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 you 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 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, comforting 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 sldom 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 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 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 if 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 towrads 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 ot 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! Baregian, 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.”


Introduce Yourself (Example Post)

This is an example post, originally published as part of Blogging University. Enroll in one of our ten programs, and start your blog right.

You’re going to publish a post today. Don’t worry about how your blog looks. Don’t worry if you haven’t given it a name yet, or you’re feeling overwhelmed. Just click the “New Post” button, and tell us why you’re here.

Why do this?

  • Because it gives new readers context. What are you about? Why should they read your blog?
  • Because it will help you focus you own ideas about your blog and what you’d like to do with it.

The post can be short or long, a personal intro to your life or a bloggy mission statement, a manifesto for the future or a simple outline of your the types of things you hope to publish.

To help you get started, here are a few questions:

  • Why are you blogging publicly, rather than keeping a personal journal?
  • What topics do you think you’ll write about?
  • Who would you love to connect with via your blog?
  • If you blog successfully throughout the next year, what would you hope to have accomplished?

You’re not locked into any of this; one of the wonderful things about blogs is how they constantly evolve as we learn, grow, and interact with one another — but it’s good to know where and why you started, and articulating your goals may just give you a few other post ideas.

Can’t think how to get started? Just write the first thing that pops into your head. Anne Lamott, author of a book on writing we love, says that you need to give yourself permission to write a “crappy first draft”. Anne makes a great point — just start writing, and worry about editing it later.

When you’re ready to publish, give your post three to five tags that describe your blog’s focus — writing, photography, fiction, parenting, food, cars, movies, sports, whatever. These tags will help others who care about your topics find you in the Reader. Make sure one of the tags is “zerotohero,” so other new bloggers can find you, too.