Lin had ever seen. Long and slender in shape, like the leaf of grass, sharp as the bite of a frost-ridden wind, supple as a young bough in Spring, its deadliness was almost beautiful, with a cold grace, and it was forged of that same strange silvery metal, light and very strong, of which the Lightstone chain and Harp were made. There was no gilding or enamelling or other decoration on the hilt, only the Symbol carved, and two words in the Old Tongue. Aiel bent and read them, then translated aloud, “The True Sword.” “True Sword for True Sword.” the Lord of the Mountains said, as if he quoted something. “Lin, this is for you. It is Brann’s sword that the Lightfriend gave him in the caverns beyond the Dark City, before he and Tamorine and all their company went out against the evil that dwelt there. The Lightstone, and the Harp, and the True Sword, were all forged in Ma’al before the Darkness fell there, and the Lightfriends brought them into Li’is. The metal of which they are made is found only in Ma’al, and all that there is of it in Li’is is what the Lightfriends brought. It is light and strong, as you know, and will bend and never break, though it is hard, and it does not tarnish or rust or otherwise perish. When the Temple was made, the Holy Stone and the Harp not yet played were hidden there, but the Fortress had the keeping of the True Sword. And now it falls to you to bear it, Lin, Swordsman of the City and True Sword of the Lightstone Way.”

Merhaun lifted the sword with both hands and gave it, not to Lin but Aiel, saying, “Let the Lightstone-Bearer bestow it.” Aiel felt a moment of disquiet, for his hand had never touched a weapon, in accordance with his vows. Yet he felt by the peace within him that this was right, and he lifted the sword as Merhaun had done, and turned to Lin, and said, “Lin, Way-Sharer, True Sword of the Secret Word! Receive now the Gift of Brann, the True Sword, to bear on this Way, as he willed.” And he placed the sword into Lin’s outstretched hands. Lin took the beautiful, deadly thing, and the hilt fitted his hand as though it were made for him, and though the weapon was lighter than any he had ever borne, it did not feel strange to him when he weighed it in his hand. “I am honoured, Lord Merhaun. to bear Brann’s sword and be entrusted with it.”, he said, but his words could not speak the half of the wonder that was in his eyes and heart at this happening. “Bear it in Light, and bear it well.” Aiel said, blessing his friend with the words on the Lightstone casket. After that he turned to Arentha and Krystha, and had them take the Way-Sharers’ vows before Light, and even volatile Krystha was quiet and spoke her vows with solemn sincerity. “Now we are a company”, Lin said, “from City and Harbour, Forest and Mountain, just as it was in the First Days.” And Krystha smiled at him.

Merhaun gathered them round the table and spread out the scrolls of maps. “This first part of your journey is most exposed,” he said, “though you may ride in the Forest almost to the Spearcleft Pass. The Pass itself is narrow, and a good place for an ambush. That is our strength, for we could hold it against many. I would have sworn that none could pass that way, but since the Black Piper by his Shape-Changing has deceived us and passed through, we do not know if he has drawn the Children of Night to him, to waylay you, Aiel.” “It is our belief” Aiel answered,”that our setting forth is not yet known.” “Pray Light it is so!” said Merhaun. “If once you safely clear the Pass, there is less cover on the other side of the Mountains, for the trees are more sparse and twisted there. The cold winds blowing from the Seacoast mountains to the East injure them. And the Great Moor is, of course, open and bare, and overlooked by our Mountains, and those to the East. You must keep to the paths, for it is easy to stray, when all the Moor is so alike. Still, on the Moor, you may be taken for travellers or merchants, and be safe. The First Faring House stands at the Northern edge of the Moor, and is kept by Mell. There are a few villages around, which are his Soul-Watch. Rest there, but not too long. And after comes the most perilous part of your journey, for you must pass the Dark Ruins. But in that Mell will guide you.”

Next they discussed what provisions, clothing and horses they would need, and Merhaun said that Verrin must choose their mounts, since as well as the Sword-Trainer he was the Fortress’ most expert Horsemaster. Krystha listed the healing herbs and salves and Healers’ tools she would need, and Arentha the small stores they would require to carry them to the Faring House. By the time all of this was arranged, it was growing dark, and Merhaun bade them follow him, and led them up onto the Fortress walls which faced the City. There most of the Fortress folk had assembled, and Aiel knew why. For always, on the Festivals, the huge Northern doors of the Temple, that were otherwise closed all year round, were opened, so that the light of the Crucible shone out towards the Mountains. Though Aiel had shared in the ceremonies almost every year of his life, only now did he realise their full meaning. Suddenly from the South, from the crown of the City where the Temple stood, came a faint gleam of light that grew wider and brighter as the doors opened fully, until it blazed like a beacon on the hilltop. And answering, a beacon was lit on the highest tower of the Fortress, and the Fortress and the City shared the Light of the Spring Festival, rejoicing in the coming again of all that was made by Light, after the winter’s sleep.

Beside them, Arentha lifted her voice in the ancient song of rejoicing, and the sweet purity of her voice made the music new and fresh again, and the whole Fortress listened in silence. And after, Aiel, remembering her request, and feeling it was right, took out the Lightstone Harp and played his new music for the Festival, and still the people listened quietly, though they murmured with approval as he finished. Then Merhaun gave a signal, and the people of the Fortress broke into songs of praise and joy. Merhaun listened awhile, then led them back again to his Hall, where the Festival meal was laid.

Later, when the meal was over, and the entertainments done, and the Fortress folk were drifting away to their sleep, Merhaun gathered the four Way-Sharers round him and said, “It is good that we have kept this Festival before the Way continues. To celebrate life and Light gives strength to the spirit. Aiel and Lin, I thank you again for having the courage to show me the truth about myself. I am more grateful than you can know.” He smiled at Priest and Swordsman, then said, “Go now and rest, Lightstone-Bearer and True Sword, and gather strength for your journey.”

Aiel and Lin bade him goodnight and followed the steward to the chambers allotted to them, but as they left the Great Hall, Aiel glanced back and saw Merhaun draw his daughters to him, an arm around each, and begin to speak to them gravely and tenderly. The young Priest felt a brief stab of sorrow, seeing this. He wished again that he did not have to take Arentha and Krystha from their father, who had already lost so much. “Light is merciful”, he murmured to himself, ” and will not let them come to harm.” And, comforted by the thought, went to his bed.

DANCE THE DARKNESS DOWN

Chapter 5

Aiel had slept well; he had been very tired after his night’s Vigil and the stresses, physical, mental and spiritual, of the day. Despite this, he had half-expected to find himself lying awake, concerned about the Way and the possibility of dangers to Krystha and Arentha, but it had not happened. Instead, he had fallen quickly and peacefully asleep. Lin, too, was well-rested. Knowing that he would have watchful nights ahead of him, and secure in the knowledge that he was in the Fortress, he had been able to relax his customary alertness. For more than one reason, though, he had slept with Brann’s sword within reach.

Merhaun’s steward woke them, and told them that breakfast would be ready in the Great Hall. The clothing provided for them by Merhaun was laid out on the clothes chest, and Lin was glad to be rid of his Festival robe, which he had not found comfortable, and back in everyday clothes. Aiel, though, felt strange. Boots, breeches, shirt and jerkin felt odd and constricting after the freedom of his Priest’s robe and light footwear. It was not the robe, though, which made him a Priest, and the slight weight of the Lightstone round his neck was a reassurance and a blessing. Priest and Swordsman joined the Lord of the Mountains at his table, where a simple but substantial morning meal was laid. Krystha and Arentha joined them a little later, Aiel spoke the Meal-blessing, and they began to eat.

“The provisions are ready”, Arentha said, “and Krystha has what she needs. I have four travelling cloaks for us, and Verrin is seeing to the horses.” Aiel marvelled at her quiet efficiency; she spoke as though she were preparing for a pleasant journey, not the dangerous Way. Krystha asked, “Neither of you has any problem tolerating the healing herbs? Some of them are strong, and some folk are over-sensitive to them.” Lin smiled, “When I was a boy, I think I was smeared with every salve for a cut or a bruise that my mother’s Healer could find. I never came to any harm.” Aiel said, more seriously, “Praise Light, I have never been badly hurt or sick – save once”, he added, smiling at Lin as he remembered his friend’s rescue of him on that occasion. “But I have never been given any herb that harmed me.” “Good.” Krystha said.

Merhaun asked, “You are sure of your way now, Aiel? While you are in the Mountains, let the maidens lead you; they know the paths blindfold. But take care on the Moor, and do not stray from the path.” Aiel promised. As the meal finished, Verrin entered, to say, “The Ladies’ horses are ready. Will you come and see the mounts I have chosen for you, Lord Lin, Lord Priest Aiel?”

When they came out into the courtyard they saw two lads holding the horses. One boy held the reins of two intelligent-looking mares, which must be the girls’ horses. They were nearly identical, almost golden in colour with creamy white manes and tails, save that one had a white foot and one a white blaze on her forehead. The other two horses were a sturdy dapple grey and, to Lin’s delight, the lively bay, Mischief. Verrin told Lin, “I was not sure, at first, about Mischief, but he is fast, and brave, and one of the best of the Fortress herd. And you rode him well, and he liked you, so I thought the choice wise, in the end. Lord Priest, this is Greymouse. I know the Priesthood are not great horsemen, but he will do everything for you. He is steady as a rock, but he is not a plodder. He will give you speed when you need it.” Aiel answered, “Thank you, Verrin, we are grateful.” The Horsemaster looked at them with an odd little smile, and said, “I am thinking it is a strange journey you take, Priest and Swordsman, and the Ladies of the Fortress with you – no”, he continued, as Aiel seemed about to speak, “I do not ask. But my prayers go with you.” Aiel said again, moved by the man’s concern, “Thank you, Verrin.” Lin, though, put one hand on the Horsemaster’s shoulder, and said, “I think it is not only horses that you breed well in the Fortress, Verrin.”

Arentha and Krystha came out, followed by their father, and two servants carrying their gear. Both girls wore simpler versions of yesterday’s gowns, without the embroidery and floating panels. Each had her long hair drawn back in one thick plait. The older girl oversaw the distribution of the saddlebags; provisions and spare clothes in some, small flasks of wine and water in others. Krystha had her Healer’s herbs and tools, as well as the little sack and knife on her belt, Aiel the Lightstone Harp slung on his back, Lin the True Sword sheathed at his side. Arentha slung a coil of thin rope among her goods, and handed out the travelling cloaks. They were woven of two kinds of thread, one silky grey, one strong, coarse green, so that they both reflected excessive heat and repelled all but the heaviest rain. The cloaks were also, though not specifically designed to be, excellent camouflage for the grey-green expanse of the Great Moor.

Lin advised Aiel to go first to Greymouse’s head and introduce himself, and Aiel did so, stroking the smooth nose awkwardly, and jumping a little when the beast blew softly down its nostrils at him. He liked horses – at a distance. He thought them elegant, graceful creatures. But he seldom travelled far, and so, as Verrin had rightly observed, had not ridden much. Lin laughed at his friend’s hesitation. “He will not eat you, Aiel!” The Swordsman turned to look at the two golden mares. “I have never seen two so like!” , he commented. Krystha grinned. “Should not two sisters ride two sisters? Honey and Whitefoot were bred for us; full sisters, and two years apart, just like me and Arentha.” The lightness was not forced, but it was a defence against the thought of the Black Piper, and the Bloodstone, and the reason for the Way – one last chance of normality before they plunged into the dreadful adventure.

Aiel said, “We must go.” Merhaun came forward and embraced them all, his daughters first. To Aiel, he said, ” I entrust them to you Aiel, Lin – my ‘treasures of the Mountains’.” Aiel nodded, and said, “Merhaun, keep in touch with my father. If I can, I will send him word of our progress.” “Will that not be dangerous, Aiel? Your message may fall into the hands of enemies.” “Not my message, Lord of the Mountains.” Aiel answered. “You forget the powers of the Priesthood, Merhaun. I will send the Thought-without-Words through the Priesthood, until it reaches Arnath my father.” “Of course!” Merhaun exclaimed. “I had forgotten.” He stood back as the travellers mounted. Aiel was still a little nervous, but Greymouse stood solidly and showed no displeasure at the young Priest’s unpractised horsemanship. Lin leapt nimbly into his saddle and had Mischief under firm control before the horse had time to play any tricks. Arentha and Krystha slid smoothly and gracefully onto the backs of Honey and Whitefoot, and the company was ready to depart. Merhaun lifted his hand in blessing. “Go in Light, all of you ” he said, “Light be with you , Aiel, Lightstone-Bearer!” They rode off across the smooth turf of the Fortress Level, turning, just before entering the trees, to wave farewell once more to the lonely figure standing just outside the high wooden gates. Aiel glanced at the maidens. Arentha’s eyes were bright as if with unshed tears. Krystha’s face showed no emotion, but her grip on the reins was unnecessarily tight.

Since Arentha and Krystha knew these woods well, it was wiser to let them lead the way, though Lin warned them not to ride too far ahead, drawing a scornful comment from Krystha. They were, she then told them, following an ancient hunting trail, old beyond memory, going back, perhaps, even to the time of Brann and Tamorine. This forest was as full of new life and rich earthy smells and the little scufflings of hidden animals and birds as the forest further down the mountain by the White River, but up here it was not so still and humid under the trees. They could still hear the sound of the Falls below them, but when they crossed the River once, as it meandered across their path, it was scarcely more than a stream, for they were near one of its sources, bubbling out of the very rock of the mountain, fed by an underground spring. A food-beast, winter prey of the Fortress’ huntsmen, was drinking by the river; it raised terrified dark eyes and bounded away in panic as they came near, A little further up the mountain they came to a clearing in the forest where a small wooden building stood, a shelter for hunters who might be spending the night on the mountainside. Lin insisted on investigating the building, but it was empty, and, assured that there were no enemies there, he allowed them to ride on.

They had been riding for a long time, always upward, when the trees began to thin and they caught their first glimpse of the Spearcleft Pass, the narrow gash in the mountain range that was the only door to the North. Arentha said, “Let us stop for a little and refresh ourselves.” The others agreed and dismounted, tethering their horses, and she gave them pieces of bread, baked fresh that morning and spread with soft, creamy cheese, and some fruit. They ate peacefully, sitting on the grass in the shade of the trees, but as they were finishing their meal, Lin gave an exclamation. “Lin, what is it?” Aiel asked. “Something moved – there, in the bushes.” Lin answered, quickly rising to his feet and drawing his sword.

They followed his anxious gesture, and saw the bushes stirring, rustling. Aiel’s hand went to the Lightstone, Krystha’s to her little knife. The bushes parted, and they saw no human enemy, but what might be as deadly – the broad, brindled-tawny head of a hill-cat. At second glance, though, they saw that the beast was no danger to them. Its head hung low, its eyes were dull, and it breathed as if it had been running hard. Then, as it came out into the clearing, they saw it was a female, heavily pregnant, flanks heaving. Krystha whispered, fiercely, “Be still, all of you! Do not frighten her!”

To Aiel and Lin’s astonishment, the great beast crept, trembling and panting, across the grass to Krystha, and rested her head, with a moan, against the girl’s knee. Lin began to protest as Krystha leaned to run sensitive Healer’s hands along the beast’s sides, and was silenced by a hiss from Krystha, a low, impotent snarl from the hill-cat, and two pairs of blazing, tawny eyes. Aiel, feeling there was no danger from the exhausted beast, was somewhat amused by Lin’s discomfiture. Krystha was speaking to the animal in a low, gentle voice. “Hush, mountain-sister, I will help you. Ah – it is twin cubs, and a difficult birthing.” The hill-cat moved, unsteadily, a few steps away from the Healer, then turned her head, as if asking Krystha to follow. The girl rose to her feet, and seeing Lin about to protest once more, said softly, “Swordsman, follow if you must – but at a distance. And, unless I am in peril, do not interfere!” She turned and followed the hill-cat into the trees, and Lin looked at Aiel, with a lift to his eyebrow that betokened puzzlement and resignation. Aiel nodded, and Lin followed the pair at a discreet distance. Aiel looked at Arentha and said, in amazement, “I have heard of such things, but always thought them only legend – that a sick beast, at need, will recognise a Healer, and come for aid.” Arentha answered, musingly, “Did not Light form the beasts and birds, as well as men, and Dancers, and spirits of various kinds? Surely everything Light has made has some small measure of Light’s wisdom.”

Lin had followed Krystha and the hill-cat into the trees, and saw them plunge into a tangled mass of bushes. Glancing in, he saw the hill-cat sink down by a fallen log, and Krystha bend over her, so he turned away again and took his stand outside the bushes, drawn sword in hand, alert for any sound of danger, whether from the hill-cat, from enemies in the woods, or any sound that might tell him that Aiel and Arentha, left alone , were in peril. He heard many and strange sounds from the bushes, but nothing that sounded dangerous, and was growing weary of his watch, when the bushes stirred, and Krystha appeared, signalling silence, and beckoning him to follow with a hand that was streaked with red. Moving quietly after her, he saw the hill-cat lying in the shelter of the fallen log, contentedly curled round two blind, damp, squeaking cubs that were already making determined efforts to suckle. Krystha bent and stroked the huge, brindled head, and to Lin’s surprise the hill-cat’s big, rough tongue came out and licked the girl’s hand. Krystha turned a smiling face to Lin and signalled him again to retreat quietly, leaving the hill-cat and her cubs in peace. When they were far enough away, she stopped and wiped her bloody hands with rags from her Healer’s sack. Lin said, softly, “That is one of the most amazing things I have ever seen. The beast knew you, and came to you for help. How did she know you were a Healer?” Krystha shook her head. “I do not know. I have heard of such things before – old Harik told me it has happened several times to him. I have had small beasts, tame beasts, come to me once or twice – but never a hill-cat!” “Were you not afraid?” The Healer shook her head again. “She was too exhausted to do me any harm. She must have been struggling to birth those cubs for hours – perhaps days.” “But how does a beast know a Healer?” Lin wondered again. “Old Harik said that perhaps a beast, with its keener sense of smell, can scent the healing herbs on our hands, and know us by that. It may be true.” They had continued on their way, and Lin said, smiling, “When the beast came to you, and I was about to stop her, and you prevented me – I think I was not sure which was the hill-cat!” He spoke jestingly, not thinking, as to a friend, and a moment later was sorry for his words, afraid that she might take offence – she was so volatile. But to his surprised relief, Krystha only laughed.

They rejoined Aiel and Arentha, and Krystha poured a little water over her hands, washing them as she and Lin told about the hill-cat. Krystha seemed amused by Lin’s wonder over the incident, and teased him that City-dwellers might know much about horses and hounds, but little enough of other beasts. “No?” Lin asked, “You have your hill-cats, Krystha, but have you ever seen a sea-cat?” They had remounted by now, and when Krystha answered, “No”, Lin amused them as they rode by telling of the night he had been taken out on a small ship from the Harbour by a friend of his father’s, to watch those rare and beautiful animals. He described their beauty, their sinuous grace, the gleam of their glossy blue-grey fur in the moonlit water, their soft cries, their huge, dark, almost human eyes, and described them in a gentle, almost poetical way that was most unusual for him. It was evident that the sight had made a great impression on him, though, as he said, he had been only a boy at the time. “Such gentle, beautiful creatures”, he concluded, “yet there are those who hunt and kill them for their fur, and others who pay well for it. My father has tried to outlaw the trade, but it still goes on.”
Krystha said, “I would not have thought that you could care so much for simple beasts, Swordsman.” For once, it was neither a challenge nor a jibe. Lin made her some pleasant, half-joking answer, and they rode on in companionable silence, the girls still leading. Lin drew his horse alongside Aiel’s and said, quietly, “I am glad the hill-cat came. Krystha may be hot-tempered and sharp-tongued, but there is no doubt in me now of her courage, or her Healing skills.” “She is certainly brave”, Aiel agreed, “but a hot temper and a brave spirit may lead her into foolishness. Let us hope she is able to discipline herself, at need.” Arentha turned her head to call to them, “We should be through the Pass by nightfall. Then we can camp on the other side of the mountain. The descent can be dangerous at night.”

Aiel felt a stirring in his Perception. Lifting his head, he cast out the net of his Priestly sense, but could find no definite source. Still, he was sure enough of what he felt to call the others round him, and warn them, “We must be careful. My Perception says there is Darkness on the mountain.” “The Black Piper?” Krystha asked. “I think not. I am sure I would know him, if I Perceived him.” “Do you know what it is?” said Lin, hand hovering above his sword-hilt. “I have no clear impression”, Aiel answered, “Only a sense of Darkness – but strong.”

They rode on warily and quietly, especially cautious since the trees and bushes were thinning fast, leaving them little cover. The last stretch of the mountainside was steep, boulder-strewn, covered with short, rough grass and low-growing, tough-stemmed plants, more suited to the nimble food-beasts than riders on horseback. The going was slow and Lin was uneasy. Up ahead lay the beginnings of the Pass, at first a mere crease in the rock, but gradually deepening to a gully and then a high-walled, narrow col, that twisted out of sight into the depth of the mountain top. It was too good an ambush-place. “Maidens, between us, now!” the Swordsman ordered. “Here, if anywhere, will be where danger lies. Aiel, do you Perceive anything?” Aiel sent out his Perception once more, and knew that Lin was right. The mouth of the Pass swam in misty darkness, and at the heart of it he felt one being, one single Child of Night, but laden with dark power. Not Lak, though, he was sure of that, though why he was so sure he could not say.

“You were right, Lin”, he told his friend, “There is an enemy ahead – powerful in Darkness, but not the Black Piper.” Lin drew his sword and said, “Maybe the maidens should wait while we see what lies ahead.” Krystha spoke, “Swordsman, I think that would not be wise. There is danger ahead, yes, but there may be danger around or behind also. Safer that we stay together.” Lin considered this, then said, “Aye, you reason well, Krystha. A divided company is twice at risk. Come, then, but be on guard.” Aiel drew out the Lightstone, but left it concealed in its pouch, and said to Lin, “If the danger is Darkness, your sword will not overcome it. Leave it to the Lightstone.” Lin agreed, but his unease increased as they neared the Pass, though he rode with the True Sword in his hand. He had no way of knowing how Aiel, who had never been trained for combat of any kind, might fare in the confrontation that lay ahead.

Cautiously they crept up the deepening approach to the Spearcleft Pass, turned the concealing bend, and checked their horses. In front of them, at the very mouth of the Pass, stood a solitary figure, blocking their way. It was a woman, dressed all in black, her fall of pale hair touched with glints of red by the dying sunlight – Si-Mara, the Silver Witch. In one hand she held a long staff of polished black wood, topped with a strange ornament of silver metal, like a crescent moon on its back. Now she lifted and held out the staff before her, turned sideways across their path, and looked at Aiel with her pale eyes that were like silver shields. Seeing her close to, Aiel was surprised that she should be so young. Knowing her reputation, he had expected her to be older, but he doubted, now, if she were more than seven or eight years older than himself. He returned her gaze, his blue eyes challenging, but she resisted his Perception.

“Go back. Aiel!” she said. Her voice was sweet, reasonable, but Aiel heard, not the honeyed tones, but the menace and evil that lurked behind them. “Only danger and death lie ahead! See!” She moved the staff in a sweeping arc, and dark shapes leapt up at her shoulder, menacing phantoms that moved through scenes of conflict and torture, fire and death, falling mountains and stricken earth. The movement of her staff painted nightmare on the empty air, confusing reality with a dark world where monstrous, raging beasts tore at them and dark spirits howled with inhuman glee. Aiel heard Arentha give a cry of fear, and realised that the hallucination gripped them all. With an effort, he overcame the nightmare long enough to reach up and slip the Lightstone free of concealment. It blazed with white fire, and Si-Mara’s staff shattered in her hands. She gave a scream that was as much of fury as fear, and made to run, but Lin, freed from the thrall of her dark enchantment, rode down on her and plucked her off her feet and rode back to Aiel with the woman struggling and cursing on his horse’s neck.

Aiel had dismounted, and now said, “Set her down, Lin.” Lin obeye, and Aiel looked full into the face of the Silver Witch. She could not now resist his Perception, for the power of the Lightstone lay behind it, and her shielded silver eyes were forced to give way before Aiel’s blue gaze. One last moment of resistance, and then his Perception was through the barrier and into her mind. Never had Aiel experienced Perception like this. Normally the Priesthood set their Perception on willing minds and souls, those who had appealed to them for help or searching or cleansing. Aiel had never Perceived anyone who was not welcoming of his Perception. To have to force his Perception on Si-Mara, though necessary, was against all Aiel’s training and instincts.

Entering into her thoughts, he experienced not only her hatred and contempt for him, and her enmity to Light, but also the Darkness she delighted in. Thoughts, plans and memories, so evil and depraved that he could not have imagined such things existed, lay open to his Perception. Yet he persisted in his searching of her thoughts, though it felt to him like drinking poison, for he needed to know as much as he could of the Black Piper’s plans. Still Si-Mara tried to resist, to conceal from Aiel what she knew of Lak’s intentions, but the Lightstone-Bearer sought and found the knowledge he needed. One thing, though, puzzled Aiel. In all of the Darkness in Si-Mara there seemed one tiny part he could not reach, something that seemed part yet not part of the Silver Witch. It had a strange neutrality,as though given neither to Light or Darkness, or, as strangely, given equally to both. Stranger yet, he felt as though Light reached through the Lightstone, through his own Perception, and touched the strangeness in Si-Mara. Somehow, though he was assured that this odd occurrence was nothing that affected his present Way.

Having the information he had sought, Aiel withdrew his Perception, glad to leave behind the Darkness in the Silver Witch, but held her still with his eyes and the Lightstone, staring at her. She was as cold and cruel as bitter snow, yet she was beautiful. He wondered how anything so dark and evil at the core could be so outwardly fair. “Si-Mara”, he said, his voice full of authority, though he was inwardly shaken,” by the power of the Lightstone and the Name of Light, I command you to return to the City and not to leave it, nor communicate in any way with Lak.” For a moment the Lightstone blazed, and then its light withdrew. Si-Mara stared at him for a moment and then, like an animal released from a trap, turned from him and fled away down the mountain path. Aiel felt nausea rise in him, a reaction to the evil he had experienced in Si-Mara. He turned away from the others and was horribly sick, and afterwards found he was trembling and sweating like a terrified horse. Krystha had come to his side and was gently wiping his face with a cool, damp cloth, for which he was very grateful. Lin asked anxiously, “Aiel, what ails you? Is it some evil enchantment?”

“No!” Aiel gasped, ” I – had need of her knowledge about Lak – that is why I had to set my Perception on her. And her mind was – like poison, Lin, so dark and foul and delighting in evil. It made me sick to my stomach!” Krystha, meanwhile, had filled one of her little wooden cups with water, crumbling dried herbs in it, and handed it to Aiel, commanding him to, “Drink, and settle your stomach, Aiel.” Aiel did as she told him, and felt the inner churning begin to ease. More calmly, he said, “I have always known of the existence of Darkness and evil. Sometimes I have seen a little of it in those I have helped in the Temple. But never before have I looked it full in the face and seen its true horror.” “It may be no bad thing”, Lin said thoughtfully, “My main doubt about this Way was that you were too innocent of Darkness, but now you will know your enemy.” “But now they know of me too.” Aiel said. “How Si-Mara learned of my Way I do not know, for I could not Perceive it. I think Lak does not know -yet. But Si-Mara has already sent him word. And my father was right, he is not so far ahead of us, for he has paused to feed the Bloodstone. Si-Mara did not reckon with the power of the Lightstone, though, so perhaps Lak too is overconfident, wielding the Bloodstone. Still, we may have lost the advantage of surprise. Lin, you are the strategist, not I. What is your advice?” “That is difficult, Aiel! We must now be doubly watchful and careful of ambush, yet we cannot afford to lose time. I think our most important aim is to maintain unity. Whatever needs to be done, we must all be in agreement, and do it instantly. For now we must cross the mountain with caution. The Pass is narrow, and more Children of Night might lie in wait.” “I Perceive no more Darkness there.” Aiel said, after a moment’s pause, “but you are right, Lin, we must be cautious.”

