16 March, 2017 08:17

First Edition: November 1993

First E-book Edition: February 2010

Manufactured in the United States of America

For Harriet

The light of her eyes is my Light.

CONTENTS

MAPS

PROLOGUE: The First Sparks Fall

1 Fanning the Sparks

2 Rhuidean

3 Pale Shadows

4 Twilight

5 Among the Wise Ones

6 Gateways

7 A Departure

8 Over the Border

9 A Signal

10 Figs and Mice

11 The Nine Horse Hitch

12 An Old Pipe

13 A Small Room in Sienda

14 Meetings

15 What Can Be Learned in Dreams

16 An Unexpected Offer

17 Heading West

18 A Hound of Darkness

19 Memories

20 Jangai Pass

21 The Gift of a Blade

22 Birdcalls by Night

23 “The Fifth, I Give You”

24 A Message Sent

25 Dreams of Galad

26 Sallie Daera

27 The Practice of Diffidence

28 Trapped

29 Memories of Saldaea

30 A Wager

31 The Far Snows

32 A Short Spear

33 A Question of Crimson

34 A Silver Arrow

35 Ripped Away

36 A New Name

37 Performances in Samara

38 An Old Acquaintance

39 Encounters in Samara

40 The Wheel Weaves

41 The Craft of Kin Tovere

42 Before the Arrow

43 This Place, This Day

44 The Lesser Sadness

45 After the Storm

46 Other Battles, Other Weapons

47 The Price of a Ship

48 Leavetakings

49 To Boannda

50 To Teach, and Learn

51 News Comes to Cairhien

52 Choices

53 Fading Words

54 To Caemlyn

55 The Threads Burn

56 Glowing Embers

GLOSSARY

With his coming are the dread fires born again. The hills burn, and the land turns sere. The tides of men run out, and the hours dwindle. The wall is pierced, and the veil of parting raised. Storms rumble beyond the horizon, and the fires of heaven purge the earth. There is no salvation without destruction, no hope this side of death.

—fragment from The Prophecies of the Dragon

believed translated by N’Delia Basolaine

First Maid and Swordfast to Raidhen of Hoi Cuchone

(circa 400 AB)

PROLOGUE

The First Sparks Fall

Elaida do Avriny a’Roihan absently fingered the long, seven-striped stole about her shoulders, the stole of the Amyrlin Seat, as she sat behind her wide writing table. Many would have accounted her beautiful, at first glance, but a second look made it clear that the severity of her ageless, Aes Sedai face was not a momentary matter. Today there was something more, a light of anger in her dark eyes. If anyone had noticed.

She barely listened to the women arrayed on stools before her. Their dresses were every color from white to the darkest red, in silk or wool as each woman’s taste dictated, yet all but one wore their formal shawls, embroidered White Flame of Tar Valon centered on their backs, colored fringe proclaiming their Ajahs, as though this were a meeting of the Hall of the Tower. They discussed reports and rumors of events in the world, trying to sift fact from fancy, trying to decide the Tower’s course of action, but they seldom even glanced at the woman behind the table, the woman they had sworn to obey. Elaida could not keep her full attention on them. They did not know what was really important. Or rather, they knew and feared to speak of it.

“There is apparently something happening in Shienar.” That was Danelle, slight and often seemingly lost in a dream, the only Brown sister present. Green and Yellow also had only one sister apiece, and none of the three Ajahs was pleased about that. There were no Blues. Now Danelle’s big blue eyes looked thoughtfully inward; an unnoticed ink smudge stained her cheek, and her dark gray wool dress was rumpled. “There are rumors of skirmishes. Not with Trollocs, and not Aiel, though raids through the Niamh Passes appear to have increased. Between Shienarans. Unusual for the Borderlands. They seldom fight each other.”

“If they intend to have a civil war, they have chosen the proper time for it,” Alviarin said coolly. Tall and slim and all in white silk, she was the one without a shawl. The stole of the Keeper around her shoulders was white also, to show she had been raised from the White Ajah. Not Red, Elaida’s former Ajah, as tradition held. Whites were always cool. “The Trollocs might as well have vanished. The entire Blight seems quiet enough for two farmers and a novice to guard.”

Teslyn’s bony fingers shuffled papers on her lap, though she did not look at them. One of four Red sisters there—more than any other Ajah—she ran Elaida a close second for severity, though no one had ever thought her beautiful. “Better perhaps if it did no be so quiet,” Teslyn said, her Illianer accent strong. “I did receive a message this morning that the Marshal-General of Saldaea does have an army on the move. No toward the Blight, but in the opposite direction. South and east. He would no ever have done that if the Blight did no seem to be asleep.”

“Then word of Mazrim Taim is seeping out.” Alviarin could have been discussing the weather or the price of carpets instead of a potential disaster. Much effort had gone into capturing Taim, and as much into hiding his escape. No good to the Tower if the world learned they could not hold on to a false Dragon once he was taken. “And it seems that Queen Tenobia, or Davram Bashere, or both, thinks we cannot be trusted to deal with him again.”

Dead quiet fell at the mention of Taim. The man could channel—he had been on his way to Tar Valon to be gentled, cut off from the One Power forever, when he was broken free—yet that was not what curbed tongues. Once the existence of a man able to channel the One Power had been the deepest anathema; hunting such men down was the main reason of existence for the Red, and every Ajah helped as it could. But now most of the women beyond the table shifted on their stools, refusing to meet each other’s eyes, because speaking of Taim brought them too close to another subject they did not want to speak aloud. Even Elaida felt bile rise in her stomach.

Apparently Alviarin experienced no such reluctance. One corner of her mouth quirked momentarily in what might have been smile or grimace. “I will redouble our efforts to retake Taim. And I suggest that a sister be dispatched to counsel Tenobia. Someone used to overcoming the sort of stubborn resistance that young woman will put up.”

Others rushed to help fill the silence.

Joline shifted her green-fringed shawl on slender shoulders and smiled, though it seemed a bit forced. “Yes. She needs an Aes Sedai at her shoulder. Someone able to handle Bashere. He has excessive influence with Tenobia. He must move his army back where it can be used if the Blight wakes up.” Too much bosom showed in the gap of her shawl, and her pale green silk was too snug, too clinging. And she smiled too much for Elaida’s liking. Especially at men. Greens always did.

“The last thing we need now is another army on the march,” Shemerin, the Yellow sister, said quickly. A slightly plump woman, she had somehow never really managed the outward calm of Aes Sedai; there was often a strain of anxiety around her eyes, and more so of late.

“And someone to Shienar,” added Javindhra, another Red. Despite smooth cheeks, her angular face was hard enough to hammer nails. Her voice was harsh. “I don’t like trouble of this sort in the Borderlands. The last thing we need is Shienar weakening itself to the point where a Trolloc army could break through.”

“Perhaps.” Alviarin nodded, considering. “But there are agents in Shienar—Red, I am sure, and perhaps others?—” The four Red sisters nodded tightly, reluctantly; no one else did. “—who can warn us if these small clashes become anything to worry us.”

It was an open secret that every Ajah except the White, devoted to logic and philosophy as it was, had watchers and listeners scattered through the nations to varying degrees, though the Yellow network was believed to be a pitiful thing. There was nothing of sickness or Healing they could learn from those who could not channel. Some individual sisters had their own eyes-and-ears, though perhaps even more closely guarded than agents of the Ajahs. The Blues had had the most extensive, both Ajah and personal.

“As for Tenobia and Davram Bashere,” Alviarin went on, “are we agreed that they must be dealt with by sisters?” She hardly waited for heads to nod. “Good. It is done. Memara will do nicely; she will take no nonsense from Tenobia, while never letting her see the leash. Now. Does anyone have fresh word out of Arad Doman or Tarabon? If we do not do something there soon, we may find that Pedron Niall and the Whitecloaks have sway from Bandar Eban to the Shadow Coast. Evanellein, you have something?” Arad Doman and Tarabon were racked by civil wars, and worse. There was no order anywhere. Elaida was surprised they would bring it up.

“Only a rumor,” the Gray sister replied. Her silk dress, matching the fringe on her shawl, was finely cut and scooped low at the neck. Often Elaida thought the woman should have been Green, so concerned was she with her looks and clothes. “Almost everyone in those poor lands is a refugee, including those who might send news. The Panarch Amathera has apparently vanished, and it seems an Aes Sedai may have been involved. . . .”

Elaida’s hand tightened on her stole. Nothing touched her face, but her eyes smoldered. The matter of the Saldaean army was done. At least Memara was Red; that was a surprise. But they had not even asked her opinion. It was done. The startling possibility that an Aes Sedai was involved in the disappearance of the Panarch—if this was not another of the thousand improbable tales that drifted from the western coast—could not take Elaida’s mind from that. There were Aes Sedai scattered from the Aryth Ocean to the Spine of the World, and the Blues at least might do anything. Less than two months since they had all knelt to swear fealty to her as the embodiment of the White Tower, and now the decision was made without so much as a glance in her direction.

The Amyrlin’s study sat only a few levels up in the White Tower, yet this room was the heart of the Tower as surely as the Tower itself, the color of bleached bone, was the heart of the great island city of Tar Valon, cradled in the River Erinin. And Tar Valon was, or should be, the heart of the world. The room spoke of the power wielded by the long line of women who had occupied it, floor of polished redstone from the Mountains of Mist, tall fireplace of golden Kandori marble, walls paneled in pale, oddly striped wood marvelously carved with unknown birds and beasts more than a thousand years ago. Stone like glittering pearls framed the tall, arched windows that let onto the balcony overlooking the Amyrlin’s private garden, the only stone like it known, salvaged from a nameless city swallowed by the Sea of Storms during the Breaking of the World. A room of power, a reflection of Amyrlins who had made thrones dance to their calling for nearly three thousand years. And they did no t even ask her opinion.

It happened too often, this slighting. Worst—most bitter of all, perhaps—they usurped her authority without even thinking of it. They knew how she had come to the stole, knew their aid had put it on her shoulders. She herself had been too much aware of that. But they presumed too far. It would soon be time to do something about that. But not quite yet.

She had put her own stamp on the room, as much as possible, with a writing table ornately carved in triple-linked rings and a heavy chair that raised an inlaid ivory Flame of Tar Valon above her dark hair like a large snowy teardrop. Three boxes of Altaran lacquerwork were arranged on the table, precisely equidistant from each other; one held the finest of her collection of carved miniatures. A white vase on a simple plinth against one wall held red roses that filled the room with sweet fragrance. There had been no rain since she was raised, but fine blossoms were always available with the Power; she had always liked flowers. They could be so easily pruned and trained to produce beauty.

Two paintings hung where, seated, she could see them merely by lifting her head. The others avoided looking at them; among all the Aes Sedai who came to Elaida’s study, only Alviarin ever so much as glanced at them.

“Is there any news of Elayne?” Andaya asked diffidently. A thin, birdlike little woman, outwardly timid despite Aes Sedai features, the second Gray looked an unlikely mediator, but was in fact one of the best. There were still faint traces of Tarabon in her voice. “Or Galad? If Morgase discovers that we have lost her stepson, she may begin to ask more questions concerning the whereabouts of her daughter, yes? And if she learns we have lost the Daughter-Heir, Andor may become as closed to us as Amadicia.”

A few women shook their heads—there was no news, and Javindhra said, “A Red sister is in place in the Royal Palace. Newly raised, so she can easily pass for other than Aes Sedai.” She meant that the woman had not yet taken on the agelessness that came with long use of the Power. Someone trying to guess the age of any woman in the study would have fumbled over a range of twenty years, and in some cases would be off by twice that. “She is well trained, though, quite strong, and a good observer. Morgase is absorbed in putting forward her claim to the Cairhienin throne.” Several women shifted on their stools, and as if realizing she had stepped close to dangerous ground, Javindhra hurried on. “And her new lover, Lord Gaebril, seems to be keeping her occupied otherwise.” Her thin mouth narrowed even further. “She is completely besotted with the man.”

“He keeps her concentrated on Cairhien,” Alviarin said. “The situation there is nearly as bad as in Tarabon and Arad Doman, with every House contending for the Sun Throne, and famine everywhere. Morgase will reestablish order, but it will take time for her to have the throne secure. Until that is done, she will have little energy left to worry about other matters, even the Daughter-Heir. And I set a clerk the task of sending occasional letters; the woman does a good imitation of Elayne’s hand. Morgase will keep until we can secure proper control of her again.”

“At least we still have her son in hand.” Joline smiled.

“Gawyn do hardly be in hand,” Teslyn said sharply. “Those Younglings of his do skirmish with Whitecloaks on both sides of the river. He does act on his own as much as at our direction.”

“He will be brought under control,” Alviarin said. Elaida was beginning to find that constant cool composure hateful.

“Speaking of the Whitecloaks,” Danelle put in, “it appears that Pedron Niall is conducting secret negotiations, trying to convince Altara and Murandy to cede land to Illian, and thus keep the Council of Nine from invading one or both.”

Safely back from the precipice, the women on the other side of the table nattered on, deciding whether the Lord Captain Commander’s negotiations might gain too much influence for the Children of the Light. Perhaps they should be disrupted so the Tower could step in and replace him.

Elaida’s mouth twisted. The Tower had often in its history been cautious of necessity—too many feared them, too many distrusted them—but it had never feared anything or anyone. Now, it feared.

She raised her eyes to the paintings. One consisted of three wooden panels depicting Bonwhin, the last Red to have been raised to the Amyrlin Seat, a thousand years before, and the reason no Red had worn the stole since. Until Elaida. Bonwhin, tall and proud, ordering Aes Sedai in their manipulations of Artur Hawkwing; Bonwhin, defiant, on the white walls of Tar Valon, under siege by Hawkwing’s forces; and Bonwhin, kneeling and humbled, before the Hall of the Tower as they stripped her of stole and staff for nearly destroying the Tower.

Many wondered why Elaida had had the triptych retrieved from the storerooms where it had lain covered in dust; if none spoke openly, she had still heard the whispers. They did not understand that constant reminder of the price of failure was necessary.

The second painting was in the new fashion, on stretched canvas, a copy of a street artist’s sketch from the distant west. That one caused even more unease among the Aes Sedai who saw it. Two men fought among clouds, seemingly in the sky, wielding lightning for weapons. One had a face of fire. The other was tall and young, with reddish hair. It was the youth who caused the fear, who made even Elaida’s teeth clench. She was not sure if it was in anger, or to keep them from chattering. But fear could and must be controlled. Control was all.

“We are done, then,” Alviarin said, rising smoothly from her stool. The others copied her, adjusting skirts and shawls in preparation for leaving. “In three days, I will expect—”

“Have I given you leave to go, daughters?” Those were the first words Elaida had spoken since telling them to be seated. They looked at her in surprise. Surprise! Some moved back toward the stools, but not with any haste. And not a word of apology. She had let this go on much too long. “Since you are standing, you will remain so until I am done.” A moment of confusion caught those half-seated, and she continued as they straightened again uncertainly. “I have heard no mention of the search for that woman and her companions.”

No need to name that woman, Elaida’s predecessor. They knew who she meant, and Elaida found it harder every day even to think the former Amyrlin’s name. All of her current problems—all!—could be laid at that woman’s feet.

“It is difficult,” Alviarin said evenly, “since we have bolstered the rumors that she was executed.” The woman had ice for blood. Elaida met her eyes firmly until she added a belated “Mother,” but it, too, was placid, even casual.

Elaida swung her gaze to the others, made her voice steel. “Joline, you have charge of that search, and of the investigation of her escape. In both cases I hear of nothing but difficulties. Perhaps a daily penance will help you increase your diligence, daughter. Write out what you think suitable and submit it to me. Should I find it—less than suitable, I will triple it.”

Joline’s ever-present smile faded in satisfactory fashion. She opened her mouth, then closed it again under Elaida’s steady stare. Finally, she curtsied deeply. “As you command, Mother.” The words were tight, the meekness forced, but it would do. For now.

“And what of trying to bring back those who fled?” If anything, Elaida’s tone was even harder. The return of the Aes Sedai who had run away when that woman was deposed meant the return of Blues to the Tower. She was not sure she could ever trust any Blue. But then, she was not sure she could ever bring herself to trust any who had fled instead of hailing her ascension. Yet the Tower must be whole again.

Javindhra was overseeing that task. “Again, there are difficulties.” Her features remained as severe as ever, but she licked her lips quickly at the storm that swept silently across Elaida’s face. “Mother.”

Elaida shook her head. “I will not hear of difficulties, daughter. Tomorrow you will place before me a list of everything you have done, including all measures taken to see the world does not learn of any dissension in the Tower.” That was deadly important; there was a new Amyrlin, but the world must see the Tower as united and strong as ever. “If you do not have enough time for the work I give you, perhaps you should give up your place as Sitter for the Red in the Hall. I must consider it.”

“That will not be necessary, Mother,” the hard-faced woman said hurriedly. “You will have the report you require tomorrow. I am sure many will start returning soon.”

Elaida was not so certain, however much she wanted it—the Tower must be strong; it must!—but her point was made. Troubled thoughtfulness marked every eye but Alviarin’s. If Elaida was ready to come down on one of her own former Ajah, and even harder on a Green who had been with her from the first day, perhaps they had made a mistake in treating her as a ceremonial effigy. Perhaps they had put her on the Amyrlin Seat, but now she was the Amyrlin. A few more examples in the coming days should drive it home. If necessary, she would have every woman here doing penance till they begged mercy.

“There are Tairen soldiers in Cairhien, as well as Andoran,” she went on, ignoring averted eyes. “Tairen soldiers sent by the man who took the Stone of Tear.” Shemerin clasped her plump hands tight, and Teslyn flinched. Only Alviarin remained unruffled as a frozen pond. Elaida flung out her hand and pointed to the painting of two men fighting with lightning. “Look at it. Look! Or I will have every last one of you on hands and knees scrubbing floors! If you have not the backbone even to look at a painting, what courage can you have for what is to come? Cowards are no use to the Tower!”

Slowly they raised their eyes, shuffling feet like nervous girls instead of Aes Sedai. Only Alviarin merely looked, and only she appeared untouched. Shemerin wrung her hands, and tears actually welled in her eyes. Something would have to be done about Shemerin.

“Rand al’Thor. A man who can channel.” The words left Elaida’s mouth like a whip. They made her own stomach knot up till she feared she might vomit. Somehow she kept her face smooth and pressed on, pushed the words out, stones from a sling. “A man fated to go mad and wreak horror with the Power before he dies. But more than that. Arad Doman and Tarabon and everything between is a ruin of rebellion because of him. If the war and famine in Cairhien cannot be tied to him of a certainty, he surely precipitates a greater war there, between Tear and Andor, when the Tower needs peace! In Ghealdan, some mad Shienaran preaches of him to crowds too great for Alliandre’s army to contain. The greatest danger the Tower has ever faced, the greatest threat the world has ever faced, and you cannot make yourselves speak of him? You cannot gaze at his image?”

Silence answered her. All save Alviarin looked as though their tongues were frozen. Most stared at the young man in the painting, birds hypnotized by a snake.

“Rand al’Thor.” The name tasted bitter on Elaida’s lips. Once she had had that young man, so innocent in appearance, within arm’s reach. And she had not seen what he was. Her predecessor had known—had known for the Light alone knew how long, and had left him to run wild. That woman had told her a great deal before escaping, had said things, when put hard to the question, that Elaida would not let herself believe—if the Forsaken were truly free, all might be lost—but somehow she had managed to refuse some answers. And then escaped before she could be put to the question again. That woman and Moiraine. That woman and the Blue had known all along. Elaida intended to have them both back in the Tower. They would tell every last scrap of what they knew. They would plead on their knees for death before she was done.

She forced herself to go on, though the words curdled in her mouth. “Rand al’Thor is the Dragon Reborn, daughters.” Shemerin’s knees gave way, and she sat down hard on the floor. Some of the others appeared to have weak knees as well. Elaida’s eyes flogged them with scorn. “There can be no doubt of it. He is the one spoken of in the Prophecies. The Dark One is breaking free of his prison, the Last Battle is coming, and the Dragon Reborn must be there to face him or the world is doomed to fire and destruction so long as the Wheel of Time turns. And he runs free, daughters. We do not know where he is. We know a dozen places he is not. He is no longer in Tear. He is not here in the Tower, safely shielded, as he should be. He brings the whirlwind down on the world, and we must stop it if there is to be any hope of surviving Tarmon Gai’don. We must have him in hand to see he fights in the Last Battle. Or do any of you believe he will go willingly to his prophesied death to s
ave the world? A man who must be going mad already? We must have him in control!”

“Mother,” Alviarin began with that irritating lack of emotion, but Elaida stopped her with a glare.

“Putting our hands on Rand al’Thor is more important by far than skirmishes in Shienar or whether the Blight is quiet, more important than finding Elayne or Galad, more important even than Mazrim Taim. You will find him. You will! When next I see you, each of you will be ready to tell me in detail what you have done to make it so. Now you may leave me, daughters.”

A ripple of unsteady curtsies, breathy murmurs of “As you command, Mother,” and they came close to running, Joline helping Shemerin wobble to her feet. The Yellow sister would do nicely for the next example; some would be necessary, to make sure none of them slid back, and she was too weak to be allowed in this council. Of course, this council would not be allowed to continue much longer in any case. The Hall would hear her words, and leap.

All save Alviarin went.

For a long moment after the door had closed behind the others, the two women met each other’s eyes. Alviarin had been the first, the very first, to hear and agree with the charges against Elaida’s predecessor. And Alviarin knew full well why she wore the Keeper’s stole instead of someone from the Red. The Red Ajah had favored Elaida unanimously, but the White had not done so, and without wholehearted support from the White, many others might not have come round, in which case Elaida would have been in a cell instead of sitting on the Amyrlin Seat. That is, if the remains of her head were not decorating a spike for the ravens to play with. Alviarin would not be so easily intimidated as the others. If she could be intimidated at all. There was a disturbing feel of equal-to-equal in Alviarin’s unwavering gaze.

A tap at the door sounded loud in the quiet.

“Come!” Elaida snapped.

One of the Accepted, a pale, slender girl, stepped hesitantly into the room and immediately dropped a curtsy so low her white skirt with its seven bands of color at the hem made a wide pool around her on the floor. From the wideness of her blue eyes and the way she kept them on the floor, she had caught the mood of the women leaving. Where Aes Sedai left shaking, an Accepted went at great peril. “M-Mother, Master F-Fain is here. He said you w-would see him at th-this hour.” The girl swayed in her crouch, on the point of falling over from stark fear.

“Then send him in, girl, instead of keeping him waiting,” Elaida growled, but she would have had the girl’s hide if she had not kept the man outside. The anger she held back from Alviarin—she would not let herself think that she did not dare show it—that anger welled up. “And if you cannot learn to speak properly, perhaps the kitchens are a better place for you than the Amyrlin’s anteroom. Well? Are you going to do as you were told? Move, girl! And tell the Mistress of Novices you need to be taught to obey with alacrity!”

The girl squeaked something that might have been a correct response and darted out.

With an effort, Elaida got hold of herself. It did not concern her whether Silviana, the new Mistress of Novices, beat the girl to incoherence or let her off with a lecture. She barely saw novices or Accepted unless they intruded on her, and cared less. It was Alviarin she wanted humbled and on her knees.

But Fain, now. She tapped one finger against her lips. A bony little man with a big nose, who had appeared at the Tower only days earlier in dirty, once-fine clothes too big for him, arrogant and cringing by turns, seeking audience with the Amyrlin. Except for those who served the Tower, men came there only under duress or in great need, and none asked to speak to the Amyrlin. A fool, in some ways, or conceivably a half-wit; he claimed to be from Lugard, in Murandy, but spoke in various accents, sometimes slipping from one to another in midsentence. Yet it seemed he might be useful.

Alviarin was still looking at her, so icily complacent, just a hint in her eyes of the questions she must have about Fain. Elaida’s face hardened. Almost she reached for saidar, the female half of the True Source, to teach the woman her place with the Power. But that was not the way. Alviarin might even resist, and fighting like a farmgirl in a stableyard was no method for the Amyrlin to make her authority plain. Yet Alviarin would learn to yield to her as surely as the others would. The first step would be leaving Alviarin in the dark concerning Master Fain, or whatever his real name was.

Padan Fain put the frantic young Accepted out of his mind as he stepped into the Amyrlin’s study; she was a toothsome bit, and he liked them fluttering like birds in the hand, but there were more important matters to concentrate on now. Dry-washing his hands, he ducked his head suitably low, suitably humbly, but the two awaiting him seemed unaware of his presence at first, locked eye-to-eye as they were. It was all he could do not to stretch out a hand to caress the tension between them. Tension and division wove everywhere through the White Tower. All to the good. Tension could be tweaked, division exploited, as need be.

He had been surprised to find Elaida on the Amyrlin Seat. Better than what he had expected, though. In many ways she was not so tough, he had heard, as the woman who had worn the stole before her. Harder, yes, and more cruel, but more brittle, too. More difficult to bend, likely, but easier to break. If either became necessary. Still, one Aes Sedai, one Amyrlin even, was much like another to him. Fools. Dangerous fools, true, but useful dupes at times.

Finally they realized he was there, the Amyrlin frowning slightly at being taken by surprise, the Keeper of the Chronicles unchanging. “You may go now, daughter,” Elaida said firmly, a slight but definite emphasis on “now.” Oh, yes. The tensions, the cracks in power. Cracks where seeds could be planted. Fain caught himself on the point of giggling.

Alviarin hesitated before giving the briefest of curtsies. As she swept out of the room, her eyes brushed across him, expressionless yet disconcerting. Unconsciously he huddled, hunching his shoulders protectively; his upper lip fluttered in a half-snarl at her slim back. On occasion he had the feeling, just for an instant, that she knew too much about him, but he could not have said why. Her cool face, cool eyes, they never changed. At those times he wanted to make them change. Fear. Agony. Pleading. He nearly laughed at the thought. No point, of course. She could know nothing. Patience, and he could be done with her and her never-changing eyes.

The Tower held things worth a little patience in its strongrooms. The Horn of Valere was there, the fabled Horn made to call dead heroes back from the grave for the Last Battle. Even most of the Aes Sedai were ignorant of that, but he knew how to sniff out things. The dagger was there. He felt its pull where he stood. He could have pointed to it. It was his, a part of him, stolen and mired away here by these Aes Sedai. Having the dagger would make up for so much lost; he was not sure how, but he was sure it would. For Aridhol lost. Too dangerous to return to Aridhol, perchance to be trapped there again. He shivered. So long trapped. Not again.

Of course, no one called it Aridhol any longer, but Shadar Logoth. Where the Shadow Waits. An apt name. So much had changed. Even himself. Padan Fain. Mordeth. Ordeith. Sometimes he was uncertain which name was really his, who he really was. One thing was sure. He was not what anyone thought. Those who believed they knew him were badly mistaken. He was transfigured, now. A force unto himself, and beyond any other power. They would all learn, eventually.

Suddenly he realized with a start that the Amyrlin had said something. Casting about in his mind, he found it. “Yes, Mother, the coat suits me very well.” He ran a hand down the black velvet to show how fine he found it, as if garments mattered. “ ’Tis a very good coat. I am thanking you kindly, Mother.” He was prepared to suffer more of her trying to make him feel at ease, ready to kneel and kiss her ring, but this time she went straight to the heart.

“Tell me more of what you know of Rand al’Thor, Master Fain.”

Fain’s eyes went to the painting of the two men, and as he gazed at it, his back straightened. Al’Thor’s portrait tugged at him almost as much as the man would, sent rage and hate roiling along his veins. Because of that young man, he had suffered pain beyond remembering, pain he did not let himself remember, and suffered far worse than pain. He had been broken and remade because of al’Thor. Of course, that remaking had given him the means of revenge, but that was beside the point. Beside his desire for al’Thor’s destruction, everything else dimmed from sight.

When he turned back to the Amyrlin, he did not realize his manner was as commanding as hers, meeting her stare for stare. “Rand al’Thor is devious and sly, uncaring of anyone or anything but his own power.” Fool woman. “He’s never a one to do what you expect.” But if she could put al’Thor in his hands. . . . “He is difficult to lead—very difficult—but I believe it can be done. First you must tie a string to one of the few he trusts. . . .” If she gave him al’Thor, he might leave her alive when he finally went, even if she was Aes Sedai.

Lounging in a gilded chair in his shirtsleeves, one booted leg over the padded arm, Rahvin smiled as the woman standing before the fireplace repeated what he had told her. There was a slight glaze in her large, brown eyes. A young, pretty woman, even in the plain gray woolens she had adopted for disguise, but that was not what interested him about her.

No breath of air stirred through the room’s tall windows. Sweat rolled down the woman’s face as she spoke, and beaded on the narrow face of the other man present. For all of that man’s fine red silk coat with its golden embroidery, he stood as stiffly as a servant, which he was in a way, if of his own free will, unlike the woman. Of course, he was deaf and blind for the moment.

Rahvin handled the flows of Spirit he had woven around the pair delicately. There was no need to damage valuable servants.

He did not sweat, of course. He did not let the summer’s lingering heat touch him. He was a tall man, large, dark and handsome despite the white streaking his temples. Compulsion had presented no difficulties with this woman.

A scowl twisted his face. It did with some. A few—a very few—had a strength of self so firm that their minds searched, even if unaware, for crevices through which to slide away. It was his bad luck that he still had some small need for one such. She could be handled, but she kept trying to find escape without knowing she was trapped. Eventually that one would no longer be needed, of course; he would have to decide whether to send her on her way or be rid of her more permanently. Dangers lay either way. Nothing that could threaten him, of course, but he was a careful man, meticulous. Small dangers had a way of growing if ignored, and he always chose his risks with a measure of prudence. To kill her, or keep her?

The cessation of the woman’s speech pulled him from his reverie. “When you leave here,” he told her, “you will remember nothing of this visit. You will remember only taking your usual morning walk.” She nodded, eager to please him, and he tied off the strands of Spirit lightly, so they would evaporate from her mind shortly after she reached the street. Repeated use of compulsion made obedience easier even when it was not in use, but while it was, there was always a danger it might be detected.

That done, he released Elegar’s mind as well. Lord Elegar. A minor noble, but faithful to his vows. He licked his thin lips nervously and glanced at the woman, then went immediately to one knee before Rahvin. Friends of the Dark—Darkfriends they were called, now—had begun learning just how strictly they would be kept to their vows now that Rahvin and the others were freed.

“Take her to the street by back ways,” Rahvin said, “and leave her there. She is not to be seen.”

“It will be as you say, Great Master,” Elegar said, bowing where he knelt. Rising, he backed from Rahvin’s presence, bowing and pulling the woman along by one arm. She went docilely, of course, her eyes still fogged. Elegar would ask her no questions. He knew enough to be well aware that there were things he did not want to know.

“One of your play pretties?” a woman’s voice said behind him as the carved door closed. “Have you taken to dressing them like that?”

Snatching at saidin, he filled himself with the Power, the taint on the male half of the True Source rolling off the protection of his bonds and oaths, the ties to what he knew as a greater power than the Light, or even the Creator.

In the middle of the chamber a gateway stood above the red-and-gold carpet, an opening to somewhere else. He had a brief view of a chamber lined with snowy silken hangings before it vanished, leaving a woman, clad in white and belted in woven silver. The slight tingle in his skin, like a faint chill, was all that told him she had channeled. Tall and slender, she was as beautiful as he was handsome, her dark eyes bottomless pools, her hair, decorated with silver stars and crescents, falling in perfect black waves to her shoulders. Most men would have felt their mouths go dry with desire.

“What do you mean to come sneaking up on me, Lanfear?” he demanded roughly. He did not let go of the Power, but rather prepared several nasty surprises in case he had need. “If you want to speak with me, send an emissary, and I will decide when and where. And if.”

Lanfear smiled that sweet, treacherous smile. “You were always a pig, Rahvin, but seldom a fool. That woman is Aes Sedai. What if they miss her? Do you also send out heralds to announce where you are?”

“Channel?” he sneered. “She is not strong enough to be allowed outdoors without a keeper. They call untutored children Aes Sedai when half of what they know is self-taught tricks and the other half barely scratches the surface.”

“Would you still be so complacent if those untutored children put a circle of thirteen around you?” The cool mockery in her voice stabbed him, but he did not let it show.

“I take my precautions, Lanfear. Rather than one of my ‘play pretties,’ as you call them, she is the Tower’s spy here. Now she reports exactly what I want her to, and she is eager to do so. Those who serve the Chosen in the Tower told me right where to find her.” The day would come soon when the world gave up the name Forsaken and knelt to the Chosen. It had been promised, so very long ago. “Why have you come, Lanfear? Surely not in aid of defenseless women.”

She merely shrugged. “You can play with your toys as much as you wish, so far as I am concerned. You offer little in the way of hospitality, Rahvin, so you will forgive me if . . .” A silver pitcher rose from a small table by Rahvin’s bed and tilted to pour dark wine into a gold-chased goblet. As the pitcher settled, the goblet floated to Lanfear’s hand. He felt nothing beyond a slight tingle, of course, saw no flows being woven; he had never liked that. That she would be able to see as little of his weaving was only a slight redressing of the balance.

“Why?” he demanded again.

She sipped calmly before speaking. “Since you avoid the rest of us, a few of the Chosen will be coming here. I came first so you would know it is not an attack.”

“Others? Some plan of yours? What need have I of someone else’s designs?” Suddenly he laughed, a deep, rich sound. “So it is no attack, is it? You were never one for attacking openly, were you? Not as bad as Moghedien, perhaps, but you did always favor the flanks and the rear. I will trust you this time, enough to hear you out. As long as you are under my eye.” Who trusted Lanfear behind him deserved the knife he might well find in his back. Not that she was so very trustworthy even when watched; her temper was uncertain at best. “Who else is supposed to be part of this?”

He had clearer warning this time—it was male work—as another gateway opened, showing marble arches opening onto wide stone balconies, and gulls wheeling and crying in a cloudless blue sky. Finally a man appeared and stepped through, the way closing behind him.

Sammael was compact, solid and larger-seeming than he truly was, his stride quick and active, his manner abrupt. Blue-eyed and golden-haired, with a neat square-trimmed beard, he would perhaps have been above the ordinary in looks except for a slanting scar, as if a red-hot poker had been dragged across his face from hairline to jaw. He could have had it removed as soon as it was made, all those long years ago, but he had elected not to.

Linked to saidin as tightly as Rahvin—this close Rahvin could feel it, dimly—Sammael eyed him warily. “I expected serving maids and dancing girls, Rahvin. Have you finally wearied of your sport after all these years?” Lanfear laughed softly into her wine.

“Did someone mention sport?”

Rahvin had not even noticed the opening of a third gateway, showing a large room full of pools and fluted columns, nearly nude acrobats and attendants wearing less. Oddly, a lean old man in a wrinkled coat sat disconsolately among the performers. Two servants in filmy bits of nothing much, a well-muscled man bearing a wrought-gold tray and a beautiful, voluptuous woman, anxiously pouring wine from a cut-crystal flagon into a matching goblet on the tray, followed the true arrival before the opening winked out.

In any other company but Lanfear’s, Graendal would have been accounted a stunningly beautiful woman, lush and ripe. Her gown was green silk, cut low. A ruby the size of a hen’s egg nestled between her breasts, and a coronet encrusted with more rested on her long, sun-colored hair. Beside Lanfear she was merely plumply pretty. If the inevitable comparison bothered her, her amused smile gave no sign of it.

Golden bracelets clattered as she waved a heavily beringed hand generally behind her; the female servant quickly slipped the goblet into her grasp with a fawning smile mirrored by the man. Graendal took no notice. “So,” she said gaily. “Nearly half the surviving Chosen in one place. And no one trying to kill anyone. Who would have expected it before the Great Lord of the Dark returns? Ishamael did manage to keep us from one another’s throats for a time, but this . . .”

“Do you always speak so freely in front of your servants?” Sammael said with a grimace.

Graendal blinked, glanced back at the pair as if she had forgotten them. “They won’t speak out of turn. They worship me. Don’t you?” The two fell to their knees, practically babbling their fervent love of her. It was real; they actually did love her. Now. After a moment, she frowned slightly, and the servants froze, mouths open in midword. “They do go on. Still, they won’t bother you now, will they?”

Rahvin shook his head, wondering who they were, or had been. Physical beauty was not enough for Graendal’s servants; they had to have power or position as well. A former lord for a footman, a lady to draw her bath; that was Graendal’s taste. Indulging herself was one thing, but she was wasteful. This pair might have been of use, properly manipulated, but the level of compulsion Graendal employed surely left them good for little more than decoration. The woman had no true finesse.

“Should I expect more, Lanfear?” he growled. “Have you convinced Demandred to stop thinking he is all but the Great Lord’s heir?”

“I doubt he is arrogant enough for that,” Lanfear replied smoothly. “He can see where it took Ishamael. And that is the point. A point Graendal raised. Once we were thirteen, immortal. Now four are dead, and one has betrayed us. We four are all who meet here today, and enough.”

“Are you certain Asmodean went over?” Sammael demanded. “He never had the courage to take a chance before. Where did he find the heart to join a lost cause?”

Lanfear’s brief smile was amused. “He had the courage for an ambush he thought would set him above the rest of us. And when his choice became death or a doomed cause, it took little courage for him to choose.”

“And little time, I’ll wager.” The scar made Sammael’s sneer even more biting. “If you were close enough to him to know all of this, why did you leave him alive? You could have killed him before he knew you were there.”

“I am not as quick to kill as you. It is final, with no going back, and there are usually other, more profitable ways. Besides, to put it in terms you would understand, I did not want to launch a frontal assault against superior forces.”

“Is he really so strong?” Rahvin asked quietly. “This Rand al’Thor. Could he have overwhelmed you, face-to-face?” Not that he himself could not, if it came to it, or Sammael, though Graendal would likely link with Lanfear if either of the men tried. For that matter, both women were probably filled to bursting with the Power right that moment, ready to strike at the slightest suspicion of either man. Or of each other. But this farmboy. An untrained shepherd! Untrained unless Asmodean was trying.

“He is Lews Therin Telamon reborn,” Lanfear said just as softly, “and Lews Therin was as strong as any.” Sammael absently rubbed the scar across his face; it had been Lews Therin who gave it to him. Three thousand years ago and more, well before the Breaking of the World, before the Great Lord was imprisoned, before so much, but Sammael never forgot.

“Well,” Graendal put in, “have we come around at last to what we are here to discuss?”

Rahvin gave a displeased start. The two servants were frozen still—or again, rather. Sammael muttered in his beard.

“If this Rand al’Thor really is Lews Therin Telamon reborn,” Graendal went on, settling herself on the man’s back where he crouched on all fours, “I am surprised you haven’t tried to snuggle him into your bed, Lanfear. Or would it be so easy? I seem to remember Lews Therin led you by the nose, not the other way around. Squelched your little tantrums. Sent you running to fetch his wine, in a manner of speaking.” She set her own wine on the tray, held out rigidly by the sightlessly kneeling woman. “You were so obsessed with him you’d have stretched out at his feet if he said ‘rug.’ ”

Lanfear’s dark eyes glittered for a moment before she regained control of herself. “He may be Lews Therin reborn, but he is not Lews Therin himself.”

“How do you know?” Graendal asked, smiling as if it were all a joke. “It may well be that, as many believe, all are born and reborn as the Wheel turns, but nothing like this has ever happened that I have read. A specific man reborn according to prophecy. Who knows what he is?”

Lanfear gave a disparaging smirk. “I have observed him closely. He is no more than the shepherd he seems, still more naive than not.” Scorn faded to seriousness. “But now he has Asmodean, weak ally as he is. And even before Asmodean, four of the Chosen have died confronting him.”

“Let him whittle away the dead wood,” Sammael said gruffly. He wove flows of Air to drag a chair across the carpet and sprawled with his boots crossed at the ankle and one arm over the low, carved back. Anyone who believed he was at ease was a fool; Sammael had always liked to dupe his enemies into thinking they could take him by surprise. “More for the rest of us on the Day of Return. Or do you think he might win Tarmon Gai’don, Lanfear? Even if he stiffens Asmodean’s backbone, he has no Hundred Companions this time. With Asmodean or alone, the Great Lord will extinguish him like a broken sar-light.”

The look Lanfear gave him bristled with contempt. “How many of us will be alive when the Great Lord is freed at last? Four gone already. Will he come after you next, Sammael? You might like that. You could finally get rid of that scar if you defeated him. But I forget. How many times did you face him in the War of Power? Did you ever win? I cannot seem to remember.” Without pause she rounded on Graendal. “Or it might be you. He is reluctant to hurt women for some reason, but you won’t even be able to make Asmodean’s choice. You cannot teach him any more than a stone could. Unless he decides to keep you as a pet. That would be a change for you, would it not? Instead of deciding which of your pretties pleases you best, you could learn to please.”

Graendal’s face contorted, and Rahvin prepared to shield himself against whatever the two women might hurl at one another, prepared to Travel at even a whiff of balefire. Then he sensed Sammael gathering the Power, sensed a difference in it—Sammael would call it seizing a tactical advantage—and bent to grab the other man’s arm. Sammael shook him off angrily, but the moment had passed. The two women were looking at them now, not each other. Neither could know what had almost happened, but clearly something had passed between Rahvin and Sammael, and suspicion lit their eyes.

“I want to hear what Lanfear has to say.” He did not look at Sammael, but meant it for him. “There must be more to this than a foolish attempt to frighten us.” Sammael jerked his head in what might have been a nod or merely disgruntlement. It would have to do.

“Oh, there is, though a little fright could not hurt.” Lanfear’s dark eyes still held distrust, but her voice was as clear as still water. “Ishamael tried to control him and failed, tried to kill him in the end and failed, but Ishamael tried bullying and fear, and bullying does not work with Rand al’Thor.”

“Ishamael was more than half-mad,” Sammael muttered, “and less than half-human.”

“Is that what we are?” Graendal arched an eyebrow. “Merely human? Surely we are something more. This is human.” She stroked a finger down the cheek of the woman kneeling beside her. “A new word will have to be created to describe us.”

“Whatever we are,” Lanfear said, “we can succeed where Ishamael failed.” She was leaning slightly forward, as if to force the words on them. Lanfear seldom showed tension. Why now?

“Why only we four?” Rahvin asked. The other “why” would have to wait.

“Why more?” was Lanfear’s reply. “If we can present the Dragon Reborn kneeling to the Great Lord on the Day of Return, why share the honor—and the rewards—further than need be? And perhaps he can even be used to—how did you put it, Sammael?—whittle away the dead wood.”

It was the sort of answer Rahvin could understand. Not that he trusted her, of course, or any of the others, but he understood ambition. The Chosen had plotted among themselves for position up to the day Lews Therin had imprisoned them in sealing up the Great Lord’s prison, and they had begun again the day they were freed. He just had to be sure Lanfear’s plot did not disrupt his own plans. “Speak on,” he told her.

“First, someone else is trying to control him. Perhaps to kill. I suspect Moghedien or Demandred. Moghedien has always tried to work from the shadows, and Demandred always did hate Lews Therin.” Sammael smiled, or perhaps grimaced, but his hatred was a pale thing beside Demandred’s, though for better cause.

“How do you know it is not one of us here?” Graendal asked glibly.

Lanfear’s smile showed as many teeth as the other woman’s, and as little warmth. “Because you three choose to carve out niches for yourselves and secure your power while the rest slash at each other. And other reasons. I told you I keep a close watch on Rand al’Thor.”

It was true, what she said of them. Rahvin himself preferred diplomacy and manipulation to open conflict, though he would not shy from it if needed. Sammael’s way had always been armies and conquest; he would not go near Lews Therin, even reborn as a shepherd, until he was sure of victory. Graendal, too, followed conquest, though her methods did not involve soldiers; for all her concern with her toys, she took one solid step at a time. Openly to be sure, as the Chosen reckoned such things, but never stretching too far at any step.

“You know I can keep an eye on him unseen,” Lanfear continued, “but the rest of you must stay clear or run the risk of detection. We must draw him back. . . .”

Graendal leaned forward, interested, and Sammael began to nod as she went on. Rahvin reserved judgment. It might well work. And if not . . . If not, he saw several ways to shape events to his advantage. This might work out very well indeed.

CHAPTER

1

Fanning the Sparks

The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again. In one Age, called the Third Age by some, an Age yet to come, an Age long past, a wind rose in the great forest called Braem Wood. The wind was not the beginning. There are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it was a beginning.

South and west it blew, dry, beneath a sun of molten gold. There had been no rain for long weeks in the land below, and the late-summer heat grew day by day. Brown leaves come early dotted some trees, and naked stones baked where small streams had run. In an open place where grass had vanished and only thin, withered brush held the soil with its roots, the wind began uncovering long-buried stones. They were weathered and worn, and no human eye would have recognized them for the remains of a city remembered in story yet otherwise forgotten.

Scattered villages appeared before the wind crossed the border of Andor, and fields where worried farmers trudged arid furrows. The forest had long since thinned to thickets by the time the wind swept dust down the lone street of a village called Kore Springs. The springs were beginning to run low this summer. A few dogs lay panting in the swelter, and two shirtless boys ran, beating a stuffed bladder along the ground with sticks. Nothing else stirred, save the wind and the dust and the creaking sign above the door of the inn, red brick and thatch-roofed like every other building along the street. At two stories, it was the tallest and largest structure in Kore Springs, a neat and orderly little town. The saddled horses hitched in front of the inn barely twitched their tails. The inn’s carved sign proclaimed the Good Queen’s Justice.

Blinking against the dust, Min kept an eye pressed to the crack in the shed’s rough wall. She could just make out one shoulder of the guard on the shed door, but her attention was all for the inn further on. She wished the name were less ominously apt. Their judge, the local lord, had apparently arrived some time ago, but she had missed seeing him. No doubt he was hearing the farmer’s charges; Admer Nem, along with his brothers and cousins and all their wives, had seemed in favor of an immediate hanging before one of the lord’s retainers happened by. She wondered what the penalty was here for burning up a man’s barn, and his milkcows with it. By accident, of course, but she did not think that would count for much when it all began with trespass.

Logain had gotten away in the confusion, abandoning them—he would, burn him!—and she did not know whether to be happy about that or not. It was he who had knocked Nem down when they were discovered just before dawn, sending the man’s lantern flying into the straw. The blame was his, if anyone’s. Only sometimes he had trouble watching what he said. Perhaps as well he was gone.

Twisting to lean back against the wall, she wiped sweat from her brow, though it only sprang out again. The inside of the shed was stifling, but her two companions did not appear to notice. Siuan lay stretched out on her back in a dark woolen riding dress much like Min’s, staring at the shed roof, idly tapping her chin with a straw. Coppery-skinned Leane, willowy and as tall as most men, sat cross-legged in her pale shift, working on her dress with needle and thread. They had been allowed to keep their saddlebags, after they were searched for swords or axes or anything else that might help them escape.

“What’s the penalty for burning down a barn in Andor?” Min asked.

“If we are lucky,” Siuan replied without moving, “a strapping in the village square. Not so lucky, and it will be a flogging.”

“Light!” Min breathed. “How can you call that luck?”

Siuan rolled onto her side and propped herself up on an elbow. She was a sturdy woman, short of beautiful though beyond handsome, and looked no more than a few years older than Min, but those sharp blue eyes had a commanding presence that did not belong on a young woman awaiting trial in a backcountry shed. Sometimes Siuan was as bad as Logain about forgetting herself; maybe worse. “When a strapping is done,” she said in a brook-no-nonsense, do-not-be-foolish tone, “it is done, and we can be on our way. It wastes less of our time than any other penalty I can think of. Considerably less than hanging, say. Though I don’t think it will come to that, from what I remember of Andoran law.”

Wheezing laughter shook Min for a moment; it was that or cry. “Time? The way we are going, we’ve nothing but time. I swear we have been through every village between here and Tar Valon, and found nothing. Not a glimmer, not a whisper. I don’t think there is any gathering. And we are on foot, now. From what I overheard, Logain took the horses with him. Afoot and locked in a shed awaiting the Light knows what!”

“Watch names,” Siuan whispered sharply, shooting a meaning glance at the rough door with the guard on the other side. “A flapping tongue can put you in the net instead of the fish.”

Min grimaced, partly because she was growing tired of Siuan’s Tairen fisherman’s sayings, and partly because the other woman was right. So far they had outrun awkward news—deadly was a better word than awkward—but some news had a way of leaping a hundred miles in a day. Siuan had been traveling as Mara, Leane as Amaena, and Logain had taken the name Dalyn, after Siuan convinced him Guaire was a fool’s choice. Min still did not think anyone would recognize her own name, but Siuan insisted on calling her Serenla. Even Logain did not know their true names.

The real trouble was that Siuan was not going to give up. Weeks of utter failure, and now this, yet any mention of heading for Tear, which was sensible, set off a tempest that quailed even Logain. The longer they had searched without finding what Siuan sought, the more temper she had developed. Not that she couldn’t crack rocks with it before. Min was wise enough to keep that particular thought to herself.

Leane finally finished with her dress and tugged it on over her head, doubling her arms behind her to do up the buttons. Min could not see why she had gone to the trouble; she herself hated needlework of any sort. The neckline was a little lower now, showing a bit of Leane’s bosom, and it fit in a snugger way there and perhaps around the hips. But what was the point, here? No one was going to ask her to dance in this roasting shed.

Digging into Min’s saddlebags, Leane pulled out the wooden box of paints and powders and whatnots that Laras had forced on Min before they set out. Min had kept meaning to throw it away, but somehow she had never gotten around to it. There was a small mirror inside the hinged lid of the box, and in moments Leane was at work on her face with small rabbit-fur brushes. She had never shown any particular interest in the things before. Now she appeared vexed that there was only a blackwood hairbrush and a small ivory comb to use on her hair. She even muttered about the lack of a way to heat the curling iron! Her dark hair had grown since they began Siuan’s search, but it still came well short of her shoulders.

After watching a bit, Min asked, “What are you up to, Le—Amaena?” She avoided looking at Siuan. She could guard her tongue; it was just being cooped up and baked alive, that on top of the coming trial. A hanging or a public strapping. What a choice! “Have you decided to take up flirting?” It was meant for a joke—Leane was all business and efficiency—something to lighten the moment, but the other woman surprised her.

“Yes,” Leane said briskly, peering wide-eyed into the mirror while she carefully did something to her eyelashes. “And if I flirt with the right man, perhaps we will not need to worry about strappings or anything else. At the least, I might get us lighter sentences.”

Hand half-raised to wipe her face again, Min gasped—it was like an owl announcing it meant to become a hummingbird—but Siuan merely sat up facing Leane with a level “What brought this on?”

Had Siuan directed that gaze at her, Min suspected she would have confessed to things she had forgotten. When Siuan concentrated on you like that, you found yourself curtsying and leaping to do as you were told before you realized it. Even Logain did, most of the time. Except for the curtsy.

Leane calmly stroked a tiny brush along her cheekbones and examined the result in the small mirror. She did glance at Siuan, but whatever she saw, she answered in the same crisp tones she always used. “My mother was a merchant, you know, in furs and timber mainly. I once saw her fog a Saldaean lord’s mind till he consigned his entire year’s timber harvest to her for half the amount he wanted, and I doubt he realized what had happened until he was nearly back home. If then. He sent her a moonstone bracelet, later. Domani women don’t deserve the whole reputation they have—stiff-necked prigs going by hearsay built most of it—but we have earned some. My mother and my aunts taught me along with my sisters and cousins, of course.”

Looking down at herself, she shook her head, then returned to her ministrations with a sigh. “But I fear I was as tall as I am today on my fourteenth naming day. All knees and elbows, like a colt that grew too fast. And not long after I could walk across a room without tripping twice, I learned—” She drew a deep breath. “—learned my life would take me another way than being a merchant. And now that is gone, too. About time I put to use what I was taught all those years ago. Under the circumstances, I can’t think of a better time or place.”

Siuan studied her shrewdly a moment more. “That isn’t the reason. Not the whole reason. Out with it.”

Hurling a small brush into the box, Leane blazed up in a fury. “The whole reason? I do not know the whole reason. I only know I need something in my life to replace—what is gone. You yourself told me that is the only hope of surviving. Revenge falls short, for me. I know your cause is necessary, and perhaps even right, but the Light help me, that is not enough either; I can’t make myself be as involved as you. Maybe I came too late to it. I will stay with you, but it isn’t enough.”

Anger faded as she began resealing pots and vials and replacing them, though she used more force than was strictly necessary. There was the merest hint of rose scent about her. “I know flirting isn’t something to fill up the emptiness, but it is enough to fill an idle moment. Maybe being who I was born to be will suffice. I just do not know. This isn’t a new idea; I always wanted to be like my mother and my aunts, daydreamed of it sometimes after I was grown.”

Leane’s face became pensive, and the last things went into the box more gently. “I think perhaps I’ve always felt I was masquerading as someone else, building up a mask until it became second nature. There was serious work to be done, more serious than merchanting, and by the time I realized there was another way I could have gone even so, I had the mask on too firmly to take off. Well, that is done with, now, and the mask is coming off. I even considered beginning with Logain a week ago, for practice. But I am out of practice, and I think he is the kind of man who might hear more promises than you meant to offer, and expect to have them fulfilled.” A small smile suddenly appeared on her lips. “My mother always said if that happened, you had miscalculated badly; if there was no back way out, you had to either abandon dignity and run, or pay the price and consider it a lesson.” The smile took on a roguish cast. “My Aunt Resara said you paid the price and enjoyed it.”

Min could only shake her head. It was as if Leane had become a different woman. Talking that way about . . . ! Even hearing it, she could hardly believe. Come to that, Leane actually looked different. For all of the work with brushes, there was not a hint of paint or powder on her face that Min could see, yet her lips seemed fuller, her cheekbones higher, her eyes larger. She was a more than pretty woman at any time, but now her beauty was magnified fivefold.

Siuan was not quite finished, though. “And if this country lord is one like Logain?” she said softly. “What will you do then?”

Leane drew herself up stiff-backed on her knees and swallowed hard before answering, but her voice was perfectly level. “Given the alternatives, what choice would you make?”

Neither blinked, and the silence stretched.

Before Siuan could answer—if she meant to; Min would have given a pretty to hear it—the chain and lock rattled on the other side of the door.

The other two women got slowly to their feet, gathering their saddlebags in calm preparation, but Min leaped up wishing she had her belt knife. Fool thing to wish for, she thought. Just get me in worse trouble. I’m no bloody hero in a story. Even if I jumped the guard—

The door opened, and a man with a long leather jerkin over his shirt filled the doorway. Not a fellow to be attacked by a young woman, even with a knife. Maybe not even with an axe. Wide was the word for him, and thick. The few hairs remaining on his head were more white than not, but he looked hard as an old oak stump. “Time for you girls to stand before the lord,” he said gruffly. “Will you walk, or must we haul you like grain sacks? You go, either way, but I’d as soon not have to carry you in this heat.”

Peeking past him, Min saw two more men waiting, gray-haired but just as hard, if not quite so big.

“We will walk,” Siuan told him dryly.

“Good. Come, then. Step along. Lord Gareth won’t like being kept waiting.”

Promise to walk or no, each man took one of them firmly by the arm as they started up the dusty dirt street. The balding man’s hand encircled Min’s arm like a manacle. So much for running for it, she thought bitterly. She considered kicking his booted ankle to see if that would loosen his grip, but he looked so solid she suspected all it would earn her was a sore toe and being dragged the rest of the way.

Leane appeared lost in thought; she half-made small gestures with her free hand, and her lips moved silently as though reviewing what she meant to say, but she kept shaking her head and starting over again. Introspection wrapped Siuan, too, but she wore an openly worried frown, even chewing her underlip; Siuan never showed that much unease. All in all, the pair of them did nothing for Min’s confidence.

The beam-ceilinged common room of the Good Queen’s Justice did less. Lank-haired Admer Nem, a yellowed bruise around his swollen eye, stood to one side with half a dozen equally stout brothers and cousins and their wives, all in their best coats or aprons. The farmers eyed the three prisoners with a mixture of anger and satisfaction that made Min’s stomach sink. If anything, the farmwives’ glares were worse, pure hate. The rest of the walls were lined six deep with villagers, all garbed for the work they had interrupted for this. The blacksmith still wore his leather apron, and a number of women had sleeves rolled up, arms dusted with flour. The room buzzed with their murmuring among themselves, the elders as much as the few children, and their eyes latched onto the three women as avidly as the Nems’ did. Min thought this must be as much excitement as Kore Springs had ever witnessed. She had seen a crowd with this mood once—at an execution.

The tables had been removed, except for one placed in front of the long brick fireplace. A bluff-faced, stocky man, his hair thick with gray, sat facing them in a well-cut coat of dark green silk, hands folded in front of him on the tabletop. A slim woman who showed as much age stood beside the table in a fine, gray wool dress embroidered with white flowers around the neck. The local lord, Min supposed, and his lady; country nobility little better informed of the world than their tenants and crofters.

The guards situated them in front of the lord’s table and melted into the watchers. The woman in gray stepped forward, and the murmurs died.

“All here attend and give ear,” the woman announced, “for justice will be meted today by Lord Gareth Bryne. Prisoners, you are called before the judgment of Lord Bryne.” Not the lord’s lady, then; an official of some sort. Gareth Bryne? The last Min remembered, he was Captain-General of the Queen’s Guards, in Caemlyn. If it was the same man. She glanced at Siuan, but Siuan had her eyes locked on the wide floorboards in front of her feet. Whoever he was, this Bryne looked weary.

“You are charged,” the woman in gray went on, “with trespass by night, arson and destruction of a building and its contents, the killing of valuable livestock, assault on the person of Admer Nem, and the theft of a purse said to contain gold and silver. It is understood that the assault and theft were the work of your companion, who escaped, but you three are equally culpable under the law.”

She paused to let it sink in, and Min exchanged rueful glances with Leane. Logain would have to add theft to the stew. He was probably halfway to Murandy by now, if not more distant yet.

After a moment the woman began again. “Your accusers are here to face you.” She gestured to the cluster of Nems. “Admer Nem, you will give your testimony.”

The stout man eased forward in a blend of self-importance and self-consciousness, tugging at his coat where the wooden buttons strained over his middle, running his hands through thinning hair that kept dropping into his face. “Like I said, Lord Gareth, it was like this. . . .”

He gave a fairly straightforward account of discovering them in the hayloft and ordering them out, though he made Logain near a foot taller and turned the man’s single blow into a fight where Nem gave as good as he got. The lantern fell, the hay went up, and the rest of the family came spilling out of the farmhouse into the predawn; the prisoners were seized and the barn burned to the ground, and then the loss of the purse from the house was discovered. He did slight the part where Lord Bryne’s retainer rode by as some of the family were bringing out ropes and eyeing tree limbs.

When he started on the “fight” again—this time he seemed to be winning—Bryne cut him off. “That will be enough, Master Nem. You may step back.”

Instead, a round-faced one of the Nem women, of an age to be Admer’s wife, joined him. Round-faced, but not soft; round like a frying pan or a river rock. And flushed with something more than anger. “You whip these hussies good, Lord Gareth, hear? Whip them good, and ride them to Jornhill on a rail!”

“No one called on you to speak, Maigan,” the slim woman in gray said sharply. “This is a trial, not a petition meeting. You and Admer step back. Now.” They obeyed, Admer with a shade more alacrity than Maigan. The gray-clad woman turned to Min and her companions. “If you wish to offer testimony, in defense or mitigation, you may now give it.” There was no sympathy in her voice, nor anything else for that matter.

Min expected Siuan to speak—she always took the lead, did the talking—but Siuan never stirred or raised her eyes. Instead, it was Leane who moved toward the table, her eyes on the man behind it.

She stood as straight as ever, but her usual walk—a graceful stride, but a stride—had become a sort of glide, with just a hint of willowy sway to it. Somehow her hips and bosom seemed more obvious. Not that she flaunted anything; the way she moved just made you aware. “My Lord, we are three helpless women, refugees from the storms that sweep the world.” Her usually brisk tones were gone, changed to a velvety soft caress. There was a light in her dark eyes, a sort of smoldering challenge. “Penniless and lost, we took shelter in Master Nem’s barn. It was wrong, I know, but we were afraid of the night.” A small gesture, hands half-raised, the insides of her wrists to Bryne, made her seem for a moment utterly helpless. Only for that moment, though. “The man Dalyn was a stranger to us really, a man who offered us his protection. In these days, women alone must have a protector, my Lord, yet I fear we made a poor choice.” A widening of the eyes, an entreating look, said h
e could make a better for them. “It was indeed he who attacked Master Nem, my Lord; we would have fled, or worked to repay our night’s lodging.” Stepping around the side of the table, she knelt gracefully beside Bryne’s chair and gently rested the fingers of one hand on his wrist as she gazed up into his eyes. A tremble touched her voice, but her slight smile was enough to set any man’s heart racing. It—suggested. “My Lord, we are guilty of some small crime, yet not so much as we are charged with. We throw ourselves on your mercy. I beg you, my Lord, have pity on us, and protect us.”

For a long moment, Bryne stared back into her eyes. Then, clearing his throat roughly, he scraped back his chair, rose, and walked around the opposite end of the table from her. There was a stir among the villagers and farmers, men clearing their throats as their lord had done, women muttering under their breath. Bryne stopped in front of Min. “What is your name, girl?”

“Min, my Lord.” She caught a muffled grunt from Siuan and hastily added, “Serenla Min. Everyone calls me Serenla, my Lord.”

“Your mother must have had a premonition,” he murmured with a smile. He was not the first to react to the name in a like way. “Do you have any statement to make, Serenla?”

“Only that I am very sorry, my Lord, and it really wasn’t our fault. Dalyn did it all. I ask for mercy, my Lord.” That did not seem much alongside Leane’s plea—anything at all would seem insignificant beside Leane’s performance—but it was the best she could find. Her mouth was as dry as the street outside. What if he did decide to hang them?

Nodding, he moved over to Siuan, who was still studying the floor. Cupping a hand under her chin, he raised her eyes to his. “And what is your name, girl?”

With a jerk of her head, Siuan pulled her chin free and took a step back. “Mara, my Lord,” she whispered. “Mara Tomanes.”

Min groaned softly. Siuan was plainly frightened, yet at the same time she stared at the man defiantly. Min more than half-expected her to demand Bryne let them walk away on the instant. He asked her if she wished to make a statement, and she denied it in another unsteady whisper, but all the while looking at him as though she were the one in charge. She might be controlling her tongue, but certainly not her eyes.

After a time, Bryne turned away. “Take your place with your friends, girl,” he told Leane as he returned to his chair. She joined them with a look of open frustration, and what in anyone else Min would have called a touch of petulance.

“I have reached my decision,” Bryne said to the room at large. “The crimes are serious, and nothing I have heard alters the facts. If three men sneak into another’s house to steal his candlesticks and one of them attacks the owner, all three are equally guilty. There must be recompense. Master Nem, I will give you the cost of rebuilding your barn, plus the price of six milkcows.” The stout farmer’s eyes brightened, until Bryne added, “Caralin will disburse the coin to you when she is content as to costs and prices. Some of your cows were going dry, I hear.” The slim woman in gray nodded in satisfaction. “For the bump on your head, I award you one silver mark. Don’t complain,” he said firmly as Nem opened his mouth. “Maigan has given you worse for drinking too much.” A ripple of laughter among the onlookers greeted that, not diminished at all by Nem’s half-abashed glares, and perhaps spurred by the tightlipped look Maigan gave her husband. “I will also re
place the amount of the stolen purse. Once Caralin has satisfied herself as to how much was in it.” Nem and his wife appeared equally disgruntled, but they held their tongues; it was plain he had given them what he would. Min began to feel hope.

Leaning his elbows on the table, Bryne turned his attention to her and the other two. His slow words tied her stomach into a knot. “You three will work for me, at the normal wages for whatever tasks you are given, until the coin I’ve paid out is repaid to me. Do not think I am being lenient. If you swear an oath that satisfies me you don’t have to be guarded, you can work in my manor. If not, it means the fields, where you can be under someone’s eyes every minute. Wages are lower in the fields, but it is your decision.”

Frantically she racked her brain for the weakest oath that might satisfy. She did not like breaking her word in any circumstances, but she meant to be gone as soon as a chance presented, and she did not want too heavy an oathbreaking on her conscience.

Leane seemed to be searching, too, but Siuan barely hesitated before kneeling and folding her hands over her heart. Her eyes seemed fastened to Bryne’s, and the challenge had not faded one bit. “By the Light and my hope of salvation and rebirth, I swear to serve you in whatever way you require for as long as you require, or may the Creator’s face turn from me forever and darkness consume my soul.” She delivered the words in a breathy whisper, but they created a dead silence. There was no oath stronger, unless it was the one a woman took on being made Aes Sedai, and the Oath Rod bound her to that as surely as to a part of her flesh.

Leane stared at Siuan; then she was on her knees, too. “By the Light and my hope of salvation and rebirth . . .”

Min floundered desperately, searching for some way out. Swearing a lesser oath than they did meant the fields for certain, and someone watching her every instant, but this oath. . . . By what she had been taught, breaking it would be not much less than murder, maybe no less. Only there was no way out. The oath, or who knew how many years laboring in a field all day and probably locked up at night. Sinking down beside the other two women, she muttered the words, but inside she was howling. Siuan, you utter fool! What have you gotten me into now? I can’t stay here! I have to go to Rand! Oh, Light, help me!

“Well,” Bryne breathed when the last word was spoken, “I did not expect that. But it does suffice. Caralin, would you take Master Nem somewhere and find out what he thinks his losses amount to? And clear everyone else but these three out of here, too. And make arrangements to transport them to the manor. Under the circumstances, I don’t think guards will be necessary.”

The slim woman gave him a harassed look, but in short order she had everyone moving out in a milling throng. Admer Nem and his male kin stuck close to her, his face especially painted with avarice. The Nem women looked scarcely less greedy, but they still spared a few hard glowers for Min and the other two, who remained kneeling as the room emptied out. For herself, Min did not believe her legs could hold her up. The same phrases repeated over and over in her mind. Oh, Siuan, why? I can’t stay here. I can’t!

“We have had a few refugees through here,” Bryne said when the last of the villagers had gone. He leaned back in his chair, studying them. “But never as odd a threesome as you. A Domani. A Tairen?” Siuan nodded curtly. She and Leane stood up, the slender, coppery-skinned woman delicately brushing her knees, Siuan simply standing. Min managed to join them, on wobbly legs. “And you, Serenla.” Once more he gave the ghost of a smile at the name. “Somewhere in the west of Andor, unless I mistake your accent.”

“Baerlon,” she muttered, then bit her tongue too late. Someone might know Min was from Baerlon.

“I’ve heard of nothing in the west to make refugees,” he said in a questioning tone. When she remained silent, he did not press it. “After you have worked off your debt, you will be welcome to remain in my service. Life can be hard for those who’ve lost their homes, and even a maid’s cot is better than sleeping under a bush.”

“Thank you, my Lord,” Leane said caressingly, making a curtsy so graceful that even in her rough riding dress it looked part of a dance. Min’s echo was leaden, and she did not trust her knees for a curtsy. Siuan simply stood there staring at him and said nothing at all.

“A pity your companion took your horses. Four horses would reduce your debt by some.”

“He was a stranger, and a rogue,” Leane told him, in a voice suitable for something far more intimate. “I for one am more than happy to exchange his protection for yours, my Lord.”

Bryne eyed her—appreciatively, Min thought—but all he said was “At least you will be safely away from the Nems at the manor.”

There was no reply for that. Min supposed scrubbing floors in Bryne’s manor would not be much different from scrubbing floors in the Nem farmhouse. How do I get out of this? Light, how?

The silence went on, except for Bryne drumming his fingers on the table. Min would have thought he was at a loss for what to say next, but she did not think this man was ever off balance. More likely he was irritated that only Leane appeared to be showing any gratitude; she supposed their sentence could have been much worse, from his point of view. Perhaps Leane’s heated glances and stroking tones had worked after a fashion, but Min found herself wishing the woman had remained the way she was. Being hung up by the wrists in the village square would be better than this.

Finally Caralin returned, muttering to herself. She sounded prickly, reporting to Bryne. “It will take days to get straight answers from those Nems, Lord Gareth. Admer would have five new barns and fifty cows, if I let him. At least I believe there really was a purse, but as to how much was in it . . .” She shook her head and sighed. “I will find out, eventually. Joni is ready to take these girls to the manor, if you are done with them.”

“Take them away, Caralin,” Bryne said, rising. “When you’ve sent them off, join me at the brickyard.” He sounded weary again. “Thad Haren says he needs more water if he’s to keep making bricks, and the Light alone knows where I will find it for him.” He strode out of the common room as if he had forgotten all about the three women who had just sworn to serve him.

Joni turned out to be the wide, balding man who had come for them in the shed, waiting now in front of the inn beside a high-wheeled cart enclosed by a round canvas cover, with a lean brown horse in the shafts. A few of the villagers stood about to watch their departure, but most seemed to have gone back to their homes and out of the heat. Gareth Bryne was already far down the dirt street.

“Joni will see you safely to the manor,” Caralin said. “Do as you are told, and you will not find the life hard.” For a moment she considered them, dark eyes nearly as sharp as Siuan’s; then she nodded to herself as if satisfied and hurried off after Bryne.

Joni held the curtains open for them at the back of the cart, but let them clamber up unaided and find places to sit on the cart bed. There was not so much as a handful of straw for padding, and the heavy covering trapped the heat. He said not a word. The cart rocked as he climbed up on the driver’s seat, hidden by the canvas. Min heard him cluck to the horse, and the cart lurched off, wheels creaking slightly, bumping over occasional potholes.

There was just enough of a crack in the covering at the back for Min to watch the village dwindle behind them and vanish, replaced alternately by long thickets and rail-fenced fields. She felt too stunned to speak. Siuan’s grand cause was to end scrubbing pots and floors. She should never have helped the woman, never stayed with her. She should have ridden for Tear at the first opportunity.

“Well,” Leane said suddenly, “that worked out not badly at all.” She was back to her usual brisk voice again, but there was a flush of excitement—excitement!—in it, and a high color in her cheeks. “It could have been better, but practice will take care of that.” Her low laugh was almost a giggle. “I never realized how much fun it would be. When I actually felt his pulse racing . . .” For a moment she held out her hand the way she had placed it on Bryne’s wrist. “I don’t think I ever felt so alive, so aware. Aunt Resara used to say men were better sport than hawks, but I never really understood until today.”

Holding herself against the sway of the cart, Min goggled at her. “You have gone mad,” she said finally. “How many years have we sworn away? Two? Five? I suppose you hope Gareth Bryne will spend them dandling you on his knee! Well, I hope he turns you over it. Every day!” The startled look on Leane’s face did nothing for Min’s temper. Did she expect Min to take it as calmly as she appeared to? But it was not Leane that Min was really angry with. She twisted around to glare at Siuan. “And you! When you decide to give up, you don’t do it small. You just surrender like a lamb at slaughter. Why did you choose that oath? Light, why?”

“Because,” Siuan replied, “it was the one oath I could be sure would keep him from setting people to watch us night and day, manor house or not.” Lying half stretched out on the rough planks of the cart, she made it sound the most obvious thing in the world. And Leane appeared to agree with her.

“You mean to break it,” Min said after a moment. It came out in a shocked whisper, but even so she glanced worriedly at the canvas curtains that hid Joni. She did not think he could have heard.

“I mean to do what I must,” Siuan said firmly, but just as softly. “In two or three days, when I can be sure they really aren’t watching us especially, we will leave. I fear we must take horses, since ours are gone. Bryne must have good stables. I will regret that.” And Leane just sat there like a cat with cream on her whiskers. She must have realized from the first; that was why she had not hesitated in swearing.

“You will regret stealing horses?” Min said hoarsely. “You plan to break an oath anyone but a Darkfriend would keep, and you regret stealing horses? I can’t believe either of you. I don’t know either of you.”

“Do you really mean to stay and scrub pots,” Leane asked, her voice just as low as theirs, “when Rand is out there with your heart in his pocket?”

Min glowered silently. She wished they had never learned she was in love with Rand al’Thor. Sometimes she wished she had never learned it. A man who barely knew she was alive, a man like that. What he was no longer seemed as important as the fact that he had never looked at her twice, but it was all of a piece, really. She wanted to say she would keep her oath, forget about Rand for however long it took her to work off her debt. Only, she could not open her mouth. Burn him! If I’d never met him, I wouldn’t be in this pickle!

When the silence between them had gone on far too long for Min’s liking, broken only by the rhythmic creak of the wheels and the soft thud of the horse’s hooves, Siuan spoke. “I mean to do as I swore to do. When I have finished what I must do first. I did not swear to serve him immediately; I was careful not to even imply it, strictly speaking. A fine point, I know, and one Gareth Bryne might not appreciate, but true all the same.”

Min sagged in amazement, letting herself lurch with the cart’s slow motion. “You intend to run away, then come back in a few years and hand yourselves over to Bryne? The man will sell your hides to a tannery. Our hides.” Not until she said that did she realize she had accepted Siuan’s solution. Run away, then come back and . . . I can’t! I love Rand. And he wouldn’t notice if Gareth Bryne made me work in his kitchens the rest of my life!

“Not a man to cross, I agree,” Siuan sighed. “I met him once—before. I was terrified he might recognize my voice today. Faces may change, but voices don’t.” She touched her own face wonderingly, as she sometimes did, apparently unaware of doing so. “Faces do change,” she murmured. Then her tone firmed. “I’ve paid heavy prices already for what I had to do, and I will pay this one. Eventually. If you must drown or ride a lionfish, you ride and hope for the best. That is all there is to it, Serenla.”

“Being a servant is far from the future I would choose,” Leane said, “but it is in the future, and who knows what may happen before? I can remember too well when I thought I had no future.” A small smile appeared on her lips, her eyes half-closed dreamily, and her voice became velvet. “Besides, I don’t think he will sell our hides at all. Give me a few years of practice, and then a few minutes with Lord Gareth Bryne, and he will greet us with open arms and put us up in his best rooms. He’ll deck us with silks, and offer his carriage to carry us wherever we want to go.”

Min left her wrapped in her fantasy. Sometimes she thought the other two both lived in dreamworlds. Something else occurred to her. A small thing, but it was beginning to irritate. “Ah, Mara, tell me something. I’ve noticed some people smile when you call me by name. Serenla. Bryne did, and he said something about my mother having a premonition. Why?”

“In the Old Tongue,” Siuan replied, “it means ‘stubborn daughter.’ You did have a stubborn streak when we first met. A mile wide and a mile deep.” Siuan said that! Siuan, the most stubborn woman in the whole world! Her smile was as wide as her face. “Of course, you do seem to be coming along. At the next village, you might use Chalinda. That means ‘sweet girl.’ Or maybe—”

Suddenly the cart gave a harder lurch than any before, then picked up speed as if the horse were reaching for a gallop. Bumping around like grain on a chaffing sieve, the three women stared at one another in surprise. Then Siuan levered herself up and pulled aside the canvas hiding the driver’s seat. Joni was gone. Throwing herself across the wooden seat, Siuan grabbed the reins and reared back, hauling the horse to a halt. Min threw open the back curtains, searching.

The road ran through a thicket here, nearly a small forest of oak and elm, pine and leatherleaf. The dust of their short dash was still settling, some of it on Joni, where he lay sprawled by the side of the hard-packed dirt road sixty or so paces back.

Instinctively Min leaped down and ran back to kneel beside the big man. He was still breathing, but his eyes were closed and a bloody gash on the side of his head was coming up in a purple lump.

Leane pushed her aside and felt Joni’s head with sure fingers. “He will live,” she said crisply. “Nothing seems broken, but he will have a headache for days after he wakes.” Sitting back on her heels, she folded her hands, and her voice saddened. “There is nothing I can do for him in any case. Burn me, I promised myself I would not cry over it again.”

“The question—” Min swallowed and started again. “The question is, do we load him in the back of the cart and take him on to the manor, or do we—go?” Light, I’m no better than Siuan!

“We could carry him as far as the next farm,” Leane said slowly.

Siuan came up to them, leading the cart horse as if afraid the placid animal might bite. One glance at the man on the ground, and she frowned. “He never had that falling off the cart. I don’t see root or rock here to cause it.” She started studying the wood around them, and a man rode out of the trees on a tall black stallion, leading three mares, one shaggy and two hands shorter than the others.

He was a tall man in a blue silk coat, with a sword at his side, his hair curling to broad shoulders, darkly handsome despite a hardening as though misfortune had marked him deeply. And he was the last man Min expected to see.

“Is this your work?” Siuan demanded of him.

Logain smiled as he reined in beside the cart, though there was little amusement in it. “A sling is a useful thing, Mara. You are lucky I am here. I didn’t expect you to leave the village for some hours yet, and barely able to walk then. The local lord was indulgent, it seems.” Abruptly his face went even darker, and his voice was rough stone. “Did you think I would leave you to your fate? Maybe I should have. You made promises to me, Mara. I want the revenge you promised. I’ve followed you halfway to the Sea of Storms on this search, though you won’t tell me what for. I’ve asked no questions as to how you plan to give me what you promised. But I will tell you this now. Your time is growing short. End your search soon, and deliver your promises, or I will leave you to find your own way. You’ll quickly find most villages offer small sympathy to penniless strangers. Three pretty women alone? The sight of this,” he touched the sword at his hip, “has kept you safe mor e times than you can know. Find what you are seeking soon, Mara.”

He had not been so arrogant at the beginning of their journey. Then he had been humbly thankful for their help—as humbly as a man like Logain could manage, anyway. It seemed that time—and a lack of results—had withered his gratitude.

Siuan did not flinch away from his stare. “I hope to,” she said firmly. “But if you want to go, then leave our horses and go! If you won’t row, get out of the boat and swim by yourself! See how far you get with your revenge alone.”

Logain’s big hands tightened on his reins until Min heard his knuckles crack. He shivered with emotions in strong check. “I will stay a while longer, Mara,” he said finally. “A little while longer.”

For an instant, to Min’s eyes, a halo flared around his head, a radiant crown of gold and blue. Siuan and Leane saw nothing, of course, though they knew what she could do. Sometimes she saw things about people—viewings, she called them—images or auras. Sometimes she knew what they meant. That woman would marry. That man would die. Small matters or grand events, joyous or bleak, there was never any rhyme or reason to who or where or when. Aes Sedai and Warders always had auras; most people never did. It was not always pleasant, knowing.

She had seen Logain’s halo before, and she knew what it meant. Glory to come. But for him, perhaps above all men, surely that made no sense at all. His horse and his sword and his coat had come from playing at dice, though Min was not certain how fair the games had been. He had nothing else, and no prospects except Siuan’s promises, and how could Siuan ever keep them? His very name was likely a death sentence. It just made no sense.

Logain’s humor returned as suddenly as it had gone. Pulling a fat, roughly woven purse from his belt, he jangled it at them. “I’ve come by a few coins. We won’t have to sleep in another barn for a while.”

“We heard of it,” Siuan said dryly. “I suppose I should have expected no better from you.”

“Think of it as a contribution to your search.” She stretched out her hand, but he tied the purse back to his belt with a faintly mocking grin. “I would not want to taint your hand with stolen coin, Mara. Besides, this way perhaps I can be sure you won’t run off and leave me.” Siuan looked as if she could have bitten a nail in two, but she said nothing. Standing in his stirrups, Logain peered down the road toward Kore Springs. “I see a flock of sheep coming this way, and a pair of boys. Time for us to ride. They’ll carry word of this as fast as they can run.” Settling back down, he glanced at Joni, still lying there unconscious. “And they’ll fetch help for that fellow. I don’t think I hit him hard enough to hurt him badly.”

Min shook her head; the man continually surprised her. She would not have thought he would spare a second thought for a man whose head he had just cracked.

Siuan and Leane wasted no time scrambling into their high-cantled saddles, Leane onto the gray mare she called Moonflower, Siuan onto Bela, the short, shaggy mare. It was more of a scramble for Siuan. She was no horsewoman; after weeks in the saddle she still treated sedate Bela like a fiery-eyed warhorse. Leane handled Moonflower with effortless ease. Min knew she was somewhere in between; she climbed onto Wildrose, her bay, with considerably more grace than Siuan, considerably less than Leane.

“Do you think he will come after us?” Min asked as they started south, away from Kore Springs, at a trot. She meant the question for Siuan, but it was Logain who answered.

“The local lord? I doubt he thinks you important enough. Of course, he may send a man, and he’ll certainly spread your descriptions. We will ride as far as we can manage before stopping, and again tomorrow.” It seemed he was taking charge.

“We aren’t important enough,” Siuan said, bouncing awkwardly in her saddle. She might have been wary of Bela, but the look she directed at Logain’s back said his challenge to her authority would not last long.

For herself, Min hoped Bryne considered them unimportant. He probably did. As long as he never learned their real names. Logain quickened the stallion’s pace, and she heeled Wildrose to keep up, putting her thoughts ahead, not behind.

Tucking his leather gauntlets behind his sword belt, Gareth Bryne picked up the curl-brimmed velvet hat from his writing table. The hat was the latest fashion from Caemlyn. Caralin had seen to that; he had no care for fashion, but she thought he should dress suitably for his position, and it was the silks and velvets she laid out for him in the mornings.

As he set the high-crowned hat on his head, he caught sight of his shadowy reflection in one of the study windows. Fitting that it was so wavery and thin. Squint as much as he would, his gray hat and gray silk coat, embroidered with silver scrolls down the sleeves and collar, looked nothing like the helmet and armor he was used to. That was over and done. And this . . . This was something to fill empty hours. That was all.

“Are you certain you want to do this, Lord Gareth?”

He turned from the window to where Caralin stood beside her own writing table, across the room from his. Hers was piled with the estate account books. She had run his estates all the years he had been gone, and without doubt she still made a better job of it than he did.

“If you had set them to work for Admer Nem, as the law required,” she went on, “this would be none of your affair at all.”

“But I did not,” he told her. “And would not if I had it to do again. You know as well as I do, Nem and his male kin would be trying to corner those girls day and night. And Maigan and the rest of the women would make their lives the Pit of Doom, that is if all three girls didn’t accidentally fall down a well and drown.”

“Even Maigan would not use a well,” Caralin said dryly, “not with the weather we’ve been having. Still, I take your point, Lord Gareth. But they have had most of a day and a night to run in any direction. You will locate them as soon by sending out word of them. If they can be found.”

“Thad can find them.” Thad was over seventy, but he could still track yesterday’s wind across stone by moonlight, and he had been more than happy to turn the brickyard over to his son.

“If you say so, Lord Gareth.” She and Thad did not get on. “Well, when you bring them back, I can certainly use them in the house.”

Something in her voice, casual as it was, pricked his attention. A touch of satisfaction. Practically from the day he arrived home Caralin had introduced a succession of pretty maids and farmgirls into the manor house, all willing and eager to help the lord forget his miseries. “They are oathbreakers, Caralin. I fear it’s the fields for them.”

A brief, exasperated tightening of her lips confirmed his suspicions, but she kept her tone indifferent. “The other two perhaps, Lord Gareth, but the Domani girl’s grace would be wasted in the fields, and would suit serving at table very well. A remarkably pretty young woman. Still, it will be as you wish, of course.”

So that was the one Caralin had picked out. A remarkably pretty young woman indeed. Though oddly different from the Domani women he had met. A touch hesitant here, a touch too fast there. Almost as if she were just now trying out her arts for the first time. That was impossible, of course. Domani women trained their daughters to twine men around their fingers almost from the cradle. Not that she had been ineffective, he admitted. If Caralin had sprung her on him among the farmgirls . . . Remarkably pretty.

So why was it not her face that kept filling his mind? Why did he find himself thinking of a pair of blue eyes? Challenging him as though wishing she had a sword, afraid and refusing to yield to fear. Mara Tomanes. He had been sure she was one to keep her word, even without oaths. “I will bring her back,” he muttered to himself. “I will know why she broke oath.”

“As you say, my Lord,” Caralin said. “I thought she might do for your bedchamber maid. Sela is getting a bit old to be running up and down the stairs to fetch for you at night.”

Bryne blinked at her. What? Oh. The Domani girl. He shook his head at Caralin’s foolishness. But was he being any less foolish? He was the lord here; he should remain here to take care of his people. Yet Caralin had taken better care than he knew how, all the years he was gone. He knew camps and soldiers and campaigns, and maybe a bit of how to maneuver in court intrigues. She was right. He should take off his sword and this fool hat, and have Caralin write out their descriptions, and . . .

Instead, he said, “Keep a close eye on Admer Nem and his kin. They’ll try to cheat you as much as they can.”

“As you say, my Lord.” The words were perfectly respectful; the tone told him to go teach his grandfather to shear sheep. Chuckling to himself, he went outside.

The manor house was really little more than a tremendously overgrown farmhouse, two rambling stories of brick and stone under a slate roof, added to again and again by generations of Brynes. House Bryne had owned this land—or it had owned them—since Andor was wrought from the wreckage of Artur Hawkwing’s empire a thousand years before, and for all that time it had sent its sons off to fight Andor’s wars. He would fight no more wars, but it was too late for House Bryne. There had been too many wars, too many battles. He was the last of the blood. No wife, no son, no daughter. The line ended with him. All things had to end; the Wheel of Time turned.

Twenty men waited beside saddled horses on the stone-paved yard in front of the manor house. Men even grayer than he, mostly, if they had hair. Experienced soldiers all, former squadmen, squadron leaders and bannermen who had served with him at one time or another in his career. Joni Shagrin, who had been Senior Bannerman of the Guards, was right at the front with a bandage around his temples, though Bryne knew for a fact his daughters had set their children to keep him in his bed. He was one of the few who had any family, here or anywhere else. Most had chosen to come serve Gareth Bryne again rather than drink away their pensions over reminiscences no one but another old soldier wanted to hear.

All wore swords belted over their coats, and a few carried long, steel-tipped lances that had hung for years on a wall until this morning. Every saddle had a fat blanket roll behind, and bulging saddlebags, plus a pot or kettle and full water bags, just as if they were riding out on campaign instead of a week’s jaunt to chase down three women who set fire to a barn. Here was a chance to relive old days, or pretend to.

He wondered if that was what was rousting him out. He was certainly too old to go riding off after a set of pretty eyes on a woman young enough to be his daughter. Maybe his granddaughter. I am not that big a fool, he told himself firmly. Caralin could manage things better with him not getting in the way.

A lanky bay gelding came galloping up the oak lane that led down to the road, and the rider threw himself out of the saddle before the animal came to a full stop; the man half-stumbled but still managed to put fist to heart in a proper salute. Barim Halle, who served under him as a senior squadman years ago, was hard and wiry, with a leather egg for a head and white eyebrows that seemed to be trying to make up for the lack of other hair. “You been recalled to Caemlyn, my Captain-General?” he panted.

“No,” Bryne said, too sharply. “What do you mean riding in here as though you had Cairhienin cavalry on your tail?” Some of the other horses were frisking, catching the bay’s mood.

“Never rode that hard unless we was chasing them, my Lord.” Barim’s grin faded when the man saw he was not laughing. “Well, my Lord, I seen the horses, and I reckoned—” The man took another look at his face and cut off that line. “Well, actually, I got some news, too. I been over to New Braem to see my sister, and I heard plenty.”

New Braem was older than Andor—“old” Braem had been destroyed in the Trolloc Wars, a thousand years before Artur Hawkwing—and it was a good place for news. A middling-sized border town well to the east of his estates, on the road from Caemlyn to Tar Valon. Even with Morgase’s current attitude, the merchants would keep that road busy. “Well, out with it, man. If there’s news, what is it?”

“Uh, just trying to figure where to start, my Lord.” Barim straightened unconsciously, as though making a report. “Most important, I reckon, they say Tear has fallen. Aielmen took the Stone itself, and the Sword That Cannot Be Touched has flat been touched. Somebody drew it, they say.”

“An Aielman drew it?” Bryne said incredulously. An Aiel would die before he touched a sword; he had seen it happen, in the Aiel War. Though it was said Callandor was not really a sword at all. Whatever that meant.

“They didn’t say, my Lord. I heard names; Ren somebody or other most often. But they was talking it like fact, not rumor. Like everybody knew.”

Bryne’s forehead creased in a frown. Worse than troubling, if true. If Callandor had been drawn, then the Dragon was Reborn. According to the Prophecies, that meant the Last Battle was coming, the Dark One breaking free. The Dragon Reborn would save the world, so the Prophecies said. And destroy it. This was news enough by itself to have set Halle galloping, if he had thought twice.

But the leathery fellow was not finished. “Word come down from Tar Valon is near as big, my Lord. They say there’s a new Amyrlin Seat. Elaida, my Lord, who was the Queen’s advisor.” Blinking suddenly, Halle hurried on; Morgase was forbidden ground, and every man on the estate knew it, though Bryne had never said so. “They say the old Amyrlin, Siuan Sanche, was stilled and executed. And Logain died, too. That false Dragon they caught and gentled last year. They talked it like it was true, my Lord. Some of them claimed they was in Tar Valon when it all happened.”

Logain was no great news, even if he had started a war in Ghealdan by claiming to be the Dragon Reborn. There had been several false Dragons the last few years. He could channel, though; that was a fact. Until the Aes Sedai gentled him. Well, he was not the first man to be caught and gentled, cut off from the Power so he could never channel again. They said men like that, whether false Dragons or just poor fools the Red Ajah took against, never lived long. It was said they gave up wanting to live.

Siuan Sanche, though, that was news. He had met her once, nearly three years ago. A woman who demanded obedience and gave no reasons. Tough as an old boot, with a tongue like a file and a temper like that of a bear with a sore tooth. He would have expected her to tear any upstart claimant limb from limb with her bare hands. Stilling was the same as gentling for a man, but more rare by far. Especially for an Amyrlin Seat. Only two Amyrlins in three thousand years had suffered that fate, so far as the Tower admitted, though it was possible they could have hidden two dozen more; the Tower was very good at hiding what they wanted hidden. But an execution on top of stilling seemed unnecessary. It was said women survived stilling no better than men did gentling.

It all stank of trouble. Everyone knew the Tower had secret alliances, strings tied to thrones and powerful lords and ladies. With a new Amyrlin raised in this fashion, some would surely try to test whether the Aes Sedai still watched as closely. And once this fellow in Tear quelled any opposition—not that there was likely to be much if he really did have the Stone—he would move, against Illian or Cairhien. The question was, how quickly could he move? Would forces be gathered against him, or for him? He had to be the true Dragon Reborn, but the Houses would go both ways, and the people, too. And if petty squabbles broke out because the Tower—

“Old fool,” he muttered. Seeing Barim give a start, he added, “Not you. Another old fool.” None of this was his affair any longer. Except to decide which way House Bryne went, when the time came. Not that anyone would care, except to know whether or not to attack him. Bryne had never been a powerful House, or large.

“Uh, my Lord?” Barim glanced at the men waiting with their horses. “Do you think you might need me, my Lord?”

Without even asking where or why. He was not the only one bored with country life. “Catch up to us when you have your gear together. We’ll be heading south on the Four Kings Road to start.” Barim saluted and dashed away, dragging his horse behind him.

Climbing into his saddle, Bryne swung his arm forward without a word, and the men fell into a column of twos behind him as they headed down the oak lane. He meant to have answers. If he had to take this Mara by the scruff of the neck and shake her, he would have answers.

The High Lady Alteima relaxed as the gates of the Royal Palace of Andor swung open and her carriage rolled in. She had not been certain they would open. It had surely taken long enough to get a note taken in, and longer still to have a reply. Her maid, a thin girl acquired here in Caemlyn, goggled and all but bounced on the seat across from her at the excitement of actually entering the palace.

Snapping open her lace fan, Alteima tried to cool herself. It was still well short of midday; the heat would grow worse yet. To think she had always thought of Andor as cool. Hastily she reviewed what she meant to say one last time. She was a pretty woman—she knew exactly how pretty—with large brown eyes that made some mistakenly think her innocent, even harmless. She knew she was neither, but it suited her very well to have others believe her so. Especially here, today. This carriage had taken almost the last of the gold she had managed to carry away when she fled Tear. If she was to reestablish herself, she needed powerful friends, and there was none more powerful in Andor than the woman she had come to see.

The carriage halted near a fountain in a column-ringed courtyard, and a servant in red-and-white livery rushed to open the door. Alteima barely glanced at the courtyard or the serving man; her mind was all on the meeting ahead. Black hair spilled to the middle of her back from beneath a close-fitting cap of seed pearls, and more pearls lined the tiny pleats of her high-necked gown of watery green silk. She had met Morgase once, briefly, five years ago during a state visit; a woman who radiated power, as reserved and stately as one should expect of a queen, and also proper, in the Andoran way. Which meant prim. The rumors in the city that she had a lover—a man not much liked, it seemed—did not fit that very well, of course. But from what Alteima remembered, the formality of the gown—and the high neck—should please Morgase.

As soon as Alteima’s slippers were firmly on the paving stones, the maid, Cara, leaped down and began fussing over the fall of the pleats. Until Alteima snapped her fan shut and slapped the girl’s wrist with it; a courtyard was no place for that. Cara—such a foolish name—flinched back, clutching her wrist with a wounded look and the beginnings of tears.

Alteima compressed her lips in irritation. The girl did not even know how to take mild reproof. She had been fooling herself: the girl would not do; she was too obviously untrained. But a lady had to have a maid, especially if she was to differentiate herself from the mass of refugees in Andor. She had seen men and women laboring in the sun, even begging in the streets, while wearing the remnants of Cairhienin nobles’ garb. She thought she had recognized one or two. Perhaps she should take one of them in service; who could know the duties of a lady’s maid better than a lady? And if they were reduced to working with their hands, they should leap at the chance. It might be amusing to have a former “friend” for a maid. Too late for today, though. And an untrained maid, a local girl, said a little too clearly that Alteima was at the edge of her resources, only one step removed from those beggars herself.

She put on a look of concerned gentleness. “Did I hurt you, Cara?” she said sweetly. “Remain here in the carriage and soothe your wrist. I am certain someone will bring you cool water to drink.” The mindless gratitude on the girl’s face was stupefying.

The liveried men, well trained, stood looking at nothing at all. Still, word of Alteima’s kindness would spread, if she knew anything about servants.

A tall young man appeared before her in the white-collared red coat and burnished breastplate of the Queen’s Guard, bowing with a hand to his sword hilt. “I am Guardsman-Lieutenant Tallanvor, High Lady. If you will come with me, I will escort you to Queen Morgase.” He offered an arm, which she took, but otherwise she was scarcely aware of him. She had no interest in soldiers unless generals and lords.

As he attended her down broad corridors seemingly full of scurrying men and women in livery—they took care not to impede her way, of course—she subtly examined the fine wall hangings, the ivory-inlaid chests and highchests, the bowls and vases of chased gold or silver, or thin Sea Folk porcelain. The Royal Palace did not display as much wealth as the Stone of Tear, but Andor was still a wealthy land, perhaps even as wealthy as Tear. An older lord would do nicely, malleable for a woman still young, perhaps a touch feeble and infirm. With vast estates. That would be a beginning, while she found out exactly where the strings of power lay in Andor. A few words exchanged with Morgase some years ago were not much of an introduction, but she had that which a powerful queen must want and need. Information.

Finally Tallanvor ushered her into a large sitting room with a high ceiling painted in birds and clouds and open sky, where ornately carved and gilded chairs stood before a polished white marble fireplace. A part of Alteima’s mind noted with amusement that the wide red-and-gold carpet was Tairen work. The young man went to one knee. “My Queen,” he said in a suddenly rough voice, “as you have commanded, I bring you the High Lady Alteima, of Tear.”

Morgase waved him away. “You are welcome, Alteima. It is good to see you again. Sit, and we will talk.”

Alteima managed a curtsy and murmured thanks before taking a chair. Envy curdled inside her. She had remembered Morgase as a beautiful woman, but the golden-haired reality told her how pale that memory had grown. Morgase was a rose in full bloom, ready to overshadow every other flower. Alteima did not blame the young soldier for stumbling on his way out. She was just glad he was gone, so she would not have to be aware of him looking at the two of them, comparing.

Yet, there were changes, too. Vast changes. Morgase, by the Grace of the Light, Queen of Andor, Defender of the Realm, Protector of the People, High Seat of House Trakand, so very reserved and stately and proper, wore a gown of shimmering white silk that showed enough bosom to shock a tavern maid in the Maule. It clung to hip and thigh close enough to suit a Taraboner jade. The rumors were clearly true. Morgase had a lover. And for her to have altered so much, it was equally clear that she tried to please this Gaebril, not make him please her. Morgase still radiated power and a presence that filled the room, but that dress transformed both to something less.

Alteima was doubly glad she had worn a high neck. A woman that deep in a man’s thrall could lash out in a jealous rage on the smallest provocation or none at all. If she met Gaebril, she would present him as near indifference as civility would allow. Even being suspected of thinking of poaching Morgase’s lover could get her a hangman’s noose instead of a rich husband on his last legs. She herself would have done the same.

A woman in red-and-white livery brought wine, an excellent Murandian, and poured it into crystal goblets deeply engraved with the rearing Lion of Andor. As Morgase took a goblet, Alteima noticed her ring, a golden serpent eating its own tail. The Great Serpent ring was worn by some women who had trained in the White Tower, as Morgase had, without becoming Aes Sedai, as well as by Aes Sedai themselves. It was a thousand-year tradition for the Queens of Andor to be Tower trained. But rumors were on every lip of a break between Morgase and Tar Valon, and the anti-Aes Sedai sentiment in the streets could have been quashed quickly had Morgase wanted to. Why was she still wearing the ring? Alteima would be careful of her words until she knew the answer.

The liveried woman withdrew to the far end of the room, out of earshot but close enough to see when the wine needed replenishing.

Taking a sip, Morgase said, “It is long since we met. Is your husband well? Is he in Caemlyn with you?”

Hastily Alteima shuffled her plans. She had not thought Morgase knew she had a husband, but she had always been able to think on the run. “Tedosian was well when I last saw him.” The Light send he died soon. As well to get on with it. “He was of some question about serving this Rand al’Thor, and that is a dangerous chasm to straddle. Why, lords have been hung as if they were common criminals.”

“Rand al’Thor,” Morgase mused softly. “I met him once. He did not look like one who would name himself the Dragon Reborn. A frightened shepherd boy, trying not to show it. Yet thinking back, he seemed to be looking for some—escape.” Her blue eyes looked inward. “Elaida warned me of him.” She seemed unaware of having spoken those last words.

“Elaida was your advisor then?” Alteima said cautiously. She knew it was so, and it made the rumors of a break all the more difficult to believe. She had to know if it was true. “You have replaced her, now that she is Amyrlin?”

Morgase’s eyes snapped back into focus. “I have not!” The next instant her voice softened again. “My daughter, Elayne, is training in the Tower. She has already been raised to the Accepted.”

Alteima fluttered her fan, hoping sweat was not breaking out on her forehead. If Morgase did not know her own feelings toward the Tower, there was no way to speak safely. Her plans teetered on the edge of a precipice.

Then Morgase rescued them, and her. “You say your husband was of two minds about Rand al’Thor. And you?”

She nearly sighed with relief. Morgase might be behaving like an untutored farmgirl over this Gaebril, but she still had her sense when it came to power and possible dangers to her realm. “I observed him closely, of course, in the Stone.” That should plant the seed, if it needed planting. “He can channel, and a man who can channel is always to be feared. Yet he is the Dragon Reborn. There is no doubt. The Stone fell, and Callandor was in his hand when it did. The Prophecies . . . I fear I must leave decisions of what to do about the Dragon Reborn to those who are wiser than I. I only know that I am afraid to remain where he rules. Even a High Lady of Tear cannot match the courage of the Queen of Andor.”

The golden-haired woman gave her a shrewd look that made her afraid she had overdone the flattery. Some did not like it too open. But Morgase merely leaned back in her chair and sipped her wine. “Tell me about him, this man who is supposed to save us, and destroy us doing it.”

Success. Or at least, the beginnings of it. “He is a dangerous man beyond any question of the Power. A lion seems lazy, half-asleep, until suddenly he charges; then he is all speed and power. Rand al’Thor seems innocent, not lazy, and naive, not asleep, but when he charges . . . He has no proper respect for person or position at all. I did not exaggerate when I said he has hanged lords. He is a breeder of anarchy. In Tear under his new laws, even a High Lord or Lady can be called before a magistrate, to be fined or worse, on the charges of the meanest peasant or fisherman. He . . .”

She kept strictly to the truth as she saw it; she could tell the truth as quickly as a lie when it was necessary. Morgase sipped her wine and listened; Alteima might have thought her lounging indolently, except that her eyes showed she was taking in every word and storing it. “You must understand,” Alteima finished, “that I have only touched the surface. Rand al’Thor and what he has done in Tear are subjects for hours.”

“You will have them,” Morgase said, and in her mind Alteima smiled. Success. “Is it true,” the Queen went on, “that he brought Aiel with him to the Stone?”

“Oh, yes. Great savages with their faces hidden half the time, and even the women ready to kill as soon as look. They followed him like dogs, terrorizing everyone, and took whatever they wanted from the Stone.”

“I had thought it must be the wildest rumor,” Morgase reflected. “There have been rumors this past year, but they have not come out of the Waste in twenty years, not since the Aiel War. The world certainly does not need this Rand al’Thor bringing the Aiel down on us again.” Her look sharpened again. “You said ‘followed.’ They have gone?”

Alteima nodded. “Just before I left Tear. And he went with them.”

“With them!” Morgase exclaimed. “I feared he was in Cairhien right this—”

“You have a guest, Morgase? I should have been told, so I could greet her.”

A big man strode into the room, tall, his gold-embroidered red silk coat fitting massive shoulders and a deep chest. Alteima did not need to see the radiant look on Morgase’s face to name him as Lord Gaebril; the assurance with which he had interrupted the Queen did that. He lifted a finger, and the serving woman curtsied and left quickly; he did not ask Morgase’s permission to dismiss her servants from her presence, either. He was darkly handsome, incredibly so, with wings of white at his temples.

Composing her face to commonplace, Alteima put on a marginally welcoming smile, suitable for an elderly uncle with neither power, wealth nor influence. He might be gorgeous, but even if he did not belong to Morgase, he was not a man she would try manipulating unless she absolutely had to. There was perhaps even more of an air of power about him than about Morgase.

Gaebril stopped by Morgase and put his hand on her bare shoulder in a very familiar way. She clearly came close to resting her cheek on the back of his hand, but his eyes were on Alteima. She was used to men looking at her, but these eyes made her shift uneasily; they were far too penetrating, saw far too much.

“You come from Tear?” The sound of his deep voice sent a tingle through her; her skin, even her bones, felt as though she had been dipped in icy water, but oddly her momentary anxiety melted.

It was Morgase who answered; Alteima could not seem to find her tongue with him watching her. “This is the High Lady Alteima, Gaebril. She has been telling me all about the Dragon Reborn. She was in the Stone of Tear when it fell. Gaebril, there really were Aiel—” The pressure of his hand cut her off. Irritation flashed across her face, but then it was gone, replaced by a smile beaming up at him.

His eyes, still on Alteima, sent that shiver through her again, and this time she gasped aloud. “So much talking must have fatigued you, Morgase,” he said without shifting his gaze. “You do too much. Go to your bedchamber and sleep. Go now. I will wake you when you have rested enough.”

Morgase stood immediately, still smiling at him devotedly. Her eyes seemed slightly glazed. “Yes, I am tired. I will take a nap now, Gaebril.”

