/ Language: English / Genre:sf_fantasy, sf_heroic / Series: Wheel of Time

Wheel of Time • 04 • The Shadow Rising

Robert Jordan


WHEEL OF TIME
Book Four
THE SHADOW RISING

by Robert Jordan

Dedicated to
Robert Marks
Writer, teacher, scholar, philosopher, friend and inspiration.

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The Shadow shall rise across the world, and darken every land, even to the smallest corner, and there shall be neither Light nor safety. And he who shall be born of the Dawn, born of the Maiden, according to Prophecy, he shall stretch forth his hands to catch the Shadow, and the world shall scream in the pain of salvation. All Glory be to the Creator, and to the Light, and to he who shall be born again. May the Light save us from him.

—from Commentaries on the Karaethon Cycle
Sereine dar Shamelle Motara
Counsel-Sister to Comaelle,
High Queen of Jaramide
(circa 325 AB, the Third Age)

CHAPTER 1
Seeds of Shadow

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 on the great plain called the Caralain Grass. 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.

North and east the wind blew beneath early morning sun, over endless miles of rolling grass and far-scattered thickets, across the swift-flowing River Luan, past the broken-topped fang of Dragonmount, mountain of legend towering above the slow swells of the rolling plain, looming so high that clouds wreathed it less than halfway to the smoking peak. Dragonmount, where the Dragon had died—and with him, some said, the Age of Legends—where prophecy said he would be born again. Or had been. North and east, across the villages of Jualdhe and Darein and Alindaer, where bridges like stone lacework arched out to the Shining Walls, the great white walls of what many called the greatest city in the world. Tar Valon. A city just touched by the reaching shadow of Dragonmount each evening.

Within those walls Ogier-made buildings well over two thousand years old seemed to grow out of the ground rather than having been built, or to be the work of wind and water rather than that of even the fabled hands of Ogier stone-masons. Some suggested birds taking flight, or huge shells from distant seas. Soaring towers, flared or fluted or spiraled, stood connected by bridges hundreds of feet in the air, often without rails. Only those long in Tar Valon could avoid gaping like country folk who had never been off the farm.

Greatest of those towers, the White Tower dominated the city, gleaming like polished bone in the sun. The Wheel of Time turns around Tar Valon, so people said in the city, and Tar Valon turns around the Tower. The first sight travelers had of Tar Valon, before their horses came in view of the bridges, before their river boat captains sighted the island, was the Tower reflecting the sun like a beacon. Small wonder then that the great square surrounding the walled Tower grounds seemed smaller than it was under the massive Tower’s gaze, the people in it dwindling to insects. Yet the White Tower could have been the smallest in Tar Valon, the fact that it was the heart of Aes Sedai power would still have overawed the island city.

Despite their numbers, the crowd did not come close to filling the square. Along the edges people jostled each other in a milling mass, all going about their day’s business, but closer to the Tower grounds there were ever fewer people, until a band of bare paving stones at least fifty paces wide bordered the tall white walls. Aes Sedai were respected and more in Tar Valon, of course, and the Amyrlin Seat ruled the city as she ruled the Aes Sedai, but few wanted to be closer to Aes Sedai power than they had to. There was a difference between being proud of a grand fireplace in your hall and walking into the flames.

A very few did go closer, to the broad stairs that led up to the Tower itself, to the intricately carved doors wide enough for a dozen people abreast. Those doors stood open, welcoming. There were always some people in need of aid or an answer they thought only Aes Sedai could give, and they came from far as often as near, from Arafel and Ghealdan, from Saldaea and Illian. Many would find help or guidance inside, though often not what they had expected or hoped for.

Min kept the wide hood of her cloak pulled up, shadowing her face in its depths. In spite of the warmth of the day, the garment was light enough not to attract comment, not on a woman so obviously shy. And a good many people were shy when they went to the Tower. There was nothing about her to attract notice. Her dark hair was longer than when she was last in the Tower, though still not quite to her shoulders, and her dress, plain blue except for narrow bands of white Jaerecruz lace at neck and wrists, would have suited the daughter of a well-to-do farmer, wearing her feastday best to the Tower just like the other women approaching the wide stairs. Min hoped she looked the same, at least. She had to stop herself from staring at them to see if they walked or held themselves differently. I can do it, she told herself. She had certainly not come all this way to turn back now. The dress was a good disguise. Those who remembered her in the Tower remembered a young woman with close-cropped hair, always in a boy’s coat and breeches, never in a dress. It had to be a good disguise. She had no choice about what she was doing. Not really.

Her stomach fluttered the closer she came to the Tower, and she tightened her grip on the bundle clutched to her breast. Her usual clothes were in there, and her good boots, and all her possessions except the horse she had left at an inn not far from the square. With luck, she would be back on the gelding in a few hours, riding for the Ostrein Bridge and the road south.

She was not really looking forward to climbing onto a horse again so soon, not after weeks in the saddle with never a day’s pause, but she longed to leave this place. She had never seen the White Tower as hospitable, and right now it seemed nearly as awful as the Dark One’s prison at Shayol Ghul. Shivering, she wished she had not thought of the Dark One. I wonder if Moiraine thinks I came just because she asked me? The Light help me, acting like a fool girl. Doing fool things because of a fool man!

She mounted the stairs uneasily—each was deep enough to take two strides for her to reach the next—and unlike most of the others, she did not pause for an awed stare up the pale height of the Tower. She wanted this over.

Inside, archways almost surrounded the large, round entry hall, but the petitioners huddled in the middle of the chamber, shuffling together beneath a flat-domed ceiling. The pale stone floor had been worn and polished by countless nervous feet over the centuries. No one thought of anything except where they were, and why. A farmer and his wife in rough woolens, clutching each other’s callused hands, rubbed shoulders with a merchant in velvet-slashed silks, a maid at her heels clutching a small worked-silver casket, no doubt her mistress’s gift for the Tower. Elsewhere, the merchant would have stared down her nose at farm folk who brushed so close, and they might well have knuckled their foreheads and backed away apologizing. Not now. Not here.

There were few men among the petitioners, which was no surprise to Min. Most men were nervous around Aes Sedai. Everyone knew it had been male Aes Sedai, when there still had been male Aes Sedai, who were responsible for the Breaking of the World. Three thousand years had not dimmed that memory, even if time had altered many of the details. Children were still frightened by tales of men who could channel the One Power, men doomed to go mad from the Dark One’s taint on saidin, the male half of the True Source. Worst was the story of Lews Therin Telamon, the Dragon, Lews Therin Kinslayer, who had begun the Breaking. For that matter, the stories frightened adults, too. Prophecy said the Dragon would be born again in mankind’s greatest hour of need, to fight the Dark One in Tarmon Gai’don, the Last Battle, but that made little difference in how most people looked at any connection between men and the Power. Any Aes Sedai would hunt down a man who could channel, now; of the seven Ajahs, the Red did little else.

Of course, none of that had anything to do with seeking help from Aes Sedai, yet few men felt easy about being linked in any way to Aes Sedai and the Power. Few, that is, except Warders, but each Warder was bonded to an Aes Sedai; Warders could hardly be taken for the general run of men. There was a saying: “A man will cut off his own hand to get rid of a splinter before asking help from Aes Sedai.” Women meant it as a comment on men’s stubborn foolishness, but Min had heard some men say the loss of a hand might be the better decision.

She wondered what these people would do if they knew what she knew. Run screaming, perhaps. And if they knew her reason for being here, she might not survive to be taken up by the Tower guards and thrown into a cell. She did have friends in the Tower, but none with power or influence. If her purpose was discovered, it was much less likely that they could help her than that she would pull them to the gallows or the headsman behind her. That was saying she lived to be tried, of course; more likely her mouth would be stopped permanently long before a trial.

She told herself to stop thinking like that. I’ll make it in, and I’ll make it out. The Light burn Rand al’Thor for getting me into this!

Three or four Accepted, women Min’s age or perhaps a little older, were circulating through the round room, speaking softly to the petitioners. Their white dresses had no decoration except for seven bands of color at the hem, one band for each Ajah. Now and again a novice, a still younger woman or girl all in white, came to lead someone deeper into the Tower. The petitioners always followed the novices with an odd mix of excited eagerness and foot-dragging reluctance.

Min’s grip tightened on her bundle as one of the Accepted stopped in front of her. “The Light illumine you,” the curly-haired woman said perfunctorily. “I am called Faolain. How may the Tower help you?”

Faolain’s dark, round face held the patience of someone doing a tedious job when she would rather be doing something else. Studying, probably, from what Min knew of the Accepted. Learning to be Aes Sedai. Most important, however, was the lack of recognition in the Accepted’s eyes; the two of them had met when Min was in the Tower before, though only briefly.

Just the same, Min lowered her face in assumed diffidence. It was not unnatural; a good many country folk did not really understand the great step up from Accepted to full Aes Sedai. Shielding her features behind the edge of her cloak, she looked away from Faolain.

“I have a question I must ask the Amyrlin Seat,” she began, then cut off abruptly as three Aes Sedai stopped to look into the entry hall, two from one archway and one from another.

Accepted and novices curtsied when their rounds took them close to one of the Aes Sedai, but otherwise went on about their tasks, perhaps a trifle more briskly. That was all. Not so for the petitioners. They seemed to catch their breaths all together. Away from the White Tower, away from Tar Valon, they might simply have thought the Aes Sedai three women whose ages they could not guess, three women in the flush of their prime, yet with more maturity than their smooth cheeks suggested. In the Tower, though, there was no question. A woman who had worked very long with the One Power was not touched by time in the same way as other women. In the Tower, no one needed to see a golden Great Serpent ring to know an Aes Sedai.

A ripple of curtsies spread through the huddle, and jerky bows from the few men. Two or three people even fell to their knees. The rich merchant looked frightened; the farm couple at her side stared at legends come to life. How to deal with Aes Sedai was a matter of hearsay for most; it was unlikely that any here, except those who actually lived in Tar Valon, had seen an Aes Sedai before, and probably not even the Tar Valoners had been this close.

But it was not the Aes Sedai themselves that halted Min’s tongue. Sometimes, not often, she saw things when she looked at people, images and auras that usually flared and were gone in moments. Occasionally she knew what they meant. It happened rarely, the knowing—much more rarely than the seeing, even—but when she knew, she was always right.

Unlike most others, Aes Sedai—and their Warders—always had images and auras, sometimes so many dancing and shifting that they made Min dizzy. The numbers made no difference in interpreting them, though; she knew what they meant for Aes Sedai as seldom as for anyone else. But this time she knew more than she wanted to, and it made her shiver.

A slender woman with black hair falling to her waist, the only one of the three she recognized—her name was Ananda; she was Yellow Ajah—wore a sickly brown halo, shriveled and split by rotting fissures that fell in and widened as they decayed. The small, fair-haired Aes Sedai beside Ananda was Green Ajah, by her green-fringed shawl. The White Flame of Tar Valon on it showed for a moment when she turned her back. And on her shoulder, as if nestled among the grape vines and flowering apple branches worked on her shawl, sat a human skull. A small woman’s skull, picked clean and sun-bleached. The third, a plumply pretty woman halfway around the room, wore no shawl; most Aes Sedai did not except for ceremony. The lift of her chin and the set of her shoulders spoke of strength and pride. She seemed to be casting cool blue eyes on the petitioners through a tattered curtain of blood, crimson streamers running down her face.

Blood and skull and halo faded away in the dance of images around the three, came and faded again. The petitioners stared in awe, seeing only three women who could touch the True Source and channel the One Power. No one but Min saw the rest. No one but Min knew those three women were going to die. All on the same day.

“The Amyrlin cannot see everyone,” Faolain said with poorly hidden impatience. “Her next public audience is not for ten days. Tell me what you want, and I will arrange for you to see the sister who can best help you.”

Min’s eye flew to the bundle in her arms and stayed there, partly so she would not have to see again what she had already seen. All three of them! Light! What chance was there that three Aes Sedai would die on the same day? But she knew. She knew.

“I have the right to speak to the Amyrlin Seat. In person.” It was a right seldom demanded—who would dare?—but it existed. “Any woman has that right, and I ask it.”

“Do you think the Amyrlin Seat herself can see everyone who comes to the White Tower? Surely another Aes Sedai can help you.” Faolain gave heavy weight to the titles as if to overpower Min. “Now tell me what your question is about. And give me your name, so the novice will know who to come for.”

“My name is... Elmindreda.” Min winced in spite of herself. She had always hated the name, but the Amyrlin was one of the few people living who had ever heard it. If only she remembered. “I have the right to speak to the Amyrlin. And my question is for her alone. I have the right.”

The Accepted arched an eyebrow. “Elmindreda?” Her mouth twitched toward an amused smile. “And you claim your rights. Very well. I will send word to the Keeper of the Chronicles that you wish to see the Amyrlin Seat personally, Elmindreda.”

Min wanted to slap the woman for the way she emphasized “Elmindreda,” but instead she forced out a murmured “Thank you.”

“Do not thank me yet. No doubt it will be hours before the Keeper finds time to reply, and it will certainly be that you can ask your question at the Mother’s next public audience. Wait with patience. Elmindreda.” She gave Min a tight smile, almost a smirk, as she turned away.

Grinding her teeth, Min took her bundle to stand against the wall between two of the archways, where she tried to blend into the pale stonework. Trust no one, and avoid notice until you reach the Amyrlin, Moiraine had told her. Moiraine was one Aes Sedai she did trust. Most of the time. It was good advice in any case. All she had to do was reach the Amyrlin, and it would be over. She could don her own clothes again, see her friends, and leave. No more need for hiding.

She was relieved to see that the Aes Sedai had gone. Three Aes Sedai dying on one day. It was impossible; that was the only word. Yet it was going to happen. Nothing she said or did could change it—when she knew what an image meant, it happened—but she had to tell the Amyrlin about this. It might even be as important as the news she brought from Moiraine, though that was hard to believe.

Another Accepted came to replace one already there, and to Min’s eyes bars floated in front of her apple-cheeked face, like a cage. Sheriam, the Mistress of Novices, looked into the hall—after one glance, Min kept her gaze on the stone under her feet; Sheriam knew her all too well—and the red-haired Aes Sedai’s face seemed battered and bruised. It was only the viewing, of course, but Min still had to bite her lip to stifle a gasp. Sheriam, with her calm authority and sureness, was as indestructible as the Tower. Surely nothing could harm Sheriam. But something was going to.

An Aes Sedai unknown to Min, wearing the shawl of the Brown Ajah, accompanied a stout woman in finely woven red wool to the doors. The stout woman walked as lightly as a girl, face shining, almost laughing with pleasure. The Brown sister was smiling, too, but her aura faded like a guttering candle flame.

Death. Wounds, captivity, and death. To Min it might as well have been printed on a page.

She set her eyes on her feet. She did not want to see any more. Let her remember, she thought. She had not felt desperation at any time on her long ride from the Mountains of Mist, not even on the two occasions when someone tried to steal her horse, but she felt it now. Light, let her remember that bloody name.

“Mistress Elmindreda?”

Min gave a start. The black-haired novice who stood before her was barely old enough to be away from home, perhaps fifteen or sixteen, though she made a great effort at dignity. “Yes? I am.... That is my name.”

“I am Sahra. If you will come with me”—Sahra’s piping voice took on a note of wonder—“the Amyrlin Seat will see you in her study now.”

Min gave a sigh of relief and followed eagerly.

Her cloak’s deep hood still hid her face, but it did not stop her seeing, and the more she saw, the more she grew eager to reach the Amyrlin. Few people walked the broad corridors that spiraled upward with their brightly colored floor tiles, and their wall hangings and golden lampstands—the Tower had been built to hold far greater numbers than it did now—but nearly everyone she saw as she climbed higher wore an image or aura that spoke to her of violence and danger.

Warders hurried by with barely a glance for the two women, men who moved like hunting wolves, their swords only an afterthought to their deadliness, but they seemed to have bloody faces, or gaping wounds. Swords and spears danced about their heads, threatening. Their auras flashed wildly, flickered on the knife edge of death. She saw dead men walking, knew they would die on the same day as the Aes Sedai in the entry hall, or at most a day later. Even some of the servants, men and women with the Flame of Tar Valon on their breasts, hurrying about their work, bore signs of violence. An Aes Sedai glimpsed down a side hallway appeared to have chains in the air around her, and another, crossing the corridor ahead of Min and her guide, seemed for most of those few strides to wear a silver collar around her neck. Min’s breath caught at that; she wanted to scream.

“It can all be overwhelming to someone who’s never seen it before,” Sahra said, trying and failing to sound as if the Tower were as ordinary to her now as her home village. “But you are safe here. The Amyrlin Seat will make things right.” Her voice squeaked when she mentioned the Amyrlin.

“Light, let her do just that,” Min muttered. The novice gave her a smile that was meant to be soothing.

By the time they reached the hall outside the Amyrlin’s study, Min’s stomach was churning and she was treading almost on Sahra’s heels. Only the need to pretend that she was a stranger had kept her from running ahead long since.

One of the doors to the Amyrlin’s chambers opened, and a young man with red-gold hair came stalking out, nearly striding into Min and her escort. Tall and straight and strong in his blue coat thickly embroidered with gold on sleeves and collar, Gawyn of House Trakand, son of Queen Morgase of Andor, looked every inch the proud young lord. A furious young lord. There was no time to drop her head; he was staring down into her hood, right into her face.

His eyes widened in surprise, then narrowed to slits of blue ice. “So you are back. Do you know where my sister and Egwene have gone?”

“They are not here?” Min forgot everything in a rising flood of panic. Before she knew what she was doing she had seized his sleeves, peering up at him urgently, and forced him back a step. “Gawyn, they started for the Tower months ago! Elayne and Egwene, and Nynaeve, too. With Verin Sedai and.... Gawyn, I... I....”

“Calm yourself,” he said, gently undoing her grip on his coat. “Light! I didn’t mean to frighten you so. They arrived safely. And would not say a word of where they had been, or why. Not to me. I suppose there’s scant hope you will?” She thought she kept her face straight, but he took one look and said, “I thought not. This place has more secrets than.... They’ve vanished again. And Nynaeve, too.” Nynaeve was almost an offhand addition; she might be one of Min’s friends, but she meant nothing to him. His voice began to roughen once more, growing tighter by the second. “Again without a word. Not a word! Supposedly they’re on a farm somewhere as penance for running away, but I cannot find out where. The Amyrlin won’t give me a straight answer.”

Min flinched; for a moment, streaks of dried blood had made his face a grim mask. It was like a double hammer blow. Her friends were gone—it had eased her coming to the Tower, knowing they were here—and Gawyn was going to be wounded on the day the Aes Sedai died.

Despite all she had seen since entering the Tower, despite her fear, none of it had really touched her personally until now. Disaster striking the Tower would spread far from Tar Valon, yet she was not of the Tower and never could be. But Gawyn was someone she knew, someone she liked, and he was going to be hurt more than the blood told, hurt somehow deeper than wounds to his flesh. It hit her that if catastrophe seized the Tower, not only distant Aes Sedai would be harmed, women she could never feel close to, but her friends as well. They were of the Tower.

In a way she was glad Egwene and the others were not there, glad she could not look at them and perhaps see signs of death. Yet she wanted to look, to be sure, to look at her friends and see nothing, or see that they would live. Where in the Light were they? Why had they gone? Knowing those three, she thought it possible that if Gawyn did not know where they were, it was because they did not want him to know. It could be that.

Suddenly she remembered where she was and why, and that she was not alone with Gawyn. Sahra seemed to have forgotten she was taking Min to the Amyrlin; she seemed to have forgotten everything but the young lord, making calf-eyes that he was not noticing. Even so, there was no use pretending any longer to be a stranger to the Tower. She was at the Amyrlin’s door; nothing could stop her now.

“Gawyn, I don’t know where they are, but if they are doing penance on a farm, they’re probably all sweat, and mud to their hips, and you are the last one they will want to see them.” She was not much easier about their absence than Gawyn was, in truth. Too much had happened, too much was happening, too much with ties to them, and to her. But it was not impossible they had been sent off for punishment. “You won’t help them by making the Amyrlin angry.”

“I don’t know that they are on a farm. Or even alive. Why all this hiding and sidestepping if they’re just pulling weeds? If anything happens to my sister.... Or to Egwene....” He frowned at the toes of his boots. “I am supposed to look after Elayne. How can I protect her when I don’t know where she is?”

Min sighed. “Do you think she needs looking after? Either of them?” But if the Amyrlin had sent them somewhere, maybe they did. The Amyrlin was capable of sending a woman into a bear’s den with nothing but a switch if it suited her purposes. And she would expect the woman to come back with a bearskin, or the bear on a leash, as instructed. But telling Gawyn that would only inflame his temper and his worries. “Gawyn, they have pledged to the Tower. They won’t thank you for meddling.”

“I know Elayne isn’t a child,” he said patiently, “even if she does bounce back and forth between running off like one and playing at being Aes Sedai. But she is my sister, and beyond that, she is Daughter-Heir of Andor. She’ll be queen, after Mother. Andor needs her whole and safe to take the throne, not another Succession.”

Playing at being Aes Sedai? Apparently he did not realize the extent of his sister’s talent. The Daughter-Heirs of Andor had been sent to the Tower to train for as long as there had been an Andor, but Elayne was the first to have enough talent to be raised to Aes Sedai, and a powerful Aes Sedai at that. Very likely he also did not know Egwene was just as strong.

“So you will protect her whether she wants it or not?” She said it in a flat voice meant to let him know he was making a mistake, but he missed the warning and nodded agreement.

“That has been my duty since the day she was born. My blood shed before hers; my life given before hers. I took that oath when I could barely see over the side of her cradle; Gareth Bryne had to explain to me what it meant. I won’t break it now. Andor needs her more than it needs me.”

He spoke with a calm certainty, an acceptance of something natural and right, that sent chills through her. She had always thought of him as boyish, laughing and teasing, but now he was something alien. She thought the Creator must have been tired when it came time to make men; sometimes they hardly seemed human. “And Egwene? What oath did you take about her?”

His face did not change, but he shifted his feet warily. “I’m concerned about Egwene, of course. And Nynaeve. What happens to Elayne’s companions might happen to Elayne. I assume they’re still together; when they were here, I seldom saw one without the others.”

“My mother always told me to marry a poor liar, and you qualify. Except that I think someone else has first claim.”

“Some things are meant to be,” he said quietly, “and some never can. Galad is heartsick because Egwene is gone.” Galad was his half-brother, the pair of them sent to Tar Valon to train under the Warders. That was another Andoran tradition. Galadedrid Damodred was a man who took doing the right thing to the point of a fault, as Min saw it, but Gawyn could see no wrong in him. And he would not speak his feelings for a woman Galad had set his heart on.

She wanted to shake him, shake some sense into him, but there was no time now. Not with the Amyrlin waiting, not with what she had to tell the Amyrlin waiting. Certainly not with Sahra standing there, calf-eyes or no calf-eyes. “Gawyn, I am summoned to the Amyrlin. Where can I find you, when she is done with me?”

“I will be in the practice yard. The only time I can stop worrying is when I am working the sword with Hammar.” Hammar was a blademaster, and the Warder who taught the sword. “Most days I’m there until the sun sets.”

“Good, then. I will come as soon as I can. And try to watch what you say. If you make the Amyrlin angry with you, Elayne and Egwene might share in it.”

“That I cannot promise,” he said firmly. “Something is wrong in the world. Civil war in Cairhien. The same and worse in Tarabon and Arad Doman. False Dragons. Troubles and rumors of troubles everywhere. I don’t say the Tower is behind it, but even here things are not what they should be. Or what they seem. Elayne and Egwene vanishing isn’t the whole of it. Still, they are the part that concerns me. I will find out where they are. And if they have been hurt.... If they are dead....”

He scowled, and for an instant his face was that bloody mask again. More: a sword floated above his head, and a banner waved behind it. The long-hilted sword, like those most Warders used, had a heron engraved on its slightly curved blade, symbol of a blademaster, and Min could not say whether it belonged to Gawyn or threatened him. The banner bore Gawyn’s sigil of the charging White Boar, but on a field of green rather than the red of Andor. Both sword and banner faded with the blood.

“Be careful, Gawyn.” She meant it two ways. Careful of what he said, and careful in a way she could not explain, even to herself. “You must be very careful.”

His eyes searched her face as if he had heard some of her deeper meaning. “I... will try,” he said finally. He put on a grin, almost the grin she remembered, but the effort was plain. “I suppose I had better get myself back to the practice yard if I expect to keep up with Galad. I managed two out of five against Hammar this morning, but Galad actually won three, the last time he bothered to come to the yard.” Suddenly he appeared to really see her for the first time, and his grin became genuine. “You ought to wear dresses more often. It’s pretty on you. Remember, I will be there till sunset.”

As he strode away with something very close to the dangerous grace of a Warder, Min realized she was smoothing the dress over her hip and stopped immediately. The Light burn all men!

Sahra exhaled as if she had been holding her breath. “He is very good-looking, isn’t he?” she said dreamily. “Not as good-looking as Lord Galad, of course. And you really know him.” It was half a question, but only half.

Min echoed the novice’s sigh. The girl would talk with her friends in the novices’ quarters. The son of a queen was a natural topic, especially when he was handsome and had an air about him like the hero in a gleeman’s tale. A strange woman only made for more interesting speculation. Still, there was nothing to be done about it. At any rate, it could hardly cause any harm now.

“The Amyrlin Seat must be wondering why we haven’t come,” she said.

Sahra came to herself with a wide-eyed start and a loud gulp. Seizing Min’s sleeve with one hand, she jumped to open one of the doors, pulling Min behind her. The moment they were inside, the novice curtsied hastily and burst out in panic, “I’ve brought her, Leane Sedai. Mistress Elmindreda? The Amyrlin Seat wants to see her?”

The tall, coppery-skinned woman in the anteroom wore the hand-wide stole of the Keeper of the Chronicles, blue to show she had been raised from the Blue Ajah. Fists on hips, she waited for the girl to finish, then dismissed her with a clipped “Took you long enough, child. Back to your chores, now.” Sahra bobbed another curtsy and scurried out as quickly as she had entered.

Min stood with her eyes on the floor, her hood still pulled up around her face. Blundering in front of Sahra had been bad enough—though at least the novice did not know her name—but Leane knew her better than anyone in the Tower except the Amyrlin. Min was sure it could make no difference now, but after what had happened in the hallway, she meant to hold to Moiraine’s instructions until she was alone with the Amyrlin.

This time her precautions did no good. Leane took two steps, pushed back the hood, and grunted as if she had been poked in the stomach. Min raised her head and stared back defiantly, trying to pretend she had not been attempting to sneak past. Straight, dark hair only a little longer than her own framed the Keeper’s face; the Aes Sedai’s expression was a blend of surprise and displeasure at being surprised.

“So you are Elmindreda, are you?” Leane said briskly. She was always brisk. “I must say you look it more in that dress than in your usual... garb.”

“Just Min, Leane Sedai, if you please.” Min managed to keep her face straight, but it was difficult not to glare. The Keeper’s voice had held too much amusement. If her mother had had to name her after someone in a story, why did it have to be a woman who seemed to spend most of her time sighing at men, when she was not inspiring them to compose songs about her eyes, or her smile?

“Very well. Min. I’ll not ask where you’ve been, nor why you’ve come back in a dress, apparently wanting to ask a question of the Amyrlin. Not now, at least.” Her face said she meant to ask later, though, and get answers. “I suppose the Mother knows who Elmindreda is? Of course. I should have known that when she said to send you straight in, and alone. The Light alone knows why she puts up with you.” She broke off with a concerned frown. “What is the matter, girl? Are you ill?”