Subdued by their experiences, they remounted, and continued through the narrow Pass. Though Aiel had Perceived no more Darkness near, Lin was still on edge until they had passed through, and found themselves on the Northern side of the mountain. Lin and Aiel had never come here, and Krystha and Arentha only rarely. The trees and bushes lower down this side of the mountain were not as thick and strong of growth as on the Fortress side, for, as Merhaun had said, they were stunted and twisted by the cold wind that swept down periodically from the sharp-toothed Seacoast Mountains to the East. By the time they had reached the tree-line it was growing dark. They did not need to search for a camp-site, for the girls knew of a little spring, almost dry in high summer but full-flowing now in Spring, where they could water the horses, which decided their resting place. Lin, as he had been taught during his Forest training, began to make two withy shelters, tying down young, supple, low-growing branches for a framework and weaving gathered greenery into them. Krystha assisted him, obviously well-used to the task, while Arentha prepared a simple meal and Aiel led the horses to drink, then tethered them where they could graze on patches of new spring grass and wildflowers.

There might be other Children of Night in the area, though beyond reach of Aiel’s Perception, they knew. It was necessary to keep watch, and Aiel insisted that he should take turn with Lin. The Swordsman could not be expected, he argued, to ride all day and watch all night. Krystha and Arentha would have been willing to take a turn, also, but Lin vetoed that. The danger to a maiden, alone in the night, from any Children of Night, was too great. He was uneasy even about Aiel, but realised the wisdom of his friend’s words. Lin’s half of the watch passed uneventfully, and he was indeed beginning to feel weary towards the end of it, and almost envious of Aiel and the maidens, curled up inside their cloaks, asleep in their respective shelters. He was not sorry when it was time to waken Aiel. Lin ducked into the shelter and woke Aiel quietly, whispering, as his friend came awake, “Aiel, are you sure? I can easily watch…” “All night?” the young Priest asked, “No, Lin. Each of us will have need of strength, and neither should watch all night.” He stood up, huddling into his cloak, and smiled at the Swordsman reassuringly. “Do not be fearful for me, Lin. I have the Lightstone.”

As Aiel left the shelter, Lin, realising the sense of his comments, curled up in his own cloak and tried to sleep, but he was still uneasy. Aiel went out into the cool air. There was no fire, for that would have betrayed their presence, and he went and stood near the horses, for warmth and, if he were truthful, for company. Greymouse, grown used to him through the day’s riding, nuzzled gently against him, and he felt somehow comforted by the beast’s friendliness. Below, the Moor lay like a dark sea, the wind that blew across it making it sound, too, like the sea. Far across it gleamed a few small lights, some yellow, like lamplight, some red,like fire. Aiel wondered which of these, if any, might be the lights of the First Faring House. He slid out the Lightstone and gazed into its gentle glow, shielding its light in his hands, wondering anew what unrevealed powers it might have. Again his thoughts strayed to the lights on the Moor, and suddenly his Perception soared, as though lifted and thrown, out over the dark expanse. Aiel gasped. It was like flying, as his thought and vision swept out across that dark, empty plain. Not, though, towards the yellow light of homes and houses, but to the red firelight it drew him. Then Aiel knew why the Lightstone called him here, for he saw, in the dim red glow, the Children of Night at their unholy revels, and behind them houses burned, making the firelight in which they cavorted and coupled. To one side stood a man, dressed all in black, tall and pale, and on his hand a red stone glittered, that seemed to pulse and glow in the light of the burning homes. And Aiel knew his enemy.

The pale face lifted suddenly, as if he were aware of Aiel’s Perception, the burning green eyes challenging. To Aiel’s horror the green gaze locked with his Perception, and he looked straight into the mind of the Black Piper. Then he knew that if to look into Si-Mara’s mind had been like drinking poison, to Perceive the Black Piper was to come face with face with death, a death slow and horrible, like drowning in thick, stinking, sucking mud. Unable to free himself, Aiel threw all of his being into a desperate appeal to Light. For long moments he drowned slowly in Lak’s evil, then he was aware of something Other with him. Something Light-sent and bright and powerful, before which the Darkness in the Black Piper quailed, something that snatched him from the Piper’s thrall, and hurled his naked, bleeding soul back across the miles into his body again. Aiel gave a great and terrible cry, and fell senseless to the ground.

Lin, who had been only half-asleep, woke fully at that cry, knowing his friend in danger, and ran outside. Looking round, he could at first see no sign of Aiel, but then glimpsed a dim light where the horses were, and hurried towards it. Drawing near, he realised that it was the Lightstone, unshielded, lying on Aiel’s breast as the young Priest lay on the ground. “Aiel!” he cried, kneeling at his friend’s side. For a dreadful moment he thought that Aiel was dead, for his eyes were wide open, staring fixedly upward. Then Lin saw his friend’s chest rise and fall as he breathed, and tried to waken him, but failed. Leaping to his feet, he ran to the maidens’ shelter and called for Krystha. He heard her answer almost immediately, and in a few moments she came out of the shelter, Arentha stumbling sleepily behind. “What is it, Lin?”, she asked. “Aiel.” he answered, briefly. “Some harm has befallen him. Krystha,come, he needs your skills.” He hurried her back to where Aiel lay, and Krystha carefully examined him, then shook her head. “Lin, this is a shock of the spirit. I can do nothing unless we can rouse him.” In his fear for Aiel, Lin snapped at her,”They said you were the best Healer in the Fortress! And you can do nothing?” If he had thought about it, he might have expected her to return his anger. Instead she said, very gently, “Lin, it is an ill of the soul. You are his friend. Tell me how to reach him.” Her quiet words were calming. He stared at Aiel. “Let me try”, he said, and knelt, and called to his friend.

Aiel did not wish to waken. He wanted to curl into the farthest corner of himself, and forget the fear and pain and Darkness. He could hear a voice, a voice dear to him, which he would have answered, but for his longing to lose himself. Lin, looking at Aiel’s unresponsive face, felt that he could weep, or scream. The Way could not end like this. Suddenly a thought came to him, seemingly from outside his own mind. Obeying it he reached out slowly, unsure if he were doing right or wrong, and touched the Lightstone. No harm befell him at the touch, and so he lifted the Stone and laid it to Aiel’s brow. A gentle light ran over Aiel, pouring out of the Stone. Then into Aiel’s spirit came Light, and his fear of the great Darkness he had seen fled away before it. The Light enfolded, healed and comforted him, and in his thought the words of the Book echoed; ” The weakest of Light is stronger than the strongest of Darkness”. Aiel knew the words well,but only now did he realise their full meaning; that though body might weaken and soul despair, the spirit that clung to Light must overcome Darkness. Ready, now, to return to the task appointed to him, full of awe and gratitude at what Light had done, he heard Lin’s voice call his name again, and focussed his eyes on his friend’s worried face.

“Aiel!” Lin exclaimed, slipping his arm beneath the young Priest’s shoulders and lifting him up. “What has happened? Is it well with you now?” Krystha appeared at their side and said, still so gently that it seemed a different maiden spoke, “Hush, Lin! First let Aiel drink this draught and regain his strength. And you also, Swordsman!” Lin gave one of the proffered cups into Aiel’s hands and was about to protest that he himself needed no reviving draught, until he realised that his own hands were trembling with the after-shock of his fear for Aiel. He took the second cup and drained it. The taste was strong, though not unpleasant, and after a few minutes he felt warmth and new strength in him. Lin helped Aiel to his feet, and they gathered round him with concerned questions. The Lightstone- Bearer raised his arms and said, “First , let us praise Light, for Light alone has saved me, and the Way.” After this, he told them what had happened, and how he had become entrapped, With awe at the thought, he said, “Light sent me aid – a Shining One, a Spirit-in-Light, it must have been- to free me and to send me back.”

The others instinctively glanced around them, as if they expected to see some great burning presence hovering near. But there was nothing on the quiet mountainside. Lin said, “I should not have let you watch alone, Aiel!” “No, Lin, you are wrong. The danger was not here. Our enemy is far across the Moor. I went out to meet him, and Light permitted it – even drew me to him. I suffered in the meeting, but it has strengthened me in Light. And it would have been the same were I on watch, or lying in the shelter. Lin, I know the promise you made to my father, but from some things you cannot protect me, nor, perhaps, should you. There are pains we must experience that are meant to make us grow.” This Lin accepted, and turned to Krystha. “Krystha, I owe you my apology. I spoke to you harshly and most ungraciously, and was angry with you without cause, when you were trying to help Aiel. Will you forgive me?” The Healer laid a hand on his arm. “Lin, you were moved by fear and care for your friend. There is little enough to forgive in that, but what there may be, I will forgive you.” Again, Lin was surprised at her new gentleness.

Arentha, who had been quiet most of the time, as was her way, spoke now. “Should we try to sleep again, or make ready for our journey? The dawn winds are stirring, and the sun will rise soon.” “The Children of Night are on the Moor”, Lin reminded them, “and their Dark Leader.” “But by what Aiel says, they are far to the West of the Faring House”, Krystha argued, “and the Fortress horses are swift. This may be our chance to overtake them.” Aiel said, “I would make what speed we can, but I am loath indeed to bring you, maidens, near to the Children of Night.” Krystha had half-turned away, looking towards the East, towards the Seacoast Mountains. Above them, at the highest arch of the sky, the larger and slower-moving of the two moons of Li’is, that was called the Shield, shone brightly and was nearly full. Midway between it and the horizon was the smaller, faster moon, which was called the Hound, because it pursued and overtook the Shield twice for each of the Shield’s journeys. The Hound was only half-full now, but in a few days time it would be full and level with the Shield, also full. That would be the time of the Two-Moon Tide, when both moons tugged at the waters of the seas, and tides were high and perilous, and no ship would venture out. Now, though, dark veils of cloud were beginning to slide across both moons, and low in the East a great mass of storm-cloud was already streaked an angry red by the yet invisible sun. Krystha said, “Look! A storm is hatching in the East. I smell rain in the air. We shall have need of speed.”

None of them disagreed with her, knowing that in weather-lore as in herb-lore, the Healers of Li’is were the wisest. So their choice was decided for them by the threatening weather, and they paused only briefly for a quick breakfast before they gathered up their little baggage for departure. Lin, though, unmade the withy shelters, with Krystha’s help, in case they should betray their passing. They could not hurry the first part of their journey, for the stunted, twisted trees on this side of the mountain, though not so thick, had roots that in places arched bare and twisting out of the ground, and could have tripped an unwary horse and rider. So they had perforce to ride slowly and carefully, and when Lin made some remark about the slowness of their going, Krystha flashed back, “Would you, then, break your neck and end your Way so soon, Swordsman?:” It was as if the gentle Healer of the night’s perils had never been. Once on the Moor itself, they made better progress, though there were still rough places and tussocks where a horse might stumble. Lin, though, and the maidens of the Fortress, were skilful riders, and Aiel, though a novice, could rely on the steady, sturdy Greymouse to avoid the dangerous places. They had not ridden far when, as Krystha had foretold, the first drops of rain began to fall. At first it was only a shower, but then the drops grew thicker and heavier, and a chilling wind blew with them out of the East, taking all the warmth of Spring from the day. The travellers raised the hoods of their cloaks against the weather, but found themselves slowed by the rain, for the spongy surface of the Moor soaked up the wet and became in places slippery and treacherous, and at times the path almost disappeared.

It was a gloomy place, and a gloomy day, and Aiel dared not even bring out the Lightstone to hearten them, in case the spies of the Children of Night should be near, and see. Soon, despite the travelling cloaks, they were sodden through and through with rain, and not one of them spoke, riding steadily on in the face of the rain. Lin could not help but feel admiration for the staunchness of Arentha and Krystha, as they rode on, uncomplaining. They did not – could not – stop to rest or eat, but rode the day through – a seemingly endless, dreary day. At last Aiel sent out his Perception, and found the First Faring House, for he was afraid that they might have strayed in the storm. Their way, though, was straight, and the Faring House lay not far ahead. To Mell, though, the Priest-in-Charge, Aiel did not extend his Perception, not knowing what other guests Mell might have, “It is not far now”, he said, ” It has been a long riding.” “A long riding, and well ridden!” Lin said, smiling at Arentha and Krystha. He meant it for a compliment, and Arentha smiled wearily back at him. Krystha, though, raised her head and glared at him. Her hair was dark red with the wet, but the amber eyes burned like fire, and she chided him for ‘patronising’ her. Lin forbore to answer, but wondered if he might ever be at peace with her, who was sometimes so mature, yet at other times acted like a spoilt child. They trotted silently on through the rain and the gathering gloom, until, as they reached the crest of a small rise, Aiel gave a little cry of triumph and relief. Below them, set in its stone-walled tree-garth, windows bright with welcoming yellow lamplight, lay the First Faring House.

DANCE THE DARKNESS DOWN

Chapter 6

They rode down the slope into the hollow, thankful for the respite, however slight, from the wind and rain, and clattered into the courtyard of the First Faring House, weary to the bone and sodden with rain, but thankful to be within reach of shelter. In the courtyard, a groom took charge of their horses and gear, and they turned gratefully to the welcoming open door of the Faring House. The Priest-in-Charge was waiting for them there, his robe rippling in the wind that reached them even here. He was medium of height and build, brown-haired, with a roundish, kindly face – a very ordinary-looking man, save for his vivid blue Priest’s eyes. He ushered them into the Faring House, full of concern for them, cold and soaked as they were. As he passed various of the House’s servants he threw out orders for dry clothing to be brought, and sent word to the kitchens for more food to be prepared.

He had not really looked at them all, except to note their tired, wet state, but now he turned to them, and said “Your pardon for my discourtesy! I have so much to order tonight, for the House is full because of the bad weather.” With a wave of his hand he indicated some of the other guests in the rooms and corridors around them. With a smile he continued, “I am Mell…” and broke off, suddenly realising, as Aiel drew back the hood of his cloak, that here was a brother Priest, but disguised. For a moment his face showed recognition and puzzlement. Then his eyes flicked questioningly to Aiel’s, their Perceptions meshed for a moment, and Aiel knew that the other’s mind was as sharp as his appearance was ordinary. Mell had quickly grasped the little Aiel had been able to communicate of the urgency of their mission and the need for continued concealment. He made no gesture, spoke no word, to betray that Aiel was a member of the Priesthood. Instead, speaking just loudly enough to allay the suspicions of any passers-by who might be Aiel’s enemies, he said, “I am sorry, but the House is so crowded tonight, I have had no time to keep tally of which rooms are occupied. Will you wait and warm yourselves in my Quiet Room while I enquire?”

By this little subterfuge, he brought them safely into the warm peace of the little room. Closing the door, and locking it, he urged them closer to the fire – for Arentha had begun shivering in her damp clothes – and asked Aiel, “Now, what is your need, my Brother-in-Light? Who are you, and how may I serve you?” Aiel faced, for the first time – for even Merhaun had been a friend of his father’s – the need to tell a complete stranger of his Way. It was not easy, though Mell was a brother Priest. The young man lifted his head to look at Mell and said, “I am Aiel, son of Arnath, High Priest of the Temple of the One Light.” He hesitated, unsure what Mell might know of the Lightstone and the Way. To speak of these things to one who knew nothing could sound like a madman’s ravings. He asked, “Mell, what do you know of the Lightstone?” “I know of its existence” the other answered, “and that when the Lightstone came to be sent forth, it might fall to any of the Priesthood who kept a Faring House or Prayer Room, to succour the Bearer.” Aiel looked into Mell’s eyes, and said, softly, “It falls to you to succour me, this time, Mell. For on me is the doom of Dark’s passing and the Way of the Secret Word. I am the Lightstone-Bearer.”

The other Priest was gazing at him with concern and amazement. “Then you may need more help than I can offer, Aiel my brother”, Mell said, “but I will gladly do what I can.” He looked round at Aiel’s bedraggled company and said, “Hot water, first, and dry clothes. Then you shall eat with me, and tell me what you need of me.” A maidservant led the girls away to the women’s Bathing Place, and Mell himself conducted Aiel and Lin to theirs. As he had said, the hot water bathe comforted and relaxed them, easing their bodies of the ache of their long riding and the chill of the wind-driven rain. Wrapped in the warm robes which Mell had provided, they rejoined the two sisters in Mell’s Quiet Room. Arentha and Krystha, also snuggled into their robes, were sitting near the fire, their long hair loose on their shoulders to dry. Arentha’s robe was grey, and her dark hair flowed over it as smooth and glossy as a stream of water. Krystha’s hair, though, was a wild tumbled glory of fiery waves, falling onto a flame-coloured robe, so that her creamy-skinned face was like the pale heart of a fire. It was as though their inner selves were outwardly visible, thought Aiel, as the Secret Word came back to mind, that had said of the sisters, ‘ebony and red gold, melody and healing’.

While they had been bathing, food and drink had been brought, and now Mell joined them, locking the door behind him again. They gathered round the table, and as they ate, Aiel asked Mell for his guidance regarding the next part of their journey. “Beyond this House”, Mell told them, “lies nothing but scrubland and then the Red Forest. As you enter it it seems ordinary enough, but it is not a normal forest, and as you near the Dark Ruins, it turns red.” “Why?” Krystha asked. “It is blighted by the Ruins – by the thing that happened there when Rafel, Brann and Tamorine defeated the Dark One. The Ruins are lifeless – nothing has grown or moved there since, save the Children of Night, who make of it a place sacred to Darkness.” Mell frowned. “Did you know that the Children of Night have a prophecy of their own, which it seems has now been fulfilled by what you tell me of the coming of this Black Piper and the Bloodstone? I take note of such things, being so near the accursed place, and responsible for the villages of my Soul-Watch. The Black Piper will give heart to the Children of Night, and make them bold. You must be watchful in the Red Forest, and in particular, close to the Ruins; it is their ground. Especially, be careful of the maidens.” He sighed, “I wish there was not need for them to go.”

Aiel said, sadly, “I do not wish to take them into danger, Mell, but I must. They come with us because it is the fulfillment of the Secret Word, that they should be part of this company. I would gladly have had it otherwise.” “Aiel”, Mell asked,”Do you know what your enemy really is?” “Oh,yes.” Aiel answered, “Yes, Mell, I know my enemy.” And he told the other Priest of his encounters with Si-Mara and Lak. He could have shared Perception and let Mell experience them for himself, but was unwilling to submit Mell to such evil. When he had finished, Mell said, “Yes, you do know your enemy, Aiel. Well then, you do not need me to bid you take care. Now, there is a stream running through the Red Forest. That too is tainted. Do not drink from it, you or your beasts. Trust nothing that moves- only evil beasts lurk there. Still, once you are past the Ruins it is a long but straight road to the Second Faring House. And you have the Lightstone to keep all evil from you.” Aiel reached inside the green robe he had been given and drew out the Lightstone. “It must be hard for you too, Mell”, he said, ” to keep the Faring House and its Soul-Watch with the Darkness always at your back. Come, draw strength from the Lightstone.” Mell came to Aiel, who touched the Lightstone to his brow and watched the now familiar fountain of light pour out over the Keeper of the First Faring House. Mell’s kindly, ordinary face seemed to show an unsuspected nobility in the Lightstone’s glow – perhaps a reflection of his loyalty to Light. When the light withdrew, leaving, as always, a little of itself in Mell’s eyes. Mell looked into Aiel’s face and said, softly, “I have been blessed of Light!”, then, louder, “Thank you, Aiel, Lightstone-Bearer.”

The Way-Sharers slept well that night, knowing themselves secure in the Faring House, and being wearied by long riding. Still, each woke the next morning with a consciousness of the possible dangers ahead already at the back of their minds. Again they joined Mell in his Quiet Room, and found him grave-faced and sad-eyed. “I have had word from one of the villages of my Soul-Watch, on the Westward edge of the Moor”, he told Aiel, who felt a stab of alarm. “The village was raided by a large band of the Children of Night, the night before last. They were led by a white-faced man in black, with a fiery ring on his left hand. It must be the Black Piper, Aiel.” “What happened to the village?” Aiel asked, his voice sharp with concern. Mell answered, his voice breaking on the words as he spoke, and tears springing to his eyes, “They were tortured, ravished, murdered – homes burnt, families destroyed – and the Dark One fed the foul stone with their agonies. Some were carried off – who knows for what evil purposes? Oh, my poor people!”

Aiel had tears in his eyes too as he exclaimed, “Oh, Mell, I am so sorry!” He held out imploring hands to the other Priest. “It is because of the Bloodstone – the evil I let pass! Oh, forgive me!” “Aiel, it is not your fault!” Mell told him. “The evil is not your doing, Lightstone-Bearer. Do not think it! ” “Can we not help>” Lin asked, looking anxiously at Aiel’s distressed face and eager to find some means of alleviating his friend’s feelings of guilt. “I will go myself”, Mell said, “and I have already sent all the help I can spare – if only I had more Healers, for there are many wounded, or half-crazed with fear or grief. But you must go on with your Way, Aiel, and bring this Darkness to an end.” “I am a Healer”, Krystha said, “I can go and help these people.” Aiel had recovered himself, and now said to her, gently but firmly, “No, Krystha, Mell is right. We must go on.” “But the need is here!” Krystha cried.”Am I not on this Way to heal? Shall I not do the work Light has given me to do?” “Krystha”, her sister said, “You must do as Aiel says. We are sworn to him, and to this Way.” “We are sworn” Krystha argued, “to undo the work of the Black Piper and the Bloodstone. And that is what I would be doing! Mell needs more Healers – it is foolishness that I am here, a Healer, and am forbidden to go to these people’s aid. That cannot be the Will of Light!” “The Will of Light is not always that we meet the most obvious need.” Aiel told her, firmly. “Krystha, I know how you must feel and I am more sorry than you can know that I cannot let you go. But we cannot spare the time. Our enemy is still ahead of us, and such a detour as you wish might cost us two days. It is impossible.” “Then leave me here, and go on without me!” Krystha cried. “No.” Aiel answered. “Krystha, you know that is just as impossible.”

Lin spoke, then. “Krystha, Aiel is our leader, the Lightstone-Bearer. You have sworn a vow to him, and to the Way. You must obey him now, or break faith.” Aiel did not know why it should be that whenever Lin spoke to Krystha in a way that she should clearly understand, she should grow so angry with the Swordsman. Perhaps he understood her too well. Whatever the reason, she erupted now. “Will you tell me about breaking faith? Am I not being asked to break faith with my Healer’s vows, that I also made to Light, long before I ever heard of this Way? Do you doubt my honour, Swordsman? Better look to your own – are you not sworn, too, to protect the victims of Darkness?” With this angry outburst she turned and almost ran from the room, leaving them all dismayed. Arentha tried, unhappily, to excuse her sister. “Oh Aiel, Lin, I am sorry! She is upset, and Krystha will never let herself be anything but angry when she is upset. She never could learn to weep, and so she flies into a fury instead.” “But why is she always angry with me?” Lin asked. Arentha gave a wry smile. “Perhaps – because you remind her too much of her shortcomings, Lin. It is not always easy to catch sight of oneself as another sees you.” Lin smiled a little too, thinking Arentha might well be right and agreed, “Perhaps! Aiel, let me go and see if I can find Krystha and make peace with her.” ‘But still’, the Swordsman thought to himself as, having received Aiel’s relieved agreement, he set out in search of Krystha , ‘she has as much need to make peace with me. For Aiel’s sake, this cannot go on.’

Lin went first to the stables, thinking Krystha might be with the horses. She was not there, but from a window he saw her, out in the tree-garth, beneath one of the fruit trees. Lin thought the matter over. His was a generous spirit which did not hold grudges, and it was no animosity towards Krystha, but his concern for Aiel and the Way, that made him determined to have out the issue with her, for her behaviour had unsettled them all. Krystha was leaning against the tree, her hand running absently over the smooth bark,as if she found the rhythmic movement soothing. Remembering Arentha’s words, Lin hoped the girl was not weeping, for he did not think she would like him catching her in tears. But she was not weeping, though her face was serious and pale. As Lin approached her, she looked up and said, challengingly, “You need not stand watch over me, Lin. I shall not be running away to the village.” “I am not standing watch on you”, he answered. “You are not a child, Krystha.” She flushed. “But I have behaved like one. I am sorry, Lin.” She pushed herself away from the tree with an impatient gesture, but her impatience was directed at herself, as she said, “Oh, sometimes I could tear out my tongue!” The confession, and apology, were unexpected. Her moods changed so quickly. Lin said, more gently, “Krystha, I wanted to speak to you.” She plucked a leaf and rubbed it between her fingers, as she answered, “I am listening.” “I am sorry, Krystha, if I have done anything to hurt or offend you. I think I only spoke truth, but if not, I wish that you would tell me where my fault lies, so that I may amend it. Aiel has burdens enough. For his sake and the Way’s, let there be no more of these petty wars between us.”

As he spoke, she had turned red again, and bowed her head. There was an awkward few seconds’ silence before she said, “Oh, Lin, you are an honourable man! There is no fault with you.” She glanced at him then, and continued, with a rueful half-smile, “I think you know that, though it is generous of you, to offer to take the blame for my – my foolishness.” She turned her head away again, and said softly, as if to herself, “No, you have done no wrong, nothing to hurt me…except to be yourself, Swordsman and free spirit.” And suddenly, Lin understood. He remembered Verrin saying, “Lady Krystha, now, would have made a fine Swordsman!” Lin felt a sudden compassion for Krystha, abandoned by her mother, overshadowed by her beautiful, beloved sister, deeply loyal to her father, yet with that brave, bright spirit imprisoned by the culture and customs of Li’is to a maiden’s tasks and duties. Yet she had taken up the fight against Darkness as best she could through her Healing skills. Now Lin better understood her reaction to Aiel’s interdict. Yet, he thought, Light had foreordained her, too, to the Lightstone Way. And when Lin really thought about it, he decided that if she had been a Swordsman, he would have trusted such a man with his life. he had no doubts of Krystha’s loyalty to Light.

Now, because he had been thinking these things, Lin said, “Krystha, what is a Swordsman’s most important attribute?” He could see that his question surprised her, because it was not what she expected. Still, she tried her best to answer. “I suppose…courage. Or sword-skill.” “Those are important. But the most important is discipline, Krystha.” “And I am undisciplined?” she asked, almost ready to be angry again. “Krystha, I do not know you well enough yet to say! I must see you in battle, first. Can you obey an order you mislike, knowing it to be for the best? Can you stand firm when all your senses scream, “Run!”? Will you let yourself be commanded?” She was thoughtful for a moment, looking at him with serious tawny eyes. “I think perhaps I do not know myself that well yet, either.” she said at last, quietly. “It might depend on who commanded.”

“Meanwhile”, Lin asked, ” is it peace between us, or war?” But he smiled as he said it, and she smiled too. “Peace.” she answered, extending her hand to him in token. Lin took it, not in his, but hand-to-forearm, in the Swordsmen’s handclasp, and saw that this pleased her. “Krystha,” he said suddenly, “we are comrades in this Way. Will it please you to swear Sword-Brotherhood with me?” “Gladly!” she answered, ” But – I am a maiden, Lin. Is it permitted?” “Each man may choose his own Sword-Brethren, you know that. There is no rule, nothing to say I may not choose a valiant maiden. It is a man’s own folly if he chooses unwisely, but I do not think I have chosen foolishly.” He smiled at her. “You are a descendant of Tamorine, Krystha – did you know that? – and I think her line runs true in you.” Lin drew the True Sword and they made the oath on its hilt. Lin did not know what impulse had led him to make her the offer of Sword-Brotherhood, only that it had felt the right thing to do, but also it settled matters between them fairly, for there could be no unpleasantness between sworn Sword-Brethren. “Krystha”, Lin said, when they had made the vow,”you know Aiel is right and he cannot let you go to the aid of the villagers. But by playing your part in the Way you can help Aiel defeat the Black Piper, and so avenge them.” And she nodded, thoughtfully, in agreement.