She glided from the room with never a glance at Alteima, but Alteima’s attention was all on Gaebril. Her heart beat faster; her breath quickened. He was surely the handsomest man she had ever seen. The grandest, the strongest, the most powerful. . . . Superlatives rolled through her mind like a flood.

Gaebril paid no more attention to Morgase’s leaving than she did. Taking the chair the Queen had vacated, he leaned back with his boots stretched out in front of him. “Tell me why you came to Caemlyn, Alteima.” Again the chill ran through her. “The absolute truth, but keep it brief. You can give me details later if I want them.”

She did not hesitate. “I tried to poison my husband and had to flee before Tedosian and that trull Estanda could kill me instead, or worse. Rand al’Thor meant to let them do it, as an example.” Telling made her cringe. Not because it was a truth she had kept hidden so much as because she found she wanted to please him more than anything else in the world, and she feared that he might send her away. But he wanted the truth. “I chose Caemlyn because I could not bear Illian and though Andor is little better, Cairhien is in near ruins. In Caemlyn, I can find a wealthy husband, or one who thinks he is my protector if need be, and use his power to—”

He stopped her with a wave of his hand, chuckling. “A vicious little cat, though pretty. Perhaps pretty enough to keep, with your teeth and claws drawn.” Suddenly his face became more intent. “Tell me what you know of Rand al’Thor, and especially his friends, if he has any, his companions, his allies.”

She told him, talking until her mouth and throat went dry, and her voice cracked and rasped. She never raised her goblet until he told her to drink; then she gulped the wine down and spoke on. She could please him. She could please him better than Morgase could think of.

The maids working in Morgase’s bedchamber dropped hasty curtsies, surprised to see her there in the middle of the morning. Waving them out of the room, she climbed onto her bed still in her dress. For a time she lay staring at the gilded carvings of the bedposts. No Lions of Andor here, but roses. For the Rose Crown of Andor, but roses suited her better than lions.

Stop being stubborn, she chided herself, then wondered why. She had told Gaebril she was tired, and . . . Or had he told her? Impossible. She was the Queen of Andor, and no man told her to do anything. Gareth. Now why had she thought of Gareth Bryne? He had certainly never told her to do anything; the Captain-General of the Queen’s Guards obeyed the Queen, not the other way around. But he had been stubborn, entirely capable of digging in his heels until she came around to his way. Why am I thinking of him? I wish he were here. That was ridiculous. She had sent him away for opposing her; about what no longer seemed quite clear, but that was not important. He had opposed her. She could remember the feelings she had had for him only dimly, as though he had been gone for years. Surely it had not been so long? Stop being stubborn!

Her eyes closed, and she fell immediately into sleep, a sleep troubled by restless dreams of running from something she could not see.

CHAPTER

2

Rhuidean

High in the city of Rhuidean, Rand al’Thor looked out from a tall window; whatever glass might have once been in it was long since gone. The shadows below slanted sharply east. A bard-harp played softly in the room behind him. Sweat evaporated from his face almost as soon as it appeared; his red silk coat, damp between the shoulders, hung open in a fruitless bid for air, and his shirt was unlaced half down his chest. Night in the Aiel Waste would bring freezing cold, but during daylight even a breeze was never cool.

With his hands above his head on the smooth stone window frame, his coatsleeves fell down to reveal the front part of the figure wrapped around each forearm: a golden-maned, serpentine creature with eyes like the sun, scaled in scarlet and gold, each foot tipped with five golden claws. Part of his skin, they were, not tattoos; they glittered like precious metals and polished gems, seemed almost alive in the late-afternoon sunlight.

Those marked him, to the people on this side of the mountain range variously called the Dragonwall or the Spine of the World, as He Who Comes With the Dawn. And like the herons branded into his palms, they marked him for those beyond the Dragonwall, too, according to the Prophecies, as the Dragon Reborn. In both cases prophesied to unite, save—and destroy.

They were names he would have avoided if he could, but that time was long past if it had ever existed, and he no longer thought of it. Or if he did, on rare occasion, it was with the faint regret of a man recalling a foolish dream of his boyhood. As if he were not close enough to boyhood to remember every minute. Instead, he tried to think only of what he had to do. Fate and duty held him on the path like a rider’s reins, but he had often been called stubborn. The end of the road must be reached, but if it could be attained by a different way, maybe it need not be the end. Small chance. No chance, almost certainly. The Prophecies demanded his blood.

Rhuidean stretched below him, seared by a sun still pitiless as it sank toward craggy mountains, bleak, with barely a sign of vegetation. This rugged, broken land, where men had killed or died over a pool of water they could step across, was the last place on earth anyone would think to find a great city. Its long-ago builders had never finished their work. Impossibly tall buildings dotted the city, stepped and slab-sided palaces that sometimes ended after eight or even ten stories, not with a roof but with the ragged masonry of another half-built floor. The towers soared higher yet, but stopped in jagged abruptness as often as not. Now a good quarter of the great structures, with their massive columns and immense windows of colored glass, lay strewn as rubble across wide avenues with broad strips of bare dirt down their centers, dirt that had never held the trees they were planned for. The marvelous fountains stood dry as they had for hundreds upon hundreds of years. All that futile
labor, the builders finally dying with their work undone; yet at times Rand thought that maybe the city had only been begun so he could find it.

Too proud, he thought. A man would have to be half-mad at least to be so proud. He could not help chuckling dryly. There had been Aes Sedai with the men and women who had come here so long ago, and they had known The Karaethon Cycle, the Prophecies of the Dragon. Or perhaps they had written the Prophecies. Too proud by tenfold.

Directly below him lay a vast plaza, half-covered in stretching shadow, littered with a jumble of statues and crystal chairs, oddities and peculiar shapes of metal or glass or stone, things he could put no name to, scattered about in tangled heaps as if deposited by a storm. Even the shadows were cool only by comparison. Rough-clothed men—not Aiel—sweated to load wagons with items chosen by a short, slender woman in pristine blue silk, straight-backed and gliding from place to place as though the heat did not press down on her as hard as on the others. Still, she wore a damp white cloth tied around her temples; she just did not let herself show the effects of the sun. Rand would have wagered she did not even perspire.

The workmen’s leader was a dark, bulky man named Hadnan Kadere, a supposed merchant dressed all in cream-colored silk that was sweat-sodden today. He mopped his face continually with a large handkerchief, shouting curses at the men—his wagon drivers and guards—but he leaped as quickly as they to haul at whatever the slim woman pointed out, big or small. Aes Sedai had no need of size to impose their will, but Rand thought Moiraine would have done as well if she had never been near the White Tower.

Two of the men were trying to move what appeared to be an oddly twisted redstone doorframe; the corners did not meet properly, and the eye did not want to follow the straight pieces. It stayed upright, turning freely but refusing to tip over however they manhandled it. Then one slipped and fell through the doorway up to his waist. Rand tensed. For a moment, the fellow seemed not to exist above the waist; his legs kicked wildly in panic. Until Lan, a tall man in drab shades of green, strode over and hauled him out again by his belt. Lan was Moiraine’s Warder, bonded to her in some way Rand did not understand, and a hard man who moved like the Aiel, like a hunting wolf; the sword at his hip did not seem part of him, it was part of him. He dropped the workman on the paving stones on the seat of his breeches and left him there; the fellow’s terrified cries rose thinly to Rand, and his companion looked ready to run. Several of Kadere’s men who had been close enough to see were looki
ng at one another and at the mountains around the city, plainly assessing their chances.

Moiraine appeared among them so quickly it seemed by the Power, moving smoothly from man to man. Her manner made Rand almost hear the cool, imperious instructions coming from her lips, so full of certainty that they would be obeyed that not obeying would seem foolish. In short order she overrode resistance, stamped firmly on objections, chivvied them every one back to work. The pair with the doorframe were soon dragging and shoving as hard as ever, if with frequent looks at Moiraine when they thought she would not see. In her own way, she was even harder than Lan.

As far as Rand knew, all of those things down there were angreal or sa’angreal or ter’angreal, made before the Breaking of the World to magnify the One Power or use it in various ways. Made with the Power certainly, though not even Aes Sedai knew how to construct such things now. He more than suspected the use of the twisted doorframe—a doorway to another world—but for the rest, he had no idea. No one did. That was why Moiraine worked so hard, to have as many as she could carted to the Tower for study. It was possible that even the Tower did not contain as many objects of the Power as lay about this square, though supposedly the Tower held the largest collection in the world. Even there, the Tower only knew the uses of some.

What was in the wagons or tossed about on the pavement did not interest Rand; he had already taken what he needed from down there. Had already taken more than he wanted, in some ways.

In the center of the plaza, near the burned remains of a great tree a hundred feet high, stood a small forest of tall glass columns, each nearly as tall as the tree and so slender it seemed the first stormwind must bring them all crashing down. Even with an edge of shadow touching them, the columns caught and refracted the sunlight in glitters and sparkles. For countless years Aielmen had entered that array and returned marked as Rand was, but on only one arm, marked as clan chiefs. They came out marked or did not come out. Aielwomen had come to this city as well, on the path toward becoming Wise Ones. No one else, not and live. A man may go to Rhuidean once, a woman twice; more means death. That was what the Wise Ones had said, and it had been truth, then. Now anyone could enter Rhuidean.

Hundreds of Aiel walked the streets, and increasing numbers actually dwelled in the buildings; each day more of the dirt strips down the streets showed beans or squash or zemai, arduously watered from clay pots hauled from the huge new lake that filled the south end of the valley, the only such body of water in the entire land. Thousands made their camps in the surrounding mountains, even on Chaendaer itself, where before they had come only with ceremony, to send a single man or woman at a time into Rhuidean.

Wherever he went, Rand brought change and destruction. This time, he hoped against hope that the change was for the good. It might yet be so. The burned tree mocked him. Avendesora, the legendary Tree of Life; the stories never said where it was, and it had been a surprise to find it here. Moiraine said it still lived, that it would put out shoots again, but so far he saw only blackened bark and bare branches.

With a sigh, he turned from the window into a big room, though not the biggest in Rhuidean, with tall windows on two sides, its domed ceiling worked in a fanciful mosaic of winged people and animals. Most of the furniture left in the city had long since rotted away even in the dryness, and much of the little that remained was riddled with beetles and worms. But on the far side of the room stood one high-backed chair, solid, and its gilding largely intact, but mismatched with its table, a wide thing with legs and edges thickly carved in flowers. Someone had polished the wood with beeswax till it shone dully despite its age. The Aiel had found them for him, though they shook their heads at such things; there were few trees in the Waste that could have produced wood straight and long enough to make that chair, and none to make the table.

That was all the furniture, as he thought of it. A fine silk Illianer carpet in blue and gold, booty in some long-ago battle, covered the middle of the dark red floor tiles. Cushions lay scattered about, in bright silks, and tasseled. Those were what Aiel used instead of chairs, when they did not merely sit on their heels, as comfortable as he would be in a padded chair.

Six men reclined against cushions on the carpet. Six clan chiefs, representing the clans that had so far come to follow Rand. Or rather, to follow He Who Comes With the Dawn. Not always eagerly. He thought Rhuarc, a broad-shouldered, blue-eyed man with heavy streaks of gray in his dark red hair, might have some friendship for him, but not the rest. Only six of the twelve.

Ignoring the chair, Rand sat down cross-legged, facing the Aiel. Outside of Rhuidean, the only chairs in the Waste were chief’s chairs, used only by the chief and only for three reasons: to be acclaimed as clan chief, to accept the submission of an enemy with honor, or to pass judgment. Taking the chair with these men now would imply that he meant to do one of those.

They wore the cadin’sor, coats and breeches in shades of brown and gray that would fade into the ground, and soft boots that laced to the knee. Even here, meeting with the man they had proclaimed the Car’a’carn, the chief of chiefs, each had a heavy-bladed knife at his belt and the gray-brown shoufa draped like a wide scarf around his neck; if any man covered his face with the black veil that was part of the shoufa, he would be ready to kill. It was not beyond possibility. These men had fought one another in a never-ending cycle of clan raids and battles and feuds. They watched him, waited for him, but an Aiel’s waiting always spoke of a readiness to move, suddenly and violently.

Bael, the tallest man Rand had ever seen, and Jheran, blade-slender and whip-quick, lay as far from one another as they could manage and still be on the carpet. There was blood feud between Bael’s Goshien and Jheran’s Shaarad, suppressed for He Who Comes With the Dawn but not forgotten. And perhaps the Peace of Rhuidean still held, despite all that had happened. Still, the tranquil sounds of the harp made a sharp contrast with the hard refusal of Bael and Jheran to look at one another. Six sets of eyes, blue or green or gray, in sun-dark faces; Aiel could make hawks look tame.

“What must I do to bring the Reyn to me?” he said. “You were sure they would come, Rhuarc.”

The chief of the Taardad looked at him calmly; his face could have been carved stone for all its expression. “Wait. Only that. Dhearic will bring them. Eventually.”

White-haired Han, lying next to Rhuarc, twisted his mouth as if about to spit. His leathery face wore a sour look, as usual. “Dhearic has seen too many men and Maidens sit staring for days, then throw down their spears. Throw them down!”

“And run away,” Bael added quietly. “I have seen them myself, among the Goshien, even from my own sept, running. And you, Han, among the Tomanelle. We all have. I do not think they know where they are running to, only what they are running from.”

“Cowardly snakes,” Jheran barked. Gray streaked his light brown hair; there were no young men among Aiel clan chiefs. “Stinkadders, wriggling away from their own shadows.” A slight shift of his blue eyes toward the far side of the carpet made it clear he meant it for a description of the Goshien, not just those who had thrown down their spears.

Bael made as if to rise, his face hardening further, if that was possible, but the man next to him put a quieting hand on his arm. Bruan, of the Nakai, was big enough and strong enough for two blacksmiths, but he had a placid nature that seemed odd for an Aiel. “All of us have seen men and Maidens run.” He sounded almost lazy, and his gray eyes looked so, yet Rand knew otherwise; even Rhuarc considered Bruan a deadly fighter and a devious tactician. Luckily, not even Rhuarc was stronger for Rand than Bruan. But he had come to follow He Who Comes With the Dawn; he did not know Rand al’Thor. “As you have, Jheran. You know how hard it was to face what they face. If you cannot name coward those who died because they could not face it, can you name coward those who run for the same reason?”

“They should never have learned,” Han muttered, kneading his red-tasseled blue cushion like an enemy’s throat. “It was for those who could enter Rhuidean and live.”

He spoke the words to no one in particular, but they had to be for Rand’s ears. It was Rand who had revealed to everyone what a man learned amid the glass columns in the plaza, revealed enough that the chiefs and Wise Ones could not turn aside when asked the rest. If there was an Aiel in the Waste who did not know the truth now, he had not spoken to anyone in a month.

Far from the glorious heritage of battle most believed in, the Aiel had begun as helpless refugees from the Breaking of the World. Everyone who survived had been refugees then, of course, but the Aiel had never seen themselves as helpless. Worse, they had been followers of the Way of the Leaf, refusing to do violence even in defense of their lives. Aiel meant “dedicated” in the Old Tongue, and it had been to peace that they were dedicated. Those who called themselves Aiel today were the descendants of those who had broken a pledge of untold generations. Only one remnant of that belief remained: an Aiel would die before taking up a sword. They had always believed it a part of their pride, of their separateness from those who lived outside the Waste.

He had heard Aiel say that they had committed some sin to be placed in the desolate Waste. Now they knew what it was. The men and women who had built Rhuidean and died here—those called the Jenn Aiel, the Clan That Was Not, on the few occasions they were spoken of—had been the ones who kept faith with the Aes Sedai of the time before the Breaking. It was hard to face the knowledge that what you had always believed was a lie.

“It had to be told,” Rand said. They had a right to know. A man shouldn’t have to live a lie. Their own prophecy said I would break them. And I couldn’t have done differently. The past was past and done; he should be worrying about the future. Some of these men dislike me, and some hate me for not being born among them, but they follow. I need them all. “What of the Miagoma?”

Erim, lying between Rhuarc and Han, shook his head. His once bright red hair was half white, but his green eyes were as strong as any younger man’s. His big hands, wide and long and hard, said his arms were as strong, too. “Timolan does not let his feet know which way he will jump until after he has leaped.”

“When Timolan was young as a chief,” Jheran said, “he tried to unite the clans and failed. It will not sit well with him that at last one has come to succeed where he failed.”

“He will come,” Rhuarc said. “Timolan never believed himself He Who Comes With the Dawn. And Janwin will bring the Shiande. But they will wait. They must settle matters in their own minds first.”

“They must settle He Who Comes With the Dawn being a wetlander,” Han barked. “I mean no offense, Car’a’carn.” There was no obsequiousness in his voice; a chief was not a king, and neither was the chief of chiefs. At best he was first among equals.

“The Daryne and the Codarra will come eventually, as well, I think,” Bruan said calmly. And quickly, lest silence should grow to a reason for dancing the spears. First among equals at best. “They have lost more than any other clan to the bleakness.” That was what the Aiel had taken to calling the long period of staring before someone tried to run away from being Aiel. “For the moment, Mandelain and Indirian are concerned with holding their clans together, and both will want to see the Dragons on your arms for themselves, but they will come.”

That left only one clan to be discussed, the one none of the chiefs wanted to mention. “What news of Couladin and the Shaido?” Rand asked.

Silence answered him, broken only by the softly serene sounds of the harp in the background, each man waiting for another to speak, all coming as close as Aiel could to showing discomfort. Jheran frowned at his thumbnail, and Bruan toyed with one of the silvery tassels on his green cushion. Even Rhuarc studied the carpet.

Graceful, white-robed men and women moved into the hush, pouring worked silver goblets of wine to set beside each man, bringing small silver plates with olives, rare in the Waste, and white ewe’s-milk cheese, and the pale, wrinkled nuts the Aiel called pecara. The Aiel faces looking out of those pale cowls had downcast eyes and an unfamiliar meekness on their features.

Whether captured in battle or on a raid, the gai’shain were sworn to serve obediently for one year and a day, touching no weapon, doing no violence, at the end returning to their own clan and sept as if nothing had happened. A strange echo of the Way of the Leaf. Ji’e’toh, honor and obligation, required it, and breaking ji’e’toh was nearly the worst thing an Aiel could do. Perhaps the worst. It was possible that some of these men and women were serving their own clan chief, but neither would acknowledge it by the blink of an eye so long as the period of gai’shain held, not even for a son or daughter.

It struck Rand suddenly that this was the real reason that some Aiel took what he had revealed so hard. To those, it must seem that their ancestors had sworn gai’shain, not only for themselves but for all succeeding generations. And those generations—all, down to the present day—had broken ji’e’toh by taking up the spear. Had the men in front of him ever worried along those lines? Ji’e’toh was very serious business to an Aiel.

The gai’shain departed on soft slippered feet, barely making a sound. None of the clan chiefs touched their wine, or the food.

“Is there any hope that Couladin will meet with me?” Rand knew there was not; he had stopped sending requests for a meeting once he learned Couladin was having the messengers skinned alive. But it was a way to start the others talking.

Han snorted. “The only word we have had from him is that he means to flay you when next he sees you. Does that sound as if he will talk?”

“Can I break the Shaido away from him?”

“They follow him,” Rhuarc said. “He is not a chief at all, but they believe he is.” Couladin had never entered those glass columns; he might even still believe as he claimed, that everything Rand had said was a lie. “He says that he is the Car’a’carn, and they believe that as well. The Shaido Maidens who came, came for their society, and that because Far Dareis Mai carried your honor. None else will.”

“We send scouts to watch them,” Bruan said, “and the Shaido kill them when they can—Couladin builds the makings of half a dozen feuds—but so far he shows no signs of attacking us here. I have heard that he claims we have defiled Rhuidean, and that attacking us here would only deepen the desecration.”

Erim grunted and shifted on his cushion. “He means there are enough spears here to kill every Shaido twice over and to spare.” He popped a piece of white cheese into his mouth, growling around it. “The Shaido were ever cowards and thieves.”

“Honorless dogs,” Bael and Jheran said together, then stared at one another as though each thought the other had tricked him into something.

“Honorless or not,” Bruan said quietly, “Couladin’s numbers are growing.” Calm as he sounded, he still took a deep drink from his goblet before going on. “You all know what I am speaking of. Some of those who run, after the bleakness, do not throw away their spears. Instead they join with their societies among the Shaido.”

“No Tomanelle has ever broken clan,” Han barked.

Bruan looked past Rhuarc and Erim at the Tomanelle chief and said deliberately, “It has happened in every clan.” Without waiting for another challenge to his word, he settled back on his cushion. “It cannot be called breaking clan. They join their societies. Like the Shaido Maidens who have come to their Roof here.”

There were a few mutters, but no one disputed him this time. The rules governing Aiel warrior societies were complex, and in some ways their members felt as closely bound to society as to clan. For instance, members of the same society would not fight each other even if their clans were in blood feud. Some men would not marry a woman too closely related to a member of their own society, just as if that made her their own close blood kin. The ways of Far Dareis Mai, the Maidens of the Spear, Rand did not even want to think about.

“I need to know what Couladin intends,” he told them. Couladin was a bull with a bee in his ear; he might charge in any direction. Rand hesitated. “Would it violate honor to send people to join their societies among the Shaido?” He did not need to describe what he meant any further. To a man, they stiffened where they lay, even Rhuarc, eyes cold enough to banish the heat from the room.

“To spy in that manner”—Erim twisted his mouth around “spy” as if the word tasted foul—“would be like spying on your own sept. No one of honor would do such a thing.”

Rand refrained from asking whether they might find someone with a slightly less prickly honor. The Aiel sense of humor was a strange thing, often cruel, but about some matters they had none at all.

To change the subject, he asked, “Is there any word from across the Dragonwall?” He knew the answer; that sort of news spread quickly even among as many Aiel as were gathered around Rhuidean.

“None worth the telling,” Rhuarc replied. “With the troubles among the treekillers, few peddlers come into the Three-fold Land.” That was the Aiel name for the Waste; a punishment for their sin, a testing ground for their courage, an anvil to shape them. “Treekillers” was what they called Cairhienin. “The Dragon banner still flies over the Stone of Tear. Tairens have moved north into Cairhien as you ordered, to distribute food among the treekillers. Nothing more.”

“You should have let the treekillers starve,” Bael muttered, and Jheran closed his mouth with a snap. Rand suspected he had been about to say much the same.

“Treekillers are fit for nothing except to be killed or sold as animals in Shara,” Erim said grimly. Those were two of the things Aiel did to those who came into the Waste uninvited; only gleeman, peddlers, and Tinkers had safe passage, though Aiel avoided the Tinkers as if they carried fever. Shara was the name of the lands beyond the Waste; not even the Aiel knew much about them.

From the corner of his eye, Rand saw two women standing expectantly just inside the tall, arched doorway. Someone had hung strings of colored beads there, red and blue, to replace the missing doors. One of the women was Moiraine. For a moment he considered making them wait; Moiraine had that irritatingly commanding look on her face, clearly expecting them to break off everything for her. Only, there was really nothing left to discuss, and he could tell from the men’s eyes that they did not want to make conversation. Not so soon after speaking of the bleakness, and the Shaido.

Sighing, he stood, and the clan chiefs imitated him. All except Han were as tall as he or taller. Where Rand had grown up, Han would have been considered of average height or better; among Aiel, he was accounted short. “You know what must be done. Bring in the rest of the clans, and keep an eye on the Shaido.” He paused a moment, then added, “It will end well. As well for the Aiel as I can manage.”

“The prophecy said you would break us,” Han said sourly, “and you have made a good beginning. But we will follow you. Till shade is gone,” he recited, “till water is gone, into the Shadow with teeth bared, screaming defiance with the last breath, to spit in Sightblinder’s eye on the Last Day.” Sightblinder was one of the Aiel names for the Dark One.

There was nothing for Rand except to make the proper response. Once he had not known it. “By my honor and the Light, my life will be a dagger for Sightblinder’s heart.”

“Until the Last Day,” the Aiel finished, “to Shayol Ghul itself.” The harper played on pacifically.

The chiefs filed out past the two women, eyeing Moiraine respectfully. There was nothing of fear in them. Rand wished he could be as sure of himself. Moiraine had too many plans for him, too many ways of pulling strings he did not know she had tied to him.

The two women came in as soon as the chiefs were gone, Moiraine as cool and elegant as ever. A small, pretty woman, with or without those Aes Sedai features he could never put an age to, she had abandoned the damp, cooling cloth for her temples. In its place, a small blue stone hung suspended on her forehead from a fine golden chain in her dark hair. It would not have mattered if she had kept it; nothing could diminish her queenly carriage. She usually seemed to own a foot more height than she actually had, and her eyes were all confidence and command.

The other woman was taller, though still short of his shoulder, and young, not ageless. Egwene, whom he had grown up with. Now, except for her big dark eyes, she could almost have passed as an Aiel woman, and not only for her tanned face and hands. She wore a full Aiel skirt of brown wool and a loose white blouse of a plant fiber called algode. Algode was softer than even the finest-woven wool; it would do very well for trade, if he ever convinced the Aiel. A gray shawl hung around Egwene’s shoulders, and a folded gray scarf made a wide band to hold back the dark hair that fell below her shoulders. Unlike most Aielwomen, she wore only one bracelet, ivory carved into a circle of flames, and a single necklace of gold and ivory beads. And one more thing. A Great Serpent ring on her left hand.

Egwene had been studying with some of the Aiel Wise Ones—exactly what, Rand did not know, though he more than suspected something to do with dreams; Egwene and the Aielwomen were closemouthed—but she had studied in the White Tower, too. She was one of the Accepted, on the way to becoming Aes Sedai. And passing herself off, here and in Tear at least, as full Aes Sedai already. Sometimes he teased her about that; she did not take his japes very well, though.

“The wagons will be ready to leave for Tar Valon soon,” Moiraine said. Her voice was musical, crystalline.

“Send a strong guard,” Rand said, “or Kadere may not take them where you want.” He turned for the windows again, wanting to look out and think, about Kadere. “You’ve not needed me to hold your hand or give you permission before.”

Abruptly something seemed to strike him across the shoulders, for all the world like a thick hickory stick; only the slight feel of goose bumps on his skin, not likely in this heat, told him that one of the women had channeled.

Spinning back to face them, he reached out to saidin, filled himself with the One Power. The Power felt like life itself swelling inside him, as if he were ten times, a hundred times as alive; the Dark One’s taint filled him, too, death and corruption, like maggots crawling in his mouth. It was a torrent that threatened to sweep him away, a raging flood he had to fight every moment. He was almost used to it now, and at the same time he would never be used to it. He wanted to hold on to the sweetness of saidin forever, and he wanted to vomit. And all the while the deluge tried to scour him to the bone and burn his bones to ash.

The taint would drive him mad eventually, if the Power did not kill him first; it was a race between the two. Madness had been the fate of every man who had channeled since the Breaking of the World began, since that day when Lews Therin Telamon, the Dragon, and his Hundred Companions had sealed up the Dark One’s prison at Shayol Ghul. The last backblast from that sealing had tainted the male half of the True Source, and men who could channel, madmen who could channel, had torn the world apart.

He filled himself with the Power. . . . And he could not tell which woman had done it. They both looked at him as if butter would not melt in their mouths, each with an eyebrow arched almost identically in slightly amused questioning. Either or both could be embracing the female half of the Source right that instant, and he would never know.

Of course, a stick across the shoulders was not Moiraine’s way; she found other means of chastising, more subtle, usually more painful in the end. Yet even sure that it must have been Egwene, he did nothing. Proof. Thought slid along the outside of the Void; he floated within, in emptiness, thought and emotion, even his anger, distant. I will do nothing without proof. I will not be goaded, this time. She was not the Egwene he had grown up with; she had become part of the Tower since Moiraine sent her there. Moiraine again. Always Moiraine. Sometimes he wished he were rid of Moiraine. Only sometimes?

He concentrated on her. “What do you want of me?” His voice sounded flat and cold to his own ears. The Power stormed inside him. Egwene had told him that for a woman, touching saidar, the female half of the Source, was an embrace; for a man, always, it was a war without mercy. “And don’t mention wagons again, little sister. I usually find out what you mean to do long after it is done.”

The Aes Sedai frowned at him, and no wonder. She was surely not used to being addressed so, not by any man, even the Dragon Reborn. He had no idea himself where “little sister” had come from; sometimes of late words seemed to pop into his head. A touch of madness, perhaps. Some nights he lay awake till the small hours, worrying about that. Inside the Void, it seemed someone else’s worry.

“We should speak alone.” She gave the harper a cool glance.

Jasin Natael, as he called himself here, lay half-sprawled on cushions against one of the windowless walls, softly playing the harp perched on his knee, its upper arm carved and gilded to resemble the creatures on Rand’s forearms. Dragons, the Aiel called them. Rand had only suspicions where Natael had gotten the thing. He was a dark-haired man, who would have been accounted taller than most elsewhere than the Aiel Waste, in his middle years. His coat and breeches were dark blue silk suitable for a royal court, elaborately embroidered with thread-of-gold on collar and cuffs, everything buttoned up or laced despite the heat. The fine clothes were at odds with his gleeman’s cloak spread out beside him. A perfectly sound cloak, but covered completely with hundreds of patches in nearly as many colors, all sewn so as to flutter at the slightest breeze, it signified a country entertainer, a juggler and tumbler, musician and storyteller who wandered from village to village. Certainly no
t a man to wear silk. The man had his conceits. He appeared completely immersed in his music.

“You can say what you wish in front of Natael,” Rand said. “He is gleeman to the Dragon Reborn, after all.” If keeping the matter secret was important enough, she would press it, and he would send Natael away, though he did not like the man to be out of his sight.

Egwene sniffed loudly and shifted her shawl on her shoulders. “Your head is swelled up like an overripe melon, Rand al’Thor.” She said it flatly, as a statement of fact.

Anger bubbled outside the Void. Not at what she had said; she had been in the habit of trying to take him down a rung even when they were children, usually whether he deserved it or not. But of late it seemed to him she had taken to working with Moiraine, trying to put him off balance so the Aes Sedai could push him where she wanted. When they were younger, before they learned what he was, he and Egwene had thought they would marry one day. And now she sided with Moiraine against him.

Face hard, he spoke more roughly than he intended. “Tell me what you want, Moiraine. Tell me here and now, or let it wait until I can find time for you. I’m very busy.” That was an outright lie. Most of his time was spent practicing the sword with Lan, or the spears with Rhuarc, or learning to fight with hands and feet from both. But if there was any bullying to be done here today, he would do it. Natael could hear anything. Almost anything. So long as Rand knew where he was at all times.

Moiraine and Egwene both frowned, but the real Aes Sedai at least seemed to see he would not be budged this time. She glanced at Natael, her mouth tightening—the man still seemed deep in his music—then took a thick wad of gray silk from her pouch.

Unfolding it, she laid what it had contained on the table, a disc the size of a man’s hand, half dead black, half purest white, the two colors meeting in a sinuous line to form two joined teardrops. That had been the symbol of Aes Sedai, before the Breaking, but this disc was more. Only seven like it had ever been made, the seals on the Dark One’s prison. Or rather, each was a focus for one of those seals. Drawing her belt knife, its hilt wrapped in silver wire, Moiraine scraped delicately at the edge of the disc. And a tiny flake of solid black fell away.

Even encased in the Void, Rand gasped. The emptiness itself quivered, and for an instant the Power threatened to overwhelm him. “Is this a copy? A fake?”

“I found this in the square below,” Moiraine said. “It is real, though. The one I brought with me from Tear is the same.” She could have been saying she wanted pea soup for the midday meal. Egwene, on the other hand, clutched her shawl around her as if cold.

Rand felt the stirrings of fright himself, oozing across the surface of the Void. It was an effort to let go of saidin, but he forced himself. If he lost concentration, the Power could destroy him where he stood, and he wanted all his attention on the matter at hand. Even so, even with the taint, it was a loss.

That flake lying on the table was impossible. Those discs were made of cuendillar, heartstone, and nothing made of cuendillar could be broken, not even by the One Power. Whatever force was used against it only made it stronger. The making of heartstone had been lost in the Breaking of the World, but whatever had been made of it during the Age of Legends still existed, even the most fragile vase, even if the Breaking had sunk it to the bottom of the ocean or buried it beneath a mountain. Of course, three of the seven discs were broken already, but it had taken a good deal more than a knife.

Come to think of it, though, he did not know how those three really had been broken. If no force short of the Creator could break heartstone, then that should be that.

“How?” he asked, surprised that his voice was still as steady as when the Void had surrounded him.

“I do not know,” Moiraine replied, just as calm outwardly. “But you do see the problem? A fall from the table could break this. If the others, wherever they may be, are like this, four men with hammers could break open that hole in the Dark One’s prison again. Who can even say how effective one is, in this condition?”

Rand saw. I’m not ready yet. He was not sure he ever would be ready, but he surely was not yet. Egwene looked as though she were staring into her own open grave.

Rewrapping the disc, Moiraine replaced it in her pouch. “Perhaps I will think of a possibility before I carry this to Tar Valon. If we know why, perhaps something can be done about it.”

He was caught by the image of the Dark One reaching out from Shayol Ghul once more, eventually breaking free completely; fires and darkness covered the world in his mind, flames that consumed and gave no light, blackness solid as stone squeezing the air. With that filling his head, what Moiraine had just said took a moment to penetrate. “You intend to go yourself?” He had thought she meant to stick to him like moss to a rock. Isn’t this what you want?

“Eventually,” Moiraine replied quietly. “Eventually I will—have to leave you, after all. What will be, must be.” Rand thought she shivered, but it was so quick it could have been his imagination, and the next instant she was all composure and self-control once more. “You must be ready.” The reminder of his doubts came unpleasantly. “We should discuss your plans. You cannot sit here much longer. Even if the Forsaken are not planning to come after you, they are out there, spreading their power. Gathering the Aiel will do no good if you find that everything beyond the Spine of the World is in their hands.”

Chuckling, Rand leaned back against the table. So this was just another ploy; if he was anxious about her leaving, perhaps he would be more willing to listen, more amenable to being guided. She could not lie, of course, not right out. One of the vaunted Three Oaths took care of that: to speak no word that was not true. He had learned that it left a barn-width of wriggle room. She would leave him alone eventually. After he was dead, no doubt.

“You want to discuss my plans,” he said dryly. Pulling a short-stemmed pipe and a leather tabac pouch from his coat pocket, he thumbed the bowl full and briefly touched saidin to channel a flame dancing above the tabac. “Why? They are my plans.” Puffing slowly, he waited, ignoring Egwene’s glower.

The Aes Sedai’s face never changed, but her large, dark eyes seemed to blaze. “What have you done when you refused to be guided by me?” Her voice was as cool as her features, yet the words still seemed to come like whip-cracks. “Wherever you have gone, you have left death, destruction and war behind you.”

“Not in Tear,” he said, too quickly. And too defensively. He must not let her put him off balance. Determinedly, he took spaced, deliberate puffs at his pipe.

“No,” she agreed, “not in Tear. For once you had a nation behind you, a people, and what did you do with it? Bringing justice to Tear was commendable. Establishing order in Cairhien, feeding the hungry, is laudable. Another time I would praise you for it.” She herself was Cairhienin. “But it does not help you toward the day you face Tarmon Gai’don.” A single-minded woman, and cold when it came to anything else, even her own land. But should he not be just as single-minded?

“What would you have me do? Hunt down the Forsaken one by one?” Again he forced himself to draw more slowly on the pipe; it was an effort. “Do you even know where they are? Oh, Sammael is in Illian—you know that—but the rest? What if I go after Sammael as you wish, and find two or three or four of them? Or all nine?”

“You could have faced three or four, perhaps all nine surviving,” she said icily, “had you not left Callandor in Tear. The truth is, you are running. You do not really have a plan, not a plan to ready you for the Last Battle. You run from place to place, hoping that in some way everything will come out for the best. Hoping, because you do not know what else to do. If you would take my advice, at least you—” He cut her off, gesturing sharply with his pipe, with never a care for the glares the two women gave him.

“I do have a plan.” If they wanted to know, let them know, and he would be burned if he changed a word. “First, I mean to put an end to the wars and killing, whether I started them or not. If men have to kill, let them kill Trollocs, not each other. In the Aiel War, four clans crossed the Dragonwall, and had their way for better than two years. They looted and burned Cairhien, defeated every army sent against them. They could have taken Tar Valon, had they wanted. The Tower couldn’t have stopped them, because of your Three Oaths.” Not to use the Power as a weapon except against Shadowspawn or Darkfriends, or in defense of their own lives, that was another of the Oaths, and the Aiel had not threatened the Tower itself. Anger had him in its grip now. Running and hoping, was he? “Four clans did that. What will happen when I lead eleven across the Spine of the World?” It would have to be eleven; small hope of bringing in the Shaido. “By the time the nations even think of
uniting, it will be too late. They’ll accept my peace, or I’ll be buried in the Can Breat.” A discordant plunk rose from the harp, and Natael bent over the instrument, shaking his head. In a moment the soothing sounds came again.

“A melon couldn’t be swollen enough for your head,” Egwene muttered, folding her arms beneath her breasts. “And a stone couldn’t be as stubborn! Moiraine is only trying to help you. Why won’t you see that?”

The Aes Sedai smoothed her silk skirts, though they did not need it. “Taking the Aiel across the Dragonwall might be the worst thing you could possibly do.” There was an edge to her voice, anger or frustration. At least he was getting across to her that he was no puppet. “By this time, the Amyrlin Seat will be approaching the rulers of every nation that still has a ruler, laying the proofs before them that you are the Dragon Reborn. They know the Prophecies; they know what you were born to do. Once they are convinced of who and what you are, they will accept you because they must. The Last Battle is coming, and you are their only hope, humankind’s only hope.”

Rand laughed out loud. It was a bitter laugh. Sticking his pipe between his teeth, he hoisted himself to sit cross-legged atop the table, staring at them. “So you and Siuan Sanche still think you know everything there is to know.” The Light willing, they did not know near everything about him, and would never find out. “You’re both fools.”

“Show some respect!” Egwene growled, but Rand went on over her words.

“The Tairen High Lords know the Prophecies, too, and they knew me, once they saw the Sword That Cannot Be Touched clutched in my fist. Half of them expect me to bring them power or glory or both. The other half would as soon slip a knife in my back and try to forget the Dragon Reborn was ever in Tear. That is how the nations will greet the Dragon Reborn. Unless I quell them first, the same way I did the Tairens. Do you know why I left Callandor in Tear? To remind them of me. Every day they know it is there, driven into the Heart of the Stone, and they know I’ll come back for it. That is what holds them to me.” That was one reason he had left the Sword That Is Not a Sword behind. He did not like even to think of the other.

“Be very careful,” Moiraine said after a moment. Just that, in a voice all frozen calm. He heard stark warning in the words. Once he had heard her say in much the same tone that she would see him dead before letting the Shadow have him. A hard woman.

For a long moment she gazed at him, her eyes dark pools that threatened to swallow him. Then she made a perfect curtsy. “By your leave, my Lord Dragon, I will see to letting Master Kadere know where I expect him to work tomorrow.”

No one could have seen or heard the faintest mockery in action or words, but Rand felt it. Anything that might put him off balance, make him more biddable by guilt or shame or uncertainty or whatever, she would try. He stared after her until the clicking beads in the doorway obscured her.

“There is no need you scowling like that, Rand al’Thor.” Egwene’s voice was low, her eyes irate; she held on to her shawl as if she wanted to strangle him with it. “Lord Dragon, indeed! Whatever you are, you’re a rude, ill-mannered lout. You deserve more than you got. It would not kill you to be civil!”

“So it was you,” he snapped, but to his surprise she half-shook her head before catching herself. It had been Moiraine after all. If the Aes Sedai was showing that much temper, something must be wearing at her terribly. Him, no doubt. Perhaps he should apologize. I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to be civil. Though he could not see why he was supposed to be mannerly to the Aes Sedai while she tried to lead him on a leash.

But if he was thinking of trying to be polite, Egwene was not. If glowing coals were dark brown, they would have been exactly like her eyes. “You are a wool-headed fool, Rand al’Thor, and I should never have told Elayne you were good enough for her. You aren’t good enough for a weasel! Bring your nose down. I remember you sweating, trying to talk your way out of some trouble Mat had gotten you into. I can remember Nynaeve switching you till you howled, and you needing a cushion to sit on the rest of the day. Not that many years gone, either. I ought to tell Elayne to forget you. If she knew half what you’ve turned into . . .”

He gaped at her as the tirade went on, with her more furious than at any time since first coming through the bead curtain. Then it hit him. That little near shake of her head that she had not meant to give, letting him know it had been Moiraine who struck him with the Power. Egwene worked very hard at doing what she was about in proper fashion. Studying with the Wise Ones, she wore Aiel clothes; she might even be trying to adopt Aiel customs, for all he knew. It would be like her. But she worked hard at being a proper Aes Sedai all the time, even if she was only one of the Accepted. Aes Sedai usually kept a rein on their tempers, but they never ever gave anything away that they wanted to hide.

Ilyena never flashed her temper at me when she was angry with herself. When she gave me the rough side of her tongue, it was because she . . . His mind froze for an instant. He had never met a woman named Ilyena in his life. But he could summon up a face for the name, dimly; a pretty face, skin like cream, golden hair exactly the shade of Elayne’s. This had to be the madness. Remembering an imaginary woman. Perhaps one day he would find himself having conversations with people who were not there.

Egwene’s harangue shut off with a concerned look. “Are you all right, Rand?” The anger was gone from her voice as if it had never been. “Is something wrong? Should I fetch Moiraine back to—”

“No!” he said, and just as quickly softened his own tone. “She can’t Heal. . . .” Even an Aes Sedai could not Heal madness; none of them could Heal any of what ailed him. “Is Elayne well?”

“She is well.” Despite what Egwene had said, there was a hint of sympathy in her voice. That was all he really expected. Beyond what he had known when Elayne left Tear, what she was up to was an Aes Sedai concern and none of his; so Egwene had told him more than once, and Moiraine echoed her. The three Wise Ones who could dreamwalk, those Egwene was studying with, had been even less informative; they had their own reasons not to be pleased with him.

“I had best go, too,” Egwene went on, settling her shawl over her arms. “You are tired.” Frowning slightly, she said, “Rand, what does it mean to be buried in the Can Breat?”

He started to ask what under the Light she was talking about. Then he remembered using that phrase. “Just something I heard once,” he lied. He had no more idea what it meant than where it had come from.

“You rest, Rand,” she said, sounding twenty years older rather than two younger. “Promise me you will. You need it.” He nodded. She studied his face for a moment as though searching for the truth, then started for the door.

Rand’s silver goblet of wine floated up from the carpet and drifted to him. He hastily snatched it out of the air just before Egwene looked back over her shoulder.

“Perhaps I shouldn’t tell you this,” she said. “Elayne didn’t give it to me as a message for you, but . . . She said she loves you. Perhaps you know already, but if you don’t, you should think about it.” With that she was gone, the beads clicking together behind her.

Leaping from the table, Rand hurled the goblet away, splashing wine across the floor tiles as he rounded on Jasin Natael in a fury.

CHAPTER

3

Pale Shadows

Seizing saidin, Rand channeled, wove flows of Air that snatched Natael up from the cushions; the gilded harp tumbled to the dark red tiles as the man was pinned against the wall, immobile from neck to ankles and his feet half a pace above the floor. “I’ve warned you! Never channel when anyone else is around. Never!”

Natael tilted his head in that peculiar way he had, as if trying to look at Rand sideways, or watch without being noticed. “If she had seen, she would have thought it was you.” There was no apology in his voice, no diffidence, but no challenge either; he seemed to think he was offering a reasonable explanation. “Besides, you looked thirsty. A court-bard should look after his lord’s needs.” That was one of the small conceits he surrounded himself with; if Rand was the Lord Dragon, then he himself must be a court-bard, not a simple gleeman.

Feeling disgusted with himself as much as angry at the man, Rand unraveled the weave and let him drop. Manhandling him was like picking a fight with a boy of ten. He could not see the shield that constricted the other man’s access to saidin—it was female work—but he knew it was there. Moving a goblet was about the extent of Natael’s ability, now. Luckily the shield had been hidden from female eyes, too. Natael called the trick “inverting”; he did not seem able to explain it, though. “And if she’d seen my face and was suspicious? I was as startled as if that goblet had flown at me by itself!” He stuck his pipe back between his teeth and sent up furious streams of smoke.

“She still wouldn’t suspect.” Settling back onto the cushions, the other man took up the harp again, strumming a line of music that had a devious sound. “How could anyone suspect? I do not entirely believe the situation myself.” If there was even a touch of bitterness in his voice, Rand could not detect it.

He was not entirely sure he believed it either, though he had worked hard enough for it. The man in front of him, Jasin Natael, had another name. Asmodean.

Idly playing the harp, Asmodean did not look like one of the dreaded Forsaken. He was even moderately handsome; Rand supposed he would be attractive to women. It often seemed strange that evil had left no outward mark. He was one of the Forsaken, and far from trying to kill him, Rand hid what he was from Moiraine and everyone else. He needed a teacher.

If what was true for the women Aes Sedai called “wilders” also held for men, he had only one chance in four of surviving the attempt to learn to use the Power on his own. That was discounting the madness. His teacher had to be a man; Moiraine and others had told him often enough that a bird could not teach a fish to fly, nor a fish a bird to swim. And his teacher had to be someone experienced, someone who already knew all the things he needed to learn. With Aes Sedai gentling men who could channel as soon as they were found—and fewer were found every year—that left small choices. A man who had simply discovered he could channel would know no more than he did. A false Dragon who could channel—if Rand could find one not already caught and gentled—would not be likely to give up his own dreams of glory for another claiming to be the Dragon Reborn. What remained, what Rand had lured to him, was one of the Forsaken.

Asmodean plucked random chords as Rand took a seat on a cushion facing him. It was well to remember that the man had not changed, not inside, from the day so long ago when he had pledged his soul to the Shadow. What he did now, he did under duress; he had not come to the Light. “Do you ever think of turning back, Natael?” He was always careful of the name; one breath of “Asmodean,” and Moiraine would be sure he had gone over to the Shadow. Moiraine and maybe others. Neither he nor Asmodean might survive that.

The man’s hands froze on the strings, his face utterly blank. “Turn back? Demandred, Rahvin, any of them would kill me on sight, now. If I was lucky. Except Lanfear perhaps, and you will understand if I don’t want to put her to the test. Semirhage could make a boulder beg for mercy and thank her for death. And as for the Great Lord—”

“The Dark One,” Rand broke in sharply around his pipestem. The Great Lord of the Dark was what Darkfriends called the Dark One. Darkfriends and the Forsaken.

Asmodean bowed his head briefly in acquiescence. “When the Dark One breaks free . . .” If his face had been expressionless before, now it was bleak in every line. “Suffice it to say that I will find Semirhage and give myself to her before I’ll face the—the Dark One’s punishment for betrayal.”

“As well you are here to teach me, then.”

Mournful music began to flow from the harp, speaking of loss and tears. “ ‘The March of Death,’ ” Asmodean said over the music, “the final movement of The Grand Passions Cycle, composed some three hundred years before the War of Power by—”

Rand cut him off. “You are not teaching me very well.”

“As well as may be expected, under the circumstances. You can grasp saidin every time you try, now, and tell one flow from another. You can shield yourself, and the Power does what you want it to.” He stopped playing and frowned, not looking at Rand. “Do you think Lanfear really intended me to teach you everything? If she had wanted that, she would have contrived to stay close so she could link us. She wants you to live, Lews Therin; but this time she means to be stronger than you.”

“Don’t call me that!” Rand snapped, but Asmodean did not seem to hear.

“If you planned this between you—trapping me—” Rand sensed a surge in Asmodean, as if the Forsaken were testing the shield Lanfear had woven around him; women who could channel saw a glow surrounding another woman who had embraced saidar and felt her channeling clearly, but he never saw anything around Asmodean and felt little. “If you worked it out together, then you let her outfox you on more levels than one. I’ve told you I am not a very good teacher, especially without a link. You did plan it between you, didn’t you?” He did look at Rand then, sidelong but still intent. “How much do you remember? Of being Lews Therin, I mean. She said you recalled nothing at all, but she could lie to the Gr—the Dark One himself.”

“This time she spoke the truth.” Seating himself on one of the cushions, Rand channeled one of the clan chiefs’ untouched silver goblets to him. Even such a brief touch of saidin was exhilarating—and fouling. And hard to release. He did not want to talk about Lews Therin; he was tired of people thinking he was Lews Therin. The bowl of his pipe had grown hot with all the puffing, so he held it by the stem and gestured with it. “If linking will help you teach me, why don’t we link?”

Asmodean looked at him as if he had asked why they did not eat rocks, then shook his head. “I continually forget how much you don’t know. You and I cannot. Not without a woman to join us. You could ask Moiraine, I suppose, or the girl Egwene. One of them might be able to reason out the method. So long as you don’t mind them finding out who I am.”

“Don’t lie to me, Natael,” Rand growled. Well before meeting Natael he had learned that a man’s channeling and a woman’s were as different as men and women themselves, but he took little the man said on trust. “I’ve heard Egwene and others talk about Aes Sedai linking their powers. If they can do it, why not you and I?”

“Because we can’t.” Exasperation filled Asmodean’s tone. “Ask a philosopher if you want to know why. Why can’t dogs fly? Perhaps in the grand scheme of the Pattern, it’s a balance for men being stronger. We cannot link without them, but they can without us. Up to thirteen of them can, anyway, a small mercy; after that, they need men to make the circle larger.”

Rand was sure he had caught a lie, this time. Moiraine said that in the Age of Legends men and women had been equally strong in the Power, and she could not lie. He said as much, adding, “The Five Powers are equal.”

“Earth, Fire, Air, Water, and Spirit.” Natael strummed a chord for each. “They are equal, true, and it is also true that what a man can do with one, a woman can also. In kind, at least. But that has nothing to do with men being stronger. What Moiraine believes to be truth, she tells as truth whether or not it is; one of a thousand weaknesses in those fool Oaths.” He played a bit of something that did indeed sound foolish. “Some women have stronger arms than some men, but in general it is the other way around. The same holds with strength in the Power, and in about the same proportion.”

Rand nodded slowly. It did make a kind of sense. Elayne and Egwene were considered two of the strongest women to train in the Tower for a thousand years or more, but he had tested himself against them once, and later Elayne had confessed that she felt like a kitten seized by a mastiff.

Asmodean was not finished. “If two women link, they do not double their strength—linking is not as simple as adding together the power of each—but if they are strong enough, they can match a man. And when they take the circle to thirteen, then you must be wary. Thirteen women who can barely channel could overpower most men, linked. The thirteen weakest women in the Tower could overpower you or any man, and barely breathe hard. I came across a saying in Arad Doman. ‘The more women there are about, the softer a wise man steps.’ It would not be bad to remember it.”

Rand shivered, thinking of a time when he had been among many more than thirteen Aes Sedai. Of course, most of them had not known who he was. If they had . . . If Egwene and Moiraine linked . . . He did not want to believe Egwene had gone that far toward the Tower and away from their friendship. Whatever she does, she does with her whole heart, and she’s becoming Aes Sedai. So is Elayne.

Swallowing half his wine did not completely wash the thought away. “What more can you tell me about the Forsaken?” It was a question he was sure he had asked a hundred times, but he always hoped there was a scrap more to dig out. Better than thinking about Moiraine and Egwene linking to . . .

“I have told everything I know.” Asmodean sighed heavily. “We were hardly close friends at the best. Do you believe I am holding back something? I don’t know where the others are, if that is what you want. Except Sammael, and you knew he’d taken Illian for his kingdom before I told you. Graendal was in Arad Doman for a time, but I expect she has gone now; she likes her comforts too well. I suspect Moghedien is or was in the west somewhere as well, but no one ever finds the Spider unless she wants to be found. Rahvin has a queen for one of his pets, but your guess is as good as mine as to what country she rules for him. And that is all I know that might help locate them.”

Rand had heard all that before; it seemed he had heard all Asmodean had to say of the Forsaken fifty times already. So often that at moments it seemed he had always known what the man was telling him. Some of it he almost wished he had never learned—what Semirhage found amusing, for instance—and some made no sense. Demandred had gone over to the Shadow because he envied Lews Therin Telamon? Rand could not imagine envying someone enough to do anything because of it, and surely not that. Asmodean claimed it had been the thought of immortality, of endless Ages of music, that had seduced him; he claimed to have been a noted composer of music, before. Senseless. Yet in that mass of often blood-chilling knowledge might lie keys to surviving Tarmon Gai’don. Whatever he told Moiraine, he knew he would have to face them then, if not before. Emptying the goblet, he set it on the floor tiles. Wine would not wash out facts.

The bead curtain rattled, and he looked over his shoulder as gai’shain entered, white-robed and silent. While some began gathering up the food and drink that had been laid out for him and the chiefs, another, a man, carried a large silver tray to the table. On it were covered dishes, a silver cup, and two large, green-striped pottery pitchers. One would hold wine, the other water. A gai’shain woman brought in a gilded lamp, already lit, and set it beside the tray. Through the windows, the sky was beginning to take on the yellow-red of sunset; in the brief time between baking and freezing, the air actually felt comfortable.

Rand stood as the gai’shain departed, but did not follow immediately. “What do you think of my chances when the Last Battle comes, Natael?”

Asmodean hesitated in pulling red-and-blue-striped wool blankets from behind his cushions and looked up at him, head tilted in that sideways manner of his. “You found . . . something . . . in the square the day we met here.”

“Forget that,” Rand said harshly. There had been two, not one. “I destroyed it, in any case.” He thought Asmodean’s shoulders slumped a trifle.

“Then the—Dark One—will consume you alive. As for me, I intend to open my veins the hour I know he is free. If I get the chance. A quick death is better than what I’ll find elsewhere.” He tossed the blankets aside and sat staring glumly at nothing. “Better than going mad, certainly. I’m as subject to that as you, now. You broke the bonds that protected me.” There was no bitterness in his voice, only hopelessness.

“What if there was another way to shield against the taint?” Rand demanded. “What if it could be removed somehow? Would you still kill yourself then?”

Asmodean’s barked laugh was utterly acid. “The Shadow take me, you must be beginning to think you really are the bloody Creator! We are dead. Both of us. Dead! Are you too blind with pride to see it? Or just too thick-witted, you hopeless shepherd?”

Rand refused to be drawn. “Then why not go ahead and end it?” he asked in a tight voice. I wasn’t too blind to see what you and Lanfear were up to. I wasn’t too thick-witted to fool her and trap you. “If there’s no hope, no chance, not the smallest shred . . . then why are you still alive?”

Still not looking at him, Asmodean rubbed the side of his nose. “I once saw a man hanging from a cliff,” he said slowly. “The brink was crumbling under his fingers, and the only thing near enough to grasp was a tuft of grass, a few long blades with roots barely clinging to the rock. The only chance he had of climbing back up on the cliff. So he grabbed it.” His abrupt chuckle held no mirth. “He had to know it would pull free.”

“Did you save him?” Rand asked, but Asmodean did not answer.

As Rand started for the doorway, the sounds of “The March of Death” began again behind him.

The strings of beads fell together behind him, and the five Maidens who had been waiting in the wide, empty hall flowed easily to their feet from where they had been squatting on the pale blue tiles. They were all but one tall for women, though not for Aielwomen. Their leader, Adelin, lacked little more than a hand of being able to look him in the eyes. The exception, a fiery redhead named Enaila, was no taller than Egwene, and extremely touchy about being so short. Like the clan chiefs’, their eyes were all blue or gray or green, and their hair, light brown or yellow or red, was cut short except for a tail at the nape of the neck. Full quivers balanced the long-bladed knives at their belts, and they wore cased horn bows on their backs. Each carried three or four short, long-bladed spears and a round, bull-hide buckler. Aielwomen who did not want hearth and children had their own warrior society, Far Dareis Mai, the Maidens of the Spear.

He acknowledged them with a small bow, which made them smile; it was not an Aiel custom, at least not the way he had been taught to do it. “I see you, Adelin,” he said. “Where is Joinde? I thought she was with you earlier. Has she taken ill?”

“I see you, Rand al’Thor,” she replied. Her pale yellow hair seemed paler framing her sun-dark face, which had a fine white scar across one cheek. “In a way she has. She had been talking to herself all day, and not an hour ago, she went off to lay a bridal wreath at the feet of Garan, of the Jhirad Goshien.” Some of the others shook their heads; marrying meant giving up the spear. “Tomorrow is his last day as her gai’shain. Joinde is Black Rock Shaarad,” she added significantly. It was significant; marriages came frequently with men or women taken gai’shain, but very seldom between clans with blood feud, even blood feud in abeyance.

“It is an illness that spreads,” Enaila said heatedly. Her voice was usually as hot as her hair. “One or two Maidens make their bridal wreaths every day since we came to Rhuidean.”

Rand nodded with what he hoped they took for sympathy. It was his fault. If he told them, he wondered how many would still risk staying near him. All, probably; honor would hold them, and they had no more fear than the clan chiefs. At least it was only marriages, so far; even Maidens would think marrying better than what some had experienced. Maybe they would. “I will be ready to go in a moment,” he told them.

“We will wait with patience,” Adelin said. It hardly seemed patience; standing there, they all appeared poised on the edge of sudden movement.

It really did take him only a moment to do what he wanted, weave flows of Spirit and Fire into a box around the room and tie them so the weave held on its own. Anyone could go in or out—except a man who could channel. For himself—or Asmodean—walking through that doorway would be like walking through a wall of solid flame. He had discovered the weave—and that Asmodean, blocked, was too weak to channel through it—by accident. No one was likely to question the doings of a gleeman, but if someone did, Jasin Natael had simply chosen to sleep as far from Aiel as he could manage in Rhuidean. That was a choice that Hadnan Kadere’s drivers and guards, at least, could sympathize with. And this way Rand knew exactly where the man was of a night. The Maidens asked him no questions.

He turned away. The Maidens followed him, spread out and wary as if they expected an attack right there. Asmodean was still playing the lament.

Arms outstretched to either side, Mat Cauthon walked the wide white coping of the dry fountain, singing to the men who watched him in the fading light.

“We’ll drink the wine till the cup is dry,

and kiss the girls so they’ll not cry,

and toss the dice until we fly

to dance with Jak o’ the Shadows.”

The air felt cool after the day’s heat, and he thought briefly of buttoning up his fine green silk coat with the golden embroidery, but the drink the Aiel called oosquai had put a buzz in his head like giant flies, and the thought flittered away. The white stone figures of three women stood on a platform in the dusty basin, twenty feet tall and unclothed. Each had been made with one hand upraised, the other holding a huge stone jar tilted over her shoulder for water to pour from, but one was missing her head and upraised hand, and on another the jar was a shattered ruin.

“We’ll dance all night while the moon runs free,

and dandle the lasses upon our knee,

and then you’ll ride along with me,

to dance with Jak o’ the Shadows.”

“A fine song to be singing about death,” one of the wagon drivers shouted in a heavy Lugarder accent. Kadere’s men kept themselves in a tight knot apart from the Aielmen around the fountain; they were all tough, hard-faced men, but every one was sure any Aiel would slit his throat for a wrong glance. They were not far wrong. “I heard my old grandmother talk about Jak o’ the Shadows,” the big-eared Lugarder went on. “ ’Tisn’t right to sing about death that way.”

Mat muzzily considered the song he had been singing and grimaced. No one had heard “Dance with Jak o’ the Shadows” since Aldeshar fell; in his head, he could still hear the defiant song rising as the Golden Lions launched their last, futile charge at Artur Hawkwing’s encircling army. At least he had not been babbling it in the Old Tongue. He was not as juicy as he looked by half, but there had indeed been too many cups of oosquai. The stuff looked and tasted like brown water, but it hit your head like a mule’s kick. Moiraine will pack me off to the Tower yet, if I’m not careful. At least it would get me out of the Waste and away from Rand. Maybe he was drunker than he thought, if he considered that a fair trade. He shifted to “Tinker in the Kitchen.”

“Tinker in the kitchen, with a job of work to do.

Mistress up above, slipping on a robe of blue.

She dances down the staircase, her fancy all so free,

crying, Tinker, oh, dear Tinker, won’t you mend a pot for me?”

Some of Kadere’s men joined in the song as he danced back to where he had begun. The Aiel did not; among them, men did not sing except for battle chants or laments for the slain, and neither did Maidens, except among themselves.

Two Aielmen were squatting on the coping, showing none of the effects of the oosquai they had consumed, unless their eyes were the faintest bit glassy. He would be glad to get back where light-colored eyes were a rarity; growing up, he had not seen anything but brown or black except on Rand.

A few pieces of wood—wormholed arms and legs from chairs—lay on the broad paving stones, in the area left open by the watchers. An empty red pottery crock lay beside the coping, as did another that still held oosquai, and a silver cup. The game was to take a drink, then try to hit a target thrown into the air with a knife. None of Kadere’s men and few of the Aiel would dice with him, not when he won as often as he did, and they did not play at cards. Knife throwing was supposed to be different, especially with oosquai added in. He had not won as often as he did with dice, but half a dozen worked gold cups and two bowls lay inside the basin beneath him, along with bracelets and necklaces set with rubies or moonstones or sapphires, and a scattering of coins as well. His flat-crowned hat and an odd spear with a black haft rested beside his winnings. Some of it was even Aiel made. They were more likely to pay for something with a piece of loot than with a coin.

Corman, one of the Aiel on the coping, looked up at him as he cut off singing. A white scar slanted across his nose. “You are nearly as good with knives as you are with dice, Matrim Cauthon. Shall we call it an end? The light is failing.”

“There’s plenty of light.” Mat squinted at the sky; pale shadows covered everything here in the valley of Rhuidean, but the sky was still light enough to see against, at least. “My grandmother could make the throw in this. I could make it blindfolded.”

Jenric, the other squatting Aiel, peered around the onlookers. “Are there women here?” Built like a bear, he considered himself a wit. “The only time a man talks like that is when there are women to impress.” The Maidens scattered through the crowd laughed as hard as anyone else, and maybe harder.

“You think I can’t?” Mat muttered, ripping off the dark scarf he wore around his neck to hide the scar where he had once been hung. “Just you shout ‘now’ when you throw it up, Corman.” Hastily he tied the scarf around his eyes and drew one of his knives from his sleeve. The loudest sound was the watchers breathing. Not drunk? I’m juicier than a fiddler’s whelp. And yet, he suddenly felt his luck, felt that surge the way he did when he knew which spots would show before the dice stopped tumbling. It seemed to clear his head a little. “Throw it,” he murmured calmly.

“Now,” Corman called, and Mat’s arm whipped back, then forward.

In the stillness, the thunk of steel stabbing wood was as loud as the clatter of the target on the pavement.

No one said a word as he pulled the scarf back down around his neck. A piece of a chair arm no bigger than his hand lay in the open space, his blade stuck firmly in the middle. Corman had tried to shave the odds, it appeared. Well, he had never specified the target. He suddenly realized he had not even made a wager.

Finally one of Kadere’s men half-shouted, “The Dark One’s own luck, that!”

“Luck is a horse to ride like any other,” Mat said to himself. No matter where it came from. Not that he knew where his luck came from; he only tried to ride it as best he could.

As quietly as he had spoken, Jenric frowned up at him. “What was that you said, Matrim Cauthon?”

Mat opened his mouth to repeat himself, then closed it again as the words came clear in his mind. Sene sovya caba’donde ain dovienya. The Old Tongue. “Nothing,” he muttered. “Just talking to myself.” The onlookers were beginning to drift away. “I guess the light really is fading too much to go on.”

Corman put a foot on the piece of wood to wrench Mat’s knife free and brought it back to him. “Some time again maybe, Matrim Cauthon, some day.” That was the Aiel way of saying “never” when they did not want to say it right out.

Mat nodded as he slipped the blade back into one of the sheaths inside his sleeve; it was the same as the time he had rolled six sixes twenty-three times in a row. He could hardly blame them. Being lucky was not all it was made out. He noted with a bit of envy that neither Aiel staggered in the slightest as they joined the departing crowd.

Scrubbing a hand through his hair, Mat sat down heavily on the coping. The memories that had once cluttered his head like raisins in a cake now blended with his own. In one part of his mind he knew he had been born in the Two Rivers twenty years before, but he could remember clearly leading the flanking attack that turned the Trollocs at Maighande, and dancing in the court of Tarmandewin, and a hundred other things, a thousand. Mostly battles. He remembered dying more times than he wanted to think of. No seams between lives anymore; he could not tell his memories from the others unless he concentrated.

Reaching behind him, he set his wide-brimmed hat on his head and fished the odd spear across his knees. Instead of an ordinary spearhead, it had what looked like a two-foot sword blade, marked with a pair of ravens. Lan said that that blade had been made with the One Power during the War of the Shadow, the War of the Power; the Warder claimed it would never need sharpening and never break. Mat thought he would not trust that unless he had to. It might have lasted three thousand years, but he had little trust of the Power. Cursive script ran along the black haft, punctuated at either end with another raven, inlaid in some metal even darker than the wood. In the Old Tongue, but he could read it now, of course.

Thus is our treaty written; thus is agreement made.

Thought is the arrow of time; memory never fades.

What was asked is given. The price is paid.

One way down the wide street, half a mile off, was a square that would have been called large in most cities. The Aiel traders were gone for the night, but their pavilions still stood, made of the same grayish brown wool used for Aiel tents. Hundreds of traders had come to Rhuidean from every part of the Waste, for the biggest fair the Aiel had ever seen, and more arrived every day. The traders had been among the first to actually start living in the city.

Mat did not really want to look the other way, toward the great plaza. He could make out the shapes of Kadere’s wagons, awaiting more loading tomorrow. What appeared to be a twisted redstone doorframe had been heaved into one that afternoon; Moiraine had taken particular care to see it lashed firmly in place just as she wanted.

He did not know what she knew of it—and he was not about to ask; better if she forgot he was alive, though small chance of that—but whatever she knew, he was sure he knew more. He had stepped through it, a fool looking for answers. What he had gotten instead was a head full of other men’s memories. That, and dead. He tucked the scarf closer around his neck. And two other things. A silver foxhead medallion that he wore under his shirt, and the weapon across his knees. Small recompense. He ran his fingers lightly down the script. Memory never fades. They had a sense of humor fit for Aiel, those folk on the other side of that doorway.

“Can you do that every time?”

He jerked his head around to stare at the Maiden who had just sat down beside him. Tall even for an Aiel, maybe taller than he was, she had hair like spun gold and eyes the color of a clear morning sky. She was older than he, maybe by ten years, but that had never put him off. Then again, she was Far Dareis Mai.

“I am Melindhra,” she went on, “of the Jumai sept. Can you do that every time?”

She meant the knife throwing, he realized. She gave her sept, but no clan. Aiel never did that. Unless . . . She had to be one of the Shaido Maidens who had come to join Rand. He did not really understand all this about societies, but as for Shaido, he remembered them trying to stick spears in him too well. Couladin did not like anyone associated with Rand, and what Couladin hated, the Shaido hated. On the other hand, Melindhra had come here to Rhuidean. A Maiden. But she wore a small smile; her gaze held an inviting light.

“Most of the time,” he said truthfully. Even when he did not feel it, his luck was good; when he did, it was perfect. She chuckled, her smile widening, as if she thought he was boasting. Women seemed to make up their minds whether you were lying without looking at the evidence. On the other hand, if they liked you, they either did not care or else decided even the most outrageous lie was true.

Maidens could be dangerous, whatever their clan—any woman could; he had learned that on his own—but Melindhra’s eyes were definitely not just looking at him.

Dipping into his winnings, he pulled up a necklace of gold spirals, each centered on a deep blue sapphire, the largest as big as the joint of his thumb. He could remember a time—his own memory—when the smallest of those stones would have made him sweat.

“They’ll look pretty with your eyes,” he said, laying the heavy strand in her hands. He had never seen a Maiden wear baubles of any sort, but in his experience, every woman liked jewelry. Strangely, they liked flowers nearly as well. He did not understand it, but then, he was willing to admit that he understood women less than he did his luck, or what had happened on the other side of that twisted doorway.

“Very fine work,” she said, holding it up. “I accept your offer.” The necklace disappeared into her belt pouch, and she leaned over to push his hat back on his head. “Your eyes are pretty. Like dark polished catseye.” She twisted around to pull her feet up onto the coping and sat with her arms wrapped around her knees, studying him intently. “My spear sisters have told me about you.”

Mat pulled his hat back into place and watched her warily from under the brim. What had they told her? And what “offer”? It was only a necklace. The invitation was gone from her eyes; she looked like a cat studying a mouse. That was the trouble with Maidens of the Spear. Sometimes it was hard to tell whether they wanted to dance with you, kiss you, or kill you.

The street was emptying, the shadows deepening, but he recognized Rand slanting across down the way, pipe clenched between his teeth. He was the only man in Rhuidean likely to be walking with a fistful of Far Dareis Mai. They’re always around him, Mat thought. Guarding him like a pack of she-wolves, leaping to do whatever he says. Some men might have envied him that much, at least. Not Mat. Not most of the time. If it had been a pack of girls like Isendre, now . . .

“Excuse me for a moment,” he told Melindhra hurriedly. Leaning his spear against the low wall around the fountain, he leaped up already running. His head still buzzed, but not so loudly as before, and he did not stagger. He had no worries about his winnings. The Aiel had very definite views of what was allowed: taking in a raid was one thing, theft another. Kadere’s men had learned to keep their hands in their pockets after one of them had been caught stealing. After a beating that left him striped from shoulders to heels, he had been sent away. The one water bag he had been allowed would not have been nearly enough for him to reach the Dragonwall, even if he had had any clothes on. Now Kadere’s men would not pick up a copper they found lying in the street.

“Rand?” The other man walked on with his encircling escort. “Rand?” Rand was not even ten paces away, but he did not waver. Some of the Maidens looked back, but not Rand. Mat felt cold suddenly, and it had nothing to do with the onset of night. He wet his lips and spoke again, not a shout. “Lews Therin.” And Rand turned around. Mat almost wished he had not.

For a time they only looked at one another in the twilight. Mat hesitated about going closer. He tried telling himself it was because of the Maidens. Adelin had been one of those who taught him a so-called game, Maidens’ Kiss, that he was never likely to forget; or play again, if he had any say in it. And he could feel Enaila’s gaze like an auger boring into his skull. Who would have expected a woman to go up like oil thrown on a fire just because you told her she was the prettiest little flower you had ever seen?

Rand, now. He and Rand had grown up together. They and Perrin, the blacksmith’s apprentice back in Emond’s Field, had hunted together, fished together, tramped through the Sand Hills to the edge of the Mountains of Mist, camped under the stars. Rand was his friend. Only now he was the kind of friend who might bash your head in without meaning to. Perrin could be dead, because of Rand.

He made himself walk to arm’s reach of the other man. Rand was nearly a head taller, and in the early-evening gloom he seemed taller yet. Colder than he had been. “I’ve been thinking, Rand.” Mat wished he did not sound hoarse. He hoped Rand would answer to his right name this time. “I’ve been away from home a long time.”

“We both have,” Rand said softly. “A long time.” Suddenly he gave a laugh, not loud, but almost like the old Rand. “Are you beginning to miss milking your father’s cows?”

Mat scratched his ear, grinning a bit. “Not that, exactly.” If he never saw the inside of another barn it would be too soon. “But I was thinking that when Kadere’s wagons go, I might go with them.”

Rand was silent. When he spoke again, the brief flash of mirth was gone. “All the way to Tar Valon?”

It was Mat’s turn to hesitate. He wouldn’t give me away to Moiraine. Would he? “Maybe,” he said casually. “I don’t know. That’s where Moiraine will want me. Maybe I’ll find a chance to get back to the Two Rivers. See if everything’s all right at home.” See if Perrin’s alive. See if my sisters are, and Mother and Da.

“We all have to do what we must, Mat. Not what we want to, very often. What we must.”

It sounded like an excuse, to Mat, as if Rand was asking him to understand. Only, he had done what he had to himself a few times. I can’t blame Perrin on him, not by himself. Nobody bloody forced me to follow after Rand like some bloody heelhound! Only that was not true, either. He had been forced. Just not by Rand. “You won’t—stop me leaving?”

“I don’t try to tell you to come or go, Mat,” Rand said wearily. “The Wheel weaves the Pattern, not me, and the Wheel weaves as the Wheel wills.” For all the world like a bloody Aes Sedai! Half turning to go, Rand added, “Don’t trust Kadere, Mat. In some ways he’s about as dangerous a man as you ever met. Don’t trust him an inch, or you might get your throat slit, and you and I wouldn’t be the only ones to regret that.” Then he was gone, down the street in the deepening dusk, with the Maidens around him like slinking wolves.

Mat stared after him. Trust the merchant? I wouldn’t trust Kadere if he was tied in a sack. So Rand did not weave the Pattern? He came close! Before ever any of them learned that the Prophecies had anything to do with them, they had learned that Rand was ta’veren, one of those rare individuals who, instead of being woven willy-nilly into the Pattern, instead forced the Pattern to shape itself around them. Mat knew about being ta’veren; he was one himself, though not as strong as Rand. Sometimes Rand could affect people’s lives, change the course of them, just by being in the same town. Perrin was ta’veren as well—or maybe had been. Moiraine had thought it was significant, finding three young men who grew up in the same village, all destined to be ta’veren. She meant to fit them all into her plans, whatever they were.

It was supposed to be a grand thing; all the ta’veren Mat had been able to learn about had been men like Artur Hawkwing, or women like Mabriam en Shereed, who stories said had founded the Compact of the Ten Nations after the Breaking. But none of the stories told what happened when one ta’veren was close to another as strong as Rand. It was like being a leaf in a whirlpool.

Melindhra stopped beside him and handed him his spear and a heavy, coarse-woven sack that clinked. “I put your winnings in this for you.” She was taller than he was, by a good two inches. She glanced after Rand. “I had heard you were near-brother to Rand al’Thor.”

“In a manner of speaking,” he said dryly.

“It does not matter,” she said dismissively, and concentrated her gaze on him, fists on her hips. “You attracted my interest, Mat Cauthon, before you gave me a regard-gift. Not that I will give up the spear for you, of course, but I have had my eye on you for days. You have a smile like a boy about to do mischief. I like that. And those eyes.” In the failing light her grin was slow and wide. And warm. “I do like your eyes.”

Mat tugged his hat straight, though it had not been crooked. From pursuer to pursued, in the blink of an eye. It could happen like that, with Aiel women. Especially Maidens. “Does ‘Daughter of the Nine Moons’ mean anything to you?” It was a question he asked women sometimes. The wrong answer would send him out of Rhuidean tonight if he had to try walking out of the Waste.

“Nothing,” she said. “But there are things I like to do by moonlight.” Putting an arm around his shoulder, she took off his hat and began to whisper in his ear. In no time at all he was grinning even more widely than she.

CHAPTER

4

Twilight

With his Far Dareis Mai escort, Rand approached the Rhuidean Roof of the Maidens. White stairs as wide as the tall building, each step a stride deep, ran up to thick columns twenty paces high, black-seeming in the twilight but bright blue by day, and fluted in spirals. The outside of the building was a patterned mosaic of glazed tiles, white and blue in spirals that appeared endless to the eye, and a huge window of colored glass directly above the columns showed a black-haired woman fifteen feet tall, in complicated blue robes, right hand upraised, either to bless or command a halt. Her face was serene and stern at the same time. Whoever she had been, she was surely no Aiel, not with that pale skin and those dark eyes. An Aes Sedai, perhaps. He tapped his pipe out on his bootheel and stuffed it into his coat pocket before starting up the steps.

Except for gai’shain, men were not allowed beneath a Roof of the Maidens, not any man, not in any hold in the Waste. A chief or a Maiden’s blood kin could die trying, though in fact no Aielman would ever think of it. It was the same for any society; only members and the gai’shain were allowed inside.

The two Maidens standing guard at the tall bronze doors flashed Maiden handtalk at one another, cutting their eyes in his direction as he came through the columns, then shared a small grin. He wished he knew what they had said. Even in as dry a land as the Waste, bronze would tarnish with enough time, but gai’shain had polished these doors until they looked new-made. They stood wide open, and the pair of guards made no move to hinder him as he walked through, Adelin and the others on his heels.

The wide, white-tiled corridors and great rooms inside were full of Maidens, sitting about on bright cushions, talking, tending to weapons, playing cat’s cradle, or stones, or Thousand Flowers, an Aiel game that involved laying out patterns of flat bits of stone carved with what seemed a hundred different symbols. Of course, a profusion of gai’shain moved smoothly about their chores, cleaning, serving, mending, seeing to oil lamps that ranged from simple glazed pottery to gilded loot from somewhere to the tall stand-lamps that had been found in the city. In most rooms, colorful carpets and bright tapestries covered the floors and walls, in nearly as many patterns and styles as there were carpets and tapestries. The walls and ceilings themselves were detailed mosaics, of forests and rivers and skies that had never been seen in the Waste.

Young or old, the Maidens smiled when they saw him, and some nodded familiarly or even patted his shoulder. Others called out, asking how he was, had he eaten, would he like the gai’shain to bring him wine or water? He responded briefly, though with answering smiles. He was well, and neither hungry nor thirsty. He kept walking, not even slowing when he spoke. Slowing would lead inevitably to stopping, and he was not up to that tonight.

Far Dareis Mai had adopted him, after a fashion. Some treated him as a son, others as a brother. Age seemed not to come into it; women with white in their hair might talk to him as a brother over tea, while Maidens no more than a year older than he tried to make sure he wore the proper clothes for the heat. There was no avoiding the mothering; they simply did it, and he could not see how to make them stop, short of using the Power against the whole lot of them.

He had thought of trying to have another society provide his guards—Shae’en M’taal, the Stone Dogs, perhaps, or Aethan Dor, the Red Shields; Rhuarc had been a Red Shield before becoming chief—only, what reason could he possibly give? Not the truth, certainly. Just thinking about explaining that to Rhuarc and the others made him uncomfortable; Aiel humor being what it was, even sour old Han would likely break his ribs laughing. Any reason at all would probably offend the honor of every last Maiden. At least they rarely mothered him except under the Roof, where there was no one to see but themselves, and gai’shain who knew better than to speak of anything that happened there. “The Maidens,” he had once said, “carry my honor.” Everyone remembered that, and the Maidens were as proud of it as if he had given them all thrones. But it had turned out that they carried it in a manner they chose.

Adelin and the other four left him to join their friends, but he was hardly alone as he climbed higher in the building, along curving flights of wide white stairs. He had to answer the same questions at practically every step. No, he was not hungry. Yes, he knew he was not used to the heat yet, and no, he had not spent too much time in the sun. He bore it all patiently, but he did heave a sigh of relief when he reached the second story above the huge window. Here there were no Maidens and no gai’shain in the broad hallways or on the stairs that led on upward. The bare walls and empty chambers emphasized the absence of people, but after traversing the floors below, he found solitude a blessing.

His bedroom was a windowless chamber near the center of the building, one of the few that was not huge, though its ceiling still reached high enough to make height the room’s longest dimension. What it had been meant for originally, he had no idea; a mosaic of vines around the small fireplace was the only ornamentation. A servant’s room, he would have said, but servants’ rooms did not have a door sheathed in bronze, however plain, that he pushed most of the way shut. Gai’shain had polished the metal to a dull gleam. A few tasseled cushions lay scattered on the blue floor tiles for sitting, and a thick pallet, atop bright layered rugs, for sleeping. A simple blue-glazed pitcher of water and a dark green cup sat on the floor near the “bed.” That was it, except for two three-pronged stand-lamps, already lit, and a pace-high pile of books in one corner. With a tired sigh, he lay down on the pallet still in his coat and boots; no matter how he shifted it was not much softer th an sleeping on the bare floor.

The night’s chill was already seeping into the room, but he did not bother to light the dried cow dung on the hearth; he was readier to face the cold than the smell. Asmodean had tried to show him a simple way to keep the room warm; simple, but something the man did not have enough strength to do himself. The one time Rand had tried it, he had awakened in the middle of the night, gasping for breath while the edges of the rugs smoldered from the heat of the floor. He had not made another attempt.

He had chosen this building for his quarters because it was whole and near to the plaza; its great high ceilings gave a semblance of coolness even to the hottest part of the day, and its thick walls kept out the worst of the cold at night. It had not been the Roof of the Maidens then, of course. One morning he simply awakened to find it so, Maidens in every room on the first two floors and their guards on the doors. It had taken him a while to realize that they intended the building for their society’s Roof in Rhuidean, yet expected him to continue to stay in it. In fact, they were ready to move the Roof wherever he went. That was why he had to meet the clan chiefs elsewhere. The best he had been able to manage was to make the Maidens agree to stay below the floor where he slept; that had amused them all no end. Even the Car’a’carn is not a king, he reminded himself wryly. Twice already he had moved upward as the numbers of Maidens increased. Idly he tried to calculate how many more could come in before he was sleeping on the roof.

That was better than remembering how he had let Moiraine get under his skin. He had not meant her to learn his plans until the day the Aiel moved. She knew exactly how to manipulate his emotions, how to make him so angry that he said more than he wanted to. I never used to get so angry. Why is it so hard to hold on to my temper? Well, there was nothing she could do to stop him. He did not think there was. He had to remember to be careful around her. His increasing abilities occasionally made him careless toward her, but if he was far stronger, she still knew more than he, even with Asmodean’s teaching.

In a way, letting Asmodean know his plans was less important than revealing his intentions to the Aes Sedai. To Moiraine I’m still just a shepherd she can use for the Tower’s ends, but to Asmodean I’m the only branch he can hold on to in a flood. Strange to think he could probably trust one of the Forsaken more than he could Moiraine. Not that he could trust either very far. Asmodean. If his bonds to the Dark One had shielded him from the taint on saidin, there had to be another way to do it. Or to cleanse it.

The trouble was that before they went over to the Shadow, the Forsaken had been among the most powerful Aes Sedai in the Age of Legends, when things the White Tower never dreamed of were commonplace. If Asmodean did not know a way, it probably did not exist. It has to. There has to be something. I’m not going to just sit until I go mad and die.

That was plain foolish. Prophecy had made a rendezvous for him at Shayol Ghul. When, he did not know; but afterward, he would not have to worry about going mad any longer. He shivered and thought about unfolding his blankets.

The faint sound of soft-soled footsteps in the hall snapped him upright. I told them! If they can’t . . . ! The woman who pushed open the door, her arms full of thick wool blankets, was not anyone he expected.

Aviendha paused just inside the room to regard him with cool, blue-green eyes. A more than pretty woman, of an age with him, she had been a Maiden until she gave up the spear to become a Wise One, not very long ago. Her dark reddish hair still came well short of her shoulders and hardly needed the folded brown scarf to keep it out of her face. She seemed a bit awkward with her brown shawl, a bit impatient with her full gray skirts.

He felt a stab of jealousy at the silver necklace she wore, an elaborate string of intricately worked discs, each different. Who gave her that? She would not have chosen it herself; she did not seem to like jewelry. The only other piece she wore was a wide ivory bracelet, carved in finely detailed roses. He had given her that, and he was not sure she had forgiven him for it yet. It was foolish of him to be jealous in any case.

“I haven’t seen you in ten days,” he said. “I thought the Wise Ones would have tied you to my arm once they found out I’d blocked them out of my dreams.” Asmodean had been amused at the first thing he’d wanted to learn, and then frustrated at how long Rand took to learn it.

“I have my training to do, Rand al’Thor.” She would be one of the few Wise Ones who could channel; that was part of what she was being taught. “I am not one of your wetlander women, to stand about so you can look at me whenever you wish.” Despite knowing Egwene, and Elayne for that matter, she had an oddly wrongheaded view of what she called wetlander women, and of wetlanders in general. “They are not pleased at what you have done.” She meant Amys, Bair and Melaine, the three Wise One dreamwalkers who were teaching her, and trying to watch him. Aviendha shook her head ruefully. “They were especially not pleased that I had let you know they were walking your dreams.”

He stared at her. “You told them? But you didn’t really say anything. I figured it out myself, and I would have eventually even if you hadn’t let a hint slip out. Aviendha, they told me they could speak to people in their dreams. It was only a step from that.”

“Would you have had me dishonor myself further?” Her voice was level enough, but her eyes could have started the fire laid on the hearth. “I will not dishonor myself for you or any man! I gave you the trail to follow, and I will not deny my shame. I should have let you freeze.” She threw the blankets right on top of his head.

He pulled them off and laid them beside him on the pallet while trying to think of what to say. It was ji’e’toh again. The woman was as prickly as a thornbush. Supposedly she had been given the task of teaching him Aiel customs, but he knew her true job, to spy on him for the Wise Ones. Whatever dishonor was attached to spying among Aiel, apparently it did not extend to the Wise Ones. They knew he knew, but for some reason it did not seem to concern them, and as long as they were willing to let matters remain as they were, so was he. For one thing, Aviendha was not a very good spy; she almost never tried to find anything out, and her own temper got in the way of making him angry or guilty the way Moiraine did. For another, she was actually pleasant company sometimes, when she forgot to keep her thorns out. At least he knew who it was that Amys and the others had set to watch him; if it was not she, it would be someone else, and he would be constantly wondering who. Besides, she w as never wary around him.

Mat, Egwene, even Moiraine sometimes looked at him with eyes that saw the Dragon Reborn, or at least the danger of a man who could channel. The clan chiefs and the Wise Ones saw He Who Comes With the Dawn, the man prophesied to break the Aiel like dried twigs; if they did not fear him, they still sometimes treated him like a red adder they had to live with. Whatever Aviendha saw, it never stopped her being scathing whenever she chose, which was most of the time.

An odd sort of comfort, but compared to the rest, it was a comfort nonetheless. He had missed her. He had even picked flowers from some of the spiny plants around Rhuidean—bloodying his fingers until he realized he could use the Power—and sent them to her, half a dozen times; the Maidens had carried the blossoms themselves, instead of sending gai’shain. She had never acknowledged them, of course.

“Thank you,” he said finally, touching the blankets. They seemed a safe enough subject. “I suppose you can’t have too many in the nights here.”

“Enaila asked me to bring them to you when she found out I was here to see you.” Her lips twitched in the beginnings of an amused smile. “A number of the spear-sisters were worried that you might not be warm enough. I am to see that you light your fire tonight; you didn’t last night.”

Rand felt his cheeks coloring. She knew. Well, she would, wouldn’t she? The bloody Maidens may not tell her everything anymore, but they don’t bother to keep anything from her, either. “Why did you want to see me?”

To his surprise, she folded her arms beneath her breasts and paced the short length of the room twice before stopping to glare at him. “This was not a regard-gift,” she said accusingly, shaking the bracelet at him. “You admitted as much.” True, though he thought she might have put a knife in his ribs had he not conceded it. “It was simply a fool gift from a man who did not know or care what my—what the spear-sisters might think. Well, this has no meaning either.” She pulled something from her pouch and tossed it onto the pallet beside him. “It cancels debt between us.”

Rand picked up what she had thrown and turned it over in his hands. A belt buckle in the shape of a dragon, ornately made in good steel and inlaid with gold. “Thank you. It’s beautiful. Aviendha, there is no debt to cancel.”

“If you will not take it against my debt,” she said firmly, “then throw it away. I will find something else to repay you. It is only a trinket.”

“Hardly a trinket. You must have had this made.”

“Do not think that means anything, Rand al’Thor. When I . . . gave up the spear, my spears, my knife”—unconsciously her hand brushed her belt, where that long-bladed knife used to hang—“even the points of my arrows were taken from me and handed to a smith to make simple things to give away. Most I gave to friends, but the Wise Ones had me name the three men and three women I most hate, and I was told to give each of them a gift made from my weapons, with my own hands. Bair says it teaches humility.” Straight-backed and glaring, biting off each word, she looked and sounded anything but humble. “So you will not think that means anything.”

“It means nothing,” he said, nodding sadly. Not that he wanted it to mean anything, really, but it would have been pleasing to think she might be beginning to see him as a friend. It was plain foolish to feel jealousy over her. I wonder who gave it to her? “Aviendha? Was I one of those you hate so much?”

“Yes, Rand al’Thor.” She suddenly sounded hoarse. For a moment she turned her face away, eyes shut and quivering. “I hate you with all of my heart. I do. And I always will.”

He did not bother to ask why. Once he had asked her why she disliked him and practically had his nose snapped off. She had not told him, though. But this was more than a dislike she sometimes seemed to forget. “If you really hate me,” he said reluctantly, “I will ask the Wise Ones to send someone else to teach me.”

“No!”

“But if you—”

“No!” If anything, her denial was even more fierce this time. She planted her fists on her hips and lectured as if she meant to drive every word home in his heart. “Even if the Wise Ones allowed me to stop, I have toh, obligation and duty, to my near-sister Elayne, to watch you for her. You belong to her, Rand al’Thor. To her and no other woman. Remember that.”

He felt like throwing up his hands. At least this time she was not describing to him how Elayne looked without any clothes; some Aiel customs took even more getting used to than others. He sometimes wondered if she and Elayne had agreed on this “watching” between them. He could not believe it, but then again, even women who were not Aiel were odd as often as not. More than that, he wondered who Aviendha was supposed to be protecting him from. Except for the Maidens and the Wise Ones, Aiel women seemed to look at him half as prophecy made flesh, and thus not really flesh at all, and half as a blood snake loose among children. The Wise Ones were nearly as bad as Moiraine when it came to trying to make him do what they wanted, and the Maidens he did not want to think about. The whole thing made him furious.

“Now, you listen to me. I kissed Elayne a few times, and I think she enjoyed it as much as I did, but I am not promised to anyone. I’m not even sure she wants that much from me anymore.” In the space of a few hours she had written him two letters; one called him the dearest light of her heart before going on to make his ears burn, while the other named him a coldhearted wretch she never wanted to see again and then proceeded to rip him up one side and down the other, better than Aviendha ever had. Women were definitely odd. “I don’t have time to think about women anyway. The only thing on my mind is uniting the Aiel, even the Shaido if I can. I—” He cut off with a groan as the very last woman he could have hoped for swayed into the room in a clatter of jewelry, carrying a silver tray with a blown-glass flagon of wine and two silver cups.

A diaphanous red silk scarf wrapped around Isendre’s head did nothing to hide her palely beautiful, heart-shaped face. Her long dark hair and dark eyes never belonged to any Aiel. Her full, pouting lips were curved enticingly—until she saw Aviendha. Then the smile faded to a sickly thing. Aside from the scarf she had on a dozen or more necklaces of gold and ivory, some set with pearls or polished gems. As many bracelets weighted each wrist, and even more bunched around her ankles. That was it; she wore not another thing. He made himself keep his eyes strictly on her face, but even so his cheeks felt hot.

Aviendha looked like a thunderhead about to spit lightning, Isendre like a woman who had just learned she was to be boiled alive. Rand wished he were in the Pit of Doom, or anywhere but there. Still, he got to his feet; he would have more authority looking down on them than the other way around. “Aviendha,” he began, but she ignored him.

“Did someone send you with that?” she asked coldly.

Isendre opened her mouth, the intended lie plain on her face, then gulped and whispered, “No.”

“You have been warned about this, sorda.” A sorda was a kind of rat, especially sly according to the Aiel, and good for absolutely nothing; its flesh was so rank that even cats seldom ate the ones they killed. “Adelin thought the last time would have taught you.”

Isendre flinched, and swayed as if about to faint.

Rand gathered himself. “Aviendha, whether she was sent or not doesn’t matter. I am a little thirsty, and if she was kind enough to bring me wine, she should be thanked for it.” Aviendha glanced coolly at the two cups and raised her eyebrows. He took a deep breath. “She should not be punished just for bringing me something to drink.” He was careful not to look at the tray himself. “Half the Maidens under the Roof must have asked if I—”

“She was taken by the Maidens for theft from Maidens, Rand al’Thor.” Aviendha’s voice was even colder than it had been for the other woman. “You have meddled too much already in the business of Far Dareis Mai, more than you should have been allowed. Not even the Car’a’carn can thwart justice; this is no concern of yours.”

He grimaced—and let it go. Whatever the Maidens did to her, Isendre certainly had coming. Just not for this. She had entered the Waste with Hadnan Kadere, but Kadere had not cracked his teeth when the Maidens took her for stealing the jewelry that was now all they let her wear. It had been all Rand could do to keep her from being sent off to Shara tethered like a goat, or else dispatched naked toward the Dragonwall with one water bag; watching her plead for mercy once she realized what the Maidens intended, he had not been able to make himself stay out of it. Once he had killed a woman; a woman who meant to kill him, but the memory still burned. He did not think he would ever be able to do it again, even with his life in the balance. A foolish thing, with female Forsaken likely seeking his blood or worse, but there it was. And if he could not kill a woman, how could he stand by and let a woman die? Even if she deserved it?

That was the rub. In any land west of the Dragonwall, Isendre would face the gallows or the headsman’s block for what he knew about her. About her, and Kadere, and probably most of the merchant’s men if not all. They were Darkfriends. And he could not expose them. Not even they were aware that he knew.

If any one of them was revealed as a Darkfriend . . . Isendre endured as best she could, because even being a servant and kept naked was better than being tied hand and foot and left for the sun, but none would keep silent once Moiraine had her hands on them. Aes Sedai had no more mercy for Darkfriends than for anyone else; she would loosen their tongues in short order. And Asmodean had come into the Waste with the merchant’s wagons, too, just another Darkfriend so far as Kadere and the others knew, though one with authority. No doubt they thought he had taken service with the Dragon Reborn on orders from some still higher power. To keep his teacher, to keep Moiraine from trying to kill both of them very probably, Rand had to keep their secret.

Luckily, no one questioned why the Aiel kept such a close watch on the merchant and his men. Moiraine thought it was the usual Aiel suspicion of outsiders in the Waste, magnified by them being in Rhuidean; she had had to use all of her persuasion to make the Aiel let Kadere and his wagons into the city. The suspicion was there; Rhuarc and the other chiefs likely would have set guards even if Rand had not asked. And Kadere just seemed happy he did not have a spear through his ribs.

Rand had no idea how he was going to resolve the situation. Or if he could. It was a fine mess. In gleemen’s stories, only villains got caught in a cleft stick like this.

Once she was sure that he was not going to try to interfere further, Aviendha turned her attention back to the other woman. “You may leave the wine.”

Isendre half-knelt gracefully to set the tray beside his pallet, a peculiar grimace on her face. It took Rand a moment to recognize an attempt to smile at him without letting the Aiel woman see.

“And now you will run to the first Maiden you can find,” Aviendha went on, “and tell her what you have done. Run, sorda!” Moaning and wringing her hands, Isendre ran in a great rattle of jewelry. As soon as she was out of the room, Aviendha rounded on him. “You belong to Elayne! You have no right to try luring any woman, but especially not that one!”

“Her?” Rand gasped. “You think I—? Believe me, Aviendha, if she were the last woman on earth, I’d still stay as far from her as I could run.”

“So you say.” She sniffed. “She has been switched seven times—seven!—for trying to sneak to your bed. She would not persist like that without some encouragement. She faces Far Dareis Mai justice, and she is no concern of even the Car’a’carn. Take that as your lesson for today on our customs. And remember that you belong to my near-sister!” Without letting him get a word in, she stalked out wearing such a look that he thought Isendre might not survive if Aviendha caught up to her.

Letting out a long breath, he got up long enough to put the tray and its wine in a corner of the room. He was not about to drink anything Isendre brought him.

Seven times she’s tried to reach me? She must have learned that he interceded for her; no doubt to her way of thinking, if he was willing to do that for a smoky look and a smile, what might he do for more? He shivered at the thought as much as the increasing cold. He would rather have a scorpion in his bed. If the Maidens failed to convince her, he might tell her what he knew about her; that should put an end to any schemes.

Snuffing the lamps, he crawled onto his pallet in the dark, still booted and fully dressed, and fumbled around until he had pulled all of the blankets over him. Without the fire, he suspected he really would be grateful to Aviendha before morning. Setting the wards of Spirit that shielded his dreams from intrusion was almost automatic to him now, but even as he did it, he chuckled to himself. He could have gotten into bed and then put out the lamps, with the Power. It was the simple things that he never thought of doing with the Power.

For a time he lay waiting for his body’s heat to warm the inside of the blankets. How the same place could be so hot by day and so cold by night was beyond him. Sticking one hand under his coat, he fingered the half-healed scar on his side. That wound, the one that Moiraine could never completely Heal, was what would kill him, eventually. He was sure of it. His blood on the rocks of Shayol Ghul. That was what the Prophecies said.

Not tonight. I won’t think of that tonight. I have a little time yet. But if the seals can be shaved with a knife, now, do they still hold as strongly . . . ? No. Not tonight.

The inside of the blankets was becoming a little warmer, and he shifted around, trying and failing to find a comfortable way to lie. I should have washed, he thought drowsily. Egwene was probably in a warm sweat tent right that minute. Half the time he used one, a fistful of Maidens tried to come in with him—and nearly rolled on the ground laughing when he insisted on them staying outside. It was bad enough having to undress and dress in the steam.

Sleep finally came, and with it, safely protected dreams, safe from the Wise Ones or anyone else. Not protected from his own thoughts, though. Three women invaded them continually. Not Isendre, except in a brief nightmare that nearly woke him. By turns he dreamed of Elayne, and Min, and Aviendha, by turns and together. Only Elayne had ever looked at him as a man, but all three saw him as who he was, not what he was. Aside from the nightmare, they were all pleasant dreams.

CHAPTER

5

Among the Wise Ones

Standing as close as she could to the small fire in the middle of the tent, Egwene still shivered as she poured water from the generous teakettle into a wide, blue-striped bowl. She had lowered the sides of the tent, but cold seeped through the colorful layered rugs covering the ground, and all the fire’s heat seemed to rush up and out of the smoke hole in the middle of the tent roof, leaving only the smell of the burning cow dung. Her teeth wanted to chatter.

Already the steam from the water was beginning to fade; she embraced saidar for a moment and channeled Fire to heat it more. Amys or Bair would probably have washed in it cold, though in fact they always took sweat baths. So I’m not as tough as they are. I did not grow up in the Waste. I don’t have to freeze to death and wash in cold water if I don’t want to. She still felt guilty as she lathered a cloth with a piece of lavender-scented soap bought from Hadnan Kadere. The Wise Ones had never asked her to do differently, but it still felt like cheating.

Letting go of the True Source made her sigh with remorse. Even trembling with cold, she laughed softly at her own foolishness. The wonder of being filled with the Power, the wondrous rush of life and awareness, was its own danger. The more you drew on saidar, the more you wanted to draw, and without self-discipline you eventually drew more than you could handle and either died or stilled yourself. And that was nothing to laugh at.

That’s one of your biggest faults, she lectured herself firmly. You always want to do more than you’re supposed to. You ought to wash in cold water; that would teach you self-discipline. Only there was so much to learn, and it sometimes seemed a lifetime would be too short to learn it. Her teachers were always so cautious, whether Wise Ones or Aes Sedai in the Tower; it was hard to hold back when she knew that in so many ways she already outstripped them. I can do more than they realize.

A blast of freezing air hit her, swirling smoke from the fire about the tent, and a woman’s voice said, “If it pleases you—”

Egwene jumped, yelping shrilly before managing to get out, “Shut that!” She hugged herself to stop from capering. “Get in or get out, but shut it!” All that effort to be warm, and now she was icy goose bumps from head to toe!

The white-robed woman shuffled into the tent on her knees and let the tent flap drop. She kept her eyes downcast, her hands folded meekly; she would have done the same if Egwene had hit her instead of just shouting. “If it pleases you,” she said softly, “the Wise One Amys sent me to bring you to the sweat tent.”

Wishing she could stand on top of the fire, Egwene groaned. The Light burn Bair and her stubbornness! If not for the white-haired old Wise One, they could be in rooms in the city instead of tents on the edge of it. I could have a room with a proper fireplace. And a door. She was willing to bet that Rand did not have to put up with people wandering in on him whenever they wanted. Rand bloody Dragon al’Thor snaps his fingers, and the Maidens jump like serving girls. I’ll wager they’ve found him a real bed, instead of a pallet on the ground. She was sure that he got a hot bath every night. The Maidens probably haul buckets of hot water up to his rooms. I’ll bet they even found him a proper copper bathtub.

Amys, and even Melaine, had been amenable to Egwene’s suggestion, but Bair had put her foot down, and they acquiesced like gai’shain. Egwene supposed that with Rand bringing so much change, Bair wanted to hold on to as much of the old ways as she could, but she wished the woman could have chosen something else to be intractable over.

There was no thought of refusing. She had promised the Wise Ones to forget that she was Aes Sedai—the easy part, since she was not—and do exactly as she was told. That was the hard part; she had been away from the Tower long enough to become her own mistress again. But Amys had told her flatly that dreamwalking was dangerous even after you knew what you were about and far more so until then. If she would not obey in the waking world, they could not trust her to obey in the dream, and they would not take the responsibility. So she did chores right along with Aviendha, accepted chastisement with as good a grace as she could muster, and hopped whenever Amys or Melaine or Bair said frog. In a manner of speaking. None of them had ever seen a frog. Not that they’ll want anything but for me to hand them their tea. No, it would be Aviendha’s turn to do that tonight.

For a moment she considered donning stockings, but finally just bent to slip on her shoes. Sturdy shoes, suitable for the Waste; she rather regretted the silk slippers she had worn in Tear. “What is your name?” she asked, trying to be companionable.

“Cowinde” was the docile reply.

Egwene sighed. She kept trying to be friends with the gai’shain, but they never responded. Servants were one thing she had not had a chance to get used to, though of course gai’shain were not precisely servants. “You were a Maiden?”

A quick, fierce flash of deep blue eyes told her that her guess was correct, but just as quickly they lowered again. “I am gai’shain. Before and after are not now, and only now exists.”

“What is your sept and clan?” Usually there was no need to ask, not even with gai’shain.

“I serve the Wise One Melaine of the Jhirad sept, of the Goshien Aiel.”

Trying to choose between two cloaks, a stout brown woolen and a blue quilted silk she had purchased from Kadere—the merchant had sold everything in his wagons to make room for Moiraine’s freight, and at very good prices—Egwene paused to frown at the woman. That was no proper response. She had heard that a form of the bleakness had taken some gai’shain; when their year and a day was done, they simply refused to put off the robe. “When is your time up?” she asked.

Cowinde crouched lower, almost huddling over her knees. “I am gai’shain.”

“But when will you be able to return to your sept, to your own hold?”

“I am gai’shain,” the woman hoarsely told the rugs in front of her face. “If the answer displeases, punish me, but I can give no other.”

“Don’t be silly,” Egwene said sharply. “And straighten up. You aren’t a toad.”

The white-robed woman obeyed immediately and sat there on her heels, submissively awaiting another command. That brief flare of spirit might as well never have been.

Egwene took a deep breath. The woman had made her own accommodation with the bleakness. A foolish one, but nothing she could say would change it. Anyway, she was supposed to be on her way to the sweat tent, not talking with Cowinde.

Remembering that cold draft, she hesitated. The icy gust had made two large white blossoms, resting in a shallow bowl, curl partway closed. They came from a plant called a segade, a fat, leafless, leathery thing that bristled with spines. She had come on Aviendha looking at them in her hands that morning; the Aiel woman had given a start when she saw her, then pushed them into Egwene’s hands, saying she had picked them for her. She supposed there was enough of the Maiden left in Aviendha that she did not want to admit liking flowers. Though come to think of it, she had seen the occasional Maiden wearing a blossom in her hair or on her coat.