Min carefully blanked her face. “No. No, I am all right.” For a moment the Keeper had been looking through a transparent mask of her own face, a screaming mask. “May I go in now, Leane Sedai?”

Leane studied her a moment longer, then jerked her head toward the inner chamber. “In with you.” Min’s leap to obey would have satisfied the hardest taskmistress.

The Amyrlin Seat’s study had been occupied by many grand and powerful women over the centuries, and reminders of the fact filled the room, from the tall fireplace all of golden marble from Kandor, cold now, to the paneled walls of pale, oddly striped wood, iron hard yet carved in wondrous beasts and wildly feathered birds. Those panels had been brought from the mysterious lands beyond the Aiel Waste well over a thousand years ago, and the fireplace was more than twice as old. The polished red-stone of the floor had come from the Mountains of Mist. High arched windows let onto a balcony. The iridescent stone framing the windows shone like pearls, and had been salvaged from the remains of a city sunk into the Sea of Storms by the Breaking of the World; no one had ever seen its like.

The current occupant, Siuan Sanche, had been born a fisherman’s daughter in Tear, though, and the furnishings she had chosen were simple, if well made and well polished. She sat in a stout chair behind a large table plain enough to have served a farmhouse. The only other chair in the room, just as plain and usually set off to one side, now stood in front of the table atop a small Tairen rug, simple in blue and brown and gold. Half a dozen books rested open on tall reading stands about the floor. That was all of it. A drawing hung above the fireplace: tiny fishing boats working among reeds in the Fingers of the Dragon, just as her father’s boat had.

At first glance, despite her smooth Aes Sedai features, Siuan Sanche herself looked as simple as her furnishings. She herself was sturdy, and handsome rather than beautiful, and the only bit of ostentation in her clothing was the broad stole of the Amyrlin Seat she wore, with one colored stripe for each of the seven Ajahs. Her age was indeterminate, as with any Aes Sedai; not even a hint of gray showed in her dark hair. But her sharp blue eyes brooked no nonsense, and her firm jaw spoke of the determination of the youngest woman ever to be chosen Amyrlin Seat. For over ten years Siuan Sanche had been able to summon rulers, and the powerful, and they had come, even if they hated the White Tower and feared Aes Sedai.

As the Amyrlin strode around in front of the table, Min set down her bundle and began an awkward curtsy, muttering irritably under her breath at having to do so. Not that she wanted to be disrespectful—that did not even occur to one facing a woman like Siuan Sanche—but the bow she usually would have made seemed foolish in a dress, and she had only a rough idea of how to curtsy.

Halfway down, with her skirts already spread, she froze like a crouching toad. Siuan Sanche was standing there as regal as any queen, and for a moment she was also lying on the floor, naked. Aside from her being in only her skin, there was something odd about the image, but it vanished before Min could say what. It was as strong a viewing as she had ever seen, and she had no idea what it meant.

“Seeing things again, are you?” the Amyrlin said. “Well, I can certainly make use of that ability of yours. I could have used it all the months you were gone. But we’ll not talk of that. What’s done is done. The Wheel weaves as the Wheel wills.” She smiled a tight smile. “But if you do it again, I’ll have your hide for gloves. Stand up, girl. Leane forces enough ceremony on me in a month to last any sensible woman a year. I don’t have time for it. Not these days. Now, what did you just see?”

Min straightened slowly. It was a relief to be back with someone who knew of her talent, even if it was the Amyrlin Seat herself. She did not have to hide what she saw from the Amyrlin. Far from it. “You were.... You weren’t wearing any clothes. I... I don’t know what it means, Mother.”

Siuan barked a short, mirthless laugh. “No doubt that I’ll take a lover. But I have no time for that, either. There’s no time for winking at the men when you’re busy bailing the boat.”

“Maybe,” Min said slowly. It could have meant that, though she doubted it. “I just do not know. But, Mother, I’ve been seeing things ever since I walked into the Tower. Something bad is going to happen, something terrible.”

She started with the Aes Sedai in the entry hall and told everything she had seen, as well as what everything meant, when she was sure. She held back what Gawyn had said, though, or most of it; it was no use telling him not to anger the Amyrlin if she did it for him. The rest she laid out as starkly as she had seen it. Some of her fear came out as she dredged it all up, seeing it all again; her voice shook before she was done.

The Amyrlin’s expression never changed. “So you spoke with young Gawyn,” she said when Min finished. “Well, I think I can convince him to keep quiet. And if I remember Sahra correctly, the girl could do with some time working in the country. She’ll spread no gossip hoeing a vegetable patch.”

“I don’t understand,” Min said. “Why should Gawyn keep quiet? About what? I told him nothing. And Sahra... ? Mother, perhaps I didn’t make myself clear. Aes Sedai and Warders are going to die. It has to mean a battle. And unless you send a lot of Aes Sedai and Warders off somewhere—and servants, too; I saw servants dead and injured, too—unless you do that, that battle will be here! In Tar Valon!”

“Did you see that?” the Amyrlin demanded. “A battle? Do you know, with your... your talent, or are you guessing?”

“What else could it be? At least four Aes Sedai are as good as dead. Mother, I’ve only laid eyes on nine of you since coming back, and four are going to die! And the Warders.... What else could it be?”

“More things than I like to think of,” Siuan said grimly. “When? How long before this... thing... occurs?”

Min shook her head. “I do not know. Most of it will happen in the space of a day, maybe two, but that could be tomorrow or a year from now. Or ten.”

“Let us pray for ten. If it comes tomorrow, there isn’t much I can do to stop it.”

Min grimaced. Only two Aes Sedai besides Siuan Sanche knew of what she could do: Moiraine, and Verin Mathwin, who had tried to study her talent. None of them knew how it worked any more than she did, except that it had nothing to do with the Power. Perhaps that was why only Moiraine seemed able to accept the fact that when she knew what a viewing meant, it happened.

“Maybe it’s the Whitecloaks, Mother. They were everywhere in Alindaer when I crossed the bridge.” She did not believe the Children of the Light had anything to do with what was coming, but she was reluctant to say what she believed. Believed, not knew; yet that was bad enough.

But the Amyrlin had begun shaking her head before she finished. “They would try something if they could, I’ve no doubt—they would love to strike at the Tower—but Eamon Valda won’t move openly without orders from the Lord Captain Commander, and Pedron Niall will not strike unless he thinks we’re injured. He knows our strength too well to be foolish. For a thousand years the Whitecloaks have been like that. Silverpike in the reeds, waiting for a hint of Aes Sedai blood in the water. But we’ve showed them none yet, nor will we, if I can help it.”

“Yet if Valda did try something on his own—”

Siuan cut her off. “He has no more than five hundred men close to Tar Valon, girl. He sent the rest away weeks ago, to cause trouble elsewhere. The Shining Walls held off the Aiel. And Artur Hawkwing, too. Valda will never break into Tar Valon unless the city is already falling apart from the inside.” Her voice did not change as she went on. “You very much want me to believe the trouble will come from the Whitecloaks. Why?” There was no gentleness in her eyes.

“Because I want to believe it,” Min muttered. She licked her lips and spoke the words she did not want to say. “The silver collar I saw on that one Aes Sedai. Mother, it looked.... It looked like one of the collars the... the Seanchan use to... to control women who can channel.” Her voice dwindled as Siuan’s mouth twisted with distaste.

“Filthy things,” the Amyrlin growled. “As well most people don’t believe a quarter of what they hear about the Seanchan. But there’s more chance of it being the Whitecloaks. If the Seanchan land again, anywhere, I will know it in days by pigeon, and it is a long way from the sea to Tar Valon. If they do reappear, I will have plenty of warning. No, I fear what you see is something far worse than the Seanchan. I fear it can only be the Black Ajah. Only a handful of us know about them, and I don’t relish what will happen when the knowledge becomes common, but they are the greatest immediate threat to the Tower.”

Min realized she was clutching her skirt so hard that her hands hurt; her mouth was dry as dust. The White Tower had always coldly denied the existence of a hidden Ajah, dedicated to the Dark One. The surest way to anger an Aes Sedai was merely to mention such a thing. For the Amyrlin Seat herself to give the Black Ajah reality so casually made Min’s spine turn to ice.

As if she had said nothing out of the ordinary, the Amyrlin went on. “But you didn’t come all this way just to do your viewings. What word from Moiraine? I know everything from Arad Doman to Tarabon is in chaos, to say the least.” That was saying the least, indeed; men supporting the Dragon Reborn were fighting those opposing him, and had turned both countries to civil war while they still fought each other for control of Almoth Plain. Siuan’s tone dismissed all that as a detail. “But I’ve heard nothing of Rand al’Thor for months. He is the focus of everything. Where is he? What does Moiraine have him doing? Sit, girl. Sit.” She gestured to the chair in front of the table.

Min approached the chair on wobbly legs and half fell into it. The Black Ajah! Oh, Light! Aes Sedai were supposed to stand for the Light. Even if she did not really trust them, there was always that. Aes Sedai, and all the power of the Aes Sedai, stood for the Light and against the Shadow. Only now it was not true any longer. She hardly heard herself say, “He’s on his way to Tear.”

“Tear! It’s Callandor, then. Moiraine means him to take the Sword That Cannot Be Touched out of the Stone of Tear. I swear I’ll hang her in the sun to dry! I will make her wish she were a novice again! He cannot be ready for that yet!”

“It was not....” Min stopped to clear her throat. “It was not Moiraine’s doing. Rand left in the middle of the night, by himself. The others followed, and Moiraine sent me to tell you. They could be in Tear by now. For all I know, he could have Callandor by now.”

“Burn him!” Siuan barked. “By now, he could be dead! I wish he had never heard a word of the Prophecies of the Dragon. If I could keep him from hearing another, I would.”

“But doesn’t he have to fulfill the Prophecies? I don’t understand.”

The Amyrlin leaned back against her table wearily. “As though anyone even understands most of them! The Prophecies aren’t what makes him the Dragon Reborn; all that takes is for him to admit it, and he must have if he is going for Callandor. The Prophecies are meant to announce to the world who he is, to prepare him for what is coming, to prepare the world for it. If Moiraine can keep some control over him, she will guide him to the Prophecies we can be sure of—when he is ready to face them!—and for the rest, we trust that what he does is enough. We hope. For all I know, he has already fulfilled Prophecies none of us understands. The Light send it’s enough.”

“So you do mean to control him. He said you’d try to use him, but this is the first I’ve heard you admit it.” Min felt cold inside. Angry, she added, “You haven’t done such a good job of it so far, you and Moiraine.”

Siuan’s tiredness seemed to slide from her shoulders. She straightened and stood looking down at Min. “You had best hope we can. Did you think we could just let him run about loose? Headstrong and stubborn, untrained, unprepared, maybe going mad already. Do you think we could trust to the Pattern, to his destiny, to keep him alive, like some story? This isn’t a story, he isn’t some invincible hero, and if his thread is snipped out of the Pattern, the Wheel of Time won’t notice his going, and the Creator will produce no miracles to save us. If Moiraine cannot reef his sails, he very well may get himself killed, and where are we then? Where is the world? The Dark One’s prison is failing. He will touch the world again; it is only a matter of time. If Rand al’Thor is not there to face him in the Last Battle, if the headstrong young fool gets himself killed first, the world is doomed. The War of the Power all over again, with no Lews Therin and his Hundred Companions. Then fire and shadow, forever.” She stopped suddenly, peering at Min’s face. “So that’s the way the wind sets, is it? You and Rand. I did not expect this.”

Min shook her head vigorously, felt her cheeks coloring. “Of course not! I was... It’s the Last Battle. And the Dark One. Light, just thinking about the Dark One loose ought to be enough to freeze a Warder’s marrow. And the Black Ajah—”

“Don’t try to dissemble,” the Amyrlin said sharply. “Do you think this is the first time I ever saw a woman afraid for her man’s life? You might as well admit it.”

Min squirmed on her chair. Siuan’s eyes dug at her, knowing and impatient. “All right,” she muttered finally, “I’ll tell you all of it, and much good it does either of us. The first time I ever saw Rand, I saw three women’s faces, and one of them was mine. I’ve never seen anything about myself before or since, but I knew what it meant. I was going to fall in love with him. All three of us were.”

“Three. The other two. Who are they?”

Min gave her a bitter smile. “The faces were blurred; I don’t know who they are.”

“Nothing to say that he would love you in return?”

“Nothing! He has never looked at me twice. I think he sees me as... as a sister. So don’t think you can use me as leash on him, because it will not work!”

“Yet you do love him.”

“I don’t have any choice.” Min tried to make her voice less sullen. “I tried treating it as a joke, but I can’t laugh anymore. You may not believe me, but when I know what it means, it happens.”

The Amyrlin tapped a finger against her lips and looked at Min consideringly.

That look worried Min. She had not meant to make such a show of herself, nor to tell as much as she had. She had not told everything, but she knew she should have learned by now not to give an Aes Sedai a lever, even if she did not see how it could be used. Aes Sedai were skilled at finding ways. “Mother, I’ve delivered Moiraine’s message, and I’ve told everything I know of what my viewings meant. There’s no reason now I can’t put on my own clothes and go.”

“Go where?”

“Tear.” After talking with Gawyn, trying to make sure he did not do something foolish. She wished she dared ask where Egwene and the other two were, but if the Amyrlin would not tell Elayne’s brother, there was small chance she would tell Min. And Siuan Sanche still had that weighing look in her eyes. “Or wherever Rand is. I may be a fool, but I’m not the first woman to be a fool over a man.”

“The first to be a fool over the Dragon Reborn. It will be dangerous, being close to Rand al’Thor once the world finds out who he is, what he is. And if he now wields Callandor, the world will learn soon enough. Half will want to kill him anyway, as if by killing him they can stop the Last Battle, stop the Dark One from breaking free. A good many will die, close to him. It might be better for you to stay here.”

The Amyrlin sounded sympathetic, but Min did not believe it. She did not believe Siuan Sanche was capable of sympathy. “I’ll take the risk; maybe I can help him. With what I see. It isn’t even as if the Tower would be that much safer, not so long as there is one Red sister here. They’ll see a man who can channel and forget the Last Battle, and the Prophecies of the Dragon.”

“So will many others,” Siuan broke in calmly. “Old ways of thinking are hard to shed, for Aes Sedai as for anyone else.”

Min gave her a puzzled look. She seemed to be taking Min’s side of the thing now. “It is no secret I am friends with Egwene and Nynaeve, and no secret they’re from the same village as Rand. For the Red Ajah, that will be connection enough. When the Tower finds out what he is, I would probably be arrested before the day is out. So will Egwene and Nynaeve, if you don’t have them hidden away somewhere.”

“Then you mustn’t be recognized. You catch no fish if they see the net. I suggest you forget your coat and breeches for a time.” The Amyrlin smiled like a cat smiling at a mouse.

“What fish do you expect to catch with me?” Min asked in a faint voice. She thought she knew, and hoped desperately she was wrong.

Her hope did not stop the Amyrlin from saying, “The Black Ajah. Thirteen of them fled, but I fear some remain. I cannot be sure who I can trust; for a while I was afraid to trust anyone. You are no Darkfriend, I know, and your particular talent may just be some help. At the very least, you’ll be another trustworthy pair of eyes.”

“You’ve been planning this since I walked in, haven’t you? That’s why you want to keep Gawyn and Sahra quiet.” Anger built up inside Min like steam in a kettle. The woman said frog and expected people to jump. That they usually did just made it worse. She was no frog, no dancing puppet. “Is this what you did to Egwene and Elayne and Nynaeve? Send them off after the Black Ajah? I wouldn’t put it past you!”

“You tend your own nets, child, and let those girls tend theirs. As far as you are concerned, they are working penance on a farm. Do I make myself plain?”

That unwavering stare made Min shift on her chair. It was easy to defy the Amyrlin—until she started staring at you with those sharp, cold blue eyes. “Yes, Mother.” The meekness of her reply rankled, but a glance at the Amyrlin convinced her to let it lie. She plucked at the fine wool of her dress. “I suppose it won’t kill me to wear this a little longer.” Suddenly Siuan looked amused; Min felt her hackles rising.

“I fear that won’t be enough. Min in a dress is still Min in a dress to anyone who looks close. You cannot always wear a cloak with the hood up. No, you must change everything that can be changed. For one thing, you will continue to go by Elmindreda. It is your name, after all.” Min winced. “Your hair is almost as long as Leane’s, long enough to put in curls. For the rest.... I never had any use for rouge and powder and paints, but Leane remembers the use of them.”

Min’s eyes had grown wider by the word since the mention of curls. “Oh, no,” she gasped.

“No one will take you for Min who wears breeches once Leane makes you into a perfect Elmindreda.”

“Oh, NO!”

“As to why you are staying in the Tower—a reason suitable for a fluttery young woman who looks and acts nothing at all like Min.” The Amyrlin frowned thoughtfully, ignoring Min’s efforts to break in. “Yes. I will let it be put about that Mistress Elmindreda managed to encourage two suitors to the point that she has to take shelter from them in the tower until she can decide between them. A few women still claim sanctuary each year, and sometimes for reasons as silly.” Her face hardened, and her eyes sharpened. “If you’re still thinking of Tear, think again. Consider whether you can be of more help to Rand there, or here. If the Black Ajah brings the Tower down, or worse, gains control, he loses even the little help I can give. So. Are you a woman, or a lovesick girl?”

Trapped. Min could see it as plainly as a shackle, on her leg. “Do you always get your way with people, Mother?”

The Amyrlin’s smile was even colder this time. “Usually, child. Usually.”

Shifting her red-fringed shawl, Elaida stared thoughtfully at the door to the Amyrlin’s study, through which the two young women had just vanished. The novice came back out almost immediately, took one look at Elaida’s face, and bleated like a frightened sheep. Elaida thought she recognized her, though she could not bring the girl’s name to mind. She had more important uses for her time than teaching wretched children.

“Your name?”

“Sahra, Elaida Sedai.” The girl’s reply was a breathless squeak. Elaida might have no interest in novices, but the novices knew her, and her reputation.

She remembered the girl now. A daydreamer with moderate ability who would never be of any real power. It was doubtful she knew anything more than Elaida had already seen and heard—or remembered much more than Gawyn’s smile, for that matter. A fool. Elaida flicked a dismissive hand.

The girl dropped a curtsy so deep her face almost touched the floor tiles, then fled at a dead run.

Elaida did not see her go. The Red sister had turned away, already forgetting the novice. As she swept down the corridor, not a line marred her smooth features, but her thoughts boiled furiously. She did not even notice the servants, the novices and Accepted, who scrambled out of her way, curtsying as she passed. Once she almost walked over a Brown sister with her nose in a sheaf of notes. The plump Brown jumped back with a startled squawk that Elaida did not hear.

Dress or no dress, she knew the young woman who had gone in to see the Amyrlin. Min, who had spent so much time with the Amyrlin on her first visit to the Tower, though for no reason anyone knew. Min, who was such close friends with Elayne, Egwene, and Nynaeve. The Amyrlin was hiding the whereabouts of those three. Elaida was sure of it. All reports that they were serving penance on a farm had come at third or fourth hand from Siuan Sanche, more than enough distance to hide any twisting of words to avoid an outright lie. Not to mention the fact that all Elaida’s considerable efforts to find this farm had yielded nothing.

“The Light burn her!” For a moment open anger painted her face. She was not sure whether she meant Siuan Sanche or the Daughter-Heir. Either would serve. A slender Accepted heard her, glanced at her face, and went as white as her own dress; Elaida strode by without seeing her.

Apart from everything else, it infuriated her that she could not find Elayne. Elaida had the Foretelling sometimes, the ability to foresee future events. If it came seldom and faintly, that was still more than any Aes Sedai had had since Gitara Moroso, dead now twenty years. The very first thing Elaida had ever Foretold, while still an Accepted—and had known enough even then to keep to herself—was that the Royal line of Andor would be the key to defeating the Dark One in the Last Battle. She had attached herself to Morgase as soon as it was clear Morgase would succeed to the throne, had built her influence year by patient year. And now all her effort, all her sacrifice—she might have been Amyrlin herself had she not concentrated all her energies on Andor—might be for naught because Elayne had disappeared.

With an effort she forced her thoughts back to what was important now. Egwene and Nynaeve came from the same village as that strange young man, Rand al’Thor. And Min knew him as well, however much she had tried to hide the fact. Rand al’Thor lay at the heart of it.

Elaida had only seen him once, supposedly a shepherd from the Two Rivers, in Andor, but looking every inch the Aielman. The Foretelling had come to her at the sight of him. He was ta’veren, one of those rare individuals who, instead of being woven into the Pattern as the Wheel of Time chose, forced the Pattern to shape itself around them, for a time at least. And Elaida had seen chaos swirling around him, division and strife for Andor, perhaps for even more of the world. But Andor must be kept whole, whatever else happened; that first Foretelling had convinced her of that.

There were more threads, enough to snare Siuan in her own web. If the rumors were to be believed, there were three ta’veren, not just one. All three from the same village, this Emond’s Field, and all three near the same age, odd enough to occasion a good deal of talk in the Tower. And on Siuan’s journey to Shienar, near a year ago now, she had seen them, even talked with them. Rand al’Thor. Perrin Aybara. Matrim Cauthon. It was said to be mere happenstance. Just fortuitous chance. So it was said. Those who said it did not know what Elaida knew.

When Elaida saw the young al’Thor man, it had been Moiraine who spirited him away. Moiraine who had accompanied him, and the other two ta’veren, in Shienar. Moiraine Damodred, who had been Siuan Sanche’s closest friend when they were novices together. Had Elaida been one to make wagers, she would have wagered that no one else in the Tower remembered that friendship. On the day they were raised Aes Sedai, at the end of the Aiel War, Siuan and Moiraine had walked away from one another and afterward behaved almost like strangers. But Elaida had been one of the Accepted over those two novices, had taught their lessons and chastised them for slacking at chores, and she remembered. She could hardly believe that their plot could stretch back so far—al’Thor could not have been born much before that—yet it was the last link to tie them all together. For her, it was enough.

Whatever Siuan was up to, she had to be stopped. Turmoil and chaos multiplied on every side. The Dark One was sure to break free—the very thought made Elaida shiver and wrap her shawl around her more tightly—and the Tower had to be aloof from mundane struggles to face that. The Tower had to be free to pull the strings to make the nations stand together, free of the troubles Rand al’Thor would bring. Somehow, he had to be stopped from destroying Andor.

She had told no one what she knew of al’Thor. She meant to deal with him quietly, if possible. The Hall of the Tower already spoke of watching, even guiding, these ta’veren; they would never agree to dispose of them, of the one in particular, as he must be disposed of. For the good of the Tower. For the good of the world.

She made a sound in her throat, close to a growl. Siuan had always been headstrong, even as a novice, had always thought much of herself for a poor fisherman’s daughter, but how could she be fool enough to mix the Tower in this without telling the Hall? She knew what was coming as well as anyone. The only way it could be worse was if....

Abruptly Elaida stopped, staring at nothing. Could it be that this al’Thor could channel? Or one of the others? Most likely it would be al’Thor. No. Surely not. Not even Siuan would touch one of those. She could not. “Who knows what that woman could do?” she muttered. “She was never fit to be the Amyrlin Seat.”

“Talking to yourself, Elaida? I know you Reds never have friends outside your own Ajah, but surely you have friends to talk to inside it.”

Elaida turned her head to regard Alviarin. The swan-necked Aes Sedai stared back with the insufferable coolness that was a hallmark of the White Ajah. There was no love lost between Red and White; they had stood on opposite sides in the Hall of the Tower for a thousand years. White stood with Blue, and Siuan had been a Blue. But Whites prided themselves on dispassionate logic.

“Walk with me,” Elaida said. Alviarin hesitated before falling in beside her.

At first the White sister arched a disparaging eyebrow at what Elaida had to say concerning Siuan, but before the end she was frowning in concentration. “You have no proof of anything... improper,” she said when Elaida finally fell silent.

“Not yet,” Elaida said firmly. She permitted herself a tight smile when Alviarin nodded. It was a beginning. One way or another, Siuan would be stopped before she could destroy the Tower.

Well hidden in a stand of tall leatherleaf above the north bank of the River Taren, Dain Bornhald tossed back his white cloak, with its flaring golden sun on the breast, and raised the stiff leather tube of a looking glass to his eye. A cloud of tiny bitemes buzzed around his face, but he ignored them. In the village of Taren Ferry, across the river, tall stone houses stood on high foundations against the floods that came every spring. Villagers hung out of windows or waited on stoops to stare at the thirty white-cloaked riders sitting their horses in burnished plate-and-mail. A delegation of village men and women were meeting with the horsemen. Rather, they were listening to Jaret Byar, from what Bornhald could see, which was much the best.

Bornhald could almost hear his father’s voice. Let them think there is a chance, and some fool will try to take it. Then there’s killing to do, and another fool will try to avenge the first, so there’s more killing. Put the fear of the Light into them from the first, let them know no one will be harmed if they do as they’re told, and you’ll have no trouble.

His jaw tightened at the thought of his father, dead now. He was going to do something about that, and soon. He was sure only Byar knew why he had leaped to accept this command, aimed at an all-but-forgotten district in the hinterlands of Andor, and Byar would hold his tongue. Byar had been as dedicated to Dain’s father as a hound, and he had transferred all that loyalty to Dain. Bornhald had had no hesitation in naming Byar second under him when Eamon Valda gave him the command.

Byar turned his horse and rode back onto the ferry. Immediately the ferrymen cast off and began hauling the barge across by means of a heavy rope slung over the swiftly flowing water. Byar glanced at the men at the rope; they eyed him nervously as they tramped the length of the barge, then trotted back to take up the cable again. It all looked good.

“Lord Bornhald?”

Bornhald lowered the looking glass and turned his head. The hard-faced man who had appeared at his shoulder stood rigid, staring straight ahead from under a conical helmet. Even after the hard journey from Tar Valon—and Bornhald had pressed every mile—his armor shone as brightly as his snowy cloak with its golden sunburst.

“Yes, Child Ivon?”

“Hundredman Farran sent me, my Lord. It’s the Tinkers. Ordeith was talking to three of them, my Lord, and now none of the three can be found.”

“Blood and ashes!” Bornhald spun on his bootheel and strode back into the trees, Ivon at his heels.

Out of sight of the river, white-cloaked horsemen clogged the spaces between leatherleafs and pines, lances held with casual familiarity or bows laid across their pommels. The horses stamped their hooves impatiently and flicked their tails. The riders waited more stolidly; this would not be their first river crossing into strange territory, and this time no one would be trying to stop them.

In a large clearing beyond the mounted men stood a caravan of the Tuatha’an, the Traveling People. Tinkers. Nearly a hundred horse-drawn wagons, like small, boxy houses on wheels, made an eye-jarring blend of colors, red and green and yellow and every hue imaginable in combinations only a Tinker’s eye could like. The people themselves wore clothes that made their wagons look dull. They sat on the ground in a large cluster, eyeing the mounted men with an oddly calm unease; the thin crying of a child was swiftly comforted by its mother. Nearby, dead mastiffs made a mound already buzzing with flies. Tinkers would not raise a hand even to defend themselves, and the dogs had been mostly show, but Bornhald had not been willing to take a chance.