They returned to the Faring House, finding Mell and Aiel in quiet discussion. Arentha had been waiting for them, and shot Lin an enquiring glance. He smiled at her, to reassure her that Krystha and he had made a truce. Krystha had gone to the two Priests at the table, evidently, from her flushed cheeks, to apologise. Lin saw Aiel smile, say something softly to her, then rise and cup Krystha’s face in his hands , and set his Perception on her. Afterwards, Krystha seemed somewhat subdued, as though perhaps Light had chastened her, though only, as always, in love.

After they had breakfasted, it was time to go. Their provisions had been replenished and their horses saddled, and they mounted, bade farewell to Mell, and rode off with the words of his blessing in their ears. As they rode, the sun rose higher and the air became warm and still. Soon they saw a belt of trees ahead of them, and the roadway narrowed and became a track leading into the forest – the Red Forest, though at this point the trees were still green, though a sickly green. They rode in. Under the trees, the heat became oppressive. The soil did not have the rich, damp smell of the Mountain Forest. It seemed sour and light, a pale yellow colour. It was very still, with no birdsong or sound of small animals moving, not even the sound of insects. Arentha and Krystha, used to their own Forest, commented quietly on the strangeness and silence. They rode on, and entered a long, narrow glade. At the far end of it there seemed to be a strange shift of colour, which they first took to be a trick of the light. But drawing nearer, they saw that all the vegetation was touched with a strange, unhealthy reddish-brown, as though some unnatural fire had scorched it. “The Red Forest”, Arentha breathed. Aiel cast out his Perception towards the area, remembering Mell’s warning, and encountered something he could not quite interpret. Lin, seeing Aiel tense, asked, “What is wrong?” “I am not sure. I Perceive something, but I cannot make out what it is.” “Then we had best make sure”, Lin said, dismounting,”Where is it, Aiel?”

Aiel dismounted too, and, cautioning the girls to be ready to ride at any sign of danger, the young men crept forward. Peering through the red leaves they saw a dirty-looking stream, more of the reddish trees, and then, through a gap, a distant view of a few tumbled blocks of stone. Aiel sent out his Perception again in that direction, but was suddenly distracted by an awareness of a small, sharp, intense sense of evil, very close to him. He was about to look for its source when Krystha’s voice behind them said, commandingly, “Do not move , Aiel, Lin. There is danger near you.” With his Swordsman’s training, Lin froze instantly. Aiel too stood still, but it cost him a tremendous effort not to move, not to look round for the danger. Lin spoke, in a quiet but clear voice. “What is it, Krystha?” “A tree-viper, Lin. On the branch above you. be very still. Do not move till I say, and then be ready to move quickly. Do you understand?” “Yes”, Lin answered, for both of them. He could do nothing himself, and dared not move. Krystha seemed to have a plan, and he was thinking, as was Aiel, that they could only trust to her judgement. There was a pause of a few seconds, which seemed like hours. Then something small and bright slashed past them through the air, singing by so close to Lin’s cheek that he felt the wind of its passing. There was a small, soft thud, and Krystha cried, “Now!”

AS the two friends leapt back, Lin felt something whip across his shoulder, and looked up to see the deadly snake hanging from the branch, lashing wildly about. It was pinned to the branch by Krystha’s little knife, which had pierced it through a little below the head. Aiel stared at the creature with loathing. Lin drew his sword and cut off the viper’s head. It dropped to the earth, still viciously mouthing, and the Swordsman ground it to pulp beneath his heel. Then he wiped his sword, sheathed it, and reached up to pull Krystha’s knife free. The girls had dismounted and come across to them, and the body of the snake, still twitching and jerking, fell at their feet. Arentha took a step backward, but Krystha did not flinch. She asked, “It did not harm you?” Lin held out the knife to her, saying, “No, thanks to you, Krystha.” He looked at her with frank respect . “That was well thrown.” She smiled at him, looking pleased at his praise, but answered lightly, “Not so well. I was aiming for the head.” She took the little knife and wiped it clean on a rag from her Healer’s sack, before replacing it in its sheath. Aiel said, “Krystha, we likely owe you our lives, Thank you. ” To his surprise the Healer seemed embarrassed by his thanks, and only said, “Maybe. Should we not ride on?”

Aiel agreed, and did not pursue the matter. To Lin, though, as they remounted, he said, “That was brave of Krystha. And cool-headed.” “Aye”, Lin concurred, “She has a Swordsman’s spirit, Aiel. This morning we resolved our differences, and after, I swore Sword-Brotherhood with her. But I never thought to call on it so soon!” As they rode, Lin dropped back to say to Krystha, “I chose my Sword-Brother well!” Her amber-brown eyes gazed steadily at him. “Would you say so, Lin, if your Sword-Brother were a Brother indeed, and not a maiden?” “Aye,” he said, “I would. There are men of my Watch who could not do what you did, for it takes skill to strike a target from horseback, with a knife, at that distance. And,” he added, surprising himself as much as Krystha with the realisation of it, “I trusted your judgement, Krystha, enough to risk my life, and Aiel’s on it. And on Aiel’s life hangs the whole Way and all it means – Sword-Brother.” He smiled at her, and trotted forward again to join Aiel.

They had reached the stream now, and forded its unsavoury-looking waters cautiously. Emerging from the fringe of reddish trees on the other bank of the stream, they found themselves looking across at the tumbled Ruins of the Dark City. Great blocks of stone, columns, pillars, grotesque statues, lay in jumbled masses across a vast expanse of dull red, dusty earth. No one, in all the centuries since its destruction, had plundered the dark stone of these accursed Ruins to build with. No growing things had spread to cloak the rawness of the broken buildings, for nothing could take root or grow in the defiled earth. Only the rains and winds had gnawed impotently at the shattered stone, and blown drifts of the red dust in a slowly creeping veil across its ugliness. Aiel saw Arentha shudder at the sight, and knew the same unease was in them all. As they rode towards the brooding Ruins, Aiel thought of the history of the Lightstone he now bore, thought too of other men, of Brann and his fellows and Rafel who had been his forerunner as Lightstone-Bearer, carrying the Stone into battle with the forces of Darkness. Here before him now, after years upon years, still lay the evidence of Brann and Tamorine’s triumph, and the Lightstone’s power, which had destroyed the City of Darkness. The thought heartened him, despite the menace of the Ruins. They skirted the Ruins, but as they did so, Aiel thought he saw a movement. Were there Children of Night in the Ruins? He rode closer. Lin called to him, “Aiel, be careful! Mell said, remember, that the Children of Night still haunt this place.” Aiel turned his head over his shoulder and called back to his friend. “We will be cautious, Lin. But look around you – this is the work of the Lightstone. Should we fear the Darkness in this place, knowing what we carry with us?”

Lin made sure the maidens were safely close, and they rode after Aiel into the fringes of the ruined city, wary for signs of danger. Aiel was looking in the direction of the movement he had seen. “Lin, something stirred, there.” Lin looked. “It might be something – or nothing. Maybe a rag in the breeze.” “There is no breeze – the air is too still. Let me try my Perception.” Aiel reached out his Priestly sense towards the movement, cautious, after his previous encounter with the Black Piper, and ready to withdraw at the first touch of that poisonous, sucking evil. But, prepared for the evil, he was not prepared for what he did encounter – not Darkness, but pain. Pain physical, mental and spiritual, a raw anguish like that of a wounded animal, engulfed him. It was not an animal, though, for at the heart of it was a mind which was – or had been till the agony broke it – human. Aiel was as trapped as if he had encountered the Black Piper, for nowhere in that broken mind was there a single rational thought to help him back to himself. He was drowning in agony and madness.

Lin saw in Aiel’s face a reflection of what he was Perceiving, and caught Aiel’s reins, shouting his name. There was no reply. Vainly the Swordsman struggled to reach Aiel’s mind and control the horses at the same time. Krystha saw Lin’s struggles, and she and Arentha rode closer. The Healer took one look at Aiel’s tortured expression and the way his body was tensing, his back beginning to arch backwards in response to what he was Perceiving. Without hesitation she leaned over and delivered two swift, hard slaps to his face. Lin almost protested, then saw that her rough treatment had succeeded. Aiel’s eyes came alive again, and he was back with them. He shook his head and rubbed his stinging cheek in automatic reaction, and Krystha said, “I am sorry, Aiel. It was the only way to reach you.” “I know”, was all he said, then, “Krystha come, I need your skills. There is someone – or something – terribly hurt in that place.” He was off at a swift pace, with Krystha riding at his horse’s heels, and Lin and Arentha wheeled to follow them.

The place where Aiel had seen the movement was a part of the Ruins where the Children of Night must obviously have gathered, for some of the tumbled columns and stones had been collected and built into a rough square building, partly open to the sky, with a narrow doorway. It was in this doorway that he had seen the movement. Aiel reined in his horse and slid from its back, with Krystha right behind him. A moment later, seeing the horror before them, Aiel was wishing, as desperately as he had ever wished anything in his life, that he had not had to call Krystha to come with him. For the movement he had seen was the feeble stirring of a dreadfully injured body that lay across the doorway. It was a young girl, scarcely more than a child, her face, once surely innocent and fair, now a bloody, battered mask of injuries. Her simple clothing was ripped to shreds,the body beneath torn and bruised. Her limbs lay at such grotesque angles that it seemed not one bone was left unbroken. Aiel could not comprehend a force of evil that could leave an innocent like this ravished, beaten, broken in mind and body. Despite his enounters with Si-Mara and Lak, only now did he begin to understand the true nature of the Dark Lord, his capacity for infinite evil.

Krystha, after one short cry of horror, had set aside her feelings and bent to her Healer’s tasks, kneeling beside the girl to gently lift the wounded head into her lap. She ran delicately probing fingers over the poor broken body with a tenderness that somehow spoke of her distress, and at last she raised her head from her work and said, “Aiel, she is dying. There is nothing I can do.” “Not even to ease her pain?” he asked. She shook her head. “No, not even that” she answered, bleakly. “I have no draught with me that would be strong enough to drown this out..” she almost choked on her words, then said, with a little gasp, “Oh! Aiel, perhaps the Lightstone..” “Yes”, he said, anticipating her. He drew out the Lightstone and knelt beside Krystha, touching the stone to the wounded girl’s brow. The light flowed gently over the pathetic, twisted body, and Aiel thought, for a moment, that perhaps it would even heal her. The light seemed to wash the pain from the girl’s face. For a moment, it seemed she almost tried to smile, and her hand moved,as if she would reach out for something. But then the hand dropped, heavily, and the girl’s head lolled back in Krystha’s lap, eyes fixed and still. Krystha closed the girl’s eyes, and said, “She is dead.” And then, in a voice tight with pain, “Oh, Aiel!”

Aiel had forgotten the others, but now he heard a sound behind him, turned, and saw, thankfully, that Lin had pulled Arentha round, away from the dreadful scene; her face was hidden in the Swordsman’s shoulder as she wept bitterly. Lin, though, was staring at the dead girl with set face and eyes like cold grey stones. Aiel turned back to Krystha. She had laid down the still body, but still knelt beside it, silent and numb, tawny eyes unseeing. Aiel called Krystha’s name, but she did not respond. Gently he touched her cheek; it was icy-cold, but not with tears, for her eyes were wide and dry. Aiel did not know how to reach her. He did not feel in his spirit that the Lightstone was the answer, this time, but what else to do he did not know, for Krystha was the Healer, not he. He turned again towards the others, hoping for Arentha’s help, but saw at once that she was still too distressed herself to help Krystha. So he appealed to Lin, quietly. “Lin, Krystha will not answer me.” Lin said, “Let me try. Take Arentha.” Aiel held the weeping maiden and watched while Lin knelt beside Krystha and spoke to her, softly, but with an air of firm command. Aiel could not hear what the Swordsman said, but after a while the bowed red head straightened, and Krystha looked into Lin’s face. Lin continued to speak to her, and at last the girl nodded, and let Lin help her to her feet, but still she did not weep. Aiel looked at her dry-eyed pallor, and wished that she would let the tears come.

Lin said, now, “Aiel, is there Darkness yet in this place?” Aiel answered, “I Perceived only the poor girl – her pain was so strong, it drowned out anything else…” “I will search.” Lin said, drawing his sword, “There may be Children of Night hiding there still.” “Lin, be careful!” Aiel exclaimed. The Swordsman stepped, very carefully, round the girl’s body, and through the doorway, disappearing into the dimness beyond. A few moments later, Aiel heard his friend give such a cry of horror that with a hasty “Stay here!” to the girls, he rushed after Lin into the place of death. Instantly his Perception was assailed by a sense of terror and evil, yet there was no one but Lin in the place. What foul things must have happened here, to leave such an imprint on the very air! Lin was standing motionless by a slab of black stone at the far end of the building. Aiel went towards him, seeing that something small and pale lay across the stone by which the Swordsman stood. Lin looked up from the thing which had seemingly held him hypnotised, and said, “Aiel..” in a low voice that was almost a groan. He pointed, and Aiel looked, and felt a cold wave of horror and nausea engulf him. The thing that lay across the slab was the tiny body of a baby, ripped open like a butchered animal. Aiel echoed Lin’s groan, feeling, in that moment, as though all that had been innocent and untroubled in him finally shrivelled and died. Very gently, as though the child still lived, he lifted and cradled it against him, looking across the stone into Lin’s horrified face. “Now I have looked three times into the very heart of Darkness”, Aiel said, “and this third time is the bitterest.” He looked down again at the tiny body and said, with tears of sorrow and pity pouring down his cheeks, “Lin, the child was a sacrifice to the Bloodstone – and I let the Bloodstone pass! How shall I bear this burden on my soul – the maiden, and now this poor babe?” “Aiel, it is not your guilt to bear!” Lin cried. “The Secret Word tells you that, and Light forgave you the Bloodstone’s passing. Do not listen to the lies of Darkness, nor let false guilt turn you from your task, What happened here is terrible, but if you allow the Darkness to overcome you, to persuade you that you are not worthy of the Lightstone and the Way, and to defeat you – then all Li’is goes down into Darkness, and such things as these will happen everywhere.” “Lin, you are wise!” Aiel agreed, “I must not let this defeat me, but trust in Light, and not listen to my own feelings.”

They went back to the girls, then. Lin went first, to prepare them, while Aiel tenderly carried the murdered child. “Lin, Aiel, what is it?” Krystha asked, as the Swordsman appeared. “Krystha, they have slain a babe, too, as a sacrifice to the Bloodstone.” Lin answered. Arentha, who was still quietly weeping, gasped, “How could anything human do such things?” Aiel said, looking down at the dead infant in his arms, “Those who did this are no longer human. They are possessed by Darkness. ” Krystha, seeing his distress, held out her arms. “Give me the babe, Aiel.” Unprotesting, the young Priest handed her his forlorn burden, and said, “They must have come from the village that was raided.” “But that was two days and nights past..” Lin began, and broke off, because it was not good to think of what had happened in those two days and nights.

“I must send word to Mell”, Aiel said, “I will not let them lie here, in this dreadful place.” “It will be some while before Mell comes.” Lin said, “We must raise a cairn over them, to keep them from scavenging beasts.” “Let me and Arentha tend the dead”, Krystha said, “Mell will take them – will take them home for burial.” It was the first time that her voice had faltered. She continued, “I would send the little one back to its mother in fitting manner, and the girl to her people in decent order. Go you, and gather stones for the cairn.” Arentha brushed away her tears, and turned to unfasten her saddle bag. “We have spare clothes. We will cover her decently.” she said. “Come”, Lin said to Aiel, and the two friends went far enough away to give the girls privacy to manage their sad task. They were careful, though, that they were close enough to see and respond should any danger threaten the sisters. As they gathered the stones, Lin asked, “Aiel, how is it with you?” “The Darkness still accuses me,” Aiel answered, “but I will not listen. Lin, this foe must be overcome, if it costs me my life! I will not let this evil devour all Li’is.” Lin was satisfied by his friend’s determined words, though his heart shrank from the thought that Aiel might die in achieving his task. “Light prevent it!” , the Swordsman murmured to himself.

Laden with armfuls of broken stone, they returned to the others. Aiel and Lin were both moved by what the maidens had done for the dead. They had dressed the girl in a white undergarment that covered her nakedness and sore wounds, discarding her own torn clothes, and combed out her tangled, matted hair. They had straightened, as far as possible, the crooked limbs, and because they had washed the red dust and dried blood from her face, though they could not wash away the bruises, the peace the Lightstone had brought to her dying moments showed there. As for the babe, Krystha had wrapped its tiny body tightly in strips of cloth from her Healer’s sack, and placed it in the girl’s arms. That seemed fitting too, seeming to take away some of the loneliness of death from them both. Before they built the cairn, Krystha reached into her Healer’s sack again, and threw two or three handfuls of sweet-smelling dried herbs over the bodies. Then the four of them pushed and dragged some of the larger stones into position above the bodies, and filled the gaps with the smaller stones which Aiel and Lin had collected. Aiel stood and prayed aloud, giving the spirits of the two innocents into the keeping of Light. Then he drew out the Lightstone and used it to augment his Perception, reaching out for that of Mell, his brother Priest. He stood quietly for a long time,as the Thought-without-Words flowed. Then he turned to the others, and said, “Mell will come with the villagers at first light, and take them home. But he says we must go on now, for there is still far to go, and the sun is well past noontide.”

As they remounted, Aiel glanced at the others. Arentha, though her face was pale and weary and marked with the dried-salt track of tears, did not concern him as much as the others. Her grief and revulsion, like his own, had been expressed. But Lin’s apparent stoicism, and above all, Krystha’s quiet rigidity, worried him. They set off again on the road to the Second Faring House, riding fast as if to outrun the memory of what they had experienced in the Dark City Ruins. It was a great relief when the place disappeared from view behind them. Lin, always practical, said, “Aiel, we must slow down. If we go on at such a pace we will tire the horses before we reach the Faring House.” “But it is growing darker” Arentha observed, and she was right. Though the sky was still light, it was slowly darkening overhead. Aiel slowed his horse and reached out with his Perception in the direction of the Faring House. He touched a consciousness, and felt his brother Priest’s Perception swing to meet his. Aiel’s grief and weariness made the contact tenuous, so he could give no detailed communication. He managed to convey that he and his companions were distressed, weary, and possibly in danger, and sought the shelter of the Faring House, and the other Priest assured him that he would come to meet them on the road. Aiel thanked him,then broke the contact, and told the others. The knowledge that they were no longer riding into the unknown, that help was on the way, seemed to ease their minds a little. Aiel, though, was still concerned about Krystha, and, to a lesser extent, Lin. He rode alongside his friend , and said, softly, “Lin, I do not like Krystha’s silence.” Lin said, as quietly, “No more do I. She has herself under tight control, Aiel. But sometime she must break.” “And what of you, Lin?” Aiel challenged. “I? I feel sick to my stomach, Aiel. But my task is to guard you and the maidens until we come safe to shelter. Only afterwards will there be time to mourn the dead, or weep, or feel ill. I shall probably do all of those, when there is time.” he added. Aiel felt some relief. Lin’s practicality and honesty cheered him a little.

It grew darker as they rode, and soon they were trotting through the dark night and milky moonlight. Aiel slipped the Lightstone free of its pouch and let it lie gleaming on his breast, its light and presence comforting them in the gloom. At length, they heard the steady clop of hooves on the road ahead, and Aiel reached out his Perception, meshing with the same mind he had met before. It was Brath, the Priest who kept the Second Faring House, and with him his son, Tavis. Their greetings were courteous but perfunctory, then Aiel said, “You may see, my Brothers-in-Light, that I am the Lightstone-Bearer.” “And you have encountered peril on your way?” Brath asked. “Not peril, but great grief”, Aiel answered, ” and we are too burdened to speak clearly of it yet.” “Let it rest, then, till we have you safely in the Faring House, my Brother-in-Light.” Brath answered, kindly.

With the other two Priests as guides, the journey seemed less dismal, though they rode in exhausted silence after their brief interchange, and Brath and Tavis, Perceiving their great sorrow, made no attempt at conversation. There would be time enough for explanations, as Brath had said, when they reached the safe shelter of the Faring House. Before long, they saw the gleam of lights from the House ahead of them, and found themselves riding into the courtyard. Weary in body and spirit, and still dazed with shock and grief, they were hardly aware of dismounting and their horses being led away. With kindly concern, Brath ushered them into the Faring House, where a sweet-faced, brown-haired woman waited. “Lady Saditha”, Brath introduced her, “my wife and our Healer.” “Lady”, Lin said urgently, “if you are a Healer, look to the maidens!” For Arentha had sunk down on the bench by the door, her face in her hands, as if she could bear no more. But it was to Krystha’s stony white face and rigid-still body that the Healer’s concerned look flew, and Krystha it was who, as her fellow Healer took a step towards her, crumpled suddenly and silently to the floor. Arentha cried out her sister’s name, and Aiel exclaimed to the Healer, “I was afraid of this! She was so quiet…” and stopped, realising that his words would make no sense, since Lady Saditha did not know what had happened. Lin said nothing, but swiftly bent to lift the unconscious girl, his look asking the Healer what he should do next. “Come with me, all of you.” Lady Saditha commanded, reaching out a hand to Arentha. “Go you, Lin”, Aiel said, “I will follow in a little, Lady. First I must speak to my Brothers-in-Light.”

When the Healer had gone, taking his companions with her, to the Healing Place, Brath said, gently still, “Lightstone-Bearer – you are overburdened. Do not burden yourself further with searching for words. Let us make the Thought-without-Words.” “My name is Aiel.” the young Priest said, suddenly realising that he had not even told them that. “And I would be very glad to share Perception with you, for I think I could not bear to speak of what has befallen us today. Yet if I do, I must expose you too to the Darkness of it.” “You are our Brother, and you need our help.” Tavis said, simply. “Aye” Brath agreed.”Let us make the Thought-without-Words, Aiel.” They sat together at a table, then, and simply let their Perceptions flow together. Aiel was too tired to censor his experiences, and just let everything flow out to Brath and Tavis, and with it his sorrow, his guilt and shame, his determination to overcome this and finish his Way and defeat the Darkness. He felt the other Priests’ reactions, their sharing of his sorrow and pain, their compassion, acceptance and reassurance. From Tavis he felt a spark of anger, for the innocent victims, and for the hurt done to Aiel himself. From the older Priest he felt sorrow, and loving brotherhood. Both of them rejected his feelings of guilt, giving him strength and determination with their fellowship. This time of sharing, of brotherhood, brought Aiel closer to peace.

Meanwhile, in the Healing Place, Lin had laid Krystha down on the couch indicated by the Healer. Seeing Arentha’s anxiety as the Healer examined her sister, he took her hand gently, to comfort her, though he too was watching with no little concern. Arentha’s hand was very cold, and when he took it, her fingers clung tightly to his. At last the Healer finished her examination, and sighed, “Poor child, she is greatly overburdened. It is as well that she fainted. Let her rest.” She turned then to Arentha, taking the girl’s face in her hands, and said softly, “Ah, yours is a softer spirit than your sister’s. You will bend but not break, like a reed in the wind.” Releasing Arentha, she turned to pour something into a small bowl, which she handed to the girl. A sweet perfume filled the room, and Arentha looked at the Healer with startled eyes. Lady Saditha nodded. “Aye, it is sweetwood, and I do not use it without cause, child. Sleep and forgetting for your healing too. Drink now.” Arentha obediently drank the draught and allowed herself to be helped to the couch beside Krystha’s. Lady Saditha covered her over, quietly, and so potent was the sleep-inducing spice that the girl was asleep in minutes .Now Lady Saditha moved back to Lin’s side, and asked, gently, “What will ease your pain, Swordsman? For surely some deep evil has befallen all of you, and you so young to bear it.” It was not a question, and Lin, startled by the certainty of her statement, gazed at her, and, for the first time, saw that Lady Saditha’s eyes were clear, piercing, vivid blue….

He did not know why he should be so surprised. Though it was the sons of the Priesthood who always carried Perception, now and then a daughter was born with the Gift. And often enough those that were, having been trained in its use but not being expected to enter the Priesthood as their brothers did, made good use of their power by becoming Healers and counsellors. Now he said, “You are right, Lady. We have seen much that is foul and evil and bitter this day. If you are willing, you may Perceive it, but I fear I cannot talk of it.” For, like Aiel, he was not yet ready to frame words for the Darkness he had seen. Lady Saditha took his face gently between her hands, as she had Arentha’s, and said, “I will Perceive it, though you have walked through Darkness this day. I can better heal the hurts I understand, Swordsman.” She set her Perception on him, and Lin was glad of it. The cool blue gaze spilt like cleansing water into his mind, seeming to wash away some of the Darkness and hurts of the day. He could feel the Healer’s compassion for him, and in the face of it the day’s bitter memories seemed less keen, the sharp edge of his pain somewhat blunted. When Lady Saditha withdrew her Perception, Lin saw that her face was pale, her blue eyes brimming with tears. “Things foul and evil and bitter indeed!” she exclaimed. “You have endured such Darkness – poor children, no wonder you are all so burdened.” Almost, he said, “We are not children, we are the Way-Sharers.” But that would have been churlish in the face of her kindness, and Lin held his tongue.

There was a tap at the door, and Aiel came in, asking “Lin, how is it with Krystha?” It was the Healer who answered. “She fainted because she was so overburdened. I will do nothing till she wakens and I can see how she fares. Her sister, though, should recover with rest. I have given her a draught of sweetwood, so that she sleeps deeply.” She glanced sypathetically at them. “And for you, Lightstone-Bearer, and the Swordsman too, let sleep bring relief and forgetfulness for now. It will bring you strength to deal with the pain tomorrow.” She mixed them each a draught – not the strong sweetwood, but a less potent aid to sleep- and sent for Tavis to conduct them to a comfortable bedchamber, where he left them with a quiet blessing. Swordsman and Priest spoke very little, except to commit each other to Light’s keeping. The combination of physical weariness, emotional exhaustion, the weight of grief, and the Healer’s draught had made them so tired that they reeled to their beds like drunken men and fell quickly and deeply asleep.

DANCE THE DARKNESS DOWN

Chapter 7

Aiel was the first to wake, and as soon as he did, was assailed by memories. Too wise not to let them find release, he rolled onto his stomach, laid his head on his arms, and wept for the dead girl and the slaughtered babe. Then, when the first outpouring of his grief began to subside, he sat up and took the Lighstone in his hands, gazing into the peace-filled glow of it, losing his pain and grief in the Presence of Light.

Lin woke slowly, which was not usual for him. He did not realise, at first, that this was because his mind was unwilling to break free of the clinging mists of sleep and face what he had experienced. The memory, though, drove through the lingering sleepiness like a spear, and Lin, unsure for a moment if it were memory, or some dreadful dream, turned towards his friend and cried, “Aiel!” The young Priest laid the Lightstone down and, seeming to Perceive Lin’s thoughts, said, with a sorrowful gentleness, “No, Lin, my brother, it was no nightmare. That was the true face of Darkness.” Lin stared blankly at his friend, aware only of the churning whirlpool of emotions in his heart and mind. Aiel, full of compassion for the Swordsman, said, “Lin, it is time now to feel it all – and then seek peace.” He held out the Lightstone, but before Lin could respond, they heard Lady Saditha’s voice calling to them from outside the door. Aiel answered, and the Healer came in. “Ah, you are both awake. How is it with you now?” “For myself, I have let myself feel all, then found my peace in the Lightstone.” Aiel said. “And I think it will do the same for Lin.” “And the maidens?” Lin asked.