You are just trying to put it off, Egwene al’Vere. Now stop being a silly woolhead! You are being as foolish as Cowinde. “Lead the way,” she said, and just had time to swing the woolen cloak around her nakedness before the woman swept open the tent flap for her, and for the bone-chilling night.

Overhead, the stars were crisp points in the darkness, and the three-quarter moon was bright. The Wise Ones’ camp was a cluster of two dozen low mounds, not a hundred paces from where one of Rhuidean’s paved streets ended in hard, cracked clay and stones. Moonshadows turned the city into strange cliffs and crags. Every tent had its flaps down, and the smells of fires and cooking blended to fill the air.

The other Wise Ones came here for almost daily gatherings, but they spent nights with their own septs. Several even slept in Rhuidean now. But not Bair. This was as close to the city as Bair had been willing to come; if Rand had not been there, doubtless she would have insisted on making camp in the mountains.

Egwene held the cloak tight with both hands and walked as fast as she could. Icy tendrils curled under the cloak’s bottom, swept in every time her bare legs kicked a gap open. Cowinde had to pull her white robes to her knees in order to keep ahead. Egwene did not need the gai’shain’s guidance, but since the woman had been sent to bring her, she would be shamed and maybe offended if not allowed to. Clenching her teeth to keep them from chattering, Egwene wished the woman would run.

The sweat tent looked like any other, low and wide, with the flaps lowered all around, except that the smoke hole had been covered. Nearby a fire had burned down to glowing embers scattered over a few rocks the size of a man’s head. There was not enough light to define the much smaller shadowed mound beside the tent entrance, but she knew it was neatly folded women’s clothes.

Taking one deep, chilling breath, she hurriedly scuffed off her shoes, let her cloak drop, and all but dove into the tent. An instant of shuddering cold before the flap fell shut behind her, then steamy heat clamped down, squeezing out sweat that covered her in an instant sheen while she was still gasping and shaking.

The three Wise Ones who were teaching her about dreamwalking sat sweating unconcernedly, their waist-length hair hanging damply. Bair was talking to Melaine, whose green-eyed beauty and red-gold hair made a sharp contrast to the older woman’s leathery face and long white tresses. Amys was white-haired, too—or perhaps it was just so pale a yellow that it seemed white—but she did not look old. She and Melaine could both channel—not many Wise Ones could—and she had something of the Aes Sedai look of agelessness about her. Moiraine, seeming slight and small beside the others, also looked unruffled, although sweat rolled down her pale nudity and slicked her dark hair to her scalp, with a regal refusal to acknowledge that she had no clothes on. The Wise Ones were using slim, curved pieces of bronze, called staera, to scrape off sweat and the day’s dirt.

Aviendha was squatting sweatily beside the big black kettle of hot, sooty rocks in the middle of the tent, carefully using a pair of tongs to move a last stone from a smaller kettle to the larger. That done, she sprinkled water onto the rocks from a gourd, adding to the steam. If she let the steam fall too far, she would be spoken to sharply at the very least. The next time the Wise Ones met in the sweat tent, it would be Egwene’s turn to tend the rocks.

Egwene cautiously sat down cross-legged next to Bair—instead of layered rugs, there was only rocky ground, unpleasantly hot, lumpy and damp—and realized with a shock that Aviendha had been switched, and recently. When the Aiel woman gingerly took her own place, beside Egwene, she did so with a face as stony as the ground, but a face that could not hide her flinch.

This was something Egwene did not expect. The Wise Ones exacted a hard discipline—harder even than the Tower, which took some doing—but Aviendha worked at learning to channel with a grim determination. She could not dreamwalk, but she surely put as much effort into absorbing every art of a Wise One as she could ever have put into learning her weapons as a Maiden. Of course, after she confessed to letting Rand know about the Wise Ones watching his dreams, they had made her spend three days digging shoulder-deep holes and filling them in again, but that was one of the few times Aviendha had ever seemed to put a foot wrong. Amys and the other two had held her up to Egwene so often as a model of meek obedience and proper fortitude that sometimes Egwene wanted to shriek, even if Aviendha was a friend.

“You took long enough in coming,” Bair said grumpily, while Egwene was still gingerly searching for a comfortable seat. Her voice was thin and reedy, but a reed of iron. She continued to scrape her arms with a staera.

“I am sorry,” Egwene said. There; that should be meek enough.

Bair sniffed. “You are Aes Sedai beyond the Dragonwall, but here you are yet a pupil, and a pupil does not dally. When I send for Aviendha, or send her for something, she runs, even if all I want is a pin. You could do much worse than to pattern yourself after her.”

Flushing, Egwene tried to make her voice humble. “I will try, Bair.” This was the first time a Wise One had made the comparison in front of others. She sneaked a glance at Aviendha and was surprised to find her looking thoughtful. Sometimes she wished her “near-sister” were not always such a good example.

“The girl will learn, Bair, or she will not,” Melaine said irritably. “Instruct her in promptness later, if she still needs it.” No more than ten or twelve years older than Aviendha, she usually sounded as if she had a burr under her skirts. Maybe she was sitting on a sharp rock. She would not move if she was; she would expect the rock to move. “I tell you again, Moiraine Sedai, the Aiel follow He Who Comes With the Dawn, not the White Tower.”

Obviously, Egwene was meant to pick up what they were talking about as they went on.

“It may be,” Amys said in a level voice, “that the Aiel will serve the Aes Sedai again, but that time has not come yet, Moiraine Sedai.” Her scraping barely paused as she eyed the Aes Sedai calmly.

It would come, Egwene knew, now that Moiraine was aware that some of the Wise Ones could channel. Aes Sedai would be journeying into the Waste to find girls who could be taught, and would almost certainly be trying to take any Wise One with the ability back to the Tower, too. Once she had worried about the Wise Ones being browbeaten and dominated, hauled away whenever they wanted; Aes Sedai never let any woman who could channel run free of the Tower for long. She did not worry anymore, though the Wise Ones themselves seemed to. Amys and Melaine could match any Aes Sedai will for will, as they showed every day with Moiraine. Bair could very likely make even Siuan Sanche jump through hoops, and Bair could not even channel.

For that matter, Bair was not the strongest-willed Wise One. That honor went to an even older woman, Sorilea, of the Jarra sept of the Chareen Aiel. The Wise One of Shende Hold could channel less than most novices, but she was as likely to send another Wise One on an errand as a gai’shain. And they went. No, there was no reason to distress herself over Wise Ones being bullied.

“It is understandable that you wish to spare your lands,” Bair put in, “but Rand al’Thor obviously does not mean to lead us to punish. No one who submits to He Who Comes With the Dawn, and the Aiel, will be harmed.” So that was it. Of course.

“It is not only sparing lives or lands that concerns me.” Moiraine made wiping sweat from her brow with one finger into a queenly gesture, but her voice sounded nearly as tight as Melaine’s. “If you allow this, it will be disastrous. Years of planning are coming to fruition, and he means to ruin it all.”

“Plans of the White Tower,” Amys said, so smoothly she might have been agreeing. “Those plans have nothing to do with us. We, and the other Wise Ones, must consider what is right for the Aiel. We will see that the Aiel do what is best for the Aiel.”

Egwene wondered what the clan chiefs would say about that. Of course, they frequently complained that the Wise Ones meddled in matters that were not theirs, so perhaps it would not come as a surprise. The chiefs all seemed to be hard-willed, intelligent men, but she believed they had as much chance against the combined Wise Ones as the Village Council back home did against the Women’s Circle.

This time, though, Moiraine was right.

“If Rand—” she began, but Bair stepped on her firmly.

“We will hear what you have to say later, girl. Your knowledge of Rand al’Thor is valuable, but you will hold your peace and listen until you are bidden to speak. And stop looking sullen, or I will dose you with bluespine tea.”

Egwene grimaced. Respect for the Aes Sedai, though a respect between equals, included but little for the pupil, even one they believed was Aes Sedai. She kept her tongue still, in any case. Bair was capable of sending her to fetch her herb pouches and telling her to brew the incredibly bitter tea herself; it had no purpose at all except to cure sullenness or sulkiness or whatever else a Wise One might find disfavor with, which it did by taste alone. Aviendha gave her a comforting pat on the arm.

“You believe it will not be a catastrophe for the Aiel as well?” It must have been difficult to sound as cool as a winter stream when you glistened from head to foot with condensed steam and your own sweat, but Moiraine apparently had no difficulty. “It will be the Aiel War all over again. You will kill and burn and loot towns as you did then, until you have turned every man and woman against you.”

“The fifth is our due, Aes Sedai,” Melaine said, throwing her long hair back over her shoulder so she could work a staera across a smooth shoulder. Even heavy and damp with the steam, her hair glistened like silk. “We took no more even from the treekillers.” Her glance at Moiraine was too bland not to be significant; they knew she was Cairhienin. “Your kings and queens take as much in their taxes.”

“And when the nations turn against you?” Moiraine persisted. “In the Aiel War, the nations united turned you back. That can and will happen again, with great loss of life on both sides.”

“None of us fears death, Aes Sedai,” Amys told her, smiling gently as if explaining something to a child. “Life is a dream from which we all must wake before we can dream again. Besides, only four clans crossed the Dragonwall under Janduin. Six are here already, and you say Rand al’Thor means to take all of the clans.”

“The Prophecy of Rhuidean says he will break us.” The spark in Melaine’s green eyes could have been for Moiraine or because she was not as resigned as she sounded. “What does it matter whether it is here or beyond the Dragonwall?”

“You will lose him the support of every nation west of the Dragonwall,” Moiraine said. She looked as calm as ever, but an edge in her voice said she was ready to chew rocks. “He must have their support!”

“He has the support of the Aiel nation,” Bair told her in that fragile, unyielding voice. She emphasized her words by gesturing with the slim metal blade. “The clans have never been a nation, but now he makes us one.”

“We will not help you turn him in this, Moiraine Sedai,” Amys added just as firmly.

“You may leave us now, Aes Sedai, if it pleases you,” Bair said. “We have discussed what you wished to discuss as much as we will tonight.” It was politely said, but a dismissal all the same.

“I will leave you,” Moiraine replied, once again all serenity. She sounded as though it were her suggestion, her decision. By this time she was used to the Wise Ones making it clear they were not under the Tower’s authority. “I have other matters to see to.”

That much had to be the truth, of course. Very likely something concerning Rand. Egwene knew better than to ask; if Moiraine wanted her to know, she would tell her, and if not . . . If not, she would be handed some slippery bit of Aes Sedai avoidance of a lie, or else be told bluntly that it was none of her business. Moiraine knew that “Egwene Sedai of the Green Ajah” was a fraud. She tolerated the lie in public, but otherwise she let Egwene know her proper place whenever it suited her.

As soon as Moiraine had gone, in a burst of cold air, Amys said, “Aviendha, pour the tea.”

The young Aiel woman gave a startled jerk, and her mouth opened twice before she said faintly, “I must brew it yet.” With that she scurried out of the tent on all fours. The second blast from outside dimmed the steam.

The Wise Ones exchanged looks that were almost as surprised as Aviendha’s. And Egwene’s; Aviendha always did even the most onerous chores efficiently, if not always with a good grace. Something must be troubling her greatly, to make her forget a thing like making tea. The Wise Ones always wanted tea.

“More steam, girl,” Melaine said.

That was her, Egwene realized, with Aviendha gone. Hurriedly splashing more water on the rocks, she channeled to heat the stones further, and the kettle, until she heard stones cracking and the kettle itself radiated heat like a furnace. The Aiel might be used to leaping from roasting in their own juices to freezing, but she was not. Hot, thick clouds rolled up to fill the tent. Amys nodded approvingly; she and Melaine could see the glow of saidar surrounding her, of course, though she herself could not. Melaine merely went on scraping with her staera.

Letting go of the True Source, she sat back and leaned close to Bair to whisper, “Has Aviendha done something very wrong?” She did not know how Aviendha would feel about it, but she saw no reason to embarrass her, even behind her back.

Bair had no such compunctions. “You mean her stripes?” she said in a normal voice. “She came to me and said she had lied twice today, though she would not say to whom or about what. It was her own affair, of course, so long as she did not lie to a Wise One, but she claimed her honor required that a toh must be met.”

“She asked you to . . .” Egwene gasped, but could not finish.

Bair nodded as if it were not very much out of the ordinary at all. “I gave her a few extra for troubling me with it. If ji was involved, her obligation is not to me. Very likely her so-called lies were nothing anyone but a Far Dareis Mai would worry about. Maidens, even former Maidens, are sometimes as fussy as men.” Amys gave her a flat look that was plain even in the thick steam. Like Aviendha, Amys had been Far Dareis Mai before becoming a Wise One.

Egwene had never met an Aiel who was not fussy about ji’e’toh, the way she saw it. But this! Aiel were all mad as loons.

Apparently, Bair had already put the matter out of her mind. “There are more Lost Ones in the Three-fold Land than I can ever remember before,” she said to the tent at large. That was what the Aiel had always called the Tinkers, the Tuatha’an.

“They flee the troubles beyond the Dragonwall.” The sneer in Melaine’s voice was clear.

“I have heard,” Amys said slowly, “that some of those who run after the bleakness have gone to the Lost Ones and asked to be taken in.” A long silence followed. They knew now that the Tuatha’an had the same descent as themselves, that they had broken away before the Aiel crossed the Spine of the World into the Waste, but if anything the knowledge had only deepened their aversion.

“He brings change,” Melaine whispered harshly into the steam.

“I thought you were reconciled to the changes he brings,” Egwene said, sympathy welling up in her voice. It must be very hard to have your whole life stood on end. She half-expected to be told to hold her tongue again, but no one did.

“Reconciled,” Bair said, as though tasting the word. “Better to say we endure them, as best we can.”

“He transforms everything.” Amys sounded troubled. “Rhuidean. The Lost Ones. The bleakness, and telling what should not have been told.” The Wise Ones—all the Aiel, for that matter—still had difficulty speaking of that.

“The Maidens cluster about him as though they owe more to him than to their own clans,” Bair added. “For the first time ever, they have allowed a man beneath a Roof of the Maidens.” For a moment Amys looked about to say something, but whatever she knew about the inner workings of Far Dareis Mai she shared with no one but those who were or had been Maidens of the Spear.

“The chiefs no longer listen to us as they did,” Melaine muttered. “Oh, they ask our advice as always—they have not become complete fools—but Bael will no longer tell me what he has said to Rand al’Thor, or Rand al’Thor to him. He says I must ask Rand al’Thor, who tells me to ask Bael. The Car’a’carn, I can do nothing about, but Bael . . . He has always been a stubborn, infuriating man, yet now he is beyond all bounds. Sometimes I want to thump his head with a stick.” Amys and Bair chuckled as if that were a fine joke. Or perhaps they just wanted to laugh to forget the changes for a time.

“There are only three things you can do with a man like that,” Bair chortled. “Stay away from him, kill him, or marry him.”

Melaine stiffened, her sun-dark face going red. For a moment Egwene thought the golden-haired Wise One was about to let fly words hotter than her face. Then a biting gust announced Aviendha’s return carrying a worked silver tray holding a yellow-glazed teapot, delicate cups of golden Sea Folk porcelain, and a stone jar of honey.

She shivered as she poured—no doubt she had not bothered to wrap anything around herself out there—and hurriedly passed around the cups and the honey. She did not fill cups for herself and Egwene until Amys told her she could, of course.

“More steam,” Melaine said; the chill air seemed to have cooled her temper. Aviendha set down her cup untouched and scrambled for the gourd, plainly trying to make up for her lapse with the tea.

“Egwene,” Amys said, sipping her tea, “how would Rand al’Thor take it if Aviendha asked to sleep in his sleeping chamber?” Aviendha froze with the gourd in her hands.

“In his—?” Egwene gasped. “You cannot ask her to do such a thing! You cannot!”

“Fool girl,” Bair muttered. “We do not ask her to share his blankets. But will he think that is what she asks? Will he even allow it? Men are strange creatures at the best, and he was not raised among us, so he is stranger still.”

“He certainly would not think any such thing,” Egwene spluttered, then more slowly, “I don’t think he would. But it isn’t proper. It just isn’t!”

“I ask that you not require this of me,” Aviendha said, sounding more humble than Egwene would have believed she could. She was sprinkling water in jerky motions, sending up increasing clouds of steam. “I have been learning a great deal the past days, not having to spend time with him. Since you have allowed Egwene and Moiraine Sedai to help me with channeling, I learn even faster. Not that they teach any better than you, of course,” she added hastily, “but I want very much to learn.”

“You will still learn,” Melaine told her. “You will not have to stay every hour with him. As long as you apply yourself, your lessons will not be much slowed. You do not study while you sleep.”

“I cannot,” Aviendha mumbled, head down over the water gourd. More loudly, and more firmly, she added, “I will not.” Her head came up, and her eyes were blue-green fire. “I will not be there when he summons that flip-skirt Isendre to his blankets again!”

Egwene gaped at her. “Isendre!” She had seen—and heartily disapproved of—the scandalous way the Maidens kept the woman naked, but this! “You can’t really mean he—”

“Be silent!” Bair snapped like a whip. Her blue-eyed stare could have chipped stone. “Both of you! You are both young, but even the Maidens should know men can be fools, especially when they are not attached to a woman who can guide them.”

“I am glad,” Amys said dryly, “to see you no longer hold your emotions so tightly, Aviendha. Maidens are as foolish as men when it comes to that; I remember it well, and it embarrasses me still. Letting emotions go clouds judgment for a moment, but holding them in clouds it always. Just be sure you do not release them too often, or when it is best to keep control of them.”

Melaine leaned forward on her hands, until it seemed the sweat dripping from her face must fall on the hot kettle. “You know your fate, Aviendha. You will be a Wise One of great strength and great authority, and more besides. You already have a strength in you. It saw you through your first test, and it will see you through this.”

“My honor,” Aviendha said hoarsely, then swallowed, unable to go on. She crouched there, huddling around the gourd as if it contained the honor she wanted to protect.

“The Pattern does not see ji’e’toh,” Bair told her, with only a hint of sympathy, if that. “Only what must and will be. Men and Maidens struggle against fate even when it is clear the Pattern weaves on despite their struggles, but you are no longer Far Dareis Mai. You must learn to ride fate. Only by surrendering to the Pattern can you begin to have some control over the course of your own life. If you fight, the Pattern will still force you, and you will find only misery where you might have found contentment instead.”

To Egwene, that sounded very much like what she had been taught concerning the One Power. To control saidar, you first had to surrender to it. Fight, and it would come wildly, or overwhelm you; surrender and guide it gently, and it did as you wished. But that did not explain why they wanted Aviendha to do this thing. She asked as much, adding again, “It is not proper.”

Instead of answering, Amys said, “Will Rand al’Thor refuse to allow her? We cannot force him.” Bair and Melaine were looking at Egwene as intently as Amys.

They were not going to tell her why. It was easier to make a stone talk than to get something out of a Wise One against her will. Aviendha was studying her toes in sulky resignation; she knew the Wise Ones would get what they wanted, one way or another.

“I don’t know,” Egwene said slowly. “I do not know him as well as I used to.” She regretted that, but so much had happened, quite aside from her realizing that she did not love him as more than a brother. Her training, in the Tower as well as here, had changed things just as much as him being who he had become. “If you give him a good reason, perhaps. I think he likes Aviendha.” The young Aiel woman heaved a heavy sigh without looking up.

“A good reason,” Bair snorted. “When I was a girl, any man would have been overjoyed to have a young woman show that much interest in him. He would have gone to pick the flowers for her bridal wreath himself.” Aviendha started, and glared at the Wise Ones with some of her old spirit. “Well, we will find a reason even someone raised in the wetlands can accept.”

“It is several nights before your agreed meeting in Tel’aran’rhiod,” Amys said. “With Nynaeve, this time.”

“That one could learn much,” Bair put in, “if she were not so stubborn.”

“Your nights are free until then,” Melaine said. “That is, unless you have been entering Tel’aran’rhiod without us.”

Egwene suspected what was coming. “Of course not,” she told them. It had only been a little. Any more than a little, and they would find out for sure.

“Have you succeeded in finding either Nynaeve’s or Elayne’s dreams?” Amys asked. Casually, as if it were nothing.

“No, Amys.”

Finding someone else’s dreams was a lot harder than stepping into Tel’aran’rhiod, the World of Dreams, especially if they were any distance away. It was easier both the closer they were and the better you knew them. The Wise Ones still demanded that she not enter Tel’aran’rhiod without at least one of them along, but someone else’s dream was maybe just as dangerous in its own way. In Tel’aran’rhiod she was in control of herself and of things around her to a large degree, unless one of the Wise Ones decided to take over; her command of Tel’aran’rhiod was increasing, but she still could not match any of them, with their long experience. In another’s dream, though, you were a part of that dream; it took all you could muster not to behave as the dreamer wanted, be as their dream took you, and still sometimes it did not work. The Wise Ones had been very careful when watching Rand’s dreams never to enter fully. Even so they insisted she learn. If they were to teach dreamwalking, they meant to teach all that they knew of it.

She was not reluctant, exactly, but the few times they had let her practice, with themselves and once with Rhuarc, had been chastening experiences. The Wise Ones had some considerable mastery over their own dreams, so what had happened there—to show her the dangers, they said—had all been their doing, but it had been a shock to learn that Rhuarc saw her as a little more than a child, like his youngest daughters. And her own control had wavered for one fatal moment. After that she had been little more than a child; she still could not look at the man without remembering being given a doll for studying hard. And being as pleased with the gift as with his approval. Amys had had to come and take her away from happy play with it. Amys knowing was bad enough, but she suspected that Rhuarc remembered some of it, too.

“You must keep trying,” Amys said. “You have the strength to reach them, even as far as they are. And it will do you no harm to learn how they see you.”

She was not so sure of that herself. Elayne was a friend, but Nynaeve had been Wisdom of Emond’s Field for most of her growing up. She suspected Nynaeve’s dreams would be worse than Rhuarc’s.

“Tonight I will sleep away from the tents,” Amys went on. “Not far. You should be able to find me easily, if you try. If I do not dream of you, we will speak of it in the morning.”

Egwene suppressed a groan. Amys had guided her to Rhuarc’s dreams—she herself had remained only an instant, barely long enough to reveal that Rhuarc still saw her, unchanged, as the young woman he had married—and the Wise Ones had always been in the same tent before when she tried.

“Well,” Bair said, rubbing her hands, “we have heard what needed to be heard. The rest of you can remain if you wish, but I feel clean enough to go to my blankets. I am not so young as the rest of you.” Young or not, she could probably run any of them into the ground, then carry them the rest of the way.

As Bair was getting to her feet, Melaine spoke, and strangely for her, she was hesitant. “I need . . . I must ask your help, Bair. And you, Amys.” The older woman settled back, and both she and Amys looked at Melaine expectantly. “I . . . would ask you to approach Dorindha for me.” The last words came out in a rush. Amys smiled widely, and Bair cackled aloud. Aviendha seemed to understand, too, and be startled, but Egwene was lost.

Then Bair laughed. “You always said you did not need a husband and did not want one. I have buried three, and would not mind another. They are very useful when the night is cold.”

“A woman can change her mind.” Melaine’s voice was firm enough, but belied by the deep flush in her cheeks. “I cannot stay away from Bael, and I cannot kill him. If Dorindha will accept me as her sister-wife, I will make my bridal wreath to lay at Bael’s feet.”

“What if he steps on it instead of picking it up?” Bair wanted to know. Amys fell back, laughing and slapping her thighs.

Egwene did not think there was much danger of that, not the way Aiel customs ran. If Dorindha decided she wanted Melaine for sister-wife, Bael would not have much say in the matter. It no longer shocked her, precisely, that a man could have two wives. Not exactly. Different lands mean different customs, she reminded herself firmly. She had never been able to bring herself to ask, but for all she knew, there might be Aiel women with two husbands. They were very strange people.

“I ask you to act as my first-sisters in this. I think that Dorindha likes me well enough.”

As soon as Melaine spoke those words, the other women’s hilarity changed to something else. They still laughed, but they hugged her and told her how happy they were for her, and how well she would do with Bael. Amys and Bair, at least, took Dorindha’s acceptance for granted. The three of them departed all but arm-in-arm, still laughing and giggling like girls. Not before telling Egwene and Aviendha to straighten the tent, though.

“Egwene, could a woman of your land accept a sister-wife?” Aviendha asked, using a stick to push the cover off the smoke hole.

Egwene wished she had left that duty till last; the heat began to dissipate immediately. “I don’t know,” she said, quickly gathering the cups and the honey jar. The siaera went onto the tray, too. “I don’t think so. Maybe if it was a close friend,” she added hurriedly; there was no point in seeming to denigrate Aiel ways.

Aviendha only grunted and began pushing up the side flaps.

Teeth chattering as loudly as the rattle of teacups and bronze blades on the tray, Egwene scurried outside. The Wise Ones were dressing unhurriedly, as though this were a balmy night and they in sleeping chambers in some hold. A white-robed figure, pale in the moonlight, took the tray from her, and she quickly began searching for her cloak and shoes. They were nowhere among the remaining garments on the ground.

“I had your things taken to your tent,” Bair said, tying the laces of her blouse. “You will not need them yet.”

Egwene’s stomach sank into her feet. Hopping in place, she flapped her arms in a futile effort for warmth; at least they did not tell her to stop. Abruptly she realized the snowy-robed figure bearing the tray away was too tall for even an Aiel woman. Gritting her teeth, she glared at the Wise Ones, who seemed not to care if she froze to death jumping up and down. To the Aielwomen it might not matter that a man had seen them with no clothes on, at least if he was gai’shain, but it did to her!

In a moment, Aviendha joined them and, seeing her leaping about, merely stood there without any effort to find her own garments. She showed no more effect of the cold than the Wise Ones.

“Now,” Bair said, settling her shawl on her shoulders. “You, Aviendha, are not only stubborn as a man, you cannot remember a simple task you have done many times. You, Egwene, are just as stubborn, and you still think you can linger in your tent when you are summoned. Let us hope running fifty times around the camp will temper your stubbornness, clear your minds, and remind you of how to answer a summons or do a chore. Off with you.”

Without a word, Aviendha immediately began loping toward the edge of the camp, easily dodging dark-shrouded tent ropes. Egwene hesitated only a moment before following. The Aiel woman kept her pace down so she could catch up. The night air froze her, and the cracked stony clay underfoot was just as cold, and tried to catch her toes besides. Aviendha ran with effortless ease.

As they reached the last tent and turned southward, Aviendha said, “Do you know why I study so hard?” Neither the cold nor running had made an impression on her voice.

Egwene was shivering so hard she could barely speak. “No. Why?”

“Because Bair and the others always point to you, and tell me how easily you learn, how you never have to have something explained twice. They say I ought to be more like you.” She gave Egwene a sidelong glance, and Egwene found herself sharing a giggle as they ran. “That is part of the reason. The things I am learning to do . . .” Aviendha shook her head, wonderment plain even by moonlight. “And the Power itself. I have never felt like that. So alive. I can smell the faintest scent, feel the slightest stir in the air.”

“It is dangerous to hold on too long or too much,” Egwene said. Running did seem to warm her a little, though now and again a shudder ran through her. “I’ve told you that, and I know the Wise Ones have, too.”

Aviendha merely sniffed. “Do you think I would stab my own foot with a spear?”

For a time they ran in silence.

“Did Rand really . . . ?” Egwene said finally. The cold had nothing to do with her difficulty getting the words out; in fact, she was beginning to sweat again. “I mean . . . Isendre?” She could not make herself say it clearer than that.

At last Aviendha said slowly, “I do not think that he did.” She sounded angry. “But why would she ignore switchings if he has shown no interest in her? She is a milk-hearted wetlander who waits for men to come to her. I saw how he looked at her, though he tried to hide it. He enjoyed looking at her.”

Egwene wondered if her friend ever thought of her as a milk-hearted wetlander. Probably not, or they would not be friends. But Aviendha had never learned to worry if what she said might hurt someone; she would probably be surprised to learn that Egwene could even think of being hurt.

“The way the Maidens make her dress,” Egwene admitted reluctantly, “any man would look.” Reminded that she herself was in the open without any clothes, she stumbled and almost fell as she looked around anxiously. The night was empty as far as she could make out. Even the Wise Ones were already back in their tents. Warm in their blankets. She was sweating, but the beads seemed to want to freeze as soon as they appeared.

“He belongs to Elayne,” Aviendha said fiercely.

“I admit I don’t know your customs fully, but ours are not the same as yours. He is not betrothed to Elayne.” Why am I defending him? He’s the one who ought to be switched! But honesty made her go on. “Even your Aielmen have the right to say no, if they’re asked.”

“You and she are near-sisters, as you and I are,” Aviendha protested, slowing a step before picking it up again. “Did you not ask me to look after him for her? Do you not want her to have him?”

“Of course I do. If he wants her.” That was not exactly true. She wanted Elayne to have what happiness she could, in love with the Dragon Reborn as she was, and she would do everything short of tying Rand hand and foot to see that Elayne got what she wanted. Maybe not far short, at that, if need be. Admitting it was another thing. Aielwomen were far more forward than she could ever make herself be. “It would not be right, otherwise.”

“He belongs to her,” Aviendha said determinedly.

Egwene sighed. Aviendha simply did not want to understand any customs but her own. The Aiel woman was still shocked that Elayne would not ask Rand to marry her, that a man could ask that question. “I’m sure the Wise Ones will listen to reason tomorrow. They can’t make you sleep in a man’s bedchamber.”

The other woman looked at her in clear surprise. For a moment her grace left her, and she stubbed a toe on the uneven ground; the mishap brought a few curses that would have made even Kadere’s wagon drivers listen with interest—and made Bair reach for the bluespine—but she did not stop running. “I do not understand why that upsets you so,” she said when the last curse died. “I have slept next to a man many times on raids, even sharing blankets for warmth if the night was very cold, but it disturbs you that I will sleep within ten feet of him. Is this part of your customs? I have noticed you will not bathe in the sweat tent with men. Do you not trust Rand al’Thor? Or is it me you do not trust?” Her voice had sunk to a concerned whisper by the end.

“Of course I trust you,” Egwene protested heatedly. “And him. It’s just that . . .” She trailed off, uncertain how to go on. Aiel notions of propriety were sometimes stricter than what she had grown up with, but in other ways they would have had the Women’s Circle back home trying to decide whether to faint or reach for a stout stick. “Aviendha, if your honor is involved somehow . . .” This was touchy ground. “Surely if you explain to the Wise Ones, they will not make you go against your honor.”

“There is nothing to explain,” the other woman said flatly.

“I know I don’t understand ji’e’toh . . .” Egwene began, and Aviendha laughed.

“You say you do not understand, Aes Sedai, yet you show that you live by it.” Egwene regretted maintaining that lie with her—it had been hard work to get Aviendha to call her simply Egwene, and sometimes she slipped back—but it had to be kept with everyone if it was to hold with anyone. “You are Aes Sedai, and strong enough in the Power to overcome Amys and Melaine together,” Aviendha continued, “but you said that you would obey, so you scrub pots when they say scrub pots, and you run when they say run. You may not know ji’e’toh, but you follow it.”

It was not the same thing at all, of course. She gritted her teeth and did as she was told because that was the only way to learn dreamwalking, and she wanted to learn, to learn everything, more than anything else she could imagine. To even think that she could live by this foolish ji’e’toh was simply silly. She did what she had to do, and only when and because she had to.

They were coming back to where they had begun. As her foot hit the spot, Egwene said, “That’s one,” and ran on through the darkness with no one to see but Aviendha, no one to say whether she went back to her tent right then. Aviendha would not have told, but it never occurred to Egwene to stop short of the fifty.

CHAPTER

6

Gateways

Rand woke in total darkness and lay there beneath his blankets trying to think of what had wakened him. It had been something. Not the dream; he had been teaching Aviendha how to swim, in a pond in the Waterwood back home in the Two Rivers. Something else. Then it came again, like a faint whiff of a foul miasma creeping under the door. Not a smell at all, really; a sense of otherness, but that was how it felt. Rank, like something dead a week in stagnant water. It faded again, but not all the way this time.

Tossing aside his blankets, he stood up, wrapping himself in saidin. Inside the Void, filled with the Power, he could feel his body shiver, but the cold seemed in another place from where he was. Cautiously he pulled open the door and stepped out. Arched windows at either end of the corridor let in falls of moonlight. After the pitch black of his room, it was nearly like day. Nothing moved, but he could feel . . . something . . . coming closer. Something evil. It felt like the taint that roared through him on the Power.

One hand went to his coat pocket, to the small carved figure of a round little man holding a sword across his knees. An angreal; with that he could channel more of the Power than even he could safely handle unaided. He thought it would not be necessary. Whoever had sent this attack against him did not know who they were dealing with, now. They should never have let him wake.

For a moment, he hesitated. He could take the fight to whatever had been sent against him, but he thought it was still below him. Down where the Maidens were still sleeping, by the silence. With luck, it would not bother them, unless he rushed down to battle it in their midst. That would surely wake them, and they would not stand by and watch. Lan said that you should choose your ground, if you could, and make your enemy come to you.

Smiling, he raced the thud of his boots up the nearest curving stairway, on upward, until he reached the top floor. The highest level of the building was one large chamber with a slightly domed ceiling and scattered thin columns fluted in spirals. Glassless arched windows all around flooded every corner with moonlight. The dust and grit and sand on the floor still faintly showed his own footprints, from the one time he had come up here, and no other mark. It was perfect.

Striding to the center of the room, he planted himself atop the mosaic there, the ancient symbol of the Aes Sedai, ten feet across. It was an apt place. “Under this sign will he conquer.” That was what the Prophecy of Rhuidean said of him. He stood straddling the sinuous dividing line, one boot on the black teardrop that was now called the Dragon’s Fang and used to represent evil, the other on the white now called the Flame of Tar Valon. Some men said it stood for the Light. An appropriate place to meet this attack, between Light and darkness.

The fetid feel grew stronger, and a burned sulphur smell filled the air. Suddenly things moved, slinking away from the stairs like moonshadows, along the outside of the room. Slowly they resolved into three black dogs, darker than night and big as ponies. Eyes shining silver, they circled him warily. With the Power in him, he could hear their hearts beat, like deep drums pounding. He could not hear them breathe, though; perhaps they did not.

He channeled, and a sword was in his hands, its slightly curving, heron-marked blade seeming hammered out of fire. He had expected Myrddraal, or something even worse than the Eyeless, but for dogs, even Shadowspawn dogs, the sword would be enough. Whoever had sent them did not know him. Lan said he had very nearly reached the level of a blademaster, now, and the Warder was sparing enough with praise to make him think he might have passed on to that level already.

With snarls like bones being ground to dust, the dogs hurtled at him from three sides, faster than galloping horses.

He did not move until they were almost on him; then he flowed, one with the sword, move to move, as though dancing. In the blink of an eye the sword form called Whirlwind on the Mountain became The Wind Blows Over the Wall became Unfolding the Fan. Great black heads flew apart from black bodies, their dripping teeth, like burnished steel, still bared as they bounced across the floor. He was already stepping from the mosaic as the dark forms collapsed in twitching, bleeding heaps.

Laughing to himself, he let the sword go, though he held on to saidin, to the raging Power, the sweetness and the taint. Contempt slid along the outside of the Void. Dogs. Shadowspawn, certainly, but still just . . . Laughter died.

Slowly, the dead dogs and their heads were melting, settling into pools of liquid shadow that quivered slightly, as if alive. Their blood, fanned across the floor, trembled. Suddenly the smaller pools flowed across the floor in viscous streams to merge with the larger, which oozed away from the mosaic to mound higher and higher, until the three huge black dogs stood there once more, slavering and snarling as they gathered massive haunches under them.

He did not know why he felt surprise, dim outside the emptiness. Dogs, yes, but Shadowspawn. Whoever had sent them had not been as careless as he had thought. But they still did not know him.

Instead of reaching for the sword again, he channeled as he remembered doing once long ago. Howling, the huge dogs leaped, and a thick shaft of white light shot from his hands, like molten steel, like liquid fire. He swept it across the springing creatures; for an instant they became strange shadows of themselves, all colors reversed, and then they were made of sparkling motes that broke apart, smaller and smaller, until there was nothing.

He let go of the thing he had made, with a grim smile. A purple bar of light still seemed to cross his vision in afterimage.

Across the great chamber a piece of one of the columns crashed to the floor tiles. Where that bar of light—or whatever it had been; not light, exactly—had swung, neat slices were gone from the columns. A gaping swath cut half the width of the wall behind them.

“Did any of them bite you, or bleed on you?”

He spun at the sound of Moiraine’s voice; absorbed in what he had done, he had not heard her come up the stairs. She stood clutching her skirts with both hands, peering at him, face lost in moonshadow. She would have sensed the things the same way he did, but to be here so quickly she must have run. “The Maidens let you pass? Have you become Far Dareis Mai, Moiraine?”

“They grant me some privileges of a Wise One,” she said in a rush, impatience raw in her usually melodious voice. “I told the guards I had to speak with you urgently. Now, answer me! Did the Darkhounds bite you, or bleed on you? Did their saliva touch you?”

“No,” he answered slowly. Darkhounds. The little he knew he had gotten from old stories, the sort used to frighten children in the southlands. Some grown-ups believed, too. “Why should a bite worry you? You could Heal it. Does this mean the Dark One is free?” Enclosed in the Void as he was, even fear was distant.

The tales he had heard said the Darkhounds ran the night in the Wild Hunt, with the Dark One himself the hunter; they left no print on even the softest dirt, only on stone, and they would not stop until you faced and defeated them or put running water between you. Crossroads were supposed to be particularly dangerous places to meet them, and the time just after sunset or just before sunrise. He had seen enough old stories walking by now to believe that any of it could be true.

“No, not that, Rand.” She seemed to be regaining her self-control; her voice was silver chimes again, calm and cool. “They are only another kind of Shadowspawn, something that should never have been made. But their bite is death as surely as a dagger in the heart, and I do not think I could have Healed such a wound before it killed you. Their blood, even their saliva, is poison. A drop on the skin can kill, slowly, with great pain at the end. You are lucky there were only three. Unless you killed more before I arrived? Their packs are usually larger, as many as ten or twelve, or so say the scraps left from the War of the Shadow.”

Larger packs. He was not the only target in Rhuidean for one of the Forsaken. . . .

“We must speak of what you used to kill them,” Moiraine began, but he was already running as hard as he could, ignoring her cries to know where he was going and why.

Down flights of stairs, through darkened corridors where sleepy Maidens, roused by the pounding boots, peered at him in consternation from moonlit rooms. Through the front doors, where Lan stood restlessly with the two women on guard, his color-shifting Warder’s cloak about his shoulders, making parts of him seem to blend into the night.

“Where is Moiraine?” he shouted as Rand dashed by, but Rand leaped down the broad steps two at a time without replying.

The half-healed wound in his side clenched like a fist, pain he was only vaguely aware of inside the Void, by the time he reached the building he sought. It stood at the very edge of Rhuidean, far from the plaza, as far from the camp Moiraine shared with the Wise Ones as it was possible to be and remain in the city. The upper floors had collapsed in a mound of rubble that fanned out onto the cracked earth beyond the pavement. Only the bottom two floors remained whole. Refusing his body’s efforts to hunch over around the pain, he went in, still at a dead run.

Once the great antechamber, encircled by a stone balcony, had been tall; now it was taller, open to the night sky, its pale stone floor strewn with rubble from the collapse. In the moonshadows beneath the balcony, three Darkhounds were up on their hind legs, clawing and chewing at a bronze-clad door that shivered under their assault. The smell of burned sulphur hung strong in the air.

Remembering what had happened before, Rand darted to one side as he channeled, the shaft of liquid white fire streaking by the door as it destroyed the Shadowspawn. He had tried to make it less this time, to confine the destruction to the Darkhounds, but the thick wall at the far end of the chamber had a shadowed hole in it. Not all the way through, he thought—it was hard to tell by moonlight—but he would have to fine his control of this weapon.

The bronze sheathing on the door was tattered and torn as though the teeth and toenails of the Darkhounds really had been steel; lamplight shone through a number of small holes. There were pawprints in the floor-stones, but surprisingly few. Releasing saidin, he found a place where he would not cut his hand to shreds and pounded on the door. Suddenly the pain in his side was very real and present; he took a deep breath and tried to thrust it away. “Mat? It’s me, Rand! Open up, Mat!”

After a moment, the door opened a crack, letting out a spill of lamplight; Mat peered through doubtfully, then pulled the door wider, leaning against it as if he had run ten miles carrying a sack of rocks. Except for a silver foxhead medallion hanging around his neck, its eye shaped and shaded like the ancient Aes Sedai symbol, he was naked. The way Mat felt about Aes Sedai, Rand was surprised he had not sold the thing long since. Deeper in the room, a tall, golden-haired woman was calmly wrapping a blanket around herself. A Maiden, by the spears and buckler lying at her feet.

Rand hastily averted his eyes and cleared his throat. “I just wanted to make sure you were all right.”

“We’re fine.” Uneasily, Mat looked around the antechamber. “Now we are. You killed it, or something? I don’t want to know what it was, as long as it’s gone. It’s bloody hard on a man sometimes, being your friend.”

Not only a friend. Another ta’veren, and perhaps a key to victory in Tarmon Gai’don; anyone who wanted to strike at Rand had reason to strike at Mat, as well. But Mat always tried to deny both things. “They’re gone, Mat. Darkhounds. Three of them.”

“I told you I didn’t want to know,” Mat groaned. “Darkhounds now. I can’t say it isn’t always something new around you. A man wouldn’t get bored; not until the day he died. If I hadn’t been on my feet for a drink of wine when the door started to open . . .” He trailed off, shivering, and scratched a red place on his right arm as he studied the ravaged metal sheathing. “You know, it’s funny how the mind plays tricks. When I was putting everything I had into holding this door shut, I could have sworn one of them had chewed a hole right through it. I could see its bloody head. And its teeth. Melindhra’s spear didn’t even faze it.”

Moiraine’s arrival was more spectacular this time, running in, skirts held up, panting and fuming. Lan was at her heels with his sword in hand and thunderclouds on his stone face, and right behind, a throng of Far Dareis Mai that spilled out into the street. Some of the Maidens wore no more than smallclothes, but every one held her spears alertly and had her shoufa wrapped around her head, black veil hiding all but her eyes, ready to kill. Moiraine and Lan, at least, looked relieved to see him standing there calmly talking to Mat, though the Aes Sedai also looked as if she meant to have strong words with him. With the veils, it was impossible to tell what the Aiel thought.

Letting out a loud yelp, Mat darted back into his room and began hastily tugging on a pair of breeches, his capering impeded by the way he kept trying to haul at the breeches and scratch his arm at the same time. The golden-haired Maiden watched with a broad grin that threatened to break into laughter.

“What’s the matter with your arm?” Rand asked.

“I told you the mind plays funny tricks,” Mat said, still trying to scratch and pull at the same time. “When I thought that thing chewed through the door, I thought it slobbered all over my arm, too, and now it bloody itches like fire. Even looks like a burn there.”

Rand opened his mouth, but Moiraine was already pushing past him. Staring at her, Mat fell down while frantically dragging his breeches on the rest of the way, but she knelt beside him, ignoring his protests, clasping his head in her hands. Rand had been Healed before, and seen it done, but instead of what he expected, Mat only gave a shiver and lifted up the medallion by its leather thong so that it hung against his hand.

“Bloody thing is colder than ice all of a sudden,” he muttered. “What are you doing, Moiraine? If you want to do something, Heal this itch; it has my whole arm now.” His right arm was red from wrist to shoulder, and had begun to look puffy.

Moiraine stared at him with the most startled expression Rand had ever seen on her face. Maybe the only one. “I will,” she said slowly. “If the medallion is cold, take it off.”

Mat frowned at her, then finally pulled it over his head and laid it beside him. She took his head again, and he gave a shout as if he had been ducked headfirst into ice; his legs stiffened and his back arched; his eyes stared at nothing, as wide as they would go. When Moiraine took her hands away, he slumped, gulping air. The redness and swelling were gone. It took three tries before he could speak. “Blood and ashes! Does it have to be that flaming way every flaming time? It was just a bloody itch!”

“You watch your tongue with me,” Moiraine told him, getting up, “or I will find Nynaeve and put her in charge of you.” But her heart was not in it; she could have been talking in her sleep. She was trying not to stare at the foxhead as Mat hung it back around his neck. “You will need rest,” she said absently. “Stay in bed tomorrow, if you feel like it.”

The Maiden in the blanket—Melindhra?—knelt behind Mat and put her hands on his shoulders, looking up at Moiraine over his head. “I will see that he does as you say, Aes Sedai.” With a sudden grin, she ruffled his hair. “He is my little mischief maker, now.” From the horrified look on Mat’s face, he was gathering his strength to run.

Rand became aware of soft, amused chuckles behind him. The Maidens, shoufas and veils around their shoulders now, had crowded around and were peering into the room.

“Teach him to sing, spear-sister,” Adelin said, and the other Maidens crowed with laughter.

Rand rounded on them firmly. “Let the man rest. Don’t some of you have to put on clothes?” They gave way reluctantly, still trying to peer into the room, until Moiraine came out.

“Will you leave us, please?” the Aes Sedai said as the mangled door banged shut behind her. She half looked back with a vexed tightening of her mouth. “I must speak with Rand al’Thor alone.” Nodding, the Aiel women started for the door, some still jesting about whether Melindhra—a Shaido, it seemed; Rand wondered if Mat knew that—would teach Mat to sing. Whatever that meant.

Rand stopped Adelin with a hand on her bare arm; others who noticed stopped as well, so he spoke to them all. “If you will not go when I tell you to, what will you do if I have to use you in battle?” He did not intend to if he could help it; he knew they were fierce warriors, but he had been raised to believe it was a man’s place to die if necessary before a woman had to. Logic might say it was foolish, especially with women like this, but that was how he felt. He knew better than to tell them that, however. “Will you think it a joke, or decide to go in your own good time?”

They looked at him with the consternation of those listening to someone who had revealed his ignorance of the simplest facts. “In the dance of spears,” Adelin told him, “we will go as you direct, but this is not the dance. Besides, you did not tell us to go.”

“Even the Car’a’carn is not a wetlander king,” a gray-haired Maiden added. Sinewy and hard despite her age, she wore only a short shift and her shoufa. He was getting tired of that phrase.

The Maidens resumed their joking as they left him alone with Moiraine and Lan. The Warder had finally put up his sword, and looked as at ease as he ever did. Which was to say as still and calm as his face, all stony planes and angles in the moonlight, and with an air of being on the brink of sudden movement that made the Aiel appear placid in comparison. A braided leather cord held Lan’s hair, graying at the temples, back from his face. His gaze could have come from a blue-eyed hawk.

“I must speak with you about—” Moiraine began.

“We can talk tomorrow,” Rand said, cutting her off. Lan’s face hardened further, if such was possible; Warders were far more protective of their Aes Sedai, of their position as well as their persons, than they were of themselves. Rand ignored Lan. His side still wanted to hunch him over, but he managed to keep erect; he was not about to show her any weakness. “If you think I’ll help you get that foxhead away from Mat, you can think again.” Somehow that medallion had stopped her channeling. Or at least it had stopped her channeling from affecting Mat while he touched it. “He paid a hard price for it, Moiraine, and it is his.” Thinking of how she had thumped his shoulders with the Power, he added dryly, “Maybe I’ll ask if I can borrow it from him.” He turned away from her. There was still one he had to check on, though one way or another the urgency was gone; the Darkhounds would have done what they intended by now.

“Please, Rand,” Moiraine said, and the open pleading in her voice halted him in his tracks. He had never heard anything like that from her before.

The tone seemed to offend Lan. “I thought you had become a man,” the Warder said harshly. “Is this how a man behaves? You act like an arrogant boy.” Lan practiced the sword with him—and liked him, Rand thought—but if Moiraine said the right word, the Warder would do his best to kill him.

“I will not be with you forever,” Moiraine said urgently. Her hands gripped her skirts so hard that they trembled. “I might die in the next attack. I could fall from my horse and break my neck, or take a Darkfriend’s arrow through my heart, and death cannot be Healed. I have given my entire life to the search for you, to find you and help you. You still do not know your own strength; you cannot know half of what you do. I—apologize—most humbly for any offense I have given you.” Those words—words he had never thought to hear from her—came out as if dragged, but they came; and she could not lie. “Let me help you as much as I can, while I can. Please.”

“It’s hard to trust you, Moiraine.” He disregarded Lan, shifting in the moonlight; his attention was all on her. “You have handled me like a puppet, made me dance the way you wanted, from the day we met. The only times I’ve been free of you were either when you were far away or when I ignored you. And you make even that hard.”

Her laugh was as silvery as the moon above, but bitterness tinged it. “It has been more like wrestling with a bear than pulling strings on a puppet. Do you want an oath not to try manipulating you? I give it.” Her voice hardened to crystal. “I even swear to obey you like one of the Maidens—like one of the gai’shain, if you require—but you must—” Taking a deep breath, she began again, more softly. “I ask you, humbly, to allow me to help you.”

Lan was staring at her, and Rand thought his own eyes must be popping out of his head. “I will accept your help,” he said slowly. “And I apologize, too. For all the rudeness I’ve shown.” He had the feeling he was still being manipulated—he had had good cause to be rude, when he was—but she could not lie.

Tension drained from her visibly. She stepped closer to look up at him. “What you used to kill the Darkhounds is called balefire. I can still sense the residue of it here.” He could, too, like the fading smell remaining after a pie was carried out of the room, or the memory of something just snatched out of sight. “Since before the Breaking of the World, the use of balefire has been forbidden. The White Tower forbids us even to learn it. In the War of Power, the Forsaken and the Shadowsworn themselves used it only reluctantly.”

“Forbidden?” Rand said, frowning. “I saw you use it once.” He could not be sure in the pale light of the moon, but he thought color flamed in her cheeks. For this once, perhaps she was the one off balance.

“Sometimes it is necessary to do that which is forbidden.” If she was flustered, it did not show in her voice. “When anything is destroyed with balefire, it ceases to exist before the moment of its destruction, like a thread that burns away from where the flame touched it. The greater the power of the balefire, the further back in time it ceases to exist. The strongest I can manage will remove only a few seconds from the Pattern. You are much stronger. Very much so.”

“But if it doesn’t exist before you destroy it . . .” Rand raked fingers through his hair in confusion.

“You begin to see the problems, the dangers? Mat remembers seeing one of the Darkhounds chew through the door, but there is no opening, now. If it had slavered on him as much as he remembers, he would have been dead before I could reach him. For as far back as you destroyed the creature, whatever it did during that time no longer happened. Only the memories remain, for those who saw or experienced it. Only what it did before is real, now. A few tooth holes in the door, and one drop of saliva on Mat’s arm.”

“That sounds just fine to me,” he told her. “Mat’s alive because of it.”

“It is terrible, Rand.” An urgent note entered her voice. “Why do you think even the Forsaken feared to use it? Think of the effect on the Pattern of a single thread, one man, removed from hours, or days, that have already been woven, like one thread picked partly out of a piece of cloth. Fragments of manuscripts remaining from the War of Power say several entire cities were destroyed with balefire before both sides realized the dangers. Hundreds of thousands of threads pulled from the Pattern, gone for days already past; whatever those people had done, now no longer had been done, and neither had what others had done because of their actions. The memories remained, but not the actions. The ripples were incalculable. The Pattern itself nearly unraveled. It could have been the destruction of everything. World, time, Creation itself.”

Rand shivered, nothing to do with the cold cutting through his coat. “I can’t promise not to use it again, Moiraine. You yourself said there are times when it’s necessary to do what’s forbidden.”

“I did not think that you would,” she said coolly. Her agitation was vanishing, her balance restored. “But you must be careful.” She was back to “must” again. “With a sa’angreal like Callandor, you could annihilate a city with balefire. The Pattern could be disrupted for years to come. Who can say that the weave would even remain centered on you, ta’veren as you are, until it settled down? Being ta’veren, and so strongly so, may be your margin of victory, even in the Last Battle.”

“Perhaps it will,” he said bleakly. In tale after heroic tale, the protagonist proclaimed he would have victory or death. It seemed that the best he could hope for was victory and death. “I have to check on someone,” he went on quietly. “I will see you in the morning.” Gathering the Power into him, life and death in swirling layers, he made a hole in the air taller than he was, opening into blackness that made the moonlight seem day. A gateway, Asmodean called it.

“What is that?” Moiraine gasped.

“Once I’ve done something, I remember how. Most of the time.” That was no answer, but it was time to test Moiraine’s vows. She could not lie, but Aes Sedai could find loopholes in a stone. “You are to leave Mat alone tonight. And you won’t try to take that medallion away from him.”

“It belongs in the Tower for study, Rand. It must be a ter’angreal, but none has ever been found that—”

“Whatever it is,” he said firmly, “it is his. You will leave it with him.”

For a moment she seemed to struggle with herself, back stiffening and head coming up as she stared at him. She could not be used to taking orders from anyone except Siuan Sanche, and Rand was willing to wager she had never done that without a tussle. Finally she nodded, and even made the suggestion of a curtsy. “As you say, Rand. It is his. Please be careful, Rand. Learning a thing like balefire by yourself can be suicide, and death cannot be Healed.” This time there was no mockery. “Until the morning.” Lan followed her as she left, the Warder giving Rand an unreadable expression; he would not be pleased by this turn of events.

Rand stepped through the gateway, and it vanished.

He was standing on a disc, a six-foot copy of the ancient Aes Sedai symbol. Even the black half of it seemed lighter against the endless darkness that surrounded him, above and below; he was sure that if he fell off, he would fall forever. Asmodean claimed there was a faster method, called Traveling, for using a gateway, but he had not been able to teach it, partly because he did not have the strength to make a gateway while wearing Lanfear’s shield. In any case, Traveling required that you know your starting point very well. It seemed more logical to him that you should have to know where you were heading well, but Asmodean seemed to think that that was like asking why air was not water. There was a great deal that Asmodean took for granted. Anyway, Skimming was fast enough.

As soon as he planted his boots on it, the disc lurched what seemed to be a foot and stopped, another gateway appearing in front of it. Fast enough, especially over this short distance. Rand stepped into the hallway outside the room where Asmodean was.

The moon through the windows at the ends of the corridor gave the only light; Asmodean’s lamp was out. The flows he had woven around the room were still in place, still firmly tied. Nothing moved, but there was still a faint smell of burned sulphur.

Moving close to the bead curtain, he peered through the doorway. Moonshadows filled the room, but one of them was Asmodean, tossing in his blankets. Wrapped in the Void, Rand could hear his heartbeat, smell the sweat of troubled dreams. He bent to examine the pale blue floor tiles, and the prints impressed in them.

He had learned to track as a boy, and reading them was no difficulty. Three or four Darkhounds had been there. They had approached the doorway one by one, it seemed, each stepping almost in the others’ footprints. Had the net woven around the room stopped them there? Or had they merely been sent to look, and report? Troubling to think of even Shadowspawn dogs having that much intelligence. But then, Myrddraal used ravens and rats for spies, too, and other animals closely linked to death. Shadoweyes, the Aiel called them.

Channeling fine flows of Earth, he smoothed out the floor tiles, lifting up the compressions until he was out in the empty, night-cloaked street and a hundred paces from the tall building. In the morning, anyone would be able to see the trail ending there, but none would suspect that the Darkhounds had gone anywhere near Asmodean. Darkhounds could have no interest in Jasin Natael the gleeman.

Every Maiden in the city was likely awake by this time; certainly none would still be asleep under the Roof of the Maidens. Making another gateway there in the street, a deeper blackness against the night, he let the disc carry him back to his own room. He wondered why he had chosen the ancient symbol—it was his choice, if unconscious; other times it had been a stairstep or a piece of floor. The Darkhounds had oozed away from that sign before re-forming. Under this sign will he conquer.

Standing in his pitch-black bedchamber, he channeled the lamps alight, but he did not let go of saidin. Instead he channeled again, careful not to spring any of his own traps, and a piece of the wall vanished, revealing a niche he had carved there himself.

In the little alcove stood two figurines a foot tall, a man and a woman, each in flowing robes and serene of face, each holding a crystal globe aloft in one hand. He had lied to Asmodean about them.

There were angreal, like the round little man in Rand’s coat pocket, and sa’angreal, like Callandor, that increased the amount of the Power that could be safely handled as much over angreal as angreal did over channeling unaided. Both were very rare, and prized by Aes Sedai, though they could only recognize those attuned to women and saidar. These two figures were something else, not so rare, but just as highly valued. Ter’angreal had been made to use the Power not to magnify it, but to use it in specific ways. The Aes Sedai did not know the intended purpose even of most ter’angreal they had in the White Tower; some they used, but without knowing whether the use they put them to was anything like the function they had been made for. Rand knew the function of these two.

The male figure could link him to a huge replica of itself, the most powerful male sa’angreal ever made, even if he were on the other side of the Aryth Ocean from it. It had only been finished after the Dark One’s prison was resealed—How do I know that?—and hidden before any of the male Aes Sedai going mad could find it. The female figure could do the same for a woman, joining her to the female equivalent of the great statue he hoped was still almost completely buried in Cairhien. With that much power . . . Moiraine had said death could not be Healed.

Unbidden, unwanted, memory returned of the next-to-last time he had dared let himself hold Callandor, images floating beyond the Void.

The body of the dark-haired girl, little more than a child, lay sprawled with eyes wide and fixed on the ceiling, blood blackening the bosom of her dress where a Trolloc had run her through.

The Power was in him. Callandor blazed, and he was the Power. He channeled, directing flows into the child’s body, searching, trying, fumbling; she lurched to her feet, arms and legs unnaturally rigid and jerky.

“Rand, you cannot do this,” Moiraine cried. “Not this!”

Breathe. She had to breathe. The girl’s chest rose and fell. Heart. Had to beat. Blood already thick and dark oozed from the wound in her chest. Live, burn you! his mind howled. I didn’t mean to be too late! Her eyes stared at him, filmed, heedless of all the Power in him. Lifeless. Tears trickled unheeded down his cheeks.

He forced the memory away roughly; even encased in the Void, it hurt. With this much Power . . . With this much Power, he could not be trusted. “You are not the Creator,” Moiraine had told him as he stood over that child. But with that male figure, with only half of its power, he had made the mountains move, once. With far less, with only Callandor, he had been sure he could turn back the Wheel, make a dead child live. Not only the One Power was seductive; the power of it was, too. He should destroy them both. Instead he rewove the flows, reset the traps.

“What are you doing there?” a woman’s voice said as the wall became apparently whole again.

Tying off the flows hastily—and the knot with its own deadly surprises—he pulled the Power into him and turned.

Beside Lanfear, in her white and silver, Elayne or Min or Aviendha would look almost ordinary. Her dark eyes alone were enough to make a man give up his soul. At the sight of her, his stomach clenched until he wanted to vomit.

“What do you want?” he demanded. Once he had blocked Egwene and Elayne both from the True Source, but he could not remember how. So long as Lanfear could touch the Source, he had more chance of catching the wind in his hands than of holding her prisoner. One flash of balefire, and . . . He could not do it. She was one of the Forsaken, but the memory of a woman’s head rolling on the ground stopped him dead.

“You have two of them,” she said finally. “I thought I glimpsed . . . One is a woman, isn’t it?” Her smile could have halted a man’s heart and made him grateful. “You are beginning to consider my plan, aren’t you? With those, together, the other Chosen will kneel at our feet. We can supplant the Great Lord himself, challenge the Creator. We—”

“You were always ambitious, Mierin.” His voice grated in his ears. “Why do you think I turned away from you? It wasn’t Ilyena, whatever you like to think. You were out of my heart long before ever I met her. Ambition is all there is to you. Power is all you ever wanted. You disgust me!”

She stared at him, both hands pressed hard against her stomach, her dark eyes even larger than usual. “Graendal said . . .” she began faintly. Swallowing, she began again. “Lews Therin? I love you, Lews Therin. I have always loved you, and I always will. You know that. You must!”

Rand’s face was like rock; he hoped it hid his shock. He had no idea where his words had come from, but it seemed he could remember her. A dim memory, from before. I am not Lews Therin Telamon! “I am Rand al’Thor!” he said harshly.

“Of course you are.” Studying him, she nodded slowly to herself. That cool composure returned. “Of course. Asmodean has been telling you things, about the War of Power, and me. He lies. You did love me. Until that yellow-haired trollop Ilyena stole you.” For an instant, rage made her face a contorted mask; he did not think she was even aware of it. “Did you know that Asmodean severed his own mother? What they call stilling, now. Severed her, and let Myrddraal drag her away screaming. Can you trust a man like that?”

Rand laughed aloud. “After I caught him, you helped trap him so he had to teach me. And now you say I cannot trust him?”

“For teaching.” She sniffed dismissively. “He will do that because he knows his lot is cast with you for good. Even if he managed to convince the others that he has been a prisoner, they would still tear him apart, and he knows it. The weakest dog in the pack often suffers that fate. Besides, I watch his dreams on occasion. He dreams of you triumphing over the Great Lord and putting him up beside you on high. Sometimes he dreams of me.” Her smile said those dreams were pleasant for her, but not so for Asmodean. “But he will try to turn you against me.”

“Why are you here?” he demanded. Turn against her? No doubt she was full of the Power right that moment, ready to shield him if she even suspected he meant to try anything. She had done it before, with humiliating ease.

“I like you like this. Arrogant and proud, full of your own strength.”

Once she had said that she liked him unsure, that Lews Therin had been too arrogant. “Why are you here?”

“Rahvin sent the Darkhounds after you tonight,” she said calmly, folding her hands at her waist. “I would have come sooner, to help you, but I cannot let the others know I am on your side yet.”

On his side. One of the Forsaken loved him, or rather the man he had been three thousand years ago, and all she wanted was for him to give his soul to the Shadow and rule the world with her. Or a step below her, at least. That, and try to replace both the Dark One and the Creator. Was she completely mad? Or could the power of those two huge sa’angreal really be as great as she claimed? That was a direction he did not want his thoughts to take.

“Why would Rahvin choose now to attack me? Asmodean says he looks to his own interests, that he’ll sit to one side even in the Last Battle, if he can, and wait for the Dark One to destroy me. Why not Sammael, or Demandred? Asmodean says they hate me.” Not me. They hate Lews Therin. But to the Forsaken, that was the same thing. Please, Light, I am Rand al’Thor. He pushed away a sudden memory of this woman in his arms, both of them young and just learning what they could do with the Power. I am Rand al’Thor! “Why not Semirhage, or Moghedien, or Graen—?”

“But you are impinging on his interests now.” She laughed. “Don’t you know where he is? In Andor, in Caemlyn itself. He rules there in all but name. Morgase simpers and dances for him, her and half a dozen others.” Her lip curled in disgust. “He has men scouring town and countryside to find new pretties for him.”

For a moment shock held him. Elayne’s mother in the hands of one of the Forsaken. Yet he dared not show concern. Lanfear had displayed her jealousy more than once; she was capable of hunting Elayne down and killing her, if she even thought he had feelings for her. What do I feel for her? Aside from that, one hard fact floated beyond the Void, cold and cruel in its truth. He would not run off to attack Rahvin even if what Lanfear said was true. Forgive me, Elayne, but I can’t. She might well be lying—she would weep no tears for any of the other Forsaken he killed; they all stood in the way of her own plans—but in any event, he was done with reacting to what others did. If he reacted, they could reason out what he would do. Let them react to him, and be as surprised as Lanfear and Asmodean had been.

“Does Rahvin think I’ll rush to defend Morgase?” he said. “I have seen her once in my life. The Two Rivers is part of Andor on a map, but I never saw a Queen’s Guardsman there. No one has in generations. Tell a Two Rivers man Morgase is his queen, and he’ll probably think you’re crazy.”

“I doubt Rahvin expects you to run to defend your homeland,” Lanfear said wryly, “but he will expect you to defend your ambitions. He means to sit Morgase on the Sun Throne, too, and use her like a puppet until the time he can come into the open. More Andoran soldiers move into Cairhien every day. And you sent Tairen soldiers north, to secure your own hold on the land. No wonder that he attacked you as soon as he found you.”

Rand shook his head. It had not been that way at all, sending the Tairens, but he did not expect her to understand. Or believe him if he told her, for that matter. “I thank you for the warning.” Politeness to one of the Forsaken! Of course, there was nothing he could do except hope that some of what she told him was truth. A good reason not to kill her. She’ll tell you more than she thinks, if you listen carefully. He hoped that was his own thought, chill and cynical as it was.

“You ward your dreams against me.”

“Against everyone.” That was simple truth, though she was at least as prominent in the list as the Wise Ones.

“Dreams are mine. You and your dreams are mine especially.” Her face remained smooth, but her voice hardened. “I can break through your warding. You would not like it.”

To show his unconcern, he sat down on the foot of his pallet, legs folded and hands on his knees. He thought his face was as calm as hers. Inside him, the Power swelled. He had flows of Air ready to bind her, and flows of Spirit. That was what wove a shield against the True Source. The racking of his brain for the how of it seemed far off, but he could not remember anyway. Without that, the other was useless. She could pick apart or slice through anything he wove, even if she could not see it. Asmodean was trying to teach him that trick, but it was hard going without a woman’s weaving to practice on.

Lanfear eyed him in a disconcerted fashion, a slight frown marring her beauty. “I have examined the Aielwomen’s dreams. These so-called Wise Ones. They do not know how to shield themselves very well. I could frighten them till they never dream again, never even think of invading yours surely.”

“I thought you would not help me openly.” He did not dare tell her to leave the Wise Ones alone; she might well do something to spite him. She had made it plain from the start, if not in words, that she meant to have the upper hand between them. “Wouldn’t that risk another of the Forsaken finding out? You aren’t the only one who knows how to enter people’s dreams.”

“The Chosen,” she said absently. For a moment she chewed a full underlip. “I have watched the girl’s dreams, too. Egwene. Once I thought you had feelings for her. Do you know who she dreams of? Morgase’s son and stepson. The son, Gawyn, most often.” Smiling, she put on a tone of mock shock. “You would not believe a simple country girl could have such dreams.”

She was trying to test his jealousy, he realized. She really thought he warded his dreams to hide thoughts of another woman! “The Maidens guard me closely,” he said dryly. “If you want to know how close, look at Isendre’s dreams.”

Spots of color flared in her cheeks. Of course. He was not supposed to see what she was trying. Confusion rolled outside the Void. Or did she think . . . ? Isendre? Lanfear knew she was a Darkfriend. Lanfear had brought Kadere and the woman to the Waste in the first place. And planted most of the jewelry Isendre was accused of stealing; Lanfear’s spite was cruel even when petty. Still, if she thought he could love her, Isendre being a Darkfriend was probably no obstacle in her eyes.

“I should have let them send her off to try reaching the Dragonwall,” he went on casually, “but who knows what she might have said to save herself? I must protect her and Kadere to some extent in order to protect Asmodean.”

The color faded, but as she opened her mouth again, a knock came at the door. Rand bounded to his feet. No one would recognize Lanfear, yet if a woman were discovered in his room, a woman whom none of the Maidens below had seen enter, questions would be asked and he had no answers.

But Lanfear already had a gateway open, to somewhere full of white silk hangings and silver. “Remember that I am your only hope of surviving, my love.” It was a very cool voice in which to call someone that. “Beside me, you need fear nothing. Beside me, you can rule—everything that is or will be.” Lifting her snowy skirts, she stepped through, and the gateway winked shut.

The knock sounded again before he could make himself push away saidin and haul open the door.

Enaila peered past him suspiciously, muttering, “I thought perhaps Isendre. . . .” She gave him an accusing look. “Spear-sisters are searching everywhere for you. No one saw you return.” With a shake of her head, she straightened; she always tried to stand as tall as possible. “The chiefs have come to speak with the Car’a’carn,” she said formally. “They wait below.”

They waited on the columned portico, as it turned out, being men. The sky was still dark, but the first glimmers of dawn lined the mountains to the east. If they felt any impatience with the two Maidens who stood between them and the tall doors, it did not show on their shadowed faces.

“The Shaido are moving,” Han barked as soon as Rand appeared. “And the Reyn, the Miagoma, the Shiande. . . . Every clan!”

“Joining Couladin, or me?” Rand demanded.

“The Shaido are moving toward the Jangai Pass,” Rhuarc said. “For the others, it is too early to tell. But they are on the march with every spear not needed to defend the holds, herds and flocks.”

Rand only nodded. All of his determination not to let anyone else dictate what he would do, and now this. Whatever the other clans intended, Couladin had to plan a crossing into Cairhien. So much for his grand schemes of imposing peace, if the Shaido ravaged Cairhien even further while he sat in Rhuidean waiting for the other clans.

“Then we move for the Jangai, too,” he said finally.

“We cannot catch him if he means to cross,” Erim cautioned, and Han added sourly, “If any of the others are joining him, we will be caught strung out like blindworms in the sun.”

“I won’t sit here until I find out,” Rand said. “If I can’t catch Couladin, I mean to be right behind him into Cairhien. Rouse the spears. We leave as soon after first light as you can manage.”

Giving him that odd Aiel bow used only on the most formal occasions, one foot forward and one hand extended, the chiefs departed. Only Han said anything. “To Shayol Ghul itself.”

CHAPTER

7

A Departure

Yawning in the early-morning grayness, Egwene pulled herself up onto her fog-colored mare, then had to handle her reins smartly as Mist frisked about. The animal had not been ridden in weeks. Aiel not only preferred their own legs, they avoided riding almost completely, though they did use packhorses and pack mules. Even if there had been enough wood to build wagons, the terrain in the Waste was not hospitable to wheels, as more than one peddler had learned to his or her sorrow.

She was not looking forward to the long journey west. The mountains hid the sun now, but the heat would grow by the hour once it climbed clear, and there would be no convenient tent to duck into at nightfall. She was not certain that Aiel garb was suitable for riding, either. The shawl, worn over her head, always did a surprisingly good job of keeping the sun off, but those bulky skirts would bare her legs to the thigh if she was not careful. Blisters worried her as much as modesty. The sun on one side, and . . . A month out of the saddle should not have softened her that much. She hoped it had not, or this would be a very long journey.

Once she had settled Mist down, Egwene found Amys looking at her, and shared a smile with the Wise One. All of that running the night before was not the reason she was still sleepy; if anything, it had helped her sleep even more soundly. She had found the other woman’s dreams last night, and in celebration they had sipped tea in the dream, in Cold Rocks Hold, early on an evening when children were playing among the crop-planted terraces and a pleasant breeze blew down the valley as the sun sank.

Of course, that would not have been enough to steal her rest, but she had been so exultant that when she left Amys’ dreams, she did not stop; she could not, not then, no matter what Amys would have said. There had been dreams all around, though with most she had no idea whose they were. With most, not all. Melaine had been dreaming of suckling a babe at her breast, and Bair of one of her dead husbands, both of them young and yellow-haired. She had been especially careful not to enter those; the Wise Ones would have known an intruder in an instant, and she shuddered to think of what they would have done before letting her go.

Rand’s dreams had been a challenge, of course, one she could not fail to face. Now that she could flit from dream to dream, how could she not try where the Wise Ones failed? Only, attempting to enter his dreams had been like running headlong into an invisible stone wall. She knew that his dreams lay on the other side, and she was sure she could find a way through, but there had been nothing to work on, nothing to pry at. A wall of nothing. It was a problem she meant to worry at until she solved it. Once she put her mind on something, she could be as persistent as a badger.

All around her gai’shain were bustling about, loading the Wise Ones’ camp onto mules. Before long, only an Aiel or someone just as skilled at tracking would be able to tell there had ever been tents on that patch of hard clay. The same activity covered the surrounding mountain slopes, and the hubbub extended into the city, as well. Not everyone would be going, but thousands would. Aiel thronged the streets, and Master Kadere’s train of wagons stood strung out across the great plaza, laden with Moiraine’s selections, the three white-painted water wagons at the end of the line like huge barrels on wheels behind twenty-mule teams. Kadere’s own wagon, at the head of the column, was a little white house on wheels, with steps at the back and a metal stovepipe sticking out of the flat roof. The thick, hawk-nosed merchant, all in ivory-colored silk today, swept off his incongruously battered hat as she rode past, his dark, tilted eyes not sharing in the wide smile he flashed at her .

She ignored him frostily. His dreams had been decidedly dark and unpleasant, where they were not lewd as well. He ought to have his head dunked in a cask of bluespine tea, she thought grimly.

Approaching the Roof of the Maidens, she threaded her way through scurrying gai’shain and patiently standing mules. To her surprise, one of those loading the Maidens’ things wore a black robe, not white. A woman, by the size of her, and staggering under the weight of a cord-tied bundle on her back. Bending as she guided Mist past, to get a look inside the woman’s cowl, Egwene saw Isendre’s haggard face, sweat already rolling down her cheeks. She was glad the Maidens had stopped letting the woman go outside—or sending her out—more naked than not, but it did seem needlessly cruel to robe her in black. If she was sweating so hard already, she would nearly die once the day’s heat took hold.

Still, Far Dareis Mai business was none of hers. Aviendha had told her so gently but firmly. Adelin and Enaila had been little short of rude about it, and a wiry, white-haired Maiden named Sulin had actually threatened to haul her back to the Wise Ones by her ear. Despite her efforts to persuade Aviendha to stop addressing her as “Aes Sedai,” it had been irritating to find that after walking a fine line of uncertainty toward her, the rest of the Maidens had come down on the side of her being just another pupil of the Wise Ones. Why, they would not even let her past the door of the Roof unless she claimed to be on an errand.

The quickness with which she heeled Mist on through the crowd had nothing to do with acceptance of Far Dareis Mai justice, or her uncomfortable awareness that some of the Maidens were eyeing her, no doubt ready to lecture if they thought she intended to interfere. It even had little to do with her dislike of Isendre. She did not want to think about her glimpse of the woman’s dreams, just before Cowinde had come to rouse her. They had been nightmares of torture, of things being done to the woman that sent Egwene fleeing in horror, and with something dark and evil laughing as it watched her run. No wonder Isendre looked haggard. Egwene had started up out of her sleep so quickly that Cowinde had jumped back from laying a hand on her shoulder.

Rand was in the street in front of the Maidens’ Roof, wearing a shoufa against the coming sun and a blue silk coat with enough gold embroidery to befit a palace, though it hung open halfway down the front. His belt had a new buckle, an elaborate thing shaped like a Dragon. He really was beginning to think a great deal of himself, that was clear. Standing beside Jeade’en, his dappled stallion, he was talking with the clan chiefs and some of the Aiel traders who would be staying in Rhuidean.

Jasin Natael, nearly at Rand’s heels, with his harp on his back and holding the reins of a saddled mule bought from Master Kadere, was even more elaborately dressed, with silver embroidery nearly hiding his black coat, and spills of white lace at his neck and cuffs. Even his boots were worked in silver where they turned down at the knee. The gleeman’s cloak with its patches did spoil the effect, but gleemen were odd folk.

The male traders wore the cadin’sor, and though their belt knives were smaller than those of warriors, Egwene knew they could all handle a spear if called to; they had something, if not all, of the deadly grace of their brothers who carried the spear. The women traders, in loose white algode blouses and full woolen skirts, head scarves and shawls, were more easily distinguishable. Except for Maidens and gai’shain—and Aviendha—Aielwomen all wore multiple bracelets and necklaces of gold and ivory, silver and gemstones, some of Aiel make, some traded for, and some looted. Among Aiel traders, though, the women displayed twice as many, if not more.

She caught part of what Rand was telling the traders.

“. . . give the Ogier stonemasons a free hand on some of what they build, at least. On as much as you can make yourselves. There’s no point in just trying to remake the past.”

So he was having them send to the stedding for Ogier to rebuild Rhuidean. That was good. Much of Tar Valon was Ogier work, and where they were left to their own devices their buildings were enough to take the breath away.

Mat was already up on his gelding, Pips, with his wide-brimmed hat pulled down and the butt of that odd spear resting on his stirrup. As usual, his high-collared green coat looked slept in. She had avoided his dreams. One of the Maidens, a very tall golden-haired woman, gave Mat a roguish grin that seemed to embarrass him. And well it should; she was much too old for him. Egwene sniffed, I know very well what he was dreaming about, thank you very much! She only reined in beside him to look around for Aviendha.

“He told her to be quiet, and she did,” he said as she halted Mist. He nodded toward Moiraine and Lan, she in pale blue silk, gripping the reins of her white mare, and he in his Warder’s cloak, holding his great black warhorse. Lan was watching Moiraine intently, expressionless as always, while she looked ready to burst with impatience as she glared at Rand. “She started telling him why this is the wrong thing to do—sounded to me like she was saying it for the hundredth time—and he said, ‘I’ve decided, Moiraine. Stand over there and be quiet till I have time for you.’ Like he expected her to do as she was told. And she did. Is that steam coming out of her ears?”

His chortle was so pleased, so amused at his own wit, that she nearly embraced saidar and taught him a lesson right there in front of everybody. Instead she sniffed again, loudly enough to let him know it was for him and his wit and his amusement. He gave her a wry, sidelong look, and chuckled again, which did nothing for her temper.

For a moment she stared at Moiraine, perplexed. The Aes Sedai had done as Rand told her? Without protest? That was like one of the Wise Ones obeying, or the sun rising at midnight. She had heard about the attack, of course; rumors about giant dogs that left footprints on stone had been all over this morning. She could not see what that could have to do with this, but aside from the news of the Shaido it was the only new thing she knew of, and not enough to produce this reaction. Nothing could produce it, that she could think of. Doubtless Moiraine would tell her it was none of her concern, but one way or another she would worry it out. She did not like not understanding things.

Spotting Aviendha, standing on the bottom step of the Roof, she guided Mist around to the other side of the crowd near Rand. The Aiel woman was staring at him as hard as the Aes Sedai did, but with absolutely no expression. She kept turning the ivory bracelet on her wrist over and over, apparently without realizing it. Somehow or other that bracelet was part of the difficulty the woman was having with him. Egwene did not understand; Aviendha refused to talk about it, and she could not just ask someone else, not when it might embarrass her friend. Her own flame-carved ivory bracelet was a gift from Aviendha, to seal them as near-sisters; her return gift had been the silver necklace the other woman wore, which Master Kadere claimed was a Kandori pattern called snowflakes. She had had to ask Moiraine for enough money, but it had seemed appropriate for a woman who would never see snow. Or would not have if she was not leaving the Waste; small chance that she could return before winter. W
hatever that bracelet meant, Egwene was confident she could puzzle it out eventually.

“Are you all right?” she asked. As she leaned out of her high-cantled saddle, her skirts shifted till her legs showed, but she was concerned enough with her friend to hardly notice.

She had to repeat the question before Aviendha gave a start and stared up at her. “All right? Of course I am.”

“Let me speak to the Wise Ones, Aviendha. I’m sure I can convince them that they cannot just make you . . .” She could not make herself say it, not out here where anyone in the crowd might hear.

“Does that still worry you?” Aviendha shifted her gray shawl and gave a small shake of her head. “Your customs are still very strange to me.” Her eyes drifted back to Rand like iron filings drawn to a lodestone.

“You do not have to be afraid of him.”

“I am not afraid of any man,” the other woman snapped, eyes flashing blue-green fire. “I want no trouble between us, Egwene, but you should not say such things.”

Egwene sighed. Friend or not, Aviendha was quite capable of trying to box her ears when offended enough. In any case, she was not sure she would have admitted it, either. Aviendha’s dream had been too painful to watch for long. Naked but for that ivory bracelet, and that seeming to drag at her as if it weighed a hundred pounds, Aviendha had been running as hard as she could across a cracked clay flat. And behind her, Rand came, a giant twice the size of an Ogier on a huge Jeade’en, slowly but inexorably catching up.

But you could not simply tell a friend that she was lying. Egwene’s face reddened slightly. Especially not when you would have to tell her how you knew. She would box my ears, then. I won’t do it again. Go rummaging about in people’s dreams. Not in Aviendha’s dreams, anyway. It was not right to spy on a friend’s dreams. Not that it was spying, exactly, but still . . .

The crowd around Rand was beginning to break up. He swung into his saddle easily, imitated promptly by Natael. One of the traders, a broad-faced, flame-haired woman wearing a small fortune in worked gold, cut gems and carved ivory, lingered, though. “Car’a’carn, do you mean to leave the Three-fold Land forever? You have spoken as if you will never return.”

The others stopped at that and turned back. Silence spread on an expanding ripple of murmurs telling what had been asked.

For a moment Rand was silent as well, looking around at the faces turned to him. At last he said, “I hope to return, but who can say what will happen? The Wheel weaves as the Wheel wills.” He hesitated, with every eye on him. “But I will leave you something to remember me by,” he added, sticking a hand in his coat pocket.

Abruptly a fountain near the Roof burst to life, water gushing from the mouths of incongruous porpoises standing on their tails. Beyond that, a statue of a young man with a horn raised to the sky suddenly was putting up a spreading fan, and then two stone women farther on were casting sprays of water from their hands. In stunned stillness the Aiel watched as all the fountains of Rhuidean flowed once more.

“I should have done that long since.” Rand’s mutter was no doubt meant for himself, but in the hush Egwene could hear him quite clearly. The splash of hundreds of fountains was the only other sound. Natael shrugged as if he had expected no less.

It was at Rand that Egwene stared, not the fountains. A man who could channel. Rand. He’s still Rand, despite everything. But each time she saw him do it was like learning that he could all over again. Growing up, she had been taught that only the Dark One was more to be feared than a man who could channel. Maybe Aviendha’s right to be afraid of him.

But when she looked down at Aviendha, open wonder shone on her face; so much water delighted the Aiel woman as the finest silk dress might have Egwene, or a garden full of flowers.

“It is time to march,” Rand announced, reining the dapple westward. “Anyone who isn’t ready will have to catch up.” Natael followed close behind on the mule. Why did Rand let such a bootlicker stay near him?

The clan chiefs immediately began passing orders, and the bustle increased tenfold. Maidens and Water Seekers darted ahead, and more Far Dareis Mai closed around Rand as a guard of honor, incidentally enclosing Natael. Aviendha strode beside Jeade’en, right at Rand’s stirrup, easily matching the stallion stride for stride even in her bulky skirts.

Falling in beside Mat, behind Rand and his escort, Egwene frowned. Her friend wore that look of grim determination again, as if she had to put her arm into a viper den. I have to do something to help her. Egwene did not give up on a problem once she had her teeth into it.

Settling herself in her saddle, Moiraine patted Aldieb’s arched neck with a gloved hand, but she did not immediately follow Rand. Hadnan Kadere was bringing his wagons up the street, driving the lead wagon himself. She should have made him tear that wagon down to carry cargo as she had the other like it; the man was frightened enough of her, of Aes Sedai, to have done it. The doorframe ter’angreal was lashed firmly in the wagon behind Kadere, canvas tied over it tightly so no one could fall through by accident again. A long line of Aiel—Seia Doon, Black Eyes—strode along on either side of the wagon train.

Kadere bowed to her from the driver’s seat, but her gaze swept on down to the line of wagons, all the way to the great square surrounding the forest of slim glass columns, already sparkling in the morning light. She would have taken everything in the plaza if she could, rather than the small fraction that would fit into the wagons. Some were too large. Like the three dull gray metal rings, each more than two paces across, standing on edge and joined at the middle. A braided leather rope had been strung around that one, to warn all from entering without the Wise Ones’ permission. Not that anyone was likely to, of course. Only the clan chiefs and the Wise Ones entered that square with any sense of ease; only the Wise Ones touched anything, and they with something approaching proper reticence.

For countless years the second test faced by an Aiel woman who wanted to be a Wise One had been to enter the array of glittering glass columns, seeing exactly what the men saw. More women survived it than men—Bair said it was because women were tougher, Amys that those too weak to survive were winnowed out before reaching that point—but it was not a certainty. Those who did survive were not marked. The Wise Ones claimed that only men needed visible signs; for a woman, to be alive was enough.

The first test, the first winnowing, before any training even, was to step through one of those three rings. Which one did not matter, or perhaps the choice was a matter of fate. That step seemingly took her through her life again and again, her future spread out before her, all of the possible futures based on every decision she might make for the rest of her life. Death was possible in those, too; some women could not face the future any more than others could face the past. All possible futures were too many for a mind to retain, of course. They jumbled together and faded away for the most part, but a woman gained a sense of things that would happen in her life, that must happen, that might happen. Usually even that was hidden until the moment was on her. Not always, though. Moiraine had been through those rings.

A spoonful of hope and a cup of despair, she thought.

“I do not like seeing you like this,” Lan said. From Mandarb’s back and his own height, he looked down on her, disquiet creasing the corners of his eyes. For him that was near tears of frustration from another man.

Aiel streamed by on both sides of their horses, and gai’shain with pack animals. Moiraine was startled to realize that Kadere’s water wagons had already gone by; she had not realized she had been staring at the plaza for so long.

“Like what?” she asked, turning her mare to join the throng. Rand and his escort were already out of the city.

“Worried,” he said bluntly, no readable expression on that stone-carved face now. “Afraid. I’ve never seen you afraid, not when we had Trollocs and Myrddraal swarming over us, not even when you learned the Forsaken were loose and Sammael was sitting almost on top of us. Is the end coming?”

She gave a start, and immediately wished she had not. He was looking straight ahead over his stallion’s ears, but the man never missed anything. Sometimes she thought he could see a leaf fall behind his back. “Do you mean Tarmon Gai’don? A redbird in Seleisin knows as well as I. The Light send, not so long as any of the seals remain unbroken.” The pair she had were on one of Kadere’s wagons, too, each packed by itself in a cask stuffed with wool. A different wagon than the redstone doorframe; she had made sure of that.

“What else could I mean?” he asked slowly, still not looking at her, and making her wish she had bitten her tongue. “You have become—impatient. I can remember when you could wait weeks for one tiny scrap of information, one word, without twitching a finger, but now—” He did look at her then, a blue-eyed gaze that would have intimidated most women. And most men as well. “The oath you gave to the boy, Moiraine. Whatever under the Light possessed you?”

“He has been drawing further and further away from me, Lan, and I must be close to him. He needs whatever guidance I can give, and I will do everything short of sharing his bed to see that he gets it.” The rings had told her that that would be disaster. Not that she had ever considered it—the very idea still shocked her!—but in the rings it was something she would or could have considered in the future. It was a measure of her growing desperation, no doubt, and in the rings she had seen that it would bring ruination on everything. She wished she could remember how—there were keys to Rand al’Thor in anything she could learn about him—but only the simple fact of calamity remained in her mind.

“Perhaps it will help your humility grow, if he tells you to fetch his slippers and light his pipe.”

She stared at him. Could that be a joke? If so, it was not amusing. She had never found that humility served very well in any situation. Siuan claimed that growing up in the Sun Palace in Cairhien had put arrogance deeply into Moiraine’s bones, where she could not even see it—something she firmly denied—but for all that Siuan was a Tairen fisherman’s daughter, she could match any queen stare for stare, and to her arrogance meant opposition to her own plans.

If Lan was attempting jokes, however feeble and wrongheaded, he was changing. For nearly twenty years he had followed her, and saved her life more times than she cared to count, often at great risk to his own. Always he had accounted his life a small thing, valuable only for her need of it; some said he wooed death the way a bridegroom wooed his bride. She had never held his heart, and never felt jealousy toward the women who seemed to throw themselves at his feet. He had long claimed that he had no heart. But he had found one this past year, found it when a woman tied it on a string to hang around her neck.

He denied her, of course. Not his love for Nynaeve al’Meara, once a Wisdom in the Two Rivers and now an Accepted of the White Tower, but that he could ever have her. He had two things, he said, a sword that would not break and a war that could not end; he would never gift a bride with those. That, at least, Moiraine had taken care of, though he would not know how until it was done. If he did, he would very probably try to change matters, stubborn fool man that he could be.

“This arid land seems to have withered your own humility, al’Lan Mandragoran. I shall have to find some water to make it grow again.”

“My humility is honed to razor sharpness,” he told her dryly. “You never let it grow too dull.” Wetting a white scarf from his leather water bottle, he handed her the sodden cloth. She tied it around her temples without comment. The sun was beginning to rise above the mountains behind them, a searing ball of molten gold.

The thick column snaked up the barren side of Chaendaer, its tail still in Rhuidean when its head had crested the slope, then down onto rough, hilly flats dotted with rock spires and flat-topped buttes, some streaked with red or ocher through the gray or brown. The air was so clear that Moiraine could see for miles, even after they were down off Chaendaer. Great natural arches reared, and in every direction jagged mountains clawed at the sky. Dry gullies and hollows split a land sparsely dotted with low, thorny bushes and leafless spiny plants. The rare tree, gnarled and stunted, usually bore spines or thorns as well. The sun made it an oven. A hard land that had shaped a hard people. But Lan was not the only one changing, or being changed. She wished she could see what Rand would make of the Aiel in the end. There was a long journey ahead for everyone.

CHAPTER

8

Over the Border

Clinging to her perch at the rear of the jouncing wagon, Nynaeve used one hand for herself and one for her straw hat as she peered back at the furious dust storm dwindling behind them in the distance. The broad brim shaded her face in the morning heat, but the breeze generated by the wagon’s rumbling speed was enough to snatch it from her head despite the dark red scarf tied under her chin. Low-hilled grassland with occasional thickets rolled by, the grass sere and thin in the late-summer heat; dust churned up by the wagon wheels obscured her vision somewhat, and made her cough besides. The white clouds in the sky lied. There had been no rain since before they left Tanchico, weeks earlier, and it had been some time since the wide road had borne the traffic of wagons that once kept it hardpacked.

No one appeared riding out of that seemingly solid wall of brown, which was just as well. She had lost her anger at brigands trying to stop them this close to escaping the madness of Tarabon, and unless she was angry, she could not sense the True Source, much less channel. Even angry, she had been surprised at being able to raise such a storm; once whipped up, full of her fury, it held a life of its own. Elayne had been startled at the size of it, too, though thankfully she had not let on to Thom or Juilin. But even if her strength was increasing—her teachers in the Tower had said that it would, and certainly none of them was strong enough to best one of the Forsaken as she had—even with that, she still had that limitation. Had any of the bandits appeared, Elayne would have had to deal with them alone, and she did not want that. Her earlier anger was gone, but she was making fine for another crop.

Awkwardly climbing up over the canvas lashed across the load of casks, she reached down to one of the water barrels fastened along the sides of the wagon together with the chests of their possessions and supplies. Immediately her hat was on the back of her head, held only by the scarf. Her fingers could just touch the lid of the barrel, unless she released the rope that she was gripping with her other hand, and the way the wagon was lurching along, that would probably send her off onto her nose.

Juilin Sandar guided the lanky brown gelding he was riding—Skulker was the improbable name he had put on the animal—close to the wagon, and reached over to hand her one of the leather water bottles slung about his saddle. She drank gratefully, though not gracefully. Hanging there like a bunch of grapes on a windblown vine, she spilled nearly as much water down the front of her good gray dress as she did down her throat.

It was a suitable dress for a merchant, high-necked, finely woven and well-cut, but still plain. The pin on her breast, a small circle of dark garnets in gold, was perhaps too much for a merchant, but it had been a gift from the panarch of Tarabon, along with other jewelry, much richer, hidden in a compartment beneath the wagon driver’s seat. She wore it to remind herself that even women who sat on thrones sometimes needed to be taken by the scruff of the neck and shaken. She had a little more sympathy for the Tower’s manipulations of kings and queens now that she had dealt with Amathera.

She suspected that Amathera had meant her gifts as a bribe to make them depart Tanchico. The woman had been willing to buy a ship so that they would not remain an hour more than necessary, but no one had been willing to sell. The few vessels remaining in Tanchico Harbor that were suitable for more than coasting had been jammed with refugees. Besides, a ship was the obvious way, the fastest way, to leave, and the Black Ajah might well be watching for her and Elayne, after what had happened. They had been sent to hunt Aes Sedai who were Darkfriends, not to be ambushed by them. Thus the wagon and the long trek across a land torn by civil war and anarchy. She was beginning to wish she had not insisted on avoiding the ships. Not that she would ever admit it to the others.

When she tried to hand the water bottle back to Juilin, he waved it away. A tough man, seemingly carved from some dark wood, he was not very comfortable on the back of a horse. He looked ridiculous, to her; not because of his obvious ill ease in the saddle, but for the silly red Taraboner hat that he had taken to wearing on his flat, black hair, a brimless, conical thing, tall and flat-topped. It did not go well with his dark Tairen coat, tight to the waist, then flaring. She did not think it would go well with anything. In her opinion, he looked as if he were wearing a cake on his head.

It was clumsy scrambling the rest of the way forward with the leather bottle in one hand and her hat flapping, and she did it muttering imprecations for the Tairen thief-catcher—Never thief-taker, not him!—for Thom Merrilin—Puffed-up gleeman!—and for Elayne of House Trakand, Daughter-Heir of Andor, who ought to be shaken by the scruff of the neck herself!

She meant to slide onto the wooden driver’s seat between Thom and Elayne, but the golden-haired girl was pressed tightly against Thom, her own straw hat hanging on her back. She was clutching the white-mustached old fool’s arm as if afraid of falling off. Tight-mouthed, Nynaeve had to settle for Elayne’s other side. She was glad she had her hair in one proper braid again, wrist-thick and hanging down to her waist; she could give it a tug instead of thumping Elayne’s ear for her. The girl had used to seem reasonably sensible, but something seemed to have addled her wits in Tanchico.

“They aren’t following us anymore,” Nynaeve announced, pulling her hat back into place. “You can slow this thing down now, Thom.” She could have shouted that from the back and not needed to clamber over the casks, but the image of herself bouncing about and calling for them to slow had stopped her. She did not like making a fool of herself, and liked even less others seeing her in a foolish light. “Put your hat on,” she told Elayne. “That fair skin of yours will not appreciate this sun for long.”

As she had half-expected, the girl ignored her friendly advice. “You drive so wonderfully,” Elayne gushed as Thom drew back on the reins, pulling the four-horse team to a walk. “You were in control every minute.”

The tall, wiry man glanced down at her, bushy white eyebrows twitching, but all he said was, “We have more company ahead, child.” Well, maybe he was not such a fool.

Nynaeve looked, and saw the snowy-cloaked mounted column approaching them over the next low rise, perhaps half a hundred men in burnished mail and shining conical helmets, escorting as many heavily laden wagons. Children of the Light. She was suddenly very conscious of the leather thong hanging around her neck beneath her dress, and the two rings dangling between her breasts. Lan’s heavy gold signet ring, the ring of the Kings of lost Malkier, would mean nothing to the Whitecloaks, but if they saw the Great Serpent ring . . .

Fool woman! They aren’t likely to, unless you decide to undress!

Hastily she ran an eye over her companions. Elayne could not stop being beautiful, and now that she had let go of Thom and was retying the green scarf that held her hat, her manner looked more suited to a throne room than a merchant’s wagon, but aside from being blue, her dress was no different from Nynaeve’s. She wore no jewelry; she had called Amathera’s gifts “gaudy.” She would pass; she had done so fifty times since Tanchico. Barely. Only, this was the first meeting with Whitecloaks. Thom, in stout brown wool, could have been any of a thousand gnarled, white-haired men who worked wagons. And Juilin was Juilin. He knew how to behave, though he looked as though he wished he were sure footed on the ground, with his staff or the slotted sword-breaker he wore at his belt, rather than on a horse.

Thom drew the team over to one side of the road and halted as several Whitecloaks broke away from the head of the column. Nynaeve put on a welcoming smile. She hoped they had not decided that they needed another wagon.

“The Light illumine you, Captain,” she said to the narrow-faced man who was obviously the leader, the only one not carrying a steel-tipped lance. She had no idea what rank the two golden knots signified on the breast of his cloak, right below the flaring sunburst they all wore, but in her experience men would accept any flattery. “We are very glad to see you. Bandits tried to rob us a few miles back, but a dust storm appeared like a miracle. We barely esc—”

“You are a merchant? Few merchants have come out of Tarabon in some time.” The man’s voice was as harsh as his face, and that looked as though all joy had been boiled out of it before he left the cradle. Suspicion filled his dark, deep-set eyes; Nynaeve did not doubt that was permanent, too. “Bound to where, with what?”

“I carry dyes, Captain.” She worked to maintain her smile under that steady, unblinking stare; it was a relief when he shifted it to the others briefly. Thom was making a good job of appearing bored, just a wagon driver who would be paid stopped or moving, and if Juilin had not snatched off that ridiculous hat as he once would have, at least he seemed no more than idly interested, a hired man with nothing to hide. When the Whitecloak’s gaze dropped to Elayne, Nynaeve felt the other woman stiffen, and hurried on. “Taraboner dyes. The finest in the world. I can get a good price for them in Andor.”

At a signal from the captain—or whatever he was—one of the other Whitecloaks heeled his horse to the back of the wagon. Slicing one of the ropes with his dagger, he jerked some of the canvas loose, enough to expose three or four casks. “They’re branded ‘Tanchico,’ Lieutenant. This one says ‘crimson.’ Do you want me to break open a few?”

Nynaeve hoped the Whitecloak officer took the anxiety on her face the right way. Even without looking at her, she could all but feel Elayne wanting to call the soldier down for his manners, but any real merchant would be worried at having dyes exposed to the elements. “If you will show me the ones you want opened, Captain, I will be more than happy to do it myself.” The man showed no response at all, to flattery or offers of cooperation. “The casks were sealed to keep out dust and water, you see. If the cask head is broken, I’ll never be able to cover it over with wax again here.”

The rest of the column reached them and began to pass in a cloud of dust; the wagon drivers were roughly dressed, nondescript men, but the soldiers rode stiffly erect, their long steel lance points all slanted at exactly the same angle. Even sweaty-faced and coated with dust, they looked hard men. Only the drivers glanced at Nynaeve and the others.

The Whitecloak lieutenant waved dust away from his face with one gauntleted hand, then motioned the man back from the wagon. His eyes never left Nynaeve. “You come from Tanchico?”

Nynaeve nodded, a picture of cooperation and openness. “Yes, Captain. Tanchico.”

“What word have you of the city? There have been rumors.”

“Rumors, Captain? When we left, there was little order remaining. The city was full of refugees, and the countryside of rebels and bandits. Trade hardly exists.” That was the truth, pure and simple. “That’s why these dyes will fetch particularly good prices. There will be no more Taraboner dyes available for a long while, I think.”

“I do not care about refugees, trade or dyes, merchant,” the officer said in flat tones. “Was Andric still on the throne?”

“Yes, Captain.” Obviously, rumor said someone had taken Tanchico and supplanted the King, and perhaps someone had. But who—one of the rebel lords who fought each other as hard as they did Andric, or the Dragonsworn who had pledged themselves to the Dragon Reborn without ever seeing him? “Andric was still King, and Amathera still Panarch, when we left.”

His eyes said she could be lying. “It is said the Tar Valon witches were involved. Did you see any Aes Sedai, or hear of them?”

“No, Captain,” she said quickly. The Great Serpent ring seemed hot against her skin. Fifty Whitecloaks, close at hand. A dust storm would not help this time, and anyway, though she tried to deny it, she was more scared than angry. “Plain merchants don’t mingle with that sort.” He nodded, and she risked adding a question. Anything to change the subject. “If you please, Captain, have we entered Amadicia yet?”

“The border is five miles east,” he pronounced. “For the time being. The first village you come to will be Mardecin. Obey the law, and you will be well. There is a garrison of the Children there.” He sounded as if the garrison would spend all of its time making sure they did obey the law.

“Have you come to move the border?” Elayne asked suddenly and coolly. Nynaeve could have strangled her.

The deep-set, suspicious eyes shifted to Elayne, and Nynaeve said hastily, “Forgive her, my Lord Captain. My eldest sister’s girl. She thinks she should have been born a lady, and she can’t keep away from the boys besides. That’s why her mother sent her to me.” Elayne’s indignant gasp was perfect. It was also probably quite real. Nynaeve supposed she had not needed to add that about boys, but it seemed to fit.

The Whitecloak stared at them a moment longer, then said, “The Lord Captain Commander sends food into Tarabon. Otherwise, we would have Taraboner vermin over the border and stealing anything they could chew. Walk in the Light,” he added before swinging his horse to gallop back to the head of the column. It was neither suggestion nor blessing.

Thom got the wagon moving as soon as the officer left, but everyone sat silent, except for coughing, until they were well beyond the last soldier and out of the other wagons’ dust.

Swallowing a little water to wet her throat, Nynaeve pushed the water bottle at Elayne. “What did you mean back there?” she demanded. “We aren’t in your mother’s throne room, and your mother would not stand for it anyway!”

Elayne emptied the rest of the leather bottle before deigning to reply. “You were crawling, Nynaeve.” She pitched her voice high, in a mock servility. “I am very good and obedient, Captain. May I kiss your boots, Captain?”

“We are supposed to be merchants, not queens in disguise!”

“Merchants do not have to be lickspittles! You are lucky he didn’t think we were trying to hide something, acting so servile!”

“They don’t stare down their noses at Whitecloaks with fifty lances, either! Or did you think we could overwhelm them all with the Power, if need be?”

“Why did you tell him I could not keep away from boys? There was no need for that, Nynaeve!”

“I was ready to tell him anything that would make him go away and leave us alone! And you—!”

“Both of you shut up,” Thom barked suddenly, “before they come back to see which of you is murdering the other!”

Nynaeve actually twisted around on the wooden seat to look back before she realized the Whitecloaks were too far off to hear even if they had been shouting. Well, maybe they had been. It did not help that Elayne did the same.

Nynaeve took a firm hold on her braid and glared at Thom, but Elayne snuggled herself against his arm and practically cooed, “You are right, Thom. I am sorry I raised my voice.” Juilin was watching them sideways, pretending not to, but he was wise enough not to bring his horse close enough to become part of it.

Letting go of her braid before she pulled it out by the roots, Nynaeve adjusted her hat and sat staring straight ahead over the horses. Whatever had gotten into the girl, it was high time to get it out again.

Only a tall stone pillar to each side of the road marked the border between Tarabon and Amadicia. There was no traffic on the road but them. The hills gradually became a little higher, but otherwise the land remained much the same, brown grass and thickets with few green leaves except on pine or leatherleaf or other evergreens. Stone-fenced fields and thatch-roofed stone farmhouses dotted the slopes and dells, but they had a look of abandonment. No smoke rising from chimneys, no men working crops, no sheep or cows. Sometimes a few chickens scratched in a farmyard near the road, but they scurried away, gone feral, at the wagon’s approach. Whitecloak garrison or no, apparently no one was willing to risk Taraboner brigands this close to the border.

When Mardecin appeared, from the top of a rise, the sun still had a long way to climb to its zenith. The town ahead looked too big for the name of village, nearly a mile across, straddling a small bridged stream between two hills, with as many slate roofs as thatched, and considerable bustle in the wide streets.

“We need to buy supplies,” Nynaeve said, “but we want to be quick about it. We can cover a lot of ground yet before nightfall.”

“We are wearing out, Nynaeve,” Thom said. “First light to last light every day for nearly a month. One day resting will not make much difference in reaching Tar Valon.” He did not sound tired. More likely he was looking forward to playing his harp or his flute in one of the taverns and getting men to buy him wine.

Juilin had finally brought his mount close to the wagon, and he added, “I could do with a day on my feet. I do not know whether this saddle or that wagon seat is worse.”

“I think we should find an inn,” Elayne said, looking up at Thom. “I have had quite enough of sleeping under this wagon, and I would like to listen to you tell stories in the common room.”