Six men were all he had thought necessary to watch Tinkers. Even with stiff faces, they looked embarrassed. None glanced at the seventh man sitting a horse near the wagons, a bony little man with a big nose, in a dark gray coat that looked too big for him despite the fineness of its cut. Farran, a bearded boulder of a man yet light on his feet for all his height and width, stood glaring at all seven equally. The hundredman pressed a gauntleted hand to his heart in salute but left all talking to Bornhald.

“A word with you, Master Ordeith,” Bornhald said quietly. The bony man cocked his head, looking at Bornhald for a long moment before dismounting. Farran growled, but Bornhald kept his voice low. “Three of the Tinkers cannot be found, Master Ordeith. Did you perhaps put your own suggestion into practice?” The first words out of Ordeith’s mouth when he saw the Tinkers had been “Kill them. They’re of no use.” Bornhald had killed his share of men, but he had never matched the casualness with which the little man had spoken.

Ordeith rubbed a finger along the side of his large nose. “Now, why would I be killing them? And after you ripped me so for just suggesting it.” His Lugarder accent was heavy today; it came and went without him seeming to notice, another thing about the man that disturbed Bornhald.

“Then you allowed them to escape, yes?”

“Well, as to that, I did take a few of them off where I could see what they knew. Undisturbed, you see.”

“What they knew? What under the Light could Tinkers know of use to us?”

“There’s no way of telling until you ask, now is there?” Ordeith said. “I didn’t hurt any of them much, and I told them to get themselves back to the wagons. Who would be thinking they’d have the nerve to run away with so many of your men about?”

Bornhald realized he was grinding his teeth. His orders had been to make the best time possible to meet this odd fellow, who would have more orders for him. Bornhald liked none of it, though both sets of orders bore the seal and signature of Pedron Niall, Lord Captain Commander of the Children of the Light.

Too much had been left unsaid, including Ordeith’s exact status. The little man was there to advise Bornhald, and Bornhald was to cooperate with Ordeith. Whether Ordeith was under his command had been left vague, and he did not like the strong implication that he should heed the fellow’s advice. Even the reason for sending so many of the Children into this backwater had been vague. To root out Darkfriends, of course, and spread the Light; that went without saying. But close to half a legion on Andoran soil without permission—the order risked much if word of it reached the Queen in Caemlyn. Too much to be balanced by the few answers Bornhald had been given.

It all came back to Ordeith. Bornhald did not understand how the Lord Captain Commander could trust this man, with his sly grins and his black moods and his haughty stares so you could never be sure what kind of man you were talking to. Not to mention his accent changing in the middle of a sentence. The fifty Children who had accompanied Ordeith were as sullen and frowning a lot as Bornhald had ever seen. He thought Ordeith must have picked them himself to have so many sour scowls, and it said something of the man that he would choose that sort. Even his name, Ordeith, meant “wormwood” in the Old Tongue. Still, Bornhald had his own reasons for wanting to be where he was. He would cooperate with the man, since he had to. But only as much as he had to.

“Master Ordeith,” he said in a carefully level tone, “this ferry is the only way in or out of the Two Rivers district.” That was not quite the truth. According to the map he had, there was no way across the Taren except here, and the upper reaches of the Manetherendrelle, bordering the region on the south, had no fords. To the east lay bogs and swamps. Even so, there must be a way out westward, across the Mountains of Mist, though his map stopped at the edge of the range. At best, however, it would be a hard crossing that many of his men might not survive, and he did not intend to let Ordeith know of even that small chance. “When it is time to leave, if I find Andoran soldiers holding this bank, you will ride with the first to cross. You will find it interesting to see at close hand the difficulty of forcing a way across a river this wide, yes?”

“This is your first command, is it not?” Ordeith’s voice held a hint of mockery. “This may be part of Andor on the map, but Caemlyn has not sent a tax collector this far west in generations. Even if those three talk, who will believe three Tinkers? If you think the danger is too great, remember whose seal is on your orders.”

Farran glanced at Bornhald, half reached for his sword. Bornhald shook his head slightly, and Farran let his hand fall. “I mean to cross the river, Master Ordeith. I will cross if the next word I hear is that Gareth Bryne and the Queen’s Guards will be here by sundown.”

“Of course,” Ordeith said, suddenly soothing. “There will be as much glory here as at Tar Valon, I assure you.” His deep, dark eyes took a glazed look, stared at something in the distance. “There are things in Tar Valon I want, too.”

Bornhald shook his head. And I must cooperate with him.

Jaret Byar drew up and swung down from his saddle beside Farran. As tall as the hundredman, Byar was a long-faced man with dark, deep-set eyes. He looked as if every ounce of fat had been boiled off of him. “The village is secured, my Lord. Lucellin is making certain no one slips off. They nearly soiled themselves when I mentioned Darkfriends. None in their village, they say. The folk further south are the Darkfriend kind, though, they say.”

“Further south, is it?” Bornhald said briskly. “We shall see. Put three hundreds across the river, Byar. Farran’s first. The rest to follow after the Tinkers cross. And make sure no more of them get away, yes?”

“We will scour the Two Rivers,” Ordeith broke in. His narrow face was twisted; saliva bubbled at his lips. “We will flog them, and flay them, and sear their souls! I promised him! He’ll come to me, now! He will come!”

Bornhald nodded for Byar and Farran to carry out his commands. A madman, he thought. The Lord Captain Commander has tied me to a madman. But at least I will find my path to Perrin of the Two Rivers. Whatever it takes, I will avenge my father!

From a colonnaded terrace on a hilltop, the High Lady Suroth looked across the wide, lopsided bowl of Cantorin Harbor. The shaven sides of her scalp left a wide crest of black hair that fell down her back. Her hands rested lightly on a smooth stone balustrade as white as her pristine gown with its hundreds of pleats. There was a faint rhythmic clicking as she unconsciously drummed her fingers with their inch-long nails, the first two on each hand lacquered blue.

A slight breeze blew off of the Aryth Ocean, carrying more than a hint of salt in its coolness. Two young women kneeling against the wall behind the High Lady held white-plumed fans ready if the breeze should fail. Two more women and four young men completed the line of crouching figures waiting to serve. Barefoot, all eight wore sheer robes, to please the High Lady’s aesthetic senses with the clean lines of their limbs and the grace of their motions. At the moment Suroth truly did not see the servants, no more than one saw furniture.

She saw the six Deathwatch Guards at either end of the colonnade, though, stiff as statues with their black-tasseled spears and black-lacquered shields. They symbolized her triumph, and her danger. The Deathwatch Guard served only the Empress and her chosen representatives, and they would kill or die with equal fervor, whichever was necessary. There was a saying: “On the heights, the paths are paved with daggers.”

Her fingernails clicked on the stone balustrade. How thin was the razor’s edge she walked.

Vessels of the Atha’an Miere, the Sea Folk, filled the inner harbor behind the seawall, even the largest looking too narrow for their length. Cut rigging made their yards and booms slant at crazy angles. Their decks were empty, their crews ashore and under guard, as were any in these islands who had the skill to sail the open sea. Great, bluff-bowed Seanchan ships by the score lay in the outer harbor, and anchored off the harbor mouth. One, its ribbed sails bellied with wind, escorted a swarm of small fishing boats back toward the island port. If the smaller craft scattered, some of them might escape, but the Seanchan ship carried a damane, and one demonstration of a damane’s power had quelled any such thoughts. The charred, shattered hulk of the Sea Folk ship still lay on a mudflat near the harbor mouth.

How long she would manage to keep Sea Folk elsewhere—and the accursed mainlanders—from learning that she held these islands, Suroth did not know. It will be long enough, she told herself. It must be long enough.

She had worked something of a miracle in rallying most of the Seanchan forces after the debacle the High Lord Turak had led them to. All but a handful of the vessels that had escaped from Falme lay under her control, and no one questioned her right to command the Hailene, the Forerunners. If her miracle held, no one on the mainland suspected they were here. Waiting to take back the lands the Empress had sent them to reclaim, waiting to achieve the Corenne, the Return. Her agents already scouted the way. There would be no need to return to the Court of the Nine Moons and apologize to the Empress for a failure not even hers.

The thought of having to apologize to the Empress sent a tremor through her. Such an apology was always humiliating, and usually painful, but what made her shiver was the chance of being denied death at the end, of being forced to continue as if nothing had occurred while everyone, common as well as the Blood, knew her degradation. A handsome young serving man sprang to her side, bearing a pale green robe worked in brilliantly plumaged birds-of-delight. She held her arms out for the garment and noticed him no more than a clod of dirt beside her velvet slipper.

To escape that apology, she must retake what had been lost a thousand years ago. And to do that, she must deal with this man who, her mainland agents told her, claimed to be the Dragon Reborn. If I cannot find a way to deal with him, the displeasure of the Empress will be the least of my worries.

Turning smoothly, she entered the long room fronting the terrace, its outer wall all doors and tall windows to catch the breezes. The pale wood of the walls, smooth and glistening like satin, pleased Suroth, but she had removed the furnishings of the old owner, the former Atha’an Miere governor of Cantorin, and replaced them with a few tall screens, most painted with birds or flowers. Two were different. One showed a great spotted cat of the Sen T’jore, as large as a pony, the other a black mountain eagle, crest erect like a pale crown and snowy-tipped wings spread to their full seven feet. Such screens were considered vulgar, but Suroth liked animals. Unable to bring her menagerie with her across the Aryth Ocean, she had had the screens made to depict her two favorites. She had never taken kindly to being balked in anything.

Three women awaited her as she had left them, two kneeling, one lying prostrate on the bare, polished floor, patterned in inlays of light and dark wood. The kneeling women wore the dark blue dresses of sul’dam, red panels embroidered with forked silver lightning on the breast and on the sides of their skirts. One of the two, Alwhin, a sharp-faced, blue-eyed woman with a perpetual glower, had the left side of her head shaved. The rest of her hair hung to her shoulder in a light brown braid.

Suroth’s mouth tightened momentarily at the sight of Alwhin. No sul’dam had ever before been raised to the so’jhin, the hereditary upper servants of the Blood, much less to a Voice of the Blood. Yet there had been reasons in Alwhin’s case. Alwhin knew too much.

Still, it was to the woman lying facedown, all in plain dark gray, that Suroth directed her attention. A wide collar of silvery metal encircled the woman’s neck, connected by a shining leash to a bracelet of the same material on the wrist of the second sul’dam, Taisa. By means of leash and collar, the a’dam, Taisa could control the gray-clad woman. And she had to be controlled. She was damane, a woman who could channel, and thus too dangerous to be allowed to run loose. Memories of the Armies of the Night were still strong in Seanchan a thousand years after their destruction.

Suroth’s eyes flickered uneasily to the two sul’dam. She no longer trusted any sul’dam, and yet she had no choice but to trust them. No one else could control the damane, and without the damane.... The very concept was unthinkable. The power of Seanchan, the very power of the Crystal Throne, was built on controlled damane. There were too many things about which Suroth had no choice to suit her. Such as Alwhin, who watched as if she had been so’jhin all of her life. No. As if she were of the Blood itself, and knelt because she chose to.

“Pura.” The damane had had another name when she was one of the hated Aes Sedai, before falling into Seanchan hands, but Suroth neither knew what it had been nor cared. The gray-clad woman tensed, but did not raise her head; her training had been particularly harsh. “I will ask again, Pura. How does the White Tower control this man who calls himself the Dragon Reborn?”

The damane moved her head a fraction, enough to shoot a frightened look at Taisa. If her answer was displeasing, the sul’dam could make her feel pain without raising a finger, by means of the a’dam. “The Tower would not try to control a false Dragon, High Lady,” Pura said breathily. “They would capture him, and gentle him.”

Taisa looked an indignant question at the High Lady. The answer had avoided Suroth’s query, had perhaps even implied that one of the Blood had spoken untruth. Suroth gave a slight shake of her head, the merest sideways motion—she had no wish to wait while the damane recovered from punishment—and Taisa bowed her head in acquiescence.

“Once again, Pura, what do you know of Aes Sedai...” Suroth’s mouth twisted at being defiled with that name; Alwhin gave a grunt of distaste “. . . Aes Sedai aiding this man? I warn you. Our soldiers fought women of the Tower, women channeling the Power, at Falme, so do not attempt to deny it.”

“Pura.... Pura does not know, High Lady.” There was urgency in the damane’s voice, and uncertainty; she darted another wide-eyed glance at Taisa. It was clear that she wanted desperately to be believed. “Perhaps.... Perhaps the Amyrlin, or the Hall of the Tower.... No, they would not. Pura does not know, High Lady.”

“The man can channel,” Suroth said curtly. The woman on the floor moaned, though she had heard the same words from Suroth before. Saying it again made Suroth’s stomach knot, but she allowed nothing to show on her face. Little of what had happened at Falme had been the work of women channeling; damane could sense that, and the sul’dam wearing the bracelet always knew what her damane felt. That meant it had to have been the work of the man. It also meant he was incredibly powerful. So powerful that Suroth had once or twice found herself wondering, growing queasy, whether he might really be the Dragon Reborn. That cannot be, she told herself firmly. In any case, it made no difference to her plans. “It is impossible to believe that even the White Tower would allow such a man to walk free. How do they control him?”

The damane lay there silently, face to the floor, shoulders shaking, weeping.

“Answer the High Lady!” Taisa said sharply. Taisa did not move, but Pura gasped, flinching as if struck across the hips. A blow delivered through the a’dam.

“P-Pura does not kn-know.” The damane stretched out a hesitant hand as though to touch Suroth’s foot. “Please. Pura has learned to obey. Pura speaks only the truth. Please do not punish Pura.”

Suroth stepped back smoothly, letting none of her irritation show. That she should be forced to move by a damane. That she could almost be touched by one who could channel. She felt a need to bathe, as if the touch had actually landed.

Taisa’s dark eyes bulged in outrage at the damane’s effrontery; her cheeks were scarlet with shame that this should happen while she wore the woman’s bracelet. She seemed torn between prostrating herself beside the damane to beg forgiveness and punishing the woman then and there. Alwhin stared a thin-lipped contempt, every line of her face saying that such things did not happen when she wore a bracelet.

Suroth raised one finger a fraction, making a small gesture every so’jhin knew from childhood, a simple dismissal.

Alwhin hesitated before interpreting it, then tried to cover her slip by rounding harshly on Taisa. “Take this... creature from the presence of the High Lady Suroth. And when you have punished her, go to Surela and tell her that you control your charges as if you had never worn the bracelet before. Tell her that you are to be—”

Suroth shut Alwhin’s voice from her mind. None of that had been her command except the dismissal, but quarrels between sul’dam were beneath her notice. She wished she knew whether Pura was managing to hide something. Her agents reported claims that the women of the White Tower could not lie. It had not been possible to force Pura to tell even a simple lie, to say that a white scarf was black, yet that was not enough to be conclusive. Some might accept the tears of the damane, her protests of inability whatever the sul’dam did, but none who did would have risen to lead the Return. Pura might have some reservoir of will left, might be clever enough to try using the belief that she was incapable of lying. None of the women collared on the mainland were fully obedient, trustworthy, not like the damane brought from Seanchan. None of them truly accepted what they were, as Seanchan damane did. Who could say what secrets might hide in one who had called herself Aes Sedai?

Not for the first time Suroth wished she had the other Aes Sedai who had been captured on Toman Head. With two to question, there would have been a better chance to catch lies and evasions. It was a useless wish. The other could be dead, drowned at sea, or on display at the Court of the Nine Moons. Some of the ships Suroth had failed to gather in must have managed the journey back across the ocean, and one might well have carried the woman.

She herself had sent a ship carrying carefully crafted reports, nearly half a year ago now, as soon as she had solidified her control of the Forerunners, with a captain and crew from families that had served hers since Luthair Paendrag had proclaimed himself Emperor, nearly a thousand years ago. Dispatching the ship had been a gamble, for the Empress might send back someone to take Suroth’s place. Not sending the vessel would have been a greater, though; only utter and crushing victory could have saved her then. Perhaps not even that. So the Empress knew of Falme, knew of Turak’s disaster and Suroth’s intention to go on. But what did she think of that knowledge, and what was she doing about it? That was a greater concern than any damane, whatever she had been before collaring.

Yet the Empress did not know everything. The worst could not be entrusted to any messenger, no matter how loyal. It would ony be passed from Suroth’s lips directly to the ear of the Empress, and Suroth had taken pains to keep it so. Only four still lived who knew the secret, and two of those would never speak of it to anyone, not of their own volition. Only three deaths can hold it more tightly.

Suroth did not realize she had murmured the last aloud until Alwhin said, “And yet the High Lady needs all three alive.” The woman had a properly humble suppleness to her stance, even to the trick of downcast eyes that still managed to watch for any sign from Suroth. Her voice was humble, too. “Who can say, High Lady, what the Empress—may she live forever!—might do if she learned of an attempt to keep such knowledge from her?”

Instead of answering, Suroth made the tiny dismissing gesture once more. Again Alwhin hesitated—this time it had to be simple reluctance to leave; the woman rose above herself!—before bowing deeply and backing out of Suroth’s presence.

With an effort Suroth found calmness. The sul’dam and the other two were a problem she could not solve now, but patience was a necessity for the Blood. Those who lacked it were likely to end in the Tower of Ravens.

On the terrace, kneeling servants leaned forward a hair in readiness as she appeared again. The soldiers maintained their watch to see she was undisturbed. Suroth took up her place before the balustrade, this time staring out to sea, toward the mainland hundreds of miles to the east.

To be the one who successfully led the Forerunners, who began the Return, would bring much honor. Perhaps even adoption into the family of the Empress, though that was an honor not without complications. To also be the one who captured this Dragon, whether false or real, along with the means of controlling his incredible power....

But if—when I take him, do I give him to the Empress? That is the question.

Her long nails began to click again on the wide stone rail.

CHAPTER 2
Whirlpools in the Pattern

Inland the hot night wind blew, north across the vast delta called the Fingers of the Dragon, a winding maze of waterways broad and narrow, some choked with knifegrass. Vast plains of reeds separated clusters of low islands forested with spider-rooted trees seen nowhere else. Eventually the delta gave way to its source, the River Erinin, the river’s great width spotted with the lights of small boats lantern-fishing. Boats and lights bobbed wildly, sudden and unexpected, and some older men muttered of evil things passing in the night. Young men laughed, but they hauled the nets more vigorously, too, eager to be home and out of the dark. The stories said evil could not cross your threshold unless you invited it in. That was what the stories said. But out in the darkness....

The last tang of salt had vanished by the time the wind reached the great city of Tear, hard by the river, where tile-roofed inns and shops shouldered against tall, towered palaces gleaming in the moonlight. Yet no place was half so tall as the massive bulk, almost a mountain, that stretched from city’s heart to water’s edge. The Stone of Tear, fortress of legend, the oldest stronghold of mankind, erected in the last days of the Breaking of the World. While nations and empires rose and fell, were replaced and fell anew, the Stone stood. It was the rock on which armies had broken spears and swords and hearts for three thousand years. And in all that time it had never fallen to invading arms. Until now.

The streets of the city, the taverns and inns, were all but empty in the muggy darkness, people keeping cautiously within their own walls. Who held the Stone was lord of Tear, city and nation. That was the way it had always been, and the people of Tear accepted it always. By daylight they would cheer their new lord with enthusiasm as they had cheered the old; by night they huddled together, shivering despite the heat when the wind howled across their rooftops like a thousand keening mourners. Strange new hopes danced in their heads, hopes none in Tear had dared for a hundred generations, hopes mixed with fears as old as the Breaking.

The wind lashed the long, white banner catching the moon above the Stone as if trying to rip it away. Along its length marched a sinuous figure like a legged serpent, golden-maned like a lion, scaled in scarlet and gold, seeming to ride the wind. Banner of prophecy, hoped for and dreaded. Banner of the Dragon. The Dragon Reborn. Harbinger of the world’s salvation, and herald of a new Breaking to come. As if outraged at such defiance, the wind dashed itself against the hard walls of the Stone. The Dragon banner floated, unheeding in the night, awaiting greater storms.

In a room more than halfway up the Stone’s southern face, Perrin sat on the chest at the foot of his canopied bed and watched the dark-haired young woman pacing up and down. There was a trace of wariness in his golden eyes. Usually Faile bantered with him, maybe poked a little gentle fun at his deliberate ways; tonight she had not said ten words since coming through the door. He could smell the rose petals that had been folded into her clothes after cleaning, and the scent that was just her. And in the hint of clean perspiration, he smelled nervousness. Faile almost never showed nerves. Wondering why she did now set an itch between his shoulders that had nothing to do with the night’s heat. Her narrow, divided skirts made a soft whisk-whisk-whisk with her strides.

He scratched his two-week growth of beard irritably. It was even curlier than the hair on his head. It was also hot. For the hundredth time he thought of shaving.

“It suits you,” Faile said suddenly, stopping in her tracks.

Uncomfortably, he shrugged shoulders heavy from long hours working at a forge. She did that sometimes, seemed to know what he was thinking. “It itches,” he muttered, and wished he had spoken more forcefully. It was his beard; he could shave it off any time he wanted.

She studied him, her head tilted to one side. Her bold nose and high cheekbones made it seem a fierce study, a contrast to the soft voice in which she said, “It looks right on you.”

Perrin sighed, and shrugged again. She had not asked him to keep the beard, and she would not. Yet he knew he was going to put off shaving again. He wondered how his friend Mat would handle this situation. Probably with a pinch and a kiss and some remark that made her laugh until he brought her around to his way of thinking. But Perrin knew he did not have Mat’s way with the girls. Mat would never find himself sweating behind a beard just because a woman thought he should have hair on his face. Unless, maybe, the woman was Faile. Perrin suspected that her father must deeply regret her leaving home, and not just because she was his daughter. He was the biggest fur trader in Saldaea, so she claimed, and Perrin could see her getting the price she wanted every time.

“Something is troubling you, Faile, and it isn’t my beard. What is it?”

Her expression became guarded. She looked everywhere but at him, making a contemptuous survey of the room’s furnishings.

Carvings of leopards and lions, stooping hawks and hunting scenes decorated everything from the tall wardrobe and bedposts as thick as his leg to the padded bench in front of the cold marble fireplace. Some of the animals had garnet eyes.

He had tried to convince the majhere that he wanted a simple room, but she did not seem to understand. Not that she was stupid or slow. The majhere commanded an army of servants greater in numbers than the Defenders of the Stone; whoever commanded the Stone, whoever held its walls, she saw to the day-to-day matters that let everything function. But she looked at the world through Tairen eyes. Despite his clothes, he must be more than the young countryman he seemed, because commoners were never housed in the Stone—save for Defenders and servants, of course. Beyond that, he was one of Rand’s party, a friend or a follower or in any case close to the Dragon Reborn in some way. To the majhere, that set him on a level with a Lord of the Land at the very least, if not a High Lord. She had been scandalized enough at putting him in here, without even a sitting room; he thought she might have fainted if he had insisted on an even plainer chamber. If there were such things short of the servants’ quarters, or the Defenders’. At least nothing here was gilded except the candlesticks.

Faile’s opinions, though, were not his. “You should have better than this. You deserve it. You can wager your last copper that Mat has better.”

“Mat likes gaudy things,” he said simply.

“You do not stand up for yourself.”

He did not comment. It was not his rooms that made her smell of unease, any more than his beard.

After a moment, she said, “The Lord Dragon seems to have lost interest in you. All his time is taken by the High Lords, now.”

The itch between his shoulders worsened; he knew what was troubling her now. He tried to make his voice light. “The Lord Dragon? You sound like a Tairen. His name is Rand.”

“He’s your friend, Perrin Aybara, not mine. If a man like that has friends.” She drew a deep breath and went on in a more moderate tone. “I have been thinking about leaving the Stone. Leaving Tear. I don’t think Moiraine would try to stop me. News of... of Rand has been leaving the city for two weeks, now. She can’t think to keep him secret any longer.”

He only just stopped another sigh. “I don’t think she will, either. If anything, I think she considers you a complication. She will probably give you money to see you on your way.”

Planting fists on hips, she moved to stare down at him. “Is that all you have to say?”

“What do you want me to say? That I want you to stay?” The anger in his own voice startled him. He was angry with himself, not her. Angry because he had not seen this coming, angry because he could not see how to deal with it. He liked being able to think things through. It was easy to hurt people without meaning to when you were hasty. He’d done that now. Her dark eyes were large with shock. He tried to smooth his words. “I do want you to stay, Faile, but maybe you should leave. I know you’re no coward, but the Dragon Reborn, the Forsaken....” Not that anywhere was really safe—not for long, not now—yet there were safer places than the Stone. For a while, anyway. Not that he was stupid enough to put it to her that way.

But she did not appear to care how he put it. “Stay? The Light illumine me! Anything is better than sitting here like a boulder, but....” She knelt gracefully in front of him, resting her hands on his knees. “Perrin. I do not like wondering when one of the Forsaken is going to walk around the corner in front of me, and I do not like wondering when the Dragon Reborn is going to kill us all. He did it back in the Breaking, after all. Killed everyone close to him.”

“Rand isn’t Lews Therin Kinslayer,” Perrin protested. “I mean, he is the Dragon Reborn, but he isn’t... he wouldn’t....” He trailed off, not knowing how to finish. Rand was Lews Therin Telamon reborn; that was what being the Dragon Reborn meant. But did it mean Rand was doomed to Lews Therin’s fate? Not just going mad—any man who channeled had that fate in front of him, and then a rotting death—but killing everyone who cared for him?

“I have been talking to Bain and Chiad, Perrin.”

That was no surprise. She spent considerable time with the Aiel women. The friendship made some trouble for her, but she seemed to like the Aiel women as much as she despised the Stone’s Tairen noblewomen. But he saw no connection to what they were talking about, and he said so.

“They say Moiraine sometimes asks where you are. Or Mat. Don’t you see? She would not have to do that if she could watch you with the Power.”

“Watch me with the Power?” he said faintly. He had never even considered that.

“She cannot. Come with me, Perrin. We can be twenty miles across the river before she misses us.”

“I can’t,” he said miserably. He tried diverting her with a kiss, but she leaped to her feet and backed away so fast he nearly fell on his face. There was no point going after her. She had her arms crossed beneath her breasts like a barrier.

“Don’t tell me you are that afraid of her. I know she is Aes Sedai, and she has all of you dancing when she twitches the strings. Perhaps she has the... Rand... so tied he cannot get loose, and the Light knows Egwene and Elayne, and even Nynaeve, don’t want to, but you can break her cords if you try.”

“It has nothing to do with Moiraine. It’s what I have to do. I—”

She cut him short. “Don’t you dare hand me any of that hairy-chested drivel about a man having to do his duty. I know duty as well as you, and you have no duty here. You may be ta’veren, even if I don’t see it, but he is the Dragon Reborn, not you.”

“Will you listen?” he shouted, glaring, and she jumped. He had never shouted at her before, not like that. She raised her chin and shifted her shoulders, but she did not say anything. He went on. “I think I am part of Rand’s destiny, somehow. Mat, too. I think he can’t do what he has to unless we do our part, as well. That is the duty. How can I walk away if it might mean Rand will fail?”

“Might?” There was a hint of demand in her voice, but only a hint. He wondered if he could make himself shout at her more often. “Did Moiraine tell you this, Perrin? You should know by now to listen closely to what an Aes Sedai says.”

“I worked it out for myself. I think ta’veren are pulled toward each other. Or maybe Rand pulls us, Mat and me both. He’s supposed to be the strongest ta’veren since Artur Hawkwing, maybe since the Breaking. Mat won’t even admit he’s ta’veren, but however he tries to get away, he always ends up drawn back to Rand. Loial says he has never heard of three ta’veren, all the same age and all from the same place.”