“Arentha – she has also given full expression to her grief, and it will be well with her”, the Healer said, “but Krystha is another matter.” “She is not still unconscious?” Aiel asked, with concern, just as Lin asked, too, “What ails her, Lady?”. “Oh no, she is awake, but still she holds in her grief and pain. It is as if she will not acknowledge them. I spoke to Arentha, who tells me Krystha will never weep. She thinks she is being strong and brave, foolish child. Why can she not understand that if she holds back her grief, it will poison and destroy her? She should know that, she is a Healer. But she will not listen to me, or Arentha.” “She would know it, in any but herself.” Aiel answered. “Her father too told me that she will not reveal her feelings.” Lin said, suddenly, “Lady – she will not listen to you or Arentha, and I think she will not listen to the Priest kind – even Aiel. But to me, perhaps, she may listen, as she did in the Ruins when Aiel could not reach her, because I am her Sword-Brother. Let me try, at least.”

Aiel said, “Lin, you have not yet dealt with your own feelings about this thing. Let the Lightstone aid you first, then go to Krystha.” The Healer seemed about to speak, but Lin said, “Aiel, no. I think that is not the right way about. Let me go first to Krystha and show her how I feel – let her see that I feel the pain and am not afraid to show it before her, that a Swordsman too can grieve. Then, if I succeeed with her, we can both come to you for healing with the Lightstone.” “Yes, you are right, Lin”, said Lady Saditha. “Go to Krystha and show her that it is not unbecoming a brave spirit to weep. I will send Tavis to show you where she is.” The Healer left them, and Lin dressed hastily, anxious for Krystha. When Tavis came, he followed the Priest back to the Healing Place, but past it, along a corridor, to a door on which he tapped, then opened for Lin to enter. The Swordsman closed the door and turned to face Krystha, who was standing by a bench seat in the middle of the room. She returned his gaze without speaking, and Lin saw that she still had that air of tight control, that pale, stony face. At that moment Lin felt more helpless and unsure of himself than ever in his life. “Krystha”, he said, “it is not well with you.” “It is well with me.” she contradicted him. “Are you a Healer, to know?” “I know that last night you lay fainting at my feet with the burden of what had happened. And though I am not a Healer, Lady Saditha is, and she is greatly concerned for you, because you will not admit what you feel.” “How do you know what I feel?” she argued. “Because I feel it too!” he almost shouted. “I am not ashamed to say it, Krystha, so why do you deny it? You must know that if you hold in your grief it will poison your soul – you are a Healer.”

She did not answer that, but stared at him dumbly with wide, dry eyes that were somehow more moving than tears. In that moment, Lin felt as though he could bear no more. He had wanted to help Krystha, he had somehow been so sure that he could reach her, but now, with his own unresolved feelings still battering at his mind, the burden of her need, added to his, was too much for him. He sank down on the bench with a groan. “Lin – Sword-Brother- what is it?” Krystha’s voice was suddenly unsure, as she came to stand in front of him. He looked up at her, but could not see her expression clearly, because she was standing between him and the window, with the light behind her. “Why will you not let me help you?” he asked. “I wanted to help you – I told Lady Saditha I could, because she said you were being poisoned by your wounds. And I know how your wounds feel, because I am your Sword-Brother, and my wounds are the same. Not bodily wounds, no, wounds of the spirit, but still we have both been sorely wounded, Krystha.” Lin felt his own grief and anger rising in him, and did not try to hold them back. “If you say you do not feel it, I do not believe you…how can you say so?” he went on, stumbling over his words, not even sure if he was making sense to her. “Do you not grieve for the little maid, for her terror and pain – oh, Krystha, she was hardly more than a child!” Lin was weeping now, freely and openly giving vent to his grief. “And the babe, the little babe! He was about the same age as my sister’s little one – a few weeks born and then murdered. How terrible Mira’s grief would be, if that were Janir! Can you say you feel nothing for those poor young parents, Krystha?” He could not speak then, for a while, because he was so overcome by the thought of such a precious child torn away from a young couple like his sister and her husband and murdered to feed the Bloodstone, and he almost forgot Krystha in his mourning.

After a while, though, he realised that Krystha was sitting beside him. Her face, no longer stony, had a look of bewildered hurt, and she said, with a gasp, “Lin – do not – do not say that! That I felt nothing for the babe’s mother. I tried -” she swallowed, and he thought she might weep, then, but she did not. “I tried to do what I could – to hide the ugliness from her – to show her that at the last someone had cared for him in his death. And the girl – oh, Lin, I have seen death before, but never like that – so cruel, so wantonly inflicted. And I could not help her, I could do nothing, not even to ease her dying” Krystha took another deep breath and said, in a rush, “and you – you took me for Sword-Brother, Lin; I did not want to shame you. I wanted to be strong – and I failed you.” He caught her hand, then, and cried in protest, “Ah, Krystha, no! You were strong, and brave. But do you not see that strength lies, not in denying your feelings, but facing them?” She was still, very still, but she did not take her hand from his, When she broke her silence it was to say, so quietly that he thought she almost hoped he would not hear her, “Oh, Sword-Brother, I am afraid.” Lin stared at her, trying to understand. Was it her memories of yesterday, her own emotions, that she feared? No, not those, he felt. Then what, in the Name of Light, made her so afraid to express those feelings? And perhaps it was Light that told him. He looked at her averted face. Then he turned it back to face him, and took her other hand, so that she could not hide her face from him. “Krystha, look at me.” he commanded, then, “What has made you afraid to weep? What has taught you that your tears were valueless? It is not so, Krystha.” She did not answer, but he had felt her give an odd little jump. And then the first slow, cold tears began to ooze from under her tightly closed eyelids. Even then she would have turned her face away from him again, but once more he turned it back. “No, Krystha, do not fear me” he said, his voice more gentle, but still commanding. “I am your Sword-Brother, and I know” – remembering Lady Saditha’s words- “that it is not unbecoming a brave spirit to weep. I will value your tears, Krystha. Let go!”

Even then, he was not sure if she were reassured by his words, or simply too exhausted to fight her own emotions any more. But the red head turned suddenly to thrust into his shoulder, and she leaned against him and began to weep. At first her tears were quiet and restrained, but once those tears had found release, she wept more violently, sobbing out all her held back distress and grief. Lin put an arm round her shoulders to support her, like a wounded comrade, and he too wept a little, quietly, partly because he was still not done with grieving, but mostly with relief because, after all, he had helped Krystha, his Sword-Brother. When at last they had both done with tears, they looked at each other almost shyly. Then Lin said reassuringly, “See, Krystha, we have helped each other weep out the poison. Is it well with you now?” “Yes”, she whispered,”Lin, thank you – for understanding, for letting me weep.” “I am glad ” he said “that I could help you. And that you felt able at the last to trust me with your tears.” “Who should I trust” she said, with an attempt at a smile, “if not my Sword-Brother?” “But why – no, I will not ask. But I am surprised that you could not let yourself weep, knowing what harm it could do to hold back your grief.” “Always I turned my grief to anger” she told him, honestly.” Oh, you know that well enough, Lin. I felt – somehow I felt – I would be more like a Swordsman if I did not weep.” “But now you know that Swordsmen also weep.” he told her. “Perhaps it is a good thing that I have learned that now, Lin – for there may be more tears ahead of us on this Way ,Sword-Brother.” Lin agreed, and thought privately that she seemed softer in her spirit now – not in any weak sense, at all, but as though her strength, which had always seemed unbending, almost brittle, had been tempered by sorrow to a new kind of strength. Perhaps Arentha’s kind of strength, he thought, remembering that Lady Saditha had said of Krystha’s sister, “You will bend and not break, like a reed in the wind.” Arentha had wept, and not broken, while Krystha had collapsed under the weight of her unshed tears.

“Are you ready now to go to the others?” Lin asked her. “Aiel will strengthen us with the Lightstone. ” “Yes” she said “but, Lin, I have drawn strength from you too. It has been a battle for me, and I was glad of my Sword-Brother.” They went to find Aiel and Arentha, looking first in the Healing Place. There was nobody there but a serving maid , who directed them to the Hall of the House, where they found the other two sitting talking quietly with Lady Saditha. Arentha leapt to her feet when she saw her sister, and ran to embrace her. “Oh, Krystha!” she exclaimed, “Is it well with you now?” Krystha reassured her, and Aiel said, “Lin, Krystha, come and let the Lightstone finish the healing of your hurts.” They did as he bade them, first Krystha, then Lin, having the Lightstone touched to their brows and feeling themselves washed, revived and strengthened by the power that came to them through the Stone. Aiel too noticed the change in Krystha, but he sensed also that Lin seemed, like Krystha, to be at once gentler, yet stronger. ‘We are all changing’ he thought ‘Is it the Way, or the Lightstone’s touch, or simply obedience to Light, that makes it so?’ For he knew the changes were for the better,a process of maturing. he himself no longer felt defeated by the evil he had seen, only more determined to overcome it.

Next came what was becoming a familiar routine; breakfast amid a welter of maps which Brath and Tavis brought in. Lady Saditha had gone to have some fresh provisions prepared for their journey, for in the previous day’s turmoil they had not eaten at all, and much of the food Mell had given them was dry or spoiled. Brath said, “It is a good two days’ journey up to the Plateau, and another day before you reach the Ket’s camp.” Aiel asked, “I thought that the Westerners were wanderers, and moved around the Plateau. How do you know that the Ket’s camp will be there?” “The herdsmen – the keepers of horses and cattle- are the wanderers.” Tavis said.”They and their families roam the Plateau to find springs of water and fresh grazing for their animals. But the Ket has a fixed camp. He and his family, his warriors and their families stay in one place on the Summer Pastures, so that he and his elders – who also stay there- are available to decide any problem that may arise among his people.” “I have met some of the Westerners.” Lin said. “My sister is wife to the Lord of the Western Fortress. They move Westward to his Land-Watch and the Western Fortress at harvest time.” Brath nodded. “They move up to their Summer Pastures on the Plateau just before the Night of the Warrior Children, and stay there till First Harvest Horn. Then they move West.” “What is the Night of the Warrior Children?” Krystha asked, forestalling Aiel, who had been about to ask the same question. “As soon as the snows have melted from the lower slopes of the Western Mountains in Spring, the Westerners are off to their Summer Pastures”, explained Tavis, “and the boys just coming to manhood begin their Sword-Training. But because, by Western reckoning, they have been cooped up in the villages and Fortress all winter, they are allowed one night of licence, one last night to be children, to romp or be as foolish as they wish – to do anything they want to do, with no fear of punishment.” “Such a freedom might be misused.” said Lin. “It sometimes is”, Brath answered, “but the Watchers take note. To the Warrior Children they are mysterious, hooded figures who may appear or disappear at any time, but do not interfere. In truth, though, they are the Sword-Trainers, disguised, and they take note of any lad who behaves in a foolish way. When his training begins they will be careful to give him extra training where it is needed, until in time he becomes aware of his own fault and corrects it himself – even makes amends for anything done amiss on that night. There are no dishonourable warriors among the Westerners.”

“Will the Ket welcome us, though?” asked Aiel, returning to the matter in hand,” And will he aid us in this Way?” “The Ket is true to Light,” Brath said,” he will aid you.” “Where shall we find shelter for the nights, if it is a three days’ journey?”asked Lin. “There are some suitable places to camp on the way up” Tavis told him, ” and some hollow places, hardly caves at all, but they give some shelter. Only make sure some beast has not chosen it first.” “On the Plateau it may be more difficult, unless you happen on some of the herders to give you space for the night.” Brath continued, “You may have to sleep in the open. But that will only be for one night, and it should be dry on the Plateau. After that the Ket will give you shelter.” After their discussion, they made ready to go on, but as they mounted their horses, all of them felt some reluctance to leave the Faring House. Lady Saditha even begged them to consider staying a day longer to recover from their painful experiences, but Aiel said, his face set with determination, “Lady, there is no time!” and she did not try again to persuade them . They bade their kind hosts farewell, and rode away. Lin felt that now they were truly alone. Only once before had they had to make camp, and that had been on territory vaguely familiar, at least, to Krystha and Arentha. Now there was no familiar ground, no Faring House, no helpful Priest – though Aiel could, at need, summon aid by the use of the Thought-without-Words. But how long would it be in coming? Then he reminded himself that Aiel bore the Lightstone and he himself the True Sword. Light was with them! Lin felt ashamed of his doubts.

Leaving the Second Faring House behind them, they could already see, as they turned Northward, the high, level land for which they were aiming, and the land between rising, falling, but always to rise again towards the Plateau. It seemed a gentle, placid countryside after the mountains, the rough Moor, the evil Red Forest, and the terrors of the Dark City Ruins, the nightmare ride through darkness to the Second Faring House. They did not let themselves feel secure, though, pleasant though the countryside looked. The evil they pursued might still be lurking there. At first they made easy going over the soft, springy turf, and each gentle swell of the ground was only a pleasing break in the smoothness. It was enjoyable riding, and at first Aiel, now so much more used to being on horseback, enjoyed it as much as the others. The sun was pleasantly warm, the sky blue, the crushed grass sent up a fresh, green smell that was refreshing. After the Darkness that had shadowed them since they left the City, it was peace and benison, and if any of them thought of those evil things, they did not mention it, but spoke cheerfully of their pleasant surroundings. Aiel, though, was alert, his Perception extended, ready for any hint of Darkness.

After half a day’s riding, they stopped in a little hollow to eat, and let the tethered horses graze on the fresh grass. When they set off again, they found that the ground was now growing steeper, and where there had been mere rises and dips in the terrain, now there were beginning to be real slopes and valleys. It began to be quite difficult, especially for Aiel, to control their descents, and it was much harder riding. At last they reached the top of the steepest slope they had yet attempted, and saw that it descended again, quite steeply still, into a little valley, through which a stream was running. They looked around them. Ahead, the ground rose yet more steeply towards the Plateau. Far, far to the West rose a range of mountains, so distant that they looked like faint grey and lilac shadows painted on the skyline. To the East, as far away, the horizon dipped into a blue-grey blur that might have been the sea. The valley below them, partly wooded, was not straight, but turned sharply at the Eastern end and disappeared under a mass of vegetation. Westward, it curved more gently, and though the stream mostly ran through a deep channel, just at that point there was a kind of beach, a wide area of pebble-strewn, sandy soil, where it should be possible to obtain water.

Aiel turned to ask Lin, “What do you think, Lin? Shall we make camp here? There is water, and some shelter. I know it is not yet dusk, and we could go further. But for myself, I am tired, and not sure I could manage such another steep slope. And we may not find more water, if we go on.” Lin and the girls nodded agreement, and Lin said, “I think that is wise, Aiel. If we stop now, we can leave earlier in the morning. And this is a good place to stay.” It was actually quite difficult to descend the steep slope, and after Aiel had almost fallen once, they dismounted and walked the horses down the last part. That done, they tethered the beasts, and first built their shelters. After this, Lin said, “I will water the horses – no, you need not come, Aiel, you look tired.” From the bottom of the valley they could not see the little beach, but Lin led the horses round the curve of the valley towards it. Arentha and Krystha were busy preparing food, but they would not let Aiel help either. Krystha said, in her blunt way, “Aiel, Lin is right. You look ready to drop. Lie down and rest, while we make the meal.” So Aiel – not unwillingly, for the riding and the prolonged use of his Perception had made him very weary – lay on his back on the soft grass, and watched them.

He must have drifted into sleep, for he came suddenly awake with a sharp sense of Darkness, of evil, very strong and very close. He made to sit up, so that he could warn Arentha and Krystha, but found that something cold and hard was against his throat. He opened his eyes and looked up to see, momentarily, only a thick cloud of Darkness. Then, within the black mist, he saw a man, and realised that a Child of Night was bent over him, holding a knife to his throat. He knew that Krystha or Arentha would have warned him, if they could, which meant that they must be captive too – or worse. But where was Lin? Quickly he cast out the net of his Perception and felt Lin’s presence, still by the waterside with the horses. Lin did not have Perception, but he was a Way-Sharer, and the Lightstone’s power would aid Aiel. Could it possibly be Light telling him that he might reach Lin’s mind with his Perception? He framed a wordless, urgent call for help, that carried with it a warning for Lin, and concentrated his Perception into sending out that call. All this took only seconds, while he looked up into the face of his captor. The man cursed loudly, and called to some unseen accomplice, “This one is a Priest!” “A Priest?” the other answered, “Bring him here.” Aiel was dragged to his feet and saw that Arentha and Krystha – thankfully unharmed, he realised- were being held captive by two men, each girl with a hand held over her mouth to silence her. A fourth man stood to one side, evidently in command.

“Light grant they know nothing of the Lightstone!” Aiel thought, as he was hustled across to the group. Then he realised that he was Perceiving a response from Lin to his wordless cry for help, and knew, with astonished gratitude, that Lin had received it. Now he concentrated on trying to channel to Lin, through his Perception, a picture of what was happening and felt that Lin received that too. Not only that, but he clearly Perceived Lin’s thought,’I am coming, Aiel! Try to distract them.’ It seemed he was already doing that, simply by being what he was. The Children of Night were perplexed by a Priest without a robe, in company with two maidens. They obviously had not, from their talk, any idea about the Lightstone, or even the Bloodstone, only that something important was stirring in the realm of Darkness. The man with the knife, once he had realised that Aiel was a Priest and could not be carrying weapons, even became less cautious in his handling of his prisoner. As the Children of Night discussed what to do with their captives, Aiel could Perceive Lin’s stealthy approach. Playing for time, he said, “Let us go, and do not harm the maidens. Do you not fear Light?” The leader stared at him, and said, “Fear Light? We serve another master.” “But the Darkness will bring you only loss and pain and harm!” Aiel argued, and now he was not just trying to buy time, but to turn these men from the dark path they were on.

Suddenly, Lin erupted into their midst, True Sword in hand. Aiel did not even see where he came from. All four men were momentarily shocked into stillness, then everything became a storm of motion. The man with the knife, and the leader, drawing his sword, turned on Lin, ignoring Aiel, from whom they thought they had nothing to fear. Aiel pulled out the Lightstone, which blazed as he freed it from its hiding place. Lin was fighting off the two men. Krystha bit the hand that was over her mouth, hard, and kicked out at the shins of the man who held her sister. Arentha, finding the man’s hold loosened, jerked herself free, turned, and gave him a surprisingly violent push that overbalanced him. Aiel cried out,”Stop! I command you, in the Name of Light!” Startled by his loud, authoritative tone, the Children of Night glanced round at him. Krystha pulled one arm free, tugged viciously at her captor’s hair, and, as he loosed his hold, picked up one of the fallen branches they had gathered to make a fire, and struck the knife from the other man’s hand, as Lin disarmed the man with the sword. But all fight left the men as the Lightstone took them in its hold. Aiel made the men line up before him, and searched them with his Perception and the Lightstone’s power. Three of the four were wholly evil, wholly given to Darkness. He saw their evil thoughts, the plans they had had for the maidens, and was sickened. Still, though, knowing it was not for him to judge, but Light, he offered them the Choice of Light, but even in the face of the Lightstone’s power they sneeringly rejected it. So one by one, he bound them by the Lightstone’s power to their own places, and sent them away.

The fourth man, though, was different. Sensing this, Aiel left him till last, till the others were gone. There had been something in the way he had stared at the Lightstone…and he was younger, much younger than the others, nearer Aiel’s own age. Aiel set his Perception on this young Child of Night, hoping that he was young enough to be rescued from the Darkness. The first thing that surprised him was that the man – it was the one who had held Krystha captive, and his hair was till rough and tousled by her pulling it – did not resist his Perception. Rather, it seemed almost a relief to him. The second thing was that the man, whose name, Aiel Perceived, was Parin, had been secretly appalled by many of the things he had been expected to do as a Child of Night. Then why, Aiel’s Perception gently questioned, had he gone on? For a moment there was a barrier there, but suddenly it disintegrated, and Aiel saw the pain at the heart of the man. Rejection, abuse, appalling uncertainty and loneliness, no sense of ever loving or being loved, had all heaped up in him from childhood. How could he accept the truth about Light from the example of parents who paid lip-service to Light, but whose cruelty and neglect towards this unwanted child were more of Darkness? This was the first time that Parin had truly encountered Light, and Aiel felt his bitter shame and longing. The Lightstone-Bearer felt a deep compassion for the unhappy young man, and knew that Light’s compassion mingled with his own. He withdrew his Perception and saw that Parin’s eyes were filling with tears. The young man gave a wail of despair and dropped to his knees at Aiel’s feet. His body curled over as if in pain, he wrapped his arms around himself as though to find some comfort, and he wept like a lost, frightened child.

Sweet-natured Arentha, always sensitive to pain or grief in others, cried, “Aiel, what have you done to him?” “I have done nothing.” Aiel answered. “It is his own need and grief, his pain and shame, that makes him weep.” He bent over the unhappy Child of Night, and said, “Parin, I can give you the Choice of Light.” The other’s reply was muffled, so that Aiel had to lean to hear it. “I did not know – and now it is too late!” “It is not too late.” Aiel said firmly. “Light is merciful, and loves you, Parin.” That brought the sorrowful face up, staring at him. “How should Light love me, when I have walked in Darkness? I have been an enemy of Light!” “Perhaps.” Aiel said, “But Light has always loved you, and Light will forgive you, by the Sacrifice of Light.” “I did not know” Parin said again, wistfully, ” what Light was like. I thought it was only laws to keep. There was no law in Darkness, and I was accepted. But there was cruelty there too, worse than I had known before. There was no true place for me to belong, in Darkness or Light.” “Light has made laws” Aiel said “to be obeyed, but they are for our own good and protection, Parin. Surely, now that you have stepped outside those laws, you can see that?” “I can. But what is left to me now, Priest?” “The Choice of Light is left to you. Choose to serve Light from now on, and the Darkness will be washed out of you.” “As easily as that?” “Yes – and no. The Choice of Light is easy. But after that you will have to make choices every day, to do the good and not the evil. Light will change you. But you must also, with Light’s aid, change yourself. Do you understand?” “Yes.” “Then will you take the Choice of Light?” “Yes” Parin said again, and gave a deep sigh of surrender. Aiel held the Lightstone to his brow and watched the light wash over him, watching the changes in his face as Light worked, then set his Perception on Parin and gently led him through the renunciations he must make, and into understanding and acceptance of what was now his, in Light.

Lin, Arentha and Krystha, who had been watching – and praying – all this time, were swift to welcome Parin into Light, as soon as the thing was done. Parin found their forgiveness almost harder to believe than Light’s. That Light could forgive him was an awesome miracle. That these people he had wronged were rejoicing with him, forgiving him, welcoming him as a brother in Light, Krystha countering his desperate apologies for how he had handled her with her own for biting him, even tending the wound her own teeth had made- that seemed to overwhelm him, so that he wept again. When they had all grown less emotional, Parin asked, “May I come with you?” Sadly, Aiel shook his head. “We have our feet set on a Way you cannot take, Parin. I am sorry.” Parin accepted this, but asked, “Then where shall I go to learn more of Light?” “To Brath and Tavis at the Second Faring House.” Aiel answered. “Do you know it?” “I know it. It is about a day’s ride from here.” “Good. Then go there, and tell the Priests what has happened – that you have been in Darkness, but that you met me, and were offered the Choice of Light, and have accepted it. Brath and Tavis will show you the way of Light.” “Who are you, though? You can be no ordinary Priest, unrobed, and with that blessed Stone.” “I am Aiel, the Lightstone-Bearer.” the young Priest answered. “Tell my Brothers-in-Light that you were sent to them by the Lightstone-Bearer.” “The Lightstone! ” Parin exclaimed. “I thought it was only a legend.” “So did I -once!” Aiel told him. Before they sent him on his way, they gave Parin a few provisions, and he told them what he could of the activities of the Children of Night,though the group he had been attached too were not involved-yet, at any rate- with Lak, but had been up to mischief on their own account. Then they prayed for him, and blessed him, and watched him scramble up the slope of the valley with a joyous step. At the top he turned, waved, and called his thanks and blessings, then disappeared down the other side.

There had been no time yet to think about what had been happening, since there had been first, the need of dealing with their attackers, and, second, the need of freeing Parin from the Darkness that held him. Now, though, they began to discuss what had happened, and Lin asked, “Aiel, I heard you – I did hear you – call to me, not with your voice, but your Perception. And I do not have Perception! How was it that I heard you?” Aiel shook his head. “I cannot tell, only that it seemed Light told me to call you so, and I had the Lightstone to aid me – and I so badly needed you to hear me.” He looked round at them in some embarrassment, and added, “The need might not have been there, if I had not fallen asleep.” “Do not blame yourself for that.” Krystha told him. “They were fast, and quiet, and upon us before we knew it. You could not have fought them, Aiel.” “No, but I would have Perceived them” he said,”You are sure you were not harmed?” “I was frightened” Arentha said, “and perhaps Krystha’s pride was hurt…” with a smile at her sister,”Nothing worse.” Lin, when they questioned him, explained his sudden appearance among the Children of Night. With no other cover, he had ridden Mischief along the stream-bed until he heard voices, and so risen up apparently from the depths of the earth to surprise their enemies. “And Krystha, I have not thanked you for disarming the knifeman”, he said. She nodded, and said, “He was the danger to you. A Swordsman may hold off a swordsman, but a man with a knife might slip under his guard.” Lin grinned at her, “You think like a Swordsman, Krystha”, and she smiled back. Arentha said, “And after all, Aiel, there is no harm done. No one is hurt. Parin – praise Light- has been turned from Darkness to Light. The Children of Night are banished from here, and cannot join Lak’s followers. All is well.”

They returned to their tasks. The girls had to prepare more food, for the other had been trampled and scattered in the fight. Lin collected Mischief – who, belying his name, was still waiting patiently in the stream, nibbling at the grass he could reach – and went back to retrieve the other horses. Aiel made a small fire – it was safe enough here, where they might, if seen, be taken for some of the outlying Westerners. Soon, with the horses tied nearby, and the sky rapidly darkening overhead, they sat around the fire and ate their simple meal, and talked about what lay ahead. At last they retired to the shelters they had made, leaving Lin on guard, and he promised to wake Aiel to take his turn on watch. Aiel, remembering what had happened on the night he had kept watch before, and had his encounter with Lak, hoped that Lin would not be tempted to let him sleep on, out of fear for his safety. However, Lin woke him at the promised time, telling him that all was quiet. Aiel must have slept very deeply, for he felt quite rested and alert, and went out to his place by the fire. He saw that Lin had found a fallen log and rolled it near the fire for use as a seat, and having looked at the horses and stroked their smooth necks in greeting, he went back and seated himself by the fire. He sent out his Perception, and found nothing untoward. No darkness threatened them, for now, and he relaxed, enjoying the quiet beauty of the night. The Shield had risen now and was being pursued by the swift little Hound. The light of the two moons mingled with the firelight and made soft light around him. Further over, under the little copse, were dappled patterns on the grass where the moonlight sifted through the leaves. The fresh smell and quiet murmur of the stream rose to him from where it ran in its hidden channel, and mingled with the green smell and soft rustling of grass and trees. It was a rare moment of peace.