“One-wagon merchants are little more than peddlers,” Nynaeve said sharply. “They cannot afford inns in a town like this.”

She did not know whether that was true or not, but despite her own desire for a bath and clean sheets, she was not going to let the girl get away with directing the suggestion at Thom. It was not until the words were out of her mouth that she realized that she had given in to Thom and Juilin. One day won’t hurt. It’s a long way to Tar Valon yet.

She wished she had insisted on a ship. With a fast ship, a Sea Folk raker, they could have gotten to Tear in a third of what it had taken them to cross Tarabon, as long as they had good winds, and with the right Atha’an Miere Windfinder that would have been no problem; she or Elayne could have handled it, for that matter. The Tairens knew that she and Elayne were friends of Rand’s, and she expected that they still sweated buckets for fear of offending the Dragon Reborn; they would have provided a carriage and escort for the journey up to Tar Valon.

“Find us a place to camp,” she said reluctantly. She should have insisted on a ship. They might have been back in the Tower by now.

CHAPTER

9

A Signal

Nynaeve had to admit that Thom and Juilin between them had chosen a good campsite, in a sparse thicket growing on an eastern slope, covered with dead leaves, a scant mile from Mardecin. Scattered sourgums and some sort of small, droopy-branched willow screened the wagon from the road and the town, and a two-foot-wide rivulet ran from a stone outcrop near the top of the rise, down a bed of dried mud twice as broad. Enough water for their purposes. It was even a little cooler under the trees, with a small and welcome breeze.

Once the two men had watered the team and hobbled them where the horses could feed on the sparse grass upslope, they tossed a coin to decide which should take the lanky gelding into Mardecin to purchase what they needed. The coin flipping was a ritual that they had developed. Thom, whose nimble fingers were used to performing sleight-of-hand, never lost when he flipped the coin, so Juilin always did it now.

Thom won anyway, and while he was stripping the saddle from Skulker, Nynaeve put her head under the wagon seat and levered up a floorboard with her belt knife. Besides two small gilded coffers containing Amathera’s presents of jewelry, several leather purses bulging with coin lay in the recess. The panarch had been more than generous in her desire to see their backs. The other things looked trifling by comparison; a small dark wooden box, polished but plain and uncarved, and a washleather purse lying flat and showing the impression of a disc inside. The box held the two ter’angreal they had recovered from the Black Ajah, both linked to dreams, and the purse . . . That was their prize from Tanchico. One of the seals on the Dark One’s prison.

As much as she wanted to find out where Siuan Sanche wanted them to chase the Black Ajah next, the seal was the source of her haste to reach Tar Valon. Digging coins from one of the fat purses, she avoided touching the flat purse; the longer it remained in her possession, the more she wanted to hand it to the Amyrlin and be done with it. Sometimes she thought she could feel the Dark One, trying to break through, when she was near the thing.

She saw Thom off with a pocketful of silver and a strong admonition to search out some fruit and green vegetables; either man was likely as not to buy nothing but meat and beans, left to himself. Thom’s limp as he led the horse off toward the road made her grimace; an old injury, and nothing to be done for it now, so Moiraine said. That rankled as much as the limp itself. Nothing to be done.

When she had left the Two Rivers, it had been to protect young people from her village, snatched away in the night by an Aes Sedai. She had gone to the Tower still with the hope that she could somehow shelter them, and the added ambition of bringing down Moiraine for what she had done. The world had changed since then. Or maybe she only saw the world differently. No, it is not me that’s changed. I’m the same; it is everything else that’s different.

Now it was all she could do to protect herself. Rand was what he was, and no turning back, and Egwene eagerly went her own way, not letting anyone or anything hold her back even if her way led over a cliff, and Mat had learned to think of nothing but women, carousing and gambling. She even found herself sympathizing with Moiraine sometimes, to her disgust. At least Perrin had gone back home, or so she had heard through Egwene, secondhand from Rand; perhaps Perrin was safe.

Hunting the Black Ajah was good and right and satisfying—and also terrifying, though she tried to hide that part; she was a grown woman, not a girl who needed to hide in her mother’s apron—yet that was not the main reason she was willing to keep on bashing her head against a wall, keep on trying to learn to use the Power when most of the time she could not channel any more than Thom. That reason was the Talent called Healing. As Wisdom of Emond’s Field it had been gratifying to bring the Women’s Circle around to her way of thinking—especially since most were old enough to be her mother; with not many years on Elayne, she had been the youngest Wisdom ever in the Two Rivers—and even more so to see that the Village Council did what they should, stubborn men that they were. The most satisfaction, though, had always come from finding the right combination of herbs to cure an illness. To Heal with the One Power . . . She had done it, fumbling, curing what her other skills nev
er could. The joy of it was enough to bring tears. One day she meant to Heal Thom and watch him dance. One day she would even Heal that wound in Rand’s side. Surely there was nothing that could not be Healed, not if the woman wielding the Power was determined enough.

When she turned from watching Thom go, she found that Elayne had filled the bucket that normally hung beneath the wagon and was kneeling to wash her hands and face, a towel around her shoulders to keep her dress dry. That was something she particularly wanted to do herself. In this heat it was pleasant sometimes to wash in water cool from a stream. Often enough there had been no water but what was in the barrels strapped to the wagon, and that was needed for drinking and cooking more than washing.

Juilin was sitting with his back against one of the wagon wheels, his thumb-thick staff of pale ridged wood leaning next to him. His head was down, that silly hat tipped precariously over his eyes, but she was not willing to bet on even a man sleeping at this time of the morning. There were things he and Thom did not know, things it was best they did not know.

The thick carpet of dead sourgum leaves crackled as she seated herself near Elayne. “Do you think Tanchico really has fallen?” Rubbing a soapy cloth slowly across her face, the other woman did not reply. She tried again. “I think that Whitecloak’s ‘Aes Sedai’ were us.”

“Perhaps.” Elayne’s voice was cool, a pronouncement from the throne. Her eyes were blue ice. She did not look at Nynaeve. “And perhaps reports of what we did got tangled with other rumors. Tarabon could have a new king, and a new panarch, very easily.”

Nynaeve kept her temper in check and her hands away from her braid. They clutched her knees instead. You are trying to put her at ease with you. Watch your tongue. “Amathera was difficult, but I do not wish her any harm. Do you?”

“A pretty woman,” Juilin said, “especially in one of those Taraboner serving girl’s dresses, with a pretty smile. I thought she—” He saw Elayne and her looking at him and quickly pulled his hat back down, pretending to sleep again. She and Elayne shared a glance, and she knew the other’s thought was the same as hers. Men.

“Whatever has happened to Amathera, Nynaeve, she is behind us, now.” Elayne sounded more normal. Her washcloth slowed. “I wish her well, but mainly I hope the Black Ajah is not behind us. Not following, I mean.”

Juilin stirred uneasily without raising his head; he was still uncomfortable with the knowledge that Black Aes Sedai were real and not simply a tale in the streets.

He should be happy he doesn’t have our knowledge. Nynaeve had to admit that the thought was not entirely logical, but if he had known about the Forsaken being loose, even Rand’s foolish instruction to look after her and Elayne would not have kept him from running. Still, he was useful at times. He and Thom both. It had been Moiraine who had fastened Thom to them, and the man knew a great deal about the world for an ordinary gleeman.

“If they were following, they’d have caught up by now.” That was surely true, considering the usual lumbering speed of the wagon. “With any luck, they still do not know who we are.”

Elayne nodded, grim but her old self again, and began rinsing her face. She could be almost as determined as a Two Rivers woman. “Liandrin and most of her cronies surely escaped from Tanchico. Maybe all of them. And we still don’t know who is giving orders for the Black Ajah in the Tower. As Rand would say, we still have it to do, Nynaeve.”

Despite herself, Nynaeve winced. True, they had a list of eleven names, but once they were back in the Tower, almost any Aes Sedai they spoke to might be Black Ajah. Or any women they encountered on the road. For that matter, anyone they met might be a Darkfriend, but that was hardly the same thing, not by a wide degree.

“More than the Black Ajah,” Elayne continued, “I worry about Mo—” Nynaeve put a quick hand on her arm and nodded slightly toward Juilin. Elayne coughed and went on as though that was what had stopped her. “About Mother. She has no reason to like you, Nynaeve. Quite the opposite.”

“She is far away from here.” Nynaeve was glad her voice was steady. They were not talking about Elayne’s mother, but the Forsaken she had defeated. Part of her hoped fervently that Moghedien was far away. Very far.

“But if she was not?”

“She is,” Nynaeve said firmly, but she still hitched her shoulders uncomfortably. A part of her remembered humiliations suffered at Moghedien’s hands and desired nothing more than to face the woman again, to defeat her again, for good this time. Only, what if Moghedien took her by surprise, came at her when she was not angry enough to channel? The same was true of any of the Forsaken, of course, or of any Black sister for that matter, but after her rout in Tanchico, Moghedien had reason to hate her personally. Not pleasant at all to think that one of the Forsaken knew your name and likely wanted your head. That is just rank cowardice, she told herself sharply. You are not a coward, and you will not be! That did not stop the itch between her shoulder blades every time Moghedien came to mind, as if the woman was staring at her back.

“I suppose looking over my shoulder for bandits has made me nervous,” Elayne said casually, patting her face with the towel. “Why, sometimes when I dream of late, I have the feeling that someone is watching me.”

Nynaeve gave a start at what seemed an echo of her own thoughts, but then she realized there had been a slight emphasis on “dream.” Not any dreams, but Tel’aran’rhiod. Another thing the men did not know about. She had had the same sensation, but then there was often a feel of unseen eyes in the World of Dreams. It could be uncomfortable, but they had discussed the sensation before.

She made her voice light. “Well, your mother is not in our dreams, Elayne, or she would probably snatch us both up by an ear.” Moghedien would probably torture them until they begged for death. Or arrange a circle of thirteen Black sisters and thirteen Myrddraal; they could turn you to the Shadow against your will that way, bind you to the Dark One. Maybe Moghedien could even do it by herself. . . . Don’t be ridiculous, woman! If she could have, she would have. You beat her, remember?

“I do hope not,” the other woman replied soberly.

“Do you mean to give me a chance to wash?” Nynaeve asked irritably. Putting the girl at ease was all very well, but she could do with less talk of Moghedien. The Forsaken had to be somewhere distant; she would not have let them come this far peacefully if she knew where they were. Light send that that’s true!

Elayne emptied and refilled the bucket herself. She was a very nice girl usually, when she remembered that she was not in the Royal Palace in Caemlyn. And when she was not acting the fool. That, Nynaeve would take care of when Thom came back.

Once Nynaeve had enjoyed a slow, cooling wash of face and hands, she set about making the camp ready, and put Juilin to breaking dead branches from the trees for a fire. By the time Thom returned with two wicker hampers slung across the gelding’s back, her and Elayne’s blankets were laid out under the wagon and the two men’s under the hanging branches of one of the twenty-foot willows, a good supply of firewood had been stacked, the teakettle stood cooling beside the ashes of a fire in a circle cleared of leaves, and the thick pottery cups had been washed. Juilin was grumbling to himself as he caught water in the tiny stream to refill the water barrels. From the snatches Nynaeve heard, she was glad he kept most of it to an inaudible mutter. From her perch on one of the wagon shafts, Elayne hardly tried to hide her interested attempt to make out what he was saying. Both she and Nynaeve had put on clean dresses on the other side of the wagon, switching colors as it happened.

After fastening hobbles between the gelding’s forelegs, Thom lifted the heavy hampers down easily and began unpacking them. “Mardecin’s not as prosperous as it looks from a distance.” He set a net bag of small apples on the ground, and another of some dark green leafy vegetable. “With no trade into Tarabon, the town is withering.” The rest seemed to be all sacks of dried beans and turnips, plus pepper-cured beef and salt-cured hams. And a gray pottery bottle sealed with wax that Nynaeve was sure held brandy; both men had complained of not having a bit of something with their pipes of an evening. “You can hardly take six steps without seeing a Whitecloak or two. The garrison is about fifty men or so, with barracks over the hill from the town on the far side of the bridge. It was considerably larger, but it seems Pedron Niall is pulling Whitecloaks from everywhere into Amador.” Knuckling his long mustaches, he looked thoughtful for a moment. “I cannot see what he is u
p to.” Thom was not a man who liked that; usually a few hours in a place was enough for him to begin ferreting out the currents between noble and merchant Houses, the alliances and schemes and counterplots that made up the so-called Game of Houses. “The rumors are all about Niall trying to stop a war between Illian and Altara, or maybe Illian and Murandy. No reason there for him to be gathering in soldiers. I’ll tell you one thing, though. Whatever that lieutenant said, it is a King’s Tax that buys the food being sent into Tarabon, and the people are not happy with it. Not to feed Taraboners.”

“King Ailron and the Lord Captain Commander are not our concern,” Nynaeve said, studying what he had brought. Three salted hams! “We will pass through Amadicia as quickly and unobtrusively as we can. Perhaps Elayne and I will have more luck finding vegetables than you did. Would you care for a walk, Elayne?”

Elayne got up immediately, smoothing her gray skirts and lifting her hat from the wagon. “That would be very nice, after that wagon seat. It might be different if Thom and Juilin let me take a turn riding Skulker more often.” For once she did not give the old gleeman a coquettish look, which was something.

Thom and Juilin exchanged glances, and the Tairen thief-catcher pulled a coin from his coat pocket, but Nynaeve gave him no chance to flip it. “We will be quite all right by ourselves. We could hardly expect trouble of any sort with so many Whitecloaks to keep order.” Planting her hat on her head, she tied the scarf under her chin and gave them a firm look. “Besides, all those things Thom bought need to be put away.” Both men nodded; slowly, reluctantly, but they did it. Sometimes they took their roles as supposed protectors entirely too seriously.

She and Elayne had reached the empty road and were walking down the verge, on the thin grass so as not to kick up dust, before she had it settled in her mind how to bring up what she wanted to say. Before she could speak, though, Elayne said, “You obviously want to talk to me alone, Nynaeve. Is it about Moghedien?”

Nynaeve blinked, and looked at the other woman sideways. It was well to remember that Elayne was no fool. She had only been acting like one. Nynaeve resolved to keep a tight hold on her temper; this was going to be difficult enough without letting it dissolve into a shouting match. “Not that, Elayne.” The girl thought they should add Moghedien to their hunt; she could not seem to realize the difference between one of the Forsaken and, say, Liandrin, or Chesmal. “I thought we should discuss how you’ve been behaving toward Thom.”

“I do not know what you mean,” Elayne said, staring straight ahead toward the town, but sudden spots of color in her cheeks gave her the lie.

“Not only is he old enough to be your father twice over, but—”

“He is not my father!” Elayne snapped. “My father was Taringail Damodred, a Prince of Cairhien and First Prince of the Sword of Andor!” Straightening her hat needlessly, she went on in a milder tone, though not by much. “I am sorry, Nynaeve. I did not mean to shout.”

Temper, Nynaeve reminded herself. “I thought you were in love with Rand,” she said, making her voice gentle. It was not easy. “The messages you have me give to Egwene for him certainly say so. I expect you tell her the same.”

The color in the other woman’s face heightened. “I do love him, but . . . He is very far away, Nynaeve. In the Waste, surrounded by a thousand Maidens of the Spear who jump to do his bidding. I cannot see him, or speak to him, or touch him.” She was whispering by the end.

“You can’t think he’ll turn to a Maiden,” Nynaeve said incredulously. “He is a man, but he isn’t as fickle as that, and besides, one of them would put a spear in him if he looked at her crossways, even if he is this Dawn whatever. Anyway, Egwene says Aviendha is keeping an eye on him for you.”

“I know, but . . . I should have made sure that he knew I love him.” Elayne’s voice was determined. And worried. “I should have told him so.”

Nynaeve had hardly looked at a man before Lan, at least not seriously, but she had seen and learned much as Wisdom; from her observations, there was no quicker way to send a man running for his life, unless he said it first.

“I think Min had a viewing,” Elayne went on. “About me, and about Rand. She always used to joke about having to share him, but I think it wasn’t a joke and she could not bring herself to say what it really was.”

“That is ridiculous.” It certainly was. Though in Tear, Aviendha had told her of a vile Aiel custom. . . . You share Lan with Moiraine, a small voice whispered. That isn’t the same thing at all! she told it briskly. “Are you certain Min had one of her visions?”

“Yes. I wasn’t at first, but the more I think on it, the more sure I become. She joked about it too often to mean anything else.”

Well, whatever Min had seen, Rand was no Aiel. Oh, his blood might be Aiel as the Wise Ones claimed, but he had grown up in the Two Rivers, and she would not stand by and let him take up wicked Aiel ways. She doubted very much that Elayne would, either. “Is that why you’ve been—” She would not say throwing yourself at “—teasing Thom?”

Elayne gave her a sidelong glance, the crimson back in her cheeks. “There are a thousand leagues between us, Nynaeve. Do you think Rand is refraining from looking at other women? ‘A man is a man, on a throne or in a pigsty.’ ” She had a stock of homely sayings from her childhood nurse, a clearheaded woman named Lini whom Nynaeve wished she would meet one day.

“Well, I don’t see why you have to flirt just because you think Rand might.” She refrained from bringing up Thom’s age again. Lan is old enough to be your father, that small voice murmured. I love Lan. If I can only reason out how to get him free of Moiraine. . . . That is not the matter at hand! “Thom is a man with secrets, Elayne. Remember that Moiraine sent him with us. Whatever he is, he is no simple country gleeman.”

“He was a great man,” Elayne said softly. “He could have been greater, except for love.”

With that, Nynaeve’s temper snapped. She rounded on the other woman, seizing her by the shoulders. “The man doesn’t know whether to turn you over his knee or . . . or . . . climb a tree!”

“I know.” Elayne gave a frustrated sigh. “But I do not know what else to do.”

Nynaeve ground her teeth in the effort not to shake her until her skull rattled. “If your mother heard of this, she’d send Lini to haul you back to the nursery!”

“I am not a child any longer, Nynaeve.” Elayne’s voice was strained, and now the flush in her cheeks was not embarrassment. “I am as much a woman as my mother is.”

Nynaeve stalked on toward Mardecin, gripping her braid so hard that her knuckles hurt.

After a few strides, Elayne caught up. “Are we really going to buy vegetables?” Her face was composed, her tone light.

“Did you see what Thom brought back?” Nynaeve said tightly.

Elayne shuddered elaborately. “Three hams. And that awful peppered beef! Do men ever eat anything but meat if it isn’t set before them?”

Nynaeve’s temper faded as they walked on talking about the foibles of the weaker sex—men, of course—and such simple matters as that. Not completely away, of course. She liked Elayne, and enjoyed her company; at times it seemed as if the girl really was Egwene’s sister, as they sometimes called each other. When Elayne was not acting the twitchskirt. Thom could put a stop to it, of course, but the old fool indulged Elayne like a fond father with his favorite daughter, even when he did not know whether to say boo or faint. One way or another, she meant to get to the bottom of it. Not for Rand’s sake, but because Elayne was better than this. It was as if she had contracted a strange fever. Nynaeve intended to cure it.

Granite slabs paved the streets of Mardecin, worn by generations of feet and wagon wheels, and the buildings were all brick or stone. A number of them were empty though, both shops and houses, sometimes with the front door standing open so Nynaeve could see the bare interior. She saw three blacksmith’s shops, two abandoned, and in the third the smith was halfheartedly rubbing his tools with oil and the forges were cold. One slate-roofed inn, with men sitting morosely on benches out front, had a number of broken windows, and at another the adjoining stable had its doors half-off the hinges and a dusty coach squatting in the stableyard, one forlorn hen nesting on the driver’s high seat. Somebody in that one was playing the bittern; “Heron on the Wing,” it sounded like, but the tune was dispirited. The door of a third inn was barred by two splintery planks nailed across it.

People thronged the streets, but they moved lethargically, weighted down by the heat; dull faces said they had no real reason to stir at all, beyond habit. Many women, in large deep bonnets that almost hid their faces, had on dresses worn at the hem, and more than one man had a frayed collar or cuffs on his knee-length coat.

There were indeed Whitecloaks scattered through the streets; if not so many as Thom had made out, still enough. Nynaeve’s breath caught every time she saw a man in a pristine cloak and shining armor look at her. She knew she had not worked with the Power nearly long enough to take on Aes Sedai agelessness, but those men might well try to kill her—a Tar Valon witch, and outlawed in Amadicia—if they even suspected a connection to the White Tower. They strode through the crowds, seemingly oblivious of the apparent poverty around them. People moved out of their way respectfully, receiving perhaps a nod, if that, and often a sternly pious “Walk in the Light.”

Ignoring the Children of the Light as best she could, she set herself to finding fresh vegetables, but by the time the sun reached its peak, a blazing ball of gold that burned through the thin clouds, she and Elayne had wandered both sides of the low bridge and between them had managed to garner one small bunch of honeypeas, some tiny radishes, a few hard pears, and a basket to carry them in. Perhaps Thom really had looked. This time of year, the barrows and stalls should have been full of the summer’s produce, but most of what they saw was heaped potatoes and turnips that had known better days. Thinking of all those empty farms approaching the town, Nynaeve wondered how these people were going to make it through the winter. She walked on.

Hanging upside down beside the door of a thatch-roofed seamstress’s shop was a bunch of what looked almost like broomweed, with tiny yellow flowers, the stalks wrapped their whole length in a white ribbon, then tied with a dangling yellow one. It might have been some woman’s feeble attempt at a festive decoration in the midst of hard times. But she was sure it was not.

Stopping beside an empty shop with a carving knife incised on the sign still hanging over the door, she pretended to search for a stone in her shoe while furtively studying the seamstress’s shop. The door was open, and colorful bolts of cloth stood in the small-paned windows, but no one went in or out.

“Can you not find it, Nynaeve? Take off your shoe.”

Nynaeve’s head jerked; she had almost forgotten that Elayne was there. No one else was paying any attention to them, and no one looked close enough to overhear. She still lowered her voice. “That bunch of broomweed by that shop door. It is a Yellow Ajah signal, an emergency signal from one of the Yellow’s eyes-and-ears.”

She did not have to tell Elayne not to stare; the girl’s eyes barely moved toward the shop. “Are you certain?” she asked quietly. “And how do you know?”

“Of course I am certain. It’s exact; the hanging bit of yellow ribbon is even split in three.” She paused to take a deep breath. Unless she was completely mistaken, that insignificant fistful of weeds held a dire meaning. If she was wrong, she was making a fool of herself, and she did hate to do that. “I spent a good deal of time talking with Yellows in the Tower.” Healing was the main purpose of the Yellows; they did not care much for her herbs, but you did not need herbs when you could Heal with the Power. “One of them told me. She did not think it too great a transgression, since she was sure I’ll choose Yellow. Besides, it has not been used in nearly three hundred years. Elayne, only a few women in each Ajah actually know who the Ajah’s eyes-and-ears are, but a bunch of yellow flowers tied and hung like that tells any Yellow sister that here one is, and with a message urgent enough to risk uncovering herself.”

“How are we going to find out what it is?”

Nynaeve liked that. Not “What are we going to do?” The girl had backbone.

“Follow my lead,” she said, gripping the basket tighter as she straightened. She hoped she remembered everything Shemerin had told her. She hoped Shemerin had told her everything. The plump Yellow could be fluttery for an Aes Sedai.

The interior of the shop was not large, and every scrap of wall was taken up by shelves holding bolts of silk or finely woven wool, spools of piping and binding, and ribbon and lace of every width and description. Dressmaker’s dummies stood about the floor wearing garments ranging from half-made to complete, from something suitable for a dance in embroidered green wool to a pearly gray silk gown that could have done very well at court. At first glance the shop had a look of prosperity and activity, but Nynaeve’s sharp eye caught a hint of dust in one high neck of frothy Solinde lace, and on a large black velvet bow at the waist of another gown.

There were two dark-haired women in the shop. One, young and thin and trying to wipe her nose surreptitiously with the back of her hand, held a bolt of pale red silk clutched anxiously to her bosom. Her hair was a mass of long curls to her shoulders, in the Amadician fashion, but it seemed a tangle beside the other woman’s neat array. The other, handsome and in her middle years, was assuredly the seamstress, as proclaimed by the large bristling pincushion fastened to her wrist. Her dress was of a good green wool, well cut and well made to show her skill, but only lightly worked with white flowers around the high neck so as not to overshadow her patrons.

When Nynaeve and Elayne walked in, both women gaped as if none had entered in a year. The seamstress recovered first, regarding them with careful dignity as she made a slight curtsy. “May I serve you? I am Ronde Macura. My shop is yours.”

“I want a dress embroidered with yellow roses on the bodice,” Nynaeve told her. “But no thorns, mind,” she added with a laugh. “I don’t heal very fast.” What she said did not matter, so long as she included “yellow” and “heal” in it. Now, if only that bunch of flowers was not happenstance. If that was the case, she would have to find some reason not to buy a dress with roses. And a way to keep Elayne from recounting the whole miserable experience to Thom and Juilin.

Mistress Macura stared at her for a moment with dark eyes, then turned to the thin girl, pushing her toward the back of the shop. “Go on to the kitchen, Luci, and make a pot of tea for these good ladies. From the blue canister. The water’s hot, thank the Light. Go on, girl. Put that down and stop gawking. Quickly, quickly. The blue canister, mind. My best tea,” she said, turning back to Nynaeve as the girl vanished through a door at the rear. “I live over the shop, you see, and my kitchen is in the back.” She was smoothing her skirts nervously, thumb and forefinger of her right hand forming a circle. For the Great Serpent ring. There would be no need for an excuse about the dress, it seemed.

Nynaeve repeated the sign, and after a moment Elayne did, too. “I am Nynaeve, and this is Elayne. We saw your signal.”

The woman fluttered as if she might fly away. “The signal? Ah. Yes. Of course.”

“Well?” Nynaeve said. “What is the urgent message?”

“We should not talk about that out here . . . uh . . . Mistress Nynaeve. Anyone might walk in.” Nynaeve doubted that. “I will tell you over a nice cup of tea. My best tea, did I say?”

Nynaeve exchanged looks with Elayne. If Mistress Macura was this reluctant to speak her news, it must be appalling indeed.

“If we may just step into the back,” Elayne said, “no one will hear but us.” Her regal tone made the seamstress stare. For a moment, Nynaeve thought it might cut through her nervousness, but the next instant the fool woman was babbling again.

“The tea will be ready in a moment. The water’s already hot. We used to get Taraboner tea through here. That is why I am here, I suppose. Not the tea, of course. All the trade that used to be, and all the news that came both ways with the wagons. They—you are mainly interested in outbreaks of disease, or a new kind of illness, but I find that interesting myself. I dabble a little with—” She coughed and rushed on; if she smoothed her dress any harder, she would wear a hole in it. “Some about the Children, of course, but they—you—are not much interested in them, really.”

“The kitchen, Mistress Macura,” Nynaeve said firmly as soon as the other woman paused for breath. If the woman’s news made her this afraid, Nynaeve would brook no more delay in hearing it.

The door at the back opened enough to admit Luci’s anxious head. “It’s ready, Mistress,” she announced breathlessly.

“This way, Mistress Nynaeve,” the seamstress said, still rubbing the front of her dress. “Mistress Elayne.”

A short hallway led past narrow stairs to a snug, beam-ceilinged kitchen, with a steaming kettle sitting on the hearth and tall cupboards everywhere. Copper pots hung between the back door and a window that looked out into a small yard with a high wooden fence. The small table in the middle of the floor held a brilliant yellow teapot, a green honey jar, three mismatched cups in as many colors, and a squat blue pottery canister with the lid beside it. Mistress Macura snatched the canister, lidded it, and hastily put it into a cupboard that held more in two dozen shades and hues.

“Sit, please,” she said, filling the cups. “Please.”

Nynaeve took a ladder-back chair next to Elayne, and the seamstress set cups in front of them, flitting to one of the cupboards for pewter spoons.

“The message?” Nynaeve said as the woman sat down across from them. Mistress Macura was too nervous to touch her own teacup, so Nynaeve stirred a little honey into hers and took a sip; it was hot, but had a cool, minty aftertaste. Hot tea might settle the woman’s nerves, if she could be made to drink.

“A pleasant taste,” Elayne murmured over the edge of her cup. “What sort of tea is it?”

Good girl, Nynaeve thought.

But the seamstress’s hands only fluttered beside her cup. “A Taraboner tea. From near the Shadow Coast.”

Sighing, Nynaeve took another swallow to settle her own stomach. “The message,” she said insistently. “You did not hang that signal to invite us for tea. What is your urgent news?”

“Ah. Yes.” Mistress Macura licked her lips, eyed them both, then said slowly, “It came near a month ago, with orders that any sister passing through heard it at all costs.” She wet her lips again. “All sisters are welcome to return to the White Tower. The Tower must be whole and strong.”

Nynaeve waited for the rest, but the other woman fell silent. This was the dire message? She looked at Elayne, but the heat seemed to be catching up to the girl; drooping in her chair, she was staring at her hands on the table. “Is that all of it?” Nynaeve demanded, and surprised herself by yawning. The heat must be reaching her, too.

The seamstress only watched her, intently.

“I said,” Nynaeve began, but suddenly her head felt too heavy for her neck. Elayne had slumped onto the table, she realized, eyes closed and arms hanging limply. Nynaeve stared at the cup in her hands with horror. “What did you give us?” she said thickly; that minty taste was still there, but her tongue felt swollen. “Tell me!” Letting the cup fall, she levered herself up against the table, knees wobbling. “The Light burn you, what?”

Mistress Macura scraped back her chair and stepped out of reach, but her earlier nervousness was now a look of quiet satisfaction.

Blackness rolled in on Nynaeve; the last thing she heard was the seamstress’s voice. “Catch her, Luci!”

CHAPTER

10

Figs and Mice

Elayne realized that she was being carried upstairs by her shoulders and ankles. Her eyes opened, she could see, but the rest of her body might as well have belonged to someone else for all the control she had over it. Even blinking was slow. Her brain felt crammed full of feathers.

“She’s awake, Mistress!” Luci shrilled, nearly dropping her feet. “She’s looking at me!”

“I told you not to worry.” Mistress Macura’s voice came from above her head. “She cannot channel, or twitch a muscle, not with forkroot tea in her. I discovered that by accident, but it has certainly come in handy.”

It was true. Elayne sagged between them like a doll with half the stuffing gone, bumping her bottom along the steps, and she could as well have run as channel. She could sense the True Source, but trying to embrace it was like trying to pick up a needle on a mirror with cold-numbed fingers. Panic welled up, and a tear slid down her cheek.

Perhaps these women meant to turn her over to the Whitecloaks for execution, but she could not make herself believe that the Whitecloaks had women setting traps in the hope that an Aes Sedai might wander in. That left Darkfriends, and almost certainly serving the Black Ajah right along with the Yellow. She would surely be put in the hands of the Black Ajah unless Nynaeve had escaped. But if she was to escape, she could not count on anyone else. And she could neither move nor channel. Suddenly she realized that she was trying to scream, and producing only a thin, gurgling mewl. Halting it took all the strength she had left.

Nynaeve knew all about herbs, or claimed she did; why had she not recognized whatever that tea was? Stop this whining! The small, firm voice in the back of her head sounded remarkably like Lini. A shoat squealing under a fence just attracts the fox, when it should be trying to run. Desperately, she set herself to the simple task of embracing saidar. It had been a simple task, but now she might as well have been attempting to reach saidin. She kept on, though; it was the only thing she could do.

Mistress Macura, at least, seemed to have no worry. As soon as they had dropped Elayne onto a narrow bed in a small, close room with one window, she hustled Luci right out again with not even a backward glance. Elayne’s head had fallen so she could see another cramped bed, and a highchest with tarnished brass pulls on the drawers. She could move her eyes, but shifting her head was beyond her.

In a few minutes the two women returned, puffing, with Nynaeve slung between them, and heaved her onto the other bed. Her face was slack, and glistening with tears, but her dark eyes . . . Fury filled them, and fear, too, Elayne hoped anger was uppermost; Nynaeve was stronger than she, when she could channel; perhaps Nynaeve could manage where she was failing miserably, time after time. Those had to be tears of rage.

Telling the thin girl to stay there, Mistress Macura hurried out once more, this time coming back with a tray that she placed atop the highchest. It held the yellow teapot, one cup, a funnel and a tall hourglass. “Now Luci, mind you pour a good two ounces into each of them as soon as that hourglass empties. As soon, mind!”

“Why don’t we give it to them now, Mistress?” the girl moaned, wringing her hands. “I want them to go back to sleep. I don’t like them looking at me.”

“They would sleep like the dead, girl, and this way we can let them rouse just enough to walk when we need them to. I will dose them more properly when it’s time to send them off. They’ll have headaches and stomach cramps to pay for it, but no more than they deserve, I suppose.”

“But what if they can channel, Mistress? What if they do? They’re looking at me.”

“Stop blathering, girl,” the older woman said briskly. “If they could, don’t you think they would have by now? They are helpless as kittens in a sack. And they will stay that way as long you keep a good dose in them. Now, you do as I told you, understand? I must go tell old Avi to send off one of his pigeons, and make a few arrangements, but I will be back as soon as I can. You had better brew another pot of forkroot just in case. I’ll go out the back. Close up the shop. Someone might wander in, and that would never do.”

After Mistress Macura left, Luci stood staring at them for a while, still wringing her hands, then finally scurried out herself. Her sniffling faded down the stairs.

Elayne could see sweat beading on Nynaeve’s brow; she hoped it was effort, not the heat. Try, Nynaeve. She herself reached for the True Source, fumbling clumsily through the wads of wool that seemed to pack her head, failed, tried again and failed, tried again. . . . Oh, Light, try, Nynaeve! Try!

The hourglass filled her eyes; she could not look at anything else. Sand pouring down, each grain marking another failure on her part. The last grain dropped. And Luci did not come.

Elayne strained harder, for the Source, to move. After a bit the fingers of her left hand twitched. Yes! A few minutes more, and she could lift her hand; only a feeble inch before it fell again, but it had lifted. With an effort, she could turn her head.

“Fight it,” Nynaeve mumbled thickly, barely intelligible. Her hands were gripping the coverlet under her tightly; she seemed to be trying to sit up. Not even her head lifted, but she was trying.

“I am,” Elayne tried to say; it sounded more like a grunt to her ears.

Slowly she managed to raise her hand to where she could see it, and hold it there. A thrill of triumph shot through her. Stay afraid of us, Luci. Stay down there in the kitchen a little while longer, and . . .

The door banged open, and sobs of frustration racked her as Luci dashed in. She had been so close. The girl took one look at them and with a yelp of pure terror darted for the highchest.

Elayne tried to fight her, but thin as she was, Luci batted her floundering hands away effortlessly, forced the funnel between her teeth just as easily. The girl panted as if running. Cold, bitter tea filled Elayne’s mouth. She stared up at the girl in a panic that Luci’s face shared. But Luci held Elayne’s mouth shut and stroked her throat with a grim if fearful determination until she swallowed. As darkness overwhelmed Elayne, she could hear liquid sounds of protest coming from Nynaeve.

When her eyes opened again, Luci was gone, and the sands trickled through the glass again. Nynaeve’s dark eyes were bulging, whether in fear or anger, Elayne could not have said. No, Nynaeve would not give in. That was one of the things she admired in the other woman. Nynaeve’s head could have been on the chopping block and she would not give up. Our heads are on the block!

It made her ashamed that she was so much weaker than Nynaeve. She was supposed to be Queen of Andor one day, and she wanted to howl with terror. She did not, even in her head—doggedly she went back to trying to force her limbs to move, to trying to touch saidar—but she wanted to. How could she ever be a queen, when she was so weak? Again she reached for the Source. Again. Again. Racing the grains of sand. Again.

Once more the glass emptied itself without Luci. Ever so slowly, she reached the point where she could raise her hand again. And then her head! Even if it did flop back immediately. She could hear Nynaeve muttering to herself, and she could actually understand most of the words.

The door crashed open once more. Elayne lifted her head to stare at it despairingly—and gaped. Thom Merrilin stood there like the hero of one of his own tales, one hand firmly gripping the neck of a Luci near fainting, the other holding a knife ready to throw. Elayne laughed delightedly, though it came out more like a croak.

Roughly, he shoved the girl into a corner. “You stay there, or I’ll strop this blade on your hide!” In two steps he was at Elayne’s side, smoothing her hair back, worry painting his leathery face. “What did you give them, girl? Tell me, or—!”

“Not her,” Nynaeve muttered. “Other one. Went away. Help me up. Have to walk.”

Thom left her reluctantly, Elayne thought. He showed Luci his knife again threateningly—she cowered as if she never meant to move again—then made it disappear up his sleeve in a twinkling. Hauling Nynaeve to her feet, he began walking her up and down the few paces the room allowed. She sagged against him limply, shuffling.

“I am glad to hear this frightened little cat didn’t trap you,” he said. “If she had been the one . . .” He shook his head. No doubt he would think just as little of them if Nynaeve told him the truth; Elayne certainly did not intend to. “I found her rushing up the stairs, so panicked she did not even hear me behind her. I am not so glad that another one got away without Juilin seeing her. Is she likely to bring others back?”

Elayne rolled over onto her side. “I do not think so, Thom,” she mumbled. “She can’t let—too many people—know about herself.” In another minute she might be able to sit up. She was looking right at Luci; the girl flinched and tried to shrink through the wall. “The Whitecloaks—would take her as—quickly as they would us.”

“Juilin?” Nynaeve said. Her head wavered as she glared up at the gleeman. She had no trouble speaking, though. “I told the pair of you to stay with the wagon.”

Thom blew out his mustaches irritably. “You told us to put up the supplies, which did not take two men. Juilin followed you, and when none of you came back, I went looking for him.” He snorted again. “For all he knew, there were a dozen men in here, but he was ready to come in after you alone. He is tying Skulker in the back. A good thing I decided to ride in. I think we’ll need the horse to get you two out of here.”

Elayne found that she could sit up, barely, pulling herself hand over hand along the coverlet, but an effort to stand nearly put her flat again. Saidar was as unobtainable as ever; her head still felt like a goose-down pillow. Nynaeve was beginning to hold herself a little straighter, to lift her feet, but she still hung on Thom.

Minutes later Juilin arrived, pushing Mistress Macura ahead of him with his belt knife. “She came through a gate in the back fence. Thought I was a thief. It seemed best to bring her on in.”

The seamstress’s face had gone so pale at the sight of them that her eyes seemed darker, and about to come out of her head besides. She licked her lips and smoothed her skirt incessantly, and cast quick little glances at Juilin’s knife as if wondering whether it might not be best to run anyway. For the most part, though, she stared at Elayne and Nynaeve; Elayne thought it an even chance whether she would burst into tears or swoon.

“Put her over there,” Nynaeve said, nodding to where Luci still shivered in the corner with her arms wrapped around her knees, “and help Elayne. I never heard of forkroot, but walking seems to help the effects pass. You can walk most things off.”

Juilin pointed to the corner with his knife, and Mistress Macura scurried to it and sat herself down beside Luci, still wetting her lips fearfully. “I—would not have done—what I did—only, I had orders. You must understand that. I had orders.”

Gently helping Elayne to her feet, Juilin supported her in walking the few steps available, crisscrossing the other pair. She wished it were Thom. Juilin’s arm around her waist was much too familiar.

“Orders from whom?” Nynaeve barked. “Who do you report to in the Tower?”

The seamstress looked sick, but she clamped her mouth shut determinedly.

“If you don’t talk,” Nynaeve told her, scowling, “I’ll let Juilin have you. He’s a Tairen thief-catcher, and he knows how to bring out a confession as quickly as any Whitecloak Questioner. Don’t you, Juilin?”

“Some rope to tie her,” he said, grinning a grin so villainous that Elayne almost tried to step away from him, “some rags to gag her until she is ready to talk, some cooking oil and salt. . . .” His chuckle curdled Elayne’s blood. “She will talk.” Mistress Macura held herself rigidly against the wall, staring at him, eyes as wide as they would go. Luci looked at him as if he had just turned into a Trolloc, eight feet tall and complete with horns.

“Very well,” Nynaeve said after a moment. “You should find everything you need in the kitchen, Juilin.” Elayne shifted a startled look from her to the thief-catcher and back. Surely they did not really mean to . . . ? Not Nynaeve!

“Narenwin Barda,” the seamstress gasped suddenly. Words tripped over one another spilling out of her. “I send my reports to Narenwin Barda, at an inn in Tar Valon called The Upriver Run. Avi Shendar keeps pigeons for me on the edge of town. He doesn’t know who I send messages to or who I get them from, and he does not care. His wife had the falling sickness, and . . .” She trailed off, shuddering and watching Juilin.

Elayne knew Narenwin, or at least had seen her in the Tower. A thin little woman you could forget was there, she was so quiet. And kind, too; one day a week, she let children bring their pets to the Tower grounds for her to Heal. Hardly the sort of woman to be Black Ajah. On the other hand, one of the Black Ajah names they knew was Marillin Gemalphin; she liked cats, and went out of her way to look after strays.

“Narenwin Barda,” Nynaeve said grimly. “I want more names, inside the Tower or out.”

“I—don’t have any more,” Mistress Macura said faintly.

“We will see about that. How long have you been a Darkfriend? How long have you served the Black Ajah?”

An indignant squall erupted from Luci. “We aren’t Darkfriends!” She glanced at Mistress Macura and sidled away from her. “At least, I’m not! I walk in the Light! I do!”

The other woman’s reaction was no less strong. If her eyes had bulged before, they popped now. “The Black—! You mean it really exists? But the Tower has always denied—Why, I asked Narenwin, the day she chose me for the Yellow’s eyes-and-ears, and it was the next morning before I could stop weeping and crawl out of my bed. I am not—not!—a Darkfriend! Never! I serve the Yellow Ajah! The Yellow!”

Still hanging on to Juilin’s arm, Elayne exchanged puzzled looks with Nynaeve. Any Darkfriend would deny it, of course, but there seemed a ring of truth in the women’s voices. Their outrage at the accusation was nearly enough to overcome their fear. From the way Nynaeve hesitated, she heard the same thing.

“If you serve the Yellow,” she said slowly, “why did you drug us?”

“It was her,” the seamstress replied, nodding at Elayne. “I was sent her description a month since, right down to that way she holds her chin sometimes so she seems to be looking down at you. Narenwin said she might use the name Elayne, and even claim to be of a noble House.” Word by word, her anger over being called a Darkfriend seemed to bubble higher. “Maybe you are a Yellow sister, but she’s no Aes Sedai, just a runaway Accepted. Narenwin said I was to report her presence, and that of anyone with her. And to delay her, if I could. Or even capture her. And anyone with her. How they expected me to capture an Accepted, I do not know—I don’t think even Narenwin knows about my forkroot tea!—but that is what my orders said! They said I should risk exposure even—here, where it’d be my death!—if I had to! You just wait until the Amyrlin puts her hands on you, young woman! On all of you!”

“The Amyrlin!” Elayne exclaimed. “What does she have to do with this?”

“It was on her orders. By order of the Amyrlin Seat, it said. It said the Amyrlin herself said I could use any means short of killing you. You will wish you were dead when the Amyrlin gets hold of you!” Her sharp nod was full of furious satisfaction.

“Remember that we are not in anyone’s hands yet,” Nynaeve said dryly. “You are in ours.” Her eyes looked as shocked as Elayne felt, though. “Was any reason given?”

The reminder that she was the captive sapped the brief burst of spirit from the woman. She sagged listlessly against Luci, each keeping the other from falling over. “No. Sometimes Narenwin gives a reason, but not this time.”

“Did you intend to just keep us here, drugged, until someone came for us?”

“I was going to send you off by cart, dressed in some old clothes.” Not even a shred of resistance remained in the woman’s voice. “I sent a pigeon to tell Narenwin you were here, and what I was doing. Therin Lugay owes me a strong favor, and I meant to give him enough forkroot to last all the way to Tar Valon, if Narenwin didn’t send sisters to meet you sooner. He thinks you are ill, and the tea is the only thing keeping you alive until an Aes Sedai can Heal you. A woman has to be careful, dealing in remedies in Amadicia. Cure too many, or too well, somebody whispers Aes Sedai, and the next you know your house is burning down. Or worse. Therin knows to hold his tongue about what he . . .”

Nynaeve made Thom help her closer, where she could stare down at the seamstress. “And the message? The real message? You did not put that signal out in the hope of luring us in.”

“I gave you the real message,” the woman said wearily. “I did not think it could do any harm. I don’t understand it, and I—please—” Suddenly she was sobbing, clinging to Luci as hard as the younger woman did to her, both of them wailing and babbling. “Please, don’t let him use the salt on me! Please! Not the salt! Oh, please!”

“Tie them up,” Nynaeve said disgustedly after a moment, “and we will go downstairs where we can talk.” Thom helped her to sit on the edge of the nearest bed, then quickly cut strips from the other coverlet.

In short order both women were bound, back to back, the hands of one to the feet of the other, with wadded bits of coverlet tied in for gags. The pair were still weeping when Thom assisted Nynaeve from the room.

Elayne wished she could walk as well as the other woman, but she still needed Juilin’s support not to go tumbling down the stairs. She felt a small stab of jealousy watching Thom with his arm around Nynaeve. You are a foolish little girl, Lini’s voice said sharply. I am a grown woman, she told it with a firmness she would not have dared with her old nurse even today. I do love Rand, but he is far away, and Thom is sophisticated and intelligent and . . . It sounded too much like excuses, even to her. Lini would have given the snort that meant she was about to stop tolerating foolishness.

“Juilin,” she asked hesitantly, “what were you going to do with the salt and cooking oil? Not exactly,” she added more quickly. “Just a general idea.”

He looked at her for a moment. “I do not know. But they did not, either. That is the trick of it; their minds made up worse than I ever could. I have seen a tough man break when I sent for a basket of figs and some mice. You have to be careful, though. Some will confess anything, true or not, just to escape what they imagine. I do not think those two did, though.”

She did not either. She could not repress a shiver, however. What would somebody do with figs and mice? She hoped she stopped wondering before she gave herself nightmares.

By the time they reached the kitchen, Nynaeve was tottering about without help, poking into the cupboard full of colorful canisters. Elayne needed one of the chairs. The blue canister sat on the table, and a full green teapot, but she tried not to look at them. She still could not channel. She could embrace saidar, yet it slipped away as soon as she did. At least she was confident now that the Power would return to her. The alternative was too horrible to contemplate, and she had not let herself until this moment.

“Thom,” Nynaeve said, lifting the lids on various containers and peering in. “Juilin.” She paused, took a deep breath, and, still not looking at the two men, said, “Thank you. I begin to see why Aes Sedai have Warders. Thank you very much.”

Not all Aes Sedai did. Reds considered all men tainted because of what men who could channel did, and a few never bothered because they did not leave the Tower or simply did not replace a Warder who died. The Greens were the only Ajah to allow bonding with more than one Warder. Elayne wanted to be a Green. Not for that reason, of course, but because the Greens called themselves the Battle Ajah. Where Browns searched for lost knowledge and Blues involved themselves in causes, Green sisters held themselves ready for the Last Battle, when they would go forth, as they had in the Trolloc Wars, to face new Dreadlords.

The two men stared at one another in open amazement. They had surely been ready for the usual rough side of Nynaeve’s tongue. Elayne was almost as shocked. Nynaeve liked having to be helped as much as she liked being wrong; either made her as prickly as a briar, though of course she always claimed to be a picture of sweet reason and sense.

“A Wisdom.” Nynaeve took a pinch of powder from one of the canisters and sniffed it, touched it to the tip of her tongue. “Or whatever they call it here.”

“They don’t have a name for it here,” Thom said. “Not many women follow your old craft in Amadicia. Too dangerous. For most of those it’s only a sideline.”

Pulling a leather scrip from the bottom of the cupboard, Nynaeve began making up small bundles from some of the containers. “And who do they go to when they’re ill? A hedge-doctor?”

“Yes,” Elayne said. It always pleased her to show Thom that she knew things about the world, too. “In Amadicia, it is men who study herbs.”

Nynaeve frowned scornfully. “What could a man ever know about curing anything? I’d as soon ask a farrier to make a dress.”

Abruptly Elayne realized that she had been thinking of anything and everything except what Mistress Macura had said. Not thinking about a thorn doesn’t make it hurt your foot less. One of Lini’s favorites. “Nynaeve, what do you think that message means? All sisters are welcome to return to the Tower? It makes no sense.” That was not what she wanted to say, but at least she was closing in on it.

“The Tower has its own rules,” Thom said. “What Aes Sedai do, they do for reasons of their own, and often not for those they give. If they give reasons at all.” He and Juilin knew they were only Accepted, of course; that was at least part of why neither man did as he was told nearly as well as he might.

The struggle was plain on Nynaeve’s face. She did not like being interrupted, or people answering for her. There was quite a list of things Nynaeve did not like. But it was only a moment since she had thanked Thom; it could not be easy to call down a man who had just saved you from being hauled off like a cabbage. “Very little in the Tower makes sense most of the time,” she said sourly. Elayne suspected that the tartness was as much for Thom as the Tower.

“Do you believe what she said?” Elayne took a deep breath. “About the Amyrlin saying I was to be brought back by any means.”

The brief look Nynaeve gave her was touched with sympathy. “I don’t know, Elayne.”

“She was telling the truth.” Juilin turned one of the chairs around and straddled it, leaning his staff against the back. “I’ve questioned enough thieves and murderers to know truth when I hear it. Part of the time she was too frightened to lie, and the rest too angry.”

“The pair of you—” Taking a deep breath, Nynaeve tossed the scrip onto the table and folded her arms as if to trap her hands away from her braid. “I am afraid Juilin is probably right, Elayne.”

“But the Amyrlin knows what we are doing. She sent us out of the Tower in the first place.”

Nynaeve sniffed loudly. “I can believe anything of Siuan Sanche. I would like to have her for one hour where she could not channel. We would see how tough she is then.”

Elayne did not think that would make any difference. Remembering that commanding blue gaze, she suspected Nynaeve would earn a fine lot of bruises in the unlikely event that she ever got her wish. “But what are we going to do about it? The Ajahs have eyes-and-ears everywhere, it seems. And the Amyrlin herself. We could have women trying to slip things into our food all the way to Tar Valon.”

“Not if we do not look like what they expect.” Lifting a yellow jug out of the cupboard, Nynaeve set it on the table beside the teapot. “This is white henpepper. It will soothe a toothache, but it will also turn your hair black as night.” Elayne put a hand to her red-gold tresses—her hair, not Nynaeve’s, she would wager!—but as much as she hated the idea, it was a good one. “A little needle-work on some of those dresses in the front, and we are not merchants anymore, but two ladies traveling with their servants.”

“Riding on a wagonload of dye?” Juilin said.

Her level look said gratitude for saving her extended only so far. “There is a coach in a stableyard on the other side of the bridge. I think the owner will sell it. If you go back to the wagon before somebody steals it—I do not know what got into you two, just leaving it for whoever came along!—if it is still there, you can take one of the purses. . . .”

A few people goggled when Noy Torvald’s coach pulled up in front of Ronde Macura’s shop, drawn by a team of four, with chests strapped to the roof and a saddled horse tied on behind. Noy had lost everything when the trade with Tarabon collapsed; he was scraping a living doing odd jobs for Widow Teran, now. No one in the street had ever seen the coachman before, a tall leathery fellow with long white mustaches and cold, imperious eyes, or the dark, hard-faced footman in a Taraboner hat who jumped down nimbly to open the coach door. The goggling turned to murmurs when two women swept out of the shop with bundles in their arms; one wore a green silk gown, the other plain blue wool, but each had a scarf wrapped around her head so that not so much as a hint of her hair was visible. They all but leaped into the coach.

Two of the Children began sauntering over to inquire who the strangers were, but while the footman was still scrambling up to the driver’s seat, the coachman cracked his long whip, shouting something about making way for a lady. Her name was lost as the Children threw themselves out of the way, tumbling in the dusty street, and the coach rumbled away at a gallop toward the Amador Road.

The onlookers walked away talking among themselves; a mysterious lady, obviously, with her maid, making purchases from Ronde Macura and rushing away from the Children. Little enough happened in Mardecin of late, and this would provide days of conversation. The Children of the Light brushed themselves off furiously, but finally decided that reporting the incident would make them look foolish. Besides, their captain did not like nobles; he would probably send them to bring the coach back, a long ride in the heat for no more than an arrogant young sprig of one House or another. If no charges could be brought—always tricky with the nobility—it would not be the captain who took the blame. Hoping that word of their humiliation did not spread, they certainly never thought of questioning Ronde Macura.

A short time later, Therin Lugay led his cart into the yard behind the shop, provisions for the long journey ahead already packed away under the round canvas top. Indeed, Ronde Macura had cured him of a fever that had taken twenty-three the winter before, but it was a nagging wife and a shrewish mother-in-law that made him glad of a journey all the way to where the witches lived. Ronde had said someone might meet him, though not who, but he hoped to make it to Tar Valon.

He tapped on the kitchen door six times before going in, but it was not until he climbed the stairs that he found anyone. In the back bedroom, Ronde and Luci lay stretched out on the beds, sound asleep and fully clothed, if rather rumpled, with the sun still in the sky. Neither woman roused when he shook them. He did not understand that, or why one of the coverlets was lying on the floor cut into knotted strips, or why there were two empty teapots in the room but only one cup, or why a funnel was lying on Ronde’s pillow. But he had always known that there was a great deal in the world he did not understand. Returning to his cart, he thought about the supplies Ronde’s money had purchased, thought of his wife and her mother, and when he led the cart horse off, it was with the intention of seeing what Altara was like, or maybe Murandy.

One way and another, it was quite a time before a disheveled Ronde Macura tottered up to Avi Shendar’s house and sent off a pigeon, a thin bone tube tied to its leg. The bird launched itself north and east, straight as an arrow toward Tar Valon. After a moment’s thought, Ronde prepared another copy on another narrow strip of thin parchment, and fastened it to a bird from another coop. That one headed west for she had promised to send duplicates of all of her messages. In these hard times, a woman had to make out as best she could, and there could be no harm in it, not the sort of reports she made to Narenwin. Wondering if she could ever get the taste of forkroot out of her mouth, she would not have minded if the report brought just a little harm to the one who called herself Nynaeve.

Hoeing in his garden patch as usual, Avi paid no attention to what Ronde did. And as usual, as soon as she was gone, he washed his hands and went inside. She had placed a larger sheet of parchment underneath the strips to cushion the nib of the pen. When he held it up to the afternoon light, he could make out what she had written. Soon a third pigeon was on its way, heading in still another direction.

CHAPTER

11

The Nine Horse Hitch

A wide straw hat shaded Siuan’s face as she let Logain lead the way through Lugard’s Shilene Gate under the late-afternoon sun. The city’s tall gray outer walls were in some disrepair; in two places she could see, tumbled stone lowered the wall to no more than a tall fence. Min and Leane rode close behind her, both tired from the pace the man had set over the weeks since Kore Springs. He wanted to be in charge, and it took little enough to convince him that he was. If he said when they started of a morning, when and where they stopped of a night, if he kept the money, even if he expected them to serve his meals as well as cook them, it was of little account to her. All in all, she felt sorry for him. He had no idea what she planned for him. A big fish on the hook to catch a bigger, she thought grimly.

In name, Lugard was the capital of Murandy, the seat of King Roedran, but lords in Murandy spoke the words of fealty, then refused to pay their taxes, or do much of anything else that Roedran wanted, and the people did the same. Murandy was a nation in name only, the people barely held together by supposed allegiance to the king or queen—the throne changed hands at sometimes short intervals—and fear that Andor or Illian might snap them up if they did not hold together in some fashion.

Stone walls crisscrossed the city, most in a worse state than the outer bastions, for Lugard had grown haphazardly over the centuries, and more than once had actually been divided among feuding nobles. It was a dirty city, many of the broad streets unpaved and all of them dusty. Men in high-crowned hats and aproned women in skirts that showed their ankles dodged between merchants’ lumbering trains, while children played in wagon ruts. Trade kept Lugard alive, trade up from Illian and Ebou Dar, from Ghealdan to the west and Andor to the north. Large bare patches of ground through the city held wagons parked wheel-to-wheel, many heavy-laden under strapped-down canvas covers, others empty and awaiting freight. Inns lined the main streets, along with horse lots and stables, nearly outnumbering the gray stone houses or shops, all roofed with tiles in blue or red or purple or green. Dust and noise filled the air, clanging from the smithies, the rumble of wagons and curses of the drivers,
boisterous laughter from the inns. The sun baked Lugard as it slid toward the horizon, and the air felt as though it might never rain again.

When Logain finally turned in to a stableyard and dismounted behind a green-roofed inn called The Nine Horse Hitch, Siuan clambered down from Bela gratefully and gave the shaggy mare a doubtful pat on the nose, wary of teeth. In her view, sitting on the back of an animal was no way to travel. A boat went as you turned the rudder; a horse might decide to think for itself. Boats never bit, either; Bela had not so far, but she could. At least those awful first days of stiffness were gone, when she was sure Leane and Min were grinning behind her back as she hobbled about in the evening camp. After a day in the saddle, she still felt as if she had been thoroughly beaten, but she managed to hide it.

As soon as Logain began bargaining with the stableman, a lanky, freckled old fellow in a leather vest and no shirt, Siuan sidled close to Leane. “If you want to practice your wiles,” she said softly, “practice them on Dalyn the next hour.” Leane gave her a dubious look—she had dabbled in smiles and glances at some of the villages since Kore Springs, but Logain had gotten no more than a flat look—then sighed and nodded. Taking a deep breath, she glided forward in that startling sinuous way, leading her arch-necked gray and already smiling at Logain. Siuan could not see how she did that; it was as if some of her bones were no longer rigid.

Moving over to Min, she spoke just as quietly again. “The instant Dalyn is done with the stableman, tell him you are going to join me inside. Then hurry ahead, and stay away from him and Amaena until I come back.” From the noise roaring out of the inn, the crowd inside was big enough to hide an army. Surely big enough to hide the absence of one woman. Min got that mulish look about her eyes and opened her mouth, no doubt to demand why. Siuan forestalled her. “Just do it, Serenla. Or I’ll let you add cleaning his boots to handing him his plate.” The stubborn look remained, but Min gave a sullen nod.

Pushing Bela’s reins into the other woman’s hands, Siuan hurried out of the stableyard and started down the street in what she hoped was the right direction. She did not want to have to search the entire city, not in this heat and dust.

Heavy wagons behind teams of six or eight or even ten filled the streets, drivers cracking long whips and cursing equally at the horses and at the people who darted between the wagons. Roughly dressed men mingling through the crowds in long wagon drivers’ coats sometimes directed laughing invitations at women who passed them. The women who wore colorful aprons, sometimes striped, their heads wrapped in bright scarves, walked on with eyes straight ahead, as though they did not hear. Women without aprons, hair hanging loose around their shoulders and skirts sometimes ending a foot or more clear of the ground, often shouted back even ruder replies.

Siuan gave a start when she realized that some of the men’s suggestions were aimed at her. They did not make her angry—she really could not apply them to herself in her own mind—only startled. She was still not used to the changes in herself. That men might find her attractive. . . . Her reflection in the filthy window of a tailor’s shop caught her eye, not much more than a murky image of a fair-skinned girl under a straw hat. She was young; not just young-appearing, as far as she could tell, but young. Not much older than Min. A girl in truth, from the vantage of the years she had actually lived.

An advantage to having been stilled, she told herself. She had met women who would pay any price to lose fifteen or twenty years; some might even consider her price a fair bargain. She often found herself listing such advantages, perhaps trying to convince herself they were real. Freed from the Three Oaths, she could lie at need, for one thing. And her own father would not have recognized her. She did not really look as she had as a young woman; the changes maturity had made were still there, but softened into youth. Coldly objective, she thought she might be somewhat prettier than she had been as a girl; pretty was the best that had ever been said of her. Handsome had been the more usual compliment. She could not connect that face to her, to Siuan Sanche. Only inside was she still the same; her mind yet held all its knowledge. There, in her head, she was still herself.

Some of the inns and taverns in Lugard had names like The Farrier’s Hammer, or The Dancing Bear, or The Silver Pig, often with garish signs painted to match. Others had names that should not have been allowed, the mildest of that sort being The Domani Wench’s Kiss, with a painting of a coppery-skinned woman—bare to the waist!—with her lips puckered. Siuan wondered what Leane would make of that, but the way the woman was now, it might only give her notions.

At last, on a side street just as wide as the main, just beyond a gateless opening in one of the collapsing inner walls, she found the inn she wanted, three stories of rough gray stone topped with purple roof tiles. The sign over the door had an improbably voluptuous woman wearing only her hair, arranged to hide as little as possible, astride a barebacked horse, and a name that she skipped over as soon as she recognized it.

Inside, the common room was blue with pipesmoke, packed with raucous men drinking and laughing, trying to pinch serving maids, who dodged as best they could with long-suffering smiles. Barely audible over the babble, a zither and a flute accompanied a young woman singing and dancing on a table at one end of the long room. Occasionally the singer swirled her skirts high enough to show nearly the whole length of her bare legs; what Siuan could catch of her song made her want to wash out the girl’s mouth. Why would a woman go walking with no clothes on? Why would a woman sing about it to a lot of drunken louts? It was not a sort of place she had ever been into before. She intended to make this visit as brief as possible.

There was no mistaking the inn’s owner, a tall, heavyset woman encased in a red silk dress that practically glowed; elaborate, dyed curls—nature had never produced that shade of red, surely never with such dark eyes—framed a thrusting chin and a hard mouth. In between shouting orders to the serving girls, she stopped at this table or that to speak a few words or slap a back and laugh with her patrons.

Siuan held herself stiffly and tried to ignore the considering looks men gave her as she approached the crimson-haired woman. “Mistress Tharne?” She had to repeat the name three times, each louder than the last, before the inn’s owner looked at her. “Mistress Tharne, I want a job singing. I can sing—”

“You can, can you now?” The big woman laughed. “Well, I have a singer, but I can always use another to give her a rest. Let me be seeing your legs.”

“I can sing ‘The Song of the Three Fishes,’ ” Siuan said loudly. This had to be the right woman. Surely two women in one city could not have hair like that, not and answer to the right name at the right inn.

Mistress Tharne laughed harder still and slapped one of the men at the nearest table on the shoulder, jolting him half off his bench. “Not much call for that one here, eh, Pel?” Gap-toothed Pel, a wagon driver’s whip curled around his shoulder, cackled with her.

“And I can sing ‘Blue Sky Dawning.’ ”

The woman shook, scrubbing at her eyes as though she had laughed herself to tears. “Can you, now? Ah, I’m sure the lads will love that. Now let me see your legs. Your legs, girl, or get out!”

Siuan hesitated, but Mistress Tharne only stared at her. And an increasing number of the men did, too. This had to be the right woman. Slowly, she pulled her skirt up to her knees. The tall woman gestured impatiently. Closing her eyes, Siuan gathered more and more of her skirt in her hands. She felt her face growing redder by the inch.

“A modest one,” Mistress Tharne chortled. “Well, if those songs are the extent of your knowledge, you’d better have legs to make a man fall on his face. Can’t tell till we get those woolen stockings off her, eh, Pel? Well, come on with me. Maybe you have a voice, anyway, but I can’t hear it in here. Come on, girl! Hustle your rump!”

Siuan’s eyes snapped open, blazing, but the big woman was already striding toward the back of the common room. Backbone like an iron rod, Siuan let her skirts fall and followed, trying to ignore the guffaws and lewd suggestions directed at her. Her face was stone, but inside, worry warred with anger.

Before being raised to the Amyrlin Seat, she had run the Blue Ajah’s network of eyes-and-ears; some had also been her own personal listeners both then and later. She might no longer be Amyrlin, or even Aes Sedai, but she still knew all of those agents. Duranda Tharne had already been serving the Blue when she took over the network, a woman whose information was always timely. Eyes-and-ears were not to be found everywhere, and their reliability varied—there had been only one that she trusted enough to approach between Tar Valon and here, at Four Kings, in Andor, and she had vanished—but a vast amount of news and rumor passed through Lugard with the merchants’ wagon trains. There might be eyes-and-ears for other Ajahs here; it would be well to remember that. Caution gets the boat home, she reminded herself.

This woman fit the description of Duranda Tharne perfectly, and surely no other inn could have a name so vile, but why had she responded as she did when Siuan identified herself as another agent of the Blue? She had to risk it; Min and Leane, in their own fashion, were growing as impatient as Logain. Caution got the boat home, but sometimes boldness brought back a full hold. At the worst, she could knock the woman over the head with something and escape out the back. Eyeing the woman’s width and height, and the firmness of her thick arms, she hoped that she could.

A plain door in the corridor that led to the kitchens opened into a sparsely furnished room, a desk and one chair on a scrap of blue carpet, a large mirror on one wall, and surprisingly, a short shelf with a few books. As soon as the door was shut behind them, diminishing if not cutting off the noise of the common room, the big woman rounded on Siuan, fists planted on ample hips. “Now, then. What do you want with me? Don’t bother giving me a name; I don’t want to know, whether it’s yours or not.”

A little of the tension oozed out of Siuan. Not the anger, though. “You had no right to treat me in that manner out there! What did you mean forcing me to—!”

“I had every right,” Mistress Tharne snapped, “and every necessity. If you’d come at opening or closing, as you’re supposed to, I could have hustled you in here and none the wiser. Do you think some of those men wouldn’t be wondering if I escorted you back here like a long-lost friend? I can’t afford to have anyone wondering about me. You’re lucky I didn’t make you take Susu’s place on the table for a song or two. And you watch your manner with me.” She raised a wide, hard hand threateningly. “I’ve married daughters older than you, and when I visit them, they step right and talk proper. You come Mistress Snip with me, and you’ll be learning why. Nobody out there will even hear you yelp, and if they did, they wouldn’t interfere.” With a sharp nod, as if that were settled, she put fists on hips again. “Now, what do you want?”

Several times during the onslaught Siuan had tried to speak, but the woman rolled over her like a tidal wave. That was not something she was accustomed to. By the time Mistress Tharne was done, she quivered with anger; both hands held her skirts in a white-knuckled grip. She held on to her temper every bit as hard. I am supposed to be just another agent, she reminded herself firmly. Not the Amyrlin anymore, just another agent. Besides, she suspected that the woman might carry out her threat. This was something else still new to her, having to be wary of someone under her eye just because they were larger and stronger.

“I was given a message to deliver to a gathering of those we serve.” She hoped Mistress Tharne took the strain in her voice for being cowed; the woman might be more helpful if she thought Siuan properly intimidated. “They were not where I was told to find them. I can only hope you know something to help me find them.”

Folding her arms under a massive bosom, Mistress Tharne studied her. “Know how to hold your temper when it suits, eh? Good. What’s happened in the Tower? And don’t try denying you come from there, my fine haughty wench. Your message has courtier writ large all over it, and you never got that snooty manner in a village.”

Siuan drew a deep breath before answering. “Siuan Sanche has been stilled.” Her voice did not even tremble; she was proud of that. “Elaida a’Roihan is the new Amyrlin.” She could not keep a hint of bite out of that, however.

Mistress Tharne’s face showed no reaction. “Well, that explains some of the orders I’ve gotten. Some of them, maybe. Stilled her, did they? I thought she’d be Amyrlin forever. I saw her once, a few years ago in Caemlyn. At a distance. She looked like she could chew harness straps for breakfast.” Those impossible scarlet curls swung as she shook her head. “Well, done’s done. The Ajahs have split, haven’t they? Only thing that fits; my orders, and the old buzzard stilled. The Tower’s broken, and the Blues are running.”

Siuan ground her teeth. She tried telling herself the woman was loyal to the Blue Ajah, not to her personally, but it did not help. Old buzzard? She’s old enough to be my mother. And if she was, I’d drown myself. With an effort, she made her voice meek. “My message is important. I must be on my way as soon as possible. Can you help me?”

“Important, is it? Well, I’m doubting it. Trouble is, I can give you something, but it’s up to you to cipher it out. Do you want it?” The woman refused to make this any easier.

“Yes, please.”

“Sallie Daera. I don’t know who she is or was, but I was told to give her name to any Blue who came around looking lost, so to speak. You may not be one of the sisters, but you carry your nose high enough for one, so there it is. Sallie Daera. Make of it what you will.”

Siuan suppressed a thrill of excitement and made her face dejected. “I never heard of her, either. I’ll just have to go on looking.”

“If you find them, you tell Aeldene Sedai I’m still loyal, whatever’s happened. I’ve worked for the Blues so long, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself else.”

“I will tell her,” Siuan said. She had not known that Aeldene was her replacement controlling the Blues’ eyes-and-ears; the Amyrlin, whatever Ajah she came from, was of all but part of none. “I suppose you need some reason for not hiring me. I really cannot sing; that should do.”

“As if it mattered to that lot out there.” The big woman quirked an eyebrow and grinned in a way Siuan did not like. “I’ll think of something, wench. And I’ll give you a bit of advice. If you don’t climb down a rung or two, some Aes Sedai will take you down the whole ladder. I’m surprised it hasn’t been done already. Now go on. Get out of here.”

Hateful woman, Siuan growled in her head. If there was a way to manage it, I’d have her doing penance till her eyes popped. The woman thought she deserved more respect, did she? “Thank you for your help,” she said coolly, making a curtsy that would have graced any court. “You have been too kind.”

She was three steps into the common room when Mistress Tharne appeared behind her, raising her voice in a laughing shout that cut through the noise. “A shy maiden, that one! Legs white and slender enough to set you all drooling, and she bawled like a baby when I told her she’d have to show them to you! Just sat right down on the floor and cried! Hips round enough for any taste, and she . . . !”

Siuan stumbled as the tide of laughter rose, never quite drowning out the woman’s recitation. She managed another three steps, face red as a beet, then fled at a run.

In the street, she paused to get her breath back and let her heart stop pounding. That horrible old harridan! I should . . . ! It did not matter what she should do; that disgusting woman had told her what she needed. Not Sallie Daera; not a woman at all. Only a Blue would know, or even suspect. Salidar. Birthplace of Deane Aryman, the Blue sister who had become Amyrlin after Bonwhin and had rescued the Tower from the ruin Bonwhin had poised it for. Salidar. One of the last places anyone would look for Aes Sedai, short of Amadicia itself.

Two men in snowy cloaks and brightly burnished mail were riding down the street toward her, reluctantly moving their horses aside for wagons. Children of the Light. They could be found everywhere these days. Tipping her head down, watching the Whitecloaks cautiously from beneath the brim of her hat, Siuan moved closer to the blue-and-green front of the inn. They glanced at her as they rode by—hard faces beneath shining conical helmets—and passed on.

Siuan bit her lip in vexation. She had probably called their attention to her by shrinking back. And if they had seen her face . . . ? Nothing, of course. Whitecloaks might try to kill an Aes Sedai they found alone, but hers was an Aes Sedai face no longer. Only, they had seen her try to hide from them. If Duranda Tharne had not upset her so, she would not have made such a foolish error. She could remember when a little thing like Mistress Tharne’s remarks would not have made her stride waver in the least, when that overgrown dyed fishwife would not have dared say a word of it. If that termagant doesn’t like my manner, I’ll . . . What she would do was continue about the business she was on before Mistress Tharne pummeled her so she could not sit a saddle. Sometimes it was hard remembering that the days were gone when she could call kings or queens and have them come.

Striding down the street, she glared so hard that some of the wagon drivers bit back the comments they had been going to make to a pretty young woman alone. Some of them did.

Min sat on a bench against the wall of the crowded common room in The Nine Horse Hitch, watching a table surrounded by standing men, some with coiled driver’s whips, others wearing the swords that marked them merchants’ guards. Six more sat shoulder to shoulder around the table. She could just make out Logain and Leane, sitting on the far side. He wore a disgruntled frown; the other men hung on Leane’s every smiling word.

The air was thick with pipesmoke, and full of chatter that nearly drowned the music of flute and tambour and the singing of a girl dancing on a table between the stone fireplaces. Her song had to do with a woman convincing six men that each was the only man in her life; Min found it interesting even when it made her blush. The singer darted jealous glances at the crowded table from time to time. Or rather at Leane.

The tall Domani woman had already been leading Logain by the nose when they entered the inn, and she had attracted more men like flies to honey with that swaying walk and the smoldering light in her eyes. There had very nearly been a riot, Logain and the merchants’ guards with hands on swords, knives being drawn, the stout proprietor and two heavily muscled fellows rushing in with cudgels. And Leane had doused the flames much as she had ignited them, with a smile here, a few words there, a pat on the cheek. Even the innkeeper had lingered awhile, grinning like a fool, until his custom called him away. And Leane thought she needed practice. It hardly seemed fair.

If I could do that to one particular man, I’d be more than satisfied. Maybe she’d teach me—Light, what am I thinking? She had always been herself, and everyone else could accept her as she was or not. Now she was thinking about changing what she was, for a man. It was bad enough that she had to hide herself in a dress, instead of the coat and breeches she had always worn. He’d look at you in a dress with neckline cut low. You’ve more to show than Leane does, and she—Stop that!

“We have to go south,” Siuan said at her shoulder, and Min gave a start. She had not seen the other woman come in. “Now.” From the shine in Siuan’s blue eyes, she had learned something. Whether she would share it was another matter. The woman seemed to think she was still Amyrlin, most of the time.

“We cannot reach anywhere else with an inn before nightfall,” Min said. “We might as well take rooms here for the night.” It was pleasant to sleep in a bed again instead of under hedges and in haystacks, even if she did usually have to share it with Leane and Siuan. Logain was willing to rent them all rooms, but Siuan was tight with their coin even when Logain was doling it out.

Siuan looked around, but whoever in the common room was not staring at Leane was listening to the singer. “That isn’t possible. I—I think some Whitecloaks may be asking questions about me.”

Min whistled softly. “Dalyn won’t like that.”

“Then do not tell him.” Siuan shook her head at the gathering about Leane. “Just tell Amaena that we have to go. He’ll follow. Let us just hope the rest don’t as well.”

Min grinned wryly. Siuan might claim that she did not care that Logain—Dalyn—had taken charge, mostly by just ignoring her whenever she tried to make him do anything, but she was still determined to bring him to heel again.

“What is a Nine Horse Hitch, anyway?” she asked, getting to her feet. She had gone out front hoping for a hint, but the sign over the door bore only the name. “I have seen eight, and ten, but never nine.”

“In this town,” Siuan said primly, “it is better not to ask.” Sudden spots of color in her cheeks made Min think that she knew very well. “Go fetch them. We’ve a long way to go, and no time to waste. And don’t let anyone overhear you.”

Min snorted softly. With that small smile on Leane’s face, none of those men would even see her. She wished she knew how Siuan had brought herself to the Whitecloaks’ attention. That was the last thing they needed, and it was not like Siuan to make mistakes. She wished she knew how to make Rand look at her like those men were looking at Leane. If they were going to be riding all night—and she suspected they were—maybe Leane would be willing to give her a few tips.

CHAPTER

12

An Old Pipe

Agust of wind swirling dust down the Lugard street caught Gareth Bryne’s velvet hat, sweeping it from his head directly under one of the lumbering wagons. An iron-rimmed wheel ground the hat into the hard clay of the street, leaving a flattened ruin behind. For a moment he stared at it, then walked on. It was showing travel stains anyway, he told himself. His silk coat had been dusty before reaching Murandy, too; brushing no longer did much good, when he even took the trouble. It looked more brown than gray, now. He should find something plainer; he was not on his way to a ball.

Dodging between wagons rumbling down the rutted street, he ignored the drivers’ curses that followed him—any decent squadman could give better in his sleep—and ducked into a red-roofed inn called The Wagon Seat. The painting on the sign gave the name an explicit interpretation.

The common room was like every common room he had seen in Lugard, wagon drivers and merchants’ guards packed in with stablemen, farriers, laborers, every sort of man, all talking or laughing as loud as they could while drinking as much as they could, one hand for the cup and one to fondle the serving girls. For that matter, it was not all that much different from common rooms and taverns in many other towns, though most were considerably milder. A buxom young woman, in a blouse that seemed about to fall off, capered and sang atop a table at one side of the room, to the supposed music of two flutes and a twelve-string bittern.

He had little ear for music, but he paused a moment to appreciate her song; she would have gone over well in any soldiers’ camp he had ever seen. But then, she would have been as popular if she could not sing a note. Wearing that blouse, she would have found a husband in short order.

Joni and Barim were already there, Joni’s size enough to grant them a table by themselves despite his thin hair and the bandage he still wore around his temples. They were listening to the girl sing. Or at least staring at her. He touched each man on the shoulder and nodded toward the side door that led to the stableyard, where a sullen groom with a squint delivered their horses for three silver pennies. A year or so earlier Bryne could have bought a fair horse for no more. The troubles to the west and in Cairhien were playing havoc with trade and prices.

No one spoke until they passed the city gates and were on a seldom-traveled road winding north toward the River Storn, little more than a wide dirt track. Then Barim said, “They was here yesterday, my Lord.”

Bryne had learned that much himself. Three pretty young women together, obvious outlanders, could not pass through a city like Lugard without being remarked. By men, anyway.

“Them and a fellow with shoulders,” Barim went on. “Sounds maybe like that Dalyn that was with them when they burned down Nem’s barn. Anyway, whoever he is, they was at The Nine Horse Hitch for a bit, but all they did was drink some and leave. That Domani girl the lads was telling me about, she nearly kicked up a fuss flashing her smile and swaying about, but then she calmed everything down again the same way. Burn me, but I’d like to meet me a Domani woman.”

“Did you hear which way they went, Barim?” Bryne asked patiently. He had not been able to learn that.

“Uh, no, my Lord. But I heard there’s been plenty of Whitecloaks passing through, all heading west. You think maybe old Pedron Niall’s planning something? Maybe in Altara?”

“That’s not our business anymore, Barim.” Bryne knew his patience sounded a little frayed this time, but Barim was an old enough campaigner to stick to the matter at hand.

“I know where they went, my Lord,” Joni said. “West, on the Jehannah Road, and pushing hard by what I heard.” He sounded troubled. “My Lord, I found two merchants’ guards, lads who used to be in the Guards, and had a drink with them. Happens they were in a stew called The Good Night’s Ride when that girl Mara came in and asked for a job singing. She didn’t get it—didn’t want to show her legs the way the singers in most of these places do, as who can blame her?—and she left. From what Barim told me, it was right after that they all set off west. I don’t like it, my Lord. She isn’t the kind of girl to want a job in a place like that. I think she’s trying to get away from that Dalyn fellow.”

Strangely, despite the lump on his head, Joni had no animosity toward the three young women. It was his opinion, often expressed since leaving the manor, that the girls were in some sort of predicament and needed to be rescued. Bryne suspected that if he did catch up to the young women and take them back to his estate, Joni would be after him to turn them over to Joni’s daughters to mother.

Barim had no such feelings. “Ghealdan.” He scowled. “Or maybe Altara, or Amadicia. We’ll kiss the Dark One getting them back. Hardly seems worth the annoyance for a barn and some cows.”

Bryne said nothing. They had followed the girls this far, and Murandy was a bad place for Andormen; too many border troubles over too many years. Only a fool would chase into Murandy after an oathbreaker’s eyes. How much bigger a fool to follow halfway across the world?

“Those lads I talked to,” Joni said diffidently. “My Lord, it seems a lot of the old lads who—who served under you are being sent off.” Emboldened by Bryne’s silence, he went on. “Lots of new fellows in. Lots. Those lads said at least four or five for every one told he wasn’t wanted anymore. The sort that like to cause trouble more than stop it. There’s some calling themselves the White Lions who only answer to this Gaebril”—he spat to show what he thought of that—“and a bunch more not part of the Guards at all. Not House levies. Near as they could say, Gaebril’s got ten times as many men under arms as there are Guards, and they’ve all sworn to the throne of Andor, but not to the Queen.”

“That’s no longer our business, either,” Bryne said curtly. Barim had his tongue stuffed into his cheek, the way he always did when he knew something he either did not want to tell or was not sure was important enough. “What is it, Barim? Out with it, man.”

The leather-faced fellow stared at him in amazement. Barim had never figured out how Bryne knew when he was holding back. “Well, my Lord, some of the folks I talked to said some of those Whitecloaks yesterday was asking questions. About a girl sounds like that Mara. Wanted to know who she was, where she went. Like that. I heard they got real interested when they learned she was gone. If they’re after her, she could be hanged before we ever find her. If they have to go to the trouble of chasing her down, they might not ask too many questions about whether she’s really a Darkfriend. Or whatever it is they’re after her for.”

Bryne frowned. Whitecloaks? What would the Children of the Light want with Mara? He would never believe she was a Darkfriend. But then, he had seen a baby-faced young fellow hanged in Caemlyn, a Darkfriend who had been teaching children in the streets about the glories of the Dark One—the Great Lord of the Dark, he had called him. The lad had killed nine of them in three years, as near as could be discovered, when they looked like turning him in. No. That girl is no Darkfriend, and I’ll stake my life on it. Whitecloaks were suspicious of everyone. And if they took it into their heads that she had fled Lugard to avoid them . . .

He booted Traveler to a canter. The big-nosed bay gelding was not flashy, but he had endurance, and courage. The other two caught up soon enough, and they kept their mouths shut, seeing the mood he was in.

Two miles or so from Lugard, he turned off into a thicket of oak and leatherleaf. The rest of his men had made a temporary camp here, in a clear space under thick, spreading oak limbs. Several small, smokeless fires were burning; they would take any opportunity to brew up some tea. Some were dozing; sleep was another thing an old soldier never missed a chance to snatch.

Those awake kicked the rest out of their naps, and they all looked up at him. For a moment he sat his saddle studying them. Gray hair and bald heads and age-creased faces. Still hard and fit, but even so . . . He had been a fool to risk bringing them into Murandy just because he had to know why a woman had broken an oath. And maybe with Whitecloaks after them. No telling how far or how long from home before it was done. If he turned back now, they would have been gone more than a month before they saw Kore Springs again. If he went on, there was no guarantee the chase would stop short of the Aryth Ocean. He should be taking these men, and himself, home. He should. He had no call to ask them to try snatching those girls out of Whitecloak hands. He could leave Mara to Whitecloak justice.

“We will be heading west,” he announced, and immediately there was a scramble of dousing fires with the tea and fastening pots to saddles. “We will have to press hard. I mean to catch them in Altara, if I can, but if not, there’s no telling where they’ll lead us. You could see Jehannah or Amador or Ebou Dar before we’re done.” He affected a laugh. “You’ll find out how tough you are if we reach Ebou Dar. They’ve taverns there where the barmaids skin Illianers for dinner and spit Whitecloaks for sport.”

They laughed harder than the jest was worth.

“We won’t worry with you along, my Lord,” Thad cackled, stuffing his tin cup into his saddlebags. His face was wrinkled like crumpled leather. “Why, I hear you had a run-in with the Amyrlin herself once, and—” Jar Silvin kicked him on the ankle, and he rounded on the younger man—gray-haired, but still younger—with a clenched fist. “Why’d you do that, Silvin? You want a broke head, you just—What?” The meaningful glares Silvin and some of the others were giving him finally sank in. “Oh. Oh, yes.” He buried himself in checking the girth straps on his saddle, but no one was laughing anymore.

Bryne forced his face to relax from stoniness. It was time he put the past in the past. Just because a woman whose bed he had shared—and more, he had thought—just because that woman looked at him as though she had never known him was no reason to stop speaking her name. Just because she had exiled him from Caemlyn, on pain of death, for giving her the advice he had sworn to give. . . . If she came a cropper with this Lord Gaebril who had suddenly appeared in Caemlyn, it was no longer any concern of his. She had told him, in a voice as flat and cold as smooth ice, that his name would never be spoken in the palace again, that only his long service kept her from sending him to the headsman for treason. Treason! He needed to keep spirits up, especially if this turned into a long chase.

Hooking a knee around the high cantle of his saddle, he took out his pipe and pouch and filled his pipe with tabac. The bowl was carved with a wild bull collared with the Rose Crown of Andor. For a thousand years that had been the sign of House Bryne; strength and courage in service of the queen. He needed a new pipe; this one was old.

“I didn’t come out of that as well as you might have heard.” He leaned down for one of the men to hand him a twig still glowing from one of the spent fires, then straightened to puff his pipe alight. “It was some three years ago. The Amyrlin was making a progression. Cairhien, Tear, Illian, and finishing up in Caemlyn before returning to Tar Valon. At that time we were having problems with Murandian border lords—as usual.” Laughter rippled; they had all served on the Murandian border at one time or another. “I had sent some of the Guards down to set the Murandians straight on who owned the sheep and cattle on our side of the border. I never expected the Amyrlin to take an interest.” He certainly had their attention; preparations to leave were still going on, but more slowly.

“Siuan Sanche and Elaida closeted themselves with Morgase—” There; he had said her name again, and it did not even smart. “—and when they came out, Morgase was half thunderhead, with lightning shooting out of her eyes, and half ten-year-old who’d been hauled up by her mother for stealing honeycakes. She’s a tough woman, but caught between Elaida and the Amyrlin Seat . . .” He shook his head, and they chuckled; Aes Sedai attentions were one thing none of them envied lords and rulers. “She ordered me to remove all troops from the border with Murandy immediately. I asked her to discuss it with me in private, and Siuan Sanche jumped all over me. In front of half the court, she chewed me up one side and down the other like a raw recruit. Said if I couldn’t do as I was told, she’d use me for fishbait.” He had had to beg her pardon before it was done—in front of everyone, for trying to do as he had been sworn to do—but there was no need to add that. Even at the e
nd he had not been sure that she would not make Morgase behead him, or have it done herself.

“Must have meant to catch herself a mighty big fish,” someone laughed, and others joined in.

“The upshot was,” Bryne went on, “my hide got singed, and the Guards were ordered back from the border. So if you’re looking to me to protect you in Ebou Dar, just remember it’s my opinion those barmaids would hang the Amyrlin out to dry along with the rest of us.” They roared with mirth.

“Did you ever find out what it was about, my Lord?” Joni wanted to know.

Bryne shook his head. “Aes Sedai business of some sort, I expect. They don’t tell the likes of you and me what they are up to.” That earned a few chuckles as well.

They mounted up with an alacrity that belied their ages. Some of them are no older than me, he thought wryly. Too old to go chasing after a pretty pair of eyes young enough to be his daughter’s if not his granddaughter’s. I only want to know why she broke oath, he told himself firmly. Only that.

Raising his hand, he signaled forward, and they headed west, leaving a trail of dust. It would take hard riding to catch up. But he meant to. In Ebou Dar or the Pit of Doom, he would find them.

CHAPTER

13

A Small Room in Sienda

Elayne held herself against the swaying of the coach on its leather hinges, trying to ignore Nynaeve’s sour face across from her. The curtains were drawn back despite a sprinkling of dust that sometimes whipped through the windows; the breeze blew away some of the late-afternoon heat. Rolling, forested hills streamed past, the woods occasionally broken by short stretches of farmland. A lord’s manor, in the fashion of Amadicia, topped one of the hills a few miles from the road, a huge stone foundation fifty feet high with an elaborate wooden structure atop that, all ornate balconies and red-tiled roofs. Once it all would have been stone, but many years had passed since a lord needed a fortress in Amadicia, and the king’s law now required the wooden construction. No rebel lord would be able to hold out against the king for long. Of course, the Children of the Light were exempted from that law; they were immune to a number of Amadician laws. She had had to learn something of the l aws and customs of other countries from the time she was a child.

Cleared fields dotted the distant hills, too, like brown patches on a mostly green cloth, the men working them seeming ants. Everything looked dry; one bolt of lighting would set a fire that could burn for leagues. But lightning meant rain, and the few clouds in the sky were too high and thin for that. Idly she wondered whether she could make it rain. She had learned considerable control over weather. Still, it was very difficult if you had to begin with nothing.

“Is my Lady bored?” Nynaeve asked acidly. “The way my Lady is staring at the countryside—down my Lady’s nose—I think my Lady must want to travel faster.” Reaching back over her head, she pushed open a small flap and shouted, “More speed, Thom. Don’t argue with me! You hold your tongue, too, Juilin Thief-catcher! I said more speed!”

The wooden flap banged down, but Elayne could still hear Thom muttering loudly. Cursing, very likely; Nynaeve had been barking at the men all day. A moment later his whip cracked, and the coach racketed ahead even faster, rocking so hard that both women bounced on the golden-colored silk seats. The silk had been thoroughly dusted when Thom bought the vehicle, but the padding had long since gone hard. Yet jounced about as she was, the set of Nynaeve’s jaw said she would not ask Thom to slow again right after ordering him to go faster.

“Please, Nynaeve,” Elayne said. “I—” The other woman cut her off.

“Is my Lady uncomfortable? I know ladies are used to comfort, the sort of thing a poor maid wouldn’t know about, but surely my Lady wants to make the next town before dark? So my Lady’s maid can serve my Lady’s supper and turn down my Lady’s bed?” Her teeth clicked shut as the seat coming up met her coming down, and she glowered at Elayne as though it were her fault.

Elayne sighed heavily. Nynaeve had seen the point, back in Mardecin. A lady never traveled without a maid, and two ladies would probably have a pair. Unless they put Thom or Juilin in a dress, that meant one of them. Nynaeve had seen that Elayne knew more of how ladies behaved; she had put it very gently, and Nynaeve usually knew sense when she heard it. Usually. But that was back in Mistress Macura’s shop, after they had filled the two women with their own horrible concoction.

Leaving Mardecin, they had traveled hard until midnight to reach a small village with an inn, where they had roused the innkeeper from his bed to rent two cramped rooms with narrow beds, waking before first light yesterday to push on, skirting around Amador by a few miles. Neither of them would be taken for anything but what they claimed, on sight, but neither felt comfortable about passing through a great city full of Whitecloaks. The Fortress of the Light was in Amador. Elayne had heard it said that the king reigned in Amador, but Pedron Niall ruled.

The trouble had started last night, at a place called Bellon, on a muddy stream grandly named the Gaean River, some twenty miles or so beyond the capital. The Bellon Ford Inn was larger than the first, and Mistress Alfara, the innkeeper, offered the Lady Morelin a private dining room, which Elayne could not very well refuse. Mistress Alfara had been sure that only the Lady Morelin’s maid, Nana, would know how to serve her properly; ladies did require everything just so, the woman said, as well they should, and her girls were simply not used to ladies. Nana would know exactly how the Lady Morelin wanted her bed turned down, and would prepare her a nice bath after a hot day of travel. The list of things that Nana would do exactly right for her mistress had been endless.

Elayne was not sure whether Amadician nobility expected such or Mistress Alfara was just getting work out of an outlander’s servant. She had tried to spare Nynaeve, but the woman had been as full of “as you wish” and “my Lady is most particular” as the innkeeper. She would have seemed a fool, or at least odd, to press it. They were trying to avoid attracting undue attention.

As long as they had been in Bellon, Nynaeve had acted the perfect lady’s maid in public. In private was another matter. Elayne wished the woman would just revert to herself instead of bludgeoning her with a lady’s maid from the Blight. Apologies had been met with “my Lady is too kind” or simply ignored. I will not apologize again, she thought for the fiftieth time. Not for what was not my fault.

“I have been thinking, Nynaeve.” Gripping a hanging strap, she felt like the ball in the children’s game called Bounce in Andor, where you tried to keep a colorful wooden ball bouncing up and down on a paddle. She would not ask for the coach to be slowed, though. She could stand it as long as Nynaeve did. The woman was so stubborn! “I want to reach Tar Valon and find out what is going on, but—”

“My Lady has been thinking? My Lady must have a headache from all that effort. I will make my Lady a nice tea of sheepstongue root and red daisy as soon as—”

“Be quiet, Nana,” Elayne said, calmly but firmly; it was her very best imitation of her mother. Nynaeve’s jaw dropped. “If you pull that braid at me, you can ride on the roof with the baggage.” Nynaeve made a strangled sound, trying so hard to talk that nothing came out. Quite satisfactory. “Sometimes you seem to think I am still a child, but you are the one behaving like a child. I did not ask you to wash my back, but I would have had to wrestle to stop you. I did offer to scrub yours in turn, remember. And I offered to sleep in the trundle bed. But you climbed in and wouldn’t get out. Stop sulking. If you like, I will be the maid at the next inn.” It would probably be a disaster. Nynaeve would shout at Thom in public, or box someone’s ears. But anything for a little peace. “We can stop right now and change in the trees.”

“We chose the gowns to fit you,” the other woman muttered after a moment. Pushing the flap open again, she shouted, “Slow down! Are you trying to kill us? Fool men!”

There was dead silence from above as the coach’s speed diminished to something much more reasonable, but Elayne would have wagered the two men were talking. She straightened her hair as best she could without a mirror. It was still startling to see those glistening black tresses when she did look in one. The green silk was going to need a thorough brushing itself.

“What was it you were thinking, Elayne?” Nynaeve asked. Crimson stained her cheeks. At least she knew that Elayne was right, but backing down was very likely as much apology as she would ever give.

“We are rushing back to Tar Valon, but do we really have any idea what awaits us in the Tower? If the Amyrlin truly did give those orders . . . I do not really believe it, and I cannot understand it, but I do not intend to walk into the Tower until I do. ‘A fool puts her hand into a hollow tree without finding out what’s inside first.’ ”

“A wise woman, Lini,” Nynaeve said. “We may learn more if I see another bunch of yellow flowers hanging upside down, but until then I think we should behave as though the Black Ajah itself has control of the Tower.”

“Mistress Macura will have sent off another pigeon to Narenwin by now. With descriptions of this coach, and the dresses we took, and most likely Thom and Juilin too.”

“It cannot be helped. This would not have happened if we hadn’t dawdled across Tarabon. We should have taken ship.” Elayne gaped at her accusatory tone, and Nynaeve had the grace to blush again. “Well, done is done. Moiraine knows Siuan Sanche. Perhaps Egwene can ask her if—”

Abruptly the coach lurched to a halt, throwing Elayne forward on top of Nynaeve. She could hear horses screaming and thrashing as she frantically untangled herself, Nynaeve pushing her off as well.

Embracing saidar, she put her head out of the window—and released it again in relief. Here was something of a sort that she had seen pass through Caemlyn more than once. A traveling menagerie was camped amid afternoon shadows in a large clearing by the side of the road. A great, black-maned lion lay half-asleep in one cage that took up the entire back of a wagon, while his two consorts paced in the confines of another. A third cage stood open; in front of it a woman was making two black bears with white faces balance themselves on big red balls. Another cage held what appeared to be a large, hairy boar, except that its snout was too pointed and it had toes with claws; that came from the Aiel Waste, she knew, and was called a capar. Other cages held other animals, and brightly colored birds, but unlike any menagerie she had ever seen, this one traveled with human performers: two men were juggling ribbon-twined hoops between them, four acrobats were practicing standing on one another
’s shoulders in a tall column, and a woman was feeding a dozen dogs that walked on their hind legs and did backflips for her. In the background, some other men were putting up two tall poles; she had no idea what they were for.

None of that was what had the horses rearing in their harness and rolling their eyes, though, despite all that Thom could do with the reins. She could smell the lions herself, but it was at three huge, wrinkled gray animals that the horses gazed, wild-eyed. Two were as tall as the coach, with big ears and great curving tusks beside a long nose that dangled to the ground. The third, shorter than the horses if likely as heavy, had no tusks. A baby, she supposed. A woman with pale yellow hair was scratching that one behind the ear with a heavy, hooked goad. Elayne had seen creatures like this before, too. And had never expected to see them again.

A tall, dark-haired man strode out of the camp, of all things in this heat wearing a red silk cloak that he flourished as he made an elegant bow. He was good-looking, with a well-turned leg, and very much aware of both things. “Forgive me, my Lady, if the giant boar-horses frightened your animals.” As he straightened, he beckoned two of his men to help quiet the horses, then paused, staring at her, and murmured, “Be still, my heart.” It was just loud enough for Elayne to be sure she was supposed to hear. “I am Valan Luca, my Lady, showman extraordinary. Your presence overwhelms me.” He made another bow, even more elaborate than the first.

Elayne shared a look with Nynaeve, catching the same amused smile that she knew she herself wore. A man very full of himself, this Valan Luca. His men did seem to be very good at soothing the horses; they still snorted and stamped, but their eyes were not so wide as they had been. Thom and Juilin were staring at the strange animals almost as hard as the horses were.

“Boar-horses, Master Luca?” Elayne said. “Where do they come from?”

“Giant boar-horses, my Lady” was the ready reply, “from fabled Shara, where I myself led an expedition into a wilderness full of strange civilizations and stranger sights to trap them. It would fascinate me to tell you of them. Gigantic people twice the size of Ogier.” He made grand gestures to illustrate. “Beings with no heads. Birds big enough to carry off a full-grown bull. Snakes that can swallow a man. Cities made of solid gold. Descend, my Lady, and let me tell you.”

Elayne had no doubt that Luca would fascinate himself with his own tales, but she certainly doubted that those animals came from Shara. For one thing, even the Sea Folk saw no more of Shara than the walled ports they were confined to; any who went beyond the walls was never seen again. The Aiel knew little more. For another, she and Nynaeve had both seen creatures like these in Falme, during the Seanchan invasion. The Seanchan used them for work animals, and for war.

“I think not, Master Luca,” she told him.

“Then let us perform for you,” he said quickly. “As you can see, this is no ordinary wandering menagerie, but something entirely new. A private performance. Tumblers, jugglers, trained animals, the strongest man in the world. Even fireworks. We have an Illuminator with us. We are on our way to Ghealdan, and tomorrow we will be gone on the wind. But for a pittance—”

“My mistress said she thinks not,” Nynaeve broke in. “She has better things to spend her money on than looking at animals.” In fact, she herself kept a tight fist on all their coin, reluctantly doling out what they needed. She seemed to think everything should cost what it had back in her Two Rivers.

“Why would you want to go to Ghealdan, Master Luca?” Elayne asked. The other woman did make rough spots and leave them to her to smooth over. “I hear there is a great deal of trouble there. I hear the army has not been able to suppress this man called the Prophet, with his preaching of the Dragon Reborn. Surely you do not want to travel into riots.”

“Greatly exaggerated, my Lady. Greatly exaggerated. Where there are crowds, people want to be entertained. And where people want to be entertained, my show is always welcome.” Luca hesitated, then stepped closer to the coach. An embarrassed look crossed his face as he gazed up into Elayne’s eyes. “My Lady, the truth of the matter is that you would do me a very great favor by allowing me to perform for you. The fact is that one of the boar-horses caused a little trouble in the next town up the road. It was an accident,” he added hastily, “I assure you. They are gentle creatures. Not dangerous at all. But not only are the people of Sienda unwilling to let me put on a show, or even come to one here . . . Well, it took all of my coin to pay for the damages, and the fines.” He winced. “Especially the fines. If you allowed me to entertain you—for a trifle, truly—I would name you as patroness of my show wherever we go across the world, spreading the fame of your generosi ty, my Lady . . . ?”

“Morelin,” she said. “The Lady Morelin of House Samared.” With her new hair, she could pass for Cairhienin. She had no time to see his show, as much as she would have enjoyed it another time, and she told him so, adding, “But I will help you a little, if you have no money. Give him something, Nana, to help him on his way to Ghealdan.” The last thing she wanted was him “spreading her fame,” but helping the poor and those in distress was a duty she would not slight when she had the means, even in a foreign land.

Grumbling, Nynaeve dug a purse out of her belt pouch and dipped into it. She leaned out of the coach enough to press Luca’s hand around what she gave him. He looked startled as she said, “If you took a decent job of work, you would not have to beg. Drive on, Thom!”

Thom’s whip cracked, and Elayne was thrown back into her seat. “You did not have to be rude,” she said. “Or so abrupt. What did you give him?”

“A silver penny,” Nynaeve replied calmly, putting the purse back into her pouch. “And more than he deserved.”

“Nynaeve,” Elayne groaned. “The man probably thinks we were making sport of him.”

Nynaeve sniffed. “With those shoulders, a good day’s work would not kill him.”

Elayne kept silent, though she did not agree. Not exactly. Certainly work would not harm the man, but she did not think there was much available. Not that I think Master Luca would accept work that didn’t allow him to wear that cape. If she brought it up, though, Nynaeve would probably argue—when she gently pointed out things that Nynaeve did not know, the woman was quite capable of accusing her of having an arrogant manner, or of lecturing—and Valan Luca was hardly worth another altercation so soon after smoothing over the last.

The shadows were lengthening by the time they reached Sienda, a sizable village of stone and thatch with two inns. The first, The King’s Lancer, had a gaping hole where the front door had been, and a crowd was watching workmen make repairs. Perhaps Master Luca’s “boar-horse” had not liked the sign, propped up beside the hole now, a charging soldier with lance lowered. It seemed to have been ripped down somehow.

Surprisingly, there were even more Whitecloaks in the crowded dirt streets than back in Mardecin, far more, and other soldiers besides, men in mail and conical steel caps whose blue cloaks bore the Star and Thistle of Amadicia. There must be garrisons nearby. The King’s men and the Whitecloaks did not seem to like each other at all. They either brushed by as if the man wearing the wrong color did not exist, or else with challenging stares little short of drawn swords. Some of the white-cloaked men had red shepherd’s crooks behind the sunbursts on their cloaks. The Hand of the Light, those named themselves, the Hand that seeks out truth, but everyone else called them Questioners. Even the other Whitecloaks kept clear of them.

All in all, it was enough to make Elayne’s stomach clench. But there was no more than another hour’s sunlight left, if that, and that was taking into account the late-summer sunsets. Even driving half the night again would not guarantee another inn ahead, and driving on this late might call attention. Besides, they had reason to halt early today.

She exchanged looks with Nynaeve, and after a moment the other woman nodded and said, “We have to stop.”

When the coach drew up in front of The Light of Truth, Juilin hopped down to open the door, and Nynaeve waited with a deferential look on her face for him to hand Elayne down. She did flash Elayne a smile, though; she would not slide back into sulks. The leather scrip she slung from her shoulder appeared a bit incongruous, but not too much so, Elayne hoped. Now that Nynaeve had acquired a stock of herbs and ointments again, she did not mean to let them out of her sight.

From her first sight of the inn’s sign—a flaring golden sun like that the Children wore on their cloaks—she wished the “boar-horse” had taken exception to this place instead of the other. At least there was no shepherd’s crook behind it. Half the men filling the common room wore snowy white cloaks, their helmets set on the tables in front of them. She took a deep breath and a firm hold on herself not to spin on her heel and leave.

Aside from the soldiers, it was a pleasant inn, with high-beamed ceilings and dark polished paneling. Cut green branches decorated the cold hearths of two large fireplaces, and good cooking smells wafted from the kitchens. The white-aproned serving maids all seemed cheerful as they scurried among the tables with trays of wine and ale and food.

The arrival of a lady created little stir, this close to the capital. Or perhaps it was because of that lord’s manor. A few men looked at her; more eyed her “maid” with interest, though Nynaeve’s stern frown, when she realized they were staring at her, quickly turned them back to their wine. Nynaeve seemed to think a man looking was a crime, even if he said nothing and did not leer. Given that, sometimes Elayne wondered why she did not wear less becoming clothes. She had had to work very hard to make sure that simple gray dress fit the other woman properly. Nynaeve was hopeless with a needle when it came to fine work.

The innkeeper, Mistress Jharen, was a plump woman with long gray curls, a warm smile, and searching dark eyes. Elayne suspected she could spot a worn hem or a flat purse at ten paces. They obviously passed muster, for she made a deep curtsy, spreading her gray skirts wide, and made effusive welcome, inquiring whether the Lady was on her way to or from Amador.