Faile sniffed loudly. “Loial does not know everything. He isn’t very old for an Ogier.”

“He’s past ninety,” Perrin said defensively, and she gave him a tight smile. For an Ogier, ninety years was not much older than Perrin. Or maybe younger. He did not know much about Ogier. In any case, Loial had read more books than Perrin had ever seen or even heard of; sometimes he thought Loial had read every book ever printed. “And he knows more than you or I do. He believes maybe I have the right of it. And so does Moiraine. No, I haven’t asked her, but why else does she keep a watch on me? Did you think she wanted me to make her a kitchen knife?”

She was silent for a moment, and when she spoke it was in sympathetic tones. “Poor Perrin. I left Saldaea to find adventure, and now that I’m in the heart of one, the greatest since the Breaking, all I want is to go somewhere else. You just want to be a blacksmith, and you’re going to end up in the stories whether you want it or not.”

He looked away, though the scent of her still filled his head. He did not think he was likely to have any stories told about him, not unless his secret spread a long way beyond the few who knew already. Faile thought she knew everything about him, but she was wrong.

An axe and a hammer leaned against the wall opposite him, each plain and functional, with a haft as long as his forearm. The axe was a wicked half-moon blade balanced by a thick spike, meant for violence. With the hammer he could make things, had made things, at a forge. The hammerhead weighed more than twice as much as the axe blade, but it was the axe that felt heavier by far every time he picked it up. With the axe, he had.... He scowled, not wanting to think about that. She was right. All he wanted was to be a blacksmith, to go home, and see his family again, and work at the smithy. But it was not to be; he knew that.

He got to his feet long enough to pick up the hammer, then sat back down. There was something comforting in holding it. “Master Luhhan always says you can’t walk away from what has to be done.” He hurried on, realizing that was a little too close to what she had called hairy-chested drivel. “He’s the blacksmith back home, the man I was apprenticed to. I’ve told you about him.”

To his surprise, she did not take the opportunity to point out his near echo. In fact, she said nothing, only looked at him, waiting for something. After a moment it came to him.

“Are you leaving, then?” he asked.

She stood up, brushing her skirt. For a long moment she kept silent, as if deciding on her answer. “I do not know,” she said finally. “This is a fine mess you’ve put me in.”

“Me? What did I do?”

“Well, if you don’t know, I am certainly not going to tell you.”

Scratching his beard again, he stared at the hammer in his other hand. Mat would probably know exactly what she meant. Or even old Thom Merrilin. The white-haired gleeman claimed no one understood women, but when he came out of his tiny room in the belly of the Stone he soon had half a dozen girls young enough to be his granddaughters sighing and listening to him play the harp and tell of grand adventure and romance. Faile was the only woman Perrin wanted, but sometimes he felt like a fish trying to understand a bird.

He knew she wanted him to ask. He knew that much. She might or might not tell him, but he was supposed to ask. Stubbornly he kept his mouth shut. This time he meant to wait her out.

Outside in the darkness, a cock crowed.

Faile shivered and hugged herself. “My nurse used to say that meant a death coming. Not that I believe it, of course.”

He opened his mouth to agree it was foolishness, though he shivered, too, but his head whipped around at a grating sound and a thump. The axe had toppled to the floor. He only had time to frown, wondering what could have made it fall, when it shifted again, untouched, then leaped straight for him.

He swung the hammer without thought. Metal ringing on metal drowned Faile’s scream; the axe flew across the room, bounced off the far wall, and darted back at him, blade first. He thought every hair on his body was trying to stand on end.

As the axe sped by her, Faile lunged forward and grabbed the haft with both hands. It twisted in her grip, slashing toward her wide-eyed face. Barely in time Perrin leaped up, dropping the hammer to seize the axe, just keeping the half-moon blade from her flesh. He thought he would die if the axe—his axe—harmed her. He jerked it away from her so hard that the heavy spike nearly stabbed him in the chest. It would have been a fair trade, to stop the axe from hurting her, but with a sinking feeling he began to think it might not be possible.

The weapon thrashed like a thing alive, a thing with a malevolent will. It wanted Perrin—he knew that as if it had shouted at him—but it fought with cunning. When he pulled the axe away from Faile, it used his own movement to hack at him; when he forced it from himself, it tried to reach her, as if it knew that would make him stop pushing. No matter how hard he held the haft, it spun in his hands, threatening with spike or curved blade. Already his hands ached from the effort, and his thick arms strained, muscles tight. Sweat rolled down his face. He was not sure how much longer it would be before the axe fought free of his grip. This was all madness, pure madness, with no time to think.

“Get out,” he muttered through gritted teeth. “Get out of the room, Faile!”

Her face was bloodless pale, but she shook her head and wrestled with the axe. “No! I will not leave you!”

“It will kill both of us!”

She shook her head again.

Growling in his throat, he let go of the axe with one hand—his arm quivered with holding the thing one-handed; the twisting haft burned his palm—and thrust Faile away. She yelped as he wrestled her to the door. Ignoring her shouts and her fists pounding at him, he held her against the wall with a shoulder until he could pull the door open and shove her into the hallway.

Slamming the door behind her, he put his back against it, sliding the latch home with his hip as he seized the axe with both hands again. The heavy blade, gleaming and sharp, trembled within inches of his face. Laboriously, he pushed it out to arm’s length. Faile’s muted shouts penetrated the thick door, and he could feel her beating on it, but he was barely conscious of her. His yellow eyes seemed to shine, as if they reflected every scrap of light in the room.

“Just you and me, now,” he snarled at the axe. “Blood and ashes, how I hate you!” Inside, a part of him came close to hysterical laughter. Rand is the one who’s supposed to go mad, and here I am, talking to an axe! Rand! Burn him!

Teeth bared with effort, he forced the axe back a full step from the door. The weapon vibrated, fighting to reach flesh; he could almost taste its thirst for his blood. With a roar he suddenly pulled the curved blade toward him, threw himself back. Had the axe truly been alive, he was sure he would have heard a cry of triumph as it flashed toward his head. At the last instant, he twisted, driving the axe past himself. With a heavy thunk the blade buried itself in the door.

He felt the life—he could not think what else to call it—go out of the imprisoned weapon. Slowly, he took his hands away. The axe stayed where it was, only steel and wood again. The door seemed a good place to leave it for now, though. He wiped sweat from his face with a shaking hand. Madness. Madness walks wherever Rand is.

Abruptly he realized he could no longer hear Faile’s shouts, or her pounding. Throwing back the latch, he hastily pulled the door open. A gleaming arc of steel stuck through the thick wood on the outside, shining in the light of wide-spaced lamps along the tapestry-hung hallway.

Faile stood there, hands raised, frozen in the act of beating on the door. Eyes wide and wondering, she touched the tip of her nose. “Another inch,” she said faintly, “and....”

With a sudden start, she flung herself on him, hugging him fiercely, raining kisses on his neck and beard between incoherent murmurs. Just as quickly, she pushed back, running anxious hands over his chest and arms. “Are you hurt? Are you injured? Did it... ?”

“I’m all right,” he told her. “But are you? I did not mean to frighten you.”

She peered up at him. “Truly? You are not hurt in any way?”

“Completely unhurt. I—” Her full-armed slap made his head ring like hammer on anvil.

“You great hairy lummox! I thought you were dead! I was afraid it had killed you! I thought—!” She cut off as he caught her second slap in mid-swing.

“Please don’t do that again,” he said quietly. The smarting imprint of her hand burned on his cheek, and he thought his jaw would ache the rest of the night.

He gripped her wrist as gently as he would have a bird, but though she struggled to pull free, his hand did not budge an inch. Compared to swinging a hammer all day at the forge, holding her was no effort at all, even after his fight against the axe. Abruptly she seemed to decide to ignore his grip and stared him in the eye; neither dark nor golden eyes blinked. “I could have helped you. You had no right—”

“I had every right,” he said firmly. “You could not have helped. If you had stayed, we’d both be dead. I couldn’t have fought—not the way I had to—and kept you safe, too.” She opened her mouth, but he raised his voice and went on. “I know you hate the word. I’ll try my best not to treat you like porcelain, but if you ask me to watch you die, I will tie you like a lamb for market and send you off to Mistress Luhhan. She won’t stand for any such nonsense.”

Tonguing a tooth and wondering if it was loose, he almost wished he could see Faile trying to ride roughshod over Alsbet Luhhan. The blacksmith’s wife kept her husband in line with scarcely more effort than she needed for her house. Even Nynaeve had been careful of her sharp tongue around Mistress Luhhan. The tooth still held tight, he decided.

Faile laughed suddenly, a low, throaty laugh. “You would, too, wouldn’t you? Don’t think you would not dance with the Dark One if you tried, though.”

Perrin was so startled he let go of her. He could not see any real difference between what he had just said and what he had said before, but the one had made her blaze up, while this she took... fondly. Not that he was certain the threat to kill him was entirely a joke. Faile carried knives hidden about her person, and she knew how to use them.

She rubbed her wrist ostentatiously and muttered something under her breath. He caught the words “hairy ox,” and promised himself he would shave every last whisker of that fool beard. He would.

Aloud, she said, “The axe. That was him, wasn’t it? The Dragon Reborn, trying to kill us.”

“It must have been Rand.” He emphasized the name. He did not like thinking of Rand the other way. He preferred remembering the Rand he had grown up with in Emond’s Field. “Not trying to kill us, though. Not him.”

She gave him a wry smile, more a grimace. “If he was not trying, I hope he never does.”

“I don’t know what he was doing. But I mean to tell him to stop it, and right now.”

“I don’t know why I care for a man who worries so about his own safety,” she murmured.

He frowned at her quizzically, wondering what she meant, but she only tucked her arm through his. He was still wondering as they started off through the Stone. The axe he left where it was; stuck in the door, it would not harm anyone.

Teeth clamped on a long-stemmed pipe, Mat opened his coat a bit more and tried to concentrate on the cards lying facedown in front of him, and on the coins spilled in the middle of the table. He had had the bright red coat made to an Andoran pattern, of the best wool, with golden embroidery scrolling around the cuffs and long collar, but day by day he was reminded how much farther south Tear lay than Andor. Sweat ran down his face, and plastered the shirt to his back.

None of his companions around the table appeared to notice the heat at all, despite coats that looked even heavier than his, with fat, swollen sleeves, all padded silks and brocades and satin stripes. Two men in red-and-gold livery kept the gamblers’ silver cups full of wine and proffered shining silver trays of olives and cheeses and nuts. The heat did not seem to affect the servants, either, though now and again one of them yawned behind his hand when he thought no one was looking. The night was not young.

Mat refrained from lifting his cards to check them again. They would not have changed. Three rulers, the highest cards in three of the five suits, were already good enough to win most hands.

He would have been more comfortable dicing; there was seldom a deck of cards to be found in the places he usually gambled, where silver changed hands in fifty different dice games, but these young Tairen lordlings would rather wear rags than play at dice. Peasants tossed dice, though they were careful not to say so in his hearing. It was not his temper they feared, but who they thought his friends were. This game called chop was what they played, hour after hour, night after night, using cards hand-painted and lacquered by a man in the city who had been made well-to-do by these fellows and others like them. Only women or horses could draw them away, but neither for long.

Still, he had picked up the game quickly enough, and if his luck was not as good as it was with dice, it would do. A fat purse lay beside his cards, and another even fatter rested in his pocket. A fortune, he would have thought once, back in Emond’s Field, enough to live the rest of his life in luxury. His ideas of luxury had changed since leaving the Two Rivers. The young lords kept their coin in careless, shining piles, but some old habits he had no intention of changing. In the taverns and inns it was sometimes necessary to depart quickly. Especially if his luck was really with him.

When he had enough to keep himself as he wanted, he would leave the Stone just as quickly. Before Moiraine knew what he was thinking. He would have been days gone by now, if he had had his way. It was just that there was gold to be had here. One night at this table could earn him more than a week of dicing in taverns. If only his luck would catch.

He put on a small frown and puffed worriedly at his pipe, to look unsure whether his cards were good enough to go on with. Two of the young lords had pipes in their teeth, too, but silver-worked, with amber bits. In the hot, still air, their perfumed tabac smelled like a fire in a lady’s dressing chamber. Not that Mat had ever been in a lady’s dressing chamber. An illness that nearly killed him had left his memory as full of holes as the best lace, yet he was sure he would have remembered that. Not even the Dark One would be mean enough to make me forget that.

“Sea Folk ship docked today,” Reimon muttered around his pipe. The broad-shouldered young lord’s beard was oiled and trimmed to a neat point. That was the latest fashion among the younger lords, and Reimon chased the latest fashion as assiduously as he chased women. Which was only a little less diligently than he gambled. He tossed a silver crown onto the pile in the middle of the table for another card. “A raker. Fastest ships there are, rakers, so they say. Outrun the wind, they say. I would like to see that. Burn my soul, but I would.” He did not bother to look at the card he was dealt; he never did until he had a full five.

The plump, pink-cheeked man between Reimon and Mat gave an amused chuckle. “You want to see the ship, Reimon? You mean the girls, do you not? The women. Exotic Sea Folk beauties, with their rings and baubles and swaying walks, eh?” He put in a crown and took his card, grimacing when he peeked at it. That meant nothing; going by his face, Edorion’s cards were always low and mismatched. He won more than he lost, though. “Well, perhaps my luck will be better with the Sea Folk girls.”

The dealer, tall and slender on Mat’s other side, with a pointed beard even more darkly luxuriant than Reimon’s, laid a finger alongside his nose. “You think to be lucky with those, Edorion? The way they keep to themselves, you’ll be lucky to catch a whiff of their perfume.” He made a wafting gesture, inhaling deeply with a sigh, and the other lordlings laughed, even Edorion.

A plain-faced youth named Estean laughed loudest of all, scrubbing a hand through lank hair that kept falling over his forehead. Replace his fine yellow coat with drab wool, and he could have passed for a farmer, instead of the son of a High Lord with the richest estates in Tear and in his own right the wealthiest man at the table. He had also drunk much more wine than any of the others.

Swaying across the man next to him, a foppish fellow named Baran who always seemed to be looking down his sharp nose, Estean poked the dealer with a none too steady finger. Baran leaned back, twisting his mouth around his pipestem as if he feared Estean might throw up.

“That’s good, Carlomin,” Estean gurgled. “You think so too, don’t you, Baran? Edorion won’t get a sniff. If he wants to try his luck... take a gamble... he ought to go after the Aiel wenches, like Mat, here. All those spears and knives. Burn my soul. Like asking a lion to dance.” Dead silence dropped around the table. Estean laughed on alone, then blinked and scrubbed fingers through his hair again. “What’s the matter? Did I say something? Oh! Oh, yes. Them.”

Mat barely stopped a scowl. The fool had to bring up the Aiel. The only worse subject would have been Aes Sedai; they would almost rather have Aiel walking the corridors, staring down any Tairen who got in their way, than even one Aes Sedai, and these men thought they had four, at least. He fingered an Andoran silver crown from his purse on the table and pushed it into the pot. Carlomin dealt out the card slowly.

Mat lifted it carefully with a thumbnail, and did not let himself so much as blink. The Ruler of Cups, a High Lord of Tear. The rulers in a deck varied according to the land where the cards were made, with the nation’s own ruler always as Ruler of Cups, the highest suit. These cards were old. He had already seen new decks with Rand’s face or something like it on the Ruler of Cups, complete with the Dragon banner. Rand the ruler of Tear; that still seemed ludicrous enough to make him want to pinch himself. Rand was a shepherd, a good fellow to have fun with when he was not going all over-serious and responsible. Rand the Dragon Reborn, now; that told him he was a stone fool to be sitting there, where Moiraine could put her hand on him whenever she wanted, waiting to see what Rand would do next. Maybe Thom Merrilin would go with him. Or Perrin. Only, Thom seemed to be settling into the Stone as if he never meant to leave, and Perrin was not going anywhere unless Faile crooked a finger. Well, Mat was ready to travel alone, if need be.

Yet there was silver in the middle of the table and gold in front of the lordlings, and if he was dealt the fifth ruler, there was no hand in chop could beat him. Not that he really needed it. Suddenly he could feel luck tickling his mind. Not tingling as it did with the dice, of course, but he was already certain no one was going to beat four rulers. The Tairens had been betting wildly all night, the price of ten farms crossing the table on the quickest hands.

But Carlomin was staring at the deck of cards in his hand instead of buying his fourth, and Baran was puffing his pipe furiously and stacking the coins in front of him as if ready to stuff them into his pockets. Reimon wore a scowl behind his beard, and Edorion was frowning at his nails. Only Estean appeared unaffected; he grinned uncertainly around the table, perhaps already forgetting what he had said. They usually managed to put some sort of good face on the situation if the Aiel came up, but the hour was late, and the wine had flowed freely.

Mat scoured his mind for a way to keep them and their gold from walking away from his cards. One glance at their faces was enough to tell him that simply changing the subject would not be enough. But there was another way. If he made them laugh at the Aiel.... Is it worth making them laugh at me, too? Chewing his pipestem, he tried to think of something else.

Baran picked up a stack of gold in each hand and moved to stick them in his pockets.

“I might just try these Sea Folk women,” Mat said quickly, taking his pipe to gesture with. “Odd things happen when you chase Aiel girls. Very odd. Like the game they call Maidens’ Kiss.” He had their attention, but Baran had not put down the coins, and Carlomin still showed no sign of buying a card.

Estean gave a drunken guffaw. “Kiss you with steel in your ribs, I suppose. Maidens of the Spear, you see. Steel. Spear in your ribs. Burn my soul.” No one else laughed. But they were listening.

“Not quite.” Mat managed a grin. Burn me, I’ve told this much. I might as well tell the rest. “Rhuarc said if I wanted to get along with the Maidens, I should ask them how to play Maidens’ Kiss. He said that was the best way to get to know them.” It still sounded like one of the kissing games back home, like Kiss the Daisies. He had never considered the Aiel clan chief a man to play tricks. He would be warier the next time. He made an effort to improve the grin. “So I went along to Bain and...” Reimon frowned impatiently. None of them knew any Aiel’s name but Rhuarc, and none of them wanted to. Mat dropped the names and hurried on “. . . went along dumb as a bull-goose fool, and asked them to show me.” He should have suspected something from the wide smiles that had bloomed on their faces. Like cats who had been asked to dance by a mouse. “Before I knew what was happening, I had a fistful of spears around my neck like a collar. I could have shaved myself with one sneeze.”

The others around the table exploded in laughter, from Reimon’s wheezing to Estean’s wine-soaked bray.

Mat left them to it. He could almost feel the spearpoints again, pricking if he so much as twitched a finger. Bain, laughing all the while, had told him she had never heard of a man actually asking to play Maidens’ Kiss.

Carlomin stroked his beard and spoke into Mat’s hesitation. “You cannot stop there. Go on. When was this? Two nights ago, I’ll wager. When you didn’t come for the game, and no one knew where you were.”

“I was playing stones with Thom Merrilin that night,” Mat said quickly. “This was days ago.” He was glad he could lie with a straight face. “They each took a kiss. That’s all. If she thought it was a good kiss, they eased up with the spears. If not, they pushed a little harder; to encourage, you might say. That was all. I’ll tell you this; I got nicked less than I do shaving.”

He stuck his pipe back between his teeth. If they wanted to know more, they could go ask to play the game themselves. He almost hoped some of them were fool enough. Bloody Aiel women and their bloody spears. He had not made it to his own bed until daybreak.

“It would be more than enough for me,” Carlomin said dryly. “The Light burn my soul if it would not.” He tossed a silver crown into the center of the table and dealt himself another card. “Maidens’ Kiss.” He shook with mirth, and another ripple of laughter ran around the table.

Baran bought his fifth card, and Estean fumbled a coin from the heap scattered in front of him, peering at it to see what it was. They would not stop now.

“Savages,” Baran muttered around his pipe. “Ignorant savages. That is all they are, burn my soul. Live in caves, out in the Waste. In caves! No one but a savage could live in the Waste.”

Reimon nodded. “At least they serve the Lord Dragon. I would take a hundred Defenders and clean them out of the Stone, if not for that.” Baran and Carlomin growled fierce agreement.

It was no effort for Mat to keep his face straight. He had heard much the same before. Boasting was easy when no one expected you to carry through. A hundred Defenders? Even if Rand stood aside for some reason, the few hundred Aiel holding the Stone could probably keep it against any army Tear could raise. Not that they seemed to want the Stone, really. Mat suspected they were only there because Rand was. He did not think any of these lordlings had figured that out—they tried to ignore the Aiel as much as possible—but he doubted it would make them feel any better.

“Mat.” Estean fanned his cards out in one hand, rearranging them as if he could not decide what order they were meant to go in. “Mat, you will speak to the Lord Dragon, won’t you?”

“About what?” Mat asked cautiously. Too many of these Tairens knew he and Rand had grown up together to suit him, and they seemed to think he was arm in arm with Rand whenever he was out of their sight. None of them would have gone near his own brother if he could channel. He did not know why they thought him a bigger fool.

“Didn’t I say?” The plain-faced man squinted at his cards and scratched his head, then brightened. “Oh, yes. His proclamation, Mat. The Lord Dragon’s. His last one. Where he said commoners had the right to call lords before a magistrate. Who ever heard of a lord being summoned to a magistrate? And for peasants!”

Mat’s hand tightened on his purse until the coins inside grated together. “It would be a shame,” he said quietly, “if you were tried and judged just for having your way with a fisherman’s daughter whatever she wanted, or for having some farmer beaten for splashing mud on your cloak.”

The others shifted uneasily, catching his mood, but Estean nodded, head bobbing so it seemed about to fall off. “Exactly. Though it wouldn’t come to that, of course. A lord being tried before a magistrate? Of course not. Not really.” He laughed drunkenly at his cards. “No fishermen’s daughters. Smell of fish, you see, however you have them washed. A plump farm girl is best.”

Mat told himself he was there to gamble. He told himself to ignore the fool’s blather, reminded himself of how much gold he could take out of Estean’s purse. His tongue did not listen, though. “Who knows what it might come to? Hangings, maybe.”

Edorion gave him a sidelong look, guarded and uneasy. “Do we have to talk about... about commoners, Estean? What about old Astoril’s daughters? Have you decided which you’ll marry yet?”

“What? Oh. Oh, I’ll flip a coin, I suppose.” Estean frowned at his cards, shifted one, and frowned again. “Medore has two or three pretty maids. Perhaps Medore.”

Mat took a long drink from his silver winecup to keep from hitting the man in his farmer’s face. He was still on his first cup; the two servants had given up trying to add more. If he hit Estean, none of them would lift a hand to stop him. Not even Estean. Because he was the Lord Dragon’s friend. He wished he was in a tavern somewhere out in the city, where some dockman might question his luck and only a quick tongue, or quick feet, or quick hands would see him leave with a whole skin. Now that was a fool thought.

Edorion glanced at Mat again, measuring his mood. “I heard a rumor today. I hear the Lord Dragon is taking us to war with Illian.”

Mat gagged on his wine. “War?” he spluttered.

“War,” Reimon agreed happily around his pipestem.

“Are you certain?” Carlomin said, and Baran added, “I’ve heard no rumors.”

“I heard it just today, from three or four tongues.” Edorion seemed to be absorbed in his cards. “Who can say how true it is?”

“It must be true,” Reimon said. “With the Lord Dragon to lead us, holding Callandor, we’ll not even have to fight. He will scatter their armies, and we will march straight into Illian. Too bad, in a way. Burn my soul if it isn’t. I would like a chance to match swords with the Illianers.”

“You’ll get no chance with the Lord Dragon leading,” Baran said. “They will fall on their knees as soon as they see the Dragon banner.”

“And if they do not,” Carlomin added with a laugh, “the Lord Dragon will blast them with lightning where they stand.”

“Illian first,” Reimon said. “And then... then we’ll conquer the world for the Lord Dragon. You tell him I said so, Mat. The whole world.”

Mat shook his head. A month gone, they would have been horrified by even the idea of a man who could channel, a man doomed to go mad and die horribly. Now they were ready to follow Rand into battle, and trust his power to win for them. Trust the Power, though it was not likely they would put it that way. Yet he supposed they had to find something to hang on to. The invincible Stone was in the hands of the Aiel. The Dragon Reborn was in his chambers a hundred feet above their heads, and Callandor was with him. Three thousand years of Tairen belief and history lay in ruins, and the world had been turned on its head. He wondered whether he had handled it any better; his own world had gone all askew in little more than a year. He rolled a gold Tairen crown across the backs of his fingers. However well he had done, he would not go back.

“When will we march, Mat?” Baran asked.

“I don’t know,” he said slowly. “I don’t think Rand would start a war.” Unless he had gone mad already. That hardly bore thinking about.

The others looked as if he had assured them the sun would not come up tomorrow.

“We are all loyal to the Lord Dragon, of course.” Edorion frowned at his cards. “Out in the countryside, though.... I hear that some of the High Lords, a few, have been trying to raise an army to take back the Stone.” Suddenly no one was looking at Mat, though Estean still seemed to be trying to make out his cards. “When the Lord Dragon takes us to war, of course, it will all melt away. In any case, we are loyal, here in the Stone. The High Lords, too, I am certain. It is only the few out in the countryside.”

Their loyalty would not outlast their fear of the Dragon Reborn. For a moment Mat felt as though he were planning to abandon Rand in a pit of vipers. Then he remembered what Rand was. It was more like abandoning a weasel in a henyard. Rand had been a friend. The Dragon Reborn, though.... Who could be a friend to the Dragon Reborn? I’m not abandoning anybody. He could probably pull the Stone down on their heads, if he wanted to. On my head, too. He told himself again that it was time to be gone.

“No fishermen’s daughters,” Estean mumbled. “You will speak to the Lord Dragon?”

“It is your turn, Mat,” Carlomin said anxiously. He looked half afraid, though what he feared—that Estean would anger Mat again, or that the talk might go back to loyalty—was impossible to say. “Will you buy the fifth card, or stack?”

Mat realized he had not been paying attention. Everyone but himself and Carlomin had five cards, though Reimon had neatly stacked his facedown beside the pot to show that he was out. Mat hesitated, pretending to think, then sighed and tossed another coin toward the pile.

As the silver crown bounced end over end, he suddenly felt luck grow from trickles to a flood. Every ping of silver against wooden tabletop rang clear in his head; he could have called face or sigil and known how the coin would land on any bounce. Just as he knew what his next card would be before Carlomin laid it in front of him.

Sliding his cards together on the table, he fanned them in one hand. The Ruler of Flames stared at him alongside the other four, the Amyrlin Seat balancing a flame on her palm, though she looked nothing like Siuan Sanche. However the Tairens felt about Aes Sedai, they acknowledged the power of Tar Valon, even if Flames was the lowest suit.

What were the odds of being dealt all five? His luck was best with random things, like dice, but perhaps a little more was beginning to rub off on cards. “The Light burn my bones to ash if it is not so,” he muttered. Or that was what he meant to say.

“There,” Estean all but shouted. “You cannot deny it this time. That was the Old Tongue. Something about burning, and bones.” He grinned around the table. “My tutor would be proud. I ought to send him a gift. If I can find out where he went.”

Nobles were supposed to be able to speak the Old Tongue, though in reality few knew more than Estean seemed to. The young lords set to arguing over exactly what Mat had said. They seemed to think it had been a comment on the heat.