Aiel heard a deeper rustle in the grass, and a shadow fell across his knees. Looking up, he saw Arentha there, though for a moment the dim light made her almost unrecognisable; her face a pale mask floating above the darkness of her gown, beneath the dark cloud of her hair; her eyes black pools, impenetrable. But then she smiled her sweet gentle smile, and stepped past his feet to seat herself beside him, and was instantly herself again. “Arentha?” he said, questioningly, “It is late, and we have far to travel tomorrow. You should be sleeping.” “I woke when I heard Lin call you.” she answered. “I tried to sleep again, but I thought of you, alone out here, and I could not. Aiel, never in my life have I questioned the Will of Light. But I think of you and the burden you bear and the task that is laid on you, and it seems so – so unfair! If you had deliberately wronged Light – then I would understand. But you were innocent.” “You speak as if I were being punished” he said, as if he had never felt that way himself. “And are you not?” “No!” he exclaimed. “Arentha, all that there is of justice lies in Light. Therefore, what Light has decreed for me must be just. I do not understand much of what has happened to me yet. But I shall. And yes”, he admitted, ” for a time I too felt that I was being punished for something I had not done, but it is not so. There is a purpose for me in this, and it will prove to be for my good – even were I to die, I believe that, Arentha. The Lightstone is not just a weapon. It teaches and sustains me.” “Oh, AIel!” she said sadly, “I wish I could understand better. I see only that you are burdened, and I want to help you, to make your task easier. Yet I cannot, because I do not know what to do.” Aiel was moved by her care for him. Softly he said, “It does ease me, to know that you are so concerned for me. Arentha, if you wish to help me, trust Light fully, and pray for me, lifting me to Light.” “I will” she said, simply. “Are you not also anxious for yourself, and your sister?” he asked. “I am anxious for all of us, Aiel. This Way is a fearsome thing. But we do not bear the responsibility and the – the loneliness of your task.” Aiel looked into her sympathetic face and, not knowing why, lifted his hand to touch her cheek. “Thank you, Arentha, for understanding so well.” he said.

He was indeed grateful. Her kindness and concern seemed to lighten his load. She smiled at him, and suddenly he felt as though something constricted his breathing, as though his heart would burst. For a dizzying moment he thought he had fallen to some sudden sickness, for even his thoughts would not obey him. Then he was back to normal, though he felt the pulses drumming in his temples and throat. Aiel knew then, though he had never felt such an emotion before, that he was falling in love with Arentha, and the knowledge was joy and terror together. He dared not let his feelings for her affect the Lightstone Way, and he was afraid that when the time came when he must use her as a weapon in the battle for the Dancers, his will might fail. “Oh, Sweet Light, help me!” he prayed quickly, inwardly. Arentha, it seemed, had not noticed his sudden emotion, and he was careful not to show it. He chatted with her a little longer, just for the pleasure of keeping her there with him, of letting himself delight in the way he felt for her, even though he must bear in mind that it could be a stumbling-block for him, unless he took great care. After a while, though, he said, “Arentha, it was kind of you to come and comfort me, but you should go and sleep now. It will be well with me.” She obeyed him, bidding him a smiling “Goodnight”, and went back to the shelter. Aiel, left alone with the moonlight and the firelight, sat gazing into the red heart of the fire, watching the little leaps of flame, the bright sparks, and curls of smoke. For the first time he let himself consider what might lie beyond the end of this Way. If he won through and defeated the Black Piper, and if he were not killed in the doing of it – nor Arentha, he thought with a shudder- then perhaps she might come to love him too – when there was time for love. But he must not let his dreams for the future distract him from his path. The Way of the Secret Word was his, until it ended in victory, or death. For in one of those ways it must end, Aiel knew. There was no other possibility for him.

The rest of the night was peaceful, and he used the time wisely, in meditation and prayer, in using the Lightstone to strengthen himself, and in cataloguing his own emotions – including his new feelings for Arentha – and making sure he had them in hand, so that they would not distract him, and thus imperil the Way. At last the night began to lighten, and he looked up and saw the sky, at first softly pearled with faint misty lilacs and pinks, grow gradually lighter and more golden-bright with sunrise. The morning was still and cool. A single bird flew overhead and cried plaintively, the stream still murmured, the horses snuffled, the dying fire gave a few faint crackles. Aiel stood, and stretched, and drew in a deep breath of the fresh morning air, laced with the bitter-sweet tang of burning wood. He felt he had finished a night’s Vigil, strengthened, calmed and refreshed by Light. Aiel put more wood on the fire and stirred it back to life, wondering if he should go to fetch water. He decided against it, since he was on watch, but not long after that Lin emerged from his shelter, stretched, and gave a mighty yawn. “Aiel”, he greeted his friend, “The night has been quiet?” “Quiet and peaceful” Aiel replied.”Will you watch here while I fetch water, Lin?” At his friend’s nod of assent he collected the water-bottles and went down to the little beach to fill them. At the same time,he scooped up a drink in his hands, and splashed the cool water on his face to refresh himself.

When he returned, Lin was moving the horses to fresh grazing. When their tasks were accomplished, Lin looked at Aiel and said, “So, the night was quiet. But still, something has happened to you in the night.” Aiel was startled, especially after the events of yesterday. Lin had caught the call of Aiel’s Perception then. Was he beginning, by constant nearness to the Lightstone, to have a kind of Perception himself? Then he smiled at his imaginings. No, Lin would be the first to notice any change in him, for they were bond-brothers if not true brothers, and Lin knew Aiel better than any. Aiel, seeing that his friend was still regarding him with a look of enquiry, said, “Yes, something happened…” And though he flushed a little to explain his feelings for Arentha, he told Lin of their night-time conversation, and how he had realised how he felt towards her. He told Lin, too, of the fears he had felt, that he might not, when the time came, be willing to let Arentha risk danger. “You will not fail, Aiel.” Lin said. “I have seen you grow so much, since we began this Way, and to lean more and more on Light. I think when the time comes, you will trust to Light, and give Arentha into Light’s keeping.” “I have never cared for a maiden before” Aiel said, as if he were somewhat bewildered by it all, “but you have, Lin. How shall I know if I love her truly? I will not offer her a love that is half-hearted.” Lin smiled. “You and I are different, Aiel. Yes, I have thought myself in love once or twice. I have known maidens that I was fond of. But not, when I thought deeply about it, enough to share my whole life with them. And so we parted friends. I think perhaps it is the maiden one cannot live without, rather than the maiden one could live with, who is the one to wed. But you, Aiel – when you love, I think it will be once and for always.” “When I know I cannot live without her.” Aiel murmured. “That is a true saying, Lin. Thank you.”

Just then , they heard the girls stirring too, and soon they came out of their shelter, smiling good-morning to Lin and Aiel. They went to wash at the little beach, then, with Aiel’s help, busied themselves with preparing breakfast, while Lin watered the horses. When Lin returned, they sat on the grass to eat their meal. It was growing warmer, and it looked to be a clear, bright day. Aiel said, “I wonder how far ahead Lak is? He too must cross the Plateau.” “The Ket is wise” Lin answered, ” and may not be deceived. He may hold the Dark One.” “Wisdom may not do well against Darkness, and sorcery.” commented Krystha. “Krystha is right.” Aiel told them. “Lak is more than man, and he carries the Bloodstone. The Ket cannot stand aginst that. Nothing can, but the Lightstone.” “And the Lightstone-Bearer.” Arentha added. “I do not think” Aiel went on “that anything will stop Lak, until we reach the Meeting Place. Else what need would I have of this” – he touched the Lightstone Harp that lay beside him – “or of Arentha’s singing? Once the Spirit-in-Light tore me out of Lak’s grasp, because the time for that battle had not yet come. The next time I face him, it will be time for the battle.” “Aiel” Lin said, hopefully, “if Light sent a Shining One to help and protect you before, perhaps, when it comes to the time for you to face Lak, there will be such help again.” But Aiel shook his head. “No, Lin, I do not think that is the way it will be. I have the Lightstone for weapon, and surely the Secret Word would have spoken of the Shining Ones, if they were to play a part. They have their own tasks to perform, and their own way of making war on Darkness. This task, though, is laid on me.” Krystha said, “It is hard, sometimes, to understand the ways of Light. The Shining Ones could have defeated Lak and saved Li’is, without need of your carrying the burden of this Way, Aiel. Why did it not happen?” “Because that is not the way Light meant it to be. This Way is a task for men, not Dancers, nor Spirits-in-Light. And we know from the Book that Light may allow things which seem to cause us only pain and suffering at the time. Yet afterwards, we find that because of what we have suffered, we have grown in Light, and are stronger.”

Meal, and discussion, ended, they packed up their gear and set off again, riding through country that rose ever more steeply towards the Plateau. It was an uneventful day, but they were still alert for danger, since on each part of the Way thus far, it seemed that something had happened to them. This day, though, wore into evening with no worse thing than the steep uphill riding, and they found one of the shallow caves that Tavis had told them of, to rest in for the night.

DANCE THE DARKNESS DOWN

Chapter 8

Next morning they set off again, and after a morning’s hard riding up a narrow, dusty path, found themselves at last out on the Plateau. It was surprising, after the last part of the journey had taken them through such steep and comparatively dry areas, to see the vast, flat expanse of rough green grass spreading in all directions. They knew that they must head North-West to reach the Ket’s Camp. Up here, that should be easy enough, for they could see a long way across the Plateau, and, because the air was so clear, further than they had seen before. They could see, far to the West, and some way behind them now, the Western Mountains, where the river rose that watered the Western farmlands, where the Western Fortress, home of Lin’s sister and her husband, stood. To the East they could see the beginning of the shining arc of the Great Bay, where the sea swept in to scoop a large curve out of the coast. Ahead of them stretched the vast grasslands of the Plateau. Gauging by the mountains, and the sun, Lin led them across the Plateau, easy riding after the steep climb. They rested and ate, then carried on, wondering where they might find a place to sleep when all seemed alike, and wide open to the sky. Eventually, however, a long way ahead of them, they saw dark moving dots, which must be some of the Westerners with their horses and herds. Knowing that the Westerners prided themselves on their hospitality, Lin said, “Maybe the herders will give us shelter for the night, Aiel.”

They rode towards these signs of movement, and finally coming up with the herdsmen, confirmed that they were heading in the right direction to reach the Ket’s camp. Lin’s kinship to the Lady of the Western Fortress served as introduction, and the herders were courteous and friendly, gladly offering refreshment and shelter for the night, while Arentha responded with the offer to share their own provisions. Aiel and the maidens, never having met Westerners before, were intrigued by them. The Westerners, it was said, were a proud people – not in any negative way, but in the way they honoured their heritage and way of life. Legend said that they had come, a new race, into Li’is in Brann’s time, arriving with the Lightfriends, out of Ma’al itself, when the followers of Light separated themselves from the Darkness there, and came to save Li’is from that same Darkness. Certainly, with their golden skin and dark hair and eyes, they were distinctive, as was their way of life, but they lived among and had fought alongside and sometimes intermarried with the other peoples of Li’is, and did not hold themselves aloof.

Next morning, they thanked their courteous hosts for their hospitality, and the herders showed them the way to the Ket’s camp. After they had ridden for a while, it grew hot, even up on the airy Plateau. They discarded their cloaks and stopped for a cup of water, then went on. At last they could see, ahead of them, a cluster of what looked like coloured buildings. As they drew nearer, though, they saw that it was a kind of city of large tents, bright and many coloured, but with red, blue and green predominating. At the heart of the camp was a large area of clear grass, like an arena, and in the middle of it a great pavilion with banners and pennants flying from it and decorated with gold coloured fringing – surely the Ket’s tent. As they drew near the camp, they were not surprised to meet two guards on the outskirts. The challenge came, “Who are you, strangers? What do you want in the Camp of the West?” The tone of the challenge was courteous, even though the words were not, yet Aiel Perceived a feeling of underlying hostility, which surprised him. Quietly he answered, “We are travellers from the City and the Fortress, on an urgent journey, and we bring a message for your Lord, the Ket.” The guards conferred for a moment, then one said, “Follow me, strangers.” They dismounted and followed, leading their horses. Between the line of tents a wide pathway led to the Ket’s tent, and the guards led them down it. It was not , perhaps, strange that the Westerners should crowd out of their tents and line the path to see the strangers pass, but the total silence in which they stood was both unnatural and unnerving. As they passed the silent ranks lining the way to the Ket’s pavilion, Aiel knew that something was dreadfully wrong here. The traditional courtesy of the Westerners was nowhere evident; instead, these faces barely concealed suspicion and distrust of them. In his spirit, he knew that Lak had passed this way, and left some evil in his wake.

Inside the great tent, when his eyes accustomed themselves to the change of light, Aiel saw more guards, a group of older men, and, at the far end of the tent, a man sitting in a high-backed seat. “The Ket”, Lin whispered to him. The Ket was a man of great stature, tall, and broad in the shoulders and chest. He wore a robe of blue and green patterened cloth, and a girdle of plaited red and gold cords. A heavy golden open-ended bracelet was on his left wrist, and a circlet of gold round his brow. His long dark hair and his beard were both touched with grey, his strong, stern face impassive. His dark brown eyes were alert and intelligent. He was an impressive man. Behind his chair, at the Ket’s shoulder, stood a young man, about Lin’s age, and, allowing for his youth, shorter hair and lack of beard, so like the Ket that he must be his son. Strangest of all, at the Ket’s feet, on a fur-covered pallet, lay another young man, exactly like the first. He was so like, and lay so still, that it gave Aiel an eerie feeling, glancing from one to the other. For a moment he thought that they had intruded on a funeral, but then he saw that though the man lay death-still, eyes staring vacantly, he was breathing. Aiel looked at the Lord of the Westerners, at the twin young men, and back to the Ket. “Greetings, Lord of the West”, he said, “We seek your aid in a matter that concerns all Li’is.”

“Who are you?” asked the Ket. His voice was steady and measured. “I am Aiel, son of Arnath, High Priest of the Temple of Light in the City.” Lin stepped forward. “I am Lin, Lord, Swordsman of the City and son of Linnad, Lord of the City Harbour. I am wife’s brother to Barengian, Lord of the Western Fortress, who you know well.” Arentha’s sweet, clear voice spoke next. “Lord Ket, I am Arentha, and this my sister, Krystha. We are the daughters of Merhaun, Lord of the Mountains and the Fortress.” “And what is your journeying, and what would you ask of me?” the Ket continued his questioning. Aiel said, “Lord, my father bade me tell you that the Way of the Secret Word has begun, and the doom of it is upon me. I am the Lightstone-Bearer, and I seek your aid in pursuing the enemy.”

As he spoke, Aiel sensed a change in the atmosphere, a deepening of suspicion into hostility. The young man behind the Ket’s chair cried out “No more of magic stones! Have we not suffered enough ill?” “Indeed!” said the Ket, rising to his feet. “How will you prove that you are what you say you are, and not Shape-Changers, like the other?” “Lak has been here!” Aiel exclaimed. “Lord, you have been harmed by the enemy?” “Behold my son!” the Ket said, pointing at the motionless young man. “The one who came before you – the old Lord from the East – he too said that he carried a stone of power, and sought our aid. But it was death he carried! When Ket-Lai my son grew suspicious of him, the man took his own shape, and struck him down with the stone, and escaped. The Healers can do nothing, and there he lies, neither dead nor alive. Why should I trust you now?”

“But that was the Bloodstone!” Lin exclaimed. “Yes, the evil out of Ma’al” Aiel added. “Lord, you are of the Council. Do you not know the Lightstone? Let me show you…” “No!” the Ket cried in a commanding voice, as Aiel made to draw out the Lightstone. Then, “I am of the Council, but I have never seen the Lightstone. No, we will decide this by the ancient Law of the Westerners. My other son, Ket-Kai, will fight the Sword-Trial – to the death – with the Swordsman, Lin, since you may not take up weapons, if Priest you really are. Light will show who tells the truth. If the Swordsman lives, you shall go free, and we will aid you.” Before Aiel could take in the enormity of this challenge, or answer, Lin bowed to the Ket and said, “Aye, I will fight the Sword-Trial, Lord.” Aiel caught his friend’s arm. “Lin, you cannot! It is to the death!” “Aiel, I must! There is no other way to prove ourselves.” The Ket ordered, “Prepare for the Sword-Trial. Take the maidens away.” “No!” Krystha cried. She stared defiantly at the fierce Ket, though he towered over her. “Lord, Lin is my Sword-Brother! I have the right to be there – you cannot deny me!” “Indeed?” queried the Ket, looking as though he did not believe her. However, since she had called on the historic rights of Sword-Brotherhood, he said, grudgingly, “Very well, but it will not be pretty.” Still she outfaced him, saying “I have seen much that is not pretty on this Way, Lord.” He glared at her, saying “I have said you may stay. Do not wear out my patience.”

Aiel was allowed to go with Lin while he was prepared for the Sword-Trial. The Westerners took the Swordsman’s clothes and gave him a brief leather kilt and, Aiel saw thankfully, his own blade, the True Sword. A twist of cloth was tied round his brow to stop the sweat from running into his eyes and hampering him, but Lin was barefoot, and almost naked. Aiel was afraid that he would be at a great disadvantage. “Lin” he said miserably,”In the Name of Light, be careful!” Lin, seeing that Aiel’s concern for him was very real and deep, said, “Then pray for me, Aiel my brother. Light must be on the side of truth. But I would not kill an innocent man to prove that truth.” Aiel prayed indeed, prayed long and pleadingly for his friend’s safety – and Ket-Kai’s – and the success of their Way, as the guards took him to where the girls stood – Arentha having been included in the Ket’s dispensation – at the front of the watching crowd. The large area of ground had had a circle marked off with ropes, and Lin and Ket-Kai were led into it. At a signal from the Ket the Sword-Trial began, and it was soon obvious that the Swordsmen were equally matched in skill, strength and courage. Aiel watched with horrified, unwilling fascination, and Arentha clung to his hand, her face pale, but Krystha stood, head up, her defiant little chin thrust forward, eyes shining with pride in her Sword-Brother.

The combatants circled the arena, testing each other’s strength, striking and parrying blows, now a quick flurry of strokes, a pause as each sought to find the other’s weakness, then a lunge and another parry. To Aiel it was all confusion, though Lin and Ket-Kai were fighting skilfully and methodically. First blood was to Lin, a cut across his opponent’s upper arm. A little later, a quick lunge, from which he twisted away not quite fast enough, left a small gash on Lin’s own arm. The two Swordsmen fought on, and Aiel felt that it was an unending nightmare. It was not just fear for his friend that harried him, but the thought that while they were thus delayed, the Black Piper grew ever further ahead.

And then it seemed as though the Sword-Trial took a turn against Lin, for to Aiel it seemed that his friend was in a position from which there was no escape. But as Ket-Kai moved to make the stroke that surely, surely must end Lin’s life and all their hopes, suddenly Lin leapt and turned and twisted in the air like a hill-cat, so that his opponent found the place where he had been, empty. Caught off-balance, Ket-Kai went sprawling, and tried to turn in the air as Lin had, and failed. And found himself on his back on the grass, with Lin’s sword at his throat. Aiel, still stunned by the speed and fluidity of Lin’s movement and the relief of his friend’s escape, wondered wildly what Lin could do now. By the Law of the Westerners, the combat was to the death, yet for Lin to slay his helpless opponent now would be an affront to Light and to honour.

The crowd was still and silent as stone; the Ket, who had been seated at the arenaside, had come to his feet, but gave no word or signal to show Lin what to do. The tension in the air was almost tangible; everything hung on the turn of Lin’s sword hand. Lin moved the point of his sword down so that it lay on the join of Ket-Kai’s collarbones. Then, with a very slow, deliberate, delicate movement, he drew the sword down the length of the man’s body to his navel, exerting just enough pressure to break the skin. It was a thing which took the greatest skill, and a thing which spoke to the heart of every Swordsman present. For in symbol Lin slew his opponent, while in mercy he let Ket-Kai live. It was as if Lin had said to them all, “I have won, and if I choose, I could let out his life from here to here – but I do not choose.” The silence held, but a sigh and a settling went over the crowd. Then Lin reached down and took Ket-Kai’s hand, and pulled him to his feet, and having released Ket-Kai, extended his arm towards him again. Ket-Kai’s arm came up to meet Lin’s, and as the two men joined in the Swordsmen’s handclasp, a great roar of approval filled the air.

Arentha sighed and swayed against Aiel, momentarily dizzy with relief. Krystha turned to them, her face alight with joy. “I knew Lin would win, Aiel! Oh, I am proud of my Sword-Brother!” Arentha straightened again, and smiled at her younger sister’s impetuous exclamation of loyalty. The combatants were being led away to the tent where they had prepared for the Sword-Trial, and as Aiel turned to follow, Krystha handed him a little wooden pot from her Healer’s sack. “Give Lin this to salve his wound, Aiel, and tell him what I said – I am very proud of my Sword-Brother.” In the tent, attendants were washing the blood and dust from Lin and Ket-Kai, and Aiel gave Krystha’s salve and message to Lin, who grinned broadly and said, “Aye, I am proud of Krystha too, Aiel. How she stood up to the Ket!”

He offered the salve to Ket-Kai, who took it smilingly and thoughtfully rubbed the clean-smelling ointment the length of the cut Lin had made. Lin, watching him, said, almost apologetically, “You know I could not kill you. Your life was not mine to take. But I could not let you go unscathed either, or the victory was not mine. And I had to prove the truth of what we said.” “I understand that.” Ket-Kai agreed, then smiled again. “Lin, you may not come this way again, but in case you should – will you be my Sword-Brother?” “Gladly!” Lin answered, “I shall be honoured, Ket-Kai. You are a Swordsman of skill and courage.” “I thought my skill equalled yours”, Ket-Kai said, “until you caught me so, Lin. I thought I had you, but you slipped away like the wind.” Aiel, who had been listening, and thinking how strange were the ways of Swordsmen, when two erstwhile enemies could become brothers, exclaimed, “Then – was it only a trick, Lin? You were not in danger of your life?” “I might have been, if my feint had failed.” Lin said, then, realising what Aiel meant, said, “Aiel, were you thinking I would be killed, maybe?” “Aye” Aiel said, carefully, not wanting to betray the fear Lin’s actions had caused him, “I was thinking you would be killed, maybe. I am not a Swordsman, Lin.”

There was a moment’s almost embarrassed silence, then Ket-Kai said, “No, but, I think, a loyal friend – loyal as Sword-Brother, Aiel.” Aiel smiled. “Come, make your vow.” he told them. Lin took up his sword for them to swear on, and when they had made the vow of Sword-Brotherhood, Ket-Kai, after asking Lin’s permission, took the weapon and examined it, and weighed it in his hand. “This is a strange and wonderful sword, Lin” he said “I was defeated by a skilful Swordsman and a good blade.” “The best blade in Li’is” Aiel said “Ket-Kai, this is Brann’s blade, the True Sword,as Lin is the True Sword of the Secret Word.” “Then I am twice honoured.” Ket-Kai told them. They went back to the Ket’s presence, once Lin and Ket-Kai were clothed again. The maidens were already there, and Krystha had evidently been examining Ket-Kai’s twin, Ket-Lai. She looked up as Aiel and the others came in. “Here is your son’s Healer, Lord, not I.” she said “For only the Lightstone can undo the work of the Bloodstone.” Aiel went and knelt beside the pallet, and drew out the Lightstone. Ket-Kai hovered anxiously over his unconscious brother, and Aiel looked up at him, saying, “Do not be afraid for him, Ket-Kai, the Lighststone will heal him.” “How shall I not be afraid for him, Lightstone-Bearer,” the Westerner answered, “when we are one in blood and bone?”

Aiel laid the Lightstone to Ket-Lai’s brow, and the light swept over him like a wave. For a moment there was total stillness, as Ket-Kai still watched anxiously. Then Ket-Lai’s chest heaved with a great sigh, and his eyes lost their fixed expression and looked up at his twin. In a puzzled, rather husky voice, he said, “Oh, my brother, I have been where it was very dark – and you were not there.” Ket-Kai gave a sob of relief and dropped to his knees to embrace his twin. The Ket said, “Truly, Aiel, you are the Lightstone-Bearer and the bringer of healing for my son. And Lin is the noblest of Swordsmen. Let Light forgive me for doubting you, and making Lin undergo the Sword-Trial.” “It is forgiven, Lord Ket. You had suffered much, and your doubts were understandable.” Aiel answered.

Now the Ket could not do enough for them, ordering food brought for them that was a veritable feast after their travelling rations, replenishing their provisions, and promising an escort to the borders of his land. He gave them, too, a talisman for safe conduct on their journey. “There are two ways to show you are a friend of the Western People” he told them “The first is this”, he touched the gold bracelet on his wrist, “but this is our secret sign of friendship.” He held out, on the palm of his hand, four bands of fine plaited cords, red, yellow, blue and green, woven in a particular pattern. “Tie them around your left wrist, each of you” he instructed them “hidden under your sleeve. If you need help from a Westerner, show them this band. They will know you are a friend of the West.” Ket-Kai said to Lin “I too would give a gift to my Sword-Brother.” He went behind one of the hangings of the Ket’s pavilion, and returned carrying a short but powerful-looking bow and a quiver of stubby arrows. “I know you are a Swordsman, Lin, and not a bowman, but you may find this useful on your Way. It is designed for use from horseback.” Lin took the weapon and looked at it with interest. It was true that he was trained mainly as a Swordsman, but being of the Harbour Watch, he had trained with the bow too, and was competent in its use He had never seen a bow like this one, though, and was impressed by its practicality. “I thank you, Sword-Brother” he said “This will be a useful addition to our defence.”

Now the Ket told them what he could about the next stage of their journey. He did not know the country well, for he seldom left his own lands, but he too gave them warning of the Merchant Town. “There are those who wish to avoid the City Harbour and its Watch,” he said “those who are willing to risk slipping ashore in the fishing villages and travelling there to do their trading. Of course, most of the people there are honest folk who live too far away from the City to travel there without a strong reason. But be cautious, Aiel. And the Third Faring House operates in a different way from the others. There are many who come to the Town for the day only, and do not want a place to stay, but a place to eat that is not an inn. So the Faring House is divided. There is the main Faring House,and there is the Eating House, where everyone eats except the Priests, whether they are staying for the night, or just one meal. It is also the most open of the Faring Houses, being in the midst of the Town. If your enemy is aware of you, and knows you must pass that way, he may lay an ambush for you, so take care, Aiel.” “I will”, Aiel promised.

The Ket asked, since the Way-Sharers would be staying with them for the night, if Aiel would lead the nightly prayers for the Camp. “Of course!” Aiel agreed, then asked, “I am curious, Lord Ket. Do you have no Priests or places of prayer, you of the West? I have never seen a Westerner in the Temple.” The Ket smiled. “We go to the Priest where we happen to be.” he said. “At the Western Fortress during the winter, or perhaps we may send word to Mell or Brath if we have need. As for the Temple…” he rose from his seat and beckoned them, “Come” he said. It had grown dark while they were speaking together, and he led them out of his tent, away from the firelight and lamplight of the Camp, over the silent grass. Then he stopped, and threw up one arm, pointing. “Behold!” he said”What need have we here of a Temple made with hands, when we have Light’s own Temple, Lightstone-Bearer?” The Way-Sharers tilted their heads back and stared, in awe and wonder, at the sky overhead. Up here on the high Plateau, where the air was clear and pure, the stars above them burned with a bright, frosty radiance, littered thickly across the high-arching dark dome of sky. It was the time of the Two-Moon Tide, when the Shield swung in at her closest to Li’is, and the Hound, instead of overtaking her, hung side by side with her midway along her path. This Spring conjunction was the most beautiful, when both moons were full, and a glorious double moonlight poured down, making strange twice-cast shadows, and bathing everything in silvery light that poured like milk across the world. Far to the East and West, the seas would be piled high and threatening by the twin pull of the moons, and no ship would venture out. Up here, though, on the quiet Plateau, there was only the blaze of the stars and the glory of the moons, and they gazed up into the magnificent sky, and thought on Light. Out there, Aiel thought, the Dancers were at home, using the worlds as stepping-stones, Dancing among the stars. Out there, somewhere, lay Ma’al, the Otherworld, the dark twin of his own world, from which the Darkness threatened. Out there too – maybe not even among the stars, but somewhere other, and holy, and mystical -was the Joyous Place, where the Spirits-in-Light and those who had touched Light served Light together in joyful accord. He felt comforted by the vastness and glory of it, strange as it seemed, for all wisdom would say that he should feel scared and overawed. Yet, feeling his own smallness,he felt too the greatness of Light, and the Presence of Light in Light’s creation,and so was comforted, Aiel had heard Arentha gasp at the beauty of the skies, and he saw wonder on Lin’s face, and on Krystha’s. In a soft, reverent voice, Aiel said “Truly, Lord Ket, this is Light’s own Temple, and more beautiful than any man could make.”