“From,” Elayne replied with a languid hauteur. “The city’s balls were most enjoyable, and King Ailron is quite as handsome as they say, which is not always so for kings but I must return to my estates. I require a room for myself and Nana, and something for my footman and driver.” Thinking of Nynaeve and the trundle, she added, “I must have two full beds. I need Nana close, and if she has only a trundle, she will keep me awake with her snoring.” Nynaeve’s respectful face slipped—just a fraction, thankfully—but it was quite true. She had snored terribly.

“Of course, my Lady,” the plump innkeeper said. “I have just the thing. But your men will have to bed down in the stable, in the hayloft. I am quite crowded, as you can see. A troupe of vagabonds brought some horrible great animals into the village yesterday and one of them quite destroyed The King’s Lancer. Poor Sim has lost half his custom or more, and they’ve all come here.” Mistress Jharen’s smile was more satisfaction than commiseration. “I do have one room left, however.”

“I am sure it will do very well. If you will send up a light repast and some washwater, I think I shall retire early.” There was still sunlight showing in the windows, but she put a hand delicately over her mouth as if stifling a yawn.

“Of course, my Lady. As you wish. This way.”

Mistress Jharen seemed to think she had to keep Elayne entertained as she showed them to the second floor. She went on the whole way about the crowding at the inn and how it was a miracle that she had a room left, about the vagrants with their animals and how they had been chased out of town and good riddance to rubbish, about all the nobles who had stayed at her establishment over the years, even the Lord Captain Commander of the Children, once. Why, a Hunter of the Horn had come through just the day before, on his way to Tear, where they said the Stone of Tear had fallen into the hands of some false Dragon, and was it not horrible wickedness that men could do such things? “I hope they never find it.” The innkeeper’s gray curls swung as she shook her head.

“The Horn of Valere?” Elayne said. “Why ever not?”

“Why, my Lady, if they find it, it means the Last Battle is coming. The Dark One breaking free.” Mistress Jharen shivered. “The Light send the Horn is never found. That way, the Last Battle cannot happen, can it?” There did not seem to be much answer to such curious logic.

The bedchamber was snug, if not exactly cramped. Two narrow beds with striped coverlets stood to either side of a window looking out onto the street, and little more than walking room separated them from each other or the white-plastered walls. A small table holding a lamp and tinderbox between the beds, a tiny, flowered rug, and a washstand with a small mirror above it completed the furnishings. Everything was clean and well polished, at least.

The innkeeper plumped the pillows and smoothed the coverlets and said the mattresses were the best goose down and the Lady’s men would be bringing her chests up by the back stairs and everything would be very cozy, there was a good breeze at night if the Lady opened the window and left the door cracked. As though she would sleep with her door open to a public hallway. Two aproned girls arrived with a large blue pitcher of steaming water and a large lacquered tray covered with a white cloth before Elayne managed to get Mistress Jharen out. The shape of a wine pitcher and two cups mounded up one side of the cloth.

“I think she believed we might go to The King’s Lancer even with a hole in it,” she said, once the door was firmly shut. Looking around the room, she grimaced. There would barely be room for them and the chests. “I am not certain we shouldn’t.”

“I do not snore,” Nynaeve said in a tight voice.

“Of course you do not. I had to say something though.”

Nynaeve gave a loud harrumph, but all she said was “I am glad I am tired enough to go to sleep. Aside from that forkroot, I did not recognize anything to aid sleep in what that Macura woman had.”

It took Thom and Juilin three trips to bring the iron-bound wooden chests up, grumbling all the while, the way men did, about having to haul them up the narrow stairs at the rear of the inn. They were muttering about being made to sleep in the stables, too, when they brought in the first one between them—it had leaf-shaped hinges; the bulk of their money and valuables were in the bottom of that, including the recovered ter’angreal—but one glance at the room and they shared a look and shut their mouths. About that, at least.

“We’re going to see what we can learn in the common room,” Thom said once the last chest was jammed in. Barely enough space remained to reach the washstand.

“And maybe take a walk around the village,” Juilin added. “Men talk when there’s as much dislike as I saw in the street.”

“That will be very good,” Elayne said. They did so want to think they had more to do than haul and carry. It had been so in Tanchico—and Mardecin, of course—and might well be again, but hardly here. “Do be careful not to get into any trouble with the Whitecloaks, now.” A long-suffering look passed between them, just as if she had not seen both with bruised and bleeding faces after jaunts for information, but she forgave them, and smiled at Thom. “I cannot wait to hear what you learn.”

“In the morning,” Nynaeve said firmly. She was looking away from Elayne so hard that she might as well have been glowering at her. “If you disturb us before then for less than Trollocs, you’ll learn the reason why.”

The glance that passed between the two men spoke volumes—it made Nynaeve’s eyebrows rise sharply—but once she had reluctantly handed over a few coins, they left agreeing to let the women sleep untroubled.

“If I cannot even speak to Thom,” Elayne began when they were gone, but Nynaeve cut her off.

“I am not having them walk in on me asleep in my shift.” She was awkwardly undoing the buttons down the back of her dress. Elayne went to help her, and she said, “I can manage. You get the ring out for me.”

With a sniff, Elayne pulled up her skirt to reach the small pocket she had sewn to the underside. If Nynaeve wanted to be peevish, let her; she would not respond even if Nynaeve began ranting again. There were two rings in the pocket. She left the golden Great Serpent she had been given on being raised to Accepted, and took out the stone ring.

All flecks and stripes of red and blue and brown, it was just too large to fit a finger, and flattened and twisted besides. Odd as it seemed, the ring had only one edge; a finger drawn along that edge would circle inside and out before coming back to where it began. It was a ter’angreal, and what it did was allow access to Tel’aran’rhiod, even for someone who did not have the Talent that Egwene and the Aiel dreamwalkers shared. All that was needed was to sleep with it next to your skin. Unlike the two ter’angreal they had recovered from the Black Ajah, it did not require channeling. For all Elayne knew, even a man might be able to use it.

Clad only in her linen shift, Nynaeve threaded the ring onto the leather thong with Lan’s signet and her own Great Serpent, then reknotted and hung it back around her neck before lying down atop one of the beds. Carefully tucking the rings in next to her skin, she settled her head on the pillows.

“Is there time before Egwene and the Wise Ones get there?” Elayne asked. “I can never reason out what hour it is in the Waste.”

“There is time unless she comes early, which she won’t. The Wise Ones keep her on a very short leash. It will do her good, in the long run. She was always headstrong.” Nynaeve opened her eyes, looking right at her—at her!—as if that could stand for her as well.

“Remember to tell Egwene to let Rand know that I am thinking of him.” She was not going to let the woman start a row. “Tell her to . . . tell him that I love him, and only him.” There. She had it out.

Nynaeve rolled her eyes in what was really a most offensive way. “If you wish me to,” she said dryly, snuggling herself into the pillows.

As the other woman’s breathing began to slow, Elayne pushed one of the chests against the door and sat on it to wait. She always hated waiting. It would serve Nynaeve right if she went down to the common room. Thom would probably still be there, and . . . And nothing. He was supposed to be her coachman. She wondered whether Nynaeve had thought of that before agreeing to be the maid. With a sigh, she leaned back against the door. She did hate waiting.

CHAPTER

14

Meetings

The effects of the ring ter’angreal did not startle Nynaeve anymore. She was in the place she had been thinking of when sleep closed in, the great chamber in Tear called the Heart of the Stone, within the massive fortress called the Stone of Tear. The gilded stand-lamps were unlit, but pale light seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere, to simply be all around her, fading into dim shadows in the distance. At least it was not hot; it never seemed hot or cold in Tel’aran’rhiod.

Huge redstone columns ran off in every direction, the vaulted dome far above lost in dim shadows along with more golden lamps hanging on golden chains. The pale floorstones beneath her feet were worn; the High Lords of Tear had come to this chamber—in the waking world, of course—only when their law and custom demanded, but they had come ever since the Breaking of the World. Centered beneath the dome was Callandor, apparently a glittering sword made of crystal, driven half its length into the stone of the floor. Just as Rand had left it.

She did not go near Callandor. Rand claimed to have woven traps around it with saidin, traps that no woman could see. She expected they would be nasty—the best of men could be vicious when they tried to be devious—nasty and just as primed for a woman as for the men who might use that sa’angreal. He had meant to guard it against those in the Tower as much as the Forsaken. Aside from Rand himself, the one who touched Callandor might die or worse.

That was a fact of Tel’aran’rhiod. What was in the waking world was here, too, although the reverse was not always so. The World of Dreams, the Unseen World, reflected the waking world, if sometimes in odd ways, and perhaps other worlds as well. Verin Sedai had told Egwene that there was a pattern woven of worlds, of the reality here and others, just as the weaving of people’s lives made up the Pattern of the Ages. Tel’aran’rhiod touched them all, yet few could enter except accidentally, for unknowing moments, during their own mundane dreams. Dangerous moments for those dreamers, though they never knew it unless they were very unlucky. Another fact of Tel’aran’rhiod was that what happened to the dreamer here happened in the waking world, too. To die in the World of Dreams was to die in fact.

She had the sensation of being watched from the dimnesses between the columns, but it did not trouble her. It was not Moghedien. Imaginary eyes; there are no watchers. I told Elayne to ignore them, and here I . . . Moghedien would certainly do more than look. Even so, she wished she were angry enough to channel. Not that she was frightened, of course. Only not angry. Not frightened at all.

The twisted stone ring felt light, as if it were trying to drift up out of her shift, reminding her that she was wearing only that. As soon as she thought of clothing herself, she was in a dress. It was a trick of Tel’aran’rhiod that she liked; in some ways channeling was unnecessary, for here she could do things that she doubted any Aes Sedai had ever done with the Power. It was not the dress she had expected, though; not good stout Two Rivers wool. The high neck trimmed in Jaerecruz lace came right up under her chin, but pale yellow silk draped her in folds that clung revealingly. How many times had she called Taraboner gowns like this indecent when she had worn them to blend into Tanchico? It seemed that she had grown more used to them than she knew.

Giving her braid a sharp pull for the waywardness of her own mind, she left the dress as it was. The gown might not be as she wanted, but she was no flighty girl to go leaping and squealing over it. A dress is a dress. She would wear it when Egwene arrived, with whichever of the Wise Ones accompanied her this time, and if any of them said a word . . . I did not come early to blather at myself about dresses!

“Birgitte?” Silence answered her, and she raised her voice, though it should not have been necessary. In this place, this particular woman could hear her own name spoken on the other side of the world. “Birgitte?”

A woman stepped out from among the columns, blue eyes calm and proudly confident, her golden hair in a long braid more intricate than Nynaeve’s own. Her short white coat and voluminous yellow silk trousers, gathered at the ankles above short boots with raised heels, were garments of more than two thousand years ago that she had taken a liking to. The arrows in the quiver at her side appeared to be silver, and so did the bow she carried.

“Is Gaidal about?” Nynaeve asked. He was usually close by Birgitte, and he made Nynaeve nervous, refusing to acknowledge her existence, scowling when Birgitte spoke to her. It had been something of a shock at first to find Gaidal Cain and Birgitte—long-dead heroes linked in so many stories and legends—in Tel’aran’rhiod. But, as Birgitte herself had said, where better for heroes bound to the Wheel of Time to await rebirth than in a dream? A dream that had existed as long as the Wheel. It was they, Birgitte and Gaidal Cain and Rogosh Eagle-eye and Artur Hawkwing and all the others, that the Horn of Valere would summon back to fight at Tarmon Gai’don.

Birgitte’s braid swung as she shook her head. “I have not seen him for some time. I think the Wheel has spun him out again. It always happens so.” Expectation and concern both touched her voice.

If Birgitte was right, then somewhere in the world a boychild had been born, a mewling babe with no knowledge of who he was, yet destined for adventures that would make new legends. The Wheel wove the heroes into the Pattern as they were needed, to shape the Pattern, and when they died they returned here to wait again. That was what it meant to be bound to the Wheel. New heroes could find themselves bound so as well, men and women whose bravery and accomplishments raised them far above the ordinary, but once bound, it was forever.

“How long do you have?” Nynaeve asked. “Years yet, surely.” Birgitte was always tied to Gaidal, had been tied in story after story, in Age after Age, of adventure and a romance that even the Wheel of Time did not break. She was always born after Gaidal; a year, or five, or ten, but after.

“I do not know, Nynaeve. Time here is not like time in the waking world. I met you here last ten days gone, as it seems to me, and Elayne only a day before. What was it for you?”

“Four days and three,” Nynaeve muttered. She and Elayne had been coming to speak with Birgitte as often as they could, though too frequently it had not been possible with Thom and Juilin sharing the camp and standing night guard. Birgitte actually remembered the War of Power, one lifetime of it anyway, and the Forsaken. Her past lives were like books fondly remembered from long ago, the more distant dimmer than the nearer, but the Forsaken stood out. Especially Moghedien.

“You see, Nynaeve? The flow of time here can shift in larger ways, too. It might be months before I am born again, or days. Here, for me. In the waking world it could be years yet before my birth.”

With an effort Nynaeve suppressed her vexation. “Then we mustn’t waste what time we have. Have you seen any of them since we last met?” There was no need to say who.

“Too many. Lanfear is often in Tel’aran’rhiod, of course, but I have seen Rahvin and Sammael and Graendal. Demandred. And Semirhage.” Birgitte’s voice tightened at the last name; even Moghedien, who hated her, did not frighten her visibly, but Semirhage was another matter.

Nynaeve shivered as well—the golden-haired woman had told her too much of that one—and realized she was wearing a thick wool cloak, with a deep hood pulled up to hide her face; flushing, she made it disappear.

“None of them have seen you?” she asked anxiously. Birgitte was more vulnerable than herself in many ways, despite her knowledge of Tel’aran’rhiod. She had never been able to channel; any of the Forsaken could destroy her as if crushing an ant, without breaking stride. And if she were destroyed here, there would be no rebirth for her ever again.

“I am not so unskilled—or so foolish—as to allow that.” Birgitte leaned on her silver bow; legend said she never missed with that bow and her silver arrows. “They are concerned with each other, not anyone else. I have seen Rahvin and Sammael, Graendal and Lanfear, each stalking the others unseen. And Demandred and Semirhage each shadowing them as well. I have not seen so much of them here since they were freed.”

“They are up to something.” Nynaeve bit her lip in vexed frustration. “But what?”

“I cannot say yet, Nynaeve. In the War of the Shadow, they were always plotting, against each other as often as not, but their work has never boded well for the world, waking or dreaming.”

“Try to find out, Birgitte; as much as you can safely, at any rate. Do not take any risks.” The other woman’s face did not change, but Nynaeve thought she was amused; the fool woman thought as little of danger as did Lan. She wished she could ask about the White Tower, about what Siuan might be scheming, but Birgitte could neither see nor touch the waking world unless she was called there by the Horn. You are just trying to avoid what you really want to ask! “Have you seen Moghedien?”

“No,” Birgitte sighed, “but not for lack of trying. In the usual course I can find anyone who knows they are in the World of Dreams; there is a feel, like ripples spreading through the air from them. Or perhaps from their awareness; I do not know, really. I am a soldier, not a scholar. Either she has not come into Tel’aran’rhiod since you defeated her, or . . .” She hesitated, and Nynaeve wanted to stop her from saying what she knew would come next, but Birgitte was too strong to dodge unpalatable possibilities. “Or else she knows I have been looking for her. She can hide, that one. She is not called the Spider for nothing.” That was what a moghedien had been, in the Age of Legends; a tiny spider that spun its webs in secret places, its bite poisonous enough to kill in heartbeats.

Suddenly very much aware of feeling unseen eyes, Nynaeve shivered heavily. It was not trembling. Just a shiver, not trembling. Still, she kept the sleek Taraboner gown firmly in mind lest she abruptly find herself wearing armor. It was embarrassing enough if that sort of thing happened when she was alone, even more under the cool blue gaze of a woman valiant enough to be a match for Gaidal Cain.

“Can you find her even when she wants to remain hidden, Birgitte?” It was a very great deal to ask, if Moghedien knew she was being hunted; like searching for a lion in high grass armed only with a stick.

The other woman did not hesitate. “Perhaps. I will try.” Hefting her bow, she added, “I must go, now. I do not want to risk being seen by the others when they come.”

Nynaeve put a hand on her arm to stop her. “It would be a help if you let me tell them. That way I could share what you’ve told me about the Forsaken with Egwene and the Wise Ones, and they could tell Rand. Birgitte, he needs to know—”

“You promised, Nynaeve.” Those bright blue eyes were unyielding as ice. “The prescripts say that we must not let anyone know that we reside in Tel’aran’rhiod. I have broken many by speaking to you, much more by giving aid, because I cannot stand by and watch you battle the Shadow—I have fought that battle in more lifetimes than I can remember—but I will keep as many of the prescripts as I can. You must hold to your promise.”

“Of course I will,” she said indignantly, “unless you release me from it. And I do ask you to—”

“No.”

And Birgitte was gone. One moment Nynaeve’s hand rested on a white coatsleeve, the next on empty air. In her mind she ran through a few curses she had overheard from Thom and Juilin, the sort she would have scolded Elayne for listening to, much less using. There was no point calling Birgitte’s name again. She probably would not come. Nynaeve only hoped she responded the next time she or Elayne called. “Birgitte! I will keep my promise, Birgitte!”

She would have heard that. Perhaps by their next meeting she would know something of Moghedien’s activities. Nynaeve almost hoped she would not. If she did, it meant that Moghedien really was stalking Tel’aran’rhiod.

Fool woman! “If you don’t look for snakes, you cannot complain when one bites you.” She really did want to meet Elayne’s Lini one day.

The emptiness of the vast chamber oppressed her, all those great polished columns and that sense of being watched from the dimness between. If there really was anybody there, Birgitte would have known.

She realized that she was smoothing the silk gown over her hips, and, to take her mind off eyes that were not there, she concentrated on the dress. It had been in good Two Rivers woolens that Lan had first seen her, and a simple embroidered dress that she had been wearing when he professed his love, but she wanted him to see her in gowns like this. It would not be indecent if he was the one seeing her.

A tall standing mirror appeared, casting her reflection as she turned this way and that, even peering back over her shoulder. The yellow folds sheathed her closely, suggesting everything they hid. The Women’s Circle in Emond’s Field would have hauled her off for a good talking to in private, Wisdom or no Wisdom. Yet it was quite beautiful. Here, alone, she could admit that she had a bit more than gotten used to wearing something like this in public. You enjoyed it, she scolded herself. You are every bit as much a hussy as Elayne seems to be turning into! But it was beautiful. And maybe not as immodest as she had always said. Not a neckline cut halfway to her knees, like the First of Mayene, for instance. Well, perhaps Berelain’s were not that low, but they were still far deeper than respectability required.

She had heard about what Domani women often wore; even Taraboners called those indecent. With the thought, the yellow silk folds became rippling flows, with a narrow belt of woven gold. And thin. Her face colored. Very thin. Barely opaque at all, in fact. The gown certainly did more than suggest. If Lan saw her in that, he would not gabble that his love for her was hopeless and that he would not give her widow’s weeds for a bridal gift. One glimpse, and his blood would catch fire. He would—

“What under the Light is that you have on, Nynaeve?” Egwene asked in scandalized tones.

Nynaeve leaped straight up, spinning, and when she came down facing Egwene and Melaine—it would be Melaine, though none of the Wise Ones would have been any better—the mirror was gone and she was wearing a dark woolen Two Rivers dress thick enough for the depths of winter. Mortified at being startled as much as anything else—it was mainly at being startled—she changed the dress instantly, without thinking, flashing back into the gossamer Domani and just as quickly to the yellow Taraboner folds.

Her face flamed. They probably thought her a complete fool. And in front of Melaine, at that. The Wise One was beautiful, with her long red-gold hair and clear green eyes. Not that she cared a whit how the woman looked. But Melaine had been at her last meeting here with Egwene, too, and taunted her about Lan. Nynaeve had lost her temper over it. Egwene claimed they were not taunts, not among Aielwomen, but Melaine had complimented Lan’s shoulders, and his hands, and his eyes. What right did that green-eyed cat have to look at Lan’s shoulders? Not that she had any doubts of his faithfulness. But he was a man, and far away from her, and Melaine was right there, and . . . Firmly, she put a stop to that line of reasoning.

“Is Lan—?” She thought her face was going to burn off. Can’t you control your own tongue, woman? But she would not—could not—back away, not with Melaine there. Egwene’s bemused smile was bad enough, but Melaine dared to put on a look of understanding. “Is he well?” She tried for cool composure, but it came out strained.

“He is well,” Egwene said. “He worries about whether you are safe.”

Nynaeve let out a breath she had not realized she was holding. The Waste was a dangerous place even without the likes of Couladin and the Shaido, and the man did not know the meaning of caution. He was worried about her safety? Did the fool man think she could not take care of herself?

“We’ve finally reached Amadica,” she said quickly, hoping to cover herself. A flapping tongue, and then sighs! The man has stolen my wits! There was no telling from the others’ faces whether she was succeeding. “A village called Sienda, east of Amador. Whitecloaks everywhere, but they don’t look at us twice. It is others we have to worry about.” In front of Melaine, she had to be careful—to bend the truth a little, in fact, here and there—but she told them of Ronde Macura and her odd message, and her trying to drug them. Trying, because she could not make herself admit in front of Melaine that the woman had succeeded. Light, what am I doing? I’ve never lied to Egwene before in my life!

The supposed reason—the return of a runaway Accepted—certainly could not be mentioned, not in front of one of the Wise Ones. They thought that she and Elayne were full Aes Sedai. But she had to let Egwene know the truth of that somehow. “It might have to do with some plot concerning Andor, but Elayne and you and I have things in common, Egwene, and I think we should be just as careful as Elayne.” The girl nodded slowly; she looked stunned, as well she might, but she seemed to understand. “A good thing the taste of that tea made me suspicious. Imagine trying to feed forkroot to someone who knows herbs as well as I do.”

“Schemes within schemes,” Melaine murmured. “The Great Serpent is a good sign for you Aes Sedai, I think. Someday you may swallow yourselves by accident.”

“We have news ourselves,” Egwene said.

Nynaeve could see no reason for the girl’s haste. I am certainly not going to let the woman bait me into losing my temper. And I certainly wouldn’t get angry over her insulting the Tower. She took her hand away from her braid. What Egwene had to say put temper right out of her head.

Couladin crossing the Spine of the World was surely grave, and Rand following scarcely less so; he was pushing hard for the Jangai Pass, marching from first light until after dusk, and Melaine said they would soon reach it. Conditions in Cairhien were harsh enough without a war between Aiel on its territory. And a new Aiel War to come, surely, if he tried to carry out his mad plan. Mad. Not yet, surely. He had to hang on to sanity, somehow.

How long since I was worrying how to protect him? she thought bitterly. And now I just want him to stay sane to fight the Last Battle. Not only for that reason, but for that one, too. He was what he was. The Light burn me, I’m as bad as Siuan Sanche or any of them!

It was what Egwene had to say about Moiraine that shocked her. “She obeys him?” she said incredulously.

Egwene gave a vigorous nod, in that ridiculous Aiel scarf. “Last night they had an argument—she’s still trying to convince him not to cross the Dragonwall—and finally he told her to stand outside until she cooled down; she looked about to swallow her tongue, but she did it. She stayed out in the night for an hour, anyway.”

“It is not proper,” Melaine said, resettling her shawl firmly. “Men have no more business ordering Aes Sedai about than they do Wise Ones. Even the Car’a’carn.”

“They certainly do not,” Nynaeve agreed, then had to clamp her mouth shut to keep from gaping at herself. What do I care if he makes her dance to his tune? She has made all of us dance to hers often enough. But it was not proper. I do not want to be Aes Sedai, just to learn more about Healing. I want to stay who I am. Let him order her about! Still, it was not proper.

“At least he talks with her, now,” Egwene said. “Before, he turned to acid if she came within ten feet of him. Nynaeve, his head swells bigger every day.”

“Back when I thought you’d follow me as Wisdom,” Nynaeve told her wryly, “I taught you how to take swelling down. Best for him if you do it, even if he has turned into the king bull in the pasture. Maybe most because he is. It seems to me that kings—and queens—can be fools when they forget what they are and act like who they are, but they’re worse when they only remember what they are and forget who. Most could do with someone whose only job is to remind them that they eat and sweat and cry the same as any farmer.”

Melaine folded her shawl around her, seeming unsure whether to agree or not, but Egwene said, “I try, but sometimes he doesn’t seem like himself at all, and even when he is, his arrogance is usually too thick a bubble to prick.”

“Do the best you can. Helping him hold on to himself may be the best thing that anyone could do. For him, and the rest of the world.”

That produced a silence. She and Egwene certainly did not like to talk about the eventuality of Rand going mad, and Melaine could not like it any better.

“I have something else important to tell you,” she went on after a moment. “I think the Forsaken are planning something.” It was not the same as telling them about Birgitte. She made it seem that she herself had seen Lanfear and the others. In truth, Moghedien was the only one she could recognize at sight, and maybe Asmodean, though she had only seen him once, and at a distance. She hoped neither of them thought to ask how she knew who was who, or why she thought Moghedien might be skulking about. In actuality, the problem did not arise from that at all.

“Have you been wandering the World of Dreams?” Melaine’s eyes were green ice.

Nynaeve met her level stare for level stare, despite Egwene’s rueful head-shaking. “I could hardly see Rahvin and the rest without it, now could I?”

“Aes Sedai, you know little, and you try too much. You should not have been taught the few pieces that you have. For myself, I sometimes regret that we agreed even to these meetings. Unschooled women should not be allowed in Tel’aran’rhiod.”

“I have schooled myself in more than you ever taught me.” Nynaeve kept her voice cool with an effort. “I learned to channel on my own, and I do not see why Tel’aran’rhiod should be any different.” It was only stubborn anger that made her say that. She had taught herself to channel, true, but without knowing what it was that she was doing and only after a fashion. Before the White Tower, she had Healed sometimes, but unaware, until Moiraine proved it to her. Her teachers in the Tower had said that was why she needed to be angry in order to channel; she had hidden her ability from herself, afraid of it, and only fury could break through that long-buried fear.

“So you are one of those the Aes Sedai call wilders.” There was a hint of something in the last word, but whether scorn or pity, Nynaeve did not like it. The term was seldom complimentary, in the Tower. Of course, there were no wilders among the Aiel. The Wise Ones who could channel found every last girl with the spark born in her, those who would develop the ability to channel sooner or later even if they did not try to learn. They claimed also to find every girl without the spark who could learn if instructed. No Aiel girl died trying to learn by herself. “You know the dangers of learning the Power without guidance, Aes Sedai. Do not think the dangers of the dream are less. They are just as great, perhaps more for those who venture without knowledge.”

“I am careful,” Nynaeve said in a tight voice. She had not come to be lectured by this sun-haired vixen of an Aiel. “I know what I am doing, Melaine.”

“You know nothing. You are as headstrong as this one was when she came to us.” The Wise One gave Egwene a smile that actually seemed affectionate. “We tamed her excessive exuberance, and now she learns swiftly. Though she does have many faults, still.” Egwene’s pleased grin faded; Nynaeve suspected that grin was why Melaine had added the last. “If you wish to wander the dream,” the Aiel woman went on, “come to us. We will tame your zeal, as well, and teach you.”

“I do not need taming, thank you very much,” Nynaeve said with a polite smile.

“Aan’allein will die on the day he learns that you are dead.”

Ice stabbed into Nynaeve’s heart. Aan’allein was what the Aiel called Lan. One Man, it meant in the Old Tongue, or Man Alone, or the Man Who Is an Entire People; exact translations from the Old Tongue were often difficult. The Aiel had a great deal of respect for Lan, the man who would not give up his war with the Shadow, the enemy that had destroyed his nation. “You are a dirty fighter,” she muttered.

Melaine quirked an eyebrow. “Do we fight? If we do, then know that in battle there is only winning and losing. Rules against hurting are for games. I want your promise that you will do nothing in the dream without first asking one of us. I know Aes Sedai cannot lie, so I would hear you say it.”

Nynaeve gritted her teeth. The words would be easy to say. She did not have to hold to them; she was not bound by the Three Oaths. But it would be admitting that Melaine was right. She did not believe it, and she would not say it.

“She’ll not promise, Melaine,” Egwene said finally. “When she gets that muley look, she wouldn’t come out of the house if you showed her the roof on fire.”

Nynaeve spared a piece of glare for her. Muley, indeed! When all she did was refuse to be pushed about like a rag doll.

After a long moment, Melaine sighed. “Very well. But it would be well to remember, Aes Sedai, that you are but a child in Tel’aran’rhiod. Come, Egwene. We must go.” An amused wince crossed Egwene’s face as the two faded away.

Abruptly Nynaeve realized that her clothes had changed. Had been changed; the Wise Ones knew enough of Tel’aran’rhiod to alter things about others as well as themselves. She wore a white blouse and a dark skirt, but unlike those of the women who had just gone, this stopped well short of her knees. Her shoes and stockings were gone, and her hair was divided into two braids, one over each ear, woven with yellow ribbons. A rag doll with a carved and painted face sat beside her bare feet. She could hear her teeth grinding. This had happened once before, and she had pried out of Egwene that this was how the Aiel dressed little girls.

In a fury she switched back to the yellow Tarabbner silk—this time it adhered even more closely—and kicked the doll. It sailed away, vanishing in midair. That Melaine probably had her eye on Lan; the Aiel all seemed to think he was some sort of hero. The high neck became a tall lace collar, and the deep narrow neckline showed her cleavage. If that woman so much as smiled at him . . . ! If he . . . ! Suddenly she became aware of her fast-sinking, rapidly widening neckline and hastily brought it back up; not all the way, but enough that she did not have to blush. The dress had grown so tight that she could not move; she took care of that, too.

So she was supposed to ask permission, was she? Go begging the Wise Ones before doing anything? Had she not defeated Moghedien? They had been properly impressed at the time, but they seemed to have forgotten.

If she could not use Birgitte to find out what was going on in the Tower, perhaps there was a way she could do it herself.

CHAPTER

15

What Can Be Learned in Dreams

Carefully Nynaeve formed an image in her mind of the Amyrlin’s study, just as she had envisioned the Heart of the Stone on going to sleep. Nothing happened, and she frowned. She should have been taken to the White Tower, to the room she had visualized. Trying again, she imagined a room there that she had visited much more often, if more unhappily.

The Heart of the Stone became the study of the Mistress of Novices, a compact, dark-paneled room full of plain, sturdy furnishings that had been used by generations of women who had held that office. When a novice’s transgressions were such that extra hours of scrubbing floors or raking paths would not atone, it was here that she was sent. For an Accepted to receive that summons took a greater transgression, but still she went, on leaden feet, knowing the outcome would be just as painful, perhaps more so.

Nynaeve did not want to look at the room—Sheriam had called her willfully stubborn on her numerous visits—but found herself staring into the mirror on the wall, where novices and Accepted had to look at their own weeping faces while listening to Sheriam lecture about obeying the rules or showing proper respect or whatever. Obeying others’ rules and showing required respect had always tripped up Nynaeve. The faint remnants of gilt on the carved frame said it had been there since the War of the Hundred Years, if not the Breaking.

The Taraboner dress was beautiful, but anyone who saw her in it would be suspicious. Even Domani women usually dressed circumspectly when they visited the Tower, and she could not imagine anybody dreaming of herself in the Tower except on her best behavior. Not that she was likely to meet anyone, except perhaps someone who had dreamed herself into Tel’aran’rhiod for a few moments; before Egwene, there had not been a woman in the Tower who could enter the World of Dreams unaided since Corianin Nedeal, over four hundred years ago. On the other hand, among the ter’angreal stolen from the Tower that were still in the hands of Liandrin and her confederates, eleven had last been studied by Corianin. The two others of Corianin’s study, the two that she and Elayne had in hand, both gave access to Tel’aran’rhiod; it was best to assume that the rest did, too. There was small chance that Liandrin or any of the others would dream themselves back to the Tower they had fled, but even t
hat chance was too big to risk when it might mean being waylaid. For that matter, she could not really be sure that the stolen ter’angreal were all that Corianin had investigated. The records were often murky about ter’angreal no one understood, and others could very well be in the hands of Black sisters still in the Tower.

The dress changed completely, became white wool, soft but not of a particularly fine quality, and banded at the hem with seven colored stripes, one for each Ajah. If she saw anyone who did not vanish after a few moments, she would take herself back to Sienda, and they would think she was only one of the Accepted, touching Tel’aran’rhiod in her dreams. No. Not the inn, but Sheriam’s study. Anyone like that would have to be Black Ajah, and after all, she was supposed to be hunting them.

Completing her disguise, she gripped her suddenly red-gold braid and grimaced at Melaine’s face in the mirror. Now, there was a woman she would like to hand over to Sheriam.

The study of the Mistress of Novices was near the novices’ quarters, and the wide, tiled hallways flickered with occasional motion past elaborate wall hangings and unlit stand-lamps; flashes of frightened girls all in novice white. A good many novice nightmares would contain Sheriam. She ignored them as she hurried by; they were not in the World of Dreams long enough to see her, or if they did they would simply think her part of their own dream.

It was only a short climb up broad stairs to the Amyrlin’s study. As she approached, suddenly Elaida was in front of her, sweaty-faced in a blood-red gown, the stole of the Amyrlin Seat around her shoulders. Or almost the Amyrlin’s stole; it had no blue stripe.

Those stern dark eyes focused on Nynaeve. “I am the Amyrlin Seat, girl! Do you not know how to show respect? I will have yo—” In midword, she was gone.

Nynaeve exhaled raggedly. Elaida as Amyrlin; that was a nightmare for certain. Probably her fondest dream, she thought wryly. It will snow in Tear before she ever rises that high.

The anteroom was much as she remembered it, with one wide table and a chair behind it for the Keeper of the Chronicles. A few chairs sat against the wall for Aes Sedai waiting to speak with the Amyrlin; novices and Accepted stood. The neat array of papers on the table, bound scrolls and large parchments with seals and letters, seemed unlike Leane, though. Not that she was untidy, quite the reverse, yet Nynaeve had always thought she would put everything away at night.

She pushed open the door to the inner room, but her step slowed as she entered. No wonder she had not been able to dream herself here; the room was nothing like what she remembered. That heavily carved table and tall, thronelike chair. The vine-carved stools arranged in a perfect curve in front of the table, not one so much as an inch out of place. Siuan Sanche affected simple furnishings, as if pretending she was still only a fisherman’s daughter, and she kept only one extra chair, which she did not always let visitors use. And that white vase full of red roses, rigidly arranged on a pedestal like a monument. Siuan enjoyed flowers, but she preferred a bouquet of colors, like a field of wildflowers in miniature. Above the fireplace had hung a simple drawing of fishing boats in tall reeds. Now there were two paintings, one of which Nynaeve recognized. Rand, battling the Forsaken who had called himself Ba’alzamon, in the clouds above Falme. The other, on three wooden panels, portra yed scenes that linked to nothing she could pull out of her memory.

The door opened, and Nynaeve’s heart leaped into her throat. A red-haired Accepted she had never seen before stepped into the room and stared at her. She did not wink out of existence. Just as Nynaeve was preparing to leap back to Sheriam’s study, the red-haired woman said, “Nynaeve, if Melaine knew you were using her face, she’d do more than put you in a child’s dress.” And just that suddenly she was Egwene, in her Aiel garb.

“You nearly frightened ten years out of me,” Nynaeve muttered. “So the Wise Ones have finally decided to let you come and go as you please? Or is Melaine behind—”

“You should be frightened,” Egwene snapped, color rising in her cheeks. “You are a fool, Nynaeve. A child playing in the barn with a candle.”

Nynaeve gaped. Egwene berating her? “You listen to me, Egwene al’Vere. I’ll not take that from Melaine, and I won’t take it—”

“You had best take it from someone, before you get yourself killed.”

“I—”

“I ought to take that stone ring away from you. I should have given it to Elayne and told her not to let you use it at all.”

“Told her not—!”

“Do you think Melaine was exaggerating?” Egwene said sternly, shaking her finger almost exactly like Melaine. “She was not, Nynaeve. The Wise Ones have told you the simple truth about Tel’aran’rhiod time and again, but you seem to think they’re fools whistling in a high wind. You are supposed to be a grown woman, not a silly little child. I vow, whatever sense you once had in your head seems to have vanished like a puff of smoke. Well, find it, Nynaeve!” She sniffed loudly, rearranging the shawl on her shoulders. “Right now you are trying to play with the pretty flames in the fireplace, too foolish to realize you might fall in.”

Nynaeve stared in amazement. They argued often enough, but Egwene had never ever tried to dress her down like a girl caught with her fingers in the honey jar. Never! The dress. It was the Accepted’s dress she was wearing, and someone else’s face. She changed herself back to herself, in a good blue wool that she had often worn for Circle meetings and to put the Council straight. She felt robed in all her old authority as Wisdom. “I am well aware of how much I don’t know,” she said levelly, “but those Aiel—”

“Do you realize you could dream yourself into something you could not get out of? Dreams are real here. If you let yourself drift into a fond dream, it could trap you. You’d trap yourself. Until you died.”

“Will you—?”

“There are nightmares walking Tel’aran’rhiod, Nynaeve.”

“Will you let me speak?” Nyaneve barked. Or rather, she tried to bark it; there was rather too much frustrated pleading in there to suit her. Any at all would have been too much.

“No, I will not,” Egwene said firmly. “Not until you want to say something worth listening to. I said nightmares, and I meant nightmares, Nynaeve. When someone has a nightmare while in Tel’aran’rhiod, it is real, too. And sometimes it survives after the dreamer has gone. You just don’t realize, do you?”

Suddenly rough hands enveloped Nynaeve’s arms. Her head whipped from side to side, eyes bulging. Two huge, ragged men lifted her into the air, faces half-melted ruins of coarse flesh, drooling mouths full of sharp, yellowed teeth. She tried to make them vanish—if a Wise One dreamwalker could, so could she—and one of them ripped her dress open down the front like parchment. The other seized her chin in a horny, callused hand and twisted her face toward him; his head bent toward her, mouth opening. Whether to kiss or bite, she did not know, but she would rather die than allow either. She flailed for saidar and found nothing; it was horror filling her, not anger. Thick fingernails dug into her cheeks, holding her head steady. Egwene had done this, somehow. Egwene. “Please, Egwene!” It was a squeal, and she was too terrified to care. “Please!”

The men—creatures—vanished, and her feet thudded to the floor. For a moment all she could do was shudder and weep. Hastily she repaired the damage to her dress, but the scratches from long fingernails remained on her neck and chest. Clothing could be mended easily in Tel’aran’rhiod, but whatever happened to a human . . . Her knees shook so badly that it was all she could do to stay upright.

She half-expected Egwene to comfort her, and for once she would have accepted it gladly. But the other woman only said, “There are worse things here, but nightmares are bad enough. I made these, and unmade them, but even I have trouble with those I just find. And I did not try to hold them, Nynaeve. If you knew how to unmake them, you could have.”

Nynaeve tossed her head angrily, refusing to scrub the tears from her cheeks. “I could have dreamed myself away. To Sheriam’s study, or back to my bed.” She did not sound sulky. Of course she did not.

“If you had not been too scared spitless to think of it,” Egwene said dryly. “Oh, take that sullen look off your face. It looks silly on you.”

She glared at the other woman, but it did not work as it usually did. Instead of flaring into argument, Egwene merely arched an eyebrow at her. “None of this looks like Siuan Sanche,” Nynaeve said to change the subject. What had gotten into the girl?

“It doesn’t,” Egwene agreed, looking around the room. “I see why I had to come by way of my old room in the novices’ quarters. But I suppose people do decide to try something new sometimes.”

“That is what I mean,” Nynaeve told her patiently. She had not sounded sulky, and she had not looked sullen. It was ridiculous. “The woman who furnished this room doesn’t look at the world the same as the woman who chose what used to be here. Look at those paintings. I don’t know what the triple thing is, but you can recognize the other as well as I.” They had both seen it happen.

“Bonwhin, I should say,” Egwene said thoughtfully. “You never did listen to the lectures as you should. It is a triptych.”

“Whatever it is, it’s the other that’s important.” She had listened to the Yellows well enough. The rest was a pack of useless nonsense often as not. “It seems to me that the woman who hung it wants to be reminded how dangerous Rand is. If Siuan Sanche has turned against Rand for some reason . . . Egwene, this could be far worse than just her wanting Elayne back in the Tower.”

“Perhaps,” Egwene said judiciously. “Maybe the papers will tell us something. You search in here. When I finish with Leane’s desk, I will help you.”

Nynaeve stared indignantly at Egwene’s back as she left. You search in here, indeed! Egwene had no right to give her orders. She ought to march right after her and tell her so in no uncertain terms. Then why are you standing here like a lump? she asked herself angrily. Searching the papers was a good idea, and she might as well do so in here as out there. In fact, the Amyrlin’s desk was more likely to hold something important. Grumbling to herself about what she would do to set Egwene straight, she stalked to the thickly carved table, kicking her skirts with every step.

There was nothing on the table except three ornately lacquered boxes, arrayed with painful precision. Remembering the sorts of traps that could be set by someone wanting to insure privacy, she made a long stick to push open the hinged lid of the first, a gold and green thing decorated with wading herons. It was a writing case, with pens and ink and sand. The largest box, with red roses twining through golden scrolls, held twenty or more delicate carvings of ivory and turquoise, animals and people, all laid out on pale gray velvet.

As she pushed up the lid of the third box—golden hawks fighting among white clouds in a blue sky—she noticed that the first two were closed again. Things like that happened here; everything seemed to want to remain as it was in the waking world, and on top of that, if you took your eyes away for a moment, details could be different when you looked back.

The third box did hold documents. The stick vanished, and she gingerly lifted out the top sheet of parchment. Formally signed “Joline Aes Sedai,” it was a humble request to serve a set of penances that made Nynaeve wince just scanning them rapidly. Nothing there that mattered, except to Joline. A scrawl at the bottom said “approved” in angular script. As she reached to put the parchment down, it faded away; the box was closed, too.

Sighing, she opened it again. The papers inside looked different. Holding the lid, she lifted them out one by one and read quickly. Or tried to read. Sometimes the letters and reports vanished while she was still picking them up, sometimes when she was no more than halfway down a page. If they had a salutation, it was simply, “Mother, with respect.” Some were signed by Aes Sedai, others by women with other titles, nobles, or no honorific at all. None of it seemed to bear on the matter at hand. The Marshal General of Saldaea and his army could not be found, and Queen Tenobia was refusing to cooperate; she managed to finish that report, but it assumed that the reader knew why the man was not in Saldaea and what the queen was supposed to be cooperating about. No report had come from any Ajah’s eyes-and-ears in Tanchico for three weeks; but she got no further than that one fact. Some trouble between Illian on one side and Murandy on the other was abating, and Pedron Niall was claim
ing credit; even in the few lines she got she could see the writer’s teeth gnashing. The letters were all no doubt very important, those she was able to hurry through and those that faded away under her eyes, but of no use to her at all. She had just begun what seemed to be a report on a suspected—that was the word used—gathering of Blue sisters, when a wretched cry of “Oh, Light, no!” came from the outer room.

Darting for the door, she made a stout wooden club appear in her hands, its head bristling with spikes. But when she dashed in expecting to find Egwene defending herself, the woman was standing behind the Keeper’s table staring at nothing. With a look of horror on her face, to be sure, but still unharmed and unthreatened that Nynaeve could see.

Egwene gave a start at the sight of her, then gathered herself visibly. “Nynaeve, Elaida is Amyrlin Seat.”

“Don’t be a goose,” Nynaeve scoffed. Yet the other room, so unlike Siuan Sanche . . . “You’re imagining things. You must be.”

“I had a parchment in my hands, Nynaeve, signed ‘Elaida do Avriny a’Roihan, Watcher of the Seals, Flame of Tar Valon, The Amyrlin Seat,’ and sealed with the Amyrlin’s seal.”

Nynaeve’s stomach tried to flutter up into her chest. “But how? What has happened to Siuan? Egwene, the Tower doesn’t depose an Amyrlin except for something serious. Only two in nearly three thousand years.”

“Maybe Rand was serious enough.” Egwene’s voice was steady, though her eyes were still too wide. “Maybe she became ill with something the Yellows couldn’t Heal, or fell down the stairs and broke her neck. What matters is that Elaida is Amyrlin. I don’t think she will support Rand as Siuan did.”

“Moiraine,” Nynaeve muttered. “So sure that Siuan would put the Tower behind him.” She could not imagine Siuan Sanche dead. She had hated the woman often, been the slightest bit afraid of her on occasion—she could admit that now, to herself anyway—yet she had respected her, too. She had thought that Siuan would last forever. “Elaida. Light! She’s as mean as a snake and as cruel as a cat. There’s no telling what she might do.”

“I am afraid I have a clue.” Egwene pressed both hands to her stomach as though to quell flutters of her own. “It was a very short document. I managed to read it all. ‘All loyal sisters are required to report the presence of the woman Moiraine Damodred. She is to be detained if possible, by whatever means are necessary, and returned to the White Tower for trial on charge of treason.’ The same sort of language that was apparently used about Elayne.”

“If Elaida wants Moiraine arrested, it must mean she knows Moiraine has been helping Rand, and she does not like it.” Talking was good. Talking kept her from sicking up. Treason. They stilled women for that. She had wanted to bring Moiraine down. Now Elaida was going to do it for her. “She certainly won’t support Rand.”

“Exactly.”

“Loyal sisters. Egwene, that fits with the Macura woman’s message. Whatever happened to Siuan, the Ajahs have split over Elaida as Amyrlin. It must be.”

“Yes, of course. Very good, Nynaeve. I did not see that.”

Her smile was so pleased that Nynaeve smiled back. “There’s a report on Siu—on the Amyrlin’s writing table about a gathering of Blues. I was just reading it when you shouted. I’ll wager the Blues didn’t support Elaida.” The Blue and Red Ajahs had a sort of armed truce at the best of times, and came near going for each other’s throats at the worst.

But when they went back into the inner room, the report was not to be found. There were plenty of documents—Joline’s letter had reappeared; a brief reading made Egwene’s eyebrows climb nearly to her hair—but not the one that they wanted.

“Can you remember what it said?” Egwene asked.

“I had just gotten a few lines when you shouted, and . . . I just can’t remember.”

“Try, Nynaeve. Try very hard.”

“I am, Egwene, but it will not come. I am trying.”

What she was doing hit Nynaeve like a sudden hammer between the eyes. Excusing herself. To Egwene, a girl whose bottom she had switched for throwing a tantrum not more than two years ago. And a moment earlier she had been proud as a hen with a new egg because Egwene was pleased with her. She remembered quite clearly the day when the balance between them had shifted, when they ceased being the Wisdom and the girl who fetched when the Wisdom said fetch, becoming instead just two women far from home. It seemed that balance had shifted further, and she did not like it. She was going to have to do something to move it back where it belonged.

The lie. She had deliberately lied to Egwene for the first time ever today. That was why her moral authority had vanished, why she was floundering around, unable to assert herself properly. “I drank the tea, Egwene.” She forced each word deliberately. She had to force them. “The Macura woman’s forkroot tea. She and Luci hauled us upstairs like sacks of feathers. That is about how much strength we had between us. If Thom and Juilin hadn’t come to pull us out by the scruffs of our necks, we would probably be there still. Or else on our way to the Tower, so full of forkroot we wouldn’t wake up until we got here.” Taking a deep breath, she tried for a tone of righteous firmness, but it was difficult when you had just confessed to having been an utter fool. What came out sounded much more tentative than she liked. “If you tell the Wise Ones about this—especially that Melaine—I’ll box your ears.”

Something in that should have sparked Egwene’s ire. It seemed odd to want to start a row—usually their quarrels were over Egwene refusing to see reason, and they seldom ended pleasantly, since the girl had formed the habit of continuing to refuse—but that was certainly better than this. Yet Egwene only smiled at her. An amused smile. A condescending amused smile.

“I more than suspected as much, Nynaeve. You used to drone on about herbs day and night, but you never mentioned any plant called forkroot. I was sure you’d never heard of it until that woman mentioned it. You’ve always tried to put the best face on things. If you fell head first into a pigsty, you’d try to convince everybody you did it on purpose. Now, what we have to decide—”

“I do no such thing,” Nynaeve spluttered.

“You certainly do. Facts are facts. You might as well stop whining about it and help me decide—”

Whining! This was not going at all the way she wanted. “They are no such thing. Not facts, I mean. I have never done what you said.”

For a moment Egwene stared at her silently. “You will not let go of this, will you? Very well. You lied to me . . .”

“It was not a lie,” she muttered. “Not exactly.”

The other woman ignored her interruption. “. . . And you lie to yourself. Do you remember what you made me drink the last time I lied to you?” Suddenly a cup was in her hand, full of viscous sickly green liquid; it looked as if it had been scooped from a scummy stagnant pond. “The only time I ever lied to you. The memory of that taste was an effective discouragement. If you cannot tell the truth even to yourself . . .”

Nynaeve took a step back before she could stop herself. Boiled catfern and powdered mavinsleaf; her tongue writhed at just the thought. “I did not really lie, actually.” Why was she making excuses? “I just didn’t tell the whole truth.” I am the Wisdom! I was the Wisdom; that ought to count for something still. “You cannot really think . . .” Just tell her. You’re not the child here, and you certainly are not going to drink. “Egwene, I—” Egwene pushed the cup nearly under her nose; she could smell the acrid tang. “All right,” she said hastily. This can’t be happening! But she could not take her eyes off that brimming cup, and she could not stop the words tumbling out. “Sometimes I try to make things look better for myself than they were. Sometimes. But never anything important. I’ve never—lied—about anything important. Never, I swear. Only small things.” The cup vanished, and Nynaeve heaved a sigh of relief. Fool, fool woman! She couldn’t have m ade you drink it! What is wrong with you?

“What we have to decide,” Egwene said as if nothing at all had happened, “is who to tell. Moiraine certainly has to know, and Rand, but if everyone hears of it . . . The Aiel are peculiar, about Aes Sedai no less than anything else. I think they’ll follow Rand as He Who Comes With the Dawn in spite of anything, but once they learn the White Tower is against him, maybe they won’t be so fervent.”

“They’ll learn sooner or later,” Nynaeve muttered. She could not have made me drink it!

“Later better than sooner, Nynaeve. So don’t you go bursting out in a temper and telling the Wise Ones about this at our next meeting. In fact, it would be best if you didn’t mention this visit to the Tower at all. That way maybe you can keep it secret.”

“I am not a fool,” Nynaeve said stiffly, and felt a slow burn when Egwene quirked that eyebrow at her again. She was not about to bring the visit up with the Wise Ones. Not because it was easier defying them behind their backs. Nothing like that. And she was not trying to put a good face on things. It was not fair that Egwene could leap about Tel’aran’rhiod however she wanted, while she had to put up with lectures and bullying.

“I know you are not,” Egwene said. “Unless you let your temper get the better of you. You need to hold your temper and keep your wits about you if you’re right about the Forsaken, especially Moghedien.” Nynaeve glowered at her, opening her mouth to say that she could too keep her temper and she would smack Egwene’s ears if she thought differently, but the other woman gave her no chance. “We must find that gathering of Blue sisters, Nynaeve. If they oppose Elaida, maybe—just maybe—they will support Rand the way Siuan did. Was a town mentioned, or a village? A country, even?”

“I think . . . I cannot remember.” She struggled to take the defensive note out of her voice. Light, I confessed everything, made a fool of myself, and it’s only made things worse! “I will keep trying.”

“Good. We must find them, Nynaeve.” For a moment Egwene studied her, while she refused to repeat herself. “Nynaeve, take care concerning Moghedien. Do not go rushing off like a bear in spring just because she got away from you in Tanchico.”

“I am not a fool, Egwene,” Nynaeve said carefully. It was frustrating having to hold her temper, but if all Egwene would do was ignore it or scold her, there was nothing to be gained beyond looking a bigger ninny-head than she did already.

“I know. You said that. Just be sure you remember it. Be careful.” Egwene did not fade away this time; she vanished, as suddenly as Birgitte.

Nynaeve stared at the spot where she had been, running through her head all the things she should have said. Finally she realized that she could stand there all night; she was repeating herself, and the time for saying anything was past. Grumbling under her breath, she stepped out of Tel’aran’rhiod, back to her bed in Sienda.

Egwene’s eyes popped open in near total darkness, broken only by a little moonlight streaming in through the smoke hole. She was glad to be under a pile of blankets; the fire was out, and freezing cold filled the tent. Her breath turned to mist in front of her face. Without raising her head, she scanned the interior. No Wise Ones. She was still alone.

That was her biggest fear on these solitary excursions into Tel’aran’rhiod: returning to find Amys or one of the others waiting for her. Well, maybe not her biggest fear—the dangers in the World of Dreams were every bit as great as she had told Nynaeve—but a big one nonetheless. It was not punishment that frightened her, not the sort that Bair doled out. Had she wakened to find a Wise One staring at her, she would have accepted such gladly, but Amys had told her near the beginning that if she entered Tel’aran’rhiod without one of them accompanying her, they would send her away, refuse to teach her any longer. That made her quail far more than anything else they could do. But even so, she had to push ahead. As rapidly as they taught, they were not rapid enough. She wanted to know now, to know everything.

Channeling, she lit her lamp and put flames in the firepit; nothing remained for them to burn, but she tied the weave off. She lay there, watching her breath mist in front of her mouth, and waited for warmth enough to dress. It was late, but perhaps Moiraine would still be awake.

What had happened with Nynaeve still amazed her. I think she’d actually have drunk, if I had pressed her. She had been so afraid that Nynaeve would learn that she certainly did not have the Wise Ones’ permission to jaunt about in the World of Dreams alone, so sure that the flush of embarrassment had given her away, that all she could think of was keeping Nynaeve from speaking, keeping her from winkling out the truth. And she had been so sure that Nynaeve would find out anyway—the woman was quite capable of turning her in and saying it was for her own good—that all she could do was talk, try to keep the focus on whatever Nynaeve was doing wrong. No matter how angry Nynaeve made her, she could not seem to bring up a shout. And with all of that, somehow, she had gained the upper hand.

Come to think of it, Moiraine seldom raised her voice, and when she did she was least effective in having what she wanted done. It had been so even before she began behaving so strangely with Rand. The Wise Ones never yelled at anyone, either—except each other, sometimes—and for all their grumping about the chiefs no longer listening, they still seemed to get their way much more often than not. There was an old saying that she had never really understood before: “He strains to hear a whisper who refuses to hear a shout.” She would not shout at Rand again. A quiet, firm, womanly voice, that was the thing. For that matter, she ought not to shout at Nynaeve, either; she was a woman, not a girl throwing tantrums.

She found herself giggling. She especially ought not to raise her voice with Nynaeve when speaking calmly produced such results.

The tent finally seemed warm enough, and she scampered out, dressing quickly. She still had to break ice in her water pitcher before she could wash the sleep out of her mouth. Tossing the dark woolen cloak about her shoulders, she untied the strands of Fire—Fire by itself was dangerous to leave tied—and as the flames vanished, ducked out of the tent. Cold closed on her like an icy vise as she hurried through the camp.

Only the nearest tents were really visible to her, low, shadowed shapes that could have been part of the rugged earth, save that the camp extended for miles into the mountainous land to either side. These tall jagged peaks were not the Spine of the World; that was much higher, and lay days to the west yet.

She approached Rand’s tent hesitantly. A sliver of light showed along the tent flap. A Maiden seemed to rise out of the ground as she came closer, horn bow on her back, quiver at her waist, and spears and buckler in hand. Egwene could not make out any others in the darkness, but she knew they were there, even here surrounded by six clans all claiming loyalty to the Car’a’carn. The Miagoma were somewhere to the north, paralleling their march; Timolan would not say what his intentions were. Where the other clans were, Rand did not seem to care. His attention was all on the race for Jangai Pass.

“Is he awake, Enaila?” she asked.

Moonshadows shifted on the Maiden’s face as she nodded. “He does not sleep enough. A man cannot go without rest.” She sounded for all the world like a mother fretting over her son.

A shadow beside the tent stirred, became Aviendha with her shawl wrapped around her. She did not seem to feel the cool, only the hour. “I would sing him a lullaby, if I thought it might work. I have heard of women being kept awake all night by an infant, but a grown man should know that others would like to have their blankets.” She and Enaila shared a quiet chuckle.

Shaking her head over Aiel strangeness, Egwene bent to peer through the crack. Several lamps lit the interior. He was not alone. Natael’s dark eyes looked haggard, and he stifled a yawn. He at least wanted sleep. Rand lay sprawled close by one of the gilded oil lamps, reading a battered leather-bound book. One translation or another of the Prophecies of the Dragon, if she knew him at all.

Abruptly he flipped back through the pages, read, then laughed. She tried to tell herself there was nothing of madness in that laugh, only bitterness. “A fine joke,” he told Natael, snapping the book shut and tossing it to him. “Read page two hundred eighty-seven and page four hundred, and tell me if you don’t agree.”

Egwene’s mouth tightened as she straightened. He really should be more careful with a book. She could not speak to him, not in front of the gleeman. It was a shame that he had to use a man he barely knew for company. No. He had Aviendha, and the chiefs often enough, and Lan every day, and Mat sometimes. “Why don’t you join them, Aviendha? If you were there, maybe he’d want to talk of something besides that book.”

“He wanted to talk with the gleeman, Egwene, and he seldom does that in front of me or anyone. Had I not left, he and Natael would have.”

“Children are a great worry, I have heard.” Enaila laughed. “And sons the worst. You may find out the truth of this for me, now that you have given up the spear.” Aviendha gave her a moonlit frown and stalked back to her place against the side of the tent like an offended cat. Enaila seemed to think that funny, too; she clutched her sides laughing.

Muttering to herself about Aiel humor—she almost never understood it—Egwene made her way to Moiraine’s tent, not far from Rand’s. Here, too, there was a sliver of light, and she knew that the Aes Sedai was awake. Moiraine was channeling; only tiny amounts of the Power, but still enough for Egwene to sense. Lan lay sleeping nearby, wrapped in his Warder’s cloak; except for his head and boots, the rest of him seemed part of the night. Gathering her cloak, she held her skirts up and tiptoed so as not to wake him.

His breathing did not change, but something made her look at him again. Moonlight glinted on his eyes, open and watching her. Even as she turned her head, they closed again. Not another muscle stirred; he might never have wakened at all. Sometimes the man unnerved her. Whatever Nynaeve saw in him, she could not see.

Kneeling beside the tent flap, she peered in. Moiraine sat surrounded by the glow of saidar, the small blue stone that usually hung on her forehead dangling from her fingers in front of her face. It shone, adding a bit to the light of a single lamp. The firepit held only ashes; even the smell was gone.

“May I come in?”

She had to repeat herself before Moiraine answered. “Of course.” The light of saidar faded away, and the Aes Sedai began fastening the fine golden chain back into her hair.

“You were eavesdropping on Rand?” Egwene settled herself beside the other woman. It was as cold in the tent as it was outside. She channeled flames atop the ashes in the firepit and tied the flow. “You said you would not do it again.”

“I said that since the Wise Ones could watch his dreams, we should allow him some privacy. They have not asked again since he shut them out, and I have not offered. Remember that they have their own goals, which may not be those of the Tower.”

As quickly as that, they had come to it. Egwene was still not sure how to tell what she knew without betraying herself to the Wise Ones, but perhaps the only method was to just tell it and then feel her way. “Elaida is Amyrlin, Moiraine. I do not know what has happened to Siuan.”

“How do you know?” Moiraine said quietly. “Did you learn something dreamwalking? Or has your Talent as a Dreamer finally manifested itself?”

That was her way out. Some of the Aes Sedai in the Tower thought that she might be a Dreamer, a woman whose dreams foretold the future. She did have dreams that she knew were significant, but learning to interpret them was another matter. The Wise Ones said the knowledge had to come from within, and none of the Aes Sedai had been any more help. Rand sitting down in a chair, and somehow she knew that the chair’s owner would be murderously angry at having her chair taken; that the owner was a woman was as much as she could pick out of that, and not a thing more. Sometimes the dreams were complex. Perrin, lounging with Faile on his lap, kissing her while she played with the short-cut beard that he wore in the dream. Behind them two banners waved, a red wolf’s head and a crimson eagle. A man in a bright yellow coat stood near to Perrin’s shoulder, a sword strapped to his back; in some way she knew that he was a Tinker, though no Tinker would even touch a sword. And every bit of it
except the beard seemed important. The banners, Faile kissing Perrin, even the Tinker. Every time he moved closer to Perrin it was as if a chill of doom shot through everything. Another dream. Mat throwing dice with blood streaming down his face, the wide brim of his hat pulled low so she could not see his wound, while Thom Merrilin put his hand into a fire to draw out the small blue stone that now dangled on Moiraine’s forehead. Or a dream of a storm, great dark clouds rolling without wind or rain while forked lightning bolts, every one identical, rent the earth. She had the dreams, but as a Dreamer she was a failure so far.

“I saw an arrest warrant for you, Moiraine, signed by Elaida as Amyrlin. And it was no ordinary dream.” All true. Just not all of the truth. She was suddenly glad that Nynaeve was not there. I’d be the one staring at a cup, if she was.

“The Wheel weaves as the Wheel wills. Perhaps it will not matter so much if Rand takes the Aiel across the Dragonwall. I doubt that Elaida has continued to approach rulers, even if she knows that Siuan was doing so.”

“Is that all you can say? I think Siuan was your friend once, Moiraine. Can’t you shed a tear for her?”

The Aes Sedai looked at her, and that cool, serene gaze told her how far she had to go before she could use that title herself. Sitting, Egwene was nearly a head taller, and she was stronger in the Power besides, but there was more to being Aes Sedai than strength. “I have no time for tears, Egwene. The Dragonwall is not many days distant now, and the Alguenya. . . . Siuan and I were friends, once. In a few months it will be twenty-one years since we began the search for the Dragon Reborn. Only the two of us, newly raised Aes Sedai. Sierin Vayu was raised Amyrlin shortly after, a Gray with more than a touch of Red in her. Had she learned what we intended, we would have spent the rest of our lives doing penance with Red sisters watching us even while we slept. There is a saying in Cairhien, though I have heard it as far away as Tarabon and Saldaea. ‘Take what you want, and pay for it.’ Siuan and I took the path we wanted, and we knew we would have to pay for it eventually.”

“I do not see how you can be so calm. Siuan could be dead, or even stilled. Elaida will either oppose Rand altogether or try to hold him somewhere until Tarmon Gai’don; you know she’ll never let a man who can channel run free. At least not everyone is behind Elaida. Some of the Blue Ajah are gathering somewhere—I don’t know where yet—and I think others have left the Tower, too. Nynaeve said that she was given a message about all sisters being welcome to return to the Tower by an eyes-and-ears of the Yellow. If Blues and Yellows have both gone, others must have. And if they oppose Elaida, they may support Rand.”

Moiraine sighed, a soft sound. “Do you expect me to be happy that the White Tower has split apart? I am Aes Sedai, Egwene. I gave my life to the Tower long before I ever suspected the Dragon would be Reborn in my lifetime. The Tower has been a bulwark against the Shadow for three thousand years. It has guided rulers to wise decisions, stopped wars before they began, halted wars that did begin. That humankind even remembers that the Dark One waits to escape, that the Last Battle will come, is because of the Tower. The Tower, whole and united. I could almost wish that every sister had sworn to Elaida, whatever happened to Siuan.”

“And Rand?” Egwene kept her voice just as steady, just as smooth. The flames were beginning to put a little warmth into the air, but Moiraine had just added her own chill. “The Dragon Reborn. You yourself said that he cannot be ready for Tarmon Gai’don unless he is allowed his freedom, both to learn and to affect the world. The Tower united could take him prisoner despite all the Aiel in the Waste.”

Moiraine smiled a small smile. “You learn. Cool reason is always better than hot words. But you forget that only thirteen sisters linked can shield any man from saidin, and even if they do not know the trick of tying flows, fewer can hold that shield.”

“I know you are not giving up, Moiraine. What do you mean to do?”

“I mean to deal with the world as I find the world, for as long as I can. At least Rand will be—easier to be around—now that I no longer need try to turn him from what he wants. I suppose I should be happy that he does not make me fetch his wine. He does listen most of the time, even if he seldom gives any sign what he thinks of what I tell him.”

“I will leave you to tell him about Siuan and the Tower.” That would avoid awkward questions; with Rand as bigheaded as he was, he might want to know more about her Dreaming than she could invent. “There’s something else. Nynaeve has seen Forsaken in Tel’aran’rhiod. She mentioned every last one still alive except Asmodean and Moghedien. Including Lanfear. She thinks they are plotting something, perhaps together.”

“Lanfear,” Moiraine said after a moment.

They both knew that Lanfear had visited Rand in Tear, and maybe other times that he had not told them of. No one had much knowledge of the Forsaken except the Forsaken themselves—only fragments of fragments remained in the Tower—but it was known that Lanfear had loved Lews Therin Telamon. They two, and Rand, knew that she still did.

“With luck,” the Aes Sedai went on, “we will not have to worry about Lanfear. The others Nynaeve saw are another matter. You and I must keep as close a watch as we can. I wish more of the Wise Ones could channel.” She gave a small laugh. “But I might as well wish they were all Tower trained while I am about it, or to live forever. They may be strong in many ways, but they are sadly lacking in others.”

“A watch is all very well, but what else? If six Forsaken come at him together, he will need every bit of help we can give him.”

Moiraine leaned over to put a hand on her arm, a look of affection on her face. “We cannot hold his hand forever, Egwene. He has learned to walk. He is learning to run. We can only hope he learns before his enemies catch him. And, of course, continue to advise him. To guide him when we can.” Straightening, she stretched, and stifled a small yawn behind her hand. “It is late, Egwene. And I expect that Rand will have us breaking camp in a very few hours now, even if he gets no sleep at all. I, however, would like to take what rest I can before facing my saddle.”

Egwene made ready to go, but first she had a question. “Moiraine, why have you started doing everything Rand tells you to? Even Nynaeve doesn’t think it is right.”

“She does not, does she?” Moiraine murmured. “She will be Aes Sedai yet, whatever she wishes. Why? Because I remembered how to control saidar.”

After a moment, Egwene nodded. To control saidar, first you had to surrender to it.

It was not until she was shivering her way back to her own tent that she realized Moiraine had spoken to her the whole time as an equal. Perhaps she was closer to being ready to choose her Ajah than she thought.

CHAPTER

16

An Unexpected Offer

Sunlight creeping through the window woke Nynaeve. For a moment she lay sprawled atop the striped coverlet. Elayne lay sleeping in the other bed. The early morning was already warm, and the night had not been much better, but that was not the reason Nynaeve’s shift was twisted and sweaty. Her dreams after discussing what she had seen with Elayne had not been good. In most she had been back in the Tower, being dragged before the Amyrlin, who was sometimes Elaida and sometimes Moghedien. In some Rand had been lying beside the Amyrlin’s writing table like a dog, collared and leashed and muzzled. The dreams about Egwene had been as bad in a way; boiled catfern and powdered mavinsleaf tasted just as bad in a dream as they did awake.

Making her way to the washstand, she cleansed her face, and scrubbed her teeth with salt and soda. The water was not hot, but it could not be called cool either. The sodden shift she stripped off, and dug a fresh one from one of the chests, along with a hairbrush and mirror. Peering at her own image, she regretted undoing her braid for comfort. It had not helped, and now her hair hung in a tangle to her waist. Sitting down on the chest, she laboriously worked the knots out, then began giving her hair its hundred strokes.

Three scratches ran down her neck and disappeared beneath her shift. They were not as red as they might have been, thanks to an ointment of healall taken from the Macura woman. She had told Elayne they came from brambles. Foolish—she suspected that Elayne knew it was not true, despite her tale of looking about the Tower grounds after Egwene left—but she had been too upset to think straight. She had snapped at the other woman several times, for no reason except that she was thinking about her unfair treatment by Melaine and Egwene. Not that it doesn’t do her good to be reminded she’s not the Daughter-Heir here. Still, it was none of the girl’s fault; she would have to make it up to her.

In the mirror she saw Elayne rise and begin washing. “I still think my plan is best,” the girl said, scrubbing her face. Her raven-dyed hair did not seem to have one snarl, despite her curls. “We could be in Tear much more quickly my way.”

Her plan was to abandon the coach once they reached the Eldar, at some small village where there would not likely be many Whitecloaks, and just as important, no eyes-and-ears for the Tower. There they were to take a riverboat down to Ebou Dar, where they could find a ship for Tear. That they had to go to Tear was no longer in doubt. Tar Valon they would avoid at all cost.

“How long before a boat stops where we are?” Nynaeve said patiently. She had thought this was all settled before they went to sleep. It had been, to her mind. “You yourself said that every boat might not stop. And how long do we wait in Ebou Dar before we find a ship for Tear?” Putting the brush down, she began remaking her braid.

“The villagers hang out a flag if they want a boat to put in, and most will. And there are always ships for anywhere in a seaport the size of Ebou Dar.”

As if the girl had ever been in a seaport of any size before leaving the Tower with Nynaeve. Elayne always thought that whatever she had not learned of the world as Daughter-Heir of Andor, she had learned in the Tower, even after plenty of proof to the contrary. And how dare she put on that forbearing tone with her! “We are not likely to find that gathering of Blues on a ship, Elayne.”

Her own plan was to stick with the coach, cross the rest of Amadicia, then Altara and Murandy, to Far Madding in the Hills of Kintara, and over the Plains of Maredo to Tear. It would certainly take longer, but aside from the chance of finding that gathering somehow, coaches very rarely sank. She could swim, but she was not comfortable with land completely out of sight.

Patting her face dry, Elayne changed her shift and came to help with doing the braid. Nynaeve was not fooled; she would hear about boats again. Her stomach did not like boats. Not that that had influenced her decision, of course. If she could bring Aes Sedai to Rand’s aid, it would be well worth the longer travel time.

“Have you recalled the name?” Elayne asked, weaving the strands of hair.

“At least I remembered there was a name. Light, give me time.” She was sure there had been a name. A town, it would have to be, or a city. She could not have seen the name of a country and forgotten it. Drawing a long breath, she took a hold on her temper, and went on in a milder tone. “I will remember it, Elayne. Just give me time.”

Elayne made a noncommittal sound and continued braiding. After a bit, she said, “Was it really wise to send Birgitte looking for Moghedien?”

Nynaeve shot the young woman a sidelong frown, but it rolled off her like water off oiled silk. As a change of subject, this was not the one she would have chosen. “Better we find her than she finds us.”

“I suppose so. But what will we do when we find her?”

She had no answer for that. But it was better to be the hunter than the hunted, however roughly it went. The Black Ajah had taught her that.

The common room was not crowded when they went down, yet even at that early hour there was a sprinkling of pale cloaks among the patrons, mostly on older men, all with officers’ rank. No doubt they preferred to eat from the inn’s kitchens rather than what Whitecloak cooks dished up in the garrison. Nynaeve would almost rather have eaten on a tray again, but that little room was like a box. All of these men were intent on their food, the Whitecloaks no less than the others. Surely it was quite safe. Cooking smells filled the air; apparently these men wanted beef or mutton even first thing in the morning.

No sooner did Elayne’s foot leave the last step than Mistress Jharen bustled up to offer them, or “the Lady Morelin” rather, a private dining room. Nynaeve never shifted her eyes toward Elayne, but the other woman said, “I think we will eat here. I seldom have the opportunity to eat in a common room, and I quite enjoy it, really. Have one of your girls bring us something cooling. If the day is like this already, I fear I’ll swelter before we reach the next stop.”

It was a constant wonder to Nynaeve that that haughty manner never got them thrown bodily into the street. She had met enough lords and ladies by now to know that nearly all behaved in that fashion, but still. She would not have put up with it for a minute. The innkeeper, though, bobbed a curtsy, smiling and drywashing her hands, then showed them to a table near a window looking onto the street and scurried away to do Elayne’s bidding. Perhaps that was her way of getting back at the girl. They were off by themselves, well away from the men already at other tables, but anyone walking by could stare in at them, and if any of their food was hot—which she hoped it was not—they were as far from the kitchens as it was possible to be.

When it came, breakfast consisted of spicy muffins—wrapped in a white cloth and still warm, and pleasant even so—yellow pears, blue grapes that looked a bit wizened, and some sort of red things that the serving girl called strawberries, though they looked like no berry that Nynaeve had ever seen. They certainly did not taste anything like straw, especially with clotted cream spooned on top. Elayne claimed to have heard of them, but then she would. With a lightly spiced wine supposedly cooled in the springhouse—one sip told her that the spring was not very cool, if there was one—it made a refreshing morning meal.

The nearest man was three tables away, and he wore a dark blue woolen coat, a prosperous tradesman perhaps, but they did not talk. Plenty of time for that when they were on the road again, and could be sure that there was no danger of sharp ears. Nynaeve finished her food well before Elayne. The way the girl took her time quartering a pear, you would think they had all day to sit at table.

Suddenly Elayne’s eyes went wide with shock, and the short knife clattered to the table. Nynaeve’s head whipped around to find a man taking the bench on the other side of the table.

“I thought it was you, Elayne, but the hair put me off at first.”

Nynaeve stared at Galad, Elayne’s half-brother. Stared was the word, of course. Tall and steely slender, dark of hair and eye, he was the most handsome man she had ever seen. Handsome was not enough; he was gorgeous. She had seen women cluster around him in the Tower, even Aes Sedai, all of them smiling like fools. She wiped the smile from her own face. But she could do nothing about her racing heart, nor make herself breathe properly. She did not feel anything for him; it was just that he was beautiful. Take hold of yourself, woman!

“What are you doing here?” She was pleased that she did not sound strangled. It was not fair for a man to look like that.

“And what are you doing wearing that?” Elayne’s voice was low, but it still held a snap.

Nynaeve blinked, and realized he wore a shirt of shining mail and a white cloak with two golden knots of rank beneath a flaring sun. She felt color rising in her cheeks. Staring at a man’s face so hard that she had not even seen what he was wearing! She wanted to hide her own face from humiliation.

He smiled, and Nynaeve had to take a deep breath. “I am here because I was one of the Children recalled from the north. And I am a Child of the Light because it seemed the right thing to do. Elayne, when you two and Egwene vanished, it did not take long for Gawyn and me to find out that you were not doing penance on a farm, whatever we were told. They had no right to involve you in their plots, Elayne. Any of you.”

“You seem to have attained rank very quickly,” Nynaeve said. Did the fool man not realize that talking of Aes Sedai plots here was a good way to get them both killed?

“Eamon Valda seemed to think my experience warranted it, wherever gained.” His shrug dismissed rank as unimportant. It was not modesty, precisely, but not pretense either. The finest swordsman among those who came to study with the Warders in the Tower, he had also stood high in the classes on strategy and tactics, but Nynaeve could not remember him boasting about his prowess, even in jest. Accomplishments meant nothing to him, perhaps because they came so easily.

“Does Mother know of this?” Elayne demanded, still in that quiet voice. Her scowl would have frightened a wild boar, though.

Galad shifted just a hair, uneasily. “There has been no good time to write her. But do not be so sure she will disapprove, Elayne. She is not so friendly with the north as she was. I hear a ban may be made law.”

“I sent her a letter, explaining.” Elayne’s glare had transformed to puzzlement. “She must understand. She trained in the Tower, too.”

“Keep your voice down,” he said, low and hard. “Remember where you are.” Elayne flushed a deep red, but whether in anger or embarrassment, Nynaeve could not say.

Abruptly she realized that he had been speaking as quietly as they, and carefully, too. He had not mentioned the Tower once, or Aes Sedai.

“Is Egwene with you?” he went on.

“No,” she replied, and he sighed deeply.

“I had hoped . . . Gawyn was nearly unhinged with worry when she disappeared. He cares for her, too. Will you tell me where she is?”

Nynaeve took note of that “too.” The man had become a Whitecloak, yet he “cared for” a woman who wanted to be Aes Sedai. Men were so strange they were hardly human sometimes.

“We will not,” Elayne said firmly, the crimson receding from her cheeks. “Is Gawyn here, too? I will not believe he has become a—” She had the wit to lower her voice further, but she still said, “A Whitecloak!”

“He remains in the north, Elayne.” Nynaeve supposed that he meant Tar Valon, but surely Gawyn had gone from there. Surely he could not support Elaida. “You cannot know what has happened there, Elayne,” he continued. “All the corruption and vileness in that place bubbled to the top, as it had to. The woman who sent you away has been deposed.” He looked around and dropped his voice to a momentary whisper, despite no one being close enough to overhear. “Stilled and executed.” Taking a deep breath, he made a disgusted sound. “It was never a place for you. Or for Egwene. I have not been long with the Children, but I am certain my captain will give me leave to escort my sister home. That is where you should be, with Mother. Tell me where Egwene is, and I will see that she is brought to Caemlyn, too. You will both be safe there.”

Nynaeve’s face felt numb. Stilled. And executed. Not an accidental death, or illness. That she had considered the possibility did not make the fact less shocking. Rand had to be the reason. If there had ever been any small hope that the Tower might not oppose him, it was gone. Elayne showed no expression at all, her eyes staring at the distance.

“I see my news shocks you,” he said in a low voice. “I do not know how deeply that woman meshed you in her plot, but you are free of her now. Let me see you safely to Caemlyn. No one need know you had any more contact with her than the other girls who went there to learn. Either of you.”

Nynaeve showed him her teeth, in what she hoped looked like a smile. It was nice to be included, finally. She could have smacked him. If only he were not so good-looking.

“I will think on it,” Elayne said slowly. “What you say makes sense, but you must give me time to think. I must think.”

Nynaeve stared at her. It made sense? The girl was blathering.

“I can give you a little time,” he said, “but I do not have much if I am to ask leave. We may be ordered—”

Suddenly there was a square-faced, black-haired Whitecloak clapping Galad on the shoulder and grinning widely. Older, he wore the same two knots of rank on his cloak. “Well, young Galad, you can’t keep all the pretty women for yourself. Every girl in town sighs when you walk by, and most of their mothers as well. Introduce me.”

Galad scraped back his bench to stand. “I . . . thought I knew them when they came downstairs, Trom. But whatever charm you think I possess, it does not work on this lady. She does not like me, and I think she will not like any friend of mine. If you practice the sword with me this afternoon, perhaps you can attract one or two.”

“Never with you around,” Trom grumped good-naturedly. “And I’d sooner let the farrier pound my head with his hammer than practice against you.” But he let Galad start him for the door with only a regretful look at the two women. As they left, Galad shot a glance back at the table, full of frustration and indecision.

No sooner were they out of sight than Elayne stood. “Nana, I need you upstairs.” Mistress Jharen materialized at her side, inquiring if she had enjoyed her repast, and Elayne said, “I require my driver and footman immediately. Nana will settle the bill.” She was moving for the stairs before she finished speaking.

Nynaeve stared after her, then dug out her purse and paid the woman, making assurances that everything had been to her mistress’s liking and trying not to wince at the price. Once rid of the woman, she hurried upstairs. Elayne was stuffing their things into the chests any which way, including the sweaty shifts they had hung on the ends of the beds to dry.

“Elayne, what’s the matter?”

“We must leave immediately, Nynaeve. At once.” She did not look up until the last article was crammed in. “Right this minute, wherever he is, Galad is puzzling over something he may never have faced before. Two things that are right, but opposite. To his mind it is right to tie me to a pack horse if necessary and haul me to Mother, to salve her worries and save me from becoming Aes Sedai, whatever I want. And it is also right to turn us in, to the Whitecloaks or the army or both. That is the law in Amadicia, and Whitecloak law, too. Aes Sedai are outlawed here, and so is any woman who has ever trained in the Tower. Mother met Ailron once to sign a trade treaty, and they had to do it in Altara because Mother could not legally enter Amadicia. I embraced saidar the moment I saw him, and I won’t let it go until we are far from him.”

“Surely you exaggerate, Elayne. He is your brother.”

“He is not my brother!” Elayne drew a deep breath and let it out slowly. “We had the same father,” she said in a calmer voice, “but he is not my brother. I will not have him. Nynaeve, I’ve told you time and again, but you will not take it in. Galad does what is right. Always. He never lies. Did you hear what he said to that Trom fellow? He didn’t say he did not know who we are. Every word he said was the truth. He does what is right, no matter who is hurt by it, even himself. Or me. He used to tell on Gawyn and me for everything, and on himself, too. If he decides the wrong way, we will have Whitecloaks lying in ambush for us before we reach the edge of the village.”

A tap sounded at the door, and Nynaeve’s breath caught in her throat. Surely Galad would not really . . . Elayne’s face was set, ready to fight.

Hesitantly, Nynaeve cracked the door. It was Thom, and Juilin with that fool hat in his hand. “My Lady wants us?” Thom asked, with a touch of servility for anyone who might overhear.

Able to breathe again, not caring who was listening, she snatched the door the rest of the way open. “Get in here, you two!” She was growing tired of them looking at one another every time she spoke.

Before she had the door shut again, Elayne said, “Thom, we must leave right away.” The determined look had left her face, and anxiety filled her voice. “Galad is here. You must remember what a monster he was as a child. Well, he is no better grown, and he is a Whitecloak besides. He could—” The words seemed to catch in her throat. She stared at Thom, mouth working soundlessly, but no more wide-eyed than he stared at her.

He sat down heavily on one of the chests, never taking his eyes from Elayne’s. “I—” Clearing his throat roughly, he went on. “I thought I saw him, watching the inn. A Whitecloak. But he looked the man the boy would grow into. I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise he grew into a Whitecloak at that.”

Nynaeve went to the window; Elayne and Thom hardly seemed to notice her passage between them. Traffic was beginning to pick up in the street, farmers and farm carts and villagers mingling with Whitecloaks and soldiers. Across the way, one Whitecloak was sitting on an upended barrel, that perfect face unmistakable.

“Did he—?” Elayne swallowed. “Did he recognize you?”

“No. Fifteen years changes a man more than it does a boy. Elayne, I thought you had forgotten.”

“I remembered in Tanchico, Thom.” With a wavering smile, Elayne reached out and tugged one of his long mustaches. Thom smiled back almost as unsteadily; he looked as if he was contemplating a leap from the window.

Juilin was scratching his head, and Nynaeve wished she had some idea what they were talking about, too, but there were more important matters at hand. “We still have to leave before he brings the entire garrison down on us. With him watching, it won’t be easy. I haven’t seen another patron who looks like they have a coach.”

“Ours is the only one in the stableyard,” Juilin said. Thom and Elayne were still staring at one another, plainly not hearing a word.

Driving off with the curtains down was no protection, then. Nynaeve was willing to bet that Galad had already learned exactly how they had come to Sienda. “Is there a back way from the stableyard?”

“A gate wide enough for one of us at a time,” Juilin said dryly. “And what’s on the other side is little more than an alley, anyway. There aren’t more than two or three streets in this village wide enough for the coach.” He studied that cylindrical hat, turning it in his hands. “I could get close enough to crack his head. If you were ready, you could drive off during the confusion. I could catch you up on the road.”

Nynaeve sniffed loudly. “How? Gallop after on Skulker? Even if you didn’t fall out of the saddle inside a mile, do you think you would even reach a horse if you attacked a Whitecloak in that street?” Galad was still there across the street, and Trom had joined him, the pair apparently chatting idly. She leaned over and yanked Thom’s nearest mustache. “Do you have anything to add? Any brilliant plans? Did all your listening to gossip yield anything that might help?”

He clapped a hand to his face and gave her an offended look. “Not unless you think there’s help in Ailron laying claim to some border villages in Altara. A strip the whole length of the border, from Salidar to So Eban to Mosra. Is there any help in that, Nynaeve? Is there? Try to pull a man’s mustache out of his face. Somebody ought to box your ears, for once.”

“What would Ailron want with a strip along the border, Thom?” Elayne asked. Perhaps she was interested—she seemed interested in every fool twist and turn of politics and diplomacy—or perhaps she was just trying to stop an argument. She used to try smoothing over things all the time, before she became wrapped up in flirting with Thom.

“It isn’t the King, child.” His voice softened, for her. “It’s Pedron Niall. Ailron does what he is told usually, though he and Niall make out that it isn’t so. Most of those villages have been empty since the Whitecloak War, what the Children call the Troubles. Niall was the general in the field then, and I doubt he’s ever given up wanting Altara. If he controls both banks of the Eldar, he can squeeze the river trade to Ebou Dar, and if he can crack Ebou Dar, the rest of Altara will trickle into his hands like grain flowing from a hole in a sack.”

“That is all very well,” Nynaeve said firmly before he or the girl could speak again. There had been something in what he had said that tickled her memory, but she could not say what or why. In any case, they had no time for lectures on relations between Amadicia and Altara, not with Galad and Trom watching the front of the inn. She said as much, adding, “What about you, Juilin? You consort with low types.” The thief-catcher always sought out the cutpurses and burglars and footpads in a town; he claimed they knew more of what was really going on than any official. “Are there smugglers we can bribe to sneak us out, or . . . or . . . You know the sort of thing we need, man.”

“I heard little. Thieves keep low in Amadicia, Nynaeve. First offense is branding, second is loss of your fight hand, and third is hanging, whether it’s the King’s crown or a loaf of bread. There aren’t many thieves in a town this size, not who do it for a living”—he was contemptuous of amateur thieves—“and for the most part they only wanted to talk about two things. Whether the Prophet is really coming to Amadicia, the way rumor says he is, and whether the town fathers might relent and let that traveling menagerie put on a show. Sienda is too far from the borders for smugglers to—”

She cut him off with peremptory satisfaction. “That is it! The menagerie.” They all looked at her as if she had gone mad.

“Of course,” Thom said, much too mildly. “We can get Luca to bring the boar-horses back, and make off while they destroy some more of the town. I don’t know what you gave him, Nynaeve, but he threw a rock at us as we were driving off.”

For once Nynaeve forgave him his sarcasm, feeble as it was. And his lack of wit to see what she saw. “That’s as may be, Thom Merrilin, but Master Luca wants a patron, and Elayne and I are going to be his patrons. We still have to abandon the coach and team—” That smarted; she could have built a snug house in the Two Rivers for what they had cost. “—And sneak out that back way.” Tossing open the chest with the leaf-shaped hinges, she rooted through clothes and blankets and pots and everything that she had not wanted to leave behind with the wagon full of dyes—she had made sure that the men packed everything except the harness—until she came to the gilded caskets and the purses. “Thom, you and Juilin go out by that back gate, and find a wagon and team of some sort. Buy some supplies and meet us on the road back to Luca’s camp.” Regretfully, she filled Thom’s hand with gold, not even bothering to count; there was no telling what things would cost, and she did n ot want him wasting time bargaining.

“That is a wonderful idea,” Elayne said, grinning. “Galad will be looking for two women, not a troupe of animals and jugglers. And he will never think we would head for Ghealdan.”

Nynaeve had not thought of that. She had intended making Luca head straight for Tear. A menagerie such as he had put together, with tumblers and jugglers in addition to animals, could earn its way almost anywhere, she was sure. But if Galad did come looking for them, or send someone, it would be to the east. And he might be smart enough to look even in a menagerie; men did show brains sometimes, usually when you least expected it. “That was the first thing I thought of, Elayne.” She ignored the sudden faint taste in her mouth, the acrid memory of boiled catfern and powered mavinsleaf.

Thom and Juilin protested, of course. Not the idea as such, but they seemed to think that one of them remaining behind could protect her and Elayne against Galad and any number of Whitecloaks. They did not seem to realize that if it came to that, channeling would do more than the pair of them and ten more besides. They still seemed troubled, but she managed to push them both out with the stern injunction “And don’t you dare come back here. We will meet you on the road.”

“If it comes to channeling,” Elayne quietly said once the door was shut, “we will quickly find ourselves facing the whole Whitecloak garrison, and probably the army garrison as well. The Power doesn’t make us invincible. All it will take is two arrows.”

“We will worry about that when it comes,” Nynaeve told her. She hoped the men had not thought of that. If they had, likely one of them would lurk about, and probably rouse Galad’s suspicions if he was not careful. She was ready to accept their help when it was needed—Ronde Macura had taught her that, though having to be rescued like a kitten down a well still galled—but it would be when she thought it necessary, not they.

A quick trip downstairs found Mistress Jharen. Her lady had changed her mind; she did not think she could face the heat and dust of travel again so quickly; she intended to nap, and did not want to be disturbed until a late supper that she would send down for. Here was the coin for another night’s lodging. The innkeeper was very understanding of a noble lady’s delicacy, and how inconstant their desires. Nynaeve thought, Mistress Jharen would be understanding of anything short of murder, so long as the reckoning was paid.

Leaving the plump woman, Nynaeve cornered one of the serving girls for a moment. A few silver pennies changed hands, and the girl darted off in her apron to find two of the deep bonnets that Nynaeve said looked so shady and cool; not the sort of thing her lady would wear, of course, but they would do nicely for her.

When she got back to the room, Elayne had the gilded caskets on a blanket with the dark polished box holding the recovered ter’angreal and the washleather purse that held the seal. The fat purses of coin lay beside Nynaeve’s scrip on the other bed. Folding the blanket, Elayne tied the bundle with some stout cord from one of their chests. Nynaeve had saved everything.

She regretted leaving it all behind now. It was not just the expense. Not only that. You never knew when something was going to come in handy. Take the two woolen dresses that Elayne had laid out on her bed. They were not fine enough for a lady, and too fine for a lady’s maid, but if they had left them in Mardeein as Elayne had wanted, they would be in a fine fix for clothing now.

Kneeling, Nynaeve rummaged in another chest. A few shifts, two more wool dresses for changes. The pair of cast-iron frying pans in a canvas bag were perfectly good, but too heavy, and the men would certainly not forget replacements for those. The sewing kit, in its neat bone-inlaid box; they would never think to buy so much as a pin. Her mind was only partly on her selections, though.

“You knew Thom before?” she asked in what she hoped was a casual tone. She watched Elayne from the corner of her eye while pretending to concentrate on rolling stockings.

The girl had begun pulling out clothes of her own, sighing over the silks before putting them aside. She froze with her hands deep in one of the chests, and she did not look at Nynaeve. “He was Court-bard in Caemlyn when I was little,” she said quietly.

“I see.” She did not see at all. How did a man go from a court-bard, entertaining royalty, the next thing to a noble, to a gleeman wandering from village to village?

“He was Mother’s lover after Father died.” Elayne had gone back to choosing, and she said it so matter-of-factly that Nynaeve gaped.

“Your mother’s—!”

The other woman still was not looking at her, though. “I did not remember him until Tanchico. I was very small. It was his mustaches, and standing close enough to look up at his face, and hearing him recite part of The Great Hunt of the Horn. He thought I’d forgotten again.” Her face colored slightly. “I—drank too much wine, and the next day I made out that I could not remember anything.”

Nynaeve could only shake her head. She remembered the night the girl had filled her fool self with wine. At least she had never done that again; her head the next morning had seemed an effective cure. Now she knew why the girl behaved as she did with Thom. She had seen the same back in the Two Rivers a few times. A girl just old enough to really think of herself as a woman. Who else would she measure herself against except her mother? And sometimes, who better to compete against, to prove that she was a woman? Usually it led to no more than trying to be better at everything from cooking to sewing, or maybe some harmless flirting with her father, but in the case of one widow, Nynaeve had seen the woman’s nearly grown daughter make a complete fool of herself trying to capture the man her mother intended to marry. The trouble was, Nynaeve had no idea what to do about this silliness in Elayne. Despite severe lectures and more from her and the Women’s Circle, Sari Ayellin had not sett
led down until her mother was married again and she herself had found a husband, too.

“I suppose he must have been like a second father to you,” Nynaeve said carefully. She pretended to concentrate on her own packing. Thom had certainly been looking at the girl that way. It explained so much.

“I hardly think of him so.” Elayne appeared intent on deciding how many silk shifts to take, but her eyes saddened. “I cannot really remember my father; I was only a baby when he died. Gawyn says he spent all of his time with Galad. Lini tried to make the best of it, but I know he never came to see Gawyn or me in the nursery. He would have, I know, once we were old enough to teach things, like Galad. But he died.”

Nynaeve tried again. “At least Thom is fit for a man of his age. We’d be in a fine fix if he suffered from stiff joints. Old men often do.”

“He could still do backflips if not for his limp. And I don’t care if he does limp. He is intelligent and knowledgeable about the world. He is gentle, and yet I feel quite safe with him. I don’t think I should tell him that. He tries to protect me enough as it is.”

With a sigh, Nynaeve gave up. For now, at least. Thom might look on Elayne as a daughter, but if the girl kept this up he just might remember that she was not, and then Elayne would find herself in the pickling kettle. “Thom is very fond of you, Elayne.” Time to shift to some other subject. “Are you sure about Galad? Elayne? Are you sure Galad could turn us in, Elayne?”

The other woman gave a start, wiping a small frown from her face.

“What? Galad? I’m certain, Nynaeve. And if we refuse to let him take us to Caemlyn, that will only make the decision for him.”

Muttering to herself, Nynaeve pulled a silk riding dress out of her chest. Sometimes she thought the Creator had only made men to cause trouble for women.

CHAPTER

17

Heading West

When the serving girl came with the bonnets, Elayne was stretched out on one of the beds in a white silk shift, a damp cloth over her eyes, and Nynaeve was pretending to mend the hem of the pale green dress that Elayne had been wearing. As often as not she stuck her thumb; she would never have admitted it to anyone, but she was not very good at needlework. She wore her dress, of course—maids did not loll about like ladies—but she did have her hair hanging loose. Clearly she had no intention of leaving the room any time soon. She thanked the girl in a whisper, so as not to wake her lady, and pressed another silver penny on her, with the repeated injunction that her lady was not to be disturbed on any account.

As soon as the door clicked shut, Elayne bounded to her feet and began pulling their bundles out from under the beds. Nynaeve tossed the silk gown down and twisted her arms behind her to undo her buttons. In no time at all they were ready, Nynaeve in green wool, Elayne in blue, with the bundles on their backs. Nynaeve carried the scrip with her herbs and the money, Elayne the blanket-wrapped boxes. The deep curving brims of the bonnets hid their faces so well that Nynaeve thought they could have walked right by Galad without him knowing them, especially with her hair down; he would remember the braid. Mistress Jharen, however, might well stop two strange women coming with fat bundles from upstairs.

The back stairs ran down the outside of the inn, narrow stone flights clinging to the wall. Nynaeve felt a moment of sympathy for Thom and Juilin, hauling the heavy chests up these, but mainly her attention was on the stableyard and the slate-roofed stone stable. A yellow dog lay in the shade beneath the coach, sheltering from the already increasing heat, but all of the grooms were inside. Now and again she could see movement beyond the open stable doors, but no one came out; it was shady in there, too.

They trotted quickly across the stableyard to the alley between the stable and a tall stone fence. A full dung cart, swarming with flies and scarcely narrower than the alleyway, was just rumbling by. Nynaeve suspected that the glow of saidar surrounded Elayne, though she could not see it. She herself was hoping that the dog did not decide to bark, that no one came out of the kitchens or the stable. Using the Power was no way to sneak off quietly, and talking their way clear would leave traces for Galad to follow.

The rough wooden gate at the end of the alley had only a lift-latch, and the narrow street beyond, lined with simple stone houses with more thatched roofs than otherwise, was empty except for a handful of boys playing some game that seemed to involve hitting each other with a beanbag. The only adult in sight was a man feeding a cote of pigeons on a roof opposite, his head and shoulders up through a trapdoor. Neither he nor the boys more than glanced at them as they shut the gate and started along the winding street as if they had every right to be there.

They had walked a good five miles west of Sienda along the dusty road before Thom and Juilin caught up, Thom driving what looked like a Tinker’s wagon, save that it was all one color, a drab green, with the paint flaked off in large patches. Nynaeve was grateful to stuff her bundles under the driver’s seat and climb up beside him, but not so pleased to see Juilin riding Skulker. “I told you not to go back to the inn,” she told him, vowing to hit him with something if he looked at Thom.

“I did not go back,” he said, unaware that he had saved himself a sore head. “I told the head stableman that my Lady wanted berries fresh from the country, and Thom and I had to go fetch them. It’s the sort of nonsense that some no—” He cut off, clearing his throat, as Elayne gave him a cool, expressionless look from the other side of Thom. Sometimes he forgot that she really was of royalty.

“We had to have some reason to leave the inn and the stables,” Thom said, whipping up the horses. “I suppose you two said you were taking to your room with fainting spells, or the Lady Morelin was, but the grooms would have been wondering why we wanted to wander about in the heat instead of staying in a nice cool hayloft with no work to do, and maybe a pitcher of ale. Perhaps we’ll not be worth talking about, now.”

Elayne gave Thom a level look—no doubt for the “fainting spells”—that he pretended not to see. Or perhaps did not. Men could be blind when it suited them. Nynaeve sniffed loudly; he could not miss that. He certainly cracked his whip over the lead horses sharply enough right after. It was all just an excuse so they could take turns riding. That was another thing men did; made excuses to do exactly what they wanted. At least Elayne was frowning at him slightly instead of simpering.

“There is something else I learned last night,” Thom went on after a time. “Pedron Niall is trying to unite the nations against Rand.”

“Not that I don’t believe it, Thom,” Nynaeve said, “but how could you learn that? I cannot think some Whitecloak simply told you.”

“Too many people were saying the same thing, Nynaeve. There’s a false Dragon in Tear. A false Dragon, and never mind prophecies about the Stone of Tear falling, or Callandor. This fellow is dangerous, and the nations ought to unite, the way they did in the Aiel War. And who better to lead them against this false Dragon than Pedron Niall? When so many tongues say the same thing, the same thought exists higher up, and in Amadicia, not even Ailron expresses a thought without asking Niall first.”

The old gleeman always seemed to put together rumors and whispers and come up with right answers far more often than not. No, not a gleeman; she had to remember that. Whatever he might claim, he had been a court-bard, and had probably seen court intrigue like that in his stories at close hand. Perhaps even dabbled in it himself, if he had been Morgase’s lover. She eyed him sideways, that leathery face with bushy white eyebrows, those long mustaches as snowy as the hair on his head. There was no accounting for some women’s taste.

“It isn’t as if we should not have expected something like this.” She never had. But she should have.

“Mother will support Rand,” Elayne said. “I know she will. She knows the Prophecies. And she has as much influence as Pedron Niall.”

The slight shake of Thom’s head denied the last, at least. Morgase ruled a wealthy nation, but there were Whitecloaks in every land and from every land. Nynaeve realized she was going to have to start paying more attention to Thom. Perhaps he really did know as much as he pretended. “So now you think we should have let Galad escort us to Caemlyn?”

Elayne leaned forward to give her a firm look past Thom. “Certainly not. For one thing, there is no way to be sure that that would be his decision. And for another . . .” She straightened, obscuring herself behind the man; she seemed to be talking to herself, reminding herself. “For another, if Mother really has turned against the Tower, I want to do all my speaking to her by letter for the time being. She is quite capable of holding us both in the palace for our own good. She may not be able to channel, but I do not want to try going against her until I am full Aes Sedai. If then.”

“A strong woman,” Thom said pleasantly. “Morgase would teach you manners quickly enough, Nynaeve.” She gave him another loud sniff—all that loose hair hanging over her shoulders was no good for gripping—but the old fool only grinned at her.

The sun stood high by the time they reached the menagerie, still camped exactly where they had left it, in the clearing by the road. In the still heat, even the oaks looked a bit wilted. Except for the horses and the great gray boar-horses, the animals were all back in their cages and the humans were out of sight, too, no doubt inside the wagons that looked not much different from theirs. Nynaeve and the others had all climbed down before Valan Luca appeared, still in that ridiculous red silk cape.

There were no flowery speeches this time, no cape-swirling bows. His eyes widened when he recognized Thom and Juilin, narrowed at the boxlike wagon behind them. He bent to peer into the deep bonnets, and his smile was not pleasant. “So, come down in the world, have we, my Lady Morelin? Or maybe we were never up at all. Stole a coach and some clothes, did you? Well, I would hate to see such a pretty forehead branded. That is what they do here, in case you don’t know, if they do not do worse. So since it seems you’ve been found out—else why are you running?—I would suggest you hurry on as fast as you can. If you want your bloody penny back, it’s somewhere up the road. I threw it after you, and it can lie there till Tarmon Gai’don for all I care.”

“You wanted a patron,” Nynaeve said as he was turning away. “We can be your patrons.”

“You?” he sneered. But he stopped. “Even if a few coins stolen from some lord’s purse would help, I will not accept stolen—”

“We will pay your expenses, Master Luca,” Elayne broke in with that coolly arrogant tone of hers, “and one hundred gold marks besides, if we can travel with you to Ghealdan, and if you agree not to stop until you reach the border.” Luca stared at her, running his tongue over his teeth.

Nynaeve groaned softly. A hundred marks, and gold! A hundred silver would cover his expenses easily, to Ghealdan and further, whatever those so-called boar-horses ate.

“You stole that much?” Luca said cautiously. “Who is after you? I won’t risk Whitecloaks, or the army. They’ll throw us all into prison, and probably kill the animals.”

“My brother,” Elayne replied before Nynaeve could angrily deny that they had stolen anything. “It seems that a marriage has been arranged while I was away, and my brother was sent to find me. I have no intention of returning to Cairhien to marry a man a head shorter, three times my weight and thrice my age.” Her cheeks colored in only a fair imitation of anger; her throat clearing did it better. “My father has dreams of claiming the Sun Throne if he can gain enough support. My dreams concern a red-haired Andorman whom I shall wed, whatever my father says. And that, Master Luca, is as much as you need know of me and more.”

“Maybe you are who you say you are,” Luca said slowly, “and maybe you are not. Show me some of this money you claim you’ll give me. Promises buy small cups of wine.”

Angrily Nynaeve fumbled in her scrip for the fattest purse and shook it at him, then stuffed it out of sight when he reached for it. “You’ll get what you need as you need it. And the hundred marks after we reach Ghealdan.” A hundred marks gold! They would have to find a banker and use those letters-of-rights if Elayne kept on like this.

Luca gave a sour grunt. “Whether you stole that or not, you are still running from somebody. I won’t risk my show for you, whether it’s the army or some Cairhienin lord who might come looking. The lord might be worse, if he thinks I have stolen his sister. You will have to blend in.” That unpleasant smile came on his face again; he was not going to forget that silver penny. “Everybody who travels with me works at something, and you must as well, if you mean not to stand out. If the others know you are paying your way, they will talk, and you would not want that. Cleaning the cages will do; the horse handlers are always complaining about having to do that. I’ll even find that penny and give it back to you for pay. Never let it be said Valan Luca is not generous.”

Nynaeve was about to say in no uncertain terms that they would not pay his way to Ghealdan and work, too, when Thom laid a hand on her arm. Wordlessly, he bent to scuffle up pebbles from the ground and began juggling them, six in a circle.

“I have jugglers,” Luca said. The six became eight, then ten, a dozen. “You are not bad.” The circle became two, intertwining. Luca rubbed at his chin. “Maybe I could find a use for you.”

“I can also eat fire,” Thom said, letting the stones fall, “perform with knives,” he fanned his empty hands, then seemingly pulled a pebble from Luca’s ear, “and do a few other things.”

Luca suppressed his quick grin. “That does for you, but what about the rest?” He seemed angry with himself for showing any enthusiasm or approval.