Goose bumps pebbled Mat’s skin as he tried to recall the words that had just come out of his mouth. A string of gibberish, yet it almost seemed he should understand. Burn Moiraine! If she’d left me alone, I wouldn’t have holes in my memory big enough for a wagon and team, and I wouldn’t be spouting... whatever it bloody is! He would also be milking his father’s cows instead of walking the world with a pocketful of gold, but he managed to ignore that part of it.

“Are you here to gamble,” he said harshly, “or babble like old women over their knitting!”

“To gamble,” Baran said curtly. “Three crowns, gold!” He tossed the coins onto the pot.

“And three more besides.” Estean hiccoughed and added six golden crowns to the pile.

Suppressing a grin, Mat forgot about the Old Tongue. It was easy enough; he did not want to think about it. Besides, if they were starting this strongly, he might win enough on this hand to leave in the morning. And if he’s crazy enough to start a war, I’ll leave if I have to walk.

Outside in the darkness, a cock crowed. Mat shifted uneasily and told himself not to be foolish. No one was going to die.

His eyes dropped to his cards—and blinked. The Amyrlin’s flame had been replaced by a knife. While he was telling himself he was tired and seeing things, she plunged the tiny blade into the back of his hand.

With a hoarse yell, he flung the cards away and hurled himself backward, overturning his chair, kicking the table with both feet as he fell. The air seemed to thicken like honey. Everything moved as if time had slowed, but at the same time everything seemed to happen at once. Other cries echoed his, hollow shouts reverberating inside a cavern. He and the chair drifted back and down; the table floated upward.

The Ruler of Flames hung in the air, growing larger, staring at him with a cruel smile. Now close to life-size, she started to step out of the card; she was still a painted shape, with no depth, but she reached for him with her blade, red with his blood as if it had already been driven into his heart. Beside her the Ruler of Cups began to grow, the Tairen High Lord drawing his sword.

Mat floated, yet somehow he managed to reach the dagger in his left sleeve and hurl it in the same motion, straight for the Amyrlin’s heart. If this thing had a heart. The second knife came into his left hand smoothly and left more smoothly. The two blades drifted through the air like thistledown. He wanted to scream, but that first yell of shock and outrage still filled his mouth. The Ruler of Rods was expanding beside the first two cards, the Queen of Andor gripping the rod like a bludgeon, her red-gold hair framing a madwoman’s snarl.

He was still falling, still yelling that drawn-out yell. The Amyrlin was free of her card, the High Lord striding out with his sword. The flat shapes moved almost as slowly as he. Almost. He had proof the steel in their hands could cut, and no doubt the rod could crack a skull. His skull.

His thrown daggers moved as if sinking in jelly. He was sure the cock had crowed for him. Whatever his father said, the omen had been real. But he would not give up and die. Somehow he had two more daggers out from under his coat, one in either hand. Struggling to twist in midair, to get his feet under him, he threw one knife at the golden-haired figure with the bludgeon. The other he held on to as he tried to turn himself, to land ready to face....

The world lurched back into normal motion, and he landed awkwardly on his side, hard enough to drive the wind out of him. Desperately he struggled to his feet, drawing another knife from under his coat. You could not carry too many, Thom claimed. Neither was needed.

For a moment he thought cards and figures had vanished. Or maybe he had imagined it all. Maybe he was the one going mad. Then he saw the cards, back to ordinary size, pinned to one of the dark wood panels by his still quivering knives. He took a deep, ragged breath.

The table lay on its side, coins still spinning across the floor where lordlings and servants crouched among scattered cards. They gaped at Mat and his knives, those in his hands and those in the wall, with equally wide eyes. Estean snatched a silver pitcher that had somehow escaped being overturned and began pouring wine down his throat, the excess spilling over his chin and down his chest.

“Just because you do not have the cards to win,” Edorion said hoarsely, “there is no need to—” He cut off with a shudder.

“You saw it, too.” Mat slipped the knives back into their sheaths. A thin trickle of blood ran down the back of his hand from the tiny wound. “Don’t pretend you went blind!”

“I saw nothing,” Reimon said woodenly. “Nothing!” He began crawling across the floor, gathering up gold and silver, concentrating on the coins as if they were the most important thing in the world. The others were doing the same, except Estean, who scrambled about checking the fallen pitchers for any that still held wine. One of the servants had his face hidden in his hands; the other, eyes closed, was apparently praying in a low, breathless whine.

With a muttered oath, Mat strode to where his knives pinned the three cards to the panel. They were only playing cards again, just stiff paper with the clear lacquer cracked. But the figure of the Amyrlin still held a dagger instead of a flame. He tasted blood and realized he was sucking the cut in the back of his hand.

Hastily he wrenched his knives free, tearing each card in half before tucking the blade away. After a moment, he hunted through the cards littering the floor until he found the rulers of Coins and Winds, and tore them across, too. He felt a little foolish—it was over and done with; the cards were just cards again—but he could not help it.

None of the young lords crawling about on hands and knees tried to stop him. They scrambled out of his way, not even glancing at him. There would be no more gambling tonight, and maybe not for some nights to come. At least, not with him. Whatever had happened, it had been aimed at him, clearly. Even more clearly, it had to have been done with the One Power. They wanted no part of that.

“Burn you, Rand!” he muttered under his breath. “If you have to go mad, leave me out of it!” His pipe lay in two pieces, the stem bitten through cleanly. Angrily he grabbed his purse from the floor and stalked out of the room.

In his darkened bedchamber Rand tossed uneasily on a bed wide enough for five people. He was dreaming.

Through a shadowy forest Moiraine was prodding him with a sharp stick toward where the Amyrlin Seat waited, sitting on a stump with a rope halter for his neck in her hands. Dim shapes moved half-seen through the trees, stalking, hunting him; here a dagger blade flashed in the failing light, over there he caught a glimpse of ropes ready for binding. Slender and not as tall as his shoulder, Moiraine wore an expression he had never seen on her face. Fear. Sweating, she prodded harder, trying to hurry him to the Amyrlin’s halter. Darkfriends and the Forsaken in the shadows, the White Tower’s leash ahead and Moiraine behind. Dodging Moiraine’s stick, he fled.

“It is too late for that,” she called after him, but he had to get back. Back.

Muttering, he thrashed on the bed, then was still, breathing more easily for a moment.

He was in the Waterwood back home, sunlight slanting through the trees to sparkle on the pond in front of him. There was green moss on the rocks at this end of the pond, and thirty paces away at the other end a small arc of wildflowers. This was where, as a child, he had learned to swim.

“You should have a swim now.”

He spun around with a start. Min stood there, grinning at him in her boy’s coat and breeches, and next to her, Elayne, with her red-golden curls, in a green silk gown fit for her mother’s palace.

It was Min who had spoken, but Elayne added, “The water looks inviting, Rand. No one will bother us here.”

“I don’t know,” he began slowly. Min cut him off by twining her fingers behind his neck and pulling herself up on tiptoe to kiss him.

She repeated Elayne’s words in a soft murmur. “No one will bother us here.” She stepped back and doffed her coat, then attacked the laces of her shirt.

Rand stared, the more so when he realized Elayne’s gown was lying on the mossy ground. The Daughter-Heir was bending, arms crossed, gathering up the hem of her shift.

“What are you doing?” he demanded in a strangled voice.

“Getting ready to go swimming with you,” Min replied.

Elayne flashed him a smile, and hoisted the shift over her head.

He turned his back hastily, though half wanting not to. And found himself staring at Egwene, her big, dark eyes looking back at him sadly. Without a word she turned and vanished into the trees.

“Wait!” he shouted after her. “I can explain.”

He began to run; he had to find her. But as he reached the edge of trees, Min’s voice stopped him.

“Don’t go, Rand.”

She and Elayne were in the water already, only their heads showing as they swam lazily in the middle of the pond.

“Come back,” Elayne called, lifting a slim arm to beckon. “Do you not deserve what you want for a change?”

He shifted his feet, wanting to move but unable to decide which way. What he wanted. The words sounded strange. What did he want? He raised a hand to his face, to wipe away what felt like sweat. Festering flesh almost obliterated the heron branded on his palm; white bone showed through red-edged gaps.

With a jerk, he came awake, lying there shivering in the dark heat. Sweat soaked his smallclothes, and the linen sheets beneath his back. His side burned, where an old wound had never healed properly. He traced the rough scar, a circle nearly an inch across, still tender after all this time. Even Moiraine’s Aes Sedai Healing could not mend it completely. But I’m not rotting yet. And I’m not mad, either. Not yet. Not yet. That said it all. He wanted to laugh, and wondered if that meant he was a little mad already.

Dreaming about Min and Elayne, dreaming of them like that.... Well, it was not madness, but it was surely foolishness. Neither one of them had ever looked at him in that way when he was awake. Egwene he had been all but promised to since they were both children. The betrothal words had never been spoken in front of the Women’s Circle, but everyone in and around Emond’s Field knew they would marry one day.

That one day would never come, of course; not now, not with the fate that lay ahead of a man who channeled. Egwene must have realized that, too. She must have. She was all wrapped up in becoming Aes Sedai. Still, women were odd; she might think she could be an Aes Sedai and marry him anyway, channeling or no channeling. How could he tell her that he did not want to marry her anymore, that he loved her like a sister? But there would not be any need to tell her, he was sure. He could hide behind what he was. She had to understand that. What man could ask a woman to marry him when he knew he had only a few years, if he was lucky, before he went insane, before he began to rot alive? He shivered despite the heat.

I need sleep. The High Lords would be back in the morning, maneuvering for his favor. For the Dragon Reborn’s favor. Maybe I won’t dream, this time. He started to roll over, searching for a dry place on the sheets—and froze, listening to small rustlings in the darkness. He was not alone.

The Sword That Is Not a Sword lay across the room, beyond his reach, on a thronelike stand the High Lords had given him, no doubt in the hopes he would keep Callandor out of their sight. Someone wanting to steal Callandor. A second thought came. Or to kill the Dragon Reborn. He did not need Thom’s whispered warnings to know that the High Lord’s professions of undying loyalty were only words of necessity.

He emptied himself of thought and emotions, assuming the Void; that much came without effort. Floating in the cold emptiness within himself, thought and emotion outside, he reached for the True Source. This time he touched it easily, which was not always the case.

Saidin filled him like a torrent of white heat and light, exalting him with life, sickening him with the foulness of the Dark One’s taint, like a skim of sewage floating on pure, sweet water. The torrent threatened to wash him away, burn him up, engulf him.

Fighting the flood, he mastered it by bare effort of will and rolled from the bed, channeling the Power as he landed on his feet in the stance to begin the sword-form called Apple Blossoms in the Wind. His enemies could not be many or they would have made more noise; the gently named form was meant for use against more than one opponent.

As his feet hit the carpet, a sword was in his hands, with a long hilt and a slightly curved blade sharp on only one edge. It looked to have been wrought from flame yet it did not feel even warm. The figure of a heron stood black against the yellow-red of the blade. In the same instant every candle and gilded lamp burst alight, small mirrors behind them swelling the illumination. Larger mirrors on the walls and two stand-mirrors reflected it further, until he could have read comfortably anywhere in the large room.

Callandor sat undisturbed, a sword seemingly of glass, hilt and blade, on a stand as tall as a man and just as wide, the wood ornately carved and gilded and set with precious stones. The furnishings, too, were all gilded and begemmed, bed and chairs and benches, wardrobes and chests and washstand. The pitcher and bowl were golden Sea Folk porcelain, as thin as leaves. The broad Tarabon carpet, in scrolls of scarlet and gold and blue, could have fed an entire village for months. Almost every flat surface held more delicate Sea Folk porcelain, or else goblets and bowls and ornaments of gold worked with silver, and silver chased with gold. On the broad marble mantel over the fireplace, two silver wolves with ruby eyes tried to pull down a golden stag a good three feet tall. Draperies of scarlet silk embroidered with eagles in thread-of-gold hung at the narrow windows, stirring slightly in a failing wind. Books lay wherever there was room, leather-bound, wood-bound, some tattered and still dusty from the deepest shelves of the Stone’s library.

Now, where he had thought to see assassins, or thieves, one beautiful young woman stood hesitant and surprised in the middle of the carpet, black hair falling in shining waves to her shoulders. Her thin, white silk robe emphasized more than it hid. Berelain, ruler of the city-state of Mayene, was the last person he had expected.

After one wide-eyed start, she made a deep, graceful curtsy that drew her garments tight. “I am unarmed, my Lord Dragon. I submit myself to your search, if you doubt me.” Her smile suddenly made him uncomfortably aware that he wore nothing but his smallclothes.

I’ll be burned if she makes me scramble around trying to cover myself. The thought floated beyond the Void. I didn’t ask her to walk in on me. To sneak in! Anger and embarrassment drifted along the borders of emptiness too, but his face reddened all the same; dimly he was aware of it, aware of the knowledge deepening the flush in his cheeks. So coldly calm within the Void; outside.... He could feel each individual droplet of sweat sliding down his chest and back. It took a real effort of stubborn will to stand there under her eyes. Search her? The Light help me!

Relaxing his stance, he let the sword vanish but held the narrow flow connecting him to saidin. It was like drinking from a hole in a dike when the whole long mound of earth wanted to give way, the water sweet as hon-eyed wine and sickening as a rivulet through a midden.

He did not know much of this woman, except that she walked through the Stone as if it were her palace in Mayene. Thom said the First of Mayene asked questions constantly, of everyone. Questions about Rand. Which might have been natural, given what he was, but they made him no easier in his mind. And she had not returned to Mayene. That was not natural. She had been held captive in all but name for months, until his arrival, cut off from her throne and the ruling of her small nation. Most people would have taken the first opportunity to get away from a man who could channel.

“What are you doing here?” He knew he sounded harsh, and did not care. “There were Aiel guarding that door when I went to sleep. How did you come past them?”

Berelain’s lips curved up a trifle more; to Rand it seemed the room had gotten suddenly even hotter. “They passed me through immediately, when I said I had been summoned by the Lord Dragon.”

“Summoned? I didn’t summon anybody.” Stop this, he told himself. She’s a queen, or the next thing to it. You know as much about the ways of queens as you do about flying. He tried to make himself be civil, only he did not know what to call the First of Mayene. “My Lady...” That would have to do. “. . . why would I summon you at this time of night?”

She gave a low, rich laugh, deep in her throat; even wrapped in emotionless emptiness it seemed to tickle his skin, make the hairs stir on his arms and legs. Suddenly he took in her clinging garb as if for the first time, and felt himself go red all over again. She can’t mean.... Can she? Light, I’ve never said two words to her before.

“Perhaps I wish to talk, my Lord Dragon.” She let the pale robe fall to the floor, revealing an even thinner white silk garment he could only call a nightgown. It left her smooth shoulders completely bare, and exposed a considerable expanse of pale bosom. He found himself wondering distantly what held it up. It was difficult not to stare. “You are a long way from your home, like me. The nights especially seem lonely.”

“Tomorrow, I will be happy to talk with you.”

“But during the day, people surround you. Petitioners. High Lords. Aiel.” She gave a shiver; he told himself he really ought to look away, but he could as easily have stopped breathing. He had never before been so aware of his own reactions when wrapped in the Void. “The Aiel frighten me, and I do not like Tairen lords of any sort.”

About the Tairens he could believe her, but he did not think anything frightened this woman. Burn me, she’s in a strange man’s bedchamber in the middle of the night, only half-dressed, and I’m the one who’s jumpy as a cat in a dog run, Void or no. It was time to put an end to things before they went too far.

“It would be better if you return to your own bedchamber, my Lady.” Part of him wanted to tell her to put on a cloak, too. A thick cloak. Part of him did. “It... it is really too late for talking. Tomorrow. In daylight.”

She gave him a slanted, quizzical look. “Have you absorbed stuffy Tairen ways already, my Lord Dragon? Or is this reticence something from your Two Rivers? We are not so... formal... in Mayene.”

“My Lady....” He tried to sound formal; if she did not like formality, that was what he wanted. “I am promised to Egwene al’Vere, my Lady.”

“You mean the Aes Sedai, my Lord Dragon? If she really is Aes Sedai. She is quite young—perhaps too young—to wear the ring and the shawl.” Berelain spoke as if Egwene were a child, though she herself could not be more than a year older than Rand, if that, and he had only a little over two years on Egwene. “My Lord Dragon, I do not mean to come between you. Marry her, if she is Green Ajah. I would never aspire to wed the Dragon Reborn himself. Forgive me if I overstep myself, but I told you we are not so... formal in Mayene. May I call you Rand?”

Rand surprised himself by sighing regretfully. There had been a glint in her eye, a slight shift of expression, gone quickly, when she mentioned marrying the Dragon Reborn. If she had not considered it before, she had now. The Dragon Reborn, not Rand al’Thor; the man of prophecy, not the shepherd from the Two Rivers. He was not shocked, exactly; some girls back home mooned over whoever proved himself fastest or strongest in the games at Bel Tine and Sunday, and now and again a woman set her eyes on the man with the richest fields or the largest flocks. It would have been good to think she wanted Rand al’Thor. “It is time for you to go, my Lady,” he said quietly.

She stepped closer. “I can feel your eyes on me, Rand.” Her voice was smoky heat. “I am no village girl tied to her mother’s apron, and I know you want—”

“Do you think I’m made of stone, woman?” She jumped at his roar, but the next instant she was crossing the carpet, reaching for him, her eyes dark pools that could pull a man into their depths.

“Your arms look as strong as stone. If you think you must be harsh with me, then be harsh, so long as you hold me.” Her hands touched his face; sparks seemed to leap from her fingers.

Without thinking he channeled the flows still linked to him, and suddenly she was staggering back, eyes wide with startlement, as if a wall of air pushed her. It was air, he realized; he did things without knowing what he was doing more often than he did know. At least, once done, he could usually remember how to do them again.

The unseen, moving wall scraped ripples along the carpet, sweeping along Berelain’s discarded robe, a boot he had tossed aside undressing, and a red leather footstool supporting an open volume of Eban Vandes’s The History of the Stone of Tear, pushing them along as it forced her almost to the wall, fenced her in. Safely away from him. He tied off the flow—that was all he could think to call what he did—and no longer needed to maintain the shield himself. For a moment he studied what he had done, until he was sure he could repeat it. It looked useful, especially the tying off.

Dark eyes still wide, Berelain felt along the confines of her invisible prison with trembling hands. Her face was almost as white as her skimpy silk shift. Footstool, boot and book lay at her feet, jumbled with the robe.

“Much as I regret it,” he told her, “we will not speak again, except in public, my Lady.” He really did regret it. Whatever her motives, she was beautiful. Burn me, I am a fool! He was not sure how he meant that—for thinking of her beauty, or for sending her away. “In fact, it is best you arrange your journey back to Mayene as soon as possible. I promise you that Tear will not trouble Mayene again. You have my word.” It was a promise good only for his lifetime, perhaps only as long as he stood in the Stone, but he had to offer her something. A bandage for wounded pride, a gift to take her mind off being afraid.

But her fear was already under control, on the outside, at least. Honesty and openness filled her face, all efforts at allure gone. “Forgive me. I have handled this badly. I did not mean to offend. In my country, a woman may speak her mind to a man freely, or he to her. Rand, you must know that you are a handsome man, tall and strong. I would be the one made of stone, if I did not see it, and admire. Please do not send me away from you. I will beg it, if you wish.” She knelt smoothly, like a dance. Her expression still said she was being open, confessing everything, but on the other hand, in kneeling she had managed to tug her already precarious gown down until it looked in real danger of falling off. “Please, Rand?”

Even sheltered in emptiness as he was, he gaped at her, and it had nothing to do with her beauty or her near undress. Well, only partly. If the Defenders of the Stone had been half as determined as this woman, half as steadfast in purpose, ten thousand Aiel could never have taken the Stone.

“I am flattered, my Lady,” he said diplomatically. “Believe me, I am. But it would not be fair to you. I cannot give you what you deserve.” And let her make of that what she will.

Outside in the darkness, a cock crowed.

To Rand’s surprise, Berelain suddenly stared past him, eyes as big as teacups. Her mouth dropped open, and her slim throat corded with a scream that would not come. He spun, the yellow-red sword flashing back into his hands.

Across the room, one of the stand-mirrors threw his reflection back at him, a tall young man with reddish hair and gray eyes, wearing only white linen smallclothes and holding a sword carved from fire. The reflection stepped out onto the carpet, raising its sword.

I have gone mad. Thought drifted on the borders of the Void. No! She saw it. It’s real!

Movement to his left caught the corner of his eye. He twisted before he could think, sword sweeping up in The Moon Rises Over Water. The blade slashed through the shape—his shape—climbing out of a mirror on the wall. The form wavered, broke up like dust motes floating on air, vanished. Rand’s reflection appeared in the mirror again, but even as it did, it put hands on the mirror frame. He was aware of movement in mirrors all around the room.

Desperately, he stabbed at the mirror. Silvered glass shattered, yet it seemed that the image shattered first. He thought he heard a distant scream inside his head, his own voice screaming, fading. Even as shards of mirror fell, he lashed out with the One Power. Every mirror in the room exploded silently, fountaining glass across the carpet. The dying scream in his head echoed again and again, sending shivers down his back. It was his voice; he could hardly believe it was not himself who made the sounds.

He spun back to face the one that had gotten out, just in time to meet its attack, Unfolding the Fan to counter Stones Falling Down the Mountain. The figure leaped back, and suddenly Rand realized it was not alone. As quickly as he had smashed the mirrors, two more reflections had escaped. Now they stood facing him, three duplicates of himself down to the puckered round scar on his side, all staring at him, faces twisted with hatred and contempt, with a strange hunger. Only their eyes seemed empty, lifeless. Before he could take a breath, they rushed at him.

Rand stepped sideways, pieces of broken mirror slicing his feet, ever sideways, from stance to stance and form to form, trying to face only one at a time. He used everything Lan, Moiraine’s Warder, had taught him of the sword in their daily practice.

Had the three fought together, had they supported one another, he would have died in the first minute, but each fought him alone, as if the others did not exist. Even so, he could not stop their blades entirely; in minutes blood ran down the side of his face, his chest, his arms. The old wound tore open, adding its flow to stain his smallclothes with red. They had his skill as well as his face, and they were three to his one. Chairs and tables toppled; priceless Sea Folk porcelain shattered on the carpet.

He felt his strength ebbing. None of his cuts was major by itself, except the old wound, but all together.... He never thought of calling for help from the Aiel outside his door. The thick walls would stifle even a death scream. Whatever was done, he must do alone. He fought wrapped in the cold emotionlessness of the Void, but fear scraped at its boundaries like wind-lashed branches scratching a window in the night.

His blade slipped past its opponent to slash across a face just below the eyes—he could not help wincing; it was his face—its owner sliding back just far enough to avoid a killing cut. Blood welled from the gash, veiling mouth and chin in dark crimson, but the ruined face did not change expression, and its empty eyes never flickered. It wanted him dead the way a starving man wanted food.

Can anything kill them? All three bled from the wounds he had managed to inflict, but bleeding did not seem to slow them as he knew it was slowing him. They tried to avoid his sword, but did not appear to realize they had been hurt. If they have been, he thought grimly. Light, if they bleed, they can be hurt! They must!

He needed a respite, a moment to catch his breath, to gather himself. Suddenly he leaped away from them, onto the bed, rolling across its width. He sensed rather than saw blades slashing the sheets, barely missing his flesh. Staggering, he landed on his feet, caught at a small table to steady himself. The shining, gold-worked silver bowl on the table wobbled. One of his doubles had climbed onto the torn bed, kicking goose feathers as it padded across warily, sword at the ready. The other two came slowly around, still ignoring each other, intent only on him. Their eyes glistened like glass.

Rand shuddered as pain stabbed his hand on the table. An image of himself, no more than six inches tall, drew back its small sword. Instinctively, he grabbed the figure before it could stab again. It writhed in his grip, baring teeth at him. He became aware of small movements all around the room, of small reflections by the score stepping out of polished silver. His hand began to numb, to grow cold, as if the thing were sucking the warmth out of his flesh. The heat of saidin swelled inside him; a rushing filled his head, and the heat flowed into his icy hand.

Suddenly the small figure burst like a bubble, and he felt something flow into him—from the bursting—some little portion of his lost strength. He jerked as tiny jolts of vitality seemed to pelt him.

When he raised his head—wondering why he was not dead—the small reflections he had half-glimpsed were gone. The three larger stood wavering, as if his gain in strength had been their loss. Yet as he looked up, they steadied on their feet and came on, if more cautiously.

He backed away, thinking furiously, sword threatening first one and then another. If he continued to fight them as he had been, they would kill him sooner or later. He knew that as surely as he knew he was bleeding. But something linked the reflections. Absorbing the small one—the far-off thought made him queasy, but that was what it had been—had not only brought the others with it, it had also affected the bigger, for a moment at least. If he could do the same to one of them, it might destroy all three.

Even thinking of absorbing them made him vaguely aware of wanting to empty his stomach, but he did not know another way. I don’t know this way. How did I do it? Light, what did I do? He had to grapple with one of them, to touch it at least; he was somehow sure of that. But if he tried to get that close, he would have three blades through him in as many heartbeats. Reflections. How much are they still reflections?

Hoping he was not being a fool—if he was, he might well be a dead one—he let his sword vanish. He was ready to bring it back on the instant, but when his carved-fire blade winked out of existence, the others’ did, too. For a moment, confusion painted three copies of his face, one a bloody ruin. But before he could seize one of them, they leaped for him, all four crashing to the floor in a tangle of grappling limbs, rolling across the glass-littered carpet.

Cold soaked into Rand. Numbness crept along his limbs, through his bones, until he barely felt the shards of mirror, the slivers of porcelain grinding into his flesh. Something close to panic flickered across the emptiness surrounding him. He might have made a fatal mistake. They were larger than the one he had absorbed, and they were drawing more heat from him. And not only heat. As he grew colder, the glassy gray eyes staring into his took on life. With chill certainty he knew that if he died, that would not end the struggle. The three would turn on one another until only one remained, and that one would have his life, his memories, would be him.

Stubbornly he fought, struggling harder the weaker he became. He pulled on saidin, trying to fill himself with its heat. Even the stomach-turning taint was welcome, for the more of it he felt, the more saidin suffused him. If his stomach could rebel, then he was still alive, and if he lived, he could fight. But how? How? What did I do before? Saidin raged through him till it seemed that if he survived his attackers, he would only be consumed by the Power. How did I do it? All he could do was pull at saidin, and try... reach... strain....

One of the three vanished—Rand felt it slide into him; it was as if he had fallen from a height, flat onto stony ground—and then the other two together. The impact flung him onto his back, where he lay staring up at the worked plaster ceiling with its gilded bosses, lay luxuriating in the fact that he was still breathing.

The Power still swelled in every crevice of his being. He wanted to spew up every meal he had ever eaten. He felt so alive that, by comparison, life not soaked in saidin was living a shadow. He could smell the beeswax of the candles, and the oil in the lamps. He could feel every fiber of the carpet against his back. He could feel every gash in his flesh, every cut, every nick, every bruise. But he held on to saidin.

One of the Forsaken had tried to kill him. Or all of them had. It must have been that, unless the Dark One was free already, in which case he did not think he would have faced anything as easy or as simple as this. So he held his link to the True Source. Unless I did it myself. Can I hate what I am enough to try to kill myself? Without even knowing it? Light, I have to learn to control it. I have to!