Aiel had brought his Priestly robe with him, for he was determined to wear it when the time came to stand against Lak. Now he put it on and, as the Ket had asked, led the evening prayers for the people of the Ket’s Camp, who had gathered on the space outside the Ket’s pavilion. He looked at these people and felt Light’s love for them, and especially he looked at the children; solemn, dark-eyed little girls and boys, babes in arms, mischievous toddlers, young maidens, and the older boys who were just about to begin their Sword-Training, just crossing the line from boyhood to manhood.. “It is their future, the future of their world, that I am carrying” Aiel thought, and the thought renewed his determination. And when the prayers were over, he felt led of Light to call the children to him, and bless them, one by one, with the Lightstone. When he drew out the Lightstone, there was an awe-filled silence among the people, and it continued as Aiel moved with it among the children, from the smallest babe to the tallest youth. The children though were not overawed; the little ones crowed and chuckled and reached for the bright Stone, the older ones laughed or shouted for joy at the Lightstone’s touch, and the youths – the ‘Warrior Children’- were awed, but excited and delighted too, all at once.

One boy, though, when Aiel called him, came obediently, but stood looking at Aiel with misery in his eyes. Aiel felt such a pull in him towards the boy that he knew it was not his own feeling, but the heart of Light. To the lad he said quietly,”You have hurts that Light would heal. Are you among the Warrior Children?” The pain in the boy’s eyes was like a sword that leapt out at Aiel. He answered, in a dull voice, “Lord Priest, I shall never be among the Warrior Children”, and for explanation, he held out to Aiel a right arm that ended in a hand that twisted in upon the wrist, curled and useless. Aiel felt pity, but also a sense of imminent joy. He knew that Light meant good to the boy, and told him, “Nevertheless, Light blesses you.” He laid the Lightstone to the boy’s brow. With the other children it had glowed softly and gently, but now it blazed so that he could hardly see the lad. From within the light came a cry so strange that a man in the crowd, obviously the boy’s father, cried, “Taran!” and would have run to him, but stopped at a signal from the Ket. The light faded and the boy stood there, staring at Aiel. He cried out again, and in the cry there seemed to be pain and fear – and joy. Taran held out his right arm again, and now everyone was crying out. The curled, twisted hand was slowly, slowly uncurling, untwisting, straightening as they watched. Krystha , the Healer, turned to Aiel, wide-eyed, and gasped, ” Aiel – that is a birth-wound! It is impossible that it should be healed!” “Not impossible to Light!” Aiel laughed. He was full of joy. Here was one darkness undone, at least. Taran stretched out the impossibly straight hand, flexed it, moved the fingers. He stared at Aiel with eyes full of wonder. Krystha, still astonished, went to him and made him move the hand, pick up a stone, lift it, throw it. At last she said, “Aiel – the hand works perfectly – as if it had never been damaged!”

The man who had stepped from the crowd looked pleadingly at the Ket, who nodded. At the signal the man ran to his son, examined his hand, hugged him, then dropped to one knee before Aiel, exclaiming with joy and uttering barely coherent thanks. Aiel, somewhat embarrassed by this, bade him rise, and said, “It was Light healed him, through the Lightstone, not I.” All around people were exclaiming, laughing, shouting, jostling; a happy, excited noise surrounded them. Above it all, though, suddenly rose Taran’s voice, clear and loud and excited. “Then – I shall be a Swordsman after all, like you, my father!” Lin smiled at the boy. “Aye, you will be a Swordsman, Taran, and a good one, for you have learned early to be courageous in the face of disaster. Come”, he slipped the True Sword from its sheath, and said, “let this be the first sword you ever held in your right hand – for blessing.” Taran reached out unhesitatingly and took the hilt of the proferred sword in a firm, strong grip. His father, grinning with happiness and pride, still only half-believing the miracle that had happened to his son, looked at the sword, and said, “That is the strangest blade I have ever seen, Swordsman, and the fairest.” “And the best” Lin said. “Be proud that you have held it, Taran, for this is the True Sword, Brann’s blade, come down to me from the First Days of Li’is, to bear on this Lightstone Way.” Taran’s dark eyes shone with pride, and he moved the sword through the air, showing how strong his hand and wrist had become. Then he returned it to Lin, and went to Aiel. “Lord Priest, Lightstone-Bearer” he said “I thank Light and you that I am healed, and yet I think I have received something more important even than that.” “What is that?” Aiel asked, impressed by the boy’s grave sincerity. Taran looked up at him. “There have been times when I was angry with Light, because of my hand, and doubted Light’s love for me. But now I know that Light loves me well. And Lord Priest, I would make my peace with Light.” “Come then” Aiel said, and set his Perception on the uplifted dark brown eyes. There was silence around them as he helped the boy make his peace with Light, and felt him grow in Light. When he withdrew his Perception, he said, “Taran, you will always love and be loved by Light, and you will be a noble man and Swordsman”, and he knew Light spoke through him.

Now the Ket came across to them, smiling at the boy. He held in his hand one of the coloured plaited bands, and he took Taran’s left wrist and carefully tied the band round it. Aiel saw the boy’s beaming face, but did not understand the significance of the Ket’s act until the Lord of the Westerners said, “Go then, and join your brothers, Taran.” The boy ran across to the group of Warrior Children, who welcomed him gladly, and Aiel saw, then, that they all wore the plaited band on their left wrists. “It was good that you brought the Lightstone among us, Aiel.” the Ket said. “It has been hard for Taran, these last months. His friends were all to go to the Sword-Training, and he could only become a herder. It was lonely for him. And also, his father here is one of the Sword-Trainers. That made it harder still.” “Poor lad!” Lin exclaimed, understanding perfectly. He realised he was still holding the sword which Taran had returned to him and sheathed it, saying, “I am glad too that we came this way, Aiel.” Taran’s father said, “This has been a wonderful night, for Taran and for me. To be healed by the Lightstone, and hold Brann’s sword in his hand – I thank you for that, Swordsman, it was a kind thought – and to be able to join the Warrior Children. He is so happy. Light is merciful. If only his mother were here to see it, but she is bearing a child, and near to birthing, and could not come with us.” “And that child too will be a blessing to you.” Aiel said, knowing the word came from Light. Tonight it seemed to him as though he was an open channel through which Light poured blessing on this people, and he rejoiced.

That night they slept in the Ket’s own tent, behind embroidered curtains, on the low pallets used by the Westerners, spread with hides and cushions and beautifully woven coverings. It was a long time before Aiel slept, though, not because of his strange surroundings, but because the evening’s events had so thrilled his spirit that for some time he lay and meditated on them, and lifted silent praise to Light. Eventually, though, he drifted into a sleep that was the deepest and sweetest he had had in many days. Next morning, they bade a regretful farewell to the Ket and his people. Ket-Kai, Lin’s new Sword-Brother, and his twin Ket-Lai, were to accompany them across the Plateau, and they were glad of the guidance. At the last moment, as they were about to set off, Taran came rushing, hot and breathless, to stand at Aiel’s stirrup. “What”, Lin teased him, “not at your Sword-Training, Taran?” The boy smiled. “I have a message for the Lightstone-Bearer” he said “from my mother and my father. First I am to tell you that my mother sends you her love and thanks and her praise to Light, for what Light has done for me through you and the Lightstone. And second” he beamed suddenly ” I am to tell you that the babe was born last night, and it is a boy-child, and we will remember the word you spoke for him. And for myself, I wanted to thank you again, and to say go in Light, Lightstone-Bearer. May Light guard and guide you in this Way.” “Thank you, Taran” Aiel said, moved by the boy’s blessing. “Light be with you also, and your parents – and the new babe.”

It was early in the day, and the fresh air of the Plateau was invigorating. As they rode together across the grassy plain that topped the Plateau, Aiel wondered anew at the amazing likeness of Ket-Kai and Ket-Lai. There were few twins born in Li’is, and Aiel did not recall ever having seen identical twins before. Even the horses they rode were almost identical, the strong, fast, light-footed Western breed. Aiel could not have told the twins apart, save that the open neck of Ket-Kai’s garment showed the start of the cut Lin had inflicted on him in the Sword-Trial. Lin and the twins had much to talk about, since Barengian, Lin’s brother by marriage and Lord of the Western Fortress, was a friend and Sword-Brother to them both, and they served on the Westward Watch during the winter months. Both brothers knew Lin’s sister well, too. Aiel was content to ride with them and listen to their talk, and the girls also, raised in the Mountain Fortress, seemed happy to listen to Lin’s and the twins’ tales of the Western Fortress. They passed several groups of the Westerners and their beasts, who gave due deference to the Ket’s sons, and glanced with courteously concealed curiosity at their companions. The Western Mountains had fallen away behind them now, but to their East the Great Bay curved in towards them. It was another clear, bright day and the sea was as blue as Aiel’s eyes, sparkling and laced with foam; nearer the shore it was greener, and showed the shadows of shoals and sandbanks, and the waves roared up, high from the Two-Moon Tide. A few small boats pulled well up on shore and a huddle of simple houses showed where one of the fishing villages lay. They rode on, and at last came to two pillars built of white stones, carefully fitted together, the height of a man on horseback. Beyond the pillars, the Plateau descended in a steep curve into a wide plain, across which a small river meandered lazily. The plain was farmland, divided into fields of various crops, or tree-garths in which the fruit trees were already dropping their spring blossoms. A trail led down from the two pillars, crossing the farmlands and heading towards the misty outlines of the Merchant Town. Ket-Kai said, “There is your path, Lightstone-Bearer. These pillars mark the end of the Ket’s lands.”

They said farewell to their companions and began to descend the slope. Part-way down, Aiel looked back and saw the twins still by the two pillars, watching them. Aiel waved another farewell, and Ket-Kai cupped his hands to his mouth, and called, “Go in Light ,Lightstone-Bearer! Go in Light, Sword-Brother!” Aiel had resumed his everyday garments, his Priest’s robe again hidden in his saddlebag, and rode with head slightly bowed to hide the vivid blue eyes that would have betrayed him. If he were not recognised for a Priest, there was nothing strange about their party; two men and two maidens heading for the Merchant Town, perhaps to make some purchases or meet friends. They stopped at a curve of the river, where the track forded it, to water the horses and make a hasty meal. Aiel said to Lin, “Do you think we shall reach the Town tonight?” Lin shaded his eyes and looked across the plain, then said, “I think so, Aiel. That haze makes the Town look further away than it is. We should be there by nightfall.” Lin’s prediction proved correct. They reached the Town gates by nightfall, but only just in time, for the sun was dipping below the horizon, and no sooner were they through the gates than the Watchwards barred them behind them. Lin asked one of the Watchwards the way to the Faring House, and having received directions, they rode down the stone-paved street he had indicated. They had travelled so long through mountains and forest and open country that they had almost forgotten how it was to be in the City. Now, though, the lamplit windows and cooking smells, the merchants’ booths and the paving beneath their horses’ hooves, the buildings, gardens, streets, people passing, made Lin and Aiel feel quite homesick.

They reached the Faring House and its attendant Eating House, which lay on either side of the street, and rode round into the courtyard of the Faring House, where they gathered up their gear and left the horses with a groom. He showed them the entrance to the Faring House and they went in, but nobody came to greet them. This was unusual in a Faring House, but since the Third Faring House was so different from the others, they did not think much of it at first. However, when they had set down their gear and called out, and still nobody came, they looked at each other and began to think it strange. Then, gradually, they became aware of some kind of disturbance behind a partly-open door to their left, a hubbub of faintly heard but worried voices. Aiel lifted his head and sent out his Perception. The first thing he felt was panic, the kind of panic that might affect a disturbed insects’ nest, with the creatures running round in aimless flight. The second thing he felt was a turmoil of fear and loss, pain and bewilderment, darkness and hopelessness. Yet he knew he touched the mind of a brother Priest, and tried to make the links of the Thought-without-Words, but the other was too distracted. “Come” Aiel told the others, striding through the door, “There is some mischief here- I think Lak has passed through this place.” The door led to a corridor, and at the end of it, a Healing Place. Aiel did not pause, but went boldly in, with the others behind him. A dark-haired man in Priest’s robes was lying on one of the couches, and a group of people were gathered about him, arguing and gesticulating. By the Healer’s bench stood another Priest, older, with grey hair. He looked up as Aiel and the others entered, and said, sharply, “You cannot come in here.” Aiel’s Perception went out to him immediately. “I am Aiel, the Lightstone-Bearer. What has happened here?” He felt the other Priest’s momentary inability to grasp his thought, and then his mingled emotions- hope, fear, helplessness. “A Child of Night came here”, the reply came eventually , “with a fearsome weapon. When Varn perceived the Darkness in him, he struck him down.” Aiel quickly told his friends what he had learned, then said to the Healer-Priest, “The Lightstone can undo whatever has been done.”

He crossed to the couch, and his bearing of authority was such that the group around it parted to let him through. He bent over the stricken Priest and said, “Varn, my Brother-in-Light, hear me. I am the Lightstone-Bearer, and the harm that was done you by the Bloodstone, I can undo with the Lightstone’s aid. Where is the hurt?” The other Priest moaned softly, and the Healer spoke behind them, “It is his eyes.” Varn echoed him then, moaning, “My eyes, my eyes!” and his eyes, which had been tightly shut, opened, and stared sightlessly up at Aiel, for their blue had turned to an opaque whiteness. Aiel gave a little gasp of pity. He had never heard of a blind Priest, nor could he imagine what torment it would be to have his own eyes darkened. For to the Priesthood the eyes were more than sight; they were the doors of Perception. A Priest without the use of his eyes would be like a Swordsman with his sword hand cut off. Aiel felt fury rise in him at the cruelty of the Black Piper. For it was an obvious and deliberate cruelty, not to slay Varn, but to torment him by robbing him of his most valuable senses. As cruel as it had been to sever the link between Ket-Kai and Ket-Lai, not by clean death, but by death-in-life for both of them, though only one was stricken.

Aiel took out the Lightstone and laid it to Varn’s brow, feeling the apprehensive stillness that settled in the room about him as the Lightstone did its work. Warm light hid Varn from view for a long few moments, and when it withdrew, his eyes were clear and vivid blue again. The Healer-Priest gave a little cry of praise to Light, and smiled, and said gently to Varn, “You see again, my Brother-in-Light. It will be well with you now.” Varn sat up, and looked around him, wonderingly. He looked at Aiel, and at the Lightstone which lay softly glowing on Aiel’s breast. He looked at his friends, who were exclaiming now with wonder and joy, and around him, at the Healing Place. Aiel reached out his Perception, to touch Varn’s and test it, and the Thought-without-Words formed easily, and through it Varn poured wonder and thanks and eager questions into Aiel’s mind. Aiel answered as much as he could, then said aloud, “We seek shelter for the night, and food, and a place to talk with the Priest-in-Charge. Varn said “I am the Priest-in-Charge, Lightstone-Bearer.” The Healer said, “Varn, you should rest awhile. You have experienced a terrible thing.” But Varn told him, “It is well with me, Denar. I have been touched by the Lightstone!” He rose from the couch and smiled at them. Lin asked, “Where did the Dark One go, Varn?” One of the servants answered, “He fled from here, but we were too concerned with the Lord Priest Varn to follow.” Aiel stood still, and looked into the Lightstone, and used its power to send his Perception winging out over the Town. He found places of Darkness, here and there, and Children of Night, a few, but not the great Darkness that he sought. He withdrew his Perception, let the Lightstone fall, and said to the others, “It is safe, for now. Lak is no longer in the Town, though some few of his followers may be.” “Come” Varn said “I will show you the rooms, and the Bathing Places, and if you need somewhere to talk with me, and make your plans, we shall use my Quiet Room.”

Varn would not let them discuss anything until they had bathed and relaxed a little after their day’s journey, and, he said, for himself he needed time to gather his thoughts after all that had happened to him that day. So it was a good hour later that they joined him in the Quiet Room, and Aiel explained about the Black Piper, and the danger to the Dancers, and the Lightstone, and the Way of the Secret Word. Varn promised to help them all he could, though, he warned them, the most perilous part of their journey might lie ahead, with little shelter in their travelling, their enemy just ahead, and no aid until they reached the Gatehouse. A servant came to say that the evening meal was about to be served in the Eating House, and Varn said, “Aiel, let the maidens go across, under the protection of my steward. We will Perceive if anything dark comes near, and I wish to speak to you.” Aiel agreed, though a little unwillingly, and made sure that he first sent out his Perception to ensure it was safe. When the girls had gone,Varn asked, “Aiel, is it really necessary to take those maidens into such danger?” “Varn, do you think I would have brought them this far, if it were not necessary?” Lin said, “If you only wish to speak to Aiel, Varn, perhaps I should go across to make sure they are safe.” Varn answered, “No, Aiel is your charge, Lin. The maidens will be safe with my people.” Aiel asked if Varn knew the Secret Word, and finding he did not, explained how Arentha and Krystha were specifically mentioned in the Secret Word and ordained to the Way. Then Varn seemed satisfied, and said, “Your pardon, Lightstone-Bearer, if I have questioned you too much. But it seems hard to me that Arentha and Krystha must take this Way with you.” “To me also” Aiel said , softly, “but that is how Light wills it, Varn.” They left Varn , to join the maidens, and as they crossed the street, Aiel said “Varn is very sure that his people will keep the girls safe. Yet though Lak is gone from here, still I sense Darkness near, Lin.” Lin said “Then be watchful, Aiel – for yourself, as well as the maidens.

DANCE THE DARKNESS DOWN

Chapters 9 and 10

Chapter 9

As Aiel and Lin entered the Eating House, they saw that though it was not yet busy, the maidens were not alone. A dark-haired man sat at one of the tables near theirs, and his companion, a woman in a wine-coloured cloak, its hood still pulled over her head, had turned a little to look at the sisters. After a moment she said, in a soft, Eastern-accented voice, “Ah, we shall not have to eat alone. Have you travelled far, maidens? And surely not unaccompanied?” It seemed a pleasant, innocent enough enquiry, but Aiel was uneasy, half-Perceiving something Dark, yet not knowing yet what it was. It was Krystha who answered, being cautious but not discourteous in her reply. “No, we are not alone. We are awaiting our companions.” Lin’s attention was on Arentha. There was a tautness in her body as though she were – no, not afraid, but poised, waiting for something. And on Arentha’s face was a kind of bewilderment, as though she heard something she should have understood, but could not.

The woman asked again, “But where are you travelling from? I would wager you are from the South – from the City, perhaps?” Krystha answered, truthfully if evasively, “No, we are not from the City. You are very curious, Lady – some might say discourteous.” Aiel lingered in the doorway, signalling Lin to do the same. He was curious to hear the woman’s answer. “Your pardon, maidens, I meant no harm. It is just that you seemed familiar to me. I have friends in the City, and I thought I might know your father – or your mother.” There was a change in her tone as she spoke the last words that set Aiel’s Perception stirring, sent Lin’s hand to his sword-hilt, and caused Arentha to gaze at the woman with a wild, wide stare. Krystha, though seemed unmoved. “Our father does not go to the City. And we have no mother.” The woman gave an odd, short little laugh. “No mother? Are you sure of that – Arentha, Krystha?” She lifted her arm and pushed back her hood. Aiel gasped. The face that she revealed was, allowing for the extra years, almost the duplicate of Arentha’s. The same luminous dark brown eyes, the same lovely oval, the same delicately formed features, under the same glossy fall of dark hair. But after the first shock, Aiel began to see the things that made it not Arentha’s face at all – the lips grown taut and pinched, the little lines caused by dark emotions, the haunted look in the brown eyes. And Aiel now saw clearly that a dark mist clung to her, and her companion. Arentha cried out “Mother! Oh, I knew…” and could not finish, but fell silent , and reached out a hand which the woman ignored.

“Come!” Aiel told Lin, and they hurried to the girls’ table. “Lady” Aiel said to Alira ” You are disturbing these maidens, who are under our protection.” Alira, not yet realising that he was a Priest, since he wore no robe, answered him scornfully, “Have I not the right to speak to my own daughters?” Lin said “You have not used that right since they were scarcely more than babes. It seems to me that you no longer have it.” The dark man, Alira’s companion, who had been still and silent until now, slid to his feet. “You are insulting a Lady, Swordsman” he said, his tone urbane but menacing . His hand hovered over his sword. Aiel stepped forward and said “In the Name of Light, I ask you both, go on your way and let these maidens be.” The man’s long, pale eyes flicked towards Aiel’s face. He saw the young Priest’s eyes, and gave a mirthless grin. “What Priest, now, goes disguised?” he asked. “In any case, we serve another master, and do not recognise your authority.” His arrogance did not affect Aiel. Slipping his hand inside his clothing, Aiel pulled out the Lightstone , and said “But my authority you must recognise, Child of Night. For I am the Lightstone-Bearer!” He slipped the Lightstone free of concealment, and it lay blazing on his breast. The dark man cowered back before its light, and Alira stood frozen. Lin took Krystha and Arentha from their seats and placed himself with drawn sword between them and any danger.

Aiel set his Perception first on Alira. He had to know why she had made her claim on the girls. For their sake he had hoped it might be some remaining spark of love for them, however dark and perverted it might have become, that moved Alira. If she had any such feelings, though, he could not find them. Only Darkness and – surprisingly- overwhelming fear were in her mind. It was not fear of Aiel, for her spirit was defiant of him. Yet even that defiance, he felt, was born of fear. Another’s will – her companion’s, Aiel guessed- held Alira’s will in bondage. Even with the Lightstone’s aid, he could not reach her true feelings towards her daughters. They lay behind a closed door in her mind which even the Lightstone could open only a crack, and which was immediately slammed shut again. Strangely, Aiel felt nothing towards the woman who has abandoned his beloved Arentha but a strange pity. Withdrawing his Perception, he offered her the Choice of Light, but she answered “I cannot. I have made my choice.”

Turning his Perception on the man, Aiel was more than ever sure that here was the source of Alira’s fear and bondage. It was this Child of Night who had exploited Alira’s recognition of the girls. He would have used her to lure them for the uses of the Children of Night, and Aiel’s soul shuddered as he thought of the girl in the Ruins and what might have happened to Arentha and Krystha if the trick had succeeded. The man’s mind fought his Perception all the time, and Aiel knew that it was useless to offer him the Choice of Light. He did so anyway, but the man’s only reply was to spit on the floor at Aiel’s feet. “Then go, both of you, in the Name of Light!” Aiel commanded them, and added, because of Alira, “And, unless you turn to Light, make no attempt to contact these maidens again, nor send others to do so. Go your way!” As they turned away, there was a wail from Arentha. “No! Oh, Mother…” For an instant, it seemed Alira’s step faltered, but then she walked on without turning her head. Aiel had always known how she would choose. The deep, dark bond between her and her lover was too strong for her to break. Arentha would still have rushed after the couple, but Lin caught and held her. Krystha tried to reason with her sister. “Arentha, that is not our mother! Our mother is dead, and another spirit lives in her body! Arentha!”

Arentha, though, was frantic with loss. She turned on Aiel with such vehemence that Lin could not believe it. She had been so caring and concerned for Aiel, burdened with the Lightstone Way, that he hardly recognised her now. “You sent her away! You would not even let us speak to her! We could have turned her back to Light, but you would not try -she is our mother, and you have sent her away from us forever!” Aiel, his heart aching for Arentha’s misery, said gently and sadly, “Arentha, I did try. I offered her the Choice of Light, but she would not take it.” Before Arentha could say more, Lin said, “Let us go back to the Faring House. This is too public a place for such discussions!” It was an unhappy group that crossed silently to the Faring House and followed Aiel into the Quiet Room that Varn had lent them. When the door was locked behind them, Aiel began, “Arentha…” But she would not let him speak. To all of them her anger, because she was always so gentle, was frightening. It spoke of her deep distress and loss and pain. “Why, why did you send her away? If you had let us – let me – talk to her, we could have turned her back, and she would have taken the Choice of Light. But you would not give us the chance – and now we shall never have it again!”

“Arentha!” Lin spoke, his voice commanding “Let Aiel speak – let him explain.” He did not want to speak so roughly to her, but he had to give Aiel the chance to break through to her. Aiel said, “Arentha, I did all that I could to turn her to Light! But that man – her lover – has her completely under his domination. She would have obeyed him, and followed Darkness, even though…” Aiel broke off, unable to continue, to tell her what the man had planned for them, unwilling to expose Arentha to this last blow. Aiel and Lin had almost forgotten Krystha, in their concern for Arentha. Now, though, Krystha asked, in a tight, careful little voice, “Aiel- even though – what? Do not hide anything from us. Why did she want us to acknowledge her?” Aiel knew, by the way she put the question, that Krystha, the Healer, asked it for Arentha’s sake. It was as if Krystha told him that to heal Arentha, he must first hurt her with the truth – the truth Krystha already understood – about their mother. So he answered, making no attempt to veil the truth or soften his answer. “She was trying to lure you because the man commanded her to – because he wanted you for dark purposes. I do not know if she had thought beyond that, but Alira had no thought for you. To satisfy that man, she would have let you become victims of the Children of Night. You are right, Krystha, it is another spirit that controls Alira’s. Only Light can turn her back into your mother – and she refused the Choice of Light.”

Arentha had turned so white that Aiel almost thought his words had killed her. She gave an almost animal wail of despair, and sank down onto a bench, unmoving. Aiel, almost as pale as she, seated himself beside her and held her, trying to comfort her. Lin felt sick, and bitterly angry. He wanted to howl like a hound – the thought of such betrayal as Alira’s of her daughters was beyond his comprehension. He too had thought of the girl in the Ruins, and suspected that Krystha must be remembering too. He looked at her, and saw such a bleak, hurt look on her face that it stabbed through him like a sword blow. He knew now that beneath her brave, defiant outer shell she was as vulnerable as quiet, gentle Arentha and must be suffering as much. “Oh, Krystha” he said gently, holding out his hands to her, “I am sorry that you should be hurt so.” The hands she placed in his were shaking and icy-cold, and she begged him, in a painful whisper, “Lin, Sword-Brother…help me!” Lin hugged her close against him, trying to still her trembling. He heard her draw a deep, shuddering breath, and then she rested her head against him, holding tightly to him, and gave way to bitter sobbing. Lin had never felt such hurt and anger. He was Krystha’s Sword-Brother, but all that meant, his own abilities, were useless now. There was no physical enemy to fight for her, and his strength, agility and sword-skill could not protect her from this bitter pain. That something could hurt her so, and he be powerless to prevent it, was more than he could bear. He knew that it was more than the understanding and friendship that had grown between them that made him feel like this. He knew, now, that he was in love with Krystha, and, loving her, must hurt with her too. And, having once realised his love for her, he could not remember that it had not always existed.

Aiel, meanwhile, found Arentha unreachable. She did not speak, or weep. She had made no sound at all save that one despairing wail. She sat as cold and motionless as stone, staring straight ahead. He looked round for Krystha’s help and saw her in Lin’s arms, weeping as if she would never stop. Aiel was glad that one sister, at least, had found some release, but frightened for Arentha. It had, all the time, been Krystha who found it hard to express her pain, or let herself cry. Arentha had been open in her emotions. Now she was locked up inside herself, and Aiel did not know how to help her. He called her name softly, then louder, but there was no response. Lin, hearing Aiel call to Arentha, looked up and saw the still, unresponsive figure. He saw that Arentha’s reaction was similar to the way that Krystha had reacted to the death of the girl in the Ruins of the Dark City. Maybe Krystha, a Healer and Arentha’s sister, sharing her deep pain, could help her. Krystha’s sobbing had slowed now, and she was no longer clinging to him, but rather leaning into his embrace as though she were very weary. He bent his head again so that his face almost brushed her shining hair, and called her name. Krystha raised to his a face so blotched and swollen with crying that he felt love and pity tear him. Still, he held back his emotions, and said, very gently, “Krystha, I am sorry, I know you need time to deal with this thing. But we cannot reach Arentha. She will not answer.”