“What is that?” Elayne asked, pointing.

The two tall poles Nynaeve had seen being erected now each had ropes to stay it and a flat platform at its top, with a rope stretched taut over the thirty paces between. A rope ladder hung from each platform.

“That is Sedrin’s apparatus,” Luca replied, then shook his head. “Sedrin the highwalker, dazzling with feats ten paces up on a thin rope. The fool.”

“I can walk on it,” Elayne told him. Thom reached for her arm as she took off her bonnet and started forward, but he subsided at a small shake of her head and a smile.

Luca barred her way, though. “Listen, Morelin, or whatever your name is, your forehead may be too pretty to brand, but your neck is far too pretty to snap. Sedrin knew what he was doing, and we finished burying him not more than an hour ago. That’s why everyone is in their wagons. Of course, he drank too much last night, after we were chased out of Sienda, but I’ve seen him highwalk with a bellyful of brandy. I will tell you what. You do not have to clean cages. You move into my wagon, and we will tell everyone you’re my ladylove. Just as a tale, of course.” His sly smile said he hoped for more than a tale.

Elayne’s smile in return should have raised frost on him. “I do thank you for the offer, Master Luca, but if you will kindly step aside. . . .” He had to, or else have her walk over him.

Juilin crumpled that cylindrical hat in his hands, then crammed it back onto his head as she began climbing one of the rope ladders, having a little difficulty with her skirts. Nynaeve knew what the girl was doing. The men should have, and perhaps Thom did, at least, but he still looked ready to rush over to catch her if she fell. Luca moved nearer, as though the same thought was in his head.

For a moment Elayne stood on the platform, smoothing her dress. The platform looked much smaller, and higher, with her on it. Then, delicately holding her skirts up as if to keep them out of mud, she stepped out onto the narrow rope. She might as well have been walking across a street. In a way, Nynaeve knew, she was. She could not see the glow of saidar, but she knew that Elayne had woven a path between the two platforms, of Air, no doubt, turned hard as stone.

Abruptly Elayne put her hands down and turned two cartwheels, raven-black hair flailing, silk-stockinged legs flashing in the sun. For the merest instant as she righted herself, her skirts seemed to brush a flat surface before she snatched them up again. Two more steps took her to the far platform. “Did Master Sedrin do that, Master Luca?”

“He did somersaults,” he shouted back. In a mutter, he added, “But he did not have legs like that. A lady! Hah!”

“I am not the only one with this skill,” Elayne called. “Juilin and—” Nynaeve gave a fierce shake of her head; channeling or no channeling, her stomach would enjoy that high rope as much as it did a storm at sea. “—and I have done this many times. Come on, Juilin. Show him.”

The thief-catcher looked as if he would rather clean the cages with his bare hands. The lions’ cages, with the lions inside. He closed his eyes, mouth moving in a silent prayer, and went up the rope ladder in the manner of a man mounting the scaffold. At the top, he stared from Elayne to the rope with a fearful concentration. Abruptly, he stepped out, walking rapidly, arms stretched out to either side, eyes fixed on Elayne and mouth moving in prayer. She climbed partway down the ladder to make room for him on the platform, then had to help him find the rungs with his feet and guide him down.

Thom grinned at her proudly as she came back and took her bonnet from Nynaeve. Juilin looked as if he had been soaked in hot water and wrung out.

“That was good,” Luca said, rubbing his chin judiciously. “Not as good as Sedrin, mind, but good. I especially like the way you make it seem so easy, while—Juilin?—Juilin pretends to be frightened to death. That will go over very well.” Juilin gave the man a bleak grin that had something of reaching for knives in it. Luca actually swirled that red cape as he turned to Nynaeve; he looked very satisfied indeed. “And you, my dear Nana? What surprising talent do you have? Tumbling, perhaps? Swallowing swords?”

“I dole out the money,” she told him, slapping the scrip. “Unless you want to offer me your wagon?” She gave him a smile that wiped his clean away and backed him up two steps besides.

The shouting had roused people from the wagons, and everyone gathered around while Luca introduced the troupe’s new performers. He was rather vague about Nynaeve, merely calling what she did startling; she needed to have a talk with him.

The horse handlers, as Luca called the men who had no performing talent, were a scruffy, surly lot in general, perhaps because they were paid less. There were not very many of them, compared to the number of wagons. In fact, it turned out that everyone helped with the work, including driving the wagons; there was not much money in a traveling menagerie, even one like this. The others were a mixed lot.

Petra, the strongman, was the biggest man Nynaeve had ever seen. Not tall, but wide; his leather vest showed arms the size of tree trunks. He was married to Clarine, the plump, brown-cheeked woman who trained dogs; she looked undersized beside him. Latelle, who performed with the bears, was a stern-faced, dark-eyed woman with short black hair and the beginnings of a sneer permanently on her lips. Aludra, the slender woman who was supposed to be an Illuminator, might even have been one. She did not wear her dark hair in Taraboner braids, not surprising given the feelings in Amadicia, but she had the proper accents, and who could say what had happened to the Guild of Illuminators? Their chapter house in Tanchico had certainly closed its doors. The acrobats, on the other hand, claimed to be brothers named Chavana, but though they were all short, compact men, they ranged in coloring from green-eyed Taeric—his high cheekbones and hooked nose proclaiming Saldaean blood—to Barit, who wa
s darker than Juilin and had Sea Folk tattoos on his hands, though he wore no earrings or nose rings.

All but Latelle greeted the newcomers warmly; more performers meant more people attracted to the show, and more money. The two jugglers, Bari and Kin—they really were brothers, it turned out—engaged Thom in talk of their trade, once they found out that he did not work the same way they did. Drawing more people was one thing, competition another. Yet it was the pale-haired woman who cared for the boar-horses who attracted Nynaeve’s immediate interest. Cerandin stood stiffly on the fringes and barely spoke—Luca claimed she had come from Shara with the animals—but her soft, slurred manner of speech made Nynaeve’s ears go to points.

It took a little time to get their wagon in place. Thom and Juilin seemed more than pleased to have the horse handlers’ help with the team, sullenly as it was given, and invitations were given to Nynaeve and Elayne. Petra and Clarine asked them to have tea once they were settled. The Chavanas wanted the two women to have supper with them, and Kin and Bari did, too, all of which made Latelle’s sneer become a scowl. Those invitations they declined gracefully, Elayne perhaps a bit more so than Nynaeve; the memory of herself goggling at Galad like a frog-eyed girl was too fresh for her to be more than minimally polite to any man. Luca had his own invitation, for Elayne alone, spoken where Nynaeve could not hear. It earned him a slapped face, and Thom ostentatiously flashed knives that seemed to roll across his hands until the man went away growling to himself and rubbing his cheek.

Leaving Elayne putting her things away in the wagon—throwing them, really, and muttering to herself furiously—Nynaeve went off to where the boar-horses were hobbled. The huge gray animals seemed placid enough, but remembering that hole in the stone wall of The King’s Lancer, she was not too sure about the leather cords connecting their massive front legs. Cerandin was scratching the big male with her bronze-hooked goad.

“What are they really called?” Diffidently, Nynaeve patted the male’s long nose, or snout, or whatever it was. Those tusks were as big around as her leg and a good three paces long, and only a little larger than the female’s at that. The snout snuffled at her skirt and she stepped back hastily.

“S’redit,” the pale-haired woman said. “They are s’redit, but Master Luca thought a name more easily said was better.” That drawling accent was unmistakable.

“Are there many s’redit in Seanchan?”

The goad stopped moving for an instant, then resumed scratching. “Seanchan? Where is that? The s’redit are from Shara, as I am. I have never heard of—”

“Perhaps you’ve seen Shara, Cerandin, but I doubt it. You are Seanchan. Unless I miss my guess, you were part of the invasion on Toman Head, left behind after Falme.”

“There is no doubt,” Elayne said, stepping up beside her. “We heard Seanchan accents in Falme, Cerandin. We will not hurt you.”

That was more than Nynaeve was willing to promise; her memories of the Seanchan were not fond ones. And yet . . . A Seanchan helped you when you needed it. They are not all evil. Only most of them.

Cerandin let out a long sigh, and sagged a little. It was as if a tension so old that she was no longer aware of it had gone. “Very few people I have met know anything approaching the truth of The Return, or Falme. I have heard a hundred tales, each more fanciful than the last, but never the truth. As well for me. I was left behind, and many of the s’redit, also. These three were all I could gather. I do not know what happened to the rest. The bull is Mer, the cow Sanit, and the calf Nerin. She is not Sanit’s.”

“Is that what you did?” Elayne asked. “Train s’redit?”

“Or were you a sul’dam?” Nynaeve added before the other woman could speak.

Cerandin shook her head. “I was tested, as all girls are, but I could do nothing with the a’dam. I was glad to be chosen to work with s’redit. They are magnificent animals. You know a great deal, to know of sul’dam and damane. I have encountered no one before who knows of them.” She showed no fear. Or perhaps it had been used up since finding herself abandoned in a strange land. Then again, maybe she was lying.

The Seanchan were as bad as Amadicians when it came to women who could channel, perhaps worse. They did not exile or kill; they imprisoned and used. By means of a device called an a’dam—Nynaeve was sure it must be a sort of ter’angreal—a woman who had the ability to wield the One Power could be controlled by another woman, a sul’dam, who forced the damane to use her talents for whatever the Seanchan wanted, even as a weapon. A damane was no better than an animal, if a well-tended one. And they made damane of every last woman found with the ability to channel or the spark born in her; the Seanchan had scoured Toman Head more thoroughly than the Tower had ever dreamed of. The mere thought of a’dam and sul’dam and damane made Nynaeve’s stomach churn.

“We know a little,” she told Cerandin, “but we want to know more.” The Seanchan were gone, driven away by Rand, but that was not to say they would not return one day. It was a distant danger beside everything else they had to face, yet just because you had a thorn in your foot did not mean that a briar scratch on your arm would not fester eventually. “You would do well to answer our questions truthfully.” There would be time on the journey north.

“I promise that nothing will happen to you,” Elayne added. “I will protect you, if need be.”

The pale-haired woman’s eyes shifted from one of them to the other, and suddenly, to Nynaeve’s amazement, she prostrated herself on the ground in front of Elayne. “You are a High Lady of this land, just as you told Luca. I did not realize. Forgive me, High Lady. I submit myself to you.” And she kissed the ground in front of Elayne’s feet. Elayne’s eyes looked ready to leap out of her face.

Nynaeve was sure she was no better. “Get up,” she hissed, looking around frantically to see if anyone was watching. Luca was—curse him!—and Latrelle, still wearing that scowl, but there was nothing to be done. “Get up!” The woman did not stir.

“Stand on your feet, Cerandin,” Elayne said. “No one requires people to behave that way in this land. Not even a ruler.” As Cerandin scrambled erect, she added, “I will teach you the proper way to behave in return for your answers to our questions.”

The woman bowed, hands on her knees and head down. “Yes, High Lady. It will be as you say. I am yours.”

Nynaeve sighed heavily. They were going to have a fine time traveling to Ghealdan.

CHAPTER

18

A Hound of Darkness

Liandrin guided her horse through the crowded streets of Amador, the sneer on her rosebud lips hidden by her deep, curving bonnet. She had hated to give up her multitude of braids, and hated even more the ludicrous fashions of this ludicrous land; the reddish yellow of hat and riding dress she rather liked, but not the large velvet bows on both. Still, the bonnet hid her eyes—combined with honey-yellow hair, brown eyes would have named her Taraboner in an instant, not a good thing in Amadicia just now—and it hid what would have been even worse to show here, an Aes Sedai’s face. Safely hidden, she could smirk at the Whitecloaks, who seemed to be every fifth man in the streets. Not that the soldiers who made another fifth would have been any better. None of them ever thought to look inside the bonnet, of course. Aes Sedai were outlawed here, and that meant there were none.

Even so, she felt a little better when she turned in at the elaborate iron gates in front of Jorin Arene’s house. Another fruitless trip looking for word from the White Tower; there had been nothing since she had learned that Elaida thought she was in control of the Tower, and that the Sanche woman had been disposed of. Siuan had escaped, true, but she was a useless rag now.

The gardens behind the gray stone fence were full of plants going rather brown from lack of rain, but trimmed and trained into cubes and balls, though one was shaped like a leaping horse. Only one, of course. Merchants like Arene mimicked their betters, but they dared not go too far lest someone think their conceit too high. Elaborate balconies decorated the large wooden house with its red-tiled roofs, and even a colonnade of carved columns, but unlike the lord’s dwelling it was meant to copy, it stood on a stone foundation no more than ten feet tall. A childish pretense at a noble’s manor.

The stringy, gray-haired man who scurried out deferentially to hold her stirrup while she dismounted, and take her reins, was clad all in black. Whatever colors a merchant chose for livery, they were sure to be some real lord’s colors, and even a minor lord could cause trouble for the richest seller of goods. People in the streets called black “merchant’s livery,” and snickered when they said it. Liandrin despised the groom’s black coat as much as she did Arene’s house and Arene himself. She would have true manors, one day. Palaces. They had been promised to her, and the power that went with them.

Stripping off her riding gloves, she stalked up the ridiculous ramp that slanted along the foundations to the vine-carved front doors. The lords’ fortress manors had ramps, so of course a merchant who thought well of himself could not have steps. A black-clad young serving girl took gloves and hat in the round entrance hall, with its many doors and carved and brightly painted columns and its encircling balcony. The ceiling was lacquered in imitation of a mosaic, stars within stars in gold and black. “I will have my bath in one hour,” she told the woman. “It will be the proper temperature this time, yes?” The maid went pale as she curtsied, stammering agreement before scurrying away.

Amellia Arene, Jorin’s wife, came through one of the doors deep in conversation with a fat balding man in a spotless white apron. Liandrin breathed contemptuously. The woman had pretensions, yet she not only spoke to the cook herself, she brought the man out of his kitchens to discuss meals. She treated the servant like—like a friend!

Fat Evon saw her first and gulped, his piggy eyes darting away immediately. She did not like men looking at her, and she had spoken sharply to him on her first day here about the way his gaze sometimes lingered. He had tried to deny it, but she knew men’s vile habits. Without waiting to be dismissed by his mistress, Evon all but ran back the way he had come.

The graying merchant’s wife had been a stern-faced woman when Liandrin and the others came. Now she licked her lips and smoothed her bow-draped green silk needlessly. “There is someone upstairs with the others, my Lady,” she said diffidently. She had thought that she could use Liandrin’s name that first day. “In the front withdrawing room. From Tar Valon, I believe.”

Wondering who it could be, Liandrin started for the nearest of the curving staircases. She knew few others of the Black Ajah, of course, for safety’s sake; what others did not know, they could not betray. In the Tower she had known only one of the twelve who went with her when she left. Two of the twelve were dead, and she knew at whose feet to lay the blame. Egwene al’Vere, Nynaeve al’Meara, and Elayne Trakand. Everything had gone so badly in Tanchico that she would have thought those three upstart Accepted had been there, except that they were fools who had twice walked tamely into traps she had set. That they had escaped each was of no consequence. Had they been in Tanchico, they would have fallen into her hands, whatever Jeaine claimed to have seen. The next time she found them, they would never escape anything again. She would be done with them whatever her orders.

“My Lady,” Amellia stammered. “My husband, my Lady. Jorin. Please, will one of you help him? He did not mean it, my Lady. He has learned his lesson.”

Liandrin paused with one hand on the carved banister, looking back over her shoulder. “He should not have thought that his oaths to the Great Lord could be conveniently forgotten, no?”

“He has learned, my Lady. Please. He lies beneath blankets all day—in this heat—shivering. He weeps when anyone touches him, or speaks above a whisper.”

Liandrin paused as if considering, then nodded graciously. “I will ask Chesmal to see what she can do. Yet you understand that I make no promises.” The woman’s unsteady thanks followed her up, but she paid them no mind. Temaile had let herself be carried away. She had been Gray Ajah before becoming Black, and she always made a point of spreading the pain evenly when she mediated; she had been very successful as a mediator, for she liked spreading pain. Chesmal said he might be able to do small tasks in a few months, so long as they were not too hard and no one raised a voice. She had been one of the best Healers in generations among the Yellow, so she should know.

The front withdrawing room startled her when she went in. Nine of the ten Black sisters who had come with her stood around the room against the carved and painted paneling, though there were plenty of silk-cushioned chairs on the gold-fringed carpet. The tenth, Temaile Kinderode, was handing a delicate porcelain cup of tea to a dark-haired, sturdily handsome woman in a bronze-colored gown of unfamiliar cut. The seated woman looked vaguely familiar, though she was not Aes Sedai; she was plainly approaching her middle years, and despite smooth cheeks there was nothing of agelessness about her.

Yet the mood made Liandrin cautious. Temaile was deceptively fragile in appearance, with big, childlike blue eyes that made people trust her; those eyes appeared worried now, or uneasy, and the teacup rattled on the saucer before the other woman took it. Every face looked uneasy, except that of the oddly familiar woman. Coppery-skinned Jeaine Caide, in one of those disgusting Domani garments that she wore inside the house, had tears still glistening on her cheeks; she had been a Green, and liked flaunting herself in front of men even more than most Greens. Rianna Andomeran, once White and always a coldly arrogant killer, nervously kept touching the pale streak in her black hair above her left ear. Her arrogance had been flattened.

“What has happened here?” Liandrin demanded. “Who are you, and what—?” Suddenly the memory flashed into her head. A Darkfriend, a servant in Tanchico who had continually gotten above herself. “Gyldin!” she snapped. This servant had followed them in some fashion and obviously was trying to pass herself off as a Black courier with some dire news. “You have overstepped yourself too far this time.” She reached to embrace saidar, yet even as she did the glow surrounded the other woman, and Liandrin’s reach ran into a thick invisible wall shutting her away from the Source. It hung there like the sun, tantalizingly out of reach.

“Stop gaping, Liandrin,” the woman said calmly. “You look like a fish. It is not Gyldin, but Moghedien. This tea needs more honey, Temaile.” The slender, fox-faced woman darted to take the cup, breathing heavily.

It had to be so. Who else could have so cowed the others? Liandrin looked at them standing around the walls. Round-faced Eldrith Jhondar, for once not looking vague at all despite an ink smudge on her nose, nodded vigorously. The others seemed afraid to twitch. Why one of the Forsaken—they were not supposed to use that name, but usually did, among themselves—why Moghedien would have masqueraded as a servant, she could not understand. The woman had or could have everything that she herself wanted. Not just knowledge of the One Power beyond her dreams, but power. Power over others, power over the world. And immortality. Power for a lifetime that would never end. She and her sisters had speculated on dissension among the Forsaken; there had been orders at odds with each other, and orders given to other Darkfriends at odds with theirs. Perhaps Moghedien had been hiding from the rest of the Forsaken.

Liandrin spread her divided riding skirts as best she could in a deep curtsy. “We welcome you, Great Mistress. With the Chosen to lead us, we shall surely triumph before the Day of the Great Lord’s Return.”

“Nicely said,” Moghedien said dryly, taking the cup back from Temaile. “Yes, this is much better.” Temaile looked absurdly grateful, and relieved. What had Moghedien done?

Suddenly a thought came to Liandrin, an unwelcome one. She had treated one of the Chosen as a servant. “Great Mistress, in Tanchico I did not know that you—”

“Of course you did not,” Moghedien said irritably. “What good to bide my time in the shadows if you and these others knew me?” Abruptly a small smile appeared on her lips; it touched nothing else. “Are you worried about those times you sent Gyldin to the cook to be beaten?” Sweat beaded suddenly on Liandrin’s face. “Do you truly believe I would allow such a thing? The man no doubt reported to you, but he remembered what I wanted him to remember. He actually felt sorry for Gyldin, so cruelly treated by her mistress.” That seemed to amuse her greatly. “He gave me some of the desserts that he made for you. It would not displease me if he still lives.”

Liandrin drew a relieved breath. She would not die. “Great Mistress, there is no need to shield me. I also serve the Great Lord. I swore my oaths as a Darkfriend before ever I went to the White Tower. I sought the Black Ajah from the day that I knew that I could channel.”

“So you will be the only one in this ill-ordered pack who does not need to learn who her mistress is?” Moghedien quirked an eyebrow. “I would not have thought it of you.” The glow around her vanished. “I have tasks for you. For all of you. Whatever you have been doing, you will forget. You are an inept lot, as you proved in Tanchico. With my hand on the dog whip, perhaps you will hunt more successfully.”

“We await orders from the Tower, Great Mistress,” Liandrin said. Inept! They had almost found what they were hunting for in Tanchico, when the city exploded in riots; they had barely escaped destruction at the hands of Aes Sedai who had somehow wandered into the middle of their plan. Had Moghedien revealed herself, or even taken part on their behalf, they would have triumphed. If their failure was anyone’s fault, it was Moghedien’s herself. Liandrin reached toward the True Source, not to embrace it, but to be certain that the shield had not merely been tied off. It was gone. “We have been given great responsibilities, great works to perform, and surely we will be commanded to continue—”

Moghedien cut her off sharply. “You serve whichever of the Chosen chooses to snap you up. Whoever sends you orders from the White Tower, she takes her own from one of us now, and very likely grovels on her belly when she does. You will serve me, Liandrin. Be sure of it.”

Moghedien did not know who headed the Black Ajah. It was a revelation. Moghedien did not know everything. Liandrin had always imagined the Forsaken as close to omnipotent, something far beyond ordinary mortals. Perhaps the woman truly was in flight from the other Forsaken. To hand her over to them would surely earn her a high place. She might even become one of them. She had a trick, learned in childhood. And she could touch the Source. “Great Mistress, we serve the Great Lord, as you do. We also were promised eternal life, and power, when the Great Lord re—”

“Do you think that you are my equal, little sister?” Moghedien grimaced in disgust. “Did you stand in the Pit of Doom to dedicate your soul to the Great Lord? Did you taste the sweetness of victory at Paaran Disen, or the bitter ashes at the Asar Don? You are a barely trained puppy, not the packmistress, and you will go where I point until I see fit to give you a better place. These others thought themselves more than they are, too. Do you wish to try your strength against me?”

“Of course not, Great Mistress.” Not when she was forewarned and ready. “I—”

“You will do so sooner or later, and I prefer to put it out of the way now, in the beginning. Why do you think your companions look so cheerful? I have taught each of them the same lesson already today. I will not wonder when you must be taught, too. I will be done with it now. Try.”

Licking her lips fearfully, Liandrin looked around at the women standing rigidly against the walls. Only Asne Zeramene so much as blinked; she shook her head ever so slightly. Asne’s tilted eyes, high cheekbones and strong nose marked her Saldaean, and she had all the vaunted Saldaean boldness. If she counseled against, if her dark eyes held a tinge of fear, then it was surely best to grovel however much was needed to make Moghedien relent. And yet, there was her trick.

She went to her knees, head low, looking up at the Forsaken with a fear that was only partly feigned. Moghedien lounged in her chair, sipping the tea. “Great Mistress, I beg you to forgive me if I have presumed. I know that I am but a worm beneath your foot. I beg, as one who would be your faithful hound, for your mercy on this wretched dog.” Moghedien’s eyes dropped to her cup, and in a flash, while the words still tumbled from her mouth, Liandrin embraced the Source and channeled, seeking the crack that must be in the Forsaken’s confidence, the crack that was in everyone’s façade of strength.

Even as she lashed out, the light of saidar surrounded the other woman, and pain enveloped Liandrin. She crumpled to the carpet, trying to howl, but agony beyond anything she had ever known silenced her gaping mouth. Her eyes were going to burst from her head; her skin was going to peel away in strips. For an eternity she thrashed, and when it vanished as suddenly as it had begun, all she could do was lie there, shuddering and weeping open-mouthed.

“Do you begin to see?” Moghedien said calmly, handing the empty cup to Temaile with, “That was very good. But next time a little stronger.” Temaile looked as though she might faint. “You are not quick enough, Liandrin, you are not strong enough, and you do not know enough. That pitiful little thing you tried against me. Would you like to see what it is really like?” She channeled.

Liandrin gazed up at her adoringly. Crawling across the floor, she pushed words through the sobs she still could not stop. “Forgive me, Great Mistress.” This magnificent woman, like a star in the heavens, a comet, above all kings and queens in wonder. “Forgive, please,” she begged, pressing kisses against the hem of Moghedien’s skirt as she babbled. “Forgive. I am a dog, a worm.” It shamed her to her core that she had not meant those things before. They were true. Before this woman, they were all true. “Let me serve you, Great Mistress. Allow me to serve. Please. Please.”

“I am not Graendal,” Moghedien said, pushing her away roughly with one velvet-slippered foot.

Suddenly the sense of worship was gone. Lying there in a heap, weeping, Liandrin could remember it clearly, though. She stared at the Forsaken in horror.

“Are you convinced yet, Liandrin?”

“Yes, Great Mistress,” she managed. She was. Convinced that she dared not even think of trying again until she was certain of success. Her trick was only the palest shadow of what Moghedien had done. Could she but learn that . . .

“We shall see. I think you may be one of those who needs a second lesson. Pray it is not so, Liandrin; I make second lessons exceedingly sharp. Now take your place with the others. You will find that I have taken some of the objects of power that you had in your room, but you may keep the trinkets that remain. Am I not kind?”

“The Great Mistress is kind,” Liandrin agreed around hiccoughs and occasional sobs that she could not stifle.

Limply she staggered to her feet and went to stand beside Asne; the wall panel against her back helped to hold her upright. She saw the flows of Air being woven; only Air, but she still flinched as they bound her mouth shut and stopped sound from her ears. She certainly did not try to resist. She did not even let herself think of saidar. Who knew what one of the Forsaken could do? Perhaps read her thoughts. That almost made her run. No. If Moghedien knew her thoughts, she would be dead by now. Or still screaming on the floor. Or kissing Moghedien’s feet and begging to serve. Liandrin shivered uncontrollably; if that weave had not bound her mouth, her teeth would have been chattering.

Moghedien wove the same around all of them save Rianna, whom the Forsaken beckoned with an imperious finger to kneel before her. Then Rianna left, and Marillin Gemalphin was unbound and summoned.

From where she stood, Liandrin could see their faces even if their mouths moved soundlessly for her. Plainly each woman was receiving orders the others knew nothing of. The faces told little, though. Rianna merely listened, a touch of relief in her eyes, bowed her head in assent and went. Marillin looked surprised, and then eager, but she had been a Brown, and Browns could be enthusiastic over anything that allowed them a chance to unearth some moldy bit of lost knowledge. Jeaine Caide donned a slow mask of horror, shaking her head at first and trying to cover herself and that disgustingly sheer gown, but Moghedien’s face hardened, and Jeaine nodded hurriedly and fled, if not as eagerly as Marillin, just as quickly. Berylla Naron, lean almost to scrawniness and as fine a manipulator and plotter as there was, and Falion Bhoda, long-faced and cold despite her obvious fear, showed as little expression as Rianna had. Ispan Shefar, like Liandrin from Tarabon, though dark-haired, actuall y kissed Moghedien’s hem before she rose.

Then the flows were unwoven around Liandrin. She thought that it was her turn to be sent away on the Shadow knew what errand, until she saw the bonds dispelled around the others remaining as well. Moghedien’s finger beckoned peremptorily, and Liandrin knelt between Asne and Chesmal Emry, a tall, handsome woman, dark-haired and dark-eyed. Chesmal, once Yellow, could Heal or kill with equal ease, but the intensity of her gaze on Moghedien, the way her hands trembled as they clutched her skirts, said she intended only to obey.

She would have to go by such signs, Liandrin realized. Approaching one of the others with her belief that rewards could be had for handing Moghedien to the rest of the Forsaken might well be disastrous if the one she spoke to had decided that it was in her best interests to be Moghedien’s lapdog. She almost whimpered at the thought of a “second lesson.”

“You, I keep with me,” the Forsaken said, “for the most important task. What the others do may bear sweet fruit, but to me yours will be the most important harvest. A personal harvest. There is a woman named Nynaeve al’Meara.” Liandrin’s head came up, and Moghedien’s dark eyes sharpened. “You know of her?”

“I despise her,” Liandrin replied truthfully. “She is a filthy wilder who ought never to have been allowed in the Tower.” She loathed all wilders. Dreaming of being Black Ajah, she herself had begun learning to channel a full year before going to the Tower, but she was in no way a wilder.

“Very good. You five are going to find her for me. I want her alive. Oh, yes, I do want her alive.” Moghedien’s smile made Liandrin shiver; giving Nynaeve and the other two to her might be entirely suitable. “The day before yesterday she was in a village called Sienda, perhaps sixty miles east of here, with another young woman in whom I may be interested, but they have vanished. You will . . .”

Liandrin listened eagerly. For this, she could be a faithful hound. For the other, she would wait patiently.

CHAPTER

19

Memories

“My Queen?”

Morgase looked up from the book on her lap. Sunlight slanted through the window of the sitting room next to her bedchamber. The day was already hot, with no breeze, and sweat dampened her face. It would be noon before much longer, and she had not stirred from the room. That was unlike her; she could not remember why she had decided to laze the morning away with a book. She seemed unable to concentrate on reading of late. By the golden clock on the mantel above the marble fireplace, an hour had passed since she last turned a page, and she could not recall its words. It must be the heat.

The red-coated young officer of her Guards, kneeling with one fist pressed to the red-and-gold carpet, looked vaguely familiar. Once she had known the name of every Guard assigned to the Palace. Perhaps it was all the new faces. “Tallanvor,” she said, surprising herself. He was a tall, well-made young man, but she could not tell why she remembered him in particular. Had he brought someone to her once? Long ago? “Guardsman Lieutenant Martyn Tallanvor.”

He glanced at her, startlingly rough-eyed, before putting his gaze back on the carpet. “My Queen, forgive me, but I am surprised that you remain here, given the morning’s news.”

“What news?” It would be good to learn something besides Alteima’s gossip of the Tairen court. At times she felt that there was something else she wanted to ask the woman, but all they ever did was gossip, which she could never remember doing before. Gaebril seemed to enjoy listening to them, sitting in that tall chair in front of the fireplace with his ankles crossed, smiling contentedly. Alteima had taken to wearing rather daring dresses; Morgase would have to say something to her. Dimly she seemed to remember thinking that before. Nonsense. If I had, I would have spoken to her already. She shook her head, realizing that she had drifted away from the young officer entirely, that he had begun speaking and stopped when he saw she was not listening. “Tell me again. I was distracted. And stand.”

He rose, face angry, eyes burning on her before they dropped again. She looked where he had been staring and blushed; her dress was cut extremely low. But Gaebril liked her to wear them so. With that thought she ceased fretting about being nearly naked in front of one of her officers.

“Be brief,” she said curtly. How dare he look at me in that manner? I should have him flogged. “What news is so important that you think you can walk into my sitting room as if it were a tavern?” His face darkened, but whether from proper embarrassment or increased anger she could not say. How dare he be angry with his queen! Does the man think all I have to do is listen to him?

“Rebellion, my Queen,” he said in a flat tone, and all thought of anger and stares vanished.

“Where?”

“The Two Rivers, my Queen. Someone has raised the old banner of Manetheren, the Red Eagle. A messenger came from Whitebridge this morning.”

Morgase drummed her fingers on the book, her thoughts coming more clearly than it seemed they had in a very long time. Something about the Two Rivers, some spark she could not quite fan to life, tugged at her. The region was hardly part of Andor at all, and had not been for generations. She and the last three queens before her had been hard pressed to maintain a modicum of control over the miners and smelters in the Mountains of Mist, and even that modicum would have been lost had there been any way to get the metals out save through the rest of Andor. A choice between holding the mines’ gold and iron and other metals and keeping the Two Rivers’ wool and tabac had not been difficult. But rebellion unchecked, even rebellion in a part of her realm that she ruled only on a map, could spread like wildfire, to places that were hers in fact. And Manetheren, destroyed in the Trolloc Wars, Manetheren of legend and story, still had a hold on some men’s minds. Besides, the Two Rivers was
hers. If they had been left to go their own way for far too long, they were still a part of her realm.

“Has Lord Gaebril been informed?” Of course he had not. He would have come to her with the news, and suggestions on how to deal with it. His suggestions were always clearly right. Suggestions? Somehow, it seemed that she could remember him telling her what to do. That was impossible, of course.

“He has, my Queen.” Tallanvor’s voice was still bland, unlike his face, where slow anger yet smoldered. “He laughed. He said the Two Rivers seemed to throw up trouble, and he would have to do something about it one day. He said this minor annoyance would have to wait its turn behind more important matters.”

The book fell as she sprang to her feet, and she thought Tallanvor smiled in grim satisfaction as she swept by him. A serving woman told her where Gaebril was to be found, and she marched straight to the colonnaded court, with its marble fountain, the basin full of lily pads and fish: It was cooler there, and shaded a little.

Gaebril sat on the broad white coping of the fountain, lords and ladies gathered around him. She recognized fewer than half. Dark square-faced Jarid of House Sarand, and his shrewish honey-haired wife, Elenia. That simpering Arymilla of House Marne, melting brown eyes always so wide in feigned interest, and bony, goat-faced Nasin of House Caeren, who would tumble any woman he could corner despite his thin white hair. Naean of House Arawn, as usual with a sneer marring her pale beauty, and Lir of House Baryn, a whip of a man, wearing a sword of all things, and Karind of House Anshar, with the same flat-eyed stare that some said had put three husbands under the ground. The others she did not know at all, which was strange enough, but these she never allowed into the Palace except on state occasions. Every one had opposed her during the Succession. Elenia and Naean had wanted the Lion Throne for themselves. What could Gaebril be thinking to actually bring them here?

“. . . the size of our estates in Cairhien, my Lord,” Arymilla was saying, leaning over Gaebril, as Morgase approached. None of them more than glanced at her. As if she were a servant with the wine!

“I want to speak with you concerning the Two Rivers, Gaebril. In private.”

“It has been dealt with, my dear,” he said idly, dabbling his fingers in the water. “Other matters concern me now. I thought you were going to read during the heat of the day. You should return to your room until the evening’s coolness, such as it is.”

My dear. He had called her “my dear” in front of these interlopers! As much as she thrilled to hear that on his lips when they were alone . . . Elenia was hiding her mouth. “I think not, Lord Gaebril,” Morgase said coldly. “You will come with me now. And these others will be out of the Palace before I return, or I will exile them from Caemlyn completely.”

Suddenly he was on his feet, a big man, towering over her. She seemed unable to look at anything but his dark eyes; her skin tingled as if an icy wind were blowing through the courtyard. “You will go and wait for me, Morgase.” His voice was a distant roar filling her ears. “I have dealt with all that needs dealing with. I will come to you this evening. You will go now. You will go.”

She had one hand lifted to open the door of her sitting room before she realized where she was. And what had happened. He had told her to go, and she had gone. Staring at the door in horror, she could see the smirks on the men’s faces, open laughter on some of the women’s. What has happened to me? How could I become so besotted with any man? She still felt the urge to enter, and wait for him.

Dazed, she forced herself to turn and walk away. It was an effort. Inside, she cringed at the idea of Gaebril’s disappointment in her when he did not find her where he expected, and cringed further at recognizing the fawning thought.

At first she had no notion of where she was going or why, only that she would not wait obediently, not for Gaebril, not for any man or woman in the world. The fountained courtyard kept repeating in her head, him telling her to go, and those hateful, amused faces watching. Her mind still seemed fogged. She could not comprehend how or why she could have let it happen. She had to think of something that she could understand, something she could deal with. Jarid Sarand and the others.

When she assumed the throne she had pardoned them for everything they had done during the Succession, as she had pardoned everyone who opposed her. It had seemed best to bury all animosities before they could fester into the sort of plotting and scheming that infected so many lands. The Game of Houses it was called—Daes Dae’mar—or the Great Game, and it led to endless, tangled feuds between Houses, to the toppling of rulers; the Game was at the heart of the civil war in Cairhien, and no doubt had done its part in the turmoil enveloping Arad Doman and Tarabon. The pardons had had to go to all to stop Daes Dae’mar being born in Andor, but could she have left any unsigned, they would have been the parchments with those seven’s names.

Gaebril knew that. Publicly she had shown no disfavor, but in private she had been willing to speak of her distrust. They had had to pry their jaws open to swear fealty, and she could hear the lie on their tongues. Any one would leap at a chance to pull her down, and all seven together . . .

There was only one conclusion she could reach. Gaebril must be plotting against her. It could not be to put Elenia or Naean on the throne. Not when he has me already, she thought bitterly, behaving like his lapdog. He must mean to supplant her himself. To become the first king that Andor had ever had. And she still felt the desire to return to her book and wait for him. She still ached for his touch.

It was not until she saw the aged faces in the hallway around her, the creased cheeks and often bent backs, that she became aware of where she was. The Pensioners’ Quarters. Some servants returned to their families when they grew old, but others had been so long in the Palace that they could think of no other life. Here they had their own small apartments, their own shaded garden and a spacious courtyard. Like every queen before her, she supplemented their pensions by letting them buy food through the Palace kitchens for less than its cost, and the infirmary treated their ills. Creaky bows and unsteady curtsies followed her, and murmurs of “The Light shine upon you, my Queen,” and “The Light bless you, my Queen,” and “The Light protect you, my Queen.” She acknowledged them absently. She knew where she was going now.

Lini’s door was like all the others along the green-tiled corridor, unadorned save for a carving of the rearing Lion of Andor. She never thought of knocking before entering; she was the Queen, and this was her Palace. Her old nurse was not there, though a teakettle steaming over a small fire in the brick fireplace said she would not be long.

The two snug rooms were neatly furnished, the bed made to perfection, the two chairs precisely aligned at the table, where a blue vase in the exact center held a small fan of greenery. Lini had always been a great one for neatness. Morgase was willing to wager that within the wardrobe in the bedchamber every dress was arranged just so with every other, and the same for pots in the cupboard beside the fireplace in the other room.

Six painted ivory miniatures in small wooden stands made a line on the mantelpiece. How Lini could have afforded them on a nurse’s stipend was more than Morgase had ever been able to imagine; she could not ask such a question, of course. In pairs, they showed three young women and the same three as babes. Elayne was there, and herself. Taking down the portrait of herself at fourteen, a slender filly of a girl, she could not believe that she had ever looked so innocent. She had worn that ivory silk dress the day she had gone to the White Tower, never dreaming at the time that she would be Queen, only harboring the vain hope that she might become Aes Sedai.

Absentmindedly she thumbed the Great Serpent ring on her left hand. She had not earned that, precisely; women who could not channel were not awarded the ring. But short of her sixteenth nameday she had returned to contest the Rose Crown in the name of House Trakand, and when she won the throne nearly two years later, the ring had been presented to her. By tradition, the Daughter-Heir of Andor always trained in the Tower, and in recognition of Andor’s long support of the Tower was given the ring whether or not she could channel. She had only been the heir to House Trakand in the Tower, but they gave it to her anyway once the Rose Crown was on her head.

Replacing her own portrait, she took down her mother’s, taken at perhaps two years older. Lini had been nurse to three generations of Trakand women. Maighdin Trakand had been beautiful. Morgase could remember that smile, when it had become a mother’s loving beam. It was Maighdin who should have had the Lion Throne. But a fever had carried her away, and a young girl had found herself High Seat of House Trakand, in the middle of a struggle for the throne with no more support in the beginning than her House retainers and the House bard. I won the Lion Throne. I will not give it up, and I will not see a man take it. For a thousand years a queen has ruled Andor, and I will not let that end now!

“Meddling in my things again, are you, child?”

That voice triggered long-forgotten reflexes. Morgase had the miniature hidden behind her back before she knew it. With a rueful shake of her head she put the portrait back on its stand. “I am not a girl in the nursery any longer, Lini. You must remember that, or one day you will say something where I must do something about it.”

“My neck is scrawny and old,” Lini said, setting a net bag of carrots and turnips on the table. She looked frail in her neat gray dress, her white hair drawn back in a bun from a narrow face with skin like thin parchment, but her back was straight, her voice clear and steady, and her dark eyes as sharp as ever. “If you want to give it to hangman or headsman, I am almost done with it anyway. ‘A gnarled old branch dulls the blade that severs a sapling.’ ”

Morgase sighed. Lini would never change. She would not curtsy if the entire court were watching. “You do grow tougher as you grow older. I am not certain a headsman could find an axe sharp enough for your neck.”

“You’ve not been to see me in some time, so I suppose there’s something you need to work out in your mind. When you were in the nursery—and later—you always used to come to me when you couldn’t work matters out. Shall I make a pot of tea?”

“Some time, Lini? I visit you every week, and a wonder I do, given how you speak to me. I would exile the highest lady in Andor if she said half what you do.”

Lini gave her a level look. “You have not darkened my doorway since the spring. And I talk as I always have; I’m too old to change now. Do you want tea?”

“No.” Morgase put a hand to her head in confusion. She did visit Lini every week. She could remember. . . . She could not remember. Gaebril had filled her hours so completely that sometimes it was hard to remember anything other than him. “No, I do not want tea. I do not know why I came. You cannot help me with the problem I have.”

Her old nurse snorted, though somehow she made it a delicate sound. “Your trouble is with Gaebril, isn’t it? Only now you’re ashamed to tell me. Girl, I changed you in your cradle, tended you when you were sick and heaving your stomach up, and told you what you needed to know about men. You have never been too shamed to discuss anything with me, and now is no time to begin.”

“Gaebril?” Morgase’s eyes widened. “You know? But how?”

“Oh, child,” Lini said sadly, “everyone knows, though no one’s had the courage to tell you. I might have, if you hadn’t stayed away, but it is hardly something I could go running to you with, now is it? It is the kind of thing a woman won’t believe until she finds out for herself.”

“What are you talking about?” Morgase demanded. “It was your duty to come to me if you knew, Lini. It was everyone’s duty! Light, I am the last to know, and now it may be too late to stop it!”

“Too late?” Lini said incredulously. “Why should it be too late? You bundle Gaebril out of the Palace, out of Andor, and Alteima and the others with him, and it is done with. Too late, indeed.”

For a moment Morgase could not speak. “Alteima,” she said finally, “and . . . the others?”

Lini stared at her, then shook her head in disgust. “I am an old fool; my wits are dryrooted. Well, you know now. ‘When the honey’s out of the comb, there’s no putting it back.’ ” Her voice became gentler and at the same time brisk, the voice she had used for telling Morgase that her pony had broken a leg and had to be put down. “Gaebril spends most of his nights with you, but Alteima has nearly as much of his time. He spreads himself thin with the other six. Five have rooms in the Palace. One, a big-eyed young thing, he sneaks in and out for some reason all swathed in a cloak, even in this heat. Perhaps she has a husband. I’m sorry, girl, but truth is truth. ‘Better to face the bear than run from it.’ ”

Morgase’s knees sagged, and if Lini had not hurriedly pulled a chair from the table to shove under her, she would have sat down on the floor. Alteima. Him watching the two of them as they gossiped took on a new image, now. A man fondly watching two of his pet cats at play. And six others! Rage boiled up in her, a rage that had been lacking when she only thought he was after her throne. That she had considered coldly, clearly; as clearly as she could consider anything recently. That was a danger that had to be looked at with cold reason. But this! The man had ensconced his jades in her palace. He had made her just another of his trulls. She wanted his head. She wanted him flayed alive. The Light help her, she wanted his touch. I must be going mad!

“That will be solved along with everything else,” she said coldly. Much depended on who was in Caemlyn, and who on their country estates. “Where is Lord Pelivar? Lord Abelle? Lady Arathelle?” They led strong Houses, and many retainers.

“Exiled,” Lini said slowly, giving her an odd look. “You exiled them from the city last spring.”

Morgase stared back. She remembered none of that. Except that now, dim and distant, she did. “Lady Ellorien?” she said slowly. “Lady Aemlyn, and Lord Luan?” More strong Houses. More Houses that had been behind her before she gained the throne.

“Exiled,” Lini replied just as slowly. “You had Ellorien flogged for demanding to know why.” She bent to brush Morgase’s hair back, gnarled fingers lingering on her cheek as they had when she checked for fever. “Are you well, girl?”

Morgase nodded dully, but it was because she was remembering, in a shadowy way. Ellorien, screaming in outrage as her gown was ripped down the back. House Traemane had been the very first to throw its support to Trakand, brought by a plumply pretty woman only a few years older than Morgase. Brought by Ellorien, now one of her closest friends. At least, she had been. Elayne had been named after Ellorien’s grandmother. Vaguely she could recall others leaving the city; distancing themselves from her, it seemed obvious now. And those who remained? Houses too weak to be of any use, or else sycophants. She seemed to recall signing numerous documents Gaebril had laid in front of her, creating new titles. Gaebril’s toadeaters and her enemies; they were all she could count on being strong in Caemlyn.

“I do not care what you say,” Lini said firmly. “You have no fever, but there’s something wrong. You need an Aes Sedai Healer is what you need.”

“No Aes Sedai.” Morgase’s voice was even harder. She fingered her ring again, briefly. She knew that her animosity toward the Tower had grown recently beyond what some might say was reasonable, yet she could no longer make herself trust a White Tower that seemed to be trying to hide her daughter from her. Her letter to the new Amyrlin demanding Elayne’s return—no one demanded anything of an Amyrlin Seat, but she had—that letter was yet unanswered. It had barely had time to reach Tar Valon. In any case, she knew for cold fact that she would not have an Aes Sedai near her. And yet, right alongside that, she could not think of Elayne without a swell of pride. Raised Accepted after so short a time. Elayne might well be the first woman to sit on the throne of Andor as full Aes Sedai, not just Tower trained. It made no sense that she could feel both things at once, but very little made any sense just now. And her daughter would never have the Lion Throne if Morgase did not secu re it for her.

“I said no Aes Sedai, Lini, so you might as well stop looking at me like that. This is one time you will not make me take bad-tasting medicine. Besides which, I doubt there is an Aes Sedai of any stripe to be found in Caemlyn.” Her old supporters gone, exiled by her own signature, and maybe her enemies for good over what she had done to Ellorien. New lords and ladies in their places in the Palace. New faces in the Guards. What loyalty remained there? “Would you recognize a Guardsman Lieutenant named Tallanvor, Lini?” At the other woman’s quick nod, she went on. “Find him for me, and bring him here. But do not let him know you are bringing him to me. In fact, tell everyone in the Pensioners’ Quarters that, should anyone ask, I am not here.”

“There is more to this than Gaebril and his women, isn’t there?”

“Just go, Lini. And hurry. There is not much time.” By the shadows she could see in the tree-filled garden through the window, the sun had passed its height. Evening would be there all too soon. Evening, when Gaebril would be looking for her.

When Lini left, Morgase remained in the chair, sitting rigidly. She dared not stand; her knees were stronger now, but she feared that if she began moving she would not stop until she was back in her sitting room, waiting for Gaebril. The urge was that strong, especially now that she was alone. And once he looked at her, once he touched her, she had no doubt that she would forgive him everything. Forget everything, maybe, based on how fuzzy and incomplete her memories were. Had she not known better, she could have thought that he had used the One Power on her in some way, but no man who could channel survived to his age.

Lini had often told her that there was always one man in the world for whom a woman would find herself behaving a brainless fool, but she had never believed that she could succumb. Still, her choices in men had never been good, however right they seemed at the time.

Taringail Damodred she had wed for political reasons. He had been married to Tigraine, the Daughter-Heir whose disappearance had set off the Succession when Mordrellen died. Marrying him had made a link with the old queen, smoothing the doubts of most of her opponents, and more importantly, had maintained the alliance that had ended the ceaseless wars with Cairhien. In such ways did queens choose their husbands. Taringail had been a cold, distant man, and there was never love, despite two wonderful children; it had been almost a relief when he died in a hunting accident.

Thomdril Merrilin, House bard and then Court-bard, had been a joy at first, intelligent and witty, a laughing man who used the tricks of the Game of Houses to aid her to the throne and help strengthen Andor once she had it. He had been twice her age then, yet she might have married him—marriages with commoners were not unheard of in Andor—but he vanished without a word, and her temper got the better of her. She never had learned why he had gone, but it did not matter. When he finally returned she would surely have rescinded the arrest order, but for once instead of softly turning her anger aside he had met her harsh word for harsh word, saying things she could never forgive. Her ears still burned to remember being called a spoiled child and a puppet of Tar Valon. He had actually shaken her, his queen!

Then there had been Gareth Bryne, strong and capable, as bluff as his face and as stubborn as she; he had turned out to be a treasonous fool. He was well out of her life. It seemed years since she had seen him instead of little more than half of one.

And finally Gaebril. The crown to her list of bad choices. At least the others had not tried to supplant her.

Not so many men for one woman’s life, but in another way, too many. Another thing that Lini sometimes said was that men were only good for three things, though very good for those. She had been on the throne before Lini had thought her old enough to tell what the three things were. Perhaps if I’d kept just to the dancing, she thought wryly, I’d not have so much trouble with them.

The shadows in the garden beyond the window had shifted an hour’s worth before Lini returned with young Tallanvor, who went to one knee while she was still shutting the door. “He didn’t want to come with me at first,” she said. “Fifty years ago I suppose I could have shown what you are displaying to the world, and he’d have followed quick enough, but now I must needs use sweet reason.”

Tallanvor turned his head to look up at her sourly. “You threatened to harry me here with a stick if I did not come. You are lucky I wondered what was so important to you, instead of having somebody drag you to the infirmary.” Her stern sniff did not faze him. His acrid gaze turned angry as it shifted to Morgase. “I see your meeting with Gaebril did not go well, my Queen. I had hoped for . . . more.”

He was looking straight at her eyes, but Lini’s comment had made her aware of her dress again. She felt as though glowing arrows were pointing to her exposed bosom. It was an effort to keep her hands calmly in her lap. “You are a sharp lad, Tallanvor. And loyal, I believe, else you would not have come to me with the news of the Two Rivers.”

“I am not a boy,” he snapped, jerking upright where he knelt. “I am a man who has sworn his life in service to his queen.”

She let her temper flare right back at him. “If you are a man, behave as one. Stand, and answer your queen’s questions truthfully. And remember that I am your queen, young Tallanvor. Whatever you think may have happened, I am Queen of Andor.”

“Forgive me, my Queen. I hear and obey.” The words were properly said, if not exactly contrite, but he stood, head high, staring at her as defiantly as ever. Light, the man was as stubborn as Gareth Bryne had ever been.

“How many loyal men are there among the Guards in the Palace? How many will obey their oaths and follow me?”

“I will,” he said quietly, and suddenly all of his anger was gone, though he still stared intently at her face. “For the rest . . . If you wish to find loyal men, you must look to the outlying garrisons, perhaps as far as Whitebridge. Some who were in Caemlyn were sent to Cairhien with the levies, but the rest in the city are Gaebril’s to a man. Their new . . . Their new oath is to throne and law, not the Queen.”

It was worse than she had hoped for, but no more than she had expected, really. Whatever he was, Gaebril was no fool. “Then I must go elsewhere to begin reestablishing my rule.” The Houses would be difficult to rally after the exiles, after Ellorien, but it had to be done. “Gaebril may try to stop me leaving the Palace”—she found a faint memory of trying to leave, twice, and being halted by Gaebril—“so you will procure two horses and wait in the street behind the south stables. I will meet you there, dressed for riding.”

“Too public,” he said. “And too close. Gaebril’s men might recognize you, however you disguised yourself. I know a man. . . . Could you find an inn called The Queen’s Blessing, in the western part of the New City?” The New City was new only in comparison with the Inner City it surrounded.

“I can.” She did not like being opposed, even when it made sense. Bryne had done that, too. It would be a pleasure to show this young man just how well she could disguise herself. It was her habit once a year, though she realized that she had not done it so far this year, to dress as a commoner and walk the streets to feel the pulse of the people. No one had ever recognized her. “But can this man be trusted, young Tallanvor?”

“Basel Gill is as loyal to you as I am myself.” He hesitated, anguish crossing his face then being replaced by anger once more. “Why have you waited so long? You must have known, you must have seen, yet you have waited while Gaebril tightened his hands around Andor’s neck. Why have you waited?”

So. His anger was honestly come by, and it deserved an honest answer. Only she had no answer, certainly not one she could tell him. “It is not your place to question your Queen, young man,” she said with a gentle firmness. “A loyal man, as I know that you are loyal, serves without question.”

He let out a long breath. “I will await you in the stable of The Queen’s Blessing, my Queen.” And with a bow suitable for a state audience, he was gone.

“Why do you keep calling him young?” Lini demanded once the door closed. “It puts his back up. ‘A fool puts a burr under the saddle before she rides.’ ”

“He is young, Lini. Young enough to be my son.”

Lini snorted, and this time there was nothing delicate about it. “He has a few years on Galad, and Galad is too old to be yours. You were playing with dolls when Tallanvor was born, and thinking babes came the same way as dolls.”

Sighing, Morgase wondered if the woman had treated her mother like this. Probably. And if Lini lived long enough to see Elayne on the throne—which somehow she did not doubt, Lini would last forever—she would probably treat Elayne no differently. That was assuming that a throne remained for Elayne to inherit. “The question is, is he as loyal as he seems, Lini? One faithful Guardsman, when every other loyal man in the Palace has been sent away. Suddenly it seems too good to be true.”

“He swore the new oath.” Morgase opened her mouth, but Lini forestalled her. “I saw him afterwards, alone behind the stables. That’s how I knew who you meant; I found out his name. He did not see me. He was on his knees, tears streaming down his face. He alternated apologizing to you and repeating the old oath. Not just to ‘the Queen of Andor,’ but to ‘Queen Morgase of Andor.’ He swore in the old way, on his sword, slicing his arm to show he would shed his last drop before breaking it. I know a thing or two of men, girl. That one will follow you against an army with nothing but his bare hands.”

That was good to know. If she could not trust him, she would have to doubt Lini next. No, never Lini. He had sworn in the old way? That was something for stories, now. And she was letting her thoughts drift again. Surely Gaebril’s clouding of her mind was finished now, with all she knew. Then why did a part of her still want to go back to her sitting room and wait? She had to concentrate. “I will need a simple dress, Lini. One that does not fit too well. A little soot from the fireplace, and . . .”

Lini insisted on coming, too. Morgase would have had to tie her to a chair to leave her behind, and she was not certain that the old woman would have let herself be tied; she had always seemed frail, and had always been far stronger than she seemed.

When they slipped out through a small side gate, Morgase did not look very much like herself. A bit of soot had darkened her red-gold hair, taken its sheen away and made it lank. Sweat rolling down her face helped, as well. No one believed that queens sweated. A shapeless dress of rough—very rough—gray wool, with divided skirts, completed her disguise. Even her shift and stockings were coarse wool. She looked a farm woman who had ridden the cart horse to market and now wanted to see a little of the city. Lini looked herself, straight-backed and no-nonsense, in a green woolen riding dress, well cut but ten years out of fashion.

Wishing she could scratch, Morgase also wished that the other woman had not taken her so to heart about the dress not fitting very well. Stuffing the low-necked gown away under the bed, her old nurse had muttered some saying about displaying wares you did not mean to sell, and when Morgase claimed she had just made it up, her reply was At my age, if I make it up, it’s still an old saying. Morgase more than half-suspected that her itchy, ill-draped dress was punishment for that gown.

The Inner City was built on hills, streets following the natural curve of the land and planned to give sudden views of parks full of trees and monuments, or tile-covered towers glittering a hundred colors in the sun. Sudden rises hurled the eye across Caemlyn entire, to the rolling plains and forests beyond. Morgase saw none of it as she hurried through the crowds thronging the streets. Usually she would have tried to listen to the people, to gauge their mood. This time she heard only the hum and babble of a great city. She had no thought of trying to rouse them. Thousands of men armed mainly with stones and rage could overwhelm the Guards in the Royal Palace, but if she had not known it before, the riots in the spring that had brought Gaebril to her attention, and the near riots the year before, had shown what mobs could do. She meant to rule again in Caemlyn, not see it burned.

Beyond the white walls of the Inner City, the New City had its own beauties. Tall slender towers, and domes gleaming white and gold, huge expanses of red-tiled roofs, and the great, towered outer walls, pale gray streaked with silver and white. Broad boulevards, split down the middle by wide expanses of trees and grass, were jammed with people and carriages and wagons. Except to notice in passing that the grass was dying for lack of rain, Morgase kept her mind on what she was hunting.

From the experience of her annual forays, she chose the people she questioned carefully. Men, mostly. She knew how she looked, even with soot in her hair, and some women would give wrong directions from jealousy. Men, on the other hand, racked their brains to be right, to impress her. None with too smug a face, or too rough. The first were often offended at being approached, as though they were not afoot themselves, and the others were likely to think a woman asking directions had something else on her mind.

One fellow with a chin too big for his face, hawking a tray of pins and needles, grinned at her and said, “Did anyone ever tell you you look a mite like the Queen? Whatever mess she’s made of us, she’s a pretty one.”

She gave him a raucous laugh that earned a stern look from Lini. “You save your flattery for your wife. The second turn to the left, you say? I thank you. And for the compliment, too.”

As she pushed on through the crowd, a frown settled on her face. She had heard too much of that. Not that she looked like the Queen, but that Morgase had made a mess of things. Gaebril had raised taxes heavily to pay for his levies, it seemed, but she took the blame, and rightly so. The responsibility was the Queen’s. Other laws had come out of the Palace, as well, laws that made little sense, but did make people’s lives more difficult. She heard whispers about herself, that maybe Andor had had queens long enough. Only murmurs, but what one man dared speak in a low voice, ten thought. Perhaps it would not have been as easy as she had thought to rouse mobs against Gaebril.

Eventually she found her goal, a broad stone inn, the sign over the door bearing a man kneeling before a golden-haired woman in the Rose Crown, one of her hands on his head. The Queen’s Blessing. If it was meant to be her, it was not a good likeness. The cheeks were too fat.

Not until she stopped in front of the inn did she realize that Lini was puffing. She had set a quick pace, and the woman was far from young. “Lini, I am sorry. I should not have walked so—”

“If I can’t keep up with you, girl, how will I be able to tend Elayne’s babes? Do you mean to stand there? ‘Dragging feet never finish a journey.’ He said he would be in the stable.”

The white-haired woman stalked off, muttering to herself, and Morgase followed her around the inn. Before stepping into the stone stable, she shaded her eyes to look at the sun. No more than two hours until dusk; Gaebril would be looking by then, if he was not already.

Tallanvor was not alone in the stall-lined stable. When he went to one knee on the straw-covered floor, in a green wool coat with his sword belted over it, two men and a woman knelt with him, if a bit hesitantly, unsure of her as she was. The stout man, pink-faced and balding, must be Basel Gill, the innkeeper. An old leather jerkin, studded with steel discs, strained around his girth, and he wore a sword at his hip, too.

“My Queen,” Gill said, “I’ve not carried a sword in years—not since the Aiel War—but I’d count it an honor if you allowed me to follow you.” He should have looked ridiculous, but he did not.

Morgase studied the other two, a hulking fellow in a rough gray coat, with heavy-lidded eyes, an oft-broken nose, and scars on his face, and a short, pretty woman approaching her middle years. She seemed to be with the street tough, but her high-necked blue wool dress appeared too finely woven for one like him to have bought.

The fellow sensed her doubts, for all his lazy-eyed appearance. “I am Lamgwin, my Queen, and a good Queen’s man. ’Tisn’t right, what’s been done, and it has to be put straight. I want to follow you, too. Me and Breane, both.”

“Rise,” she told them. “It may be some days yet before it is safe for you to acknowledge me as your queen. I will be glad of your company, Master Gill. And yours, Master Lamgwin, but it will be safer for your woman if she remains in Caemlyn. There are hard days ahead.”

Brushing straw from her skirts, Breane gave her a sharp look, and Lini a sharper. “I have known hard days,” she said in a Cairhienin accent. Nobly born, unless Morgase missed her guess; one of the refugees. “And I never knew a good man until I found Lamgwin. Or until he found me. The loyalty and love he bears for you, I bear for him tenfold. He follows you, but I follow him. I will not stay behind.”

Morgase drew breath, then nodded her acceptance. The woman seemed to take it for granted in any case. A fine seed for the army to retake her throne: One young soldier who scowled at her as often as not, a balding innkeeper who looked as if he had not been on a horse in twenty years, a street tough who appeared more than half-asleep, and a refugee Cairhienin noblewoman who had made it clear that her loyalties went only as far as the tough. And Lini, of course. Lini, who treated her as though she were still in the nursery. Oh, yes, a very fine seed.

“Where do we go, my Queen?” Gill asked as he began leading already saddled horses out of their stalls. Lamgwin moved with surprising speed to throw another high-cantled saddle on a horse for Lini.

Morgase realized that she had not considered that. Light, Gaebril can’t still be fogging my mind. She still felt that urge to return to her sitting room, though. It was not he. She had had to concentrate on getting out of the Palace and reaching here. Once she would have gone to Ellorien first, but Pelivar or Arathelle would do. Once she had reasoned out how to explain away their exiles.

Before she could open her mouth, Tallanvor said, “It must be to Gareth Bryne. There is hard feeling against you among the great Houses, my Queen, but with Bryne following you, they will reswear allegiance, if only because they know he will win every battle.”

She clamped her teeth shut to hold back instant refusal. Bryne was a traitor. But he was also one of the finest generals alive. His presence would be a convincing argument when she had to make Pelivar and the rest forget that she had exiled them. Very well. No doubt he would leap at the chance to be Captain-General of the Queen’s Guards once more. And if not, she would manage well enough without him.

When the sun touched the horizon, they were five miles out of Caemlyn and riding hard for Kore Springs.

Night was when Padan Fain felt most comfortable. As he padded through the tapestry-bedecked corridors of the White Tower, it seemed as though the darkness outside made a cloak to hide him from his enemies, despite the stand-lamps, gilded and mirrored, burning along his way. A false feeling, he knew; his enemies were many and everywhere. Right that moment, as in every waking hour, he could feel Rand al’Thor. Not where he was, but that he was still alive, somewhere. Still alive. It was a gift received at Shayol Ghul, in the Pit of Doom, that awareness of al’Thor.

His mind skittered away from memories of what had been done to him in the Pit. He had been distilled there, remade. But later, in Aridhol, he had been reborn. Reborn to smite old enemies and new.

He could feel something else as he stalked the empty night hallways of the Tower, a thing that was his, stolen from him. A sharper desire drew him at this moment than his longing for al’Thor’s death, or the Tower’s destruction, or even revenge against his ancient foe. A hunger to be whole.

The heavy paneled door had thick hinges and iron straps, and a black iron lock set in it as big as his head. Few doors in the Tower were ever locked—who would dare steal in the midst of Aes Sedai?—yet some things the Tower accounted too dangerous to be easily accessible. The most dangerous of all they kept behind this door, guarded by a stout lock.

Giggling softly, he took two thin, curved metal rods from his coat pocket, inserted them into the keyhole, probing and pressing, twisting. With a slow snap, the bolt came back. For a moment he sagged against the door, laughing hoarsely. Guarded by a stout lock. Surrounded by Aes Sedai power, and guarded by simple metal. Even the servants and novices should be done with their chores at this hour, but someone still might be awake, might just wander by. Occasional ripples of mirth still shook him as he replaced the lockpicks in his pocket and took out a fat beeswax candle, lighting the wick at a nearby stand-lamp.

He held the candle high as he closed the door behind him, peering around. Shelves lined the walls, holding plain boxes and inlaid chests of various sizes and shapes, small figures in bone or ivory or darker material, things of metal and glass and crystal that sparkled in the candlelight. Nothing that appeared dangerous. Dust covered everything; even the Aes Sedai came here seldom, and they allowed no one else in. What he was seeking pulled him to it.

On a waist-high shelf stood a dark metal box. He opened it, revealing lead walls two inches thick, with just enough space inside for a curved dagger in a golden sheath, a large ruby set in its hilt. Neither the gold nor the ruby, glittering dark as blood, interested him. Hastily he spilled a little wax to hold the candle beside the box and snatched up the dagger.

He sighed as soon as he touched it, stretched languorously. He was whole again, one with what had bound him so long ago, one with what in a very real way had given him life.

Iron hinges creaked faintly, and he darted for the door, baring the curved blade. The pale young woman opening the door had only time to gape, to try to leap back, before he slashed her cheek; in the same motion he dropped the sheath and seized her arm, jerked her past him into the storeroom. Putting his head out, he peered up and down the hallway. Still empty.

He took his time about pulling his head back and shutting the door again. He knew what he would find.

The young woman lay thrashing on the stone floor, trying and failing to scream. Her hands clawed at a face already black and bloated beyond recognition, the dark swelling oozing down onto her shoulders like thick oil. Her snowy skirts, banded in colors at the hem, flailed as her feet scrabbled uselessly. He licked at a splash of blood on his hand and giggled as he picked up the sheath.

“You are a fool.”

He spun, dagger reaching, but the air around him seemed to turn solid, encasing him from his neck to the soles of his boots. He hung there, on the balls of his feet, dagger extended to stab, staring at Alviarin as she shut the door behind her and leaned against it to study him. There had been no creak this time. The soft scraping of the dying girl’s slippers on the floorstones could never have masked it. He blinked away sweat that was suddenly stinging his eyes.

“Did you really think,” the Aes Sedai went on, “that there would be no guard on this room, no watch kept? A ward was set on that lock. That young fool’s task tonight was to monitor it. Had she done as she was supposed to, you would find a dozen Warders and as many Aes Sedai outside this door now. She is paying the price of her stupidity.”

The thrashing behind him stilled, and his eyes narrowed. Alviarin was not Yellow Ajah, but even so she could have made an attempt to Heal the young woman. And she had not raised the alarm the Accepted should have, either, or she would not now be here alone. “You are Black Ajah,” he whispered.

“A dangerous accusation,” she said calmly. It was not clear to which of them it was dangerous. “Siuan Sanche tried to claim the Black Ajah was real when she was under the question. She begged to tell us of them. Elaida would not hear it, and will not. Tales of the Black Ajah are a vile slander against the Tower.”

“You are Black Ajah,” he said in a louder voice.

“You want to steal that?” She sounded as though he had not spoken. “The ruby is not worth it, Fain. Or whatever your name is. That blade is tainted so none but a fool would touch it except with tongs, or be near it for a moment longer than necessary. You can see what it did to Verine. So why did you come here and go straight to what you should not have known was here? You cannot have had time for any search.”

“I could dispose of Elaida for you. One touch of this, and even Healing will not save her.” He tried to gesture with the dagger, but could not budge it a hair; if he could have moved it, Alviarin would be dead by now. “You could be first in the Tower, not second.”

She laughed at him, cool contemptuous chimes. “Do you think I would not be first if I had wished it? Second suits me. Let Elaida claim credit for what she calls successes, and sweat for her failures, too. I know where the power lies. Now, answer my questions, or two corpses will be found here in the morning instead of one.”

There would be two in any case, whether he answered her with suitable lies or not; she did not mean to let him live. “I have seen Thakan’dar.” Saying that hurt; the memories it brought were agony. He refused to whimper, forced the words out. “The great sea of fog, rolling and crashing in silence against the black cliffs, the fires of the forges glowing red beneath, and lightning stabbing up into a sky fit to drive men mad.” He did not want to go on, but he made himself. “I have taken the path down to the belly of Shayol Ghul, down the long way with stones like fangs brushing my head, to the shore of a lake of fire and molten rock—” No, not again! “—that holds the Great Lord of the Dark in its endless depths. The heavens above Shayol Ghul are black at noon with his breath.”

Alviarin was standing upright now, eyes wide. Not fearful, but impressed. “I have heard of . . .” she began softly, then shook herself and stared at him piercingly. “Who are you? Why are you here? Did one of the For—the Chosen send you? Why was I not informed?”

He threw back his head and laughed. “Are the tasks given to the likes of me for the likes of you to be knowing?” The accents of his native Lugard were strong again; in a way it was his native city. “Do the Chosen confide everything in you, then?” Something inside seemed to shout that this was not the way, but he hated Aes Sedai, and that something inside him did, too. “Be careful, pretty little Aes Sedai, or they’ll be giving you to a Myrddraal for its sport.”

Her glare was icicles stabbing his eyes. “We shall see, Master Fain. I will clear away this mess you have made, and then we shall see which of us stands higher with the Chosen.” Eyeing the dagger, she backed from the room. The air around him did not soften until she had been gone a full minute.

Silently he snarled at himself. Fool. Playing the Aes Sedai’s game, groveling for them, then one moment of anger to ruin all. Sheathing the dagger, he nicked himself, and licked the wound before sticking the weapon under his coat. He was not at all what she thought. He had been a Darkfriend once, but he was beyond that, now. Beyond it, above it. Something different. Something more. If she managed to communicate with one of the Forsaken before he could dispose of her . . . Better not to try. No time to find the Horn of Valere now. There were followers awaiting him outside the city. They should still be waiting. He had put fear into them. He hoped some of the humans were still alive.

Before the sun rose he was out of the Tower, off the island of Tar Valon. Al’Thor was out there, somewhere. And he was whole again.

CHAPTER

20

Jangai Pass

Under the looming Spine of the World, Rand guided Jeade’en up the stony slope from the foothills that began the foot of Jangai Pass. The Dragonwall pierced the sky, dwarfing all other mountains, its snowcapped peaks defying the baking afternoon sun. The tallest thrust well above clouds that mocked the Waste with promises of rain that had never come. Rand could not imagine why a man would want to climb a mountain, but it was said that men who had tried to scale these heights turned back, overcome with fear and unable to breathe. He could well believe that a man might grow too afraid to breathe, attempting to climb so high.

“. . . yet though the Cairhienin are consumed with the Game of Houses,” Moiraine was saying at his shoulder, “they will follow you so long as they know that you are strong. Be firm with them, but I would ask you to be fair also. A ruler who gives true justice . . .”

He tried to ignore her, as he did the other riders, and the creak and rumble of Kadere’s wagons, making heavy going further back. The broken gorges and gullies of the Waste were behind them, but these rugged rising hills, nearly as barren, were little better for wagons. No one had traveled this path in over twenty years.

Moiraine talked at him that way from daybreak to sunset whenever he let her. Her lectures could be on small things—details of court behavior, say, in Cairhien or Saldaea or somewhere else—or on large: the political influence of the Whitecloaks, or perhaps the effects of trade on rulers’ decisions to go to war. It was as if she meant to see him educated, as a noble would be, or should be, before he reached the other side of the mountains. It was surprising how often what she said reflected what anyone back in Emond’s Field would have called simple common sense. And also how often it did not.

Occasionally she came out with something startling; for instance, that he should trust no woman of the Tower except herself, Egwene, Elayne and Nynaeve, or the news that Elaida was now the Amyrlin Seat. Oath to obey or no, she would not tell him how she knew that. She said it was someone else’s place to tell if she chose, someone else’s secret, and she could not usurp it. He suspected the Wise One dreamwalkers, though they had stared him right in the eye and refused to say aye or nay. He wished he could make them swear Moiraine’s oath; they interfered between him and the chiefs continually, as if they wanted him to go through them to reach the chiefs.

Right that minute he did not want to think about Elaida or the Wise Ones, or listen to Moiraine. Now he wanted to study the pass ahead, a deep gap in the mountains that twisted as though a blunt axe had tried to chop through again and again, never quite succeeding. A few minutes’ hard ride, and he could be in it.

On one side of the pass mouth a sheer cliff had been smoothed over a hundred-pace width and carved, a wind-weathered snake entwining a staff a good three hundred spans high; monument or marker or ruler’s sigil, it surely dated from some lost nation before Artur Hawkwing, perhaps even before the Trolloc Wars. He had seen remnants before from nations long vanished; often even Moiraine did not know their source.

High on the other side, so far up that he was not sure he was seeing what he thought, just below the snow line, stood something even stranger. Something that made the first monument of a few thousand years a commonplace. He could have sworn it was the remnants of shattered buildings, shining gray against the darker mountain, and stranger still, what appeared to be a dock of the same material, as for ships, slanting drunkenly down the mountain. If he was not imagining it, that had to date from before the Breaking. The face of the world had been changed utterly in those years. This could well have been an ocean’s floor, before. He would have to ask Asmodean. Even if he had had the time, he did not think he would want to try reaching that altitude to find out for himself.

At the foot of the huge snake lay Taien, a high-walled town of moderate size, a remnant itself of the time when Cairhien had been allowed to send caravans across the Three-fold Land, and wealth had flowed from Shara along the Silk Path. There appeared to be birds above the town, and dark blotches at regular intervals along the gray stone walls. Mat stood in Pips’ stirrups, shading his eyes with that broad-brimmed hat to peer up the pass, frowning. Lan’s hard face wore no expression at all, yet he appeared just as intent; a gust of wind, a little cooler here, whipped his color-shifting cloak around him, and for a moment all of him from shoulders to boots seemed to blend into the rocky hills and sparse thornbushes.

“Are you listening to me?” Moiraine said suddenly, reining her white mare closer. “You must—!” She took a deep breath. “Please, Rand. There is so much that I must tell you, so much that you need to know.”

The hint of pleading in her tone made him glance at her. He could remember when he had been overawed by her presence. Now she seemed quite small, for all her regal manner. A fool thing, that he should feel protective of her. “There is plenty of time ahead of us, Moiraine,” he said gently. “I don’t pretend to think I know as much of the world as you. I mean to keep you close from now on.” He barely realized how great a change that was from when she was keeping him close. “But I have something else on my mind right now.”

“Of course.” She sighed. “As you wish. We have plenty of time yet.”

Rand heeled the dappled gray stallion to a trot, and the others followed. The wagons quickened, too, though they could not keep up on the slope. Asmodean’s—Jasin Natael’s—patch-covered gleeman’s cloak rippled behind him like the banner he carried at his stirrup, brilliant red with the white-and-black symbol of the ancient Aes Sedai at its center. His face wore a sullen glower; he had not been best pleased at having to be the bannerman. Under that sign he would conquer, the Prophecy of Rhuidean said, and perhaps it would not frighten the world so much as the Dragon Banner, Lews Therin’s banner, that he had left flying over the Stone of Tear. Few would know this sign.

The blotches on the walls of Taien were bodies, contorted in their final agonies, bloated in the sun and hanging by their necks in a row that seemed to encircle the town. The birds were glossy black ravens, and vultures with their heads and necks befouled. Some ravens perched on corpses, gorging, unconcerned for the new arrivals. The sickly sweet stench of corruption hung in the dry air, and the acrid smell of char. Iron-strapped gates stood gaping open on an expanse of ruin, soot-streaked stone houses and collapsed roofs. Nothing moved except the birds.

Like Mar Ruois. He tried to shake the thought away, but in his head he could see that great city after it was retaken, immense towers blackened and collapsing, the remains of great bonfires at every street crossing, where those who had refused to swear to the Shadow had been bound and thrown alive to the flames. He knew whose memory it had to be, though he had not discussed it with Moiraine. I am Rand al’Thor. Lews Therin Telamon is dead three thousand years. I am myself! That was one battle he meant to win. If he did have to die at Shayol Ghul, he would die as himself. He made himself think of something else.

Half a month since he had left Rhuidean. Half a month, though the Aiel had set a pace afoot from sunup to sundown that wearied the horses. But Couladin had been moving this way a week before he learned of it. If they had not managed to close any ground, he would have that long to ravage Cairhien before Rand could reach it. Longer, before the Shaido could be brought to bay. Not a much happier thought.

“There’s someone watching us from those rocks to the left,” Lan said quietly. He seemed to be completely engrossed in studying what remained of Taien. “Not Aiel, or I doubt I would have seen a glimmer.”

Rand was glad that he had made Egwene and Aviendha stay with the Wise Ones. The town gave him a new reason, but the watcher fit in with his original plan, when he had hoped that Taien had escaped. Egwene still wore the same Aiel clothes as Aviendha, and Aiel would not have been very welcome in Taien. They were even less likely to be welcome among the survivors.

He looked back at the wagons drawing to a halt a short distance downslope. Mutters drifted up from the drivers now that they could see the town clearly, and the wall’s decorations. Kadere, his bulk all in white again today, mopped at his hawk-nosed face with a large kerchief; he appeared unperturbed, merely pursing his lips thoughtfully.

Rand expected that Moiraine would have to find new drivers once they were through the pass. Kadere and his crew would likely flee as soon as they had the chance. And he would have to let them go. It was not right—it was not justice—but it was necessary to protect Asmodean. How long now had he been doing what was necessary instead of what was right? In a fair world, they would be one and the same. That made him laugh, a hoarse wheeze. He was far from the village boy he had been, but sometimes that boy sneaked up on him. The others looked at him, and he fought the urge to tell them that he was not mad yet.

Long minutes passed before two coatless men and a woman emerged from the rocks, all three ragged and dirty and barefoot. They approached hesitantly, heads tilted uneasily, eyes darting from rider to rider, to the wagons and back, as though they might take flight at a shout. Gaunt cheeks and wavering steps spoke of hunger.

“Thank the Light,” one of the men said finally. He was gray-haired—none of the three was young—his face deeply creased. His eyes lingered a moment on Asmodean, with falls of lace at collar and cuffs, but the leader of this train would not be riding a mule and carrying a banner. It was Rand’s stirrup that he clutched anxiously. “The Light be praised that you came out of those terrible lands alive, my Lord.” That might have been Rand’s blue silk coat, embroidered in gold on the shoulders, or the banner, or simple flattery. The man certainly had no reason to think them other than merchants, if well dressed for it. “Those murdering savages have risen again. It is another Aiel War. They were over the wall in the night before anybody knew, killing everyone who raised a hand, stealing everything not mortared in place.”

“In the night?” Mat said sharply. Hat pulled low, he was still studying the ruined town. “Were your sentries asleep? You did have sentries this close to your enemies? Even Aiel would have a hard time coming at you if you kept a good watch.” Lan gave him an appraising look.

“No, my Lord.” The gray-haired man blinked at Mat, then gave his answer to Rand. Mat’s green coat was fine enough for a lord, but it hung open and looked slept in. “We . . . We had only a watchman at each gate. It has been long since any have even seen one of the savages. But this time . . . Whatever they did not steal, they burned, and drove us out to starve. Filthy animals! Thank the Light you have come to save us, my Lord, or we would all have died here. I am Tal Nethin. I am—I was—a saddlemaker. A good one, my Lord. This is my sister Aril, and her husband, Ander Corl. He makes fine boots.”

“They stole people, too, my Lord,” the woman said, her voice raw. Somewhat younger than her brother, she might have been handsome once, but haggard worry had etched lines in her face that Rand suspected would never entirely go away. Her husband had a lost look in his eyes, as if not exactly sure where he was. “My daughter, my Lord, and my son. They took all the young ones, everyone above sixteen, and some twice that or more. Said they were guy-something, and stripped them naked right in the street and herded them off. My Lord, can you . . . ?” She trailed off, eyes squeezing shut as the impossibility overwhelmed her, swaying. Small odds that she would ever see her children again.

Moiraine was out of her saddle in an instant and by Aril’s side. The haggard woman gave a loud gasp as soon as the Aes Sedai’s hands touched her, shivering to her toetips. Her wondering look turned to Moiraine questioningly, but Moiraine only held her as if supporting her.

The woman’s husband suddenly gaped, staring at Rand’s gilded belt buckle, the gift from Aviendha. “His arms were marked like that. Like that. All twined around, like the cliff snake.”

Tal looked up at Rand uncertainly. “The savages’ leader, my Lord. He—had markings like that on his arms. He wore those strange clothes they all do, but he had his coatsleeves cut off, and he made sure everybody saw.”

“A gift I received in the Waste,” Rand said. He made sure to keep his hands still on his pommel; his coatsleeves hid his own Dragons, except for the heads; they would be visible on the backs of his hands to anyone who looked closely. Aril had forgotten about wondering what Moiraine had actually done, and all three looked on the point of running. “How long since they left?”

“Six days, my Lord,” Tal said uneasily. “They did what they did in a night and a day and were gone the next. We would have gone, too, but what if we met them coming back? Surely they were turned back at Selean?” That was the town at the other end of the pass. Rand doubted that Selean was in any better condition than Taien by this time.

“How many survivors are there besides you three?”

“Maybe a hundred, my Lord. Maybe more. Nobody has counted.”

Abruptly anger flared in him, though he tried to hold it down. “A hundred of you?” His voice was icy iron. “And six days? Then why are your dead left for the ravens? Why do corpses still decorate your town walls? Those are your people filling your nostrils with their stink!” Huddling together, the three backed away from his horse.

“We were afraid, my Lord,” Tal said hoarsely. “They went, but they could come back. And he told us . . . The one with the markings on his arms told us not to touch anything.”

“A message,” Ander said in a dull voice. “He chose them out to hang, just pulling them out until he had enough to line the wall. Men, women, he did not care.” His eyes were fixed on Rand’s buckle. “He said they were a message for some man who would be following him. He said he wanted this man to know . . . know what they were going to do on the other side of the Spine. He said . . . He said he would do worse to this man.”

Aril’s eyes widened suddenly, and the three stared beyond Rand for a moment, gaping. Then, screaming, they turned and ran. Black-veiled Aiel rose from the rocks they had come from, and they darted off in another direction. Veiled Aiel appeared there, too, and they collapsed to the ground, sobbing and holding each other as they were surrounded. Moiraine’s face was cool and composed, but her eyes were not serene.

Rand twisted in his saddle. Rhuarc and Dhearic were coming up the slope, unveiling themselves and unwrapping the shoufa from around their heads. Dhearic was thicker than Rhuarc, with a prominent nose and paler streaks through his golden hair. He had brought the Reyn Aiel as Rhuarc had said he would.

Timolan and his Miagoma had been paralleling them to the north for three days, exchanging occasional messengers but giving no clue to his intentions. The Codarra and the Shiande and the Daryne were still somewhere to the east; following, so Amys and the others said from dreamtalking to their Wise Ones, but slowly. Those Wise Ones had no more idea of their clan chiefs’ aims than Rand did of Timolan’s.

“Was that necessary?” he said as the two chiefs came up to him. He had frightened the people first, but for cause, and had not made them think that they were going to die.

Rhuarc simply shrugged, and Dhearic said, “We put spears in place around this hold unseen, as you wished, and there seemed no reason to wait since no one remained here to dance spears. Besides, they are only treekillers.”

Rand drew a deep breath. He had known this might be as large a problem as Couladin, in its own way. Nearly five hundred years ago the Aiel had presented Cairhien with a sapling, a cutting from Avendesora, and with it a right granted to no other nation, to trade across the Three-fold Land to Shara. They had given no reason—they did not like wetlanders very much at the best—but to the Aiel it had been required by ji’e’toh. During the long years of journey that had brought them to the Waste, only one people had not attacked them, only one had allowed them water uncontested when the world grew parched. And finally they had found the descendants of those people. The Cairhienin.

For five hundred years riches had flowed into Cairhien with the silk and the ivory. Five hundred years, and Avendoraldera grew in Cairhein. And then King Laman had had the tree cut down to make a throne. The nations knew why the Aiel had crossed the Spine of the World twenty years ago—Laman’s Sin, they called it, and Laman’s Pride—but few knew that to the Aiel it had not been a war. Four clans had come to find an oathbreaker, and when they had killed him, they returned to the Three-fold Land. But their contempt for the treekillers, the oathbreakers, had never died. Moiraine being Aes Sedai offset her being Cairhienin, but Rand was never sure how much.

“These folk broke no oaths,” he told them. “Find the others; the saddlemaker says there are about a hundred. And be gentle with them. If any of them were watching, they’re probably running away into the mountains by now.” The two Aiel started to turn away, and he added, “Did you hear what they told me? What do you think of what Couladin did here?”

“They killed more than they had to,” Dhearic said with a disgusted shake of his head. “Like black ferrets falling on rockhens’ nests in a gully.” Killing was as easy as dying, so the Aiel said; any fool could do either.

“And the other thing? Taking prisoners. Gai’shain.”

Rhuarc and Dhearic exchanged looks, and Dhearic’s mouth tightened. Clearly they had heard, and it made them uncomfortable. It took a great deal to make an Aiel uncomfortable.

“It cannot be so,” Rhuarc said at last. “If it is . . . Gai’shain is a thing of ji’e’toh. No one can be made gai’shain who does not follow ji’e’toh, else they are only human animals, such as the Sharans keep.”

“Couladin has abandoned ji’e’toh.” Dhearic sounded as though he were saying stones had grown wings.

Mat guided Pips closer, using his knees. He had never been more than an indifferent rider, but sometimes, when he was thinking of something else, he rode as though born on a horse’s back. “That surprises you?” he said. “After everything he has done already? The man would cheat at dice with his mother.”

They gave him flat-eyed stares, like blue stones. In many ways, Aiel were ji’e’toh. And whatever else Couladin was, he was still Aiel in their eyes. Sept before clan, clan before outsiders, but Aiel before wetlanders.

Some of the Maidens joined them, Enaila and Jolien and Adelin, and wiry, white-haired Sulin, who had been chosen roofmistress of the Roof of the Maidens in Rhuidean. She had told the Maidens who stayed to choose another, and now she led the Maidens here. They sensed the mood, and said nothing, only grounded their spearpoints patiently. An Aiel who wanted to could make the rocks look hasty.

Lan broke the silence. “If Couladin expects you to be following him, he may have left a surprise somewhere in the pass. A hundred men could hold some of those narrows against an army. A thousand . . .”

“We will camp here, then,” Rand said, “and send scouts ahead to make sure the way is clear. Duadhe Mahdi’in?”

“Water Seekers,” Dhearic agreed, sounding pleased. That had been his society before he became clan chief.

Sulin and the other Maidens gave Rand flat stares as the Reyn chief walked away downslope. He had chosen scouts from other societies for the last three days, when he had begun to fear what he might find here, and he had the feeling they knew he was not just giving the others their turns. He tried to ignore their looks. Sulin’s was especially difficult; the woman could have driven nails with those pale blue eyes.

“Rhuarc, once the survivors are found, see that they’re fed. And well treated. We will take them with us.” His gaze was drawn to the town wall. Some Aiel were already using their curved horn bows to kill ravens. Sometimes Shadowspawn used ravens and other animals that fed on death as spies; Shadoweyes, the Aiel called them. These barely paused in the frenzied feeding until they fell transfixed with an arrow, but a wise man did not take chances with ravens or rats. “And see that the dead are buried.” At least in that, right and necessity were the same.

CHAPTER

21

The Gift of a Blade

The camp began to go up quickly, in the mouth of Jangai Pass, if away from Taien, and spreading over the hills around the approaches, among the scattered thornbushes, and even onto the slopes of the mountains. Not that anything was very visible except what was inside the pass; Aiel tents blended into the stony soil so well that you could miss them even when you knew what you were looking for and where. In the hills the Aiel camped by clan, but those in the pass itself grouped themselves by society. They were mostly Maidens, but the men’s societies sent their representatives, too, some fifty each, spreading tents well above the ruins of Taien in slightly separated camps. Everyone understood, or thought they did, about the Maidens carrying Rand’s honor, but all societies wanted to guard the Car’a’carn.

Moiraine—and Lan, of course—went to get Kadere’s wagons settled, just below the town; the Aes Sedai fussed over what was in those wagons nearly as much as she did over Rand. The drivers muttered and cursed about the town’s smell, and avoided watching the Aiel cut bodies down from the wall, but after their months in the Waste, they seemed to like being close even to the wreckage of what they saw as civilization.

Gai’shain were erecting the Wise Ones’ tents—those of Amys and Bair and Melaine—below the town, astride the faded track that led up out of the hills. Rand was sure they would say they had chosen the spot to be available to him as well as to the countless dozens of Wise Ones below, but he thought it no coincidence that anyone coming up from the hills to him would have to go through or around their camp to reach him. He was a little surprised to see Melaine directing the white-robed figures. Only three nights before, she had married Bael, in a ceremony that made her his wife and first-sister to his other wife, Dorindha. That part had been just as important as the marriage, apparently; Aviendha had been shocked at his surprise, or maybe angry.

When Egwene arrived with Aviendha up behind her on the gray mare, those full skirts pushed above their knees, they looked a matched pair despite their different coloring and Aviendha being tall enough to look over Egwene’s shoulder without stretching, each with just one ivory bracelet and one necklace. The work of removing the hanged corpses had barely begun. Most of the ravens lay dead, bundles of black feathers littering the ground, and the rest had flown, but vultures too gorged to flap aloft still waddled through the ashes inside the walls.

Rand wished that there was some way he could keep the two women from having to see, but to his surprise, neither went running to empty her stomach. Well, he had not really expected anything of the sort from Aviendha; she had seen death often enough, and dealt it out, too, and her face remained expressionless. But he had not expected the pure pity in Egwene’s eyes as she gazed at the bloated dead coming down.

She drew Mist over to Jeade’en and leaned to put a hand on his arm. “I am so sorry, Rand. There was no way you could have stopped this.”

“I know,” he told her. He had not even known there was a town here until Rhuarc mentioned it casually five days ago—his councils with the chiefs had all been on whether they could cover more ground in a day, and what Couladin would do when he cleared the Jangai—and by that time the Shaido had finished here and gone. He had done with cursing himself for a fool then.

“Well, just you remember it. It was not your fault.” She heeled Mist on, and began talking to Aviendha before she was out of earshot. “I am glad he is taking it so well. He has the habit of feeling guilty over things he cannot control.”

“Men always believe they are in control of everything around them,” Aviendha replied. “When they find out they are not, they think they have failed, instead of learning a simple truth women already know.”

Egwene giggled. “That is the simple truth. Once I saw those poor people, I thought we would find him heaving somewhere.”

“Is his stomach so tender? I . . .”

Their voices faded away as the mare ambled on. Rand pulled himself back upright in the saddle, flushing. Trying to eavesdrop on them; he was behaving like an idiot. That did not stop him frowning at their departing backs. He only took responsibility for what he was accountable for, if only to himself. Just for things he could do something about. And what he should have done something about. He did not like them talking about him. Behind his back, or under his nose. The Light only knew what they were saying.

Dismounting, he led Jeade’en in search of Asmodean, who seemed to have wandered off. After so many days in the saddle, it was good to walk. Various clusters of tents were springing up along the pass; the mountain slopes and cliffs made formidable barriers, but the Aiel still arranged themselves as if they could expect attack from them. He had tried walking with the Aiel, but half a day was enough to put him back on the horse. It was hard enough to keep up with them mounted; they could wear out horses when they pressed.

Mat was down, too, squatting with his reins in one hand and that black-hafted spear across his knees, peering at the gaping gates, studying the town and muttering to himself while Pips tried to nibble at a thornbush. Mat was studying, not just staring. Where had that remark about sentries come from? Mat said odd things at times now, since their first visit to Rhuidean. Rand wished that he were willing to talk about what had happened, but he still denied that anything had, despite the foxhead medallion, the spear, and that scar around his neck. Melindhra, the Shaido Maiden that Mat had taken up with, was off to one side, watching Mat, until Sulin came and chased her away on some errand. Rand wondered if Mat knew the Maidens were laying bets on whether Melindhra would give up the spear for him. And on whether she would teach him to sing, too, though they only laughed when Rand asked what that meant.

The sound of music drew him to Asmodean, seated by himself on a granite outcrop with his harp on his knee. The crimson banner’s staff had been twisted into the rocky soil, and the mule tethered to it. “You see, my Lord Dragon,” he said cheerfully, “your bannerman keeps loyally to his duties.” His voice and expression changed, and he said, “If you must have this thing, why not let Mat carry it, or Lan? Or Moiraine, for that matter? She would be glad to carry your banner, and clean your boots. Be careful of her. She is a devious woman. When a woman says she will obey you, of her own will, it is time to sleep lightly and watch your back.”

“You carry it because you were chosen, Master Jasin Natael.” Asmodean gave a start and looked around, though everyone else was too far away, and too busy, to be listening. None but they two would have understood, anyway. “What do you know about those ruins up near the snow line? They must come from the Age of Legends.”

Asmodean did not even glance up the mountain. “This world is very changed from the world I . . . went to sleep in.” He sounded weary, and he shivered slightly. “What I know of what lies where, I have learned since waking.” The mournful sounds of “The March of Death” rose from his harp. “That could be what is left of the city where I was born, for all I know. Shorelle was a port.”

The sun had maybe an hour before the Spine of the World hid it; this close to high mountains, night came early. “I am too tired for one of our discussions tonight.” That was what they called Asmodean’s lessons in public, even when no one was around. Added to practice sessions with Lan or Rhuarc, those lessons had left him little time for sleep since leaving Rhuidean. “You take to your tent when you’re ready, and I will see you in the morning. With the banner.” There was no one else to carry the bloody thing. Maybe he could find somebody in Cairhien.

As he was turning away, Asmodean plucked something discordant and said, “No burning nets woven around my tent tonight? Do you finally begin to trust me?”

Rand looked back over his shoulder. “I trust you like a brother. Until the day you betray me. You have a parole for what you’ve done, in return for your teaching, and a better bargain than you deserve, but the day you turn against me, I will tear it up and bury it with you.” Asmodean opened his mouth, but Rand forestalled him. “That is me talking, Natael. Rand al’Thor. Two Rivers folk don’t like people who try to stab them in the back.”

Irritably, he pulled at the dapple’s reins and went on before the other man could say anything. He was not sure whether Asmodean had any inkling that a dead man was trying to take him over, but he should not let himself give the man hints. Asmodean was sure enough already that his was a helpless cause; if he began to think that Rand was not in full control of his own mind, perhaps that he was going mad, the Forsaken would abandon him in a heartbeat, and there was too much Rand had to learn yet.

White-robed gai’shain were erecting his tent under Aviendha’s direction, well into the pass mouth, with that huge carved snake fearing above. The gai’shain had their own tents, but those would be the last erected, of course. Adelin and a dozen or so Maidens squatted nearby, watching, waiting to guard his sleep. Even with over a thousand Maidens encamped around him every night, they still put a guard on his tent.

Before approaching, he reached out through the angreal in his coat pocket to seize saidin. There was no need to actually touch the carving of the fat little man with a sword, of course. Mingled filth and sweetness filled him, that raging river of fire, that crushing avalanche of ice. Channeling as he had done every night since leaving Rhuidean, he set wards around the entire encampment, not only what was in the pass but every tent in the hills below as well, and on the slopes of the mountains. He needed the angreal to set wardings so large, but only just. He had thought that he was strong before, but Asmodean’s teachings were making him stronger. No human or animal crossing the line of that ward would notice anything, but Shadowspawn that touched it would sound a warning that everyone in the tents would hear. Had he done this in Rhuidean, the Darkhounds could never have entered without him knowing.

The Aiel themselves would have to keep watch for human enemies. Wardings were complex weaves, if tenuous, and trying to make them do more than one thing could render them useless, in practicality. He could have made this one to kill Shadowspawn instead of merely giving warning, but that would have been like a beacon to any male Forsaken who might be searching, and to Myrddraal, too. No need to bring his enemies down on him when they might not know where he was. This, even one of the Forsaken would not know until he was close, and a Myrddraal not until it was too late.

Letting go of saidin was an exercise in self-control, despite the foulness of the taint, despite the way the Power tried to scour him away like sand on a riverbed, to burn him, obliterate him. He floated in the vast emptiness of the Void, yet he could feel the air stirring against each hair on his head, see the weave of the gai’shain’s robes, smell Aviendha’s warm scent. He wanted more. But he could smell the ashes of Taien, too, smell the dead who had been burned, the corruption of those who had not, even the ones already buried, mingled with the dry soil of their graves. That helped. For a while after saidin was gone, all he did was take deep breaths of hot, arid air; compared to before, the whiff of death seemed absent, and the air itself pure and wonderful.

“Look what was here before us,” Aviendha said as he let a meek-faced white-robed woman take Jeade’en. She held up a brown snake, dead, but as thick as his forearm and nearly three paces long. The bloodsnake took its name from the effect of its bite, turning the blood to jelly in minutes. Unless he missed his guess, the neat wound behind its head had come from her belt knife. Adelin and the other Maidens looked approving.

“Did you ever for one minute think that it could have bitten you?” he said. “Did you ever think of using the Power instead of a bloody belt knife? Why didn’t you kiss it first? You had to be close enough.”

She drew herself up, and her big green eyes should have brought on the night’s chill early. “The Wise Ones say it is not good to use the Power too often.” The clipped words were as cold as her eyes. “They say it is possible to draw too much and harm yourself.” Frowning slightly, she added, more to herself than him, “Though I have not come near what I can hold yet. I am sure of it.”

Shaking his head, he ducked into the tent. The woman would not listen to reason.

No sooner had he settled himself against a silk cushion near the still unlit fire than she followed him. Without the bloodsnake, thankfully, but gingerly carrying something long wrapped in thick layers of gray-striped blanket. “You were worried for me,” she said in a flat voice. There was no expression at all on her face.

“Of course not,” he lied. Fool woman. She’ll get herself killed yet because she doesn’t have the sense to be careful when it’s needed. “I’d have been as worried for anyone. I would not want anyone bitten by a bloodsnake.”

For a moment she eyed him doubtfully, then gave a quick nod. “Good. So long as you do not presume toward me.” Tossing the bundled blanket at his feet, she sat on her heels across the firepit from him. “You would not accept the buckle as canceling debt between us . . .”

“Aviendha, there is no debt.” He thought that she had forgotten about that. She went on as if he had not spoken.

“. . . but perhaps that will cancel it.”

Sighing, he unwrapped the striped blanket—warily, since she had held it far more uneasily than she had the snake; she had held the bloody snake as if it were a piece of cloth—unwrapped it, and gasped. What lay inside was a sword, the scabbard so encrusted with rubies and moonstones that it was hard to see the gold except where a rising sun of many rays had been inset. The ivory hilt, long enough for two hands, had another inlaid rising sun in gold; the pommel was thick with rubies and moonstones, and still more made a solid mass along the quillons. This had never been made to use, only to be seen. To be stared at.

“This must have cost . . . Aviendha, how could you pay for it?”

“It cost little,” she said, so defensively that she might as well have added that she lied.

“A sword. How did you ever come by a sword? How did any Aiel come by a sword? Don’t tell me Kadere had this hidden in his wagons.”

“I carried it in a blanket.” She sounded even more touchy now than she had about the price. “Even Bair said that would make it all right, so long as I did not actually touch it.” She shrugged uncomfortably, shifting and reshifting her shawl. “It was the treekiller’s sword. Laman’s. It was taken from his body as proof that he was dead, because his head could not be brought back so far. Since then it has passed from hand to hand, young men or fool Maidens who wanted to own the proof of his death. Only, each began to think of what it was, and soon sold it to another fool. The price has come down very far since it first was sold. No Aiel would lay hand to it even to remove the stones.”

“Well, it is very beautiful,” he said, as tactfully as he could manage. Only a buffoon would carry something this gaudy. And that ivory hilt would twist in a hand slippery with sweat or blood. “But I cannot let you . . .” He trailed off as he bared a few inches of the blade, out of habit, to examine the edge. Etched into the shining steel stood a heron, symbol of a blademaster. He had carried a sword marked like that once. Suddenly he was ready to bet that this blade was like it, like the raven-marked blade on Mat’s spear, metal made with Power that would never break and never need sharpening. Most blademasters’ swords were only copies of those. Lan could tell him for certain, but he was sure already in his own mind.

Pulling the scabbard off, he leaned across the firepit to place it in front of her. “I will take the blade to cancel the debt, Aviendha.” It was long and slightly curved, with a single edge. “Just the blade. You can have the hilt back, too.” He could have a new hilt and scabbard made in Cairhien. Maybe one of Taien’s survivors was a decent bladesmith.

She stared wide-eyed from the scabbard to him and back, mouth open, stunned for the first time that he had ever seen. “But those gems are worth much, much more than I—You are trying to put me in your debt again, Rand al’Thor.”

“Not so.” If this blade had lain untouched, and untarnished, in its scabbard for over twenty years, it had to be what he thought. “I did not accept the scabbard, so it has been yours all along.” Tossing one of the silk cushions into the air, he executed the seated version of the form called Low Wind Rising; feathers rained down as the blade sliced neatly through. “And I don’t accept the hilt, either, so that’s yours, too. If you have made a profit, it’s your own doing.”

Instead of looking happy at her good fortune—he suspected she had given everything that she had for the sword, and likely gotten back a hundred times as much or more in the scabbard alone—instead of seeming glad, or thanking him, she glared through the feathers as indignantly as any goodwife in the Two Rivers seeing her floor littered. Stiffly, she clapped, and one of the gai’shain appeared, immediately going to her knees to begin cleaning up the mess.

“It is my tent,” he said pointedly. Aviendha sniffed at him in perfect imitation of Egwene. Those two women were definitely spending too much time together.

Supper, when it came at full dark, consisted of the usual flat pale bread, and a spicy stew of dried peppers and beans with chunks of nearly white meat. He only grinned at her when he learned that it was the bloodsnake; he had eaten snake and worse since coming to the Waste. Gara—the poisonous lizard—was the worst in his estimation; not for the taste, which was rather like chicken, but because it was lizard. It sometimes seemed that there must be more poisonous things—snakes, lizards, spiders, plants—in the Waste than in the rest of the world combined.

Aviendha appeared disappointed that he did not spit the stew out in disgust, though sometimes it was difficult to tell what she was feeling. At times she seemed to take great pleasure in discomfiting him. Had he been trying to pretend that he was Aiel, he would have thought she was trying to prove he was not.

Tired and eager for sleep, he only took off his coat and boots before crawling into his blankets and turning his back to Aviendha. Aielmen and-women might take sweatbaths together, but a short time in Shienar, where they did something much the same, had convinced him that he was not made for that sort of thing, not without going so red in the face that he died of it. He tried not to listen to the rustle of her undressing beneath her own blankets. At least she had that much modesty, but he kept his back turned anyway, just in case.

She claimed she was supposed to sleep there to continue his lessons on Aiel ways and customs, since he spent so much of his days with the chiefs. They both knew that was a lie, though what the Wise Ones thought she could find out this way, he could not imagine. She gave little grunts every now and then as she tugged at something, and muttered to herself.

To cover the sounds, and stop himself thinking of what they must mean, he said, “Melaine’s wedding was impressive. Did Bael really know nothing about it until Melaine and Dorindha told him?”

“Of course not,” she replied scornfully, pausing for what he thought was a stocking coming off. “Why should he know before Melaine laid the bridal wreath at his feet and asked him?” Abruptly she laughed. “Melaine nearly drove herself and Dorindha to distraction finding segade blossoms for the wreath. Few grow so close to the Dragonwall.”

“Does that mean something special? Segade blossoms?” That was what he had sent her, the flowers she had never acknowledged.

“That she has a prickly nature and means to keep it.” Another pause, broken by mutters. “Had she used leaves or flowers from sweetroot, it would have meant she claimed a sweet nature. Morning drop would mean she would be submissive, and . . . There are too many to list. It would take me days to teach all the combinations to you, and you do not need to know them. You will not have an Aiel wife. You belong to Elayne.”

He nearly looked at her when she said “submissive.” A word less likely to describe any Aiel woman he could not conceive. Probably means she gives warning before she stabs you.

There had been more of a muffled sound to her voice at the end. Pulling her blouse over her head, he realized. He wished the lamps were out. No, that would have made it worse. But then, he had been through this every single night since Rhuidean, and every single night it was worse. He had to put an end to it. The woman was going to sleep with the Wise Ones, where she belonged, from now on; he would learn what he could from her as he could. He had thought exactly the same thing for fifteen nights now.