Painfully, he pushed himself up. Leaving bloody footprints on the carpet, he limped to the stand where Callandor rested. Blood from hundreds of cuts covered him. He lifted the sword, and its glassy length glowed with the Power flowing into it. The Sword That Is Not a Sword. That blade, apparently glass, would cut as well as the finest steel, yet Callandor truly was not a sword, but instead a remnant of the Age of Legends, a sa’angreal. With the aid of one of the relatively few angreal known to have survived the War of the Shadow and Breaking of the World, it was possible to channel flows of the One Power that would have burned the channeler to ash without it. With one of the even rarer sa’angreal, the flows could be increased as much over those possible with an angreal as an angreal increased them over channeling naked. And Callandor, usable only by a man, linked to the Dragon Reborn through three thousand years of legend and prophecy, was one of the most powerful sa’angreal ever made. Holding Callandor in his hands, he could level a city’s walls at a blow. Holding Callandor in his hands, he could face even one of the Forsaken. It was them. It must have been.

Abruptly he realized he had not heard a sound from Berelain. Half fearing to see her dead, he turned.

Still kneeling, she flinched. She had donned her robe again, and hugged it around her like steel armor, or stone walls. Face as white as snow, she licked her lips. “Which one are... ?” She swallowed and began again. “Which one... ?” She could not finish it.

“I am the only one there is,” he said gently. “The one you were treating as if we were betrothed.” He meant it to soothe her, perhaps make her smile—surely a woman as strong as she had shown herself to be could smile, even facing a blood-drenched man—but she bent forward, pressing her face to the floor.

“I apologize humbly for having most grievously offended you, Lord Dragon.” Her breathy voice did sound humble, and frightened. Completely unlike herself. “I beg you to forget my offense, and forgive. I will not bother you again. I swear it, my Lord Dragon. On my mother’s name and under the Light, I swear it.”

He loosed the knotted flow; the invisible wall confining her became a momentary stir that ruffled her robe. “There is nothing to forgive,” he said wearily. He felt very tired. “Go as you wish.”

She straightened hesitantly, stretched out a hand, and gave a relieved gasp when it encountered nothing. Gathering the skirts of her robe, she began to pick her way across the glass-littered carpet, shards grating under her velvet slippers. Short of the door, she stopped, facing him with an obvious effort. Her eyes could not quite meet his. “I will send the Aiel in to you, if you wish. I could send for one of the Aes Sedai to tend your wounds.”

She would as soon be in a room with a Myrddraal, now, or the Dark One himself, but she’s no milksop. “Thank you,” he said quietly, “but no. I would appreciate it if you told no one what happened here. Not yet. I will do what needs to be done.” It had to be the Forsaken.

“As my Lord Dragon commands.” She gave him a tight curtsy and hurried out, perhaps afraid he might change his mind about letting her go.

“As soon the Dark One himself,” he murmured as the door closed behind her.

Limping to the foot of the bed, he lowered himself into the chest there and laid Callandor across his knees, bloody hands resting on the glowing blade. With that in his hands, even one of the Forsaken would fear him. In a moment he would send for Moiraine to Heal his wounds. In a moment he would speak to the Aiel outside, and become the Dragon Reborn again. But for now, he only wanted to sit, and remember a shepherd named Rand al’Thor.

CHAPTER 3
Reflection

Despite the hour, a good many people were hurrying through the Stone’s wide corridors, a steady trickle of men and women in the black and gold of Stone servants or the livery of one High Lord or another. Now and again a Defender or two appeared, bareheaded and unarmed, some with their coats undone. The servants bowed or curtsied to Perrin and Faile if they came close, then hurried on with hardly a pause. Most of the soldiers gave a start on seeing them. Some bowed stiffly, hand to heart, but one and all quickened their steps as if eager to be away.

Only one lamp in three or four was lit. In the dim stretches between their tall stands, shadows blurred the hanging tapestries and obscured the occasional chest against the wall. For any eyes but Perrin’s, they did. His eyes glowed like burnished gold in those murky lengths of hall. He walked quickly from lamp to lamp and kept his gaze down unless he was in full light. Most people in the Stone knew about his strangely colored eyes, one way or another. None of them mentioned it, of course. Even Faile seemed to assume the color was part of his association with an Aes Sedai, something that simply was, to be accepted but never explained. Even so, a prickling always ran across his back whenever he realized that a stranger had seen his eyes shining in the dark. When they held their tongues, the silence only emphasized his apartness.

“I wish they wouldn’t look at me like that,” he muttered as a grizzled Defender twice his age came close to running once he had passed. “As though they are afraid of me. They haven’t before; not this way. Why aren’t all these people in bed?” A woman carrying a mop and a bucket bobbed a curtsy and scurried by with her head down.

Her arm twined through his, Faile glanced at him. “I would say the guards are not supposed to be in this part of the Stone unless they are on duty. A good time to cuddle a maid on a lord’s chair, and maybe pretend they are the lord and lady, while lord and lady are asleep. They are probably worried that you might report them. And servants do most of their work at night. Who would want them underfoot, sweeping and dusting and polishing, in daylight?”

Perrin nodded doubtfully. He supposed she would know about such things from her father’s house. A successful merchant likely had servants, and guards for his wagons. At least these folk were not out of their beds because what had happened to him had happened to them, too. If that were the case, they would be out of the Stone altogether, and likely still running. But why had he been a target, singled out, as it seemed? He was not looking forward to confronting Rand, but he had to know. Faile had to stretch her stride to keep up with him.

For all its splendor, all the gold and fine carving and inlays, the interior of the Stone had been designed for war as much as its exterior had been. Murderholes dotted the ceiling wherever corridors crossed. Never-used arrowslits peeked into the halls at places where they might cover an entire hallway. He and Faile climbed narrow, curving staircase after narrow, curving staircase, all built into the walls or else enclosed, with more arrowslits looking down on the corridor below. None of this design had hampered the Aiel, of course, the first enemy ever to get beyond the outer wall.

As they trotted up one of the winding stairs—Perrin did not realize they were trotting, though he would have been moving faster if not for Faile on his arm—he caught a whiff of old sweat and a hint of sickly-sweet perfume, but they registered only in the back of his brain. He was caught up in what he was going to say to Rand. Why did you try to kill me? Are you going mad already? There was no easy way to ask, and he did not expect easy answers.

Stepping out into a shadowed corridor nearly at the top of the Stone, he found himself staring at the backs of a High Lord and two of the nobleman’s personal guards. Only the Defenders were allowed to wear armor inside the Stone, but these three had swords at their hips. That was not unusual, of course, but their presence here, on this floor, in the shadows, staring intently at the bright light at the far end of the hall, that was not usual at all. That light came from the anteroom in front of the chambers Rand had been given. Or taken. Or maybe been pushed into by Moiraine.

Perrin and Faile had made no effort to be quiet in climbing the stairs, but the three men were so intent in their watching that none of them noticed the new arrivals at first. Then one of the blue-coated bodyguards twisted his head as if working a cramp in his neck; his mouth dropped open when he saw them. Biting off an oath, the fellow whirled to face Perrin, baring a good hand of his swordblade. The other was only a heartbeat slower. Both stood tensed, ready, but their eyes shifted uneasily, sliding off Perrin’s. They gave off a sour smell of fear. So did the High Lord, though he had his fear tightly reined.

The High Lord Torean, white streaking his dark, pointed beard, moved languidly, as if at a ball. Pulling a too sweetly scented handkerchief from his sleeve, he dabbed at a knobby nose that appeared not at all large when compared with his ears. A fine silk coat with red satin cuffs only exaggerated the plainness of his face. He eyed Perrin’s shirtsleeves and dabbed his nose again before inclining his head slightly. “The Light illumine you,” he said politely. His glance touched Perrin’s yellow stare and flinched away, though his expression did not change. “You are well, I trust?” Perhaps too politely.

Perrin did not really care for the man’s tone, but the way Torean looked Faile up and down, with a sort of casual interest, clenched his fists. He managed to keep his voice level, though. “The Light illumine you, High Lord Torean. I am glad to see you helping keep watch over the Lord Dragon. Some men in your place might resent him being here.”

Torean’s thin eyebrows twitched. “Prophecy has been fulfilled, and Tear has fulfilled its place in that prophecy. Perhaps the Dragon Reborn will lead Tear to a still greater destiny. What man could resent that? But it is late. A good night to you.” He eyed Faile again, pursing his lips, and walked off down the hall just a bit too briskly, away from the anteroom’s lights. His bodyguards heeled him like well-trained dogs.

“There was no need for you to be uncivil,” Faile said in a tight voice when the High Lord was out of hearing. “You sounded as if your tongue were frozen iron. If you do intend to remain here, you had better learn to get on with the lords.”

“He was looking at you as if he wanted to dandle you on his knee. And I do not mean like a father.”

She sniffed dismissively. “He is not the first man ever to look at me. If he found the nerve to try more, I could put him in his place with a frown and a glance. I do not need you to speak for me, Perrin Aybara.” Still, she did not sound entirely displeased.

Scratching his beard, he peered after Torean, watching the High Lord and his guards vanish around a distant corner. He wondered how the Tairen lords managed without sweating to death. “Did you notice, Faile? His heel-hounds did not take their hands off their swords until he was ten paces clear of us.”

She frowned at him, then down the hall after the three, and nodded slowly. “You’re right. But I do not understand. They do not bow and scrape the way they do for him, but everyone walks as warily around you and Mat as they do around the Aes Sedai.”

“Maybe being a friend of the Dragon Reborn isn’t as much protection as it used to be.”

She did not suggest leaving again, not in words, but her eyes were full of it. He was more successful in ignoring the unspoken suggestion than he had been with the spoken.

Before they reached the end of the hallway, Berelain came hurrying out of the bright lights of the anteroom, clutching a thin white robe tightly around her with both arms. If the First of Mayene had been walking any faster, she would have been running.

To show Faile he could be as civil as she could possibly wish, Perrin swept a bow that he wagered even Mat could not have bettered. By contrast, Faile’s curtsy was the barest nod of her head, the merest bending of a knee. He hardly noticed. As Berelain rushed past them without a glance, the smell of fear, rank and raw as a festering wound, made his nostrils twitch. Beside this, Torean’s fear was nothing. This was mad panic tied with a frayed rope. He straightened slowly, staring after her.

“Filling your eyes?” Faile asked softly.

Intent on Berelain, wondering what had driven her so near the brink, he spoke without thinking. “She smelled of—”

Far down the corridor, Torean suddenly stepped out of a side hallway to seize Berelain’s arm. He was talking a torrent, but Perrin could not make out more than a handful of scattered words, something about her overstepping herself in her pride, and something else that seemed to be Torean offering her his protection. Her reply was short, sharp, and even more inaudible, delivered with lifted chin. Pulling herself free roughly, the First of Mayene walked away, back straight and seemingly more in command of herself. On the point of following, Torean saw Perrin watching. Dabbing at his nose with his handkerchief, the High Lord vanished back into the crossing corridor.

“I do not care if she smelled of the Essence of Dawn,” Faile said darkly. “That one is not interested in hunting a bear, however fine his hide would look stretched on a wall. She hunts the sun.”

He frowned at her. “The sun? A bear? What are you talking about?”

“You go on by yourself. I think I will go to my bed after all.”

“If that’s what you want,” he said slowly, “but I thought you were as eager to find out what happened as I am.”

“I think not. I’ll not pretend I am eager to meet the... Rand... not after avoiding it until now. And now I am especially not eager. No doubt the two of you will have a fine talk without me. Especially if there’s wine.”

“You don’t make any sense,” he muttered, scrubbing a hand through his hair. “If you want to go to bed, then fine, but I wish you would say something I understand.”

For a long moment she studied his face, then suddenly bit her lip. He thought she was trying not to laugh. “Oh, Perrin, sometimes I believe it is your innocence I enjoy most of all.” Sure enough, traces of laughter silvered her voice. “You go on to... to your friend and tell me of it in the morning. As much as you want to.” She pulled his head down to brush his lips with a kiss and, as quick as the kiss, ran back down the hallway.

Shaking his head, he watched until she turned in to the stairs with no sign of Torean. Sometimes it was as if she spoke another language. He headed toward the lights.

The anteroom was a round chamber fifty paces or more across. A hundred gilded lamps hung on golden chains from its high ceiling. Polished redstone columns made an inner ring, and the floor appeared to be one huge slab of black marble, streaked with gold. It had been the anteroom of the king’s chambers, in the days when Tear had kings, before Artur Hawk-wing put everything from the Spine of the World to the Aryth Ocean under one king. The Tairen kings had not returned when Hawkwing’s empire collapsed, and for a thousand years the only inhabitants of these apartments had been mice tracking through dust. No High Lord had ever had enough power to dare claim them for his own.

A ring of fifty Defenders stood rigidly in the middle of the room, breastplates and rimmed helmets gleaming, spears all slanted at exactly the same angle. Facing every direction as they did, they were supposed to keep all intruders from the current lord of the Stone. Their commander, a captain distinguished by two short white plumes on his helmet, held himself only a trifle less stiffly. He posed with one hand on his sword hilt and the other on his hip, self-important with his duty. They all smelled of fear and uncertainty, like men who lived under a crumbling cliff and had almost managed to convince themselves it would never fall. Or at least not tonight. Not in the next hour.

Perrin walked on by them, his bootheels making echoes. The officer started toward him, then hesitated when Perrin did not stop to be challenged. He knew who Perrin was, of course; at least, he knew as much as any Tairen knew. Traveling companion of Aes Sedai, friend of the Lord Dragon. Not a man to be interfered with by a mere officer of the Defenders of the Stone. There was his apparent task of guarding the Lord Dragon’s rest, of course, but though he probably did not admit it even to himself, the officer had to know that he and his brave show of polished armor were simply that. The real guards were those Perrin met when he strode beyond the columns and approached the doors to Rand’s chambers.

They had been sitting so still behind the columns that they seemed to fade into the stone, though their coats and breeches—in shades of gray and brown, made to hide them in the Waste—stood out here as soon as they moved. Six Maidens of the Spear, Aiel women who had chosen a warrior’s life over the hearth, flowed between him and the doors on soft, laced boots that reached their knees. They were tall for women, the tallest barely a hand shorter than he, sun-darkened, with short-cropped hair, yellow or red or something in between. Two held curved horn bows with arrows nocked, if not drawn. The others carried small hide bucklers and three or four short spears each—short, but with spearheads long enough to stick through a man’s body with inches to spare.

“I do not think I can let you go in,” a woman with flame-colored hair said, smiling slightly to take the sting out of the words. Aiel did not go about grinning as much as other folk, or show a great deal of any outward emotion for that matter. “I think he does not want to see anyone tonight.”

“I am going in, Bain.” Ignoring her spears, he took her by the upper arms. That was when it became impossible to ignore the spears, since she had managed to get a spearpoint hard against the side of his throat. For that matter, a somewhat blonder woman named Chiad suddenly had one of her spears at the other side, as if the two were intended to meet somewhere in the middle of his neck. The other women only watched, confident that Bain and Chiad could handle whatever had to be done. Still, he did his best. “I don’t have time to argue with you. Not that you listen to people who argue with you, as I remember. I am going in.” As gently as he could, he picked Bain up and set her out of his way.

Chiad’s spear only needed her to breathe on it to draw blood, but after one startled widening of dark blue eyes, Bain abruptly took hers away and grinned. “Would you like to learn a game called Maidens’ Kiss, Perrin? You might play well, I think. At the very least you would learn something.” One of the others laughed aloud. Chiad’s spearpoint left his neck.

He took a deep breath, hoping they would not notice it was his first since the spears touched him. They had not veiled their faces—their shoufa lay coiled around their necks like dark scarves—but he did not know if Aiel had to do so before they killed, only that veiling meant they were ready to.

“Another time, perhaps,” he said politely. They were all grinning as if Bain had said something amusing, and his not understanding was part of the humor. Thom was right. A man could go crazy trying to understand women, of any nation and any station in life; that was what Thom said.

As he reached for a door handle in the shape of a rearing golden lion, Bain added, “On your head be it. He has already chased out what most men would consider better company by far than you.”

Of course, he thought, pulling open the door, Berelain. She was coming from here. Tonight, everything is revolving around—

The First of Mayene vanished from his thoughts as he got a look into the room. Broken mirrors hung on the walls and broken glass covered the floor, along with shards of shattered porcelain and feathers from the slashed mattress. Open books lay tumbled among overturned chairs and benches. And Rand was sitting at the foot of his bed, slumped against one of the bedposts with eyes closed and hands limp atop Callandor, which lay across his knees. He looked as if he had taken a bath in blood.

“Get Moiraine!” Perrin snapped at the Aiel women. Was Rand still alive? If he was, he needed Aes Sedai Healing to stay that way. “Tell her to hurry!” He heard a gasp behind him, then soft boots running.

Rand lifted his head. His face was a smeared mask. “Shut the door.”

“Moiraine will be here soon, Rand. Rest easy. She will—”

“Shut the door, Perrin.”

Murmuring among themselves, the Aiel women frowned, but moved back. Perrin pulled the door to, cutting off a questioning shout from the white-plumed officer.

Glass crunched under his boots as he crossed the carpet to Rand. Tearing a strip from a wildly sliced linen sheet, he wadded it against the wound in Rand’s side. Rand’s hands tightened on the transparent sword at the pressure, then relaxed. Blood soaked through almost immediately. Cuts and gashes covered him from the soles of his feet to his head; slivers of glass glittered in many of them. Perrin rolled his shoulders helplessly. He did not know what more to do, other than wait for Moiraine.

“What under the Light did you try to do, Rand? You look as though you tried to skin yourself. And you nearly killed me, as well.” For a moment he thought Rand was not going to answer.

“Not me,” Rand said finally, in a near whisper. “One of the Forsaken.”

Perrin tried to relax muscles he did not remember tensing. The effort was only partly successful. He had mentioned the Forsaken to Faile, not exactly casually, but by and large he had been trying not to think of what the Forsaken might do when they found out where Rand was. If one of them could bring down the Dragon Reborn, he or she would stand high above the others when the Dark One broke free. The Dark One free, and the Last Battle lost before it was fought.

“Are you sure?” he said, just as quietly.

“It had to be, Perrin. It had to be.”

“If one of them came after me as well as you... ? Where’s Mat, Rand? If he was alive, and went through what I did, he’d be thinking what I did. That it was you. He’d be here by now to bless you out.”

“Or on a horse and halfway to the city gates.” Rand struggled to sit erect. Drying blood smears cracked, and fresh trickles started on his chest and shoulders. “If he is dead, Perrin, you had best get as far from me as you can. I think you and Loial are right about that.” He paused, studying Perrin. “You and Mat must wish I had never been born. Or at least that you’d never seen me.”

There was no point in going to check; if anything had happened to Mat, it was over and done now. And he had a feeling that his makeshift bandage pressed against Rand’s side might be what would keep him alive long enough for Moiraine to get there. “You don’t seem to care if he has gone off. Burn me, he’s important, too. What are you going to do if he’s gone? Or dead, the Light send it not so.”

“What they least expect.” Rand’s eyes looked like morning mist covering the dawn, blue-gray with a feverish glow seeping through. His voice had a knife edge. “That is what I have to do in any case. What everyone least expects.”

Perrin took a slow breath. Rand had a right to taut nerves. It was not a sign of incipient madness. He had to stop watching for signs of madness. Those signs would come soon enough, and watching would do nothing but keep his stomach tied in knots. “What’s that?” he asked quietly.

Rand closed his eyes. “I only know I have to catch them by surprise. Catch everyone by surprise,” he muttered fiercely.

One of the doors opened to admit a tall Aielman, his dark red hair touched with gray. Behind him the Tairen officer’s plumes bobbed as he argued with the Maidens; he was still arguing when Bain pushed the door shut.

Rhuarc surveyed the room with sharp blue eyes, as if he suspected enemies hiding behind a drape or an overturned chair. The clan chief of the Taardad Aiel had no visible weapon except the heavy-bladed knife at his waist, but he carried authority and confidence like weapons, quietly, yet as surely as if they were sheathed alongside the knife. And his shoufa hung about his shoulders; no one who knew the slightest about Aiel took one for less than dangerous when he wore the means to veil his face.

“That Tairen fool outside sent word to his commander that something had happened in here,” Rhuarc said, “and rumors are already sprouting like corpse moss in a deep cave. Everything from the White Tower trying to kill you to the Last Battle fought here in this room.” Perrin opened his mouth; Rhuarc raised a forestalling hand. “I happened to meet Berelain, looking as if she had been told the day she would die, and she told me the truth of it. And it does look to be the truth, though I doubted her.”

“I sent for Moiraine,” Perrin said. Rhuarc nodded. Of course, the Maidens would have told him everything they knew.

Rand gave a painful bark of a laugh. “I told her to keep quiet. It seems the Lord Dragon doesn’t rule Mayene.” He sounded more wryly amused than anything else.

“I have daughters older than that young woman,” Rhuarc said. “I do not believe she will tell anyone else. I think she would like to forget everything that happened tonight.”

“And I would like to know what happened,” Moiraine said, gliding into the room. Slight and slender as she was, Rhuarc towered over her as much as the man who followed her in—Lan, her Warder—but it was the Aes Sedai who dominated the room. She must have run to come so fast, but she was calm as a frozen lake now. It took a great deal to ruffle Moiraine’s serenity. Her blue silk gown had a high lace neck and sleeves slashed with darker velvet, but the heat and humidity did not appear to touch her. A small blue stone, suspended on her forehead from a fine golden chain in her dark hair, flashed in the light, emphasizing the absence of the slightest sheen of sweat.

As always when they met, Lan’s and Rhuarc’s icy blue stares nearly struck sparks. A braided leather cord held Lan’s dark hair, gray-streaked at the temples. His face looked to have been carved from rock, all hard planes and angles, and his sword rode his hip like part of his body. Perrin was not sure which of the two men was more deadly, but he thought a mouse could starve on the difference.

The Warder’s eyes swung to Rand. “I thought you were old enough to shave without someone to guide your hand.”

Rhuarc smiled, a slight smile but the first Perrin had ever seen from him in Lan’s presence. “He is young yet. He will learn.”

Lan glanced back at the Aielman, then returned the smile, just as slightly.

Moiraine gave the two men a brief, withering look. She did not seem to pick her way as she crossed the carpet, but she stepped so lightly, holding her skirts up, that not one shard of glass crunched under her slippers. Her eyes swept around the room; taking in the smallest details, Perrin was sure. For a moment she studied him—he did not meet her gaze; she knew too much about him for comfort—but she bore down on Rand like a silent, silken avalanche, icy and inexorable.

Perrin dropped his hand and moved out of her way. The wadded cloth stayed against Rand’s side, held by congealing blood. From head to foot the blood was beginning to dry in black streaks and smears. The slivers of glass in his skin glittered in the lamplight. Moiraine touched the blood-caked cloth with her fingertips, then took her hand back as though changing her mind about looking underneath. Perrin wondered how the Aes Sedai could look at Rand without wincing, but her smooth face did not change. She smelled faintly of rose-scented soap.

“At least you are alive.” Her voice was musical, a chill, angry music at the moment. “What happened can wait. Try to touch the True Source.”

“Why?” Rand asked in a wary voice. “I cannot Heal myself, even if I knew how to Heal. No one can. I know that much.”

For the space of a breath Moiraine seemed on the point of an outburst, strange as that would have been, but in another breath she was once again layered in calm so deep that surely nothing could crack it. “Only some of the strength for Healing comes from the Healer. The Power can replace what comes from the Healed. Without it, you will spend tomorrow flat on your back and perhaps the next day as well. Now, draw on the Power, if you can, but do nothing with it. Simply hold it. Use this, if you must.” She did not have to bend far to touch Callandor.

Rand moved the sword from under her hand. “Simply hold it, you say.” He sounded about to laugh out loud. “Very well.”

Nothing happened that Perrin could see, not that he expected to. Rand sat there like the survivor of a lost battle, looking at Moiraine. She hardly blinked. Twice she scrubbed her fingers against her palms as if unaware.

After a time Rand sighed. “I cannot even reach the Void. I can’t seem to concentrate.” A quick grin cracked the blood drying on his face. “I do not understand why.” A thick red thread snaked its way down past his left eye.

“Then I will do it as I always have,” Moiraine said, and took Rand’s head in her hands, careless of the blood that ran over her fingers.

Rand lurched to his feet with a roaring gasp, as if all the breath were being squeezed from his lungs, back arching so his head nearly tore free of her grasp. One arm flung wide, fingers spread and bending back so far it seemed they must break; the other hand clamped down on Callandor’s hilt, the muscles of that arm knotting visibly into cramps. He shook like cloth caught in a windstorm. Dark flakes of dried blood fell, and bits of glass tinkled onto the chest and floor, forced out of cuts closing up and knitting themselves together.

Perrin shivered as if that windstorm roared around him. He had seen Healing done before, that and more, greater and worse, but he could never be complacent about seeing the Power used, about knowing it was being used, not even for this. Tales of Aes Sedai, told by merchants’ guards and drivers, had embedded themselves in his mind long years before he met Moiraine. Rhuarc smelled sharply uneasy. Only Lan took it as a matter of course. Lan and Moiraine.

Almost as soon as it began, it was done. Moiraine took her hands away, and Rand slumped, catching the bedpost to hold himself on his feet. It was difficult to say whether he clutched the bedpost or Callandor more tenaciously. When Moiraine tried to take the sword to replace it on the ornate stand against the wall, he drew it away from her firmly, even roughly.

Her mouth tightened momentarily, but she contented herself with pulling the wad of cloth from his side, using it to scrub away some of the surrounding smears. The old wound was a tender scar again. The other injuries were simply gone. The mostly dried blood that still covered him could have come from someone else.

Moiraine frowned. “It still does not respond,” she murmured, half to herself. “It will not heal completely.”

“That is the one that will kill me, isn’t it?” he asked her softly, then quoted, “ ‘His blood on the rocks of Shayol Ghul, washing away the Shadow, sacrifice for man’s salvation.’ ”

“You read too much,” she said sharply, “and understand too little.”

“Do you understand more? If you do, then tell me.”

“He is only trying to find his way,” Lan said suddenly. “No man likes to run forward blindly when he knows there is a cliff somewhere ahead.”

Perrin gave a twitch of surprise. Lan almost never disagreed with Moiraine, or at least not where anyone could overhear. He and Rand had been spending a good deal of time together, though, practicing the sword.

Moiraine’s dark eyes flashed, but what she said was “He needs to be in bed. Will you ask that washwater be brought, and another bedchamber prepared? This one needs a thorough cleaning and a new mattress.” Lan nodded and put his head into the anteroom for a moment, speaking quietly.

“I will sleep here, Moiraine.” Letting go of the bedpost, Rand pushed himself erect, grounding Callandor’s point on the littered carpet and resting both hands on the hilt. If he leaned a little on the sword, it did not show much. “I won’t be chased any more. Not even out of a bed.”

Tai’ shar Manetheren,” Lan murmured.

This time even Rhuarc looked startled, but if Moiraine heard the Warder compliment Rand, she gave no sign of it. She was staring at Rand, her face smooth but thunderheads in her eyes. Rand wore a quizzical little smile, as if wondering what she would try next.

Perrin edged toward the doors. If Rand and the Aes Sedai were going to match wills, he would just as soon be elsewhere. Lan did not appear to care; it was hard to tell with that stance of his, somehow standing with his back straight and slouching at the same time. He could have been bored enough to sleep where he stood or ready to draw his sword; his manner suggested either, or both. Rhuarc stood much the same, but he was eyeing the doors, too.