Krystha brushed away her tears and turned her head to look at her sister. Then she moved out of Lin’s supporting arms and went to Aiel and Arentha, Lin following. Aiel looked into her face with concern, and said “Krystha – how is it with you?” “Well enough, for now. While there is work for me to do” she answered, her voice husky with weeping. “Arentha will not answer me” Aiel said. “Is it the shock?” Krystha shook her head. “It is more that that, Aiel. She has lost her dream.” “Her dream? Your mother?” Krystha said sadly “She has always hoped – believed – that one day we would find her, and that when we did she would return to Light, and us. When we were children, Arentha used to tell me stories of how it would be. She had persuaded herself that – that Alira had been tricked into leaving us -that she was somewhere out in Li’is, longing to return to us, but too ashamed. That if we could only find her and speak to her, she would come back. It was a dream, but it sustained her, Aiel.” “And now all that she hoped for has proved false.” Lin said, soberly. “She is so trusting, so gentle!” Krystha exclaimed. ” I – I am my father’s daughter, and do not give my trust, or my belief, so easily. But Arentha- and yet it was those very things in our mother that first led her into Darkness- she was so naive, so Merhaun my father has said. Oh, Arentha!” She bent to embrace, then examine her sister, but Arentha was still unmoving. Krystha straightened again, and said, “It is an ill of the spirit, Aiel. Not I, but Light, can heal this.”

Aiel nodded, and laid the Lightstone to Arentha’s brow. Lin, aware of the tension still in Krystha, reached out and took her hand in his, and she gave him a glance and a wan half-smile for the comfort, before she looked back to Arentha. The Lightstone poured its soft flood of light over the immobile girl, seeming to hold her in its embrace. Aiel, Lin and Krystha watched hopefully for some sign, but the light withdrew again into the Stone and still Arentha had not moved. Then, after a moment, her brown eyes blinked, and lost their distant stare, and focussed, with some bewilderment, on Aiel and the soft glow of the Stone on his breast. Aiel made the little Priestly gesture that offered his Perception, and she gave herself to its power. There was nothing for Lin and Krystha to see; Aiel’s gentle cupping of Arentha’s face, the meeting of blue and brown gaze. Yet within their merged minds Aiel – or not Aiel, but the power of Light working through him- was touching her need, healing hurts, freeing, soothing, bringing peace. When Aiel withdrew his Perception, Arentha’s eyes were instantly full of tears. She turned to her sister, holding out imploring arms, and the two clung together like children in their grief. For grief it surely was. Aiel said to Lin, in a low voice, “They must mourn. Their mother is dead.” “It went deep with Arentha?” Lin asked, in concern. “Very deep” Aiel answered, and Lin knew he could say no more. The young Priest sighed, then “I wish there had been another way to deal with this, that I need not have sent Alira away” he said “but she would not take the Choice of Light, and I could not leave her free to follow us, and be a danger to the maidens. What else could I have done, Lin?” “Nothing.” Lin agreed, aware of his friend’s need for reassurance. “There was nothing else to be done but what you did, Aiel.” “I would have turned her to Light if I could” Aiel said, almost as if he had not heard Lin “but she was completely overshadowed by the Darkness in that man. She would have given them up without a thought, Lin – her own daughters- at his word. And I thought of the girl in the Ruins, and I – it was hard for me, Lin.” “She was corrupted by him indeed” Lin said quietly.

“When – when my mother died” Aiel said, and it was the first time Lin had ever heard him mention the subject of his own volition, ” it was a terrible loss to me, but it is worse for Arentha and Krystha. I at least knew that my mother and the babe had touched Light – that some day we should all be together in the Joyous Place. But for them – Alira is dead, yet she lives. I have forbidden her deliberately to approach them – unless she turns back to Light, though I see little hope of that – but still, they may meet again by chance, some day.” “If they do, at least the maidens will be prepared for what she is” Lin comforted him. Aiel said, and Lin knew it was hurting him. “Arentha asked me why I had sent her mother away- but I had to, Lin! She was a danger to them.” “Aiel, there was no other choice, once she refused Light. I am sure that Krystha, at least, understood that.” “Then I hope – I pray Light- that Arentha understands too.” “She does.” came Arentha’s voice quietly, from behind them. The young men turned, startled, but Lin caught the look of relief on Aiel’s face. The sisters were standing hand in hand, Arentha a little in front. Their faces bore the signs of their weeping, and to Lin they looked like lost children. Arentha said to Aiel, “Aiel, I…I said some terrible things to you….” Her voice caught on a sob, and Aiel said, in soft protest, “Ah, Arentha, no….” Arentha, to Aiel’s amazement and joy, suddenly flung her arms around his neck, crying, “Oh, Aiel, I am so sorry!” “Arentha, you were hurt, distraught!” he exclaimed, hugging her in token of his forgiveness, if any were needed. “Dear Aiel, you have such burdens to carry” Arentha went on “If my unkindness has added to them, please forgive me. I would not wish to hurt you.” “If there is anything to forgive, I forgive it, gladly.” Aiel told her.

Arentha, suddenly aware of her own impulsive gesture, coloured, and took her arms from his neck. Aiel, though, caught one of her hands as she lowered it, and pressed it against his cheek. Arentha looked questioningly at him , and met his eyes-not his Perception, but his heart. As if something flashed between them, she lowered her eyes a moment, raised them to Aiel’s again, and then laid her hand, which he had released, back against his cheek in a tender gesture. And that was all, yet Lin knew that something was settled between Aiel and Arentha. He wished it might have been as easy for him, with Krystha. How he might persuade that volatile maiden that he loved her, and how, seemingly impossible, to make her fall in love with him too, were problems to which he could not begin to imagine the answer. Aiel asked, “Arentha, Krystha, how is it with you now? Do you need anything? Shall I call the Healer?” Arentha said, “It will be well enough with us, for now. There is still the Way. Perhaps later, when that is done, we shall need to weep again. It is hard to lose a mother. To lose her the second time…” she broke off and swallowed hard, then said , resolutely, “We will not speak of it again.” Krystha said, “Light be praised that you and Lin were with us. It would have been ill for us if we had ever met her alone.” None of them wanted to think of that, though, and Aiel said “Best to forget what might have happened, Krystha.”

There was a knock at the door, and when Aiel cautiously unlocked and opened it, Varn came in. “Aiel – is something wrong? They said there was some trouble in the Eating House, and you did not stay. Is it well with you?” Aiel answered for them all. “We met with someone who tried to trick the maidens by claiming an old acquaintance with them. She would have betrayed them to the Children of Night, but Lin and I came in time. They were hurt by the deception, and frightened, so we came back here.” Varn was dismayed at the thought of such duplicity, but thankful that Aiel and Lin had managed to protect the maidens. He asked if they needed a Healer’s care, and assured that that was not necessary, he promised to have food and drink sent over for them, and withdrew. His kindly attentions had helped to relieve some of the tension of the evening’s events, and when the meal arrived, Aiel, Arentha and Lin were able to eat, if not heartily, at least sufficient to sustain them. Krystha, though, could eat very little, saying she had a headache. She crumbled some dried herbs from her Healer’s sack and mixed them in a cup of water. Lin watched Krystha with concern as she drank the draught. She did look wan and tired. His new-found love for her made him very conscious of her; he had cared for and guarded her before as a good comrade, a Sword-Brother, but wholly her own responsibility. Now he felt that loving her made him somehow responsible for her, but also made her responsible for him. Whatever hurt her, hurt him too. Lin did not realise that he was gazing thoughtfully at her, taking in the pale, heart-shaped face, the amber-brown eyes grown big and dark with tiredness, the heavy plait of red-gold hair. Krystha looked across the table at Lin and tried to smile, but winced. The headache, Aiel thought. He was watching them both. Krystha did not look well at all, and Lin too looked strange, as if he had an ache in him. Maybe he was still thinking about Alira, and how she would have betrayed the maidens.

Aiel asked, “Krystha, would it not be best if you went to rest, you and Arentha? It has not been well with you, and you look so tired.” The girls agreed that the emotion had exhausted them, and Krystha still complained of headache. They decided to take Aiel’s advice, and as they went out to the room that had been prepared for them, Krystha paused to say quietly to Lin, “Sword-Brother, thank you for comforting me”, and was gone before he could reply. When they had left, Aiel asked, “Lin, what ails you?” “What ails me? It has been a painful evening, Aiel.” “I know. But it is more than that, Lin. Is it that you are still thinking of what might have happened to the maidens? You need to be careful of such thoughts, for they can lead to a wrong kind of anger.” Aiel persisted with his questioning, knowing that something was disturbing Lin. At last Lin answered, for the comfort of sharing his feelings, “Aiel, it is – I find myself in love with Krystha, and I do not know what to do.” Aiel was just a little alarmed. He could recall that Lin had cared for other maidens before. But Krystha was no ordinary maiden, and he knew, by what Arentha had told him about her sister, that she could be hurt much more easily than Lin might guess. Aiel thought that, considering the respect and comradeship that had been between Lin and Krystha, this time Lin’s affection was probably true. Still, to make his friend think clearly about the relationship, he said sternly, “Lin, be sure – very sure – about this. Krystha is vulnerable, for all her careless bravery. She is not one of our flirting City maidens, in and out of love in a day. I will not have her hurt for a whim, for I think that if you win her heart, it will be given forever, not to be tossed back to her again if you lose interest.”

Aiel was satisfied, then, for Lin’s response showed the reality of his feelings for Krystha. “I know it, Aiel! I have never met a maiden like Krystha, and in the beginning I never would have thought of loving her. I grew to respect and honour her as a Sword-Brother, yes. But tonight – how can I explain it to you, Aiel? I held out my arms to a wounded comrade, and found I was holding my only love. Every tear she wept cut me like a knife.” Lin looked at his friend as if bewildered by the strength of his own feelings. “Aiel, all I want is to go on loving Krystha, all my life, and for her to love me too. I want her to be my Lady, for I want her to be beside me always. But how am I to win her love? If I tell her how I feel, she is as like to think I am mocking her as to believe me.” “Lin, Krystha respects and honours you, as you say you do her. Might not her feelings also turn to love?” “I hope so.” the Swordsman murmured. “I think you must be patient, my friend, and gentle. Krystha likes and trusts you, and Arentha says her trust is not easily won.” He smiled at his friend, then sighed, “Lin, I know how it is with you. You know how I love Arentha. But for all of us such feelings must wait until the Way is finished.” “I would not let my love for her interfere with the Way” Lin agreed “but it need not prevent me from asking Light for the gift of Krystha’s heart. Is not Light the source of all love?” “Aye, and Light will keep our loves safely, till this Way is ended.” Aiel said. Comforted by the thought, the two young men went to find the room Varn had allotted them. But while Aiel, despite the day’s misfortunes, seemed to fall asleep easily and quickly, Lin lay awake for a while, exploring the excitement and joy, the doubts and fears, of his love for Krystha.

Next morning, the maidens still seemed subdued, and it was, strangely, Krystha who seemed unhappiest, though she had been the more clear sighted about her mother. Aiel, seeking to distract them, asked if there was anything they needed for their journey which they now had the opportunity to buy in the Merchant Town. Their storekeeper, Arentha, could think of nothing, but Varn, who was with them, said, “If you intend to camp out on your way to the Gatehouse, your cloaks will not be warm enough. It grows colder as you near the Meeting Place. There is a merchant nearby who sells coverings, finely-woven, very light, but warm. I would counsel you to buy some for your journey.” “That is a good thought” said Lin “we cannot risk the Way by taking a sickness through chill.” So they agreed to go to the merchant’s, but Krystha said she still felt unwell, and would not go. Lin, anxious for her, elected to stay with her, since Aiel had the Lightstone, and Varn’s guidance, and the merchant was very near. So Varn, Arentha and Aiel went off to the merchant’s booth, leaving Krystha and Lin in the Quiet Room. Krystha said, “Lin, it is kind of you to stay, but you could have gone. It will be well with me.” “Krystha, it is only Alira? You are not sick?” Lin asked. “No, it is Alira” Krystha answered, and sighed. Lin asked again, “Krystha, you said you knew and understood what Alira is, and that it was Arentha who dreamed of finding her. Why is it then that this thing seems to hurt you more than Arentha?” She looked at him for a moment, as if she decided whether to trust him, then said, “Maybe, for all I said, I had more of a share in Arentha’s dream than I knew. Maybe I had let myself hope too, Lin, though I denied it. And also, it frightens me to know that she is one half of me, and that half turned to Darkness.” “But you would never turn to Darkness, Krystha.” “Oh Lin, who knows? Once she loved my father dearly, and he her. I know that is true. Yet something turned her love cold.” She looked at him again, then said softly, “Lin, sometimes I wonder – would it have happened if I had not been born?” Lin took her by the shoulders, but gently, and said firmly, “Krystha, that is a nonsense! How could your birth have anything to do with it?” “Is it a nonsense? To bear two children so quickly can be a strain, and I know I was not an easy child. Arentha was always as she is now – sweet-tempered, gentle, beautiful. But I was a stormy little creature, so our old serving-woman said. “Like a baby hawk” she used to say, “Small and golden-eyed and very fierce.” I was always around where the lads were at their horse-riding and Sword-Training, and I would not learn to be a well-behaved little maiden. Maybe I was too much for Alira.” “Krystha” Lin said ” You cannot blame yourself – why, you were little more than a babe when Alira deserted you. And not all little maidens are sweet and well-behaved. You sound as though you were describing my sister Mira, save that her hair, not her eyes, was golden. She would forever be with me and my friends, and my mother said she despaired of her, but she did not desert us because of it!”

Krystha smiled faintly, but said nothing. Lin said, “Krystha, you cannot take this guilt on yourself. I know what it is.” He seated himself on a bench and signalled her to sit beside him. When she did, he asked, “Is it not as if Alira had died?” She nodded, dumbly, and Lin said “When I was a little lad, my grandfather died. I loved him very much, Krystha, and I used to go every day to see him. He died suddenly, one night – and I felt so guilty, as if it were my fault. I felt I should have known that day that he was sick. It would have been impossible for me to know, for it was a sudden seizure that killed him, yet I still felt I should have known. I spent days going over my last visit to him, wondering what I could have done to prevent his death. I think it is always like that when we lose someone, whether to death or Darkness. Always we think, if I had done this, or that, I could have prevented it. But it is a false guilt, born of Darkness. You must not accept it.” She thought for a moment, then said quietly, “I think you are right, Sword-Brother. But it is hard for me, and this is the second time she has rejected me, and I wonder, I wonder – what have I done, Lin?” She was crying now, very quietly, without passion, and he put his arms round her and rocked her a little, comfortingly, saying “You have done nothing, Krystha, nothing at all, that she should hurt you like this. It is the Darkness which controls her that rejects you, and it is proof that you are beloved of Light. And I believe Light will bring healing out of your pain for you, though you do not see it yet.” “Lin” she said, in surprise, “I did not know you were so wise. Thank you.”

He would gladly have gone on holding her, but she smiled at him and moved away, saying “Come, I feel better now. Let us go on with the preparations for the journey, then there will be less for Aiel and Arentha to do when they return.” So they went to work together, companionably chatting as they packed up their baggage. But Lin watched Krystha with love, wondering how many rejections there had been for her, and if they would make it harder for her to accept his love for her, when at last he was able to confess it to her. Aiel and Arentha returned from the merchant’s with Varn, and Arentha was pleased with the coverings they had bought. “Light and warm,as Varn said, and thin enough to carry easily, or wrap around us as an extra cloak if it is cold” she said. “Our thanks to you, Varn, for your advice. These will be very useful.” Varn had refused to let them purchase other supplies, insisting that the Faring House supply all their needs. Their greatest need, though, was of his counsel. the journey thus far had been painful and difficult, but always with the assurance of a goal to aim for; the Faring Houses, the Ket’s Camp, the Merchant Town. They had gone step by step, but now there were no more stepping stones between them and the Gatehouse, and their enemy might be anywhere on the way ahead of them. If they chose to sleep in a village, there might be an ambush there, yet in open country too they would be at risk. Varn advised them where the villages were which he knew, and told them that when they neared the mountains where the Gatehouse and the Meeting Place lay, they would find caves in which to shelter. “Otherwise, let the Lightstone guide you, Aiel, and your Perception” Varn said “There are few enough go up to the Dancers’ Gate, and they usually have their own servants and sleeping tents with them. I have not had to give this kind of advice before, and I may mislead you, without meaning it. Trust Light only, Lightstone-Bearer.” They appreciated Varn’s honesty, but it did not make the way before them any easier.

Their horses were brought, and they set off, riding through the Town unremarked, and out of another gate, the one nearest to the North. Soon they came to an end of the farmlands, and were riding over rough, open grassland. It was windy here, for there were no hills or mountains to shield them from the winds that swept from sea-coast to sea-coast across this, the narrowest part of their land. The wind stung, too, laden with salt from the sea, and though the day was bright, they were glad of their cloaks. The land rose slowly, a long, steady, upward slope. There were small streams, though, crossing the rough expanse, and a movement as of small birds or animals in the grass and bushes and occasional trees. The air, swept clean by the wind, was biting-fresh, and the sky seemed very high and clear. The land tired them but the air revived them again. Aiel thought it a strange place. When he remarked on this, Lin said, “This is the North, and we are Southern-bred. It must seem strange to us – unless it is another strangeness you feel, Aiel?” Aiel, who had kept his Perception partly extended, told Lin, “No, I have felt no Darkness here.” Krystha said thoughtfully, “This land is not as soft as ours. Even the farmlands, though fertile, did not have the richness of ours. I think perhaps we are nearer the – the bones of the land, here.” “I have never breathed air so cool and clear” Arentha contributed. “It is a good land, Aiel ,if rough.” Aiel, though, thought to himself that if the place were cool and windy now, in bright sunlight, it would be doubly so at night. The problem of their night’s shelter perplexed him.

As they reached the top of the long slow slope up which they had been riding it became the brow of a hill, the other side of which descended into a kind of cup in the landscape, out of which the land rose again on all sides. A small river ran down from the opposite side of the depression and emptied into a lake, from which it seemed to have no exit. Around the lake clustered a tiny village. There were a few small houses, one or two slightly larger ones with fields attached, in which a couple of animals were grazing. In the cottages nearest the water lived fishermen, it seemed, for their nets were set out to dry. The smoke of cooking fires rose from one or two of the dwellings, and they could see distant figures; the beasts in the fields, a man cutting wood, children at the water’s edge, a woman in a doorway. It was a peaceful scene, but somehow Aiel wondered what might lie behind it. Was the place as innocent as it looked? Aiel could not think, for a moment, what it was that made him suspicious of this quiet, pleasant-looking lakeside village. There was none of the dark aura about it that he had seen around the Children of Night. Then he remembered. Varn had told them where the villages lay, and he had not mentioned this one. True, Varn had said that he was not well acquainted with the country between the Merchant Town and the Gatehouse, and he might not know of this village, hidden as it was. But Aiel felt disquiet.

Arentha said, “Aiel, that might be a good place to seek shelter for the night.” Aiel answered, “I do not know…Lin, you are the Swordsman. How does the place feel to you? For I Perceive nothing, yet I somehow distrust the place.” Lin looked surprised, and replied, “Aiel, I feel nothing wrong. And it would be a safe place for the maidens.” “Sword-Brother” said Krystha “I trust Aiel’s feelings. Let us wait and watch a little longer, and see if Aiel Perceives anything.” “No harm in that” Lin agreed. Aiel sent out his Perception, cautiously, towards the village. He met no Darkness or danger there – but nothing else either. No sense of life, no undercurrent of thought, no spark of merriment from the children, simply a blankness that confused and puzzled him. Lin, seeing him frown, asked, “Aiel, what did you Perceive?” “Nothing” Aiel answered, then, seeing his friend did not understand, went on, “Lin, I Perceived nothing there – no thought or feeling in those people at all.” He looked down at the village. He could see the people; why could he not Perceive them? A frightening thought came to him, and he swung his Perception towards his friends. No, there was nothing wrong with his Priestly sense, he could feel the puzzlement in all of them at his words. He said, “I Perceive you all, so it is not my Perception.” Lin said, “Wait”. He leaned forward in his saddle, carefully studying the village. Then he said “Aiel … look at the people!” They all looked. The woman in the doorway, watching the children by the shore, the man cutting wood. Suddenly, Aiel saw what Lin had seen. The woman raised her hand to push back her hair, and lowered it, and raised it to push back her hair, and raised it…the children by the lake were throwing stones at the water, bending to pick up stones, and throwing them, but there was no splash, and they bent in exactly the same way to pick up the same stones and throw them without hitting the water, and bent again…the woodcutter put a log on his block and split it with one stroke, but then the block was empty, and he put the same log on the block, and split it, and reached for the same log to put on the same empty block…

Aiel watched the distant figures performing the same actions, over and over, as though time stopped, and ran back, and restarted in the same place, and he shuddered. Lin said, “In the Name of Light, Aiel, what is happening in that place?” Aiel said “Wait. Let me think.” They respected his silence, and after a few moments he said, “It must be something to do with Lak. But what? It could be that by the Bloodstone’s power he has broken their minds and this is the result. But even so, I should have Perceived the living spirit in them. Unless he has somehow blocked my Perception.” He took out the Lightstone, gazing into it, using it to augment his Perception, but the village was still a blank. Now, though, he could feel, vague and distant, the presence of a Darkness behind what was happening here, and though it was not close, he knew it was a great Darkness. “There is Darkness behind this, I Perceive it” he said , “Lak, or -” The Night Lords, he thought to himself, the corrupted Dancers of Ma’al – the Otherworld – under the sway of the Lords of Darkness. They still had the Dancers’ powers over time and space. Could this be their work? But no, they could not interfere in Li’is, not unless Lak succeeded on the Meeting Place, and he was not there yet. “Aiel?” Arentha recalled him from his thoughts, and he said, “No, it must be Lak’s work.” “Aiel, can we not help those poor people?” Krystha asked. Aiel considered the facts he had; the unknown village, the people who repeated the same actions interminably, the sense of distant, brooding Darkness overshadowing the place, the fact that he could Perceive no life or feeling in the village. And then he knew.

“There are no people” he said “Krystha, there is no village. It is a dark enchantment, like the one Si-Mara tried to set on us at the Spearcleft Pass.” “How can you know that?” Krystha argued, “If it is not so, these people are in dire need.” Arentha added, “Aiel, Krystha is right. We must be sure.” “Listen to me” Aiel told them “You are falling into Lak’s trap. As long as we believe in the village, it is there.” “Then let us go down and see” suggested Lin. “Lin, you know better than that!” Aiel exclaimed. “What reason would the Black Piper have to set such a trap,except to lure us down into that place?” There was an uneasy silence, until Aiel asked ,”Lin, you have Ket-Kai’s bow with you?” “Yes” Lin answered, looking puzzled. “Then get it” Aiel said. Lin dismounted and found the weapon among his gear, then looked questioningly at Aiel. Aiel said, indicating the woodcutter, “Lin, shoot that man.” “Aiel!” came the chorus of protests from them all. The young Priest said , “Lin, if I could use a bow I would do it myself. Do you really think I would bid you shoot an unarmed man? I tell you he is not a living man, but a phantom of Lak’s dark powers. But I must prove it to you, to break the enchantment.” When Lin still hesitated, Aiel asked, sadly, “Lin, do you trust me or not? If I must command you as the Lightstone-Bearer, I will, for you have sworn an oath to me. Aim for a limb, if you will, but shoot!”

The Swordsman took a deep breath, fitted an arrow to the bow, and moved a little way down the slope to get a better aim. “Not too near, Lin!” Aiel warned, and Lin stopped, glanced once at Aiel’s set, determined face, drew back the bow, and fired. They followed the flight of the shaft anxiously, except Aiel, who was quite calm. Lin was a good shot, even with a weapon he was unused to. Aiel saw him wince as the arrow hurtled towards the chest of the man – he had not aimed for a limb, then, unless the strange weapon had betrayed his aim, Aiel thought. Arentha cried out. Krystha’s fists were clenched on her reins. The sharp point of the arrow went into the man; the whole arrow went in, and through, and disappeared, leaving no mark , and the woodcutter went on picking up and splitting and picking up and splitting the same log. Lin turned and stared at Aiel, then scrambled back up the slope. “But I hit him!” he gasped, as he reached them, “I did hit him!” “You did not hit him, Lin” Aiel said quietly, “There was no one there to hit.” “But it seems so real!” Arentha exclaimed, turning again to look at the village. “Oh – look!” Krystha cried. The village was beginning to waver, as if seen through the hot air rising from a fire. The children and the woman blinked out like extinguished candle flames, and Arentha gave a little cry of alarm. Homes, fields and cattle, logs and nets all faded and vanished. Last of all the figure of the woodcutter slowly disappeared, but not before it had raised, to look at Aiel, a face so contorted with malice and anger that he knew that, for a moment, he saw his enemy.

Now they saw that, though the lake too had disappeared, there was still a gleam of light on water at the bottom of the hollow. No river, lake or stream was there, though, but a black, oozing, scummy bog, edged with plants of a bright unhealthy green that looked solid, but hid the sucking terror underneath. Like Lak’s eyes, and his mind, Aiel thought. Lin, shaken, said in a horrified voice, “Sweet Light! Aiel…” “You see?” Aiel said “I told you it was a trap. He wanted to lure us down there, and we would have been caught in the bog.” Krystha and Arentha said nothing, but stared at each other, pale-faced. Lin came and stood by Aiel’s horse, and bowed his head. “Aiel, my brother, I am ashamed” he said, “you should not have had to command me, before I would do as you said. I should have trusted you. Let you, and Light, forgive me.” “Lin, it is forgiven. Your doubts were honest, and it was a hard thing I asked of you, True Sword of the Lightstone.” “But Varn told us to trust to your Perception, and the Lightstone, Aiel. I should have done that. I will not disobey you again.” Krystha asked “Why did Varn not warn us of this place?” “Perhaps he did not know of it.” Arentha suggested. “Or maybe we have lost our way” Aiel said “There is no path to follow now. We may have strayed.” “There are the Dancers’ Mountains” Krystha said, pointing to the far distant range, visible only as a faint grey blur on the horizon. “Aye, but where is the Gatehouse?” Lin asked. “If we are lost, how shall we find our way?” Aiel smiled mirthlessly. “I can think of a sure way to do that.” “How?” asked Arentha. “By following the Darkness I Perceived. It is surely Lak, and he will make all speed for his goal.” “It is too dangerous!” Arentha cried.”His mind almost destroyed you once, Aiel.” “I am stronger now” the Lightstone-Bearer said “and more attuned to the Lightstone. But let me seek Light. If Light forbids me, I will not attempt it.” They were silent as he gazed into the Lightstone, seeking guidance. Then, as once before, he felt his Perception take wing and soar up and out, but now he was ready for any encounter with the Black Piper. For that, though, there was no need, for he saw the country between where he was and the Gatehouse, as though he leaned over a map. He saw that they were indeed off course, but also how to correct it. He saw the way to take. And he came close enough to his enemy to know where he was, close enough for his enemy to be aware of him, but not to touch him – close enough, perhaps, for his enemy to begin to fear him.