Trying to chase the pictures out of his head, he said, “That bit at the end. After the vows were said.” No sooner had half a dozen Wise Ones pronounced their blessings than a hundred of Melaine’s blood kin had rushed in to surround her, all carrying their spears. A hundred of Bael’s kin had rallied to him, and he had fought his way to her. No one had been veiled, of course—it was all part of custom—but blood had still been shed on both sides. “A few minutes before, Melaine was vowing that she loved him, but when he reached her, she fought like a cornered ridgecat.” If Dorindha had not punched her in the shortribs, he did not think Bael would ever have gotten her over his shoulder to carry off. “He still has the limp and the black eye she gave him.”

“Should she have been a weakling?” Aviendha said sleepily. “He had to know the worth of her. She was not a trinket for him to put in his pouch.” She yawned, and he heard her nestling deeper into her blankets.

“What does ‘teaching a man to sing’ mean?” Aielmen did not sing, not once they were old enough to take up a spear, except for battle chants and laments for the dead.

“You are thinking of Mat Cauthon?” She actually giggled. “Sometimes, a man gives up the spear for a Maiden.”

“You’re making that up. I never heard of anything like that.”

“Well, it is not really giving up the spear.” Her voice held a thick muzziness. “Sometimes a man desires a Maiden who will not give up the spear for him, and he arranges to be taken gai’shain by her. He is a fool, of course. No Maiden would look at gai’shain as he hopes. He is worked hard and kept strictly to his place, and the first thing that is done is to make him learn to sing, to entertain the spear-sisters while they eat. ‘She is going to teach him to sing.’ That is what Maidens say when a man makes a fool of himself over one of the spear-sisters.” A very peculiar people.

“Aviendha?” He had said he was not going to ask her this again. Lan said it was Kandori work, a pattern called snowflakes. Probably loot from some raid up north. “Who gave you that necklace?”

“A friend, Rand al’Thor. We came far today, and you will start us early tomorrow. Sleep well and wake, Rand al’Thor.” Only an Aiel would wish you a good night by hoping you did not die in your sleep.

Setting the much smaller if much more intricate ward on his dreams, he channeled the lamps out and tried to sleep. A friend. The Reyn came from the north. But she had had the necklace in Rhuidean. Why did he care? Aviendha’s slow breathing seemed loud in his ears until he fell asleep, and then he dreamed a confused dream of Min and Elayne helping him throw Aviendha, wearing nothing but that necklace, over his shoulder, while she beat him over the head with a wreath of segade blossoms.

CHAPTER

22

Birdcalls by Night

Lying facedown on his blankets with his eyes closed, Mat luxuriated in the feel of Melindhra’s thumbs kneading their way down his spine. There was nothing quite as good as a massage after a long day in the saddle. Well, some things were, but right then, he was willing to settle for her thumbs.

“You are well muscled for such a short man, Matrim Cauthon.”

He opened one eye and glanced back at her, kneeling astride his hips. She had built the fire up twice as high as needed, and sweat trickled down her body. Her fine golden hair, close-cut except for that Aiel tail at the nape of her neck, clung to her scalp. “If I’m too short, you can always find somebody else.”

“You are not too short for my taste,” she laughed, ruffling his hair. It was longer than hers. “And you are cute. Relax. This does no good if you tense.”

Grunting, he closed his eyes again. Cute? Light! And short. Only Aiel could call him short. In every other land he had been in, he was taller than most men, if not always by much. He could remember being tall. Taller than Rand, when he rode against Artur Hawkwing. And a hand shorter than he was now when he fought beside Maecine against the Aelgari. He had spoken to Lan, claiming he had overheard some names; the Warder said Maecine had been a king of Eharon, one of the Ten Nations—that much Mat already knew—some four or five hundred years before the Trolloc Wars. Lan doubted that even the Brown Ajah knew more; much had been lost in the Trolloc Wars, and more in the War of the Hundred Years. Those were the earliest and latest of the memories that had been planted in his skull. Nothing after Artur Paendrag Tanreall, and nothing before Maecine of Eharon.

“Are you cold?” Melindhra said incredulously. “You shivered.” She scrambled off him, and he heard her add wood to the fire; there was enough scrub here for burning. She slapped his bottom hard as she climbed back on, murmuring, “Good muscle.”

“If you keep on like that,” he muttered, “I’ll think you mean to spit me for supper, like a Trolloc.” It was not that he did not enjoy Melindhra—as long as she refrained from pointing out that she was taller, anyway—but the situation made him uncomfortable.

“No spits for you, Matrim Cauthon.” Her thumbs dug hard into his shoulder. “That is it. Relax.”

He supposed that he would marry someday, settle down. That was what you did. A woman, a house, a family. Shackled to one spot for the rest of his life. I never heard of a wife yet that liked her husband having a drink or a gamble. And there was what those folk on the other side of the doorframe ter’angreal had said. That he was fated “to marry the Daughter of the Nine Moons.” A man has to marry sooner or later, I suppose. But he certainly did not mean to take an Aiel wife. He wanted to dance with as many women as he could, while he could.

“You are not made for spits, but for great honor, I think,” Melindhra said softly.

“Sounds fine to me.” Only now he could not get another woman to look at him, not the Maidens or the others. It was as if Melindhra had hung a sign on him saying OWNED BY MELINDHRA OF THE JUMAI SHAIDO. Well, she would not have put that last bit on, not here. Then again, who knew what an Aiel would do, especially a Maiden of the Spear? Women did not think the same as men, and Aielwomen did not think like anybody else in the world.

“It is strange that you efface yourself so.”

“Efface myself?” he mumbled. Her hands did feel good; knots were coming out that he had not known were there. “How?” He wondered if it had something to do with that necklace. Melindhra seemed to set great store by it, or by receiving it, anyway. She never wore the thing, of course. Maidens did not. But she carried it in her pouch, and showed it to every woman who asked. A lot of them seemed to.

“You put yourself in the shadow of Rand al’Thor.”

“I’m not in anybody’s shadow,” he said absently. It could not be the necklace. He had given jewelry to other women, Maidens and others; he liked giving things to pretty women, even if all he got in return was a smile. He never expected more. If a woman did not enjoy a kiss and a cuddle as much as he did, what was the point?

“Of course, there is honor of a sort in being in the shadow of the Car’a’carn. To be near the mighty, you must stand in their shade.”

“Shade,” Mat agreed, not really hearing. Sometimes the women accepted and sometimes not, but none had decided they owned him. That was what rankled, really. He was not about to be owned by any woman, however pretty she was. And no matter how good her hands were at loosening knotted muscles.

“Your scars should be scars of honor, earned in your own name, as a chief, not this.” One finger traced along the hanging scar on his neck. “Did you earn this serving the Car’a’carn?”

Shrugging her hand away, he pushed up on his elbows and twisted to look at her. “Are you sure ‘Daughter of the Nine Moons’ doesn’t mean anything to you?”

“I have told you it does not. Lie down.”

“If you are lying to me, I swear I’ll welt your rump.”

Hands on hips, she looked down at him dangerously. “Do you think that you can . . . welt my rump, Mat Cauthon?”

“I’ll give it my best try.” She would probably put a spear through his ribs. “Do you swear you’ve never heard of the Daughter of the Nine Moons?”

“I never have,” she said slowly. “Who is she? Or what? Lie down, and let me—”

A blackbird called, seemingly everywhere in the tent and outside as well, and a moment later, a redwing. Good Two Rivers birds. Rand had chosen his warnings from what he knew, birds not found in the Waste.

Melindhra was off him in an instant, wrapping her shoufa around her head, veiling herself as she snatched up spears and bucklers. She darted from the tent like that.

“Blood and bloody ashes!” Mat muttered as he struggled into his breeches. A redwing meant the south. He and Melindhra had put up their tent to the south, with the Chareen, as far from Rand as they could get and stay in the encampment. But he was not going outside in those thornbushes naked, the way Melindhra had. The blackbird meant north, where the Shaarad were camped; they were coming from two sides at once.

Stamping his feet in his boots as best he could in the low tent, he looked at the silver foxhead lying beside his blankets. Shouts were rising outside, the clash of metal on metal. He had finally figured out that that medallion had somehow kept Moiraine from Healing him on her first try. So long as he had been touching it, her channeling had not affected him. He had never heard of Shadowspawn able to channel, but there was always the Black Ajah—so Rand said, and he believed it—and always the chance that one of the Forsaken had finally come after Rand. Pulling the leather thong over his head so the medallion hung on his chest, he snatched up his raven-marked spear and ducked out into cold moonlight.

He had no time to feel the icy chill. Before he was completely out of the tent, he almost lost his head to a scythe-curved Trolloc sword. The blade brushed his hair as he threw himself into a low dive, rolling to his feet with the spear ready.

At first glance in the darkness, the Trolloc might have been a bulky man, though half again as tall as any Aiel man, garbed all in black mail with spikes at elbows and shoulders, and a helmet with goat’s horns attached. But these horns grew out of that too human head, and below the eyes a goat’s muzzle thrust out.

Snarling, the Trolloc lunged at him, and howled in a harsh language never meant for a human tongue. Mat spun his spear like a quarterstaff, knocking the heavy, curved blade to one side, and thrust his long spearpoint into the creature’s middle, mail parting for that Power-made steel as easily as the flesh beneath. The goat-snouted Trolloc folded over with a harsh cry, and Mat pulled his weapon free, dodging aside as it fell.

All around him Aiel, some unclothed or only half but all black-veiled, fought Trollocs with tusked boars’ snouts or wolves’ muzzles or eagles’ beaks, some with heads horned or crested with feathers, wielding those oddly curved swords and spiked axes, hooked tridents and spears. Here and there one used a huge bow to shoot barbed arrows the size of small spears. Men fought alongside the Trollocs, too, in rough coats, with swords, shouting desperately as they died among the thornbushes.

“Sammael!”

“Sammael and the Golden Bees!”

The Darkfriends were dying, most as soon as they engaged an Aiel, but the Trollocs died harder.

“I am no bloody hero!” Mat shouted to no one in particular as he battled a Trolloc with a bear’s muzzle and hairy ears, his third. The creature carried a long-handled axe, with half a dozen sharp spikes and a flaring blade big enough to split a tree, throwing it about like a toy in those great hairy hands. It was being near Rand that got Mat into these things. All he wanted from life was some good wine, a game of dice, and a pretty girl or three. “I don’t want to be mixed up in this!” Especially not if Sammael was around. “Do you hear me?”

The Trolloc went down with a ruined throat, and he found himself facing a Myrddraal, just as it finished killing two Aiel who had come at it together. The Halfman looked like a man, pasty pale, armored in black overlapping scales like a snake’s. It moved like a snake, too, boneless and fluid and quick, night-black cloak hanging still however it darted. And it had no eyes. Just a dead-white sweep of skin where eyes should be.

That eyeless gaze turned on him, and he shivered, fear oozing along his bones. “The look of the Eyeless is fear,” they said in the Borderlands, where they should know, and even Aiel admitted that a Myrddraal’s stare sent chills through the marrow. That was the creature’s first weapon. The Halfman came at him in a flowing run.

With a roar, Mat rushed to meet it, spear spinning like a quarterstaff, thrusting, ever moving. The thing carried a blade as dark as its cloak, a sword hammered at the forges of Thakan’dar, and if that cut him, he was as good as dead unless Moiraine appeared quickly with her Healing. But there was only one sure way to take down a Fade. All-out attack; you had to overwhelm it before it overwhelmed you, and a thought for defense could be a good way to die. He could not even spare a glance for the battle raging around him in the night.

The Myrddraal’s blade flickered like a serpent’s tongue, darted like black lightning, but to counter Mat’s attack. When raven-marked Power-wrought steel met Thakan’dar-made metal, blue light flashed around them, a crackle of sheet lightning.

Suddenly Mat’s slashing attack struck flesh. Black sword and pale hand flew away, and the reverse stroke sliced open the Myrddraal’s throat, but Mat did not stop. Thrust through the heart, cut to one hamstring, then the other, all in rapid succession. Only then did he step away from the thing still thrashing on the ground, flailing about with its good hand and severed stump, wounds spilling inky blood. Halfmen took a long time to admit that they were dead; they did not die completely except with a setting sun.

Looking around, Mat realized that the attack was over. Whatever Darkfriends or Trollocs were not dead, had fled; at least, he saw none standing except Aiel. Some of them were down, too. He plucked a kerchief from the neck of a Darkfriend corpse to wipe the Myrddraal’s black blood from his spearpoint. It would etch the metal if left too long.

This night assault made no sense. By the bodies he could see in the moonlight, Trolloc and human, none had made it much past the first line of tents. And without far greater numbers, they could not have hoped for more.

“What was that you called out? Carai something. The Old Tongue?”

He turned to look at Melindhra. She had unveiled, but she still wore not a stitch more than her shoufa. There were other Maidens about, and men, wearing as little, and showing as little concern, though most did seem to be heading back to their tents without lingering. They had no modesty, that was it. No modesty at all. She did not even seem to feel the cold, though her breath made wisps of mist. He was as sweaty as she, and freezing now that he had no fight for his life to occupy his mind.

“Something I heard once,” he told her. “I liked the sound of it.” Carai an Caldazar! For the honor of the Red Eagle. The battle cry of Manetheren. Most of his memories were from Manetheren. Some of those he had had before the twisted doorway. Moiraine said it was the Old Blood coming out. Just as long as it did not come out of his veins.

She put an arm around his shoulders as he started back toward their tent. “I saw you with the Nightrunner, Mat Cauthon.” That was one of the Aiel names for Myrddraal. “You are as tall as a man needs to be.”

Grinning, he slipped his arm around her waist, but he could not get the attack out of his head. He wanted to—his thoughts were too snarled in his borrowed memories—but he could not. Why had anyone launched such a hopeless assault? No one but a fool attacked overwhelming force without a reason. That was the thought he could not pry out of his head. No one attacked without a reason.

The birdcalls pulled Rand awake immediately, and he seized saidin as he tossed the blankets aside and ran out, coatless, in his stockinged feet. The night was cold and moonlit, faint sounds of battle drifting up from the hills below the pass. Around him, Aiel stirred like scurrying ants, rushing into the night to where an attack might come here in the pass. The wards would signal again—Shadowspawn in the pass would cause a winterfinch to call—until he unraveled them in the morning, but there was no point in taking foolish chances.

Soon the pass was still again, the gai’shain in their tents, forbidden weapons even now, the other Aiel off at the places that might need defending. Even Adelin and the other Maidens had gone, as if they knew he would have held them back if they waited. He could hear a few mutters from the wagons near the town walls, but neither the drivers nor Kadere showed themselves; he did not expect them to. The faint sounds of battle—men shouting, screaming, dying—came from two directions. Both below, well away from him. People were out around the Wise Ones’ tents, too; staring toward the fighting, it seemed.

An attack down there made no sense. It was not the Miagoma, not unless Timolan had taken Shadowspawn into his clan, and that was as likely as Whitecloaks recruiting Trollocs. He turned back toward his tent, and even enclosed in the Void he gave a start.

Aviendha had come out into the moonlight, a blanket wrapped around her. Just beyond her stood a tall man shrouded in a dark cloak; moonshadows drifted over a gaunt face that was too pale, with eyes too large. A crooning rose, and the cloak opened into wide, leathery wings like those of a bat. Moving as in a dream, Aviendha drifted toward the waiting embrace.

Rand channeled, and finger-thin balefire burned past her, an arrow of solid light, to take the Draghkar in the head. The effect of that narrower stream was slower, but no less sure than with the Darkhounds. The creature’s colors reversed, black to white, white to black, and it became sparkling motes that melted in air.

Aviendha shook herself as the crooning ended, stared at the last particles as they vanished, and turned to Rand, gathering the blanket closer. Her hand came up, and a stream of fire as thick as his head roared toward him.

Startled even inside the emptiness, never thinking of the Power, he threw himself to the ground beneath the billowing flames. They died in an instant.

“What are you doing?” he barked, so angry, so shocked, that the Void cracked and saidin vanished from him. He scrambled to his feet, stalking toward her. “This tops any ingratitude I ever heard of!” He was going to shake her until her teeth rattled. “I just saved your life, in case you failed to notice, and if I offended some bloody Aiel custom, I don’t give a—!”

“The next time,” she snapped back, “I will leave the great Car’a’carn to deal with matters by himself!” Awkwardly clutching the blanket close, she ducked stiff-backed into the tent.

For the first time, he looked behind him. At another Draghkar, crumpled on the ground in flames. He had been so angry that he had not heard the crackling and popping as it burned, had not smelled the odor of burning grease. He had not even sensed the evil of it. A Draghkar killed by first sucking the soul away, and then life. It had to be close, touching, but this one lay no more than two paces from where he had been standing. He was not certain how effective a Draghkar’s crooning embrace was against someone filled with saidin, but he was glad he had not found out.

Drawing a deep breath, he knelt beside the tent flap. “Aviendha?” He could not go in. A lamp was lit in there, and she could be sitting there naked for all he knew, mentally ripping him up and down the way he deserved. “Aviendha, I am sorry. I apologize. I was a fool to speak as I did without asking why. I should know that you wouldn’t harm me, and I . . . I . . . I’m a fool,” he finished weakly.

“A great deal you know, Rand al’Thor,” came a muffled reply. “You are a fool!”

How did Aiel apologize? He had never asked her that. Considering ji’e’toh, teaching men to sing, and wedding customs, he did not think he would. “Yes, I am. And I apologize.” There was no answer this time. “Are you in your blankets?” Silence.

Muttering to himself, he stood, working his stockinged toes on the icy ground. He was going to have to remain out here until he was sure she was decently covered. Without boots or coat. He seized hold of saidin, taint and all, just to be distanced from the bone-grinding cold, inside the Void.

The three Wise One dreamwalkers came running, of course, and Egwene, all staring at the burning Draghkar as they skirted it, drawing their shawls around them with almost the same motion.

“Only one,” Amys said. “I thank the Light, but I am surprised.”

“There were two,” Rand told her. “I . . . destroyed the other.” Why should he be hesitant just because Moiraine had warned him against bale-fire? It was a weapon like any other. “If Aviendha had not killed this one, it might have gotten me.”

“The feel of her channeling drew us,” Egwene said, looking him up and down. At first he thought she was checking for injuries, but she paid special attention to his stockinged feet, then glanced at the tent, where a crack in the tent flap showed lamplight. “You’ve upset her again, haven’t you? She saved your life, and you . . . Men!” With a disgusted shake of her head, she brushed past him and into the tent. He heard faint voices, but could not make out what was being said.

Melaine gave a hitch to her shawl. “If you do not need us, then we must see what is happening below.” She hurried off without waiting for the other two.

Bair cackled as she and Amys followed. “A wager on who she will check on first? My amethyst necklace that you like so much against that sapphire bracelet of yours?”

“Done. I choose Dorindha.”

The older Wise One cackled again. “Her eyes are still full of Bael. A first-sister is a first-sister, but a new husband . . .”

They moved on out of earshot, and he bent toward the tent flap. He still could not hear what they were saying, not unless he stuck his ear to the crack, and he was not about to do that. Surely Aviendha had covered herself with Egwene in there. Then again, the way Egwene had taken to Aiel ways, it was just as likely she had peeled out of her clothes instead.

The soft sound of slippers announced Moiraine and Lan, and Rand straightened. Though he could hear both of them breathing, the Warder’s steps still made barely an audible noise. Moiraine’s hair hung about her face, and she held a dark robe around her, the silk shining with the moon. Lan was fully dressed, booted and armed, wrapped in that cloak that made him part of the night. Of course. The clamor of fighting was dying down in the hills below.

“I am surprised you were not here sooner, Moiraine.” His voice sounded cold, but better his voice than him. He held onto saidin, fought it, and the night’s icy chill remained something far off. He was aware of it, aware of each hair on his arms stirring with cold beneath his shirtsleeves, but it did not touch him. “You usually come looking for me as soon as you sense trouble.”

“I have never explained all that I do or do not do.” Her voice was as coolly mysterious as it had ever been, yet even in the moonlight Rand was certain that she was blushing. Lan looked troubled, though with him it was difficult to tell. “I cannot hold your hand forever. Eventually, you must walk alone.”

“I did that tonight, didn’t I?” Embarrassment slid across the Void—that sounded as though he had done everything himself—and he added, “Aviendha all but took that one off my back.” The flames on the Draghkar were burning low.

“As well she was here, then,” Moiraine said calmly. “You did not need me.”

She had not been afraid, of that he was sure. He had seen her rush into the midst of Shadowspawn, wielding the Power as skillfully as Lan did his sword, seen it too often to believe fear in her. So why had she not come when she sensed the Draghkar? She could have, and Lan as well; that was one of the gifts a Warder received from the bond between him and an Aes Sedai. He could make her tell, catch her between her oath to him and her inability to lie straight out. No, he could not. Or would not. He would not do that to someone who was trying to help him.

“At least now we know what the attack below was about,” he said. “To make me think something important was happening there while the Draghkar slipped in on me. They tried that at Cold Rocks Hold, and it did not work there either.” Only, maybe it almost had, this time. If that had been the intent. “You would think they would try something different.” Couladin ahead of him; the Forsaken everywhere, it seemed. Why could he not face one enemy at a time?

“Do not make the mistake of thinking the Forsaken simple,” Moiraine said. “That could easily be fatal.” She shifted her robe as though wishing it were thicker. “The hour is late. If you have no further need of me . . . ?”

Aiel began to drift back as she and the Warder left. Some exclaimed over the Draghkar, and roused some of the gai’shain to drag it away, but most simply looked at it before going to their tents. They seemed to expect such things of him now.

When Adelin and the Maidens appeared, their soft-booted feet dragged. They stared at the Draghkar being hauled away by white-robed men, and exchanged long looks before approaching Rand.

“There was nothing here,” Adelin said slowly. “The attack was all below, Darkfriends and Trollocs.”

“Shouting ‘Sammael and the Golden Bees,’ I heard,” another added. With her head wrapped in a shoufa, Rand could not make out who she was. She sounded young; some of the Maidens were no more than sixteen.

Taking a deep breath, Adelin held out one of her spears, horizontally, in front of him, rock-steady. The others did the same, one spear each. “We—I—failed,” Adelin said. “We should have been here when the Draghkar came. Instead we ran like children to dance the spears.”

“What am I supposed to do with those?” Rand asked, and Adelin replied without hesitation.

“Whatever you wish, Car’a’carn. We stand ready, and will not resist.”

Rand shook his head. Bloody Aiel and their bloody ji’e’toh. “You take those and go back to guarding my tent. Well? Go.” Looks passed between them before they began to obey, as reluctantly as they had approached him in the first place. “And one of you tell Aviendha that I will be coming in when I return,” he added. He was not going to spend the entire night outside wondering whether it was safe. He stalked away, the stony ground hard under his feet.

Asmodean’s tent was not very far from his. There had not been a sound out of it. He whipped open the flap and ducked in. Asmodean was sitting in the dark, chewing his lip. He flinched when Rand appeared, and gave him no chance to speak.

“You did not expect me to take a hand, did you? I felt the Draghkar, but you could deal with those; you did. I have never liked Draghkar; we should never have made them. They have fewer brains than a Trolloc. Give them an order, and they still sometimes kill whatever is closest. If I had come out, if I had done something. . . . What if someone noticed? What if they realized it could not be you channeling? I—”

“Well for you that you didn’t,” Rand cut him off, sitting cross-legged in the dark. “If I had felt you full of saidin out there tonight, I might have killed you.”

The other man’s laugh was shaky. “I thought of that, too.”

“It was Sammael who sent the attack tonight. The Trollocs and Darkfriends, anyway.”

“It is not like Sammael to throw men away,” Asmodean said slowly. “But he’ll see ten thousand dead, or ten times that, if it gains him what he thinks is worth the cost. Maybe one of the others wants you to think it was him. Even if the Aiel took prisoners . . . Trollocs do not think of much besides killing, and Darkfriends believe what they are told.”

“It was him. He tried to bait me into attacking him once in the same way, at Serendahar.” Oh, Light! The thought drifted across the surface of the Void. I said “me.” He did not know where Serendahar had been, or anything but what he had said. The words had just come out.

After a long silence, Asmodean said quietly, “I never knew that.”

“What I want to know is, why?” Rand chose his words carefully, hoping that they were all his. He remembered Sammael’s face, a man—Not mine. Not my memory—a compact man with a short yellow beard. Asmodean had described all the Forsaken, but he knew this image was not made from that description. Sammael had always wanted to be taller, and resented it that the Power could not make him so. Asmodean had never told him that. “From what you’ve told me, he is not likely to want to face me unless he is sure of victory, and maybe not then. You said he’d likely leave me to the Dark One, if he could. So why is he sure he’ll win now, if I decide to go after him?”

They discussed it in the dark for hours without coming to any conclusion. Asmodean held to the opinion that it had been one of the others, hoping to send Rand against Sammael and thus get rid of one or both; at least, Asmodean said that he did. Rand could feel the man’s dark eyes on him, wondering. That slip had been too big to cover.

When he finally returned to his own tent, Adelin and the dozen Maidens all sprang to their feet, all of them at once telling him that Egwene was gone and Aviendha long asleep, that she was angry with him, they both were. They gave so many different pieces of advice on handling the two women’s anger, all at the same time, that he could understand none of it. Finally they fell silent, looks passing between them, and Adelin spoke alone.

“We must speak of tonight. Of what we did, and what we failed to do. We—”

“It was nothing,” he told her, “and if it was something, it’s forgiven and forgotten. I would like to have a few hours’ sleep for once. If you want to discuss it go talk to Amys or Bair. I am sure they’ll understand what you’re after more than I do.” That shut them up, surprisingly, and let him get inside.

Aviendha was in her blankets, with one slim, bare leg sticking out. He tried not to look at it, or her. She had left a lamp lit. He climbed into his own blankets gratefully and channeled the lamp out before releasing saidin. This time he dreamed of Aviendha hurling fire, only she was not hurling it at a Draghkar, and Sammael was sitting at her side, laughing.

CHAPTER

23

“The Fifth, I Give You”

Reining Mist around on a grassy hilltop, Egwene watched the streams of Aiel coming down from the Jangai Pass. The saddle had pushed her skirts above her knees again, but she hardly noticed that now. She could not spend every minute fussing with them. And she had on stockings; it was not as though she were bare-legged.

In trotting columns the Aiel flowed by below her, arranged by clan and sept and society. Thousands upon thousands, with their pack horses and mules, the gai’shain who would tend the camps while the rest fought, spreading a mile wide, and more still in the pass or already out of sight ahead. Even without families, it seemed a nation on the march. The Silk Path had been a road here, a full fifty paces wide and paved with broad white stones, slicing straight through hills carved to make a level. Only occasionally was it visible through the mass of Aiel, although they seemed to prefer running on the grass, but many of the paving stones had lifted up at a corner or sunk down at one end. More than twenty years had gone by since this road had carried more than local farmers’ carts and a handful of wagons.

It was startling to see trees again, real trees, towering oaks and leatherleaf in actual thickets rather than an occasional wind-twisted, stunted shape, and tall grass waving in the breeze across the hills. There was real forest to the north, and clouds in the sky, thin and high, yet clouds. The air seemed blessedly cool after the Waste, and moist, though brown leaves and large brown swaths through the grass told her that in reality it might be hotter and drier than usual for the time of year. Still, the countryside of Cairhien was a lush paradise compared to the other side of the Dragonwall.

A small stream meandered north beneath a nearly flat bridge, bordered by the dried clay of a broader bed; the River Gaelin lay not too many miles away in that direction. She wondered what the Aiel would make of that river; she had seen Aiel near a river once before. The shrunken band of water marked a definite break in the steady flow of people, as men and Maidens paused to stare in amazement before leaping across.

Kadere’s wagons rumbled by on the road, the long mule teams working hard, but still losing ground to the Aiel. It had taken four days to traverse the twists and turns of the pass, and Rand apparently intended to go as far into Cairhien as he could in the few hours of daylight remaining. Moiraine and Lan rode with the wagons; not ahead of them, or even with Kadere’s boxlike little white house on wheels, but alongside the second wagon, where the canvas-covered shape of the doorframe ter’angreal made a hump above the rest of the load. Some of the load was wrapped carefully or packed in boxes or barrels that Kadere had brought into the Waste full of his goods, and some was simply stuck in wherever it would fit, odd shapes of metal and glass, a red crystal chair, two child-sized statues of a nude man and woman, rods of bone and ivory and strange black materials in varying lengths and thicknesses. All sorts of things, including some Egwene could hardly begin to describe. Moiraine had used every inch of space in all of the wagons.

Egwene wished that she knew why the Aes Sedai was so concerned with that particular wagon; perhaps no one else had noticed that Moiraine paid it more attention than all the others combined, but she had. Not that she was likely to find out any time soon. Her newfound equality with Moiraine was a tender thing, as she had learned when she asked that question, in the heart of the pass, and was told that her imagination was too vivid and if she had time to spy on the Aes Sedai, perhaps Moiraine should speak to the Wise Ones about intensifying her training. She had apologized profusely, of course, and the soft words seemed to have worked. Amys and the others were not taking any more of her nights than they had before.

A hundred or so Taardad Far Dareis Mai went trotting by on her side of the road, moving easily, veils hanging but ready to be donned, full quivers at hips. Some carried their curved horn bows, arrows nocked, while others had their bows cased on their backs, spears and bucklers swinging rhythmically as they ran. At their rear a dozen gai’shain in their white robes leading pack mules struggled to keep up. One wore black, not white; Isendre labored hardest of all. Egwene could pick Adelin out, and two or three others who had been guarding Rand’s tent the night of the attack. Each clutched a doll in addition to her weapons, a rough-made doll clothed in full skirts and white blouse; they looked even more stone-faced than usual, trying to pretend that they held no such thing.

She was not sure what that was about. The Maidens who stood that guard had come in a group to see Bair and Amys when their stint was done, and had spent a long time with them. The next morning, while camp was still breaking in the grayness before dawn, they had begun making those dolls. She had not been able to ask, of course, but she had commented on it to one, a red-haired Tomanelle of the Serai sept named Maira, and the woman said it was to remind her that she was not a child. Her tone made it clear that she did not want to talk. One of the Maidens carrying a doll was no more than sixteen, yet Maira was at least as old as Adelin. It made little sense, and that was frustrating. Every time Egwene thought she understood Aiel ways, something demonstrated that she did not.

Despite herself, her eyes were drawn back to the mouth of the pass. The row of stakes was still there, just visible, stretching from steep mountain slope to steep mountain slope except where Aiel had kicked some of them down. Couladin had left another message, men and women impaled across their path, standing there seven days dead. The tall gray walls of Selean clung to the hills at the right of the pass, nothing showing above them. Moiraine said it had held only a shadow of its one-time glory, yet it had still been a considerable town, much larger than Taien; no more remained of it, however. No survivors, either—except whoever the Shaido had carried off—although here some had probably run for places they thought safe. There had been farms on these hills; most of eastern Cairhien had been abandoned after the Aiel War, but a town needed farms for food. Now soot-streaked chimneys thrust up from blackened stone farm house walls; here a few charred rafters remained above a stone barn
, there barn and farm house had collapsed from the heat. The hill where she sat Mist’s saddle had been sheep pasture; near the fence at the foot of the hill, flies still buzzed over the refuse of butchering. Not an animal remained in any pasture, not a chicken scratching in a barnyard. The crop fields were burned stubble.

Couladin and the Shaido were Aiel. But so were Aviendha, and Bair and Amys and Melaine, and Rhuarc, who said she reminded him of one of his daughters. They had been disgusted at the impalements, yet even they seemed to think it little more than the treekillers deserved. Perhaps the only way to truly know the Aiel was to be born Aiel.

Casting a last glance at the destroyed town, she rode slowly down to the rough stone fence and let herself out at the gate, leaning down to refasten the rawhide thong out of habit. The irony was that Moiraine had said that Selean might actually go over to Couladin. In the shifting currents of Daes Dae’mar, in balancing an Aiel invader against a man who had sent Tairens into Cairhien, for whatever reason, the decision could have tipped either way, had Couladin given them a chance to choose.

She rode along the broad road until she caught up with Rand, in his red coat today, and joined Aviendha and Amys and thirty or more Wise Ones she barely knew besides the other two dreamwalkers, all following at a short distance. Mat, with his hat and his black-hafted spear, and Jasin Natael, leather-cased harp slung on his back and crimson banner rippling in the breeze, were riding, but hurrying Aiel passed the party by on both sides, because Rand led his dapple stallion, talking with the clan chiefs. Skirts or no skirts, the Wise Ones would have made a good job of keeping up with the passing columns if they were not sticking to Rand like pine sap. They barely glanced at Egwene, their eyes and ears focused on him and the seven chiefs.

“. . . and whoever comes through after Timolan,” Rand was saying in a firm voice, “has to be told the same thing.” Stone Dogs left to watch at Taien had returned to report the Miagoma entering the pass a day behind. “I’ve come to stop Couladin despoiling this land, not to loot it.”

“A hard message,” Bael said, “for us as well, if you mean we cannot take the fifth.” Han and the rest, even Rhuarc, nodded.

“The fifth, I give you.” Rand did not raise his voice, yet suddenly his words were driven nails. “But no part of that is to be food. We will live on what can be found wild or hunted or bought—if there is anyone with food to sell—until I can have the Tairens increase what they’re bringing up from Tear. If any man takes a penny more than the fifth, or a loaf of bread without payment, if he burns so much as a hut because it belongs to a treekiller, or kills a man who is not trying to kill him, that man will I hang, whoever he is.”

“Dark to tell the clans this,” Dhearic said, almost as stony. “I came to follow He Who Comes With the Dawn, not to coddle oathbreakers.” Bael and Jheran opened their mouths as if to agree, but each saw the other and snapped his teeth shut again.

“Mark what I said, Dhearic,” Rand said. “I came to save this land, not ruin it further. What I say stands for every clan, including the Miagoma and any more who follow. Every clan. You mark me well.” This time no one spoke, and he swung back into Jeade’en’s saddle, letting the stallion walk on among the chiefs. Those Aiel faces showed no expression.

Egwene drew breath. Those men were all old enough to be his father and more, leaders of their people as surely as kings for all they disclaimed it, hardened leaders in battle. It seemed only yesterday that he had been a boy in more than age, a youth who asked and hoped rather than commanded and expected to be obeyed. He was changing faster than she could keep up with now. A good thing, if he kept these men from doing to other cities what Couladin had done to Taien and Selean. She told herself that. She only wished he could do it without showing more arrogance every day. How soon before he expected her to obey him as Moiraine did? Or all Aes Sedai? She hoped it was only arrogance.

Wanting to talk, she kicked a foot free of its stirrup and held a hand down for Aviendha, but the Aiel woman shook her head. She really did not like to ride. And maybe all those Wise Ones striding in a pack made her reluctant, too. Some of them would not have ridden had both their legs been broken. With a sigh, Egwene climbed down, leading Mist by the reins, settling her skirts a little grumpily. The soft, knee-high Aiel boots she wore looked comfortable and were, but not for walking very far on that hard, uneven pavement.

“He truly is in command,” she said.

Aviendha barely shifted her eyes from Rand’s back. “I do not know him. I cannot know him. Look at the thing he carries.”

She meant the sword, of course. Rand did not precisely carry it; it hung at the pommel of his saddle, in a plain scabbard of brown boarhide, the long hilt covered in the same leather, rising as high as his waist. He had had hilt and scabbard made by a man from Taien, on the journey through the pass. Egwene wondered why, when he could channel a sword of fire, and do other things that made swords seem toys. “You did give it to him, Aviendha.”

Her friend scowled. “He tries to make me accept the hilt, too. He used it; it is his. Used it in front of me, as if to mock me with a sword in his hand.”

“You are not angry about the sword.” She did not think Aviendha was; she had not said a word about it, that night in Rand’s tent. “You are still upset over how he spoke to you, and I do understand. I know he is sorry. He sometimes speaks without thinking, but if you would only let him apologize—”

“I do not want his apologies,” Aviendha muttered. “I do not want . . . I can bear this no more. I cannot sleep in his tent any longer.” Suddenly she took Egwene’s arm, and if Egwene had not known better, she would have thought her on the brink of tears. “You must speak to them for me. To Amys and Bair and Melaine. They will listen to you. You are Aes Sedai. They must let me return to their tents. They must!”

“Who must do what?” Sorilea said, dropping back from the others to walk alongside them. The Wise One of Shende Hold had thin white hair and a face like leather drawn tight over her skull. And clear green eyes that could knock a horse down at ten paces. That was the way she normally looked at anyone. When Sorilea was angry, other Wise Ones sat quietly and clan chiefs made excuses to leave.

Melaine and another Wise One, a graying Black Water Nakai, started to join them, too, until Sorilea turned those eyes on them. “If you were not so busy thinking of that new husband, Melaine, you would know Amys wants to talk with you. You, also, Aeron.” Melaine flushed bright red, and scurried back to the others, but the older woman got there first. Sorilea watched them go, then put her full attention on Aviendha. “Now we can have a quiet talk. So you do not want to do something. Something you were told to do, of course. And you think this child Aes Sedai can get you out of doing it.”

“Sorilea, I—” Aviendha got no further.

“In my day, girls jumped when a Wise One said jump, and continued jumping until they were told to stop. As I am still alive, it is still my day. Need I make myself clearer?”

Aviendha took a deep breath. “No, Sorilea,” she said meekly.

The old woman’s eyes came to rest on Egwene. “And you? Do you think you are going to beg her off?”

“No, Sorilea.” Egwene felt as though she should curtsy.

“Good,” Sorilea said, not sounding satisfied, just as if it was what she had expected. It almost certainly was. “Now I can speak to you of what I really want to know. I hear the Car’a’carn has given you an interest gift like no other ever heard of, rubies and moonstones.”

Aviendha jumped as if a mouse had run up her leg. Well, she probably would not, but it was the way Egwene would have jumped in that circumstance. The Aiel explained about Laman’s sword and the scabbard so hastily that her words tripped over one another.

Sorilea shifted her shawl, muttering about girls touching swords, even wrapped in blankets, and about having a sharp word with “young Bair.” “So he has not captured your eye. A pity. It would bind him to us; he sees too many people as his, now.” For a moment she eyed Aviendha up and down. “I will have Feran look at you. His greatfather is my sister-son. You have other duties to the people than learning to be a Wise One. Those hips were made for babes.”

Aviendha stumbled over an upraised paving stone and just caught herself short of falling. “I . . . I will think on him, when there is time,” she said breathlessly. “I have much to learn yet, of being a Wise One; and Feran is Seia Doon, and the Black Eyes have vowed not to sleep beneath roof or tent until Couladin is dead.” Couladin was Seia Doon.

The leathery-faced Wise One nodded as though everything had been settled. “You, young Aes Sedai. You know the Car’a’carn well, it is said. Will he do as he has threatened? Hang even a clan chief?”

“I think . . . maybe . . . that he will.” More quickly, Egwene added, “But I am sure he can be brought to see reason.” She was not sure of any such thing, or even that it was reason—what he had said sounded only just—but justice would do him no good if he found the others turning against him as well as the Shaido.

Sorilea glanced at her in surprise, then turned a gaze on the chiefs around Rand’s horse that should have knocked the lot of them flat. “You mistake me. He must show that mangy pack of wolves that he is the chief wolf. A chief must be harder than other men, young Aes Sedai, and the Car’a’carn harder than other chiefs. Every day a few more men, and even Maidens, are taken by the bleakness, but they are the soft outer bark of the ironwood. What remains is the hard inner core, and he must be hard to lead them.” Egwene noticed that she did not include herself or the other Wise Ones among those who would be led. Muttering to herself about “mangy wolves,” Sorilea strode ahead, and soon had all the Wise Ones listening as they walked. Whatever she was saying, it did not carry.

“Who is this Feran?” Egwene asked. “I’ve never heard you speak of him. What does he look like?”

Frowning at Sorilea’s back, more than half hidden by the women clustered around her, Aviendha spoke absently. “He looks much like Rhuarc, only younger, taller and more handsome, with much redder hair. For over a year he has been trying to attract Enaila’s interest, but I think she will teach him to sing before she gives up the spear.”

“I don’t understand. Do you mean to share him with Enaila?” It still felt odd, speaking so casually of that.

Aviendha stumbled again, and stared at her. “Share him? I want no part of him. His face is beautiful, but he laughs like a braying mule and picks at his ears.”

“But from the way you talked to Sorilea, I thought you . . . liked him. Why didn’t you tell her what you just told me?”

The other woman’s low laugh sounded pained. “Egwene, if she thought I was trying to balk in this, she would make the bridal wreath herself and drag both Feran and me by the neck to be wed. Have you ever seen anyone say ‘no’ to Sorilea? Could you?”

Egwene opened her mouth to say that of course she could, and promptly closed it again. Making Nynaeve step back was one thing, and trying the same with Sorilea quite another. It would be like standing in the path of a landslide and telling it to stop.

To change the subject, she said, “I will speak to Amys and the others for you.” Not that she really thought it would do much good now. The right time had been before it began. At least Aviendha saw the impropriety of the situation finally. Perhaps . . . “If we go to them together, I am sure they will listen.”

“No, Egwene. I must obey the Wise Ones. Ji’e’toh requires it.” Just as if she had not been asking for intercession a moment earlier. Just as if she had not all but begged the Wise Ones not to make her sleep in Rand’s tent. “But why is my duty to the people never what I wish? Why must it be what I would rather die before doing?”

“Aviendha, no one is going to make you marry, or have babies. Not even Sorilea.” Egwene wished she had sounded a bit less limp on that last.

“You do not understand,” the other woman said softly, “and I cannot explain it to you.” She gathered her shawl around her and would not speak of it further. She was willing to discuss their lessons, or whether Couladin would turn and give battle, or how marriage had affected Melaine—who seemed to have to work at being prickly now—or anything at all except what it was that she could not, or would not, explain.

CHAPTER

24

A Message Sent

The land changed as the sun began to sink. The hills grew lower, the thickets larger. Often the toppled stone fences of what had been fields had become mounds sprouting wild hedges, or ran through long stands of oak and leatherleaf and hickory, pine and paperbark and trees Egwene did not know. The few farm houses had no roofs, and trees ten or fifteen paces high grew in them here, little woods enclosed inside the stone walls; complete with twittering birds and black-tailed squirrels. The occasional rivulet caused as much talk among the Aiel as the small forests did, and the grass. They had heard tales of the wetlands, read of them in books bought from merchants and peddlers like Hadnan Kadere, but few had actually seen them since the hunt for Laman. They adapted quickly, though; the gray-brown of the tents blended well with dead leaves under the trees and with the dying grass and weeds. The camp spread over miles, marked by thousands of small cookfires in the golden dusk.

Egwene was more than happy to crawl into her tent once the gai’shain had it up. Inside the lamps were lit and a small fire burned in the firepit. Unlacing her soft boots, she tugged them off and her woolen stockings as well, and sprawled on the bright layered rugs, wriggling her toes. She wished she had a basin of water to soak her feet. She could not pretend to be as hardy as the Aiel, but she was growing soft if a few hours of walking made her feet feel twice their size. Of course, water would be no problem here. Or it should not be—she remembered that shrunken stream—but surely she could even have a proper bath again.

Cowinde, meek and silent in her white robes, brought her supper, some of that pale flat bread made from zemai flour and in a red-striped bowl, a thick stew that she ate mechanically, though she felt more tired than hungry. She recognized the dried peppers and beans, but did not ask what the dark meat was. Rabbit, she told herself firmly, and hoped that it was. The Aiel ate things that would put more curl in her hair than Elayne had. She was willing to bet that Rand could not even look at what he was eating. Men were always picky eaters.

Once done with the stew, she stretched out near an ornately worked silver lamp that had a polished silver disc to reflect and increase its light. She had felt a little guilty once she realized that most of the Aiel had no light at night but their fires; few had brought lamps or oil except the Wise Ones and the chiefs of clans and septs. But there was no point to sitting in the dim illumination of the firepit when she could have proper light. That reminded her: the nights here would not be so drastic a contrast with the days as in the Waste; the tent was already beginning to feel uncomfortably warm.

She channeled briefly, flows of Air to smother the fire, and dug into her saddlebags for the worn leather-bound book that she had borrowed from Aviendha. It was a small fat volume with crowded lines of small print, hard to read except in good light, but easily portable. The Flame, the Blade and the Heart, it was called, a collection of tales about Birgitte and Gaidal Cain, Anselan and Barashelle, Rogosh Eagle-eye and Dunsinin, and a dozen more. Aviendha claimed that she liked it for the adventures and battles, and maybe she did, but every last story told of the love of a man and a woman, too. Egwene was willing to admit that that was what she liked, the sometimes stormy, sometimes tender threads of undying love. To herself she would admit it, anyway. It was hardly the sort of enjoyment a woman with any pretensions to sense at all could confess publicly.

In truth she did not feel like reading any more than she had felt like eating—all she really wanted to do was bathe and sleep, and she might be willing to forgo bathing—but tonight she and Amys were to meet Nynaeve in Tel’aran’rhiod. It would not be night yet wherever Nynaeve was, on her way to Ghealdan, and that meant remaining awake.

Elayne had made the menagerie sound quite exciting at their last meeting, though Egwene hardly thought that Galad’s presence was reason enough to go haring off like that. Nynaeve and Elayne had simply grown to like adventure, in her opinion. It was too bad about Siuan; they needed a firm hand to settle them down. Odd that she should think of Nynaeve so; Nynaeve had always been the one with the firm hand. But since that episode in the Tower of Tel’aran’rhiod, Nynaeve had become less and less someone she had to struggle against.

Guiltily, she realized as she turned a page that she was looking forward to seeing Nynaeve tonight. Not because Nynaeve was a friend, but because she wanted to see if the effects had lingered. If Nynaeve tugged at her braid, she would arch a cool eyebrow at her, and . . . Light, I hope it’s held. If she lets out about that jaunt, Amys and Bair and Melaine will take turns skinning me, if they don’t just tell me to go.

Her eyes kept trying to drift shut as she read, fuzzily half-dreaming the stories in the book. She could be as strong as any of these women, as strong and brave as Dunsinin or Nerein or Melisinde or even Birgitte, as strong as Aviendha. Would Nynaeve have sense enough to hold her tongue in front of Amys tonight? She had a vague thought of taking Nynaeve by the scruff of the neck and shaking her. Silly. Nynaeve was years the older. Arch an eyebrow at her. Dunsinin. Birgitte. As hardy and strong as a Maiden of the Spear.

Her head slipped down to the pages, and she tried to cradle the small book under her cheek as her breathing slowed and deepened.

She gave a start at finding herself among the great redstone columns of the Heart of the Stone, in the strange light of Tel’aran’rhiod, and another at realizing that she wore the cadin’sor. Amys would not be pleased to see her in that; not amused at all. Hastily she changed it, and was surprised when her clothes flickered back and forth between the algode blouse and bulky wool skirt and a fine gown of brocaded blue silk before finally settling on the Aiel garb, complete with her ivory bracelet of flames and her gold-and-ivory necklace. That indecision had not happened to her in some time.

For a moment she thought of stepping out of the World of Dreams, but she suspected she was soundly asleep, back in her tent. Very likely she would only step into a dream of her own, and she did not yet always have awareness in her dreams; without that, she could not return to Tel’aran’rhiod. She was not about to leave Amys and Nynaeve alone together. Who knew what Nynaeve would say, if Amys got her temper up? When the Wise One arrived, she would simply say that she had just arrived herself. The Wise Ones had always been a bit ahead of her, or arrived at the same time, before this, but surely if Amys believed she had only been there a second it would not matter.

She had almost grown accustomed to the feel of unseen eyes in this vast chamber. Only the columns, and the shadows, and all this empty space. Still, she hoped that Amys was not too long in coming, nor Nynaeve. But they would be. Time could be as strange in Tel’aran’rhiod as in any dream, but it had to be a good hour yet before the arranged meeting. Perhaps she had time to . . .

Suddenly she realized that she could hear voices, like faint whispers among the columns. Embracing saidar, she moved cautiously toward the sound, toward the place where Rand had left Callandor beneath the great dome. The Wise Ones claimed that control of Tel’aran’rhiod was as strong as the One Power here, but she knew her abilities with the Power far better, and trusted them more. Still hidden well back among the thick redstone columns, she stopped and stared.

It was not a pair of Black sisters, as she had feared, and not Nynaeve, either. Instead, Elayne stood near the glittering shaft of Callandor rising out of the floorstone, deep in quiet conversation with as oddly dressed a woman as Egwene had ever seen. She wore a short white coat of peculiar cut and wide yellow trousers gathered in folds at her ankles, above short boots with raised heels. An intricate braid of golden hair hung down her back, and she held a bow that gleamed like polished silver. The arrows in the quiver shone, too.

Egwene squeezed her eyes shut. First the difficulty with her dress, and now this. Just because she had been reading about Birgitte—a silver bow told the name for certain—was no reason to imagine that she saw her. Birgitte waited—somewhere—for the Horn of Valere to call her and the other heroes to the Last Battle. But when Egwene opened her eyes again, Elayne and the oddly dressed woman were still there. She could not quite make out what they were saying, but she believed her eyes this time. She was on the point of going out to announce herself when a voice spoke, behind her.

“Did you decide to come early? Alone?”

Egwene whirled to face Amys, her sun-darkened face too youthful for her white hair, and leathery-cheeked Bair. Both stood with their arms folded beneath their breasts; even the way their shawls were pulled tight spoke of displeasure.

“I fell asleep,” Egwene said. It was too much before time for her story to work. Even as she explained hastily about dozing off and why she had not gone back—minus the part about not wanting Nynaeve and Amys to talk alone—she was surprised to feel a tinge of shame that she had intended to lie and relief that she had not. Not that the truth would necessarily save her. Amys was not as strict as Bair—not quite—but she was perfectly capable of setting her to piling up rocks the rest of the night. Many of the Wise Ones were great believers in useless labor for punishment; you could not tell yourself you were doing anything other than being punished while you were burying ashes with a spoon. That was provided they did not simply refuse to teach her any more, of course. The ashes would be much preferable.

She could not hold back a sigh of relief when Amys nodded and said, “It can happen. But next time, return and dream your own dreams; I could have heard what Nynaeve has to say, and tell her what we know. If Melaine was not with Bael and Dorindha tonight, she would be here, as well. You frightened Bair. She is proud of your progress, and if anything happened to you . . .”

Bair did not look proud. If anything, she scowled even more deeply as Amys paused. “You are lucky Cowinde found you when she returned to clear away your supper, and was worried when she could not rouse you to move to your blankets. If I thought you had been here more than a few minutes alone . . .” The glare sharpened in dire promise for a moment, and then her voice turned grumpy. “Now I suppose we have to wait for Nynaeve to arrive, just to stop you begging if we send you back. If we must, we must, but we will use the time to advantage. Concentrate your mind on—”

“It isn’t Nynaeve,” Egwene said hastily. She did not want to know what a lesson would be like with Bair in this mood. “It is Elayne, and . . .” She trailed off, as she turned. Elayne, in elegant green silk suitable for a ball, was pacing up and down not far from Callandor. Birgitte was nowhere to be seen. I did not imagine her.

“She is here already?” Amys said, moving to where she could see, too.

“Another young fool,” Bair muttered. “Girls today have no more brains or discipline than goats.” She stalked out ahead of Egwene and Amys and planted herself across Callandor’s glittering shape from Elayne, fists on hips. “You are not my pupil, Elayne of Andor—though you’ve wheedled enough out of us to keep you from killing yourself here, if you are careful—but if you were, I would welt you from your toes up and send you back to your mother until you were grown enough to be let out of her sight. Which I think might take as many more years as you have lived already. I know you have been coming into the World of Dreams alone, you and Nynaeve. You are both fools to do it.”

Elayne gave a start when they first appeared, but as Bair’s tirade washed over her, she drew herself up, that chilly tilt to her chin. Her gown became red and took on a finer sheen, and grew embroidery down the sleeves and across the high bodice, including rearing lions in white and golden lilies, her own sigil. A thin golden diadem rested in her red-gold curls, a single rearing lion set in moonstones above her brows. She did not yet have the best control over such things. Then again, maybe she wore exactly what she intended this time. “I do thank you for your concern,” she said regally. “Yet it is true that I am not your pupil, Bair of the Haido Shaarad. I am grateful for your instruction, but I must go my own way on the tasks given me by the Amyrlin Seat.”

“A dead woman,” Bair said coldly. “You claim obedience to a dead woman.” Egwene could all but feel Bair’s hackles standing erect in anger; if she did not do something, Bair might decide to teach Elayne a painful lesson. The last thing they needed was that sort of squabble.

“What . . . Why are you here instead of Nynaeve?” She had been going to ask what Elayne was doing there, but that would have given Bair an opening, and maybe sounded as if she were on the Wise One’s side. What she wanted to ask was what Elayne had been doing talking to Birgitte. I did not imagine it. Maybe it had been someone dreaming she was Birgitte. But only those who entered Tel’aran’rhiod knowingly remained for more than minutes, and Elayne surely would not have been speaking with one of them. Where did Birgitte and the others wait?

“Nynaeve is nursing a sore head.” The diadem vanished, and Elayne’s gown became simpler, with only a few golden scrolls around the bodice.

“Is she ill?” Egwene asked anxiously.

“Only with a headache, and a bruise or two.” Elayne giggled and winced at the same time. “Oh, Egwene, you would not have believed it. All four of the Chavanas had come to have supper with us. To flirt with Nynaeve, really. They tried flirting with me the first few days, but Thom had a talk with them, and they stopped. He did not have any right to do that. Not that I wanted them to flirt, you understand. Anyway, there they were, flirting with Nynaeve—or trying to, because she paid them no more mind than buzzing flies—when Latelle stalked up and began hitting Nynaeve with a stick, calling her all sorts of terrible names.”

“Was she hurt?” Egwene was not sure which of them she meant. If Nynaeve’s temper was roused . . .

“Not her. The Chavanas tried to pull her off Latelle, and Taeric will likely limp for days, not to mention Brugh’s swollen lip. Petra had to carry Latelle to her wagon, and I doubt she’ll put her nose out for some time.” Elayne shook her head. “Luca did not know who to blame—one of his acrobats lamed and his bear trainer weeping on her bed—so he blamed everybody, and I thought Nynaeve was going to box his ears as well. At least she did not channel; I thought she was going to once or twice, until she had Latelle down on the ground.”

Amys and Bair exchanged unreadable glances; this certainly was not how they expected Aes Sedai to behave.

Egwene felt a little confused herself, but it was mainly over keeping up with all these people she had only heard of briefly before. Odd people, traveling with lions, dogs and bears. And an Illuminator. She did not believe this Petra could possibly be as strong as Elayne claimed. But then, Thom was eating fire as well as juggling, and what Elayne and Juilin were doing sounded as strange, even if she was using the Power.

If Nynaeve had come close to channeling . . . Elayne must have seen the glow of her embracing saidar. Whether they had a real reason to be hiding or not, they would not remain hidden long if one of them channeled and let people see it. The Tower’s eyes-and-ears would certainly hear; that sort of news traveled quickly, especially if they were not out of Amadicia yet.

“You tell Nynaeve from me that she had best hold her temper, or I’ll have some words to say to her that she will not like.” Elayne looked startled—Nynaeve had certainly not told her what had passed between them—and Egwene added, “If she channels, you can be sure Elaida will hear of it as soon as a pigeon can fly to Tar Valon.” She could not say more; as it was, it brought another exchange of glances between Amys and Bair. What they really thought of a Tower divided, and an Amyrlin who as far as they knew had given orders for Aes Sedai to be drugged, they had never let on. They could make Moiraine look like the village gossip when they wished. “In fact, I wish I had both of you alone. If we were in the Tower, in our old rooms, I’d say a few words to the pair of you.”

Elayne stiffened, as queenly and cool as she had been with Bair. “You may say them to me whenever you wish.”

Had she understood? Alone; away from the Wise Ones. In the Tower. Egwene could only hope. Best to change the subject and hope the Wise Ones were not picking over her words as carefully as she hoped that Elayne was. “Will this fight with Latelle cause problems?” What had Nynaeve been thinking of? Back home, she would have had any woman her age who did the same up before the Women’s Circle so fast that her eyes would pop. “You must be almost to Ghealdan by now.”

“Three more days, Luca says, if we are lucky. The menagerie does not move very fast.”

“Perhaps you should leave them now.”

“Perhaps,” Elayne said slowly. “I really would like to highwalk just once in front of . . .” With a shake of her head, she glanced at Callandor; the neckline of her gown dipped precipitously, then rose again. “I do not know, Egwene. We could not travel much faster alone than we are traveling, and we don’t know where to go exactly, yet.” That meant Nynaeve had not remembered where the Blues were gathering. If Elaida’s report had been right. “Not to mention that Nynaeve might burst if we had to abandon the wagon and buy saddle horses, or another coach. Besides, we are both learning a great deal about the Seanchan. Cerandin served as a s’redit handler at the Court of the Nine Moons, where the Seanchan Empress sits. Yesterday she showed us things that she took when she fled Falme. Egwene, she had an a’dam.”

Egwene stepped forward, her skirts brushing Callandor. Rand’s traps were not physical, whatever Nynaeve seemed to think. “Can you be sure she was not a sul’dam?” Her voice trembled with anger.

“I am certain,” Elayne said soothingly. “I put the a’dam on her myself, and it had no effect.”

That was a little secret that the Seanchan themselves did not know, or hid well if they did. Their damane were women born with the spark, women who would channel eventually even if untaught. But the sul’dam, who controlled the damane—they were the women who needed to be taught. The Seanchan thought that women who could channel were dangerous animals who had to be controlled, and yet unknowingly gave many of them honored positions.

“I do not understand this interest in the Seanchan.” Amys said the name awkwardly; she had never heard it until Elayne spoke it at their last meeting. “What they do is terrible, but they are gone. Rand al’Thor defeated them, and they fled.”

Egwene turned her back and stared at the huge polished columns running off into shadow. “Gone is not to say they will never come back.” She did not want them to see her face, not even Elayne. “We must know whatever we can learn, in case they ever return.” They had put an a’dam on her in Falme. They had meant to send her over the Aryth Ocean to Seanchan, to spend the rest of her life as a dog on a leash. Fury welled up in her every time she thought of them. And fear, too. The fear that if they did return, they would succeed in taking and holding her this time. That was what she could not allow them to see. The stark terror that she knew was in her eyes.

Elayne put a hand on her arm. “We will be ready for them if they do come back,” she said gently. “They will not find us in surprise and ignorance again.” Egwene patted her hand, though she wanted to clutch it; Elayne understood more than Egwene wished, yet it was comforting that she did.

“Let us finish what we are here for,” Bair said briskly. “You need to be asleep in truth, Egwene.”

“We had the gai’shain undress you, and put you in your blankets.” Surprisingly, Amys sounded as gentle as Elayne. “When you return to your body, you can sleep until morning.”

Egwene’s cheeks colored. Given Aiel ways, it was as likely as not that some of those gai’shain had been men. She would have to speak to them about that—delicately, of course; they would not understand, and it was not a thing she could be comfortable explaining.

The fear was gone, she realized. Apparently I’m more afraid of being embarrassed than I am of the Seanchan. It was not true, but she held to the thought.

There was really little to tell Elayne. That they were in Cairhien finally, that Couladin had devastated Selean and ravaged the surrounding land, that the Shaido were still days ahead and moving west. The Wise Ones knew more than she; they had not taken to their tents straightaway. There had been skirmishes in the evening, small ones and only a few, with mounted men who quickly fled, and other men on horses who had been sighted ran without fighting. There had been no prisoners taken. Moiraine and Lan seemed to think that the riders could have been bandits, or supporters of one or another of the Houses trying to claim the Sun Throne. All had been equally ragged. Whoever they were, word would soon spread that there were more Aiel in Cairhien.

“They had to learn sooner or later” was Elayne’s only comment.

Egwene watched Elayne as she and the Wise Ones faded away—to her it seemed as though Elayne and the Heart of the Stone became more and more attenuated—but her golden-haired friend gave no sign as to whether she had understood the message.

CHAPTER

25

Dreams of Galad

Instead of returning to her own body, Egwene floated in darkness. She seemed to be darkness herself, without substance. Whether her body lay up or down or sideways from her, she did not know—there was no direction here—but she knew that it was near, that she could step into it easily. All around her in the blackness, fireflies seemingly twinkled, a vast horde fading away into unimaginable distance. Those were dreams, dreams of the Aiel in the camp, dreams of men and women across Cairhien, across the world, all glittering there.

She could pick out some among the nearer and name the dreamer, now. In one way those sparkles were just as alike as fireflies—that was what had given her so much trouble in the beginning—but in another, somehow, they now seemed as individual as faces. Rand’s dreams, and Moiraine’s, appeared muted, dimmed by the wards they had woven. Amys’ and Bair’s were bright and regular in their pulsing; they had taken their own advice, apparently. Had she not seen those, she would have been into her body in an instant. Those two could rove this darkness much more ably than she; she would not have known they were there until they pounced on her. If she ever learned to recognize Elayne and Nynaeve in the same way, she would be able to find them in that great constellation wherever they were in the world. But tonight she did not mean to observe anyone’s dream.

Carefully she formed a well-remembered image in her mind, and she was back in Tel’aran’rhiod, inside the small, windowless room in the Tower where she had lived as a novice. A narrow bed was built against one white-painted wall. A washstand and a three-legged stool stood opposite the door, and the current occupant’s dresses and shifts of white wool hung with a white cloak on pegs. There could as easily have been none; the Tower had not been able to fill the novices’ quarters in many years. The floor was almost as pale as walls and clothes. Every day the novice who lived there would scrub that floor on hands and knees; Egwene had done so herself, and Elayne, in the next room. If a queen came to train in the Tower, she would start in a room like this, scrubbing the floor.

The garments were arranged differently when she glanced at them again, but she ignored that. Ready to embrace saidar in a heartbeat, she opened the door just enough to stick her head out. And drew a relieved breath when she found Elayne’s head coming just as slowly out of the next doorway. Egwene hoped she did not appear as wide-eyed and uncertain. She motioned hurriedly, and Elayne scurried across in novice white that became a pale gray silk riding dress as she darted inside. Egwene hated gray dresses; that was what damane wore.

For an instant more she stayed there, scanning the railed galleries of the novices’ quarters. Layer on layer they rose, and fell as many levels to the Novices’ Court below. Not that she really expected Liandrin or worse to be out there, but it never hurt to be careful.

“I thought this was what you meant,” Elayne said as she shut the door. “Do you have any idea how difficult it is to remember what I can say in front of whom? Sometimes I wish we could just tell the Wise Ones everything. Let them know we are only Accepted, and be done with it.”

“You would be done with it,” Egwene said firmly. “I happen to be sleeping not twenty paces from them.”

Elayne shivered. “That Bair. She reminds me of Lini when I’d broken something I was not supposed to touch.”

“You wait until I introduce you to Sorilea.” Elayne gave her a doubtful look, but then, Egwene was not sure that she would have believed Sorilea herself until she met her. There was no way to do this easily. She shifted her shawl. “Tell me about meeting Birgitte. It was Birgitte, wasn’t it?”

Elayne staggered as if hit in the stomach. Her blue eyes closed for a moment, and she took a breath that must have filled her to the toes. “I cannot talk to you about that.”

“What do you mean you can’t talk? You have a tongue. Was it Birgitte?”

“I cannot, Egwene. You must believe me. I would if I could, but I cannot. Perhaps . . . I can ask . . .” If Elayne had been the kind of woman to wring her hands, she would have been doing it then. Her mouth opened and closed without any words coming out; her eyes darted around the room as if seeking inspiration or aid. Taking a deep breath, she fixed an urgent blue gaze on Egwene. “Anything I say violates confidences I promised to hold. Even that. Please, Egwene. You must trust me. And you must not tell anyone what you . . . think you saw.”

Egwene forced the stern frown from her face. “I will trust you.” At least she knew now for a fact that she had not been seeing things. Birgitte? Light! “I hope that one day you will trust me enough to tell me.”

“I do trust you, but . . .” Shaking her head, Elayne sat down on the edge of the neatly made bed. “We keep secrets too often, Egwene, but sometimes there is a reason.”

After a moment Egwene nodded and sat next to her. “When you can,” was all she said, but her friend gave her a relieved hug.

“I told myself I was not going to ask this, Egwene. Just once I was not going to have my head full of him.” The gray riding dress became a shimmering green gown; Elayne could not possibly have been aware of how deeply the neckline swooped. “But . . . is Rand well?”

“He is alive and unharmed, if that is what you mean. I thought he was hard in Tear, but today I heard him threaten to hang men if they go against his commands. Not that they are bad orders—he won’t let anyone take food without paying, or murder people—but still. They were the first to hail him as He Who Comes With the Dawn; they followed him out of the Waste without hesitation. And he threatened them, as hard as cold steel.”

“Not a threat, Egwene. He is a king, whatever you or he or anyone else says, and a king or queen must dispense justice without fear of enemies or favor for friends. Anyone who does that has to be hard. Mother can make the city walls seem soft, sometimes.”

“He doesn’t have to be so arrogant about it,” Egwene said levelly. “Nynaeve said I should remind him he’s only a man, but I’ve not figured out how yet.”

“He does have to remember he is only a man. But he has a right to expect to be obeyed.” There was something of a haughty tone to Elayne’s voice, until she glanced down at herself. Then her face went crimson, and the green gown suddenly had a lace neck under her chin. “Are you sure you are not mistaking that for arrogance?” she finished in a strangled voice.

“He’s as overweening as a pig in a pea field.” Egwene shifted herself on the bed; she remembered it as hard, but the thin mattress felt softer than what she slept on in the tent. She did not want to talk about Rand. “Are you certain this fight will not cause more trouble?” A feud with this Latelle could not make their traveling easier.

“I do not think so. Latelle’s grievance against Nynaeve was that all the unattached men were no longer hers to pick and choose from. Some women do think that way, I suppose. Aludra keeps to herself, and Cerandin wouldn’t have said boo to a goose until I started teaching her to stand up for herself, and Clarine is married to Petra. But Nynaeve has made it clear that she’ll box the ears of any man who even thinks he can flirt with her, and she apologized to Latelle, so I hope that may settle it.”

“She apologized?”

The other woman nodded, her face as bemused as Egwene knew her own must be. “I thought she would thump Luca when he told her she must—he doesn’t seem to think her injunction holds to him, by the way—but she did it, after grumping about for an hour. Muttering about you, actually.” She hesitated, giving Egwene a sidelong look. “Did you say something to her at your last meeting? She has been . . . different . . . since then, and sometimes she talks to herself. Argues, really. About you, from the little I’ve heard.”

“I said nothing that did not have to be said.” So it was holding, whatever it was that had happened between them. Either that, or Nynaeve was storing up her anger for the next time they met. She was not going to put up with the woman’s temper anymore, not now that she knew she did not have to. “You tell her from me that she is too old to be rolling about on the ground fighting. If she gets into another, I’ll have worse to say to her. You tell her that exactly. It will be worse.” Let Nynaeve chew on that until next time. Either she would be mild as a lamb . . . Or else Egwene would just have to carry through on her threat. Nynaeve might be stronger in the Power, when she could channel, but here, Egwene was. One way or another, she was finished with Nynaeve’s tantrums.

“I will tell her,” Elayne said. “You have changed, too. There seems to be something of Rand’s attitude about you.”

It took Egwene a moment to realize what she meant, helped by that amused little smile. “Don’t be silly.”

Elayne laughed aloud and gave her another hug. “Oh, Egwene, you will be Amyrlin Seat one day, when I am Queen of Andor.”

“If there is a Tower then,” Egwene said soberly, and Elayne’s laughter faded.

“Elaida cannot destroy the White Tower, Egwene. Whatever she does, the Tower will remain. Perhaps she will not stay Amyrlin. Once Nynaeve remembers the name of that town, I will wager that we find a Tower in exile, with every Ajah but the Red.”

“I hope so.” Egwene knew she sounded sad. She wanted Aes Sedai to support Rand and oppose Elaida, but that meant the White Tower broken for sure, maybe never to be made whole again.

“I must get back,” Elayne said. “Nynaeve insists that whichever of us does not enter Tel’aran’rhiod remain awake, and with her headache, she needs to drink one of her herb teas and sleep. I do not know why she is so insistent. Whoever is watching can do nothing to help, and we both know enough to be perfectly safe here, now.” Her green dress flickered to Birgitte’s white coat and voluminous yellow trousers for an instant, then snapped back. “She said I wasn’t to tell you this, but she thinks that Moghedien is trying to find us. Her and me.”

Egwene did not ask the obvious question. Clearly it was something that Birgitte had told them. Why did Elayne persist in trying to keep that secret? Because she promised to. Elayne never broke a promise in her life. “You tell her to be careful.” Small chance that Nynaeve was sitting and waiting, if she thought one of the Forsaken was after her. She would be remembering that she had defeated the woman once, and she had always had more courage than sense. “The Forsaken are nothing to take lightly. And neither are Seanchan, even if they are supposedly just animal trainers. You tell her that.”

“I do not suppose you would listen if I told you to be careful, too.”

She gave Elayne a startled look. “I am always careful. You know that.”

“Of course.” The last thing Egwene saw as the other woman faded away was a very amused smile.

Egwene herself did not go. If Nynaeve could not remember where that gathering of Blues was, perhaps she could discover it here. It was hardly a new idea: this was not her first trip to the Tower since her last meeting with Nynaeve. She put on a copy of Enaila’s face, with flame-colored hair to her shoulders, and an Accepted’s dress with its banded hem, then formed the image of Elaida’s ornately furnished study.

It was as it had been before, though on every visit fewer of the vine-carved stools stood in that arc in front of the wide writing table. The paintings still hung above the fireplace. Egwene strode straight to the table, pushing aside that thronelike chair with its inlaid ivory Flame of Tar Valon, so she could reach the lacquered letterbox. Lifting the lid, all fighting hawks and clouds, she began scanning parchments as fast as she could. Even so, some melted away half-read, or changed. There was no way to tell what was important and what insignificant beforehand.

Most seemed reports of failure. Still no word of where the Lord of Bashere had taken his army, and a note of frustration and worry tinging the words. That name tickled the back of her mind, but with no time to waste she pushed it firmly away and snatched up another sheet. No word on Rand’s whereabouts, either, said a cringing report filled with near panic. That was good to know, and worth the trip by itself. More than a month had passed since the last news from Tanchico by any Ajah’s eyes-and-ears, and others in Tarabon had also gone silent; the writer blamed the anarchy there; rumors that someone had taken Tanchico could not be confirmed, but the writer suggested that Rand himself was involved. Even better, if Elaida was looking in the wrong place by a thousand leagues. A confused report said that a Red sister in Caemlyn claimed to have seen Morgase at a public audience, but various Ajahs’ agents in Caemlyn said the Queen had been in seclusion for days. Fighting in the Borderl
ands, possibly minor rebellions in Shienar and Arafel; the parchment was gone before she reached the reason. Pedron Niall calling in Whitecloaks to Amadicia, possibly to move against Altara. A good thing that Elayne and Nynaeve had only another three days there.

The next parchment was about Elayne and Nynaeve. First the writer advised against punishing the agent who had allowed them to escape—Elaida had scratched that out in bold strokes and written “Make an example!” in the margin—and then, just when the woman began to detail the search for the pair in Amadicia, the single sheet became a fistful, a sheaf of what seemed to be builders’ and masons’ estimates for constructing a private residence for the Amyrlin Seat on the Tower grounds. More like a palace, by the number of pages.

She let the pages fall, and they vanished before they finished scattering across the tabletop. The lacquered box was closed again. She could spend the rest of her life here, she knew; there would always be more documents in the box, and they would always be changing. The more ephemeral something was in the waking world—a letter, a piece of clothing, a bowl that might be frequently moved—the less firm its reflection in Tel’aran’rhiod. She could not remain here too long; sleep while in the World of Dreams was not as restful as sleep undisturbed.

Hurrying out to the antechamber, she was about to reach for the neat piles of scrolls and parchments, some with seals, on the Keeper’s writing table, when the room seemed to flicker. Before she had time to even consider what that meant, the door opened, and Galad stepped in, smiling, his brocaded blue coat fitting his shoulders perfectly, snug breeches showing the shape of his calves.

She took a deep breath, her stomach fluttering. It just was not fair for a man to have a face so beautiful.

He stepped closer, dark eyes twinkling, and brushed her cheek with his fingers. “Will you walk with me in the Water Garden?” he said softly.

“If you two wish to canoodle,” a brisk woman’s voice said, “you will not do so here.”

Egwene spun, wide-eyed, staring at Leane seated behind the table with the Keeper’s stole on her shoulders and a fond smile on her copper-cheeked face. The door to the Amyrlin’s study was open, and inside Siuan stood beside her simple, well-polished writing table, reading a long parchment, the striped stole of office on her shoulders. This was madness.

She fled without thinking of what image she was forming, and found herself gulping for breath on the Green in Emond’s Field, with the thatch-roofed houses all around, and the Winespring gushing from the stone outcrop on the broad expanse of grass. Near the swift, rapidly widening stream stood her father’s small inn, its lower floor stone, the overhanging upper whitewashed. “The only roof like it in the Two Rivers,” Bran al’Vere had often said of his red tiles. The large stone foundation near the Winespring Inn, a huge, spreading oak rising from its center, was far older than the inn, but some said an inn of some sort had stood there beside the Winespring Water for more than two thousand years.

Fool. After warning Nynaeve so firmly about dreams in Tel’aran’rhiod, she had nearly let herself be caught in one of her own. Though it was odd that it had been Galad. She did dream of him, sometimes. Her face heated; she certainly did not love him, or even like him very much, but he was beautiful, and in those dreams he had been much more what she could have wished him. It was his brother Gawyn that she dreamed of more often, but that was just as silly. Whatever Elayne said, he had never made any feelings known to her.

It was that fool book, with all those tales of lovers. As soon as she woke in the morning she was going to give the thing back to Aviendha. And tell her that she did not think that she read it for the adventures at all.

She was reluctant to leave, though. Home. Emond’s Field. The last place that she had really felt safe. More than a year and a half had passed since she last saw it, yet everything seemed as she remembered. Not quite everything. On the Green stood two tall poles with large banners, one a red eagle, the other an equally red wolf’s head.

Had Perrin anything to do with those? She could not imagine how. Yet he had come home, so Rand said, and she had dreamed of him with wolves more than once.

Enough idle standing about. It was time to—

Flicker.

Her mother stepped out of the inn, graying braid pulled over one shoulder. Marin al’Vere was a slim woman, still handsome, and the best cook in the Two Rivers. Egwene could hear her father laughing inside the common room, where he was meeting with the rest of the Village Council.

“Are you still out here, child?” her mother said, gently chiding and amused. “You’ve certainly been married long enough to know you shouldn’t let your husband know you mope about waiting on him.” With a shake of her head, she laughed. “Too late. Here he comes.”

Egwene turned eagerly, eyes darting past the children playing on the Green. The timbers of the low Wagon Bridge thrummed as Gawyn galloped across and swung down from his saddle in front of her. Tall and straight in his gold-embroidered red coat, he had his sister’s red-gold curls, and marvelous deep blue eyes. He was not so handsome as his half-brother, of course, but her heart beat faster for him than it had for Galad—For Galad? What?—and she had to press her hands to her stomach in a vain attempt to still gigantic butterflies.

“Did you miss me?” he said, smiling.

“A little.” Why did I think of Galad? As if I’d just seen him a moment ago. “Now and then, when there was nothing interesting to occupy my time. Did you miss me?”

For answer, he pulled her off her feet and kissed her. She was not aware of very much else until he set her back down on unsteady legs. The banners were gone. What banners?

“Here he is,” her mother said, approaching with a babe wrapped in swaddling. “Here’s your son. He is a fine boy. He never cries at all.”

Gawyn laughed as he took the child, held him aloft. “He does have your eyes, Egwene. He will be a fine one with the girls one day.”

Egwene backed away from them, shaking her head. There had been banners, red eagle and red wolf’s head. She had seen Galad. In the Tower. “NOOOOOOO!”

She fled, leaping from Tel’aran’rhiod to her own body. Awareness remained only long enough for her to wonder how she could possibly have been fool enough to let her own fancies nearly trap her, and then she was deep in her own safe dream. Gawyn galloped across the Wagon Bridge, swinging down. . . .

Stepping out from behind a thatch-roofed house, Moghedien wondered idly where this little village was. Not the sort of place she would expect to see banners flying. The girl had been stronger than she had thought, to escape her weaving of Tel’aran’rhiod. Even Lanfear could not improve on her abilities here, whatever she claimed. Still, the girl had just been of interest because she was speaking to Elayne Trakand, who might lead her to Nynaeve al’Meara. The only reason to trap her had simply been to rid Tel’aran’rhiod of one who could walk it freely. It was bad enough that she must share it with Lanfear.

But Nynaeve al’Meara. That woman she meant to make beg to be bound in her service. She would take her in the flesh, perhaps ask the Great Lord to grant her immortality, so Nynaeve could have forever to regret opposing Moghedien. She and Elayne were scheming with Birgitte, were they? That was another she had reason to punish. Birgitte had not even known who Moghedien was, so long ago, in the Age of Legends, when she foiled Moghedien’s finely wrought plan to lay Lews Therin by his heels. But Moghedien had known her. Only, Birgitte—Teadra, she had been then—had died before she could deal with her. Death was no punishment, no end, not when it meant living on here.

Nynaeve al’Meara, Elayne Trakand, and Birgitte. Those three she would find, and deal with. From the shadows, so that they would not know until too late. All three, without exception.

She vanished, and the banners waved on in the breeze of Tel’aran’rhiod.

CHAPTER

26

Sallie Daera

The halo of greatness, blue and gold, flickered fitfully around Logain’s head, though he rode slumped in his saddle. Min did not understand why it had appeared more often of late. He no longer even bothered to lift his eyes from the weeds in front of his black stallion to the low, wooded hills rolling by all around them.

The other two women rode together a little ahead, Siuan as awkward on shaggy Bela as she had ever been, Leane guiding her gray mare deftly, with knees more than reins. Only an unnaturally straight ribbon of ferns, poking through the leaf-covered forest floor, hinted that there had ever been a road here. The lacy ferns were withering, and the leaf mold rustled and crackled dryly under the horses’ hooves. Thickly woven branches gave a little shelter from the noonday sun, but it was hardly cool. Sweat rolled down Min’s face, despite an occasional breeze that stirred from behind them.

Fifteen days now they had ridden west and south from Lugard, guided only by Siuan’s insistence that she knew exactly where they were heading. Not that she shared her destination, of course; Siuan and Leane were as close-mouthed as sprung bear traps. Min was not even sure that Leane actually knew. Fifteen days, while towns and villages grew fewer and farther between, until finally there were none. Day by day Logain’s shoulders had sagged a little more, and day by day the halo appeared more often. At first he had only begun muttering that they were chasing Jak o’ the Mists, but Siuan had regained her leadership without opposition as he turned more and more inward. For the past six days he had not seemed to have the energy to care where they were going or whether they would ever get there.

Siuan and Leane talked quietly up ahead, now. All Min could hear was a barely audible murmur that might as well have been the wind in the leaves. And if she tried to ride closer, they would tell her to keep an eye on Logain, or simply stare at her until only a stone-blind fool could keep her nose where it did not belong. They had done both often enough. From time to time, though, Leane twisted in her saddle to look at Logain.

Finally Leane let Moonflower fall back beside his black stallion. The heat did not seem to be bothering her; not so much as a sheen of perspiration marred her coppery face. Min reined Wildrose aside to give her room.

“It won’t be long now,” Leane told him in a sultry voice. He did not look up from the weeds in front of his horse. She leaned closer, holding his arm for balance. Pressing against it, really. “A little while longer, Dalyn. You will have your revenge.” His eyes stayed dully on the road.

“A dead man would pay more notice,” Min said, and meant it. She had been taking notes in her head of everything Leane did, and talking with her of an evening, though trying not to let on why. She would never be able to behave the way that Leane did—not unless I had enough wine in me that I couldn’t think at all—yet a few pointers might come in handy. “Maybe if you kissed him?”

Leane shot her a glare that could have frozen a rushing stream, but Min merely looked back. She had never had the problems with Leane that she did with Siuan—well, not as many, anyway—and the few difficulties had grown less since the other woman had left the Tower. Much fewer since they had begun discussing men. How could you be intimidated by a woman who had told you in dead seriousness that there were one hundred and seven different kisses, and ninety-three ways to touch a man’s face with your hand? Leane actually seemed to believe these things.

Min had not meant it as a jibe, really, the suggestion of a kiss. Leane had been cooing at him, giving him smiles that should have made steam rise from his ears, since the day he had had to be hauled out of his blankets instead of rising first to chivvy the rest of them. Min did not know whether Leane actually felt something for the man, though she did find it hard to credit even the possibility, or was just trying to keep him from giving up and dying, to keep him alive for whatever Siuan had planned.

Leane certainly had not given up flirting with others besides him. She and Siuan had apparently worked out that Siuan would deal with women, Leane with men, and so it had been ever since Lugard. Her smiles and glances had twice gotten them rooms where the innkeeper had said there were none, lowered the bill at those and three more, and on two nights earned barns instead of bushes for sleeping. They had also gotten the four of them chased off by one farmwife with a pitchfork, and a breakfast of cold porridge thrown at them by another, but Leane had thought the incidents funny, if no one else did. The last few days, however, Logain had stopped reacting like every other man who saw her for more than two minutes. He had stopped reacting to her or anything else.

Siuan pulled Bela back stiffly, elbows out and managing to look on the point of falling off any moment. The heat was not touching her, either. “Have you viewed him today?” She hardly glanced at Logain.

“It is still the same,” Min said patiently. Siuan refused to understand or believe, however many times she told her, and so did Leane. It would not have mattered if she had not seen the aura since her first viewing of it in Tar Valon. Had Logain been lying in the road, rasping his death rattle, she would have wagered all she had and more on a miraculous recovery, somehow. The appearance of an Aes Sedai to Heal him. Something. What she saw was always true. It always happened. She knew the same way that she had known the first time she saw Rand al’Thor that she would fall desperately, helplessly in love with him, the same way she had known she would have to share him with two other women. Logain was destined for glory such as few men had dreamed of.

“Don’t you take that tone with me,” Siuan said, that blue-eyed gaze sharpening. “It is bad enough we have to spoon-feed this great hairy carp to make him eat, without you going sulky as a fisher-bird in winter. I may have to put up with him, girl, but if you start giving me trouble, too, you will regret it in short order. Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes, Mara.” At least you could have put a touch of sarcasm in it, she thought scornfully. You don’t have to be meek as a goose. You’ve told Leane off to her face. The Domani woman had suggested that she practice what they had been discussing on a farrier in the last village. A tall, handsome man, with strong-looking hands and a slow smile, but still . . . “I will try not to be sulky.” The worst part was that she realized she had tried to sound sincere. Siuan had that effect. Min could not even begin to imagine Siuan discussing how to smile at a man. Siuan would look a man in the eye, tell him what to do, and expect to see it done promptly. Just the way she did with everyone else. If she did anything else, as she had with Logain, it would only be because the point did not matter enough to press.

“It is not much farther, is it?” Leane said briskly. She saved the other voice for men. “I do not like the look of him, and if we have to stop for another night . . . Well, if he helps any less than he did this morning, I don’t know that we will be able to get him into his saddle again.”

“Not much, if those last directions I had are right.” Siuan sounded irritated. She had asked questions at that last village, two days ago—not letting Min hear, of course; Logain had showed no interest—and she did not like to be reminded of them. Min could not understand why. Siuan could hardly expect Elaida to be behind them.

She herself hoped it was not much farther. It was hard to be sure how far south they had drifted since leaving the highway to Jehannah. Most villagers had only vague notions of where their village actually was in relation to anything except the nearest towns, but when they crossed the Manetherendrelle into Altara, just before Siuan took them away from the well-traveled road, the grizzled old ferryman had been studying a tattered map for some reason, a map that stretched as far as the Mountains of Mist. Unless her estimate was off, they were going to reach another wide river in not many miles. Either the Boern, which meant they were already into Ghealdan, where the Prophet and his mobs were, or else the Eldar, with Amadicia and Whitecloaks on the far side.

She was betting on Ghealdan, Prophet or no Prophet, and even that was a surprise if they really were close. Only a fool would think to find a gathering of Aes Sedai any nearer to Amadicia than they had to be, and Siuan was anything but that. Whether they were in Ghealdan or Altara, Amadicia had to be not many miles distant.

“Gentling would have to catch up to him now,” Siuan muttered. “If he can only hang on a few more days . . .” Min kept her mouth shut; if the woman would not listen, there was no use in speaking.

Shaking her head, Siuan heeled Bela back into the lead, gripping her reins as though expecting the stout mare to bolt, and Leane returned to silken-voiced cajoling of Logain. Maybe she did have feelings for him; it would be no odder a choice than Min’s own.

Forested hills slid on by with never a sign of change, all trees and tangles of weeds and brambles. The ferns that marked the old road ran on, arrow-straight; Leane had said the soil was different where the road had been, as if Min should have known that. Squirrels with tufted ears sometimes chattered at them from a branch, and occasionally birds called. Which birds, Min could not begin to guess. Baerlon might not be a city when compared to Caemlyn or Ilian or Tear, but she thought of herself as a city woman; a bird was a bird. And she did not care what kind of dirt a fern grew in.

Her doubts began to surface again. They had oozed up more than once after Kore Springs, but back then it had been easier to push them down. Since Lugard they had bubbled to the top more often, and she found herself considering Siuan in ways she would never have dared, once. Not that she had the nerve to actually confront Siuan with any of them, of course; it galled her to admit that, even to herself. But maybe Siuan did not know where she was going. She could lie, since stilling broke her away from the Three Oaths. Maybe she was still just hoping that if she continued searching she would find some trace of what she needed desperately to find. In a small way, a peculiar way surely, Leane had begun making a life for herself apart from concerns of power and the Power and Rand. Not that she had abandoned them entirely, but Min did not think there was anything else for Siuan. The White Tower and the Dragon Reborn were the whole of her life, and she would hold to them even if she had to li e to herself.

Woodland gave way to a large village so quickly that Min stared. Sweet-gum and oak and scrubby pine—those were trees she could recognize—running to within fifty paces of thatch-roofed houses made of rounded river stones and clinging to low hills. She was willing to wager that not so long ago the forest had grown right through. A good many trees actually stood in narrow little thickets among some of the houses, crowding against the walls, and here and there unweathered stumps stood close by the front of a house. The streets still had a look of new-turned earth, not the hard-packed surface that came from generations of feet. Men in their shirtsleeves were up laying new thatch atop three large stone cubes that had to have been inns—one actually had the remains of a faded, weathered sign dangling above the door—yet no old thatch lay anywhere that she could see. There were far too many women out and about for the number of men in sight, and far too few children playing for the num
ber of women. The smells of midday cooking in the air were the only normal things about the place.

If the first glimpse startled Min, when she really saw what lay in front of her she nearly fell out of her saddle. The younger women, shaking blankets from a window or hurrying on some errand, wore plain woolen dresses, but no village of any size had ever contained so many women in riding dresses of silk or fine wool, in every color and cut. Around those women, and around most of the men, auras and images floated before her eyes, changing and flickering; most people rarely had anything for her viewing, but Aes Sedai and Warders seldom lacked an aura for as much as an hour. The children must have belonged to Tower servants. Aes Sedai who married were few and far between, but knowing them, they would have made every effort to bring their servants, with their families, out of any place they felt that they must flee themselves. Siuan had found her gathering.

There was an eerie stillness as they rode into the village. No one spoke. Aes Sedai stood without moving, watching them, and so did younger women and girls who must be Accepted or even novices. Men who a moment before had been moving with wolfish grace were frozen, one hand hidden in thatch, or reaching into a doorway, doubtless where weapons were hidden. The children vanished, hurriedly herded away by the adults who had to be servants. Under all those unwinking stares, the hair on the back of Min’s neck tried to stand up.

Leane appeared uneasy, casting sidelong glances at the people they rode past, but Siuan stayed smooth-faced and calm as she led the way straight to the largest inn, the one with the unreadable sign, and scrambled down to tie Bela to the iron ring of one of the stone hitching posts that appeared to have been only recently set upright. Helping Leane help Logain to the ground—Siuan never offered a hand in getting him up or down—Min found her eyes darting around. Everyone staring, no one moving. “I never expected to be greeted like a long-lost daughter,” she murmured to the other woman, “but why isn’t anyone at least saying hello?”

Before Leane could answer—if she meant to—Siuan said, “Well, don’t stop pulling oar with the shore in reach. Bring him on in.” She disappeared inside while Min and Leane were still guiding Logain to the door. He went easily, but when they ceased to urge him he took only one step before stopping.

The common room looked like none Min had ever seen before. The wide fireplaces were cold, of course, and had gaps where stones had fallen out; the plaster ceiling looked rotten, with holes in it as big as her head where the lathing showed. Mismatched tables of every size and shape stood about on an age-roughened floor that several girls were sweeping. Women with ageless faces sat examining parchments, giving orders to Warders, a few of whom wore their color-shifting cloaks, or to other women, some of whom had to be Accepted or novices. Others were too old for that, perhaps half of them graying and clearly showing their years, and there were men who were not Warders, too, most either darting off as though carrying messages or else fetching parchments or cups of wine to the Aes Sedai. The bustle had a satisfying air of something being done. Auras and images danced around the room, wreathing heads, so many that she had to try to ignore them before they overwhelmed her. It was not easy,
but it was a trick she had had to learn when around more than a handful of Aes Sedai at once.

Four Aes Sedai glided forward to meet the newcomers, all grace and cool serenity in their divided skirts. For Min, seeing their familiar features was like reaching home after being lost.

Sheriam’s tilted green eyes fixed immediately on Min’s face. Rays of silver and blue flashed about her fiery hair, and a soft golden light; Min could not say what it meant. Slightly plump in her dark blue silk, at the moment she was sternness itself. “I would be happier to see you, child, if I knew how you discovered our presence here, and if I had some inkling of why you conceived the crackbrained idea of bringing him.” Half a dozen Warders had drifted near, hands resting on swords, eyes sharp on Logain; he did not seem to see them at all.

Min gaped. Why were they asking her? “My crackbr—?” She had no chance to say more.

“It would be far better,” pale-cheeked Carlinya cut in icily, “if he had died as the rumors say.” It was not the ice of anger, but of cold reason. She was White Ajah. Her ivory-colored dress looked as if it had had hard wear. For an instant Min saw an image of a raven floating beside her dark hair; more a drawing of the bird than the bird itself. She thought it was a tattoo, but she did not know its meaning. She concentrated on faces, tried not to see anything else. “He looks nearly dead in any event,” Carlinya continued, hardly taking breath. “Whatever you thought, you have wasted your effort. But I, too, would like to know how you came to Salidar.”

Siuan and Leane stood there exchanging smugly amused glances, while the onslaught went on. No one even looked at them.

Myrelle, darkly beautiful in green silk embroidered on the bodice with slanting lines of gold, her face a perfect oval, usually wore a knowing smile that at times could rival Leane’s new tricks. She was not smiling now as she jumped in right behind the White sister. “Speak up, Min. Don’t stand there gaping like a dolt.” She was noted for her fiery temper, even among the Greens.

“You must tell us,” Anaiya added in a more kindly voice. Exasperation tinged it, though. A blunt-featured woman, and motherly despite Aes Sedai smoothness to her face, at the moment stroking her pale gray skirts, she looked like a mother who was trying not to reach for a switch. “We will find a place for you and these other two girls, but you must tell us how you came here.”

Min shook herself, and closed her mouth. Of course. These other two girls. She had grown so used to them as they were that she no longer thought of how much they had changed. She doubted whether any of these women had seen either since they were hauled off to the dungeons beneath the White Tower. Leane looked ready to laugh, and Siuan all but shook her head in disgust at the Aes Sedai.

“I am not the one you want to talk to,” Min told Sheriam. Let “these other two girls” have those stares on them for a change. “Ask Siuan, or Leane.” They stared at her as if she were mad, until she nodded to her two companions.

Four sets of Aes Sedai eyes shifted to the others, but there was no instant recognition. They studied and frowned and passed glances between them. None of the Warders took their eyes from Logain or their hands from their swords.

“Stilling might produce this effect,” Myrelle murmured finally. “I have read accounts that imply as much.”

“The faces are close, in many ways,” Sheriam said slowly. “Someone could have found women who look much like them, but why?”

Siuan and Leane did not look smug any longer. “We are who we are,” Leane said crisply. “Question us. No impostor could know what we know.”

Siuan did not wait for questions. “My face may be changed, yet at least I know what I am doing and why. That is more than I can say for you, I’ll wager.”

Min groaned at her steely tone, but Myrelle nodded, saying, “That is Siuan Sanche’s voice. It is she.”

“Voices can be trained,” Carlinya said, still coolly calm.

“But how far can memories be taught?” Anaiya frowned sternly. “Siuan—if that is who you are—on your twenty-second nameday we had an argument, you and I. Where did it occur, and what was the outcome?”

Siuan smiled confidently at the motherly woman. “During your lecture to the Accepted on why so many of the nations carved out of Artur Hawkwing’s empire after his death failed to survive. I still disagree with you on some points, by the way. The outcome was that I spent two months working three hours a day in the kitchens. ‘In the hope that the heat will overpower and diminish your ardor,’ I think you said.”

If she had thought that one answer would be sufficient, she was wrong. Anaiya had more questions, for both women, and so did Carlinya and Sheriam, who apparently had been novices and Accepted with the pair. They were all about the sort of thing no impostor would be able to learn, scrapes gotten into, pranks successful and not, opinions generally held of various Aes Sedai teachers. Min could not believe that the women who would become the Amyrlin Seat and the Keeper of the Chronicles could have dropped themselves into the soup so often, but she had the impression that this was only the tip of a buried mountain, and it appeared that Sheriam herself might not have been far behind them. Myrelle, the youngest by years, confined herself to amused comments, until Siuan said something about a trout put into Saroiya Sedai’s bath and a novice taught to mind her ways for half a year. Not that Siuan had much room to talk of anyone minding her ways. Washing a disliked Accepted’s shifts with i
tchweed when she was a novice? Sneaking out of the Tower to go fishing? Even Accepted needed permission to leave the Tower grounds except during certain hours. Siuan and Leane together had even chilled a bucket of water to near freezing and set it so it would douse an Aes Sedai who had had them switched, unfairly as they saw it. From the glint in Anaiya’s eyes, it was a good thing for them that they had not been found out that time. From what Min knew of novice training, and Accepted for that matter, these women were lucky that they had been allowed to remain long enough to become Aes Sedai, much less that they still had whole hides.

“I am satisfied,” the motherly woman said at last, glancing at the others.

Myrelle nodded after Sheriam did, but Carlinya said, “There is still the question of what to do with her.” She stared right at Siuan, unblinking, and the others suddenly seemed uneasy. Myrelle pursed her lips, and Anaiya studied the floor. Smoothing her dress, Sheriam seemed to avoid looking at the newcomers at all.

“We still know everything we knew before,” Leane told them, her sudden frown at least half-worry. “We can be of use.”

Siuan was dark-faced—Leane had seemed amused if anything at her recounted girlhood misdeeds and penalties, but Siuan had not liked the telling one bit—yet in contrast to her near-glare, her voice was only a little tight. “You wanted to know how we found you. I made contact with one of my agents who also works for the Blue, and she told me of Sallie Daera.”

Min did not understand that about Sallie Daera at all—who was she?—but Sheriam and the others nodded at one another. Siuan had done something other than tell them how, Min realized; she had let them know that she still had access to the eyes-and-ears who had served her as Amyrlin.

“You sit over there, Min,” Sheriam told Min, pointing to the one table not in use, in a corner. “Or are you still Elmindreda? And keep Logain with you.” She and the other three gathered Siuan and Leane, herding them toward the back of the common room. Two more women in riding dresses joined them before they vanished through a new-made door of uncured boards.

Sighing, Min took Logain’s arm and led him to the table, sat him down on a rough bench and took a shaky ladder-back chair herself. Two of the Warders positioned themselves nearby, leaning against the wall. They did not appear to be watching Logain, but Min knew the Gaidin; they saw everything, and they could have their swords out in less than a heartbeat while sleeping.

So there were to be no open arms in welcome, even with Siuan and Leane recognized. Well, what did she expect? Siuan and Leane had been the two most powerful women in the White Tower; now they were not even Aes Sedai. The others very likely did not know how to behave toward them. And appearing with a gentled false Dragon. Siuan had better not be lying or wishing about having a plan for him. Min did not think Sheriam and the others would be as patient as Logain had been.

And Sheriam, at least, had recognized her. She stood again, long enough to peer through a crack-paned window into the street. Their horses were still at the hitching posts, but one of those Warders who were not watching would have her before she had Wildrose’s reins untied. This last time in the Tower, Siuan had gone to great lengths to disguise her. To no end, it seemed. She did not think any of them knew about her viewings, though. Siuan and Leane had held that tightly to themselves. Min would be just as glad if it remained that way. If these Aes Sedai learned of it, they would entangle her just as Siuan had, and she would never reach Rand. She was not going to be able to show off what she had learned from Leane if they kept her on a leash here.

Helping Siuan find this gathering, helping bring Aes Sedai to Rand’s aid, was all very well and important, but she still had a personal goal. Making a man who had never looked at her twice fall in love with her before he went mad. Maybe she was as mad as he was fated to be. “Then we’ll make a matched pair,” she muttered to herself.

A freckled, green-eyed girl who had to be a novice stopped at her table. “Would you like something to eat or drink? There is venison stew, and wild pears. There might be some cheese, too.” She put so much effort into not looking at Logain that she might as well have stared pop-eyed.

“Pears and cheese sound very good,” Min told her. The last two days had been hungry; Siuan had managed to catch some fish in a stream, but Logain had done all the hunting when they had not eaten at an inn or a farm. Dried beans did not make a meal, in her opinion. “And some wine, if you have it. But first, I would like some information. Where are we, if it isn’t a secret here, too? This village is called Salidar?”

“In Altara. The Eldar is about a mile to the west. Amadicia is on the other side.” The girl put on a poor imitation of Aes Sedai mystery. “Where better to hide Aes Sedai than where they would never be looked for?”

“We should not have to hide,” a dark, curly-haired young woman snapped, stopping. Min recognized her, an Accepted named Faolain; she would have expected her to be in the Tower still. Faolain had never liked anyone or anything as far as Min knew, and had often spoken of choosing the Red Ajah when she was raised. A perfect follower for Elaida. “Why did you come here? With him! Why did she come?” There was no doubt in Min’s mind who she meant. “It is her fault we have to hide. I did not believe she helped Mazrim Taim escape, but if she appears here with him, maybe she did.”

“That will be enough, Faolain,” a slender woman with black hair spilling down her back to her waist told the round-faced Accepted. Min thought she knew the woman in the dark golden silk riding dress. Edesina. A Yellow, she believed. “Go about your duties,” Edesina said. “And if you mean to bring food, Tabiya, do it.” Edesina did not watch Faolain’s sullen curtsy—the novice gave a better and scurried away—but put a hand on Logain’s head instead. Eyes on the table, he did not seem to notice.

To Min’s eyes, a silvery collar suddenly appeared, snug around the woman’s neck, and as suddenly seemed to shatter. Min shivered. She did not like viewings connected to the Seanchan. At least Edesina would escape somehow. Even if Min had been willing to expose herself, there was no point in warning the woman; it would not change anything.

“It is the gentling,” the Aes Sedai said after a moment. “He has given up on wanting to live, I suppose. There is nothing I can do for him. Not that I am sure I should if I could.” The look she gave Min before leaving was far from friendly.

An elegant, statuesque woman in russet silk paused a few feet away, coolly examining Min and Logain with expressionless eyes. Kiruna was a Green, and regal in her manner; she was a sister of the King of Arafel, so Min had heard, but she had been friendly to Min in the Tower. Min smiled, but those large dark eyes swept over her without recognition, and Kiruna glided out of the inn, four Warders, disparate men but all with that deadly-seeming way of moving, suddenly heeling her.

Waiting for her food, Min hoped that Siuan and Leane were finding a warmer reception.

CHAPTER

27

The Practice of Diffidence

You are rudderless,” Siuan told the six women facing her in six different sorts of chair. The room itself was a muddle. Two large kitchen tables against the walls held pens and ink jars and sand bottles in neat arrays. Mismatched lamps, some glazed pottery and some gilded, and candles in every thickness and length stood ready to provide light at nightfall. A scrap of Illianer silk carpet, rich in blues and reds and gold, lay on a floor of rough, weathered planks. She and Leane had been seated across the piece of carpet from the others, in such a way that they were the focus of every eye. Open casement windows with panes cracked or replaced by oiled silk let a breath of air stir in, but not enough to cut the heat. Siuan told herself that she did not envy these women their ability to channel—she was past that, surely—but she did envy the way none of them perspired. Her own face was quite damp. “All that activity out there is play and show. You might be fooling each other, and m
aybe even the Gaidin—though I’d not count on that, were I you—but you can’t fool me.”

She wished that Morvrin and Beonin had not been added to the group. Morvrin was skeptical of everything despite her placid, sometimes vaguely absent look, a stout Brown with gray-streaked hair who demanded six pieces of evidence before she would believe fish had scales. And Beonin, a pretty Gray with dark honey hair and blue-gray eyes so big they constantly made her appear slightly startled—Beonin made Morvrin seem gullible.

“Elaida has the Tower in her fist, and you know she will mishandle Rand al’Thor,” Siuan said scornfully. “It will be pure luck if she doesn’t panic and have him gentled before Tarmon Gai’don. You know that whatever you feel about a man channeling, Reds feel ten times more. The White Tower is at its weakest when it should be at its strongest, in the hands of a fool when it must have skilled command.” She wrinkled her nose, staring them in the eye one by one. “And you sit here, drifting with your sails down. Or can you convince me that you are doing more than twiddling your thumbs and blowing bubbles?”

“Do you agree with Siuan, Leane?” Anaiya asked mildly. Siuan had never been able to understand why Moiraine liked the woman. Trying to get her to do anything she did not want to was like hitting a sack of feathers. She did not stand up to you, or argue; she just silently refused to move. Even the way she sat, with her hands folded, looked more like a woman waiting to knead dough than an Aes Sedai.

“In part I do,” Leane replied. Siuan gave her a sharp look that she ignored. “About Elaida, certainly. Elaida will misuse Rand al’Thor, as surely as she is misusing the Tower. For the rest, I know that you have worked hard to gather as many sisters here as you have, and I expect that you are working just as hard to do something about Elaida.”

Siuan sniffed loudly. On her way through the common room she had snatched glimpses of some of those parchments being examined so assiduously. Lists of provisions, allotments of timber for rebuilding, assignments for woodcutting and repairing houses and cleaning out wells. Nothing more. Nothing that looked the least like a report on Elaida’s activities. They were planning to winter here. All it took was one Blue being captured after she had learned of Salidar, one woman being put to the question—she would not hold back much if Alviarin had charge of it—and Elaida would know exactly where to net them. While they worried about planting vegetable gardens and having enough firewood cut before the first freeze.

“Then that is out of the way,” Carlinya said coolly. “You do not seem to understand that you are not Amyrlin and Keeper any longer. You are not even Aes Sedai.” Some had the grace to look embarrassed. Not Morvrin or Beonin, but the others. No Aes Sedai liked to speak of stilling, or be reminded of it; they would think it especially harsh in front of the two of them. “I do not say this to be cruel. We do not believe the charges against you—despite your traveling companion—or we would not be here, but you cannot assume your old places among us, and that is a simple fact.”