“Stay where you are!” Moiraine did not look away from Rand, and her outflung finger pointed halfway between Perrin and Rhuarc, but Perrin’s feet stopped just the same. Rhuarc shrugged and folded his arms.

“Stubborn,” Moiraine muttered. This time the word was for Rand. “Very well. If you mean to stand there until you drop, you can use the time before you fall on your face to tell me what occurred here. I cannot teach you, but if you tell me perhaps I can see what you did wrong. A small chance, but perhaps I can.” Her voice sharpened. “You must learn to control it, and I do not mean just because of things like this. If you do not learn to control the Power, it will kill you. You know that. I have told you often enough. You must teach yourself. You must find it within yourself.”

“I did nothing except survive,” he said in a dry voice. She opened her mouth, but he went on. “Do you think I could channel and not know it? I didn’t do it in my sleep. This happened awake.” He wavered, and caught himself on the sword.

“Even you could not channel anything but Spirit asleep,” Moiraine said coolly, “and this was never done with Spirit. I was about to ask what did happen.”

Perrin felt his hackles rising as Rand told his story. The axe had been bad enough, but at least the axe was something solid, something real. To have your own reflection jump out of mirrors at you.... Unconsciously he shifted his feet, trying not to stand on any fragments of glass.

Soon after he began speaking, Rand glanced behind him at the chest, a quick look, as if he did not want it observed. After a moment the slivers of silvered glass that were scattered across the lid of the chest stirred and slid off onto the carpet as though pushed by an unseen broom. Rand exchanged looks with Moiraine, then sat down slowly and went on. Perrin was not sure which of them had cleared the chest top. There was no mention of Berelain in the tale.

“It must have been one of the Forsaken,” Rand finished at last. “Maybe Sammael. You said he’s in Illian. Unless one of them is here in Tear. Could Sammael reach the Stone from Illian?”

“Not even if he held Callandor,” Moiraine told him. “There are limits. Sammael is only a man, not the Dark One.”

Only a man? Not a very good description, Perrin thought. A man who could channel, but who somehow had not gone mad; at least, not yet, not that anyone knew. A man perhaps as strong as Rand, but where Rand was trying to learn, Sammael knew every trick of his talents already. A man who had spent three thousand years trapped in the Dark One’s prison, a man who had gone over to the Shadow of his own choice. No. “Only a man” did not begin to describe Sammael, or any of the Forsaken, male or female.

“Then one of them is here. In the city.” Rand put his head down on his wrists, but jerked himself erect immediately, glaring at those in the room. “I’ll not be chased again. I’ll be the hound, first. I will find him—or her—and I will—”

“Not one of the Forsaken,” Moiraine cut in. “I think not. This was too simple. And too complex.”

Rand spoke calmly. “No riddles, Moiraine. If not the Forsaken, who? Or what?”

The Aes Sedai’s face could have done for an anvil, yet she hesitated, feeling her way. There was no telling whether she was unsure of the answer or deciding how much to reveal.

“As the seals holding the Dark One’s prison weaken,” she said after a time, “it may be inevitable that a... miasma... will escape even while he is still held. Like bubbles rising from the things rotting on the bottom of a pond. But these bubbles will drift through the Pattern until they attach to a thread and burst.”

“Light!” It slipped out before Perrin could stop it. Moiraine’s eyes turned to him. “You mean what happened to... to Rand is going to start happening to everybody?”

“Not to everyone. Not yet, at least. In the beginning I think there will only be a few bubbles, slipping through cracks the Dark One can reach through. Later, who can say? And just as ta’veren bend the other threads in the Pattern around them, I think perhaps ta’veren will tend to attract these bubbles more powerfully than others do.” Her eyes said she knew Rand was not the only one to have had a waking nightmare. A brief touch of a smile, there and gone almost before he saw it, said he could keep silent if he wished to hold it secret from others. But she knew. “Yet in the months to come—the years, should we be lucky enough to have that long—I fear a good many people will see things to give them white hairs, if they survive.”

“Mat,” Rand said. “Do you know if he... ? Is he... ?”

“I will know soon enough,” Moiraine replied calmly. “What is done cannot be undone, but we can hope.” Whatever her tone, though, she smelled ill at ease until Rhuarc spoke.

“He is well. Or was. I saw him on my way here.”

“Going where?” Moiraine said with an edge in her voice.

“He looked to be heading for the servants’ quarters,” the Aielman told her. He knew that the three were ta’veren, if not as much else as he thought he did, and he knew Mat well enough to add, “Not the stables, Aes Sedai. The other way, toward the river. And there are no boats at the Stone’s docks.” He did not stumble over words like “boat” and “dock” the way most of the Aiel did, although in the Waste such things existed only in stories.

She nodded as if she had expected nothing else. Perrin shook his head; she was so used to hiding her real thoughts, she seemed to veil them out of habit.

Suddenly one of the doors opened and Bain and Chiad slipped in, without their spears. Bain was carrying a large white bowl and a fat pitcher with steam rising from the top. Chiad had towels folded under her arm.

“Why are you bringing this?” Moiraine demanded.

Chiad shrugged. “She would not come in.”

Rand barked a laugh. “Even the servants know enough to stay clear of me. Put it anywhere.”

“Your time is running out, Rand,” Moiraine said. “The Tairens are becoming used to you, after a fashion, and no one fears what is familiar as much as what is strange. How many weeks, or days, before someone tries to put an arrow in your back or poison in your food? How long before one of the Forsaken strikes, or another bubble comes sliding along the Pattern?”

“Don’t try to harry me, Moiraine.” He was blood filthy, half naked, more than half leaning on Callandor to stay sitting up, but he managed to fill those words with quiet command. “I will not run for you, either.”

“Choose your way soon,” she said. “And this time, inform me what you mean to do. My knowledge cannot aid you if you refuse to accept my help.”

“Your help?” Rand said wearily. “I’ll take your help. But I will decide, not you.” He looked at Perrin as if trying to tell him something without words, something he did not want the others to hear. Perrin had not a clue what it was. After a moment Rand sighed; his head sank a little. “I want to sleep. All of you, go away. Please. We will talk tomorrow.” His eyes flickered to Perrin again, underscoring the words for him.

Moiraine crossed the room to Bain and Chiad, and the two Aiel women leaned close so she could speak for their ears alone. Perrin heard only a buzz, and wondered if she was using the Power to stop him eavesdropping. She knew the keenness of his hearing. He was sure of it when Bain whispered back and he still could not make out anything. The Aes Sedai had done nothing about his sense of smell, though. The Aiel women looked at Rand as they listened, and they smelled wary. Not afraid, but as if Rand were a large animal that would be dangerous if they misstepped.

The Aes Sedai turned back to Rand. “We will talk tomorrow. You cannot sit like a partridge waiting for a hunter’s net.” She was moving for the door before Rand could reply. Lan looked at Rand as if about to say something, but followed her without speaking.

“Rand?” Perrin said.

“We do what we have to.” Rand did not look up from the clear hilt between his hands. “We all do what we have to.” He smelled afraid.

Perrin nodded and followed Rhuarc out of the room. Moiraine and Lan were nowhere in sight. The Tairen officer was staring at the doors from ten paces off, trying to pretend the distance was his choice and had nothing to do with the four Aiel women watching him. The other two Maidens were still in the bedchamber, Perrin realized. He heard voices from the room.

“Go away,” Rand said tiredly. “Just put that down and go away.”

“If you can stand up,” Chiad said cheerfully, “we will. Only stand.”

There was the sound of water splashing into a bowl. “We have tended to wounded before,” Bain said in soothing tones. “And I used to wash my brothers when they were little.”

Rhuarc pushed the door shut, cutting off the rest.

“You do not treat him the way the Tairens do,” Perrin said quietly. “No bowing and scraping. I don’t think I have heard one of you call him Lord Dragon.”

“The Dragon Reborn is a wetlander prophecy,” Rhuarc said. “Ours is He Who Comes With the Dawn.”

“I thought they were the same. Else why did you come to the Stone? Burn me, Rhuarc, you Aiel are the People of the Dragon, just as the Prophecies say. You’ve as good as admitted it, even if you won’t say it out loud.”

Rhuarc ignored the last part. “In your Prophecies of the Dragon, the fall of the Stone and the taking of Callandor proclaim that the Dragon has been Reborn. Our prophecy says only that the Stone must fall before He Who Comes With the Dawn appears to take us back to what was ours. They may be one man, but I doubt even the Wise Ones could say for sure. If Rand is the one, there are things he must do yet to prove it.”

“What?” Perrin demanded.

“If he is the one, he will know, and do them. If he does not, then our search still goes on.”

Something unreadable in the Aielman’s voice pricked Perrin’s ears. “And if he isn’t the one you search for? What then, Rhuarc?”

“Sleep well and safely, Perrin.” Rhuarc’s soft boots made no sound on the black marble as he walked away.

The Tairen officer was still staring past the Maidens, smelling of fear, failing to mask the anger and hatred on his face. If the Aiel decided Rand was not He Who Comes With the Dawn.... Perrin studied the Tairen officer’s face and thought of the Maidens not being there, of the Stone empty of Aiel, and he shivered. He had to make sure Faile decided to leave. That was all there was for it. She had to decide to go, and without him.

CHAPTER 4
Strings

Thom Merrilin sprinkled sand across what he had written to blot the ink, then carefully poured the sand back into its jar and flipped the lid shut. Riffling through the papers scattered in rough piles across the table—six tallow candles made fire a real danger, but he needed the light—he selected a crumpled sheet marred by an inkblot. Carefully he compared it with what he had written, then stroked a long white mustache with a thumb in satisfaction and permitted himself a leathery-faced smile. The High Lord Carleon himself would have thought it was his own hand.

Be wary. Your husband suspects.Only those words, and no signature. Now if he could arrange for the High Lord Tedosian to find it where his wife, the Lady Alteima, might carelessly have left it....

A knock sounded at the door, and he jumped. No one came to see him at this time of the night.

“A moment,” he called, hastily stuffing pens and inkpots and selected papers into a battered writing chest. “A moment while I put on a shirt.”

Locking the chest, he shoved it under the table where it might escape casual notice and ran an eye over his small, windowless room to see if he had left anything out that should not be seen. Hoops and balls for juggling littered his narrow, unmade bed, and lay among his shaving things on a single shelf with fire wands and small items for sleight of hand. His gleeman’s cloak, covered with loose patches in a hundred colors, hung from a peg on the wall along with his spare clothes and the hard leather cases holding his harp and flute. A woman’s diaphanous red silk scarf was tied around the strap of the harp case, but it could have belonged to anyone.

He was not sure he remembered who had tied it there; he tried to pay no more attention to one woman than any other, and all of it lighthearted and laughing. Make them laugh, even make them sigh, but avoid entanglements, that was his motto; he had no time for those. That was what he told himself.

“I’m coming.” He limped to the door irritably. Once he had drawn oohs and aahs from people who could hardly believe, even while they watched, that a rawboned, white-haired old man could do backsprings and handstands and flips, limber and quick as a boy. The limp had put an end to that, and he hated it. The leg ached worse when he was tired. He jerked open the door, and blinked in surprise. “Well. Come in, Mat. I thought you would be hard at work lightening lordlings’ purses.”

“They didn’t want to gamble any more tonight,” Mat said sourly, dropping onto the three-legged stool that served as a second chair. His coat was undone and his hair disheveled. His brown eyes darted around, never resting on one spot long, but their usual twinkle, suggesting that the lad saw something funny where no one else did, was missing tonight.

Thom frowned at him, considering. Mat never stepped across this threshold without a quip about the shabby room. He accepted Thom’s explanation that his sleeping beside the servants’ quarters would help people forget that he had arrived in the shadow of Aes Sedai, but Mat seldom let a chance for a joke pass. If he realized that the room also assured that no one could think of Thom having any connection to the Dragon Reborn, Mat, being Mat, probably thought that a reasonable wish. It had taken Thom all of two sentences, delivered in haste during a rare moment when no one was looking, to make Rand see the real point. Everyone listened to a gleeman, everyone watched him, but no one really saw him or remembered who he talked to, as long as he was only a gleeman, with his hedgerow entertainments fit for country folk and servants, and perhaps to amuse the ladies. That was how Tairens saw it. It was not as if he were a bard, after all.

What was bothering the boy to bring him down here at this hour? Probably one or another of the young women, and some old enough to know better, who had let themselves be caught by Mat’s mischievous grin. Still, he would pretend it was one of Mat’s usual visits until the lad said otherwise.

“I’ll get the stones board. It is late, but we have time for one game.” He could not resist adding, “Would you care for a wager on it?” He would not have tossed dice with Mat for a copper, but stones was another matter; he thought there was too much order and pattern in stones for Mat’s strange luck.

“What? Oh. No. It’s too late for games. Thom, did... ? Did anything... happen down here?”

Leaning the stones board against a table leg, Thom dug his tabac pouch and long-stemmed pipe out of the litter remaining on the table. “Such as what?” he asked, thumbing the bowl full. He had time to stick a twist of paper in the flame of one of the candles, puff the pipe alight and blow out the spill before Mat answered.

“Such as Rand going insane, that’s what. No, you’d not have had to ask if it had.”

A prickling made Thom shift his shoulders, but he blew a blue-gray streamer of smoke as calmly as he could and took his chair, stretching his gimpy leg out in front of him. “What happened?”

Mat drew a deep breath, then let everything out in a rush. “The playing cards tried to kill me. The Amyrlin, and the High Lord, and.... I didn’t dream it, Thom. That’s why those puffed-up jackdaws don’t want to gamble anymore. They’re afraid it will happen again. Thom, I’m thinking of leaving Tear.”

The prickling felt as if he had blackwasp nettles stuffed down his back. Why had he not left Tear himself long since? Much the wisest thing. Hundreds of villages lay out there, waiting for a gleeman to entertain and amaze them. And each with an inn or two full of wine to drown memories. But if he did, Rand would have no one except Moiraine to keep the High Lords from maneuvering him into corners, and maybe cutting his throat. She could do it, of course. Using different methods than his. He thought she could. She was Cairhienin, which meant she had probably taken in the Game of Houses with her mother’s milk. And she would tie another string to Rand for the White Tower while she was about it. Mesh him in an Aes Sedai net so strong he would never escape. But if the boy was going mad already....

Fool, Thom called himself. A pure fool to stay mixed in this because of something fifteen years in the past. Staying would not change that; what was done was done. He had to see Rand face-to-face, no matter what he had told him about keeping clear. Perhaps no one would think it too odd if a gleeman asked to perform a song for the Lord Dragon, a song especially composed. He knew a deservedly obscure Kandori tune, praising some unnamed lord for his greatness and courage in grandiose terms that never quite managed to name deeds or places. It had probably been bought by some lord who had no deeds worth naming. Well, it would serve him now. Unless Moiraine decided it was strange. That would be as bad as the High Lords taking notice. I am a fool! I should be out of here tonight!

He was roiling inside, his stomach churning acid, but he had spent long years learning to keep his face straight before ever he put on a gleeman’s cloak. He puffed three smoke rings, one inside the other, and said, “You have been thinking of leaving Tear since the day you walked into the Stone.”

Perched on the edge of the stool, Mat shot him an angry look. “And I mean to. I do. Why not come with me, Thom? There are towns where they think the Dragon Reborn hasn’t drawn a breath yet, where nobody’s given a thought to the bloody Prophecies of the bloody Dragon in years, if ever. Places where they think the Dark One is a grandmother’s tale, and Trollocs are travelers’ wild stories, and Myrddraal ride shadows to scare children. You could play your harp and tell your stories, and I could find a game of dice. We could live like lords, traveling as we want, staying where we want, with no one trying to kill us.”

That hit too close for comfort. Well, he was a fool and there it was; he just had to make the best of it. “If you really mean to go, why haven’t you?”

“Moiraine watches me,” Mat said bitterly. “And when she isn’t, she has somebody else doing it.”

“I know. Aes Sedai don’t like to let someone go once they lay hands on them.” It was more than that, he was sure, more than what was openly known, certainly, but Mat denied any such thing, and no one else who knew was talking either, if anyone besides Moiraine did know. It hardly mattered. He liked Mat—he even owed him, in a fashion—but Mat and his troubles were a street-corner raree compared to Rand. “But I cannot believe she really has someone watching you all the time.”

“As good as. She’s always asking people where I am, what I’m doing. It gets back to me. Do you know anybody who won’t tell an Aes Sedai what she wants to know? I don’t. As good as being watched.”

“You could avoid eyes if you put your mind to it. I’ve never seen anyone as good at sneaking about as you. I mean that as a compliment.”

“Something always comes up,” Mat muttered. “There’s so much gold to be had here. And there’s a big-eyed girl in the kitchens who likes a little kiss and tickle, and one of the maids has hair like silk, to her waist, and the roundest....” He trailed off as if he had suddenly realized how foolish he sounded.

“Have you considered that maybe it’s because—”

“If you mention ta’veren, Thom, I’m leaving.”

Thom changed what he had been going to say. “—that maybe it’s because Rand is your friend and you don’t want to desert him?”

“Desert him!” The boy jumped up, kicking over the stool. “Thom, he is the bloody Dragon Reborn! At least, that’s what he and Moiraine say. Maybe he is. He can channel, and he has that bloody sword that looks like glass. Prophecies! I don’t know. But I know I would have to be as crazy as these Tairens to stay.” He paused. “You don’t think.... You don’t think Moiraine is keeping me here, do you? With the Power?”

“I do not believe she can,” Thom said slowly. He knew a good bit about Aes Sedai, enough to have some idea how much he did not know, and he thought he was right on this.

Mat raked his fingers through his hair. “Thom, I think about leaving all the time, but.... I get these strange feelings. Almost as if something was going to happen. Something.... Momentous; that’s the word. It’s like knowing there’ll be fireworks for Sunday, only I don’t know what it is I’m expecting. Whenever I think too much about leaving, it happens. And suddenly I’ve found some reason to stay another day. Always just one more bloody day. Doesn’t that sound like Aes Sedai work to you?”

Thom swallowed the word ta’veren and took his pipe from between his teeth to peer into the smoldering tabac. He did not know much about ta’veren, but then no one did except the Aes Sedai, or maybe some of the Ogier. “I was never much good at helping people with their problems.” And worse with my own, he thought. “With an Aes Sedai close to hand, I’d advise most people to ask her for help.” Advice I’d not take myself.

“Ask Moiraine!”

“I suppose that is out of the question in this case. But Nynaeve was your Wisdom back in Emond’s Field. Village Wisdoms are used to answering people’s questions, helping with their problems.”

Mat gave a raucous snort of laughter. “And put up with one of her lectures about drinking and gambling and... ? Thom, she acts like I’m ten years old. Sometimes I think she believes I’ll marry a nice girl and settle down on my father’s farm.”

“Some men would not find it an objectionable life,” Thom said quietly.

“Well, I would. I want more than cows and sheep and tabac for the rest of my life. I want—” Mat shook his head. “All these holes in memory. Sometimes I think if I could just fill them in, I’d know.... Burn me, I don’t know what I’d know, but I know I want to know it. That’s a twisty riddle, isn’t it?”

“I’m not certain even an Aes Sedai can help with that. A gleeman surely can’t.”

“I said no Aes Sedai!”

Thom sighed. “Calm yourself, boy. I was not suggesting it.”

“I am leaving. As soon as I can fetch my things and find a horse. Not a minute longer.”

“In the middle of the night? The morning will do.” He refrained from adding, If you really do leave. “Sit down. Relax. We’ll play a game of stones. I have a jar of wine here, somewhere.”

Mat hesitated, glancing at the door. Finally he jerked his coat straight. “The morning will do.” He sounded uncertain, but he picked up the overturned stool and set it beside the table. “But no wine for me,” he added as he sat down. “Strange enough things happen when my head is clear. I want to know the difference.”

Thom was thoughtful as he put the board and the bags of stones on the table. Just that easily the lad was diverted. Pulled along by an even stronger ta’veren named Rand al’Thor, was how Thom saw it. It occurred to him to wonder if he was caught in the same way. His life had certainly not been headed toward the Stone of Tear and this room when he first met Rand, but since then it had been twitched about like a kite string. If he decided to leave, say if Rand really had gone mad, would he find reasons to keep putting it off?

“What is this, Thom?” Mat’s boot had encountered the writing case under the table. “Is it all right if I move it out of my way?”

“Of course. Go right ahead.” He winced inside as Mat shoved the case aside roughly with his foot. He hoped he had corked all the ink bottles tightly. “Choose,” he said, holding out his fists.

Mat tapped the left, and Thom opened it to reveal a smooth black stone, flat and round. The boy chortled at having the first go and placed the stone on the crosshatched board. No one seeing the eagerness in his eyes would have suspected that only moments before he had been twice as eager to go. A greatness he refused to recognize clinging to his back, and an Aes Sedai intent on keeping him for one of her pets. The lad was well and truly caught.

If he was caught, too, Thom decided, it would be worth it to help one man, at least, keep free of Aes Sedai. Worth it, to make a payment on that fifteen-year-old debt.

Suddenly and strangely content, he set a white stone. “Did I ever tell you,” he said around his pipestem, “about the wager I once made with a Domani woman? She had eyes that could drink a man’s soul, and an odd-looking red bird she had bought off a Sea Folk ship. She claimed it could tell the future. This bird had a fat yellow beak nearly as long as its body, and it....”

CHAPTER 5
Questioners

“They should be back by now.” Egwene fluttered the painted silk fan vigorously, glad the nights were at least a little cooler than the days. Tairen women carried the fans all the time—the nobles, at least, and the wealthy—but as far as she could see they did no good at all except when the sun was down, and not much then. Even the lamps, great golden, mirrored things on silvered wall brackets, seemed to add to the heat. “What can be keeping them?” An hour, Moiraine had promised them, for the first time in days, and then she had left without explanation after a bare five minutes. “Did she give any hint of why they wanted her, Aviendha? Or who wanted her, for that matter?”

Seated cross-legged on the floor beside the door, large green eyes startling in her dark tanned face, the Aiel woman shrugged. In coat and breeches and soft boots, shoufa looped about her neck, she appeared unarmed. “Careen whispered her message to Moiraine Sedai. It would not have been proper to listen. I am sorry, Aes Sedai.”

Guiltily, Egwene fingered the Great Serpent ring on her right hand, the golden serpent biting its own tail. As an Accepted, she should have been wearing it on the third finger of her left hand, but letting the High Lords believe that they had four full Aes Sedai inside the Stone kept them on their best manners, or what passed for manners among Tairen nobles. Moiraine did not lie, of course; she never said they were more than Accepted. But she never said they were Accepted, either, and let everyone think what they wanted to think, believe what they thought they saw. Moiraine could not lie, but she could make truth dance a fine jig.

It was not the first time Egwene and the others had pretended to full sisterhood since leaving the Tower, but more and more she felt uncomfortable deceiving Aviendha. She liked the Aiel woman, thought they could be friends if they could ever come to know one another; but that hardly seemed possible as long as Aviendha thought Egwene was Aes Sedai. The Aiel woman was there only at Moiraine’s order, issued for unspoken purposes of her own. Egwene suspected it was to give them an Aiel bodyguard, as if they had not learned to protect themselves. Still, even if she and Aviendha did become friends, she could not tell her the truth. The best way to keep a secret was to make sure no one knew who did not absolutely have to know. Another point Moiraine had made. Sometimes Egwene found herself wishing the Aes Sedai could be wrong, glaring wrong, just once. In a way that would not mean disaster, of course. That was the rub.

“Tanchico,” Nynaeve muttered. Her dark, wrist-thick braid hung down her back to her waist as she stared out of one of the narrow windows, casements swung out in the hope of catching a night breeze. On the broad River Erinin below bobbed the lanterns of a few fishing boats that had not ventured downriver, but Egwene doubted she saw them. “There is nothing for it but to go to Tanchico, it seems.” Nynaeve gave an unconscious hitch to her green dress, with its wide neck that bared her shoulders; she did that a good deal. She would have denied wearing the dress for Lan, Moiraine’s Warder—she would have if Egwene had dared make the suggestion—but green, blue and white seemed to be Lan’s favorite colors on women, and every dress that was not green, blue or white had vanished from Nynaeve’s wardrobe. “Nothing for it.” She did not sound happy.

Egwene caught herself giving an upward tug to her own dress. They felt odd, these dresses that just clung to the shoulders. On the other hand, she did not believe she could bear to be more covered. Light as it was, the pale red linen felt like wool. She wished she could bring herself to wear the filmy gowns Berelain wore. Not that they were suitable for public eyes, but they certainly did appear to be cool.

Stop fretting over comfort, she told herself sternly. Keep your mind on the business at hand. “Perhaps,” she said aloud. “Myself, I am not convinced.”

A long, narrow table, polished till it glistened, ran down the middle of the room. A tall chair stood at the end near Egwene, lightly carved and touched here and there with gilt, quite plain for Tear, while the sidechairs had progressively lower backs, until those at the far end seemed little more than benches. Egwene had no idea what purpose the Tairens had put the room to. She and the others used it for questioning two prisoners taken when the Stone fell.

She could not force herself to go into the dungeons, though Rand had ordered all of the implements that had decorated the guardroom walls melted or burned. Neither Nynaeve nor Elayne had been eager to return, either. Besides, this brightly lit room, with its clean-swept green tile floor and its wall panels carved with the Three Crescents of Tear, was a sharp contrast to the grim, gray stone of the cells, all dim and dank and dirty. That had to have some softening effect on the two women in prisoners’ rough-woven woolens.

Only that drab brown dress, however, would have told most people that Joiya Byir, standing beyond the table with her back turned, was a prisoner at all. She had been Gray Ajah, and had lost none of the Grays’ cool self-possession on shifting her allegiance to the Black. Every line of her proclaimed that she stared rigidly at the far wall of her own choice, and for no other reason. Only a woman who could channel would have seen the thumb-thick flows of Air that held Joiya’s arms to her sides and lashed her ankles together. A cage woven of Air kept her eyes straight ahead. Even her ears were stopped up, so she could not hear what anyone said until they wanted her to.

Once again Egwene checked the shield woven from Spirit that blocked Joiya from touching the True Source. It held, as she knew it must. She herself had woven all the flows around Joiya and tied them to maintain themselves, but she could not be easy in the same room with a Darkfriend who had the ability to channel, even if it was blocked. Worse than just a Dark-friend. Black Ajah. Murder was the least of Joiya’s crimes. She should have been bowed down under her weight of broken oaths, blasted lives and blighted souls.

Joiya’s fellow prisoner, her sister in the Black Ajah, lacked her strength. Standing stoop-shouldered at the far end of the table, head down, Amico Nagoyin seemed to sink in on herself under Egwene’s gaze. There was no need to shield her. Amico had been stilled during her capture. Still able to sense the True Source, she would never again touch it, never again channel. The desire to, the need to, would remain, as sharp as the need to breathe, and her loss would be there for as long as she lived, saidar forever out of reach. Egwene wished she could find in herself even a shred of pity. But she did not wish for it very hard.

Amico murmured something at the tabletop.

“What?” Nynaeve demanded. “Speak up.”

Amico raised her face humbly on its slender neck. She was still a beautiful woman, with large, dark eyes, but there was something different about her that Egwene could not quite put her finger on. Not the fear that made her clutch her coarse prisoner’s dress with both hands. Something else.

Swallowing, Amico said, “You should go to Tanchico.”

“You’ve told us that twenty times,” Nynaeve said roughly. “Fifty times. Tell us something new. Name names we do not already know. Who still in the White Tower is Black Ajah?”