CHAPTER 10

Aiel raised his head and said “Light has shown me the way.Lak is not so far ahead. We must be careful.” They were beginning to be hungry, but none of them wanted to stop to eat in that dreadful place. As they skirted the bog and set out in the direction Aiel knew now was the right one, Lin suddenly asked, “Aiel, how could Lak know we would come that way? If we were not on the path we should have taken, how could he know?” “I think that might have been part of his enchantment”, Aiel told them.”He would not set the trap in that place if he did not expect us to go there. Yet my Perception was extended – I felt nothing. He is a cunning, deadly enemy, Lin.” They rode for a while in grim silence, each thinking of the Black Piper’s evil trap. Aiel guided them by the few landmarks his Perception had registered in its swift flight, and eventually they found signs that they were riding where others had ridden, though not many or often. “Now we are on the right way!” Aiel sighed. The ground was still rising towards the mountains, and they stopped for a hurried meal in the lee of a small hill, none of them liking to stop too long in open country, with their enemy near. When they started off again, they saw that between them and the next rise lay a shadow. As they came nearer they saw that it was a small wood, which lay either side of the faint track they had been following. Lin said, “Must we go through it, Aiel? There may be another trap there. It is a likely place for an ambush.” Aiel sent out his Perception, augmented by the Lightstone, and said, “I Perceive no Darkness there, Lin. It may make a good shelter.”

When they reached the wood, they found it the strangest they had ever seen. It seemed to be all of one kind of tree, very tall and slender, with strange, narrow, grey-green leaves. Under the trees grew rough grass, a tall, feathery bracken, and patches of a plant with long, delicate spires of purple-blue flowers. That was all. No bushes, no other trees, or flowers. It was a strangely austere place, but not unpleasing, and not harbouring any Darkness. Lin said, “It might be possible to camp here. There is some shelter from the trees, at least. It is better than open ground.” “What about the beasts?” Aiel asked. Krystha replied, “There is grass, Aiel, and we should have enough water for them too.” Arentha added, “We have the extra coverings we bought, and bracken makes a soft couch. We shall do well here.” They left the track and rode in under the trees until they felt they were hidden from view. As it happened, they found they would not need to worry about water for the horses. A little way into the wood they came upon a small outcrop of rock, and under it a spring bubbled up. Someone once had built a little kerb of stones around it, but it must have been long ago, for the stones were now worn, and thickly encrusted with moss and lichen. A few water-plants grew around it, the only change in the linited vegetation of the place. Krystha said, “See, here is waterbread – it is good to eat, as well as for healing.” They let the horses drink from the spring, then tethered them to the slender tree-trunks, where they stood seeming quite content. Lin, tying Mischief’s reins, brushed against a branch of the tree, bruising some of the leaves, and instantly they were surrounded by a wonderful perfume, sharp and sweet, herbal and fruity together, with a refreshing tang to it that was like a drink of water on a hot day. Curious, Krystha picked a few leaves and rubbed them in her hands, releasing more of the perfume, and inhaled it. Then she said, “This is a reviving smell. I wonder if these leaves can be used for healing?” They all agreed that they felt uplifted by the aroma of the leaves, and Krystha cut some sprays and put them in her Healer’s sack.

Next they cut piles of bracken to lie on. They would not be able to make a fire, for fear of being seen, and the bracken would be warm as well as soft, between them and the ground. The sun was descending, and as it sank, the air was growing chillier. Arentha said, “We shall be glad we took Varn’s advice about those coverings!” They made a meal, glad of the water-bread which Krystha had gathered to add variety to their travelling rations. It was growing really dark now, and they had no light till the moons rose. Aiel let the Lightstone lie shining on his breast, to lighten the dusk, but the darkness under the scented trees was not unpleasant, and the wind had died to a gentle rustling in the trees. After their meal they talked a while, then wrapped themselves in the new coverings, with their cloaks over all. It was Aiel’s turn for first watch, and while the others lay and slept, he stayed near the little spring, watching the moons, when they rose, shine on the water, Once, feeling sleepy, he went and took a handful of the sweet leaves, and rubbed them, and breathed in the refreshing perfume. He went to where Arentha was lying, and stood looking at her for a while, though he could see little of her face in the dim light. Then he sighed, and lifted his head and sent out his Perception, searching, but all was well. “Tomorrow”, he thought, a new resolution growing in him, “we will ride far and fast, and try to catch up with Lak. It was not said that I would not catch him before we reach the Meeting Place, and perhaps I have listened too much to my own fears. I may be able to defeat him before we come there. In any case, it is possible that he may not stop again to feed the Bloodstone, and I dare not rely on his being delayed.”

When it was time to wake Lin, Aiel told the Swordsman his thoughts, and asked his advice. “You know about horses, Lin. Can we make good time in this country without tiring them?” “We should do, Aiel”, Lin answered. “Yesterday you said you would obey me – but do not do as I say if you think it is foolishness, Lin. Then I spoke as I did because I was sure of what I said, but in this chasing of Lak I am not sure, yet it seems the right thing, to me.” “I think you have reason, Aiel. We cannot let him stay too far ahead. If it is Light’s Will that you do not overtake him until we reach the Meeting Place, so it will be, but we can try to catch him before that.” After that, Aiel lay down to sleep. The new covering was warm, but he did not sleep for a while. He was thinking about pursuing Lak. He was too sensible not to fear his enemy, though he no longer shrank away from the thought of him, as he once had. And another thought at least was comforting – that if he defeated Lak before the Meeting Place, Arentha might be safe.

The next thing he knew was Lin shaking him gently awake. It was quite dark still, and at first he thought it was the shade of the trees. Then he realised that it was only just dawn, and a grey and cloudy dawn. Lin said softly, so as not to disturb the maidens yet, “Aiel, it is still early. But the weather is changing, and the horses are nervous. I think a storm is coming.” Aiel sat up and looked around. The trees were swaying in a rough wind, the tops of them tossing against the grey sky. The clouds were moving quickly across the sky, thick soft grey patterned with torn swirls of darker rain-cloud. But behind them, out of the East, a bank of storm cloud rolled quicklyon, blotting out the rising sun and making night fall again where it passed. “We had best wake the maidens”, he said. While Lin did so, Aiel stood and sent out his Perception, locating the Black Piper. He was a great Darkness in a cloud of other Darkness, and Aiel knew he was among the Children of Night. He shuddered to think of what might have been happening in the night. No doubt Lak had been feeding the foul thing he carried, fuelling it for the assault on the Dancers. But that had delayed him, and he was not so far ahead after all. Aiel withdrew his Perception quickly, before Lak could become aware of him, and said to them all, “Storm or not, we must go on. I meant to catch Lak before the Meeting Place – if Light wills it.”

They splashed their faces with water from the spring and breathed the perfume of the grey-green leaves to refresh and waken them. So urgent was Aiel’s intent to pursue Lak that he almost grudged the time they took to make a quick breakfast, though Krystha told him, tartly, that a hard ride on an empty stomach would do them no good. The horses were a little fidgety and nervous as they set out – all but Aiel’s stolid Greymouse. Aiel said, “This storm came suddenly. There was no sign of it when I woke you, Lin.” “Aye”, Lin agreed, “The night was clear, then it seemed to boil out of the East with the dawn.” It was not rainingyet, but the wind was rough and chill. Once they had left the wood, there was no sign of shelter. Aiel knew by his Perception the direction of the Black Piper, and this time he was not avoiding his enemy, but riding straight towards him. He had warned the others ofthe Children of Night he had sensed with Lak, but he knew they would not be able to resist the Lightstone’s power. Of Lak he was not sure. There was a temptation to reach out and touch Lak’s mind, to try his enemy’s strength. Yet he knew that would be folly, having once been entrapped in the corrupted horror of that dark entity’s thought.

Ahead of them now rode a rounded hill, covered with a scrubby growth of bushes and rough tussocks of grass. It was long and steep, next to impossible to ride over, but the only way through was a place where the rise was split, showing raw red banks that rose higher than a man on horseback and overhung the narrow path. Aiel hesitated. It was the only way, but he mistrusted it. His Perception sensed a Darkness near – not Lak, but something Dark. The rain had begun now, too, lashing down in sheets that obscured their view. “Lin”, Aiel said, “There is Darkness there. Yet we must go through.” He reached for the Lightstone and laid it gleaming in full view. He Perceived no diminishing ofthe Darkness, but he was ready for it now. He led the way into the red-walled defile, with Lin, drawn sword in hand, guardingtheir rear. There was nobody in the entrance, but they might be waiting further ahead, where the defile turned. The rise was deep as well as long. The ground on which they rode was dusty and covered with small stones, and the horses kicked up clouds of dust. Aiel was uneasy, for there was something about the Darkness he sensed that was unusual. They reached the bend and turned it, tense with anticipation of attack, but still there was no one there. The track was wider here, the walls higher. The echo of their hoofbeats sent little trickles of dust running down the sides. Thedust was so dry and thick that even the pelting rain seemed to do little to hold it down. Lin said, puzzled, “Aiel, are you sure ofthe Darkness?” “Yes, I am sure. But there is a strangeness to it…” he paused to send out his Perception again, and gasped as he suddenlyrealised what it was. “Sweet Light – Lin, they are above us!” “Aiel, where?”, Lin asked quickly, “In front or behind? On both sides, or one?” “In front, and on the left only”. Lin looked, but saw nothing. “They are well hidden”, he said, “now under the overhang, all of you. If they are armed, they will find us a harder target.” They obeyed him, moving over so that they were under the overhang of the left-hand wall ofthe defile. It was harder going, for there were mores stones scattered along their way. They tried again to see their enemies, but the driving rain obscured their vision.

Suddenly through the air around them came a hail of stones, and they raised their arms to fend them off. One struck Whitefoot, and she danced nervously and stumbled, so that Krystha slid from the saddle. Lin cried her name in alarm, but the Healer was up and remounting in seconds, a little pale, but saying quietly to Lin, “It is well with me, Sword-Brother.” “They cannot have weapons, then”, Aiel said, but Krystha replied, “A rock will split our skulls as well as a sword, Aiel” . However, there were no more stones. The overhang above them, and a little in front, now revealed a group of figures, misty through the heavy rain, apparently working and struggling at something. Lin exclaimed, “They are trying to bring it down!”, realising thatthe shadowy figures were trying to loosen and make fall the overhang under which they were riding. Aiel said, “Lin, we must get through! If they block the way…” “When I tell you”, Lin broke in, ” gallop! But till then pretend you have seen nothing.” They trotted forward until they were underneath the group. Lin glanced up. The overhang was cracked right across, and a shower of stones and earth was beginning to fall. “Now!”, he shouted. As they dug in their heels and urged the horses forward, there was a creaking, groaning sound. Lin looked up again and saw the mass of earth and stones dropping towards him. Mischief leapt forward at his bidding, and the tons of soil crashed harmlessly down behind him, spilling across the defile and blocking it. Aiel, who was in the lead, turned in his saddle, calling anxuously< “Lin – are you hurt?” “It is well with me. Go on, Aiel!”, Lin called back. They galloped on, turned another bend, and found themselves on open ground again. They did not slow until they were sure that the Children of Night were well behind them. Then Arentha asked, “How will we het back, if the way is blocked?” “It will be a long time before we need worry about that!” Aiel replied, grimly. It was useless to try to stop while the rain was lashing down, and there was no prospect of shelter anywhere near, so they decided to make what time they could. They could not see far, or hear much, for the rain. It was as if nothing existed but themselves and the rain. Everything looked the same; the wet, rough grass, the grey sky, the veil of rain. The distant mountains to which they were heading seemed as insubstantial as clouds.

Aiel reached out his Perception. He found the Black piper easily now, he was becoming attuned to his enemy’s presence. And now the other was not so far ahead, and only one other was with him. Not wanting to draw Lak’s attention to himself, Aiel concentrated on the Black Piper’s companion. It was Soom, the ‘beggar’, and Aiel found that, by usingthe Lightsone to help him, he could Perceive Soom. He knew enough now to shield himself from the dark thoughts,lusts and memories he found in the Children of Night, and seek only the information he needed. Aiel learned that Lak was very confident that one of his traps would succeed, so confident that he had decided to turn aside to a village for shelter from the bad weather. Aiel let the Lightsone fall and relayed this information to the others. “If we go on we will catch him”, the Lightstone-Bearer told them, “but he has set traps. We must be wary of them.” Now, though, Aiel was concerned what to do. “If I follow him to the village and confront him there, he may do harm to the villagers”, he said, “to force me to let him go on.” Arentha said, “Aiel, can we not wait till he has left the village? He may do them no harm then.” “It is his nature to do harm”, Lin argued. “They may need our protection, Aiel.” “We are not near the village yet”, Krystha said calmly. “Let us go on, and et Aiel try his Perception again in a while, and see what is happening. If they need us, we can go there. If they are unharmed, we will not go near and cause them trouble with Lak.” “That is sensible”,Aiel agreed. “That is what we will do, Krystha.” A break appeared in the clouds to the East, and the rain slowed. Aiel was able to see further now, and as they mounted a ridge he could faintly see, across a valley and lying off to the East, the small village where he knew his enemy was sheltering. Descending the slope with great care, for the ground was slippery from the rain, they rode in the direction of the village. The rain was stopping now, and as the dark clouds rolled away Westwards, the sky above them cleared to blue, and the sun broke through. The sight of the sun cheered them, but the cold wind was blowing still, and they were chilled, for despite their protective cloaks the driving rain had soaked them through. They must find some shelter, Aiel thought, somewhere to warm themselves and put on dry clothes.

Next moment, though, every thought was driven from his mind. They had crossed the narrow dale which lay between the ridge they had left and another, up which they were now riding. As they reached the top, Aiel was dazzled for a moment by a shimmering wall of light, which he thought at first was the sun reflecting off water. When his eyes grew accustomed to it, though, he saw the most unbelievable sight, so that he closed his eyes for a moment, and opened them again. It was still there, though – a long line of horsemen, silent, black-clad, the brightness caused by the sun glinting off their swords and spears. They reined in their horses and sat staring down. “Swordsmen of Darkness!”, whispered Lin, “Lak’s followers. Aiel, what can we do? It is death to go forward!” Aiel shook his head. “Lin, is it possible that so many horsemen could be assembled and brought here without some rumour of it reaching the Priesthood?” “They might have come in secret, over the Eastern sea, and landed at some solitary place”, Krystha suggested. “But the Lord of the East learnt of Lak’s coming, and sent word. This would not have escaped his notice”, Aiel answered. “I Perceived Soom’s thought, and it was of traps set. This is one, but are these horsemen flesh and blood, or is it another enchantment?” “Lak’s last enchantment hid real peril also”, Aretha reminded them, soberly. Aiel reached out his Perception, cautiously, towards the black horsemen. They had shown no sign of seeing the Way-Sharers, though they must be visible, up on the ridge. They had made no ove to attack. Aiel was sure they were as insubstantial as the lakeside village had been. He was right. There was the same blankness about the dark riders, the same sense of overshadowing evil. Aiel knew it was another of Lak’s enchantments, and a sudden anger overcame him. He was weary of this! The anger burning in him drove him like a clean, pure fire, and he felt it was not his anger alone, but Light’s. He found Lak, and, unafraid, touched the Darkness that was his enemy’s mind. And this time the Black Piper did not attack his Perception as before, but withdrew, retreating into a deeper Darkness, where everything told Aiel not to follow. He withdrew his Perception and looked down onto the plain again. The black-clad horsemen were gone.

Lin whispered, “What did you do, Aiel? They just vanished!” Aiel said, “I challenged Lak’s Dark Perception – and he withdrew. He went into a great Darkness, where I could not follow.””Then he fears you, Aiel!”, Lin said. “He fears Light”, Aiel answered. “We will go to the village, Lin. I think he will not stay there now.” As they continued on their way, Aiel kept his Perception extended, and, as he had expected, found that as they drew nearer to the village, the Black Piper made his escape, though he waited until the last minute, as if he could not decide whether to make a stand against the Lightstone-Bearer now, or not. In the end, though, Aiel Perceived him,and Soom, actually riding out of the village as the Way-Sharers rode in – they were that close behind Lak. They needed dry clothes, though, and food, and Aiel felt they could afford to stop for a while. In the village they found a small inn, and a kindly innkeeper, who prepared them a warming meal while his wife gladly gave them the use of rooms to change their wet clothing. While they ate, Aiel asked the innkeeper, “Is it far from here to the Gatehouse?” The innkeeper smiled. “This is unusual. For a long time we have had no visitors to the Gatehouse, and now there are six in one day.” “Six?”, asked Lin, with an air of innocent enquiry, “Who the were the other two?” “Oh, an old Lord from the East and his servant.”, the man replied. Lin and Aiel exchanged glances as the innkeeper went on<“It is about two days’ ride yet to the Gatehouse. Do you wish to stay here tonight?” “We have not yet decided”, Aiel answered. “We may try to catch up with the old Lord – I think we are acquainted with him. Is his name not Lord Dular?” “Aye, that was the name”, the innkeeper told them. When the innkeeper had taken away the dishes and left them in private, Aiel said, “Now I do not know what to do! This is a safe place to stay, and we rose early. Yet while we delay we lose what we have gained, and Lak will be desperate to reach the Meeting Place before us.” “He too must rest sometime”, Krystha observed. ” Pehaps”, Aiel said. “Aiel, he is a man. He must sleep!” the Healer said. “No, he is more – or less- than man”, Aiel replied. “He has given himself as lodging to a Lord of Darkness. His needs may not be as other men’s – or the Dark spirit in him may override his needs.” “Man or spirit, his body is flesh and blood”, Krystha said, “but if you feel it wisest to go on , we shall.” “How long to nightfall?”, Lin asked, “And what risk we shall meet with more danger if we go on in the dark, Aiel?” Before Aiel could reply, the door of the inn banged open, and a young man rushed in. His hair was dishevelled and he looked round him wildly. Then his eyes fixed on the Way-Sharers, and he ran to the, stopping in front of Krystha. “I heard there was a Healer here”, he said , breathlessly, as though he hadrun far and fast, “Lady, please – our babe is very sick!” Krystha reached instinctively for her Healer’s sack, but then she paused, and said, as if it were a question, “Aiel…?” Aiel had flashed his Perception towards the young man as he entered the inn, and found no Darkness, only his need, and his fear for his child. The Lightsone-Bearer nodded, “Aye, Krystha, go. Lin, go with her. It is well.” As they hurried out with the young man, Aiel turned to Arentha, and said, “It seems the choice has been made for us. Krystha must tend the babe.” “It is not another trap?” “No, unless Lak set the sickness on the child to delay us. I doubt that, though. And there was no Darkness about the child’s father.”

Krystha and Lin had followed the anxious father dow the village street to his neat little cottage. He led them in and called for his wife, a fair-haired girl who came hurrying from another room to ask, “Have you found the Healer?” “Yes, she is here”, the man said, indicating Krystha, and at the sight of her his wife exclaimed with relief. “Where is the bae?”, Krystha asked, “What ails the child?” “He has a bad cough and a fever, and is hardly able to breathe.” , explained the young mother. They crowded into the little sleeping room where the babe lay in a cradle, flushed with fever and drawing gasping, rattling breaths. Krystha carefully examined him, nodded, and snet the child’s father for water. She asked for cup, spoon, and bowl, and when the water was brought, measured and mixed a powder from one of her Healer’s vials and carefully, patiently, fed it spoonful by spoonful to the child, all the time murmuring gentle reassurance to both the babe and his parents. Then she took a cloth and the bowl and sat with the child in her lap, rubbing and gently tapping his back, until suddenly he coughed violently and vomited into the bowl, which she carefully inspected. “Good”, Krystha said, “That has cleared him. Now a fever drink.” The mother took the child while Krystha mixed another draught and gave it to the child. “Now let him sleep”, the Healer said, and laid the child back in the cradle. “I will give you the herbs to use and tell you what to do. Five days, and he should be well.” The young couple listened carefully to Krystha’s instructions, and took the precious healing herbs. Then the man said, “Light be praised that you came this way, Lady. Else we would have had to take him to the Gatehouse, to Lady Benika, and it is a two-day journey.” “Then it might have been too late”, Krystha said, seriously. “Babes sicken quickly. But do as I have told you and it will be well with the child.”

The sun was setting as Lin and Krystha walked back to the inn. Lin said “Light surely meant us to be here, Krystha. Would the child really have died without your aid?” “Not for certain”, she said, “but more likely than not, Lin.” “It is a great thing that you do, Krystha”, he said, for he had never seriously considered it before, “to help and heal and save from death.” “Not always”, she said quietly. “Some sicknesses are beyond healing, and sometimes – sometimes it seems that a person simply does not wish to fight any longer to live. Oh, I have seen death, Sword-Brother.” He glanced at her sideways and said, softly, “I would that you never had to see evil, Krystha.” “That is a strange thought, Lin”, she answered him, but not mockingly.” “If there were no evil in Li’is, we should not need to be aware of it. But since there is evil, better to know it than not. Is it not a wise thing, to be aware of your enemy?” “Aye”, he answered briefly, and smiled at her, but said no more. He had come perilously close to revealing his feelings for her, just then, but he knew at heart it was not the right time.

Aiel and Arentha, meanwhile, had been talking with the innkeeper, who had provided some useful information about the way to the Gatehouse, and where they might find some caves to sleep in the next night. When Lin and Krytsha rejoined them, the innkeeper asked after the babe, and after hearing the child was recovering, and expressing his own thanks to Krystha for her help, he went off to see to some villagers hwo had come in, and the Way-Sharers withdrew to a quiet corner to discuss their plans. It was too early to sleep yet, but Aiel proposed that they should retire early and rise as soon as possible, to be off after Lak. He had accepted, now, that it was likely he would not overtake his enemy before the Gatehouse. “But we must be as close on his heels as may be.”, he told them.

The innkeeper woke them, as they had requested, very early the next morning, but despite the early hour, there was a good breakfast waiting for them. Aiel, though, impatient to be off, his nerves taut-strung, could hardly bear to eat, though Krystha insisted he did. Having cast out his Perception to seek Lak, he realised that the Black Piper must have had to stop to rest after all, and had not gained as much ground as Aiel had feared. When they were ready to leave, they thanked the innkeeper and his wife, and Krystha inturn was thanked for helping the sick child. Obviously this small community was was close-knit and its members shared each other’s joys and woes. Krystha smiled, and said, “Mind, the babe should be well in five days. But if he shows signs of sickeing again, they must take him to another Healer.” The innkeeper promised to pass on the message, but as they rode away, Aiel, in strabge and sombre mood, said to the Healer, “Krystha, if I fail the Way, they do not have five days left!” Krystha glanced at his pale, set face, and said very firmly and with a touch of fire, “Aiel, you will not fail the Way!” Lin looked at her; he knew she had spoken fiercely only to try to stir Aiel from his strange mood. Her eyes met Lin’s and he read her concern for Aiel in them; her expression asked what they could do for the Lightstone-Bearer, and Lin shook his head slightly and lifted his shoulders, for he could not tell.

Aiel had woken with a sense of oppression and Darkness pressing in in him, and knew it was an attack by the Darkness, trying to make him fail in his task. Though his spirit trusted Light, he still felt an intense pressure, and did not know how to explain it to his companions. Now he said, “Lak is not so far ahead, but he moves onward also. It seems my doom is that I shall not overtake him before the Meeting Place.” “Aiel, are you afraid?”, Lin asked directly. “Only that I might fail Light”, Aiel answered. I am not afraid, but I feel so alone! Oh, my friends and Way-Sharers, I am grateful for your fellowship and your love, and I have been so glad to have with you with me. But on me is the Doom of Dark’s Passing, and I am the Lightstone-Bearer, and mine is the Way of the Secret Word, though you share it with me,” He looked round at them, and for a moment his face was awful, notwith fear, but with an iron and holy resolve. “I had known it, but now I feel it, the burden of this Way. I am carrying the weight of my world, for if I fail the Lightstone and the Way, all Li’is goes down to Darkness. And it is lonely – so lonely – even with all of you here.” “Aiel”, Lin said, “Aiel, my brother…” and stopped, because he could not find any words to comfort his friend. Aiel smiled at them, with a gentle, sad smile. “I know”, he said. “I Perceive your concern for me, your care, and it does ease my burden. And we are on the side of Light, and that means everything>” He laughed a little then, but Lin thought it was a forced laugh. “It will be well with me, my friends”, the young Priest said. “I have let my thoughts run in the wrong channels. I am wiser now. Come.” They had slowed their horses as they talked, but now Aiel urged Greymouse on, and they followed him. They were not convinced, though, by Aiel’s pretended recovery of his spirits. Lin and Krystha exchanged anxious glances, and Arentha blinked back tears of pity for him.

The weather did nothing to lift their spirits; the previous day’s heavy rain had passed, but today the sky was dull and grey, and they longed for the sun to break through. Lin, for the first time since they had set foot on this Way, was feeling distanced from Aiel by the burden his friend carried. He had, so far, been able to help and support Aiel, but Lin was neither Priest nor Lightstone- Bearer, and could have very little understanding of the spiritual battles Aiel must face. The Swordsman felt helpless in the face of his friend’s need and it hurt him – almost angered him – that he could do nothing for Aiel. When they stopped for their midday meal, Aiel would not eat at all. He took just a cup of water, then retreated from the others, and sat on a large boulder, cupping the Lightstone in his hands and gazing into it. They were glad when the light overflowed fromit and gently surrounded him. He would gain strength from the Lightstone, if they could offer him none. Lin said softly to the Healer, “Will it be well with him, Krystha?” She nodded. “Yes, Lin, I believe it will. He is drawing into himself, but it is not a retreat. He is gaining strength, drawing nearer to Light. And he would not eat, not, I am sure, because he was too nervous, but because he wishes it so – to fast for spiritual strength.” Arentha exclaimed, “Oh, Krystha, watch him well!” “I am watching, dearest”, Krystha reassured her. It was the first time Lin had heard her use an endearment to her sister, and showed, he thought, Krystha’s awareness of Arentha’s feelings and concern for Aiel.

As they rode on again, the sky began to clear and brighten, but the Way-Sharers were still subdued, speaking little and quietly, and Aiel barely at all. They were riding steeply upwards into the foothills, and in places the rocky bones of the country broke through the rough turf and ling in rocky outcrops and scattered boulders. The mountains ahead were clearly visible now, dark and towering and very old – the barrier at the end of their world. “About two days’ ride to the Gatehouse”, the innkeeper had said, but they had started early and ridden fast, and it was not ill after sunset that they found the caves they had been told of, where they could rest. Lin doubted if they were now more than half a day’s ride from the Gatehouse and the Meeting Place. They lit a fire and prepared their sleeping places around it. There were signs that others had used the cave for shelter, but not recently. Arentha prepared a meal, and this time Aiel joined them. Krystha asked him, gently, if he needed anything to help him sleep, but though he thanked her, he courteously refused her offer.

All day Aiel had been battling inwardly, drawing on the power of Light and the Priestly disciplines to fight the forebodings that overshadowed him. He knew it was more than his own natural fears that he felt; he was under spiritual attack from the Black piper and Lak’s Dark allies, and he could feel intense pressure on and around him. Aiel did not know if he could explain, even to Lin, the Swordsman, the kind of battle he had been fighting that day, but felt he owed it to his loyal friends to try. He smiled at them – a strange smile, Lin thought, a smile such as a dying man might give his loved ones, and the Swordsman hirriedly pushed the thought away. Aiel said, “Forgive me, all of you, if I have seemed aloof from you today. For I am under siege, and the Darkness presses in on me, and I must fight it. And it takes so much of my strength and concentration, I have little to spare for other things.” “Oh, Aiel, we understand!” Arentha told him, laying her hand on his arm, and Krystha echoed, “Of course!” Lin said sadly, “Aiel, if only I could help you in this thing – but in the battle you are fighting my sword is useless to you.” “Your sword, yes – but not your prayers”, Aiel answered. “Pray with me and for me, all of you, that Light will give me strength to keep the evil at bay.” They did as he asked, and he felt the pressure ease somewhat, but still he was restless and laden with the burden of his Way. He felt as though he wanted to run or stamp or kick, for the restlessness manifested itself in a compulsive stretching and arching of his feet, until he stood, and said, “I must walk, and be alone for a while.” He walked out of the shelter of the cave, and the others watched him go, unable to offer him any aid. It was something he must struggle with himself,