Siuan remembered Carlinya well as novice and Accepted. Once a month she had committed some minor offense, a small thing that earned her an extra hour or two of chores. Exactly once each month. She had not wanted the others to think her a prig. Those had been her only offenses—she never broke another rule or put a foot wrong; it would not have been logical—yet she had never understood why the other girls had considered her an Aes Sedai pet anyway. A great deal of logic and not much common sense: that was Carlinya.

“While what was done to you followed the letter of the law narrowly,” Sheriam said gently, “we agree that it was malignantly unjust, an extreme distortion of the law’s spirit.” The chairback behind her fire-red head was incongruously carved with what seemed to be a mass of snakes fighting. “Whatever rumor might say, most of the charges laid against you were so thin that they should have been laughed away.”

“Not the charge that she knew of Rand al’Thor and conspired to hide him from the Tower,” Carlinya broke in sharply.

Sheriam nodded. “But be that as it may, even that was not sufficient for the penalty given. Nor should you have been tried in secret, without even a chance to defend yourself. Never fear that we will turn our backs on you. We will see that you both are cared for.”

“I thank you,” Leane said, her voice soft and almost trembling.

Siuan grimaced at them. “You haven’t even asked me about the eyes-and-ears I can use.” She had liked Sheriam when they were students together, though years and position had opened water between them. “Cared for” indeed! “Is Aeldene here?” Anaiya started to shake her head before stopping herself. “I suspected not, or you would know more of what is going on. You’ve left them sending their reports to the Tower.” Slow realization dawned on their faces; they had not known Aeldene’s office. “I headed the Blue Ajah’s net of eyes-and-ears, before I was raised Amyrlin.” More surprise. “With a little effort every Blue agent, and those who served me as Amyrlin, too, can be sending her reports to you, by routes that keep her ignorant of their final destination.” It would take considerably more than a little work, but she had already sketched most of it out in her head, and there was no need for them to know more at the moment. “And they can continue sending repo
rts to the Tower, reports containing what . . . you want Elaida to believe.” She had almost said “we”; she had to watch her tongue.

They did not like it, of course. The women who tended the networks might be unknown to all but a few, but they were every one Aes Sedai. They had always been Aes Sedai. But that was her only lever with which to pry her way into the circles where decisions were made. Otherwise, they would likely stuff her and Leane into a cottage with a servant to look after them, and maybe a rare visit from Aes Sedai who wanted to examine women who had been stilled, until they died. They would die soon, in those circumstances.

Light, they might even marry us off! Some thought that a husband and children could occupy a woman enough to replace the One Power in her life. More than one woman, stilled by drawing too much of saidar to herself, or in testing ter’angreal for their uses, had found herself being matched with potential husbands. Since those who did marry always put as much distance as possible between themselves and the Tower and its memories, the theory remained unproven.

“It should not be difficult,” Leane said diffidently, “to put myself in touch with those who were my eyes-and-ears before I was Keeper. More importantly, as Keeper of the Chronicles I had agents in Tar Valon itself.” Startlement widened a few eyes, though Carlinya’s narrowed. Leane blinked, shifted uneasily, smiled weakly. “I always thought it foolish that we paid more attention to the mood of Ebou Dar or Bandar Eban than to the mood of our own city.” They had to see the value of eyes-and-ears in Tar Valon.

“Siuan.” Leaning forward in her thick-armed chair, Morvrin said the name firmly, as though to emphasize that she had not said Mother. That round face looked more stubborn than placid now, her stoutness a threatening mass. When Siuan had been a novice, Morvrin rarely seemed to notice the mischief of the girls around her, but when she did, she had taken care of matters herself, in ways that had everyone sitting straight and walking small for days. “Why should we allow you to do as you want? You have been stilled, woman. Whatever you were, you are no longer Aes Sedai. If we want these agents’ names, you will both give them to us.” There was a flat certainty to that last; they would give them, one way or another. They would, if these women wanted them enough.

Leane shivered visibly, but Siuan’s chair creaked as she stiffened her back. “I know that I am not Amyrlin anymore. Do you think I don’t know I was stilled? My face is changed, but not what is inside. Everything I ever knew is still in my head. Use it! For the love of the Light, use me!” She took a deep breath to calm herself—Burn me if I let them shove me aside to rot!—and Myrelle spoke into the pause.

“A young woman’s temper to go with a young woman’s face.” Smiling, she sat on the edge of a stiff-backed armchair that could have stood in front of a farmer’s fireplace, if the farmer had not cared that the varnish was flaking. The smile was not her usual one, though, languid and knowing at the same time, and her dark eyes, nearly as large as Beonin’s, were full of sympathy. “I am sure that no one wants you to feel useless, Siuan. And I am sure that we all want to employ your knowledge fully. What you know will be of great use to us.”

Siuan did not want her sympathy. “You seem to have forgotten Logain, and why I dragged him all the way here from Tar Valon.” She had not meant to bring this up herself, but if they were going to let it lie wallowing . . . “My ‘crackbrained’ idea?”

“Very well, Siuan,” Sheriam said. “Why?”

“Because the first step to pulling Elaida down is for Logain to reveal to the Tower, to the world if need be, that the Red Ajah set him up as a false Dragon so that he could be pulled down.” She certainly had their attention now. “He was found by Reds in Ghealdan at least a year before he proclaimed himself, but instead of bringing him to Tar Valon to be gentled, they planted the idea in his head of claiming to be the Dragon Reborn.”

“You are certain of this?” Beonin asked quietly, in a heavy Taraboner accent. She sat very still in her tall, cane-bottomed chair, watching carefully.

“He does not know who Leane and I are. He talked with us sometimes on the journey here, late at night when Min was sleeping and he could not rest. He said nothing before because he thinks the entire Tower was behind it, but he knows that it was Red sisters who shielded him and talked to him of the Dragon Reborn.”

“Why?” Morvrin demanded, and Sheriam nodded.

“Yes, why? Any of us would go out of our way to see a man like that gentled, but the Red Ajah lives for nothing else. Why would they create a false Dragon?”

“Logain did not know,” she told them. “Perhaps they think they gain more by capturing a false Dragon than gentling a poor fool who might terrorize one village. Perhaps they have some reason to want more turmoil.”

“We do not suggest they’ve had anything to do with Mazrim Taim or any of the others,” Leane added quickly. “Elaida will no doubt be able to tell you what you want to know.”

Siuan watched them mull it over in silence. They never considered the possibility that she was lying. An advantage to having been stilled. It did not seem to occur to them that being stilled might have broken all ties to the Three Oaths. Some Aes Sedai studied stilled women, true, but gingerly and reluctantly. No one wanted to be reminded of what might happen to herself.

For Logain, Siuan had no worry. Not as long as Min continued to see whatever it was that she saw. He would live long enough to reveal what Siuan wanted him to, once she had talked to him. She had not dared risk his deciding to go his own way, which he might well have done had she told him before. But it was his one chance for revenge now against those who had gentled him, surrounded by Aes Sedai again as he was. Revenge only against the Red Ajah, true, but he would have to settle for that. A fish in the boat was worth a school in the water.

She glanced at Leane, who smiled the faintest possible smile. That was good. Leane had disliked being kept in the dark about her plan for the man until this morning, but Siuan had lived too long wrapped in secrecy to be easy revealing more than she had to, even to a friend. She thought that the idea of Red Ajah involvement with other false Dragons had been neatly planted. Reds had been the leaders in overthrowing her. There might not be a Red Ajah once this was done with.

“This changes a great deal,” Sheriam said after a time. “We cannot possibly follow an Amyrlin who would do such a thing.”

“Follow her!” Siuan exclaimed, for the first time truly startled. “You were actually considering going back to kiss Elaida’s ring? Knowing what she has done, and will do?” Leane quivered in her seat as if she wanted to say a few choice words herself, but they had agreed that Siuan was to be the one to lose her temper.

Sheriam looked a trifle embarrassed, and spots of color floated in Myrelle’s olive cheeks, but the others took it as calmly as sunshine.

“The Tower must be strong,” Carlinya said in a voice as hard as winter stone. “The Dragon has been Reborn, the Last Battle is coming, and the Tower must be whole.”

Anaiya nodded. “We understand your reasons for disliking Elaida, even hating her. We do understand, but we must think of the Tower, and the world. I confess I do not like Elaida myself. But then, I have never liked Siuan, either. It is not necessary to like the Amyrlin Seat. There is no need to glare so, Siuan. You have had a file for a tongue since you were a novice, and it has only roughened with the years. And as Amyrlin, you pushed sisters where you wanted and only seldom explained why. The two do not make a likable combination.”

“I will try to . . . smooth my tongue,” Siuan said dryly. Did the woman expect the Amyrlin Seat to treat every sister like a childhood friend? “But I hope what I’ve told you changes your desire to kneel at Elaida’s feet?”

“If that is your smoother tongue,” Myrelle said idly, “I may have to smooth it myself, if we do allow you to run the eyes-and-ears for us.”

“We cannot go back to the Tower now, of course,” Sheriam said. “Not knowing this. Not until we are in position to see Elaida deposed.”

“Whatever she has done, the Reds, they will continue to support her.” Beonin stated it as fact, not objection. It was no secret that the Reds resented the fact that there had not been an Amyrlin from their Ajah since Bonwhin.

Morvrin nodded heavily. “Others will, as well. Those who have thrown themselves too much behind Elaida to believe they have any other choice. Those who will support authority, however vile. And some who will believe we are dividing the Tower when it must be whole at any cost.”

“All but the Red sisters can be approached,” Beonin said judiciously, “negotiated with.” Mediation and negotiation were her Ajah’s reason for existence.

“It seems we will have a use for your agents, Siuan.” Sheriam looked around at the others. “Unless anyone still thinks we should take them away from her?” Morvrin was the last to shake her head, but she did it, finally, after a long study that made Siuan feel she had been stripped, weighed and measured.

She could not stop a sigh of relief. Not a short life drying up in a cottage, but a life of purpose. It might still be a short life—no one knew how long a stilled woman could live given something to replace the One Power in her life—but with purpose it would be long enough. So Myrelle was going to smooth her tongue for her, was she? I’ll show that fox-eyed Green—I will hold my tongue and be glad she isn’t doing more than look at me is what I’ll do. I knew how this would go. Burn me, but I did.

“Thank you, Aes Sedai,” she said in the meekest tone she could find. To call them that pained her; it was another break, another reminder of what she was not any longer. “I will try to give good service.” Myrelle did not have to nod in such a satisfied way. Siuan ignored a small voice that said she would have done as much or more in Myrelle’s place.

“If I may suggest,” Leane said, “it is not enough to wait until you have enough support in the Hall of the Tower to depose Elaida.” Siuan put on an interested look, as though hearing this for the first time. “Elaida sits in Tar Valon, in the White Tower, and to the world she is Amyrlin. At the moment, you are only a flock of dissidents. She can call you rebels and agitators, and coming from the Amyrlin Seat, the world will believe it.”

“We can hardly stop her being Amyrlin before she is deposed,” Carlinya said, shifting on her chair in icy contempt. Had she been wearing her white-fringed shawl, she would have snapped it around her.

“You can give the world a true Amyrlin.” Leane spoke not to the White sister, but to all of them, eyeing each in turn, sure of what she was saying yet at the same time offering a suggestion that she merely hoped they would take. It had been Siuan who pointed out that the techniques she employed on men could be adapted for women. “I saw Aes Sedai from every Ajah save the Red in the common room, and in the streets. Have them elect a Hall of the Tower here, and let that Hall select a new Amyrlin. Then you can present yourselves to the world as the true White Tower, in exile, and Elaida as a usurper. With Logain’s revelations added in, can you doubt who the nations will accept as the real Amyrlin Seat?”

The idea took hold. Siuan could see them turning it over in their minds. Whatever the others thought, only Sheriam voiced a word against. “It will mean that the Tower truly is broken,” the green-eyed woman said sadly.

“It already is broken,” Siuan told her tartly, and instantly wished she had not when they all looked at her.

This was supposed to be purely Leane’s notion. She herself had a reputation as a deft manipulator, and they could well be suspicious of anything she proposed. That was why she had begun by scathing them; they would not have believed her if she had begun with mild words. She would come at them as if she still thought herself Amyrlin, and let them put her in her place. By comparison, Leane would seem more cooperative, only offering the little she could, and they would be more likely to listen to her. Doing her own part had not been difficult—until it came to pleading; then she had wanted to hang them all in the sun to dry. Sitting here, doing nothing!

You didn’t have to worry about them being suspicious. They think you are a broken reed. If everything went properly, they would not learn differently. A useful reed, but a weak one, not to be thought of twice. It was a painful accommodation to make, but Duranda Tharne had shown her the necessity in Lugard. They would accept her only on their terms, and she would have to make the best of it.

“I wish I had thought of this myself,” she went on. “Now that I hear it, Leane’s idea gives you a way to build the Tower again without having to tear it down completely first.”

“I still cannot like it.” Sheriam’s voice firmed. “But what must be must be. The Wheel weaves as the Wheel wills, and the Light willing, it will weave Elaida out of the stole.”

“We will need to negotiate with those sisters who remain in the Tower,” Beonin mused, only half to herself. “The Amyrlin we choose, she must be a skilled negotiator, yes?”

“Clear thinking will be needed,” Carlinya put in. “The new Amyrlin must be a woman of cool reason and logic.”

Morvrin’s snort was loud enough to make everyone jump in their chairs. “Sheriam is the highest among us, and she has kept us together when we’d have been running in ten different directions.”

Sheriam shook her head vigorously, but Myrelle gave her no chance to speak. “Sheriam is an excellent choice. I can promise every Green sister here behind her, I know.” Anaiya opened her mouth, agreement plain on her face.

It was time to put a stop to this before it got out of hand. “If I may suggest?” Siuan thought she managed diffidence much better than she had meekness. It was a strain, but she thought she had better learn to maintain it. Myrelle isn’t the only one who will try to stuff me in the bilges if they think I’ve overstepped my place. Whatever it is. Only, they would not try; they would do. Aes Sedai expected—no, required—respect from those who were not. “It seems to me that whoever you choose should be someone who was not in the Tower when I . . . was deposed. Would it not be best if the woman who unites the Tower again was one whom no one could accuse of choosing a side on that day?” If she had to keep this up, she was going to burst a seam in her head.

“Someone very strong in the Power,” Leane added. “The stronger she is, the more she can stand for all that the Tower means. Or will again, once Elaida is gone.”

Siuan could have kicked her. That thought was supposed to wait a full day, to be tossed in once they actually began considering names. Between them, she and Leane knew enough of every sister to find some weakness, some doubt to be dangled subtly as to her fitness for stole and staff. She would rather wade naked through a school of silverpike than have these women realize that she was trying to manipulate them.

“A sister who was out of the Tower,” Sheriam said, nodding. “That makes excellent sense, Siuan. Very good.” How easily they slipped into patting her on the head.

Morvrin pursed her lips. “It will not be easy, finding whoever we choose.”

“Strength narrows the possibilities.” Anaiya looked around at the others. “It will not only make her a better symbol, to the other sisters at least, but strength in the Power often goes with strength of will, and whoever we choose will surely need that.”

Carlinya and Beonin were the last to join in agreement.

Siuan kept her face smooth, her smile on the inside. The breaking of the Tower had changed many things, many ways of thinking besides her own. These women had led the Sisters gathered here, and now they were discussing who should be presented to their new Hall of the Tower as if that should not be the Hall’s choice. It would not be difficult to bring them around, ever so gently, to the belief that the new Amyrlin should be one who could be guided by them. And unknowing, they and the Amyrlin she chose for her replacement, would be guided by herself. She and Moiraine had worked too long to find Rand al’Thor and prepare him, given too much of their lives, for her to risk the rest of it being bungled by someone else.

“If I may make another suggestion?” Diffidence was simply not in her nature; she was going to have to find something else. She waited, trying not to grit her teeth, for Sheriam to nod before going on. “Elaida will be attempting to discover where Rand al’Thor is; the farther south I came, the more rumors I heard that he has left Tear. I think that he has, and I think that I have reasoned out where he went.”

There was no need for her to say that they had to find him before Tar Valon did. They all understood. Not only would Elaida mishandle him, certainly, but should she put her hands on him, display him shielded and in her control, any hope of toppling her would be gone. Rulers knew the Prophecies, if their people usually did not; they would forgive her a dozen false Dragons out of necessity.

“Where?” Morvrin barked, a hair ahead of Sheriam, Anaiya and Myrelle all together.

“The Aiel Waste.”

There was a moment of silence before Carlinya said, “That is ridiculous.”

Siuan bit back an angry reply and smiled what she hoped was an apologetic smile. “Perhaps, but I read something of the Aiel when I was Accepted. Gitara Moroso thought that some of the Aiel Wise Ones might be able to channel.” Gitara had been Keeper then. “One of the books she had me read, an old thing from the dustiest corner of the library, claimed that the Aiel call themselves the People of the Dragon. I did not remember it until I tried puzzling out where Rand could have vanished to. The Prophecies say ‘the Stone of Tear shall never fall till the People of the Dragon come,’ and there were Aiel in the taking of the Stone. That, every rumor and tale agrees on.”

Morvrin’s eyes suddenly seemed to look elsewhere. “I remember speculation about the Wise Ones when I was newly raised to the shawl. It would be fascinating, if true, but Aiel are little more welcoming to Aes Sedai than to anyone else who enters the Waste, and their Wise Ones apparently have some law or custom against speaking to strangers, so I understand, which makes it extremely hard to come close enough to one to feel if she—” Suddenly she gave herself a shake, staring at Siuan and Leane as though her wandering had been their fault. “A thin straw to weave a basket, something you remember from a book likely written by someone who never saw an Aiel.”

“A very thin straw,” Carlinya said.

“But worth sending someone to the Waste?” It took effort to make that a question instead of a demand. Siuan thought she might sweat down to nothing if she could not find another way. She still had enough control of herself to ignore the heat, usually, but not while trying to drag these women along without letting them notice her fist in their hair. “I do not think the Aiel would try to harm an Aes Sedai.” Not if she was quick enough to show that she was Aes Sedai. Siuan did not think they would. It had to be risked. “And if he is in the Waste, the Aiel will know of it. Remember those Aiel at the Stone.”

“Perhaps,” Beonin said slowly. “The Waste is large. How many would we need to send?”

“If the Dragon Reborn is in the Waste,” Anaiya said, “the first Aiel met will know of it. Events follow this Rand al’Thor, by all accounts. He could not slip into the ocean without making a splash heard in every corner of the world.”

Myrelle smiled. “She should be Green. None of the rest of you will bond more than one Warder, and two or three Gaidin might be very useful in the Waste until the Aiel know her for Aes Sedai. I have always wanted to see an Aiel.” She had been a novice during the Aiel War, and not allowed out of the Tower. Not that any Aes Sedai had taken part beyond Healing, of course. The Three Oaths had bound them unless Tar Valon, or maybe even the Tower itself, was attacked, and that war had never crossed the rivers.

“Not you,” Sheriam told her, “or any other member of this council. You agreed to see this through, Myrelle, when you agreed to sit with us, and that does not include gallivanting off because you are bored. I fear there will be more excitement than any of us could wish, before we finish.” She would have made an excellent Amyrlin in other circumstances; in these, she was simply too strong and sure of herself. “But Greens . . . Yes, I think so. Two?” Her green eyes swept along the others. “To be certain?”

“Kiruna Nachiman?” Anaiya offered, and Beonin added, “Bera Harkin?” The others nodded, except for Myrelle, who shifted her shoulders irritably. Aes Sedai did not pout, but she came close.

Siuan took her second relieved breath. She was certain her reasoning was correct. He had vanished to somewhere, and if he was anywhere between the Spine of the World and the Aryth Ocean, rumors would have been flying. And wherever he was, Moiraine would be there with a hand on his collar. Kiruna and Bera would surely be willing to carry a letter to Moiraine, and they had seven Warders between them to keep the Aiel from killing them.

“We do not want to tire you and Leane,” Sheriam went on. “I will ask one of the Yellow sisters to look at both of you. Perhaps she can do something to help, to ease you in some way. I will have rooms found for you, where you can rest.”

“If you are to be our mistress of eyes-and-ears,” Myrelle added solicitously, “you must maintain your strength.”

“I am not so frail as you seem to think,” Siuan protested. “If I were, could I have followed you nearly two thousand miles? Whatever weakness I had after being stilled is gone, believe me.” The truth was that she had found a center of power again, and she did not want to leave it, but she could hardly say that. All those concerned eyes on her, and Leane. Well, not Carlinya’s particularly, but the rest. Light! They’re going to have a novice tuck us into bed for a nap!

A knock at the door was followed immediately by Arinvar, Sheriam’s Warder. Cairhienin, he was not tall, and slender besides, but in spite of gray at his temples he was hard of face, and he moved like a stalking leopard. “There are twenty-odd riders to the east,” he said without preamble.

“Not Whitecloaks,” Carlinya said, “or I presume you would have reported as much.”

Sheriam gave her a look. Many sisters could be prickly when it came to another stepping between them and their Gaidin. “We cannot allow them to get away, and perhaps carry word of our presence. Can they be captured, Arinvar? I would prefer that to killing them.”

“Either may be difficult,” he replied. “Machan says they are armed and have the look of veterans. Worth ten times their number of younger men.”

Morvrin made a vexed sound. “We must do one or the other. Forgive me, Sheriam. Arinvar, can the Gaidin sneak some of the more agile sisters close enough to weave Air around them?”

He shook his head fractionally. “Machan says they may have seen some of the Warders keeping watch. They would certainly see if we tried to bring more than one or two of you near. They are still coming, though.”

Siuan and Leane were not the only ones to exchange startled glances. Few men saw a Warder who did not want to be seen, even without the Gaidin cloak.

“Then you must do as you think best,” Sheriam said. “Capture them, if possible. But none must escape to betray us.”

Before Arinvar could complete his bow, hand to sword hilt, another man was beside him, a dark bear of a man, tall and wide, with hair to his shoulders and a short beard that left his upper lip bare. That flowing Warder movement seemed odd on him. He winked at Myrelle, his Aes Sedai, even as he said in a thick Illianer accent, “Most of the riders do be stopped, but one does come on by himself. If my aged mother did say different, I would still name him Gareth Bryne from the glimpse I did get.”

Siuan stared at him; her hands and feet suddenly felt cold. Strong rumor said that Myrelle had actually married this Nuhel and her other two Warders, in defiance of convention and law in every land Siuan had ever heard of. It was the sort of incongruous thought that drifted through a stunned mind, and right then she felt as if a mast had fallen on her head. Bryne, here? It’s impossible! It is mad! Surely the man could not have followed them all this way for . . . Oh yes, he could and would. That one would. As they journeyed, she had told herself that it was only sensible caution to leave no trace behind, that Elaida knew they were not dead, whatever the rumors said, and she would not stop hunting until they were found or she was pulled down. Siuan had been irritated at having to ask directions finally, yet the thought that had snapped at her like a shark had not been that Elaida might somehow find a blacksmith in one small Altaran village, but that the blacksmith would be like a pa
inted sign for Bryne. Told yourself it was foolish, didn’t you? And now here he is.

She well remembered her confrontation with him, when she had had to bend him to her will on that matter of Murandy. It had been like bending a thick iron bar, or some huge spring that would leap back if she let up for an instant. She had had to bring all of her force to bear, had had to humiliate him publicly, in order to make certain he would remain bent for as long as she needed. He could hardly go against what he had agreed to on his knees, begging her pardon, with fifty nobles watching. Morgase had been difficult enough herself, and Siuan had not been willing to risk Bryne giving Morgase an excuse to go against her instructions. Strange to think that she and Elaida had worked together then, bringing Morgase to heel.

She had to take hold of herself. She was in a daze, thinking of everything except what she needed to. Concentrate. This is no time to panic. “You must send him away. Or kill him.”

She knew it for a mistake while the words were still leaving her mouth, all too full of urgency. Even the Warders looked at her, and the Aes Sedai. . . . She had never before known what it felt like for someone who lacked the Power to have those eyes turned on them at full strength. She felt naked, her very mind laid bare. Even knowing that Aes Sedai could not read thoughts, she still wanted to confess before they listed her lies and crimes. She hoped that her face was not like Leane’s, red-cheeked and wide-eyed.

“You know why he is here.” Sheriam’s voice was calmly certain. “Both of you do. And you do not want to confront him. Enough so that you would have us kill him for you.”

“There do be few great captains living.” Nuhel marked them off on gauntleted fingers. “Agelmar Jagad and Davram Bashere will no leave the Blight, I think, and Pedron Niall will surely no be of use to you. If Rodel Ituralde do be alive, he do be mired somewhere in what do remain of Arad Doman.” He raised his thick thumb. “And that do leave Gareth Bryne.”

“Do you think that we will need a great captain, then?” Sheriam asked quietly.

Nuhel and Arinvar did not look at one another, but Siuan still had the feeling that they had exchanged glances. “It is your decision, Sheriam,” Arinvar replied just as quietly, “yours and the other sisters, but if you mean to return to the Tower, we could use him. If you intend to remain here until Elaida sends for you, then not.” Myrelle gazed at Nuhel questioningly, and he nodded.

“It seems that you were right, Siuan,” Anaiya said wryly. “We have not fooled the Gaidin.”

“The question is whether he will agree to serve us,” Carlinya said, and Morvrin nodded, adding, “We must make him see our cause in such a way that he wishes to serve. It will not help us if it becomes known that we killed or imprisoned so notable a man before we have even begun.”

“Yes,” Beonin said, “and we must offer him the rewards that will bind him to us firmly.”

Sheriam turned her eyes on the two men. “When Lord Bryne reaches the village, tell him nothing, but bring him to us.” As soon as the door closed behind the Warders, her gaze firmed. Siuan recognized it; the same clear green stare that had novices’ knees knocking before a word was said. “Now. You will tell us exactly why Gareth Bryne is here.”

There was no choice. If they caught her in even the tiniest lie, they would begin to question everything. Siuan took a deep breath. “We took shelter for the night in a barn near Kore Springs, in Andor. Bryne is the lord there, and . . .”

CHAPTER

28

Trapped

A Warder in a gray-green coat approached Bryne as soon as he rode Traveler past the first stone houses of the village. Bryne would have known the man for a Warder after watching him walk two strides, even without all the Aes Sedai faces staring at him in the street. What in the name of the Light were so many Aes Sedai doing this close to Amadicia? Rumor in villages behind said Ailron meant to claim this bank of the River Eldar, which meant the Whitecloaks did. Aes Sedai could defend themselves well, but if Niall sent a legion across the Eldar, a good many of these women would die. Unless he could no longer tell how long a stump had been exposed to air, this place had been buried in the forest two months ago. What had Mara gotten herself into? He was sure he would find her here; village men remembered three pretty young women traveling together, especially when one of them asked directions to a town abandoned since the Whitecloak War.

The Warder, a big man with a broad face, an Illianer by his beard, planted himself in the street in front of Bryne’s big-nosed bay gelding and bowed. “Lord Bryne? I am Nuhel Dromand. If you will come with me, there are those who do wish to speak with you.”

Bryne dismounted slowly, pulling off his gauntlets and tucking them behind his sword belt as he studied the town. The plain buff-colored coat he wore now was much better for a journey of this sort than the gray silk he had started in; that, he had given away. Aes Sedai and Warders, and others, watched him silently, but even those who had to be servants did not look surprised. And Dromand knew his name. His face was not unknown, but he suspected more than that. If Mara was—if they were Aes Sedai agents, it did not alter the oath they had taken. “Lead on, Nuhel Gaidin.” If Nuhel was surprised at the address, he did not show it.

The inn that Dromand took him to—or what had been an inn once—had the look of headquarters for a campaign, all bustle and scurry. That is, if Aes Sedai had ever commanded a campaign. He spotted Serenla before she did him, seated in the corner with a big man who was very likely Dalyn. When she did see him, her chin dropped almost to the table, and then she squinted at him as if not believing her eyes. Dalyn appeared to be asleep with his eyes open, staring at nothing. None of the Aes Sedai or Warders seemed to notice as Dromand led him through, but Bryne would have wagered his manor and lands that any one of them had seen ten times as much as all the staring servants combined. He should have turned and ridden away as soon as he realized who was in this village.

He took careful note as he made his bows while the Warder introduced him to the six seated Aes Sedai—only a fool was careless around Aes Sedai—but his mind was on the two young women standing against the wall beside the fresh-swept fireplace and looking chastened. The willowy Domani minx was offering him a smile more tremulous than seductive for a change. Mara was frightened, too—terrified out of her skin, he would say—but those blue eyes still met his full of defiance. The girl had courage to suit a lion.

“We are pleased to greet you, Lord Bryne,” the flame-haired Aes Sedai said. Just slightly plump, and with those tilted eyes, she was pretty enough to make any man look twice despite the Great Serpent ring on her finger. “Will you tell us what brings you here?”

“Of course, Sheriam Sedai.” Nuhel stood at his shoulder, but if any women needed less guarding from one old soldier, Bryne could not imagine who. He was sure that they knew already, and watching their faces while he told the tale confirmed it. Aes Sedai let nothing be seen that they did not want seen, but at least one of them would have blinked when he spoke of the oath if they had not known beforehand.

“A dreadful story to relate, Lord Bryne.” That was the one called Anaiya; ageless face or not, she looked more like a happy, prosperous farmwife than an Aes Sedai. “Yet I am surprised that you followed so far, even after oathbreakers.” Mara’s fair cheeks flushed a furious red. “Still, a strong oath, one that should not be broken.”

“Unfortunately,” Sheriam said, “we cannot let you take them quite yet.”

So they were Aes Sedai agents. “A strong oath that should not be broken, yet you mean to keep them from honoring it?”

“They will honor it,” Myrelle said, with a glance at the pair by the fireplace that made them both stand straighter, “and you may rest assured that they already regret running away after giving it.” This time it was Amaena who reddened; Mara looked ready to chew rocks. “But we cannot allow it yet.” No Ajahs had been mentioned, yet he thought the darkly pretty woman was Green, and the stout, round-faced one called Morvrin was Brown. Perhaps it was the smile that Myrelle had given Dromand when the man brought him in, and Morvrin’s air of thinking of something else. “In truth, they did not say when they would serve, and we have a use for them.”

This was foolish; he should apologize for disturbing them and leave. And that was foolish, too. He had known before Dromand reached him in the street that he was unlikely to leave Salidar alive. There were probably fifty Warders in the forest around where he had left his men, if not a hundred. Joni and the others would give a good account of themselves, but he had not brought them all this way to die. Yet if he was a fool to have let a pair of eyes lure him into this trap, he might as well go the last mile for it. “Arson, theft and assault, Aes Sedai. Those were the crimes. They were tried, sentenced, and sworn. But I have no objection to remaining here until you are done with them. Mara can act as my dog robber when you do not need her. I will mark the hours she works for me, and count them against her service.”

Mara opened her mouth angrily, but almost as if the women had known that she would try to speak, six pairs of Aes Sedai eyes swiveled to her in unison. She shifted her shoulders, snapped her mouth shut, and then glared at him, fists rigidly at her sides. He was glad she did not have a knife in her hand.

Myrelle appeared close to laughter. “Better to choose the other, Lord Bryne. From the way she is looking at you, you would find her far more . . . congenial.”

He half-expected Amaena to go crimson, but she did not. And she was eyeing him—appraisingly. She even shared a smile with Myrelle. Well, she was Domani after all, and considerably more so than when he saw her last, it seemed.

Carlinya, cold enough to make the others seem warm, leaned forward. He was wary of her, and of the big-eyed one named Beonin. He was not sure why. Except that if he were in the Game of Houses here, he would say both women reeked of ambition. Maybe he was involved in exactly that.

“You should be aware,” Carlinya said coolly, “that the woman you know as Mara is in reality Siuan Sanche, formerly the Amyrlin Seat: Amaena is really Leane Sharif, who was Keeper of the Chronicles.”

It was all he could do not to gape like a country lout. Now that he knew, he could see it in Mara’s face—in Siuan’s—the face that had made him back down, softened into youth. “How?” was all he said. It was almost all he could have managed to say.

“There are some things men are better off not knowing,” Sheriam replied coolly, “and most women.”

Mara—no, he might as well think of her by her right name—Siuan had been stilled. He knew that. It must be something to do with stilling. If that swan-necked Domani had been Keeper, he was ready to wager she had been stilled, too. But talking about stilling around Aes Sedai was a good way to find out how tough you were. Besides, when they began going mysterious with you, Aes Sedai would not give a straight answer if you asked whether the sky was blue.

They were very good, these Aes Sedai. They had lulled him, then hit hard when his guard was down. He had a sinking feeling that he knew what they were softening him for. It would be interesting to learn whether he was right. “It does not change the oath they took. If they were still Amyrlin and Keeper, they could be held to that oath by any law, including that of Tar Valon.”

“Since you have no objection to remaining here,” Sheriam said, “you may have Siuan as your bodyservant, when we do not need her. You may have all three of them, if you wish, including Min, whom you apparently know as Serenla, all the time.” For some reason, that seemed to irritate Siuan as much as what had been said about her; she muttered to herself, not loud enough to be heard. “And since you have no objections, Lord Bryne, while you remain with us there is a service that you can give us.”

“The gratitude of Aes Sedai is not inconsiderable,” Morvrin said.

“You will be serving the Light and justice in serving us,” Carlinya added.

Beonin nodded, speaking in serious tones. “You served Morgase and Andor faithfully. Serve us as well, and you will not find exile at its end. Nothing we ask of you will go against your honor. Nothing we ask will harm Andor.”

Bryne grimaced. He was in the Game, all right. He sometimes thought that Aes Sedai must have invented Daes Dae’mar; they seemed to play it in their sleep. Battle was surely more bloody, but it was more honest, too. If they meant to pull his strings, then his strings would be pulled—they would manage it one way or another—but it was time to show them he was not a brainless puppet.

“The White Tower is broken,” he said flatly. Those Aes Sedai eyes widened, but he gave them no chance to speak. “The Ajahs have split. That is the only reason you can all be here. You certainly don’t need an extra sword or two”—he eyed Dromand and got a nod in return—“so the only service you can want out of me is to lead an army. To build one, first, unless you have other camps with a good many more men than I saw here. And that means you intend to oppose Elaida.” Sheriam looked vexed, Anaiya worried, and Carlinya on the point of speaking, but he went on. Let them listen; he expected he would be doing a great deal of listening to them in the months to come. “Very well. I’ve never liked Elaida, and I cannot believe she makes a good Amyrlin. More importantly, I can make an army to take Tar Valon. So long as you know the taking will be bloody and long.

“But these are my conditions.” They stiffened to a woman at that, even Siuan and Leane. Men did not make conditions for Aes Sedai. “First, the command is mine. You tell me what to do, but I decide how. You give commands to me, and I give them to the soldiers under me, not you. Not unless I have agreed to it first.” Several mouths opened, Carlinya’s and Beonin’s first, but he continued. “I assign men, I promote them, and I discipline them. Not you. Second, if I tell you it can’t be done, you will consider what I say. I don’t ask to usurp your authority”—small chance they would allow that—“yet I do not want to waste men because you do not understand war.” It would happen, but no more than once, if he was lucky. “Third, if you begin this, you will stay the course. I will be putting my head in a noose, and every man who follows along with me, and should you decide half a year from now that Elaida as Amyrlin is preferable to war, you will pull that noose tigh
t for every one of us who can be hunted down. The nations may stay out of a civil war in the Tower, but they’ll not let us live if you abandon us. Elaida will see to that.

“If you will not agree to these, then I do not know that I can serve you. Whether you bind me with the Power for Dromand here to slit my throat or I end attainted and hung, death is still the end.”

The Aes Sedai did not speak. For a long moment they stared at him, until the itch between his shoulder blades made him wonder if Nuhel was ready to plunge a dagger in. Then Sheriam rose, and the others followed her to the windows. He could see their lips moving, but he heard nothing. If they wanted to hide their deliberations behind the One Power, so be it. He was not certain how much of what he wanted he could wring out of them. All, if they were sensible, but Aes Sedai could decide that strange things were sensible. Whatever they decided, he would have to accede with as good a grace as he could muster. It was a perfect trap that he had made for himself.

Leane gave him a look and a smile that said as plain as words that he would never know what he had missed; he thought it would have been a fine chase, with him being led by the nose. Domani women never promised half what you thought they did, and they gave only as much as they chose and changed their minds either way in a blink.

The bait in his trap stared at him levelly, strode across the floor until she stood so close that she had to crane her neck to stare up at him, and spoke in a low, furious voice. “Why did you do this? Why did you follow us? For a barn?”

“For an oath.” For a pair of blue eyes. Siuan Sanche could not be more than ten years younger than he, but it was hard to remember that she was Siuan Sanche while looking at a face nearer thirty years younger. The eyes were the same, though, deep blue and strong. “An oath you gave to me, and broke. I should double your time for that.”

Dropping her gaze from his, she folded her arms beneath her breasts, growling, “That has already been taken care of.”

“You mean they punished you for oathbreaking? If you’ve had your bottom switched for it, it doesn’t count unless I do it.”

Dromand’s chuckle sounded more than half scandalized—the man had to be still struggling with who Siuan had been; Bryne was not certain that he was not, too—and her face darkened until he thought she might have apoplexy. “My time has already been doubled, if not more, you pile of rancid fish guts! You and your marking hours! Not an hour will count until you have all three of us back at your manor, not if I must be your . . . your . . . dog robber, whatever that is . . . for twenty years!”

So they had planned for this, too, Sheriam and the others. He glanced to their conference by the windows. They seemed to have divided into two opposing groups; Sheriam, Anaiya and Myrelle on one side, Morvrin and Carlinya on the other, with Beonin standing between. They had been ready to give him Siuan and Leane and—Min?—as bribe or sop, before he ever walked in. They were desperate, which meant he was on the weaker side, but maybe they were desperate enough to give him what he needed for a chance of victory.

“You are taking pleasure from this, aren’t you?” Siuan said fiercely the moment his eyes moved. “You buzzard. Burn you for a carp-brained fool. Now that you know who I am, it pleases you that I’ll have to bow and scrape to you.” She did not seem to be doing much of that yet. “Why? Is it because I made you back down over Murandy? Are you so small, Gareth Bryne?”

She was trying to make him angry; she realized that she had said too much, and did not want to give him time to think on it. Maybe she was no longer Aes Sedai, but manipulation was in her blood.

“You were the Amyrlin Seat,” he said calmly, “and even a king kisses the Amyrlin’s ring. I can’t say that I liked how you went about it, and we may have a quiet talk sometime on whether it was necessary to do what you did with half the court looking on, but you will remember that I followed Mara Tomanes here, and it was Mara Tomanes I asked for. Not Siuan Sanche. Since you keep asking why, let me ask it. Why was it so important for me to allow the Murandians to raid across the border?”

“Because your interference then could have ruined important plans,” she said, driving each word home in a tight voice, “just as your interference with me now can. The Tower had identified a young border lord named Dulain as a man who could one day truly unify Murandy, with our help. I could hardly allow the chance your soldiers might kill him. I have work to do here, Lord Bryne. Leave me to do it, and you may see victory. Meddle out of spite, and you ruin everything.”

“Whatever your work is, I am sure Sheriam and the others will see you do it. Dulain? I’ve never heard of him. He cannot be succeeding yet.” It was his opinion that Murandy would remain a patchwork of all but independent lords and ladies until the Wheel turned and a new Age came. Murandians called themselves Lugarders or Mindeans or whatever before they named a nation. If they even bothered to name one. A lord who could unite them, and who had Siuan’s leash around his throat, could bring a considerable number of men.

“He . . . died.” Scarlet spots appeared in her cheeks, and she seemed to struggle with herself. “A month after I left Caemlyn,” she muttered, “some Andoran farmer put an arrow through him on a sheep raid.”

He could not help laughing. “It was the farmers you should have made kneel, not me. Well, you no longer need concern yourself with such things.” That was certainly true. Whatever use the Aes Sedai had for her, they would never let her near power or decisions again now. He felt pity for her. He could not imagine this woman giving up and dying, but she had lost about as much as it was possible to lose short of dying. On the other hand, he had not liked being called a buzzard, or a pile of reeking fish guts. What was the other thing? A carp-brained fool. “From now on, you can concern yourself with keeping my boots clean and my bed made.”

Her eyes narrowed to slits. “If that is what you want, Lord Gareth Bryne, you should choose Leane. She might be fool enough.”

Only barely did he stop himself from goggling. The way women’s minds worked never ceased to amaze him. “You vowed to serve me however I choose.” He managed to chuckle. Why was he doing this? He knew who she was, and what she was. But those eyes still haunted him, staring a challenge even when she thought there was no hope, just as they were now. “You will discover the kind of man I am, Siuan.” He meant it to soothe her after his jest, but from the way her shoulders stiffened, she seemed to take it as a threat.

Suddenly he realized that he could hear the Aes Sedai, a soft murmur of voices that went silent immediately. They stood together, staring at him with unreadable expressions. No, at Siuan. Their eyes followed her as she started back to where Leane still stood; as if she could feel the pressure of them, each step came a little quicker than the one before. When she turned again, beside the fireplace, her face told no more than theirs. A remarkable woman. He was not sure he could have done as well, in her place.

The Aes Sedai were waiting for him to approach. When he did, Sheriam said, “We accept your conditions without reservation, Lord Bryne, and pledge ourselves to hold to them. They are most reasonable.”

Carlinya, at least, did not look as though she thought they were reasonable at all, but he did not care. He had been prepared to give up all but the last, that they stay the course, if need be.

He knelt where he was, right fist pressed to the scrap of carpet, and they encircled him, each laying a hand on his bowed head. He did not care whether they used the Power to bind him to his oath or search for truth—he was not sure they could do either, but who really knew what Aes Sedai could do?—and if they meant something else, there was nothing he could do about it. Trapped by a pair of eyes, like a bullgoose fool country boy. He was carp-brained. “I do pledge and vow that I will serve you faithfully until the White Tower is yours . . .”

Already, he was planning. Thad and maybe a Warder or two across the river to see what the Whitecloaks were up to. Joni, Barim and a few others down to Ebou Dar; it would keep Joni from swallowing his tongue every

time he looked at “Mara” and “Amaena,” and every man he sent would know how to recruit.

“. . . building and directing your army to the best of my ability. . . .”

When the low buzz of talk in the common room died, Min looked up from the patterns she had been idly sketching on the table with a finger dipped in wine. Logain stirred, too, for a wonder, but only to stare at the people in the room, or maybe through them; it was hard to tell.

Gareth Bryne and that big Illianer Warder came out of the back room first. In the watchful silence, she heard Bryne say, “Tell them an Ebou Dari tavern maid sent you, or they’ll put your head on a stake.”

The Illianer roared with laughter. “A dangerous city, Ebou Dar.” Pulling leather gauntlets from behind his sword belt, he stalked out into the street drawing them on.

The talk began to pick up again as Siuan appeared. Min could not hear what Bryne said to her, but she strode after the Warder snarling to herself. Min had a sinking feeling that the Aes Sedai had decided that they were going to honor that fool oath Siuan had been so proud of, honor it right now. If she could convince herself that the pair of Warders lounging against the wall would not notice, she would be out of the door and into Wildrose’s saddle in a flash.

Sheriam and the other Aes Sedai came out last, with Leane. Myrelle sat Leane down at one of the tables and began discussing something, while the rest circulated through the room, stopping to speak to each Aes Sedai. Whatever they said, it produced reactions from outright shock to pleased grins, despite that fabled Aes Sedai serenity.

“Stay here,” Min told Logain, scraping back her rickety chair. She hoped he was not going to start trouble. He was staring at Aes Sedai faces, one by one, and appearing to see more than he had in days. “Just stay at this table till I get back, Dalyn.” She was out of the habit of being around people who knew his real name. “Please.”

“She sold me to Aes Sedai.” It was a shock to hear him speak after being so long silent. He shivered, then nodded. “I will wait.”

Min hesitated, but if two Warders could not stop him from doing anything stupid, a roomful of Aes Sedai certainly could. When she reached the door, a chunky bay gelding was being led away by a man with the look of a groom. Bryne’s horse, she supposed. Their own mounts were nowhere in sight. So much for any dash for freedom. I’ll honor the bloody thing! I will! But they can’t keep me from Rand now. I’ve done what Siuan wanted. They have to let me go to him. The only problem was that Aes Sedai decided for themselves what they had to do, and usually what other people had to do as well.

Siuan nearly knocked her down, bustling back in with a scowl on her face, a blanket roll under her arm and saddlebags over her shoulder. “Watch Logain,” she hissed under her breath without slowing. “Let no one talk to him.” She marched to the foot of the stairs, where a gray-haired woman, a servant, was starting to lead Bryne up, and fell in behind. From the stare she fixed on the man’s back, he should have been praying she did not reach for her belt knife.

Min smiled at the tall, slender Warder who had followed her to the door. He stood ten feet away, barely glancing at her, but she had no illusions. “We’re guests now. Friends.” He did not return the smile. Bloody stone-faced men! Why could they not at least give you a hint what they were thinking?

Logain was still studying the Aes Sedai when she got back to the table. A fine time for Siuan to want him kept silent, just when he was beginning to show life again. She needed to talk to Siuan. “Logain,” she said softly, hoping neither of the Warders lounging against the wall could hear. They had hardly seemed to breathe since taking their positions, except when one had followed her. “I don’t think you should say anything until Mara tells you what she has planned. Not to anyone.”

“Mara?” He gave her a dark sneer. “You mean Siuan Sanche?” So he remembered what he had heard in his daze. “Does anyone here look as if they want to talk to me?” He returned to his frowning study.

No one did look as if they wanted to talk with a gentled false Dragon. Except for the two Warders, no one seemed to be paying them any mind at all. If she had not known better, she would have said the Aes Sedai in the room were excited. They had hardly appeared lethargic before, but they certainly seemed to have more energy now, talking in small groups, issuing brisk orders to Warders. The papers they had been so intent on largely lay abandoned. Sheriam and the others who had taken Siuan away had returned to the room at the back, but Leane had two clerks at her table now, both women writing as fast as they could. And a steady stream of Aes Sedai were coming into the inn, disappearing through that rough plank door and not coming out. Whatever had happened in there, Siuan had surely stirred them up.

Min wished she had Siuan at the table, or better yet somewhere alone, for five minutes. Doubtless at that moment she was beating Bryne over the head with his saddlebags. No, Siuan would not resort to that, for all of her glares. Bryne was not like Logain, larger than life in every dimension, every emotion; Logain had managed to overpower Siuan for a time with sheer hugeness. Bryne was quiet, reserved, not a small man certainly, but hardly overbearing. She would not want the man she remembered from Kore Springs as an enemy, but she did not think that he would hold out long against Siuan. He might think she was going to meekly serve out her time as his servant, but Min had no doubts who would end doing what who wanted. She just had to talk to the woman about him.

As if Min’s thoughts had brought her, Siuan came stumping down the stairs, a bundle of white under her arm. Stalked down was nearer truth; if she had had a tail, she would have been lashing it. She paused for one instant, staring at Min and Logain, then marched toward the door that led to the kitchens.

“Stay here,” Min cautioned Logain. “And please, say nothing until . . . Siuan can talk to you.” She was going to have to get used to calling people by their right names again. He did not even look at her.

She caught up with Siuan in a hallway short of the kitchen; the rattle and splash of pots being scrubbed and dishes washed drifted through gaps where boards had dried in the kitchen door.

Siuan’s eyes widened in alarm. “Why did you leave him? Is he still alive?”

“He’ll live forever, for all I can see. Siuan, no one wants to talk to him. But I have to talk with you.” Siuan stuffed the white bundle into her arms. Shirts. “What is this?”

“Gareth bloody Bryne’s bloody laundry,” the other woman snarled. “Since you are one of his serving girls, too, you can wash them. I must speak with Logain before anyone else.”

Min caught her arm as she tried to brush past. “You can spare one minute to listen. When Bryne came in, I had a viewing. An aura, and a bull ripping roses from around its neck, and . . . None of it matters except the aura. I didn’t even really understand that, but more than anything else.”

“How much did you understand?”

“If you want to stay alive, you had better stay close to him.” Despite the heat, Min shivered. She had only ever had one other viewing with an “if” in it, and both had been potentially deadly. It was bad enough sometimes knowing what would happen; if she started knowing what might . . . “All I know is this. If he stays close to you, you live. If he gets too far away, for too long, you are going to die. Both of you. I don’t know why I should have seen anything about you in his aura, but you seemed like part of it.”

Siuan’s smile would have done to peel a pear. “I’d as soon sail in a rotting hull full of last month’s eels.”

“I never thought he’d follow us. Are they really going to make us go with him?”

“Oh, no, Min. He is going to lead our armies to victory. And make my life the Pit of Doom! So he’s going to save my life, is he? I don’t know that it is worth it.” Taking a deep breath, she smoothed her skirts. “When you have those washed and ironed, bring them to me. I will take them up to him. You can clean his boots before you go to sleep tonight. We have a room—a cubbyhole—near him, so we will be close if he calls to have his bloody pillows plumped!” She was gone before Min could protest.

Staring down at the wadded shirts, Min was sure that she knew who was going to be doing all of Gareth Bryne’s laundry, and it was not Siuan Sanche. Rand bloody al’Thor. Fall in love with a man, and you ended up doing laundry, even if it did belong to another man. When she marched into the kitchen to demand a washtub and hot water, she was snarling every bit as much as Siuan.

CHAPTER

29

Memories of Saldaea

Lying on his bed in the dark, in his shirtsleeves, Kadere idly twirled one of his large kerchiefs between his hands. The wagon’s open windows let in moonlight, but not much breeze. At least Cairhien was cooler than the Waste. Someday he hoped to return to Saldaea, to walk in the garden where his sister Teodora had taught him his first letters and numbers. He missed her as much as he did Saldaea, the deep winters when trees burst from their sap freezing and the only way to travel was by snowshoes or skis. In these southlands, spring felt like summer, and summer like the Pit of Doom. Sweat rolled out of him in streams.

With a heavy sigh, he pushed his fingers into a small gap where the bed was built into the wagon. The folded scrap of parchment rustled. He left it there. He knew the words on it by heart.

You are not alone among strangers. A way has been chosen.

Just that, without signature, of course. He had found it slipped under his door when he retired for the night. There was a town not a quarter of a mile away, Eianrod, but even if a soft bed remained empty there, he doubted whether the Aiel would allow him to spend a night away from the wagons. Or that the Aes Sedai would. For the moment, his plans fit in well enough with Moiraine’s. Perhaps he would get to see Tar Valon again. A dangerous place, for his sort, but the work there was always important, and invigorating.

He put his mind back on the note, though he wished he could afford to ignore it. The word “chosen” made him sure it came from another Darkfriend. The first surprise had been receiving it now, after crossing most of Cairhien. Nearly two months ago, right after Jasin Natael attached himself to Rand al’Thor—for reasons the man had never deigned to explain—and his new partner Keille Shaogi had disappeared—he suspected she was buried in the Waste, with a thrust from Natael’s knife through her heart, and small riddance—soon after that, he had been visited by one of the Chosen. By Lanfear herself. She had given him his instructions.

Automatically his hand went to his chest, feeling through his shirt the scars branded there. He mopped his face with the kerchief. Part of his mind thought coldly, as it had at least once a day since, that they were an effective way to prove to him that it had not been an ordinary dream. An ordinary nightmare. Another part of him almost gibbered with relief that she had not returned.

The second surprise of the note had been the hand. A woman’s hand, unless he missed his guess by a mile, and some of the letters formed in what he now knew for an Aiel way. Natael had told him that there must be Darkfriends among the Aiel—there were Darkfriends in every land, among every people—but he had never wanted to find brothers in the Waste. Aiel would kill you as soon as look at you, and you could put a foot wrong with them by breathing.

Taken all in all, the note spelled disaster. Possibly Natael had told some Aiel Darkfriend who he was. Angrily twirling the kerchief to a long thin cord, he snapped it tight between his hands. If the gleeman and Keille had not had proofs that they stood high in Darkfriend councils, he would have killed them both before going near the Waste. The only other possibility made his stomach leaden. “A way has been chosen.” Maybe that had only been to put the word “chosen” down, and maybe it was meant to tell him that one of the Chosen had decided to use him. The note had not come from Lanfear; she would simply have spoken to him in his dreams once more.

In spite of the heat, he shivered, yet he had to wipe his face again, too. He had the feeling that Lanfear was a jealous mistress to serve, but if another of the Chosen wanted him he would have no choice. Despite all the promises made when he had given his oaths as a boy, he was a man of few illusions. Caught between two of the Chosen, he could be flattened like a kitten beneath a wagon wheel, and they would notice as much as the wagon did. He wished he were home in Saldaea. He wished he could see Teodora again.

A scraping at the door brought him to his feet; for all his bulk, he was more agile than he let anyone see. Mopping his face and neck, he made his way past the brick stove that he certainly had no need for here, and the cabinets with their ornately carved and painted uprights. When he pulled the door open, a slender figure swathed in black robes scurried in past him. He took one quick look around the moonlit darkness to make certain no one was watching—the drivers were all snoring beneath the other wagons and the Aiel guards never came among the wagons themselves—and quickly shut the door again.

“You must be hot, Isendre,” he chuckled. “Take off that robe and make yourself comfortable.”

“Thank you, no,” she said bitterly from the shadowed depths of her cowl. She stood stiffly, but every now and then she twitched; the wool must be even itchier than usual tonight.

He chuckled again. “As you wish.” Beneath those robes, he suspected, the Maidens of the Spear still allowed her to wear nothing but the stolen jewelry, if that. She had become prudish in ways, since the Maidens had her. Why the woman had been stupid enough to steal, he could not understand. He had certainly made no objections when they dragged her screaming from the wagon by her hair; he was only glad that they had not thought he was involved. Her greediness had certainly made his task more difficult. “Have you anything to report on al’Thor or Natael?” A major part of Lanfear’s instruction had been to keep a close eye on those two, and he knew no better way to keep an eye on a man than to put a woman in his bed. Any man told his bedmate things he had vowed to keep secret, boasted of his plans, revealed his weaknesses, even if he was the Dragon Reborn and this Dawn fellow the Aiel called him.

She shuddered visibly. “At least I can come near Natael.” Come near him? Once the Maidens had caught her sneaking to the man’s tent, they had practically begun stuffing her into it every night. She always put the best face on matters. “Not that he tells me anything. Wait. Be patient. Keep silent. Make accommodation with fate, whatever that means. He says that every time I try to ask a question. For the most part, all he wants to do is play music I’ve never heard before and make love.” She never had anything more to say about the gleeman. For the hundredth time he wondered why Lanfear wanted Natael watched. The man was supposed to be as high as a Darkfriend could reach, only a step below the Chosen themselves.

“I take it that means you still have not managed to wriggle into al’Thor’s bed?” he asked, brushing past her to sit down on the bed.

“No.” She writhed uncomfortably.

“Then you will have to try harder, won’t you? I am growing tired of failure, Isendre, and our masters are not as patient as I. He’s only a man, whatever his titles.” She had often boasted to him that she could have any man she wanted, and make him do whatever she wanted. She had shown him the truth of her boasts. She had not needed to steal jewelry; he would have bought her anything she wanted. He had bought her more than he could afford. “The bloody Maidens can’t watch him every second, and once you are in his bed, he’ll not let them harm you.” One taste of her would be enough for that. “I have full faith and confidence in your abilities.”

“No.” If anything, the word was shorter this time.

He rolled and unrolled the kerchief irritably. “ ‘No’ is not a word our masters like to hear, Isendre.” That meant their lords among the Darkfriends; not all lords or ladies by any means—a groom might give orders to a lady, a beggar to a magistrate—but their commands were at least as strictly enforced as any noble’s, and usually more so. “Not a word our mistress will like to hear.”

Isendre shuddered. She had not believed his tale until he showed her the burns on his chest, but since then, one mention of Lanfear had been enough to quell any rebellion on her part. This time, she began to weep.

“I cannot, Hadnan. When we stopped tonight, I thought I might have a chance in a town instead of tents, but they caught me before I got within ten paces of him.” She pushed back her hood, and he gaped as moonlight played over her bare scalp. Even her eyebrows were gone. “They shaved me, Hadnan. Adelin and Enaila and Jolien, they held me down and shaved every hair. They beat me with nettles, Hadnan.” She shook like a sapling in high wind, sobbing slack-mouthed and mumbling the words. “I itch from shoulders to knees, and I burn too much to scratch. They said they’d make me wear nettles, the next time I so much as looked in his direction. They meant it, Hadnan. They did! They said they’d give me to Aviendha, and they told me what she would do. I cannot, Hadnan. Not again. I cannot.”

Stunned, he stared at her. She had had such lovely dark hair. Yet she was beautiful enough that even being bald as an egg only made her seem exotic. Her tears and sagging face detracted only a little. If she could put herself into al’Thor’s bed for just one night . . . It was not going to happen. The Maidens had broken her. He had broken people himself, and he knew the signs. Eagerness to avoid more punishment became eagerness to obey. The mind never wanted to admit it was running from something, so she would soon convince herself that she really wanted to obey, that she really wanted nothing more than to please the Maidens.

“What does Aviendha have to do with it?” he muttered. How soon before Isendre felt the need to confess her sins, as well?

“Al’Thor has been bedding her since Rhuidean, you fool! She spends every night with him. The Maidens think she will marry him.” Even through her sobs he could detect resentful fury. She would not like it that another had succeeded where she failed. Doubtless that was why she had not told him before.

Aviendha was a beautiful woman despite her fierce eyes, full-breasted compared to most of the Maidens, yet he would stack Isendre against her if only . . . Isendre slumped in the moonlight coming through the windows, quivering from head to toe, sobbing openmouthed, tears rolling down her cheeks that she did not even bother to wipe away. She would grovel on the ground if Aviendha frowned at her.

“Very well,” he said gently. “If you cannot, then you cannot. You can still pry something out of Natael. I know you can.” Rising, he took her shoulders to turn her toward the door.

She flinched away from his touch, but she did turn. “Natael will not want to look at me for days,” she said petulantly around hiccoughs and sniffs. Sobs threatened to break out again any moment, but his tone seemed to have soothed her. “I’m red, Hadnan. As red as if I had laid naked in the sun for a day. And my hair. It will take forever to grow ba—”

As she reached for the door, her eyes going to the handle, he had the kerchief spun to a cord in an instant and around her neck. He tried to ignore her rasping gurgles, the frantic scraping of her feet on the floor. Her fingers clawed at his hands, but he stared straight ahead. Even keeping his eyes open, he saw Teodora; he always did, when he killed a woman. He had loved his sister, but she had discovered what he was, and she would not have kept silent. Isendre’s heels drummed violently, but after what seemed an eternity they slowed, went still, and she became a dead weight dragging at his hands. He held the cord tight for a count of sixty before unwinding it and letting her fall. She would have been confessing, next. Confessing to being a Darkfriend. Pointing a finger at him.

Rummaging in the cabinets by touch, he pulled out a butchering knife. Disposing of a whole corpse would be difficult, but luckily the dead did not bleed much; the robe would absorb what little there was. Maybe he could find the woman who had left the note under his door. If she was not pretty enough, she must have friends who were also Darkfriends. Natael would not care if it was an Aiel woman who visited him—Kadere would rather have bedded a viper himself; Aiel were dangerous—and maybe an Aiel would have a better chance than Isendre against Aviendha. Kneeling, he hummed quietly to himself as he worked, a lullaby that Teodora had taught him.

CHAPTER

30

A Wager

A soft night breeze stirred across the small town of Eianrod, then faded. Sitting on the stone rail of the wide flat bridge in the heart of the town, Rand supposed the breeze was hot, yet it hardly felt so after the Waste. Warm for nighttime perhaps, but not enough to make him unbutton his red coat. The river below him had never been large, and was half its normal width now, yet he still enjoyed watching the water flow north, moonshadows cast by scudding clouds playing across the darkly glittering surface. That was why he was out here in the night, really; to look at running water for a time. His wards were set, surrounding the Aiel encampment that itself surrounded the town. The Aiel themselves kept a watch a sparrow could not pierce unseen. He could waste an hour being soothed by the flow of a river.

It was surely better than another night where he had to order Moiraine to leave so he could study with Asmodean. She had even taken to bringing his meals to him and talking while he ate, as if she meant to cram everything she knew into his head before they reached the city of Cairhien. He could not face her begging to remain—actually begging!—as she had the previous night. For a woman like Moiraine, that behavior was so unnatural that he had wanted to agree simply to stop it. Which was very likely why she had done it. Much better an hour listening to the quiet liquid ripplings of the river. With luck, she would have given up on him for tonight.

The eight or ten paces of clay between water and weeds on both sides below him was dried and cracked. He peered up at the clouds crossing the moon. He could try to make those clouds give rain. The town’s two fountains were both dry, and dust lay in a third of the wells not fouled beyond cleaning. Try was the word, though. He had made it rain once; remembering how was the trick. If he managed that, then he could try not to make it a drowning deluge and a tree-snapping windstorm this time.

Asmodean would be no help; he did not know much about weather, it seemed. For every thing the man taught him, there were two more that made Asmodean either throw up his hands or give a lick and a promise. Once he had thought that the Forsaken knew everything, that they were all but omnipotent. But if the others were like Asmodean, they had ignorances as well as weaknesses. It might actually be that he already knew more of some things than they. Than some of them, at least. The problem would be finding out who. Semirhage was almost as poor at handling weather as Asmodean.

He shivered as if this were night in the Three-fold Land. Asmodean had never told him that. Better to listen to the water and not think, if he meant to sleep at all tonight.

Sulin approached him, the shoufa around her shoulders so it uncovered her short white hair, and leaned on the railing. The wiry Maiden was armed for battle, bow and arrows, spears and knife and buckler. She had taken command of his bodyguard tonight. Two dozen more Far Dareis Mai squatted easily on the bridge ten paces away. “An odd night,” she said. “We were gambling, but suddenly everyone was throwing nothing but sixes.”

“I am sorry,” he told her without thinking, and she gave him a peculiar look. She did not know, of course; he had not spread it about. The ripples he gave off as ta’veren spread out in odd, random ways. Even the Aiel would not want to be within ten miles of him, if they knew.

The ground had given way beneath three Stone Dogs today, dropping them into a viper pit, but none of the dozens of bites had found anything but cloth. He knew that had been him, bending chance. Tal Nethin, the saddlemaker, had survived Taien to trip on a stone this very noon and break his neck falling on flat, grassy ground. Rand was afraid that had been him, too. On the other hand, Bael and Jheran had mended the blood feud between Shaarad and Goshien while he was with them, eating a midday meal of dried meat on the move. They still did not like each other, and hardly seemed to understand what they had done, but it was done, with pledges and water oaths given, each man holding the cup for the other to drink. To Aiel, water oaths were stronger than any other; it might be generations before Shaarad and Goshien so much as raided each other for sheep or goats or cattle.

He had wondered if those random effects would ever work in his favor; maybe this was as close as it came. What else had happened today that might be laid at his feet, he did not know; he never asked, and would as soon not hear. The Baels and Jherans could only partly make up for the Tal Nethins.

“I’ve not seen Enaila or Adelin for days,” he said. It was as good a change of subject as any. That pair in particular had seemed to be jealous of their places guarding him. “Are they ill?”

If anything, the look Sulin gave him was even more peculiar. “They will return when they learn to stop playing with dolls, Rand al’Thor.”

He opened his mouth, then closed it again. Aiel were strange—Aviendha’s lessons often made them more so, not less—but this was ridiculous. “Well, tell them they are grown women and they ought to act it.”

Even by moonlight he could tell that her smile was pleased. “It shall be as the Car’a’carn wishes.” What did that mean? She eyed him a moment, lips pursed thoughtfully. “You have not eaten yet tonight. There is still enough food for everyone, and you will not fill one belly by going hungry yourself. If you do not eat, people will worry that you are ill. You will become ill.”

He laughed softly, a hoarse wheeze. The Car’a’carn one minute, and the next . . . If he did not fetch something to eat, Sulin would probably go get it for him. And try to feed him to boot. “I will eat. Moiraine must be in her blankets by now.” This time her odd look was satisfying; for a change he had said something that she did not understand.

As he swung his feet down, he heard the ring of horses’ hooves walking down the stone-paved street toward the bridge. Every Maiden was upright in an instant, face veiled; half nocked arrows. His hand went to his waist by instinct, but the sword was not there. The Aiel felt strange enough about him riding a horse and carrying the thing at his saddle; he had not seen any need to offend their customs more by wearing it. Besides, there were not many horses, and they were coming at a walk.

When they appeared, surrounded by an escort of fifty Aiel, the riders numbered fewer than twenty, slumping in their saddles dejectedly. Most wore rimmed helmets and Tairen coats with puffy, striped sleeves beneath their breastplates. The pair in the lead had ornately gilded cuirasses, and large white plumes attached to the front of their helmets, and the stripes on their sleeves had the glisten of satin in the moonlight. Half a dozen men at the rear, though, shorter and slighter than the Tairens, two with small banners called con on short staffs harnessed to their backs, wore dark coats and helmets shaped like bells cut away to expose their faces. Cairhienin used the banners to pick out officers in battle, and also to mark a lord’s personal retainers.

The Tairens with plumes stared when they saw him, exchanged startled glances, then scrambled down to come kneel before him, helmets under their arms. They were young, little older than he, both with dark beards trimmed to neat points in the fashion of Tairen nobility. Dents marred their breastplates, and the gilding was chipped; they had been crossing swords somewhere. Neither as much as glanced at the Aiel surrounding them, as if when ignored they would disappear. The Maidens unveiled, though they looked no less ready to put spear or arrow through the kneeling men.

Rhuarc followed the Tairens, with a gray-eyed Aiel younger and slightly taller than he, and stood behind. Mangin was of the Jindo Taardad, and one of those who had gone to the Stone of Tear. Jindo had brought in the riders.

“My Lord Dragon,” the plump, pink-cheeked lordling said, “burn my soul, but have they taken you prisoner?” His companion, jug ears and potato nose making him look a farmer despite his beard, kept sweeping lanky hair from his forehead nervously. “They said they were taking us to some Dawn fellow. The Car’a’carn. Means something about chiefs, if I remember what my tutor said. Forgive me, my Lord Dragon. I am Edorion of House Selorna, and this is Estean of House Andiama.”

“I am He Who Comes With the Dawn,” Rand told them quietly. “And the Car’a’carn.” He had them placed now: young lords who had spent their time drinking, gambling and chasing women when he was in the Stone. Estean’s eyes nearly popped out of his face; Edorion looked as surprised for a moment, then nodded slowly, as if he suddenly saw how it made sense. “Stand. Who are your Cairhienin companions?” It would be interesting to meet Cairhienin who were not running for their lives from the Shaido, and any other Aiel they saw. For that matter, if they were with Edorion and Estean, they might be the first supporters he had met in this land. If the two Tairens’ fathers had followed his orders. “Bring them forward.”

Estean blinked in surprise as he rose, but Edorion barely paused in turning to shout, “Meresin! Daricain! Come here!” Much like calling dogs. The Cairhienins’ banners bobbed as they dismounted slowly.

“My Lord Dragon.” Estean hesitated, licking his lips as though thirsty. “Did you . . . Did you send the Aiel against Cairhien?”

“They’ve attacked the city, then?”

Rhuarc nodded, and Mangin said, “If these are to be believed, Cairhien still holds. Or did three days ago.” There was little doubt that he did not think it still did, and less that he cared about a city of treekillers.

“I did not send them, Estean,” Rand said as they were joined by the two Cairhienin, who knelt, doffing their helmets to reveal men of an age with Edorion and Estean, their hair shaved back in line with their ears and their dark eyes wary. “Those who attack the city are my enemies, the Shaido. I mean to save Cairhien if it can be saved.”

He had to go through the business of telling the Cairhienin to rise; his time with the Aiel had almost made him forget the habit this side of the Spine of the World, bowing and kneeling right and left. He had to ask for introductions, too, and the Cairhienin gave them themselves. Lieutenant Lord Meresin of House Daganred—his con was all wavy vertical lines of red and white—and Lieutenant Lord Daricain of House Annallin, his con covered with small squares of red and black. It was a surprise that they were lords. Though lords commanded and led soldiers in Cairhien, they did not shave their heads and become soldiers. Or had not; much had changed, apparently.

“My Lord Dragon.” Meresin stumbled a bit saying that. He and Daricain were both pale, slender men, with narrow faces and long noses, but he was a bit the heavier. Neither looked as if he had had much to eat lately. Meresin rushed on as if afraid of being interrupted. “My Lord Dragon, Cairhien can hold. For days yet, perhaps as many as ten or twelve, but you must come quickly if you are to save it.”

“That is why we came out,” Estean said, shooting Meresin a dark look. Both Cairhienin returned it, but their defiance was tinged with resignation. Estean raked stringy hair from his forehead. “To find help. Parties have been sent in every direction, my Lord Dragon.” He shivered despite the sweat on his brow, and his voice turned distant and hollow. “There were more of us when we started. I saw Baran go down, screaming with a spear through his guts. He’ll never turn a card at chop again. I could use a mug of strong brandy.”

Edorion turned his helmet in gauntleted hands, frowning. “My Lord Dragon, the city can hold a while longer, but even if these Aiel will fight those, the question is, can you bring them there in time? I think ten or twelve days is a more than generous estimate, myself. In truth, I only came because I thought dying with a spear through me would be better than being taken alive when they made it over the walls. The city is packed with refugees who fled ahead of the Aiel; there isn’t a dog or a pigeon left in the city, and I doubt there will be a rat left soon. The one good thing is that no one seems to be worrying very much about who will take the Sun Throne, not with this Couladin outside.”

“He called on us to surrender to He Who Comes With the Dawn, on the second day,” Daricain put in, earning a sharp look from Edorion for the interruption.

“Couladin has some sport with prisoners,” Estean said. “Out of bowshot, but where anyone on the walls can see. You can hear them screaming, too. The Light burn my soul, I don’t know whether he is trying to break our will or simply likes it. Sometimes they let peasants make a run for the city, then shoot them full of arrows when they’re almost safe. However safe Cairhien is. Only peasants, but . . .” He trailed off and swallowed hard, as if he had just remembered what Rand’s opinions were of “only peasants.” Rand just looked at him, but he seemed to shrivel, and muttered under his breath about brandy.

Edorion leaped into the momentary silence. “My Lord Dragon, the point is that the city can hold until you come, if you can come quickly. We only beat back the first assault because the Foregate caught fire. . . .”

“Flames nearly took the city,” Estean interjected. The Foregate, a city in itself outside the walls of Cairhien, had been mostly wood, as Rand remembered. “Would have been disaster if the river was not right there.”

The other Tairen went on right over him. “. . . but Lord Meilan has the defense well planned, and the Cairhienin appear to be keeping their backbones for the time.” That earned him frowns from Meresin and Daricain that he either did not see or pretended not to. “Seven days with luck, perhaps eight at most. If you can . . .” A heavy sigh abruptly seemed to deflate Edorion’s plumpness. “I did not see one horse,” he said as if to himself. “The Aiel do not ride. You will never be able to move men afoot so far in time.”

“How long?” Rand asked Rhuarc.

“Seven days” was the reply. Mangin nodded, and Estean laughed.

“Burn my soul, it took us as long to reach here on horses. If you think you can make the return in the same afoot, you must be . . .” Becoming aware of the Aiel eyes on him, Estean scrubbed the hair from his face. “Is there any brandy in this town?” he muttered.

“It isn’t how fast we can make it,” Rand said quietly, “but how fast you can, if you dismount some of your men and use their horses for spares. I want to let Meilan and Cairhien know that help is on the way. But whoever goes will have to be sure he can keep his mouth shut if the Shaido take him. I do not intend to let Couladin know any more than he can learn on his own.” Estean went whiter in the face than the Cairhienin.

Meresin and Daricain were on their knees together, each seizing one of Rand’s hands to kiss. He let them, with as much patience as he could find; one bit of Moiraine’s advice that had the ring of common sense was not to offend people’s customs, however strange or even repulsive, unless you absolutely had to, and even then think twice.

“We will go, my Lord Dragon,” Meresin said breathlessly. “Thank you, my Lord Dragon. Thank you. Under the Light, I vow I will die before revealing a word to any but my father or the High Lord Meilan.”

“Grace favor you, my Lord Dragon,” the other added. “Grace favor you, and the Light illumine you forever. I am your man to the death.” Rand let Meresin say that he also was Rand’s man before taking his hands back firmly and telling them to stand. He did not like the way they were looking at him. Edorion had called them like hounds, but men should not look at anyone as if they were dogs gazing at a master.

Edorion drew a deep breath, puffing his pink cheeks, and let it out slowly. “I suppose if I made it out in one piece, I can make it back in. My Lord Dragon, forgive me if I offend, but would you care to wager, say, a thousand gold crowns, that you can really come in seven days?”

Rand stared at him. The man was as bad as Mat. “I don’t have a hundred crowns silver, much less a thousand in—”

Sulin broke in. “He has it, Tairen,” she said firmly. “He will meet your wager, if you make it ten thousand by weight.”

Edorion laughed. “Done, Aiel. And worth every copper if I lose. Come to think, I’ll not live to collect if I win. Come, Meresin, Daricain.” It sounded as if he were summoning dogs to heel. “We ride.”

Rand waited until the three had made their bows and were halfway back to the horses before rounding on the white-haired Maiden. “What do you mean, I have a thousand gold crowns? I’ve never seen a thousand crowns, much less ten thousand.”

The Maidens exchanged glances as if he were demented; so did Rhuarc and Mangin. “A fifth of the treasure that was in the Stone of Tear belongs to those who took the Stone, and will be claimed when they can carry it away.” Sulin spoke as to a child, instructing it in the simple facts of everyday life. “As chief and battle leader there, one tenth of that fifth is yours. Tear submitted to you as chief by right of triumph, so one tenth of Tear is yours as well. And you have said we can take the fifth in these lands—a . . . tax, you called it.” She fumbled the word; the Aiel did not have taxes. “The tenth part of that is yours also, as Car’a’carn.”

Rand shook his head. In all of his talks with Aviendha, he had never thought to ask whether the fifth applied to him; he was not Aiel, Car’a’carn or no, and it had not seemed anything to do with him. Well, it might not be a tax, but he could use it as kings did taxes. Unfortunately, he had only the vaguest idea how that was. He would have to ask Moiraine; that was one thing she had missed in her lectures. Perhaps she thought it so obvious that he should know.

Elayne would have known what taxes were used for; it had certainly been more fun taking advice from her than from Moiraine. He wished he knew where she was. Still in Tanchico, probably; Egwene told him little more than a constant string of well-wishings. He wished he could sit Elayne down and make her explain those two letters. Maiden of the Spear or Daughter-Heir of Andor, women were strange. Except maybe Min. She had laughed at him, but she had never made him think she was speaking some strange language. She would not laugh, now. If he ever saw her again, she would run a hundred miles to get away from the Dragon Reborn.

Edorion dismounted all his men, taking one of their horses and stringing the others together by their reins, along with Estean’s. No doubt he was saving his own for the final sprint through the Shaido. Merisin and Daricain did the same with their men. Though it meant that the Cairhienin had only two spare mounts apiece, no one seemed to think they should have any of the Tairen horses. They clattered off together westward at a trot, with a Jindo escort.

Carefully not looking at anyone, Estean started to drift toward the soldiers standing uneasily in a circle of Aiel at the foot of the bridge. Mangin caught his red-striped sleeve. “You can tell us conditions inside Cairhien, wetlander.” The lumpy-faced man looked ready to faint.

“I am certain he will answer any questions you ask,” Rand said sharply, emphasizing the final word.

“They will only be asked,” Rhuarc said, taking the Tairen’s other arm. He and Mangin seemed to be holding the much shorter man up between them. “Warning the city’s defenders is well and good, Rand al’Thor,” Rhuarc went on, “but we should send scouts. Running, they can reach Cairhien as soon as those men on horses, and meet us coming back with word of how Couladin has disposed the Shaido.”

Rand could feel the Maidens’ eyes on him, but he looked straight at Rhuarc. “Thunder Walkers?” he suggested.

“Sha’mad Conde,” Rhuarc agreed. He and Mangin turned Estean—they were holding him up—and started toward the other soldiers.

“Ask!” Rand called after them. “He is your ally, and my liege man.” He had no idea whether Estean was that last or not—it was another thing to ask Moiraine—or even how much of an ally he really was—his father, the High Lord Torean, had plotted against Rand enough—but he would allow nothing close to Couladin’s ways.

Rhuarc turned his head and nodded.

“You tend your people well, Rand al’Thor.” Sulin’s voice was flat as a planed plank.

“I try,” he told her. He was not about to rise to the bait. Whoever went to scout the Shaido, some would not return, and that was that. “I think I will have something to eat now. And get some sleep.” It could not be much more than two hours to midnight, and sunrise still came early this time of year. The Maidens followed him, watching the shadows warily as if they expected attack, handtalk flickering among them. But then, Aiel always seemed to expect attack.

CHAPTER

31

The Far Snows

The streets of Eianrod ran straight and met at right angles, where necessary slicing through hills that were otherwise neatly terraced with stone. The slate-roofed stone buildings had an angular look, as if they were all vertical lines. Eianrod had not fallen to Couladin; no people had been there when the Shaido swept through. A good many of the houses were only charred beams and hollow ruined shells, however, including most of the wide three-story marble buildings with balconies that Moiraine said had belonged to merchants. Broken furniture and clothes littered the streets, along with shattered dishes and shards of glass from windows, single boots and tools and toys.

The burning had come at different times—Rand could tell that much himself, from the weathering of blackened timbers and how much smell of char lingered where—but Lan had been able to chart the flow of battles by which the town had been taken and retaken. By different Houses contending for the Sun Throne, most likely, though from the look of the streets, the last to hold Eianrod had been brigands. A good many of the bands roaming Cairhien held allegiance to no one, and to nothing except gold.

It was to one of the merchants’ houses that Rand went, on the largest of the town’s two squares, three square stories of gray marble with heavy balconies and wide steps with thick angular stone siderails overlooking a silent fountain with a dusty round basin. A chance to sleep in a bed again had been too good to pass up, and he had hopes that Aviendha would choose to remain in a tent; whether his or with the Wise Ones, he did not care, so long as he did not have to try going to sleep while listening to her breathe a few paces away. Recently he had begun imagining he could hear her heart beat even when he had not taken hold of saidin. But if she did not stay away, he had taken precautions.

The Maidens stopped at the steps, some trotting around the building to take positions on all sides. He had feared that they would try declaring this a Roof of the Maidens, even for the one night, and so as soon as he had chosen the building, one of the few in town with a sound roof and most of the windows unbroken, he had told Sulin that he was declaring it the Roof of the Winespring Brothers. No one could enter who had not drunk from the Winespring, in Emond’s Field. From the look she had given him, she knew very well what he was up to, but none of them followed him beyond the wide doors that seemed to be all narrow vertical panels.

Inside, the large rooms were bare, though white-robed gai’shain had spread a few blankets for themselves in the broad entry hall, its high plaster ceiling worked in a pattern of severe squares. Keeping gai’shain out was beyond him even had he wanted to, as much so as keeping Moiraine out if she was not asleep elsewhere. Whatever orders he gave about not being disturbed, she always found a way to make the Maidens let her by, and it always took a direct command for her to go before she would leave.

The gai’shain rose smoothly, men and women, before he had the door closed. They would not sleep until he did, and some would take turns remaining awake in case he wanted something in the night. He had tried ordering them not to, but telling a gai’shain not to serve according to custom was like kicking a bale of wool; whatever impression you made was gone as soon as your toes were. He waved them away and climbed the marble stairs. Some of those gai’shain had salvaged a few bits of furniture, including a bed and two feather mattresses, and he was looking forward to washing and—

He froze as soon as he opened the door to his bedchamber. Aviendha had not chosen to remain with the tents. She stood before the washstand, with its mismatched, cracked bowl and pitcher, a cloth in one hand and a bar of yellow soap in the other. She had no clothes on. She seemed as stunned as he, as incapable of moving.

“I . . .” She stopped to swallow, big green eyes locked on his face. “I could not make a sweat tent here in this . . . town, so I thought I would try your way of . . .” She was hard muscle and soft curves; she glistened damply from head to feet. He had never imagined that her legs were so long. “I thought you would remain longer at the bridge. I . . .” Her voice rose in pitch; her eyes widened in panic. “I did not arrange for you to see me! I must get away from you. As far away as I can! I must!”

Suddenly a shimmering vertical line appeared in the air near her. It widened, as if rotating, into a gateway. Icy wind rushed through it into the room, carrying thick curtains of snow.

“I must get away!” she wailed, and darted through into the blizzard.

Immediately the gateway began to narrow again, turning, but without thought Rand channeled, blocking it at half its former width. He did not know what he had done or how, but he was sure this was a gateway for Traveling, such as Asmodean had told him of and been unable to teach him. There was no time for thinking. Wherever Aviendha had gone, she had gone naked into the heart of a winter storm. Rand tied off the flows he had woven as he ripped all the blankets from the bed and tossed them onto her clothes and pallet. Seizing blankets, clothes and rugs all together, he plunged through only moments behind her.

Icy wind screamed through night air filled with swirling white. Even wrapped in the Void, he could feel his body shivering. Dimly he could make out scattered shapes in the darkness; trees, he thought. There was nothing for him to smell but cold. Ahead of him, a form moved, obscured by darkness and the snowstorm; he might have missed it but for the sharpness of his eyes in the Void. Aviendha, running as hard as she could. He lumbered after her through snow to his knees, clutching the thick bundle to his chest.

“Aviendha! Stop!” He was afraid that the howling wind would sweep his shout away, but she heard. And if anything, ran faster. He forced himself to more speed, staggering and tripping as the deepening snow tugged at his boots. The prints left by her bare feet were filling fast. If he lost sight of her in this. . . . “Stop, you fool woman! Are you trying to kill yourself?” The sound of his voice seemed to flog her to run harder.

Grimly, he pushed himself, half-falling and scrambling back up, knocked down by the hurtling wind as often as stumbling in the snow, blundering into trees. He had to keep his eyes on her. He was only thankful this forest, or whatever it was, had trees so far apart.

Plans skittered across the Void and were discarded. He could try quelling the storm—and maybe the result would turn the air to ice. A shelter of Air to keep the falling snow away would do nothing for that underfoot. He could melt a path for himself with Fire—and slog through mud instead. Unless . . .

He channeled, and the snow ahead of him melted in a band a span wide, a band that ran ahead of him as he did. Steam rose, and falling snow vanished a foot above the sandy soil. He could feel the heat of it through his boots. Down almost to his ankles, his body shook with the bone-chilling cold; his feet sweated and flinched away from the heated ground. But he was catching up now. Another five minutes and . . .

Suddenly the vague shape he had been following vanished as if she had fallen into a hole.

Keeping his eyes fixed on the spot where he had last seen her, he ran as hard as he could. Abruptly he was splashing in icy flowing water to his ankles, halfway to his knees. Ahead of him, the melting snow revealed more, and an edge of ice inching slowly back. No steam rose from the black water. Stream or river, it was too big for the amount of his channeling to warm the swift-moving flow even a hair. She must have run out onto the ice and fallen through, but he would not save her by trying to wade into this. Filled with saidin, he was barely aware of the cold, but his teeth chattered uncontrollably.

Retreating to the bank, gaze locked on where he thought Aviendha had gone down, he channeled flows of Fire into ground still bare, well back from the stream, until the sand melted and fused and glowed white. Even in this storm, that would stay hot for a time. He set the bundle down in the snow beside it—her life would depend on finding the blankets and rugs again—then waded through the deep white to one side of the melted path and lay flat. Slowly he crawled out onto the snow-covered ice.

The wind shrieked across him. His coat might as well not have existed. His hands were numb now, and his feet going; he had stopped shivering except for an occasional shudder. Coldly calm inside the Void, he knew what was happening; there were blizzards in the Two Rivers, perhaps even as bad as this. His body was being overwhelmed. If he did not find warmth soon, he would be able to calmly watch from the Void as he died. But if he died, Aviendha would, too. If she had not already.

He felt rather than heard the ice cracking beneath his weight. His probing hands fell into water. This was the place, but with snow whirling about, he could barely see. He flailed, searching, numb hands splashing. One hit something at the edge of the ice, and he commanded his fingers to close, felt frozen hair crackling.

Got to pull her out. He crawled backward, hauling at her. She was a dead weight, sliding slowly out of the water. Don’t care if the ice scrapes her. Better that than freezing or drowning. Back. Keep moving. If you quit, she dies. Keep moving, burn you! Crawling. Pulling with his legs, pushing with one hand. The other locked in Aviendha’s hair; no time to get a better grip; she could not feel it anyway. You’ve had it easy for too long. Lords kneeling, and gai’shain running to fetch your wine, and Moiraine doing as she’s told. Back. Time to do something yourself if you still can. Move, you flaming fatherless son of a spavined goat! Keep moving!

Suddenly his feet hurt; the pain began creeping up his legs. It took him a moment to look back, and then he rolled off the steaming patch of melted sand. Tendrils of smoke, where his breeches had begun smoldering, were whisked away by the wind.

Fumbling for the bundle he had left, he swathed Aviendha from head to foot in all of it, the blankets, the rugs of her pallet, her clothes. Every bit of protection was vital. Her eyes were closed, and she did not move. He parted the blankets enough to put an ear to her chest. Her heart beat so slowly that he was not sure he was really hearing it. Even four blankets and half a dozen rugs were not enough, and he could not channel heat into her as he had the ground; even fining the flow as much as possible, he was more likely to kill than warm. He could feel the weave he had used to block open her gateway, a mile or perhaps two away through the storm. If he tried to carry her that far, neither of them would survive. They needed shelter, and they needed it here.

He channeled flows of Air, and snow began to move across the ground against the wind, building into thick square walls three paces on a side with one gap for a door, building higher, compacting the snow till it glistened like ice, roofing it over high enough to stand. Scooping Aviendha into his arms, he stumbled into the dark interior, weaving and tying flames dancing in the corners for light, channeling to scoop more snow to close the doorway.

Just with the wind shut away it felt warmer, but that would not be enough. Using the trick Asmodean had shown him, he wove Air and Fire, and the air around them grew warmer. He did not dare tie that weave off; if he fell asleep, it could grow and melt the hut. For that matter, the flames were almost as dangerous to leave, but he was too bone-weary and chilled to maintain more than one weave.

The ground inside had been cleared as he built, bare sandy soil with only a few brown leaves he did not recognize and some scruffy low dead weeds that were equally strange to him. Releasing the weave that warmed the air, he heated the ground enough to take away the iciness, then took up the other weave again. It was all he could do to lay Aviendha down gently rather than drop her.

He pushed a hand inside the blankets to feel her cheek, her shoulder. Trickles of water ran across her face as her hair melted. He was cold, but she was ice. She needed every scrap of warmth he could find for her, and he did not dare warm the air more. Already the insides of the walls shone with a faint layer of melt. However frozen he felt, he had more heat in him than she did.

Stripping off his clothes, he climbed into the coverings with her, arranging his own damp garments on the outside; they could help hold in the body heat. His sense of touch, enhanced by the Void and saidin, soaked in the feel of her. Her skin made silk feel rough. Compared to her skin, satin was . . . Don’t think. He smoothed damp hair away from her face. He should have dried it, but the water no longer felt so cold, and there was nothing but the blankets or their clothes to use anyway. Her eyes were closed; her chest stirred against him slowly. Her head lay on his arm, snuggled against his chest. If she had not felt like winter itself, she could have been sleeping. So peaceful; not angry at all. So beautiful. Stop thinking. It was a sharp command outside the emptiness surrounding him. Talk.

He tried talking of the first thing that came to mind, Elayne and the confusion her two letters brought, but that soon had thoughts of golden-haired Elayne drifting across the Void, of kissing her in secluded spots in the Stone. Don’t think of kissing, fool! He shifted to Min. He had never thought about Min that way. Well, a few dreams could not count. Min would have slapped his face if he had ever tried to kiss her, or else laughed and called him a woolhead. Only it seemed that speaking of any woman reminded him that he had his arms around a woman who had no clothes on. Filled with the Power, he could smell the scent of her, feel every inch of her as clearly as if he were running his hands . . . The Void trembled. Light, you’re only trying to warm her! Keep your mind out of the pigsty, man!

Trying to drive thought away, he talked of his hopes for Cairhien, to bring peace and an end to the famine, to bring the nations behind him without any more bloodshed. But that had its own life, too, its own inevitable path, to Shayol Ghul, where he must face the Dark One and die, if the Prophecies were true. It seemed cowardly to say that he hoped he might live through that somehow. Aiel did not know cowardice; the worst of them was brave as a lion. “The Breaking of the World killed the weak,” he had heard Bael say, “and the Three-fold Land killed the cowards.”

He began speaking of where they might be, where she had brought them with her wild senseless flight. Somewhere far and strange, to have snow at this time of year. It had been worse than a senseless flight. Mad. Yet he knew that she had fled from him. Fled from him. How she must hate him, if she had to flee as far as she could rather than just tell him to leave her to her bath in privacy.

“I should have knocked.” At his own bedroom door? “I know you do not want to be around me. You don’t have to be. Whatever the Wise Ones want, whatever they say, you are going back to their tents. You will not have to come near me again. In fact, if you do, I . . . I’ll send you away.” Why hesitate on that? She gave him anger, coldness, bitterness when she was awake, and asleep. . . . “It was a crazy thing to do. You could have killed yourself.” He was stroking her hair again; he could not seem to stop. “If you ever do anything half so crazy again, I’ll break your neck. Do you have any idea how I will miss hearing you breathe at night?” Miss it? She drove him crazy with it! He was the one who was mad. He had to stop this. “You are going away, and that’s that, if I have to send you back to Rhuidean. The Wise Ones can’t stop me if I speak as Car’a’carn. You won’t have to run away from me again.”

The hand that he could not stop from stroking her hair froze as she stirred. She was warm, he realized. Very warm. He should be wrapping one of the blankets about himself decently and moving away. Her eyes opened, clear and deep, green, staring at him seriously from not a foot away. She did not seem surprised to see him, and she did not pull back.

He took his arms from around her, started to slither away, and she seized a handful of his hair in a painful grip. If he moved, he would have a bald patch. She gave him no chance to explain anything. “I promised my near-sister to watch you.” She seemed to be speaking to herself as much as to him, in a low, almost expressionless voice. “I ran from you as hard as I could, to shield my honor. And you followed me even here. The rings do not lie, and I can run no more.” Her tone firmed decisively. “I will run no more.”

Rand tried to ask her what she meant while attempting to untangle her fingers from his hair, but she clutched another handful on the other side and pulled his mouth to hers. That was the end of rational thought; the Void shattered, and saidin fled. He did not think he could have stopped himself had he wanted to, only he could not think of wanting to, and she certainly did not seem to want him to. In fact, the last thought he had of any coherency for a very long time was that he did not think he could have stopped her.

Some considerable time later—two hours, maybe three; he could hardly be sure—he lay atop the rugs with the blankets over him and his hands behind his head, watching Aviendha examine the slick white walls. They had held a surprising amount of the warmth; there was no need to latch on to saidin again, either to shut out cold or to try warming the air. She had done no more than rake her fingers through her hair on rising, and she moved completely unashamed at her nakedness. Of course, it was a bit late to be ashamed of something as small as having no clothes on. He had been worried about hurting her when dragging her out of the water, but she showed fewer scrapes than he did, and somehow they did not seem to mar her beauty at all.

“What is this?” she asked.

“Snow.” He explained what snow was as best he could, but she only shook her head, partly in wonderment, partly disbelief. For someone who had grown up in the Waste, frozen water falling from the sky must seem as impossible as flying. According to the records, the only time it had ever even rained in the Waste was the time he had made it.

He could not stop a sigh of regret when she began pulling her shift over her head. “The Wise Ones can marry us as soon as we get back.” He could still feel his weave holding her gateway open.

Aviendha’s dark reddish head popped through the neck of the shift, and she stared at him flatly. Not unfriendly, but not friendly, either. Determined, though. “What makes you think a man has the right to ask me that? Besides, you belong to Elayne.”

After a moment he managed to close his mouth. “Aviendha, we just . . . The two of us . . . Light, we have to marry now. Not that I’m doing it because I have to,” he added hastily. “I want to.” He was not sure of that at all, really. He thought he might love her, but he thought he might love Elayne, too. And for some reason, Min kept creeping in. You’re as big a lecher as Mat. But for once he could do what was right because it was right.

She sniffed at him and felt her stockings to be sure they were dry, then sat down to don them. “Egwene has spoken to me of your Two Rivers marriage customs.”

“You want to wait a year?” he asked incredulously.

“The year. Yes, that is what I meant.” He had never realized before how much leg a woman showed pulling on a stocking; odd that that could seem so thrilling after he had seen her naked and sweating and . . . He concentrated on listening to her. “Egwene said she thought of asking her mother’s permission for you, but before she mentioned it her mother told her she had to wait another year even if she did have her hair in a braid.” Aviendha frowned, one knee almost under her chin. “Is that right? She said a girl was not allowed to braid her hair until she was old enough to marry. Do you understand what I am saying? You look like that . . . fish . . . Moiraine caught in the river.” There were no fish in the Waste; Aiel knew them only from books.

“Of course I do,” he said. He might as well have been deaf and blind for all he understood. Shifting under the blankets, he made himself sound as sure as he could manage. “At least . . . Well, the customs are complicated, and I am not certain which part you are talking about.”

She looked at him suspiciously for a moment, but Aiel customs were so intricate that she believed him. In the Two Rivers, you walked out for a year, and if you suited, then you became betrothed and finally married; that was as far as custom went. She went on as she dressed. “I meant about a girl asking her mother’s permission during the year, and the Wisdom’s. I cannot say I understand that.” The white blouse going over her head muffled her words for a moment. “If she wants him, and she is old enough to marry, why should she need permission? But you see? By my customs,” her tone of voice said they were the only ones that mattered, “it is my place to choose whether to ask you, and I will not. By your customs,” fastening her belt, she shook her head dismissively, “I did not have my mother’s permission. And you would need your father’s, I suppose. Or your father-brother’s, since your father is dead? We did not have them, so we cannot marry.” She began folding t he scarf to wrap around her forehead.

“I see,” he said weakly. Any boy in the Two Rivers who asked his father for that kind of permission was asking to have his ears soundly boxed. When he thought of the lads who had sweated themselves silly worrying that someone, anyone, would find out what they were doing with the girl they meant to marry . . . For that matter, he remembered when Nynaeve caught Kimry Lewin and Bar Dowtry in Bar’s father’s hayloft. Kimry had had her hair braided for five years, but when Nynaeve was through with her, Mistress Lewin had taken over. The Women’s Circle had nearly skinned poor Bar alive, and that was nothing to what they had done to Kimry over the month they thought was the shortest decent time to wait for a wedding. The joke told quietly, where it would not get to the Women’s Circle, had been that neither Bar nor Kimry had been able to sit down the whole first week they were married. Rand supposed Kimry had failed to ask permission. “But I guess Egwene wouldn’t know all the
men’s customs, after all,” he continued. “Women don’t know everything. You see, since I started it, we have to marry. It doesn’t matter about permissions.”

“You started it?” Her sniff was pointed and meaning. Aiel, Andoran or anything else, women used those noises like sticks, to prod or thump. “It does not matter anyway, since we are going by Aiel customs. This will not happen again, Rand al’Thor.” He was surprised—and pleased—to hear regret in her voice. “You belong to the near-sister of my near-sister. I have toh to Elayne, now, but that is none of your concern. Are you going to lie there forever? I have heard that men turn lazy, after, but it cannot be long until the clans are ready to begin the morning’s march. You must be there.” Suddenly a stricken look crossed her face, and she sagged to her knees. “If we can return. I am not certain that I remember what I did to make the hole, Rand al’Thor. You must find our way back.”

He told her how he had blocked her gateway and could still feel it holding. She looked relieved, and even smiled at him. But it became increasingly clear as she folded her legs and arranged her skirts that she did not mean to turn her back while he dressed.

“Fair’s fair,” he muttered after a long moment, and scrambled out of the blankets.

He tried to be as nonchalant as she had been, but it was not easy. He could feel her eyes like a touch even when he turned away from her. She had no call to tell him he had a pretty behind; he had not said anything about how pretty hers was. She only said it to make him blush, anyway. Women did not look at men that way. And they don’t ask their mother’s permission to . . . ? He had an idea that life with Aviendha had not become one bit easier.

CHAPTER

32

A Short Spear

There was little discussion. Even if the storm still raged outside, they could make it back to the gateway using the blankets and rugs for cloaks. Aviendha began dividing them while he seized saidin, filling himself with life and death, molten fire and liquid ice.

“Split them equally,” he told her. He knew his voice was cold and emotionless. Asmodean had said he could go beyond that, but he had not managed to so far.

She gave him a surprised look, but all she said was “There is more of you to cover,” and went on as she was.

There was no point in arguing. In his experience, from Emond’s Field to the Maidens, if a woman wanted to do something for you, the only way to stop her was to tie her up, especially if it involved sacrifice on her part. The surprise was that she had not sounded acid, had not said anything about him being a soft wetlander. Maybe something good besides a memory had come out of this. She can’t really mean never again. He suspected that she meant exactly that, though.

Weaving a finger-thin flow of Fire, he sliced the outline of a door in one wall, widening the gap at the top. Startlingly, daylight shone through. Releasing saidin, he exchanged surprised looks with Aviendha. He knew he had lost track of time—You lost track of the year—but they could not have been inside that long. Wherever they were, it was a great distance from Cairhien.

He pushed against the block, but it did not budge until he put his back to it, dug in his heels and shoved with all of his might. Just as it occurred to him that he very probably could have done this more easily with the Power, the block toppled outward, taking him with it into cold, crisp pale daylight. Not all the way, though. It stopped at an angle, propped against snow that had built up around the hut. Lying on his back, with only a bit of his head sticking out, he could see other mounds, some smooth drifts around sparse, stunted trees that he did not recognize, others maybe burying bushes or boulders.

He opened his mouth—and forgot what he was going to say as something swept through the air not fifty feet above him, a leathery gray shape far bigger than a horse, on slow-beating widespread wings, a horny snout thrust out before and clawed feet and thin, lizardlike tail trailing behind. His head twisted on its own to follow the thing’s flight over the trees. There were two people on its back; despite what seemed to be some sort of hooded garments, it was plain that they were scanning the ground below. If he had had more than his head showing, if he had not been directly under the creature, they would surely have seen him.

“Leave the blankets,” he said as he ducked back inside. He told her what he had seen. “Maybe they’d be friendly and maybe not, but I’d as soon not find out.” He was not sure he wanted to meet people who rode something like that in any case. If they were people. “We are going to sneak back to the gateway. As quickly as we can, but sneaking.”

For a wonder she did not argue. When he commented on it as he was helping her climb over the ice block—that was a wonder, too; she accepted his hand without so much as a glare—she said, “I do not argue when you make sense, Rand al’Thor.” That was hardly the way he remembered it.

The land around them lay flat beneath its deep blanket of snow, but to the west sharp, white-tipped mountains rose, peaks wreathed in cloud. He had no difficulty knowing they lay west, for the sun was rising. Less than half its golden ball stuck above the ocean. He stared at that. The land slanted down enough for him to see waves crashing in violent spray on a rocky, boulder-strewn shore maybe half a mile away. An ocean to the east, stretching endlessly to horizon and sun. If the snow had not been enough, that told him they were in no land he knew.

Aviendha stared at the rolling breakers and pounding waves in amazement, then frowned at him as it hit home. She might never have seen an ocean, but she had seen maps.

In her skirts the snow gave her even more trouble than it did him, and he floundered, digging his way through as much as walking, sometimes sinking to his waist. She gasped as he scooped her up in his arms, and her green eyes glared.

“We have to move faster than you can dragging those skirts,” he told her. The glare faded, but she did not put an arm around his neck, as he had half-hoped. Instead she folded her hands and put on a patient face. A bit touched with sullenness. Whatever changes what they had done might have wrought in her, she was not completely different. He could not understand why that should be a relief.

He could have melted a path through the snow as he had in the storm, but if another of those flying things came, that cleared path would lead straight to them. A fox trotted by across the snow well to his right, pure white except for a black tip to its bushy tail, occasionally eyeing him and Aviendha warily. Rabbit tracks marred the snow in places, blurred where they had leapt, and once he saw the prints of a cat that had to be as large as a leopard. Maybe there were larger animals still, maybe some flightless relative of that leathery creature. Not something he wanted to encounter, but there was always the chance the . . . fliers . . . might take the plowed furrow he was leaving now as the track of some animal.

He still made his way from tree to tree, wishing there were more of them, and closer together. Of course, if there had been, he might not have found Aviendha in the storm—she grunted, frowning up at him, and he loosened his hold on her again—but it would surely have helped now. It was because he was creeping in that way, though, that he saw the others first.

Less than fifty paces away, between him and the gateway—right at the gateway; he could feel his weave holding it—were four people on horseback and more than twenty afoot. The mounted were all women shrouded in long thick, fur-lined cloaks; two of them each wore a silvery bracelet on her left wrist, connected by a long leash of the same shining stuff to a bright collar tight around the neck of a gray-clad, cloakless woman standing in the snow. The others afoot were men in dark leather, and armor painted green and gold, overlapping plates down their chests and the outsides of their arms and fronts of their thighs. Their spears bore green-and-gold tassels, their long shields were painted in the same colors, and their helmets seemed to be the heads of huge insects, faces peering out through the mandibles. One was clearly an officer, lacking spear or shield, but with a curved, two-handed sword on his back. Silver outlined the plates of his lacquered armor, and thin green plumes, like
feelers, heightened the illusion of his painted helmet. Rand knew where he and Aviendha were now. He had seen armor like that before. And women collared like that.

Setting her down behind something that looked a little like a wind-twisted pine, except that its trunk was smooth and gray, streaked with black, he pointed, and she nodded silently.

“The two women on leashes can channel,” he whispered. “Can you block them?” Hurriedly he added, “Don’t embrace the Source yet. They’re prisoners, but they still might warn the others, and even if they don’t, the women with the bracelets might be able to feel them sense you.”

She looked at him oddly, but wasted no time on foolish questions such as how he knew; they would come later, he knew. “The women with the bracelets can channel also,” she replied just as softly. “It feels very strange, though. Weak. As if they had never practiced it. I cannot see how that can be.”

Rand could. Damane were the ones who were supposed to be able to channel. If two women had somehow slipped through the Seanchan net to become sul’dam instead—and from the little he knew of them, that would not be easy, for the Seanchan tested every last woman during the years that she might first show signs of channeling—they would surely never dare to betray themselves. “Can you shield all four?”

She gave him a very smug look. “Of course. Egwene taught me to handle several flows at once. I can block them, tie those off, and wrap them up in flows of Air before they know what is happening.” That self-satisfied little smile faded. “I am fast enough to handle them, and their horses, but that leaves the rest to you until I can bring help. If any get away . . . They can surely cast those spears this far, and if one of them pins you to the ground . . .” For a moment she muttered under her breath, as if angry that she could not complete a sentence. Finally she looked at him, her gaze as furious as he had ever seen it. “Egwene has told me of Healing, but she knows little, and I less.”

What could she be angry about now? Better to try understanding the sun than a woman, he thought wryly. Thom Merrilin had told him that, and it was simple truth. “You take care of shielding those women,” he told her. “I will do the rest. Not until I touch your arm, though.”

He could tell she tho