“I do not know. You must believe me.” Amico sounded tired, utterly beaten. Not at all the way she had sounded when they were the prisoners and she the gaoler. “Before we left the Tower, I knew only Liandrin, Chesmal and Rianna. No one knew more than two or three others, I think. Except Liandrin. I have told you everything I know.”

“Then you are remarkably ignorant for a woman who expected to rule part of the world when the Dark One breaks free,” Egwene said dryly, snapping her fan shut for emphasis. It still stunned her, how easily she could say that now. Her stomach still clenched, and icy fingers still crawled her spine, but she no longer wanted to scream, or run weeping. It was possible to become used to anything.

“I overheard Liandrin that once, talking to Temaile,” Amico said wearily, starting a tale she had told them many times. In the first days of her captivity she had tried to improve her story, but the more she elaborated the more she had tangled herself in her own lies. Now she almost always told it the same way, word for word. “If you could have seen Liandrin’s face when she saw me.... She would have murdered me on the spot had she thought I had heard anything. And Temaile likes to hurt people. She enjoys it. I only heard a little before they saw me. Liandrin said there was something in Tanchico, something dangerous to... to him.” She meant Rand. She could not say his name, and a mention of the Dragon Reborn was enough to send her into tears. “Liandrin said it was dangerous to whoever used it, too. Almost as dangerous as to... him. That is why she had not already gone after it. And she said being able to channel would not protect him. She said, ‘When we find it, his filthy ability will bind him for us.’ ” Sweat ran down her face, but she shivered almost uncontrollably.

Not a word had changed.

Egwene opened her mouth, but Nynaeve spoke first. “I’ve heard enough of this. Let us see if the other has anything new to say.”

Egwene glared at her, and Nynaeve stared back just as hard, neither blinking. Sometimes she thinks she’s still the Wisdom, Egwene thought grimly, and I’m still the village girl to teach about herbs. She had better realize things are different now. Nynaeve was strong in the Power, stronger than Egwene, but only when she could actually manage to channel; unless angry, Nynaeve could not channel at all.

Elayne usually smoothed things over when it came to this, as it did more often than it should. By the time Egwene thought of smoothing matters herself, she had almost always dug in her heels and flared back, and trying to be soothing then would only be backing down. That was how Nynaeve would see it, she was sure. She could not remember Nynaeve ever making any move to back down, so why should she? This time Elayne was not there; Moiraine had summoned the Daughter-Heir with a word and a gesture to follow the Maiden who had come for the Aes Sedai. Without her, the tension stretched, each of the Accepted waiting for the other to blink first. Aviendha barely breathed; she kept herself strictly out of their confrontations. No doubt she considered it simple wisdom to stand clear.

Strangely, it was Amico who broke the impasse this time, though likely all she meant to do was demonstrate her cooperation. She turned to face the far wall, waiting patiently to be bound.

The foolishness of it struck Egwene suddenly. She was the only woman in the room who could channel—unless Nynaeve grew angry, or Joiya’s shield failed; she tested the weave of Spirit again without thinking—and she indulged in a staring match while Amico waited to accept her bonds. At another time she might have laughed at herself aloud. Instead, she opened herself to saidar, that never-seen, ever-felt glowing warmth that seemed always to be just beyond the corner of her eye. The One Power filled her, like joyous life itself redoubled, and she wove the flows around Amico.

Nynaeve merely grunted; it was doubtful she was mad enough to sense what Egwene was doing—she could not, without her temper up—yet she could see Amico stiffen as the flows of Air touched her, then slump, half supported by the flows, as if to show how little she was resisting.

Aviendha shuddered, the way she had taken to doing whenever she knew the Power was being channeled near her.

Egwene wove blocks for Amico’s ears—questioning them one at a time did little good if they could hear each other’s stories—and turned to Joiya. She shifted her fan from hand to hand so she could wipe them on her dress, and stopped with a grimace of distaste. Her sweaty palms had nothing to do with the temperature.

“Her face,” Aviendha said abruptly. And surprisingly; she almost never spoke unless addressed by Moiraine or one of the others. “Amico’s face. She does not have the look she did, as if the years had passed her by. Not as much as she did. Is that because she was... because she was stilled?” she finished in a breathless rush. She had picked up a few habits being so much around them. No woman of the Tower could speak of stilling without a chill.

Egwene moved down the table, to where she could see Amico’s face from the side and yet stay out of Joiya’s vision. Joiya’s eyes always turned her stomach to a lump of ice.

Aviendha was right; that was the difference she herself had noticed and not understood. Amico looked young, perhaps younger than her years, but it was not quite the agelessness of Aes Sedai who had worked years with the One Power. “You have sharp eyes, Aviendha, but I don’t know if this has anything to do with stilling. It must, though, I suppose. I don’t know what else could cause it.”

She realized that did not sound very much like an Aes Sedai, who generally spoke as if they knew everything; when an Aes Sedai said she did not know, she usually managed to make her denial appear to cloak volumes of knowledge. While she was racking her brain for something properly portentous, Nynaeve came to her rescue.

“Relatively few Aes Sedai have ever been burned out, Aviendha, and far fewer stilled.”

“Burned out” was what it was called when it happened by accident; officially, stilling resulted from trial and sentence. Egwene could not see the point of it, really; it was like having two words for falling down the stairs, depending on whether you tripped or were pushed. For that, most Aes Sedai seemed to see it the same, except when teaching novices or Accepted. Three words, actually. Men were “gentled,” must be gentled, before they went mad. Only now there was Rand, and the Tower did not dare gentle him.

Nynaeve had put on a lecturing tone, no doubt trying to sound Aes Sedai. She was doing an imitation of Sheriam before a class, Egwene realized, hands clasped at her waist, smiling slightly as if it were all so simple when you applied yourself.

“Stilling is not a thing anyone would choose to study, you understand,” Nynaeve continued. “It is generally accepted to be irreversible. What makes a woman able to channel cannot be replaced once it is removed, any more than a hand that has been cut off can be Healed back into existence.” At least, no one had ever been able to Heal stilling. There had been attempts. What Nynaeve said was generally true, yet some sisters of the Brown Ajah would study almost anything if given the chance, and some Yellow sisters, the best Healers, would try to learn to Heal anything. But even a hint of success at Healing a woman who had been stilled was nonexistent. “Aside from that one hard fact, little is known. Women who are stilled seldom live more than a few years. They seem to stop wanting to live; they give up. As I said, it is an unpleasant subject.”

Aviendha shifted uncomfortably. “I only thought that might be it,” she said in a low voice.

Egwene thought it might be, too. She resolved to ask Moiraine. If she ever saw her without Aviendha there as well. It seemed to her that their deceit got in the way almost as much as it helped.

“Let us see if Joiya still tells the same tale, too.” Even so, she had to take herself in hand before she could unravel the flows of Air woven around the Darkfriend.

Joiya must have been stiff from standing so still for so long, but she turned smoothly to face them. The sweat beading her forehead could not diminish her dignity and presence, any more than her drab, rough dress lessened the sense of her being there by choice. She was a handsome woman with something motherly about her face despite its ageless smoothness, something comforting. But the dark eyes set in that face made a hawk’s look kind. She smiled at them, a smile that never reached those eyes. “The Light illumine you. May the hand of the Creator shelter you.”

“I will not hear that out of you.” Nynaeve’s voice was quiet and calm, but she tossed her braid over her shoulder and gripped the end in her fist, the way she did when angry or uneasy. Egwene did not think she was uneasy; Joiya did not seem to make Nynaeve’s skin crawl as she did Egwene’s.

“I have repented my sins,” Joiya said smoothly. “The Dragon is Reborn, and he holds Callandor. The Prophecies are fulfilled. The Dark One must fail. I can see that, now. My repentance is real. No one can walk so long in the Shadow that she cannot come again to the Light.”

Nynaeve’s face had grown darker by the word. Egwene was sure she was furious enough to channel now, but if she did it would probably be to strangle Joiya. Egwene did not believe Joiya’s repentance any more than Nynaeve, of course, but the woman’s information might be real. Joiya was quite capable of a cold decision to go over to what she believed would be the winning side. Or she might only be buying time, lying in hope of rescue.

Lies should not have been possible for an Aes Sedai, even one who had lost all right to the name, not outright lies. The very first of the Three Oaths, taken with the Oath Rod in hand, should have seen to that. But whatever oaths to the Dark One were sworn on joining the Black Ajah, they seemed to sever all Three Oaths.

Well. The Amyrlin had sent them out to hunt the Black Ajah, to hunt Liandrin and the other twelve who had done murder and fled the Tower. And all they had to go on now was what these two could, or would, tell them.

“Give us your tale again,” Egwene commanded. “Use different words, this time. I am tired of listening to memorized stories.” If she was lying, there was more chance she would trip herself up telling it differently. “We will hear you out.” That was for Nynaeve’s benefit; she gave a loud sniff, then a curt nod.

Joiya shrugged. “As you wish. Let me see. Different words. The false Dragon, Mazrim Taim, who was captured in Saldaea, can channel with incredible strength. Perhaps as much as Rand al’Thor, or nearly so, if the reports can be believed. Before he can be brought to Tar Valon and gentled, Liandrin means to break him free. He will be proclaimed as the Dragon Reborn, his name given as Rand al’Thor, and then he will be set to destruction on such a scale as the world has not seen since the War of the Hundred Years.”

“That is impossible,” Nynaeve broke in. “The Pattern will not accept a false Dragon, not now that Rand has proclaimed himself.”

Egwene sighed. They had had this out before, but Nynaeve always argued the point. She was not sure Nynaeve really believed that Rand was the Dragon Reborn, no matter what she said, no matter the Prophecies and Callandor and the fall of the Stone. Nynaeve was just enough older than he to have looked after him when he was a child, just as she had after Egwene. He was an Emond’s Fielder, and Nynaeve still saw her first duty as protecting the people of Emond’s Field.

“Is that what Moiraine told you?” Joiya asked with a touch of contempt. “Moiraine has spent little time in the Tower since she was raised, and not much more with her sisters anywhere. I suppose she knows the workings of village life, perhaps even something of the politics between nations, but she does claim certainty about matters learned only through study and discussion with those who know. Still, she might be correct. Mazrim Taim might well find it impossible to proclaim himself. But if others do it for him, is there a difference that matters?”

Egwene wished Moiraine would come back. The woman would not speak so confidently if Moiraine were there. Joiya knew very well that she and Nynaeve were only Accepted. It made a difference.

“Go on,” Egwene said, almost as harshly as Nynaeve. “And remember, different words.”

“Of course,” Joiya replied, as though responding to a gracious invitation, but her eyes glittered like chips of black glass. “You can see the obvious result. Rand al’Thor will be blamed for the depredations of... Rand al’Thor. Even proof that they are not the same man may well be dismissed. After all, who can say what tricks the Dragon Reborn can play? Perhaps put himself in two places at once. Even the sort who have always rallied to a false Dragon will hesitate in the face of the indiscriminate slaughter and worse laid at his feet. Those who do not shrink at such butchery will seek out the Rand al’Thor who seems to revel in blood. The nations will unite as they did in the Aiel War...” She gave Aviendha an apologetic smile, incongruous beneath those merciless eyes. “. . . but no doubt much more quickly. Even the Dragon Reborn cannot stand against that, not forever. He will be crushed before the Last Battle even begins, by the very ones he was meant to save. The Dark One will break free, the day of Tarmon Gai’don will come, and the Shadow will cover the earth and remake the Pattern for all time. That is Liandrin’s plan.” There was not a hint of satisfaction in her voice, but no horror, either.

It was a plausible story, more plausible than Amico’s tale of a few eavesdropped sentences, but Egwene believed Amico and not Joiya. Perhaps because she wanted to. A vague threat in Tanchico was easier to face than this fully fleshed plan to turn every hand against Rand. No, she thought. Joiya is lying. I am sure she is. Yet they could not afford to ignore either story. But they could not chase after both, not with any hope of success.

The door banged open, and Moiraine strode in, with Elayne following. The Daughter-Heir was frowning at the floor in front of her toes, lost in dark thoughts, but Moiraine.... For once the Aes Sedai’s serenity had vanished; fury painted her face.

CHAPTER 6
Doorways

“Rand al’Thor,” Moiraine told the air in a low, tight voice, “is a mule-headed, stone-willed fool of a... a... a man!”

Elayne lifted her chin angrily. Her childhood nurse, Lini, used to say you could weave silk from pig bristles before you could make a man anything but a man. But that was no excuse for Rand.

“We breed them that way in the Two Rivers.” Nynaeve was suddenly all half-suppressed smiles and satisfaction. She seldom hid her dislike of the Aes Sedai half as well as she thought she did. “Two Rivers women never have any trouble with them.” From the startled look Egwene gave her, that was a lie big enough to warrant having her mouth washed out.

Moiraine’s brows drew down as if she were about to reply to Nynaeve in harder kind. Elayne stirred, but she could not find anything to say that would head off argument. Rand kept dancing through her head. He had no right! But what right did she have?

Egwene spoke instead. “What did he do, Moiraine?”

The Aes Sedai’s eyes swung to Egwene, a stare so hard that the younger woman stepped back and snapped her fan open, nervously fluttering it at her face. But Moiraine’s gaze settled on Joiya and Amico, the one watching her warily, the other bound and unaware of anything but the far wall.

Elayne gave a small start at realizing Joiya was not bound. Hastily she checked the shield blocking the woman from the True Source. She hoped none of the others had noticed her jump; Joiya frightened her nearly to death, but Egwene and Nynaeve were no more scared of the woman than Moiraine was. Sometimes it was difficult being as brave as the Daughter-Heir of Andor should be; she often found herself wishing she could manage as well as those two.

“The guards,” Moiraine muttered as if to herself. “I saw them in the corridor still, and never thought.” She smoothed her dress, composing herself with an obvious effort. Elayne did not believe she had ever seen Moiraine so out of herself as tonight. But then, the Aes Sedai had cause. No more than I do. Or do I? She found herself trying not to meet Egwene’s eyes.

Had it been Egwene or Nynaeve or Elayne who was off balance, Joiya would surely have said something, subtle and of two meanings, calculated to upset them a little more. If they had been alone, at least. With Moiraine, she only watched uneasily, silently.

Moiraine walked the length of the table, her calm restored. Joiya was nearly a head the taller, but had she also been dressed in silks, there would have been no doubt which was in command of the situation. Joiya did not quite draw back, but her hands tightened on her skirts for a moment before she could master them.

“I have made arrangements,” Moiraine said quietly. “In four days you will be taken upriver by ship, to Tar Valon and the Tower. There they are not so gentle as we have been. If you have not found the truth so far, find it before you reach Southharbor, or you will assuredly go to the gallows in the Traitors’ Court. I will not speak to you again unless you send word that you have something new to tell. And I do not want to hear a word from you—not one word—unless it is new. Believe me, it will save you pain in Tar Valon. Aviendha, will you tell the captain to bring in two of his men?” Elayne blinked as the Aiel woman unfolded herself and vanished through the doorway; sometimes Aviendha could be so still she seemed not to be there.

Joiya’s face worked as if she wanted to speak, but Moiraine stared up at her, and finally the Darkfriend turned her eyes away. They glittered like a raven’s, full of black murder, but she held her tongue.

To Elayne’s eyes a golden-white glow suddenly surrounded Moiraine, the glow of a woman embracing saidar. Only another woman trained to channel could have seen it. The flows holding Amico unraveled more quickly than Elayne could have managed. She was stronger than Moiraine, potentially, at least. In the Tower, the women teaching her had been almost unbelieving at her potential, and at Egwene’s and Nynaeve’s. Nynaeve was the strongest of them all—when she could manage to channel. But Moiraine had the experience. What they were still learning to do, Moiraine could do half asleep. Yet there were some things Elayne could do, and the other two, that the Aes Sedai could not. It was a small satisfaction in the face of how easily Moiraine cowed Joiya.

Freed, able to hear, Amico turned and became aware of Moiraine for the first time. With a squeak, she dropped a curtsy as deep as any new novice. Joiya was glaring at the door, avoiding anyone’s gaze. Nynaeve, arms crossed and knuckles white from gripping her braid, was giving Moiraine a stare almost as murderous as Joiya’s. Egwene fingered her skirt and glowered at Joiya; Elayne frowned, wishing she were as brave as Egwene, wishing she did not feel she was betraying her friend. Into that walked the captain with two more Defenders in black and gold on his heels. Aviendha was not with them; it seemed she had taken her opportunity to escape Aes Sedai.

The grizzled officer, two short white plumes on his rimmed helmet, shied as his eyes met Joiya’s, though she did not even seem to see him. His gaze skittered from woman to woman uncertainly. The mood of the room was trouble, and a wise man did not want any part of trouble among this sort of women. The two soldiers clutched their tall spears to their sides almost as if they feared they might have to defend themselves. Perhaps they did fear it.

“You will take these two back to their cells,” Moiraine told the officer curtly. “Repeat your instructions. I want no mistakes.”

“Yes, Ae—” The captain’s throat seemed to seize. He gulped a breath. “Yes, my Lady,” he said, watching her anxiously to see if that would do. When she only continued to look at him, waiting, he gave an audible sigh of relief. “The prisoners are to talk to no one except myself, not even each other. Twenty men in the guardroom and two outside each cell at all times, four if a cell door has to be opened for any reason. I myself will watch their food prepared and take it to them. All as you have commanded, my Lady.” A hint of question tinged his voice. A hundred rumors floated through the Stone concerning the prisoners, and why two women needed to be guarded so heavily. And there were whispered stories about the Aes Sedai, each darker than the last.

“Very good,” Moiraine said. “Take them.”

It was not clear who was more eager to leave the room, the prisoners or the guards. Even Joiya stepped quickly, as if she could not bear keeping silent near Moiraine for another moment.

Elayne was certain she had kept her face calm since entering the room, but Egwene came to her, put an arm around her. “What is the matter, Elayne? You look about to cry.”

The concern in her voice made Elayne feel like bursting into tears. Light! she thought. I will not be that silly. I will not! “A weeping woman is a bucket with no bottom.” Lini had been full of sayings like that.

“Three times—” Nynaeve burst out at Moiraine, “only three!—you have consented to help us question them. This time you vanish before we begin, and now you calmly announce you are sending them off to Tar Valon! If you will not help, at least do not interfere!”

“Do not presume on the Amyrlin’s authority too far,” Moiraine said coolly. “She may have set you to chase Liandrin, but you are still only Accepted, and woefully ignorant, whatever letters you carry. Or did you mean to keep questioning them forever before reaching a decision? You Two Rivers people seem to work at avoiding decisions that must be made.” Nynaeve opened and closed her mouth, eyes bulging, as if wondering which accusation to answer first, but Moiraine turned to Egwene and Elayne. “Pull yourself together, Elayne. How you can carry out the Amyrlin’s orders if you think every land has the customs you were born to, I do not know. And I do not know why you are so upset. Do not let your feelings hurt others.”

“What do you mean?” Egwene said. “What customs? What are you talking about?”

“Berelain was in Rand’s chambers,” Elayne said in a small voice before she could stop herself. Her eyes flickered guiltily toward Egwene. Surely she had kept her own feelings hidden.

Moiraine gave her a reproachful look and sighed. “I would have spared you this if I could, Egwene. If Elayne had not let her disgust with Berelain overcome her sense. The customs of Mayene are not those either of you were born to. Egwene, I know what you feel for Rand, but you must realize by now that nothing can come of it. He belongs to the Pattern, and to history.”

Seemingly ignoring the Aes Sedai, Egwene peered into Elayne’s eyes. Elayne wanted to look away, and could not. Suddenly Egwene leaned closer, whispering behind a cupped hand. “I love him. Like a brother. And you like a sister. I wish you well of him.”

Elayne’s eyes widened, a smile spreading slowly across her face. She answered Egwene’s hug with a fierce hug of her own. “Thank you,” she murmured softly. “I love you too, sister. Oh, thank you.”

“She got it wrong,” Egwene said half to herself, a delighted grin blooming on her face. “Have you ever been in love, Moiraine?”

What a startling question. Elayne could not imagine the Aes Sedai in love. Moiraine was Blue Ajah, and it was said Blue sisters gave all their passions to causes.

The slender woman was not at all taken aback. For a long moment she looked levelly at the pair of them, each with an arm around the other. Finally she said, “I could wager I know the face of the man I will marry better than either of you knows that of your future husband.”

Egwene gaped in surprise.

“Who?” Elayne gasped.

The Aes Sedai appeared regretful of having spoken. “Perhaps I only meant we share an ignorance. Do not read too much into a few words.” She looked at Nynaeve consideringly. “Should I ever choose a man—should, I say—it will not be Lan. That much I will say.”

That was a sop to Nynaeve, but Nynaeve did not seem to like hearing it. Nynaeve had what Lini would have called “a hard patch to hoe,” loving not just a Warder but a man who tried to deny returning her love. Fool man that he was, he talked of the war against the Shadow he could not stop fighting and could never win, of refusing to dress Nynaeve in widow’s clothes for her wedding feast. Silly things of that sort. Elayne did not see how Nynaeve put up with it. She was not a very patient woman.

“If you are finished chatting about men,” Nynaeve said acidly, as though to prove just that, “perhaps we can go back to what is important?” Gripping her braid hard, she picked up speed and force as she went along, like a waterwheel with the gears disengaged. “How are we to decide whether Joiya is lying, or Amico, if you send them away? Or whether they both are? Or neither? I don’t relish dithering here, Moiraine, no matter what you think, but I have walked into too many traps to want to walk into another. And I don’t want to run after Jak-o’-the-Wisps, either. I... we... are the ones the Amyrlin sent after Liandrin and her cronies. Since you don’t seem to think they are important enough to spare more than a moment to help us, the least you can do is not crack our ankles with a broom!”

She seemed about to rip that braid free and try to strangle the Aes Sedai with it, and Moiraine wore a dangerously cool crystalline calm that suggested she might be ready to teach again the lesson on holding her tongue that she had taught Joiya. It was, Elayne decided, time for her to stop moping. She did not know how she had fallen into the role of peacemaker among these women—sometimes she wanted to take them all by the scruff of the neck and shake them—but her mother always said no good decision was ever made in anger. “You might add to your list of what you want to know,” she said, “why were we summoned to Rand? That is where Careen took us. He is all right, now, of course. Moiraine Healed him.” She could not repress a shudder, thinking of her brief glimpse inside his chamber, but the diversion worked a charm.

“Healed!” Nynaeve gasped. “What happened to him?”

“He almost died,” the Aes Sedai said, as calmly as if she were saying he had a pot of tea.

Elayne felt Egwene tremble as they listened to Moiraine’s dispassionate report, but perhaps some of the trembling was her own. Bubbles of evil drifting through the Pattern. Reflections leaping out of mirrors. Rand a mass of blood and wounds. Almost as an afterthought, Moiraine added that she was sure Perrin and Mat had experienced something of the same, but escaped unharmed. The woman must have ice instead of blood. No, she was heated enough about Rand’s stubbornness. And she wasn’t cold when she spoke of marrying, however much she pretended to be. But now she could have been discussing whether a bolt of silk was the right color for a dress.

“And these... these things will keep on?” Egwene said when Moiraine finished. “Is there nothing you can do to stop it? Or that Rand can do?”

The small blue stone dangling from Moiraine’s hair swung as she shook her head. “Not until he learns to control his abilities. Perhaps not then. I do not know if even he will be strong enough to push the miasma away from himself. At the least, though, he will be better able to defend himself.”

“Can’t you do something to help him?” Nynaeve demanded. “You are the one of us who is supposed to know everything, or pretends to. Can’t you teach him? Some part of it, anyway? And don’t quote proverbs about birds teaching fish to fly.”

“You would know better,” Moiraine replied, “if you had taken the advantage of your studies that you should have. You should know better. You want to know how to use the Power, Nynaeve, but you do not care to learn about the Power. Saidin is not saidar. The flows are different, the ways of weaving are different. The bird has a better chance.”

This time Egwene took a turn at diffusing tension. “What is Rand being stubborn about, now?” Nynaeve opened her mouth, and she added, “He can be stubborn as a stone, sometimes.” Nynaeve shut her mouth with a snap; they all knew how true that was.

Moiraine eyed them, considering. At times, Elayne was not sure how much the Aes Sedai trusted them. Or anyone. “He must move,” the Aes Sedai said at last. “Instead, he sits here, and the Tairens already begin to lose their fear of him. He sits here, and the longer he sits, doing nothing, the more the Forsaken will see his inaction as a sign of weakness. The Pattern moves and flows; only the dead are still. He must act, or he will die. From a crossbow bolt in his back, or poison in his food, or the Forsaken banding together to rip his soul from his body. He must act or die.” Elayne winced at each danger on her list; that they were real only made it worse.

“And you know what he must do, don’t you?” Nynaeve said tightly. “You have this action planned.”

Moiraine nodded. “Would you rather he go haring off alone once more? I dare not risk it. This time he might be dead, or worse, before I find him.”

That was true enough. Rand hardly knew what he was doing. And Elayne was sure Moiraine had no wish to lose the little guidance she still gave him. The little he allowed her to give.

“Will you share your plan for him with us?” Egwene demanded. She was certainly not helping soothe the air now.

“Yes, do,” Elayne said, surprising herself with a cool echo of Egwene’s tone. Confrontation was not her way when it could be avoided; her mother always said it was better to guide people than try to hammer them into line.

If their manner irritated Moiraine, she gave no sign of it. “As long as you understand that you must keep it to yourselves. A plan revealed is a plan doomed to fail. Yes, I see you do understand.”

Elayne certainly did; the plan was dangerous, and Moiraine was not sure it would work.

“Sammael is in Illian,” the Aes Sedai went on. “The Tairens are always as ripe for war with Illian as the other way around. They have been killing each other off and on for a thousand years, and they speak of their chance for it as other men speak of the next feastday. I doubt even knowing of Sammael’s presence would change that, not with the Dragon Reborn to lead them. Tear will follow Rand eagerly enough in that enterprise, and if he brings Sammael down, he—”

“Light!” Nynaeve exclaimed. “You not only want him to start a war, you want him to seek out one of the Forsaken! No wonder he is being stubborn. He is not a fool, for a man.”

“He must face the Dark One in the end,” Moiraine said calmly. “Do you truly think he can avoid the Forsaken now? As for war, there are wars enough without him, and every one worse than useless.”

“Any war is useless,” Elayne began, then faltered as comprehension suddenly filled her. Sadness and regret had to show on her face, too, but certainly comprehension. Her mother had lectured her often on how a nation was led as well as how it was governed, two very different things, but both necessary. And sometimes things had to be done for both that were worse than unpleasant, although the price of not doing them was worse still.

Moiraine gave her sympathetic look. “It is not always pleasant, is it? Your mother began when you were just old enough to understand, I suppose, teaching you what you will need to rule after her.” Moiraine had grown up in the Royal Palace in Cairhien, not destined to reign, but related to the ruling family and no doubt overhearing the same lectures. “Yet sometimes it seems ignorance would be better, to be a farm woman knowing nothing beyond the boundaries of her fields.”

“More riddles?” Nynaeve said contemptuously. “War used to be something I heard about from peddlers, something far away that I didn’t really understand. I know what it is, now. Men killing men. Men behaving like animals, reduced to animals. Villages burned, farms and fields burned. Hunger, disease and death, for the innocent as the guilty. What makes this war of yours better, Moiraine? What makes it cleaner?”

“Elayne?” Moiraine said quietly.

She shook her head—she did not want to be the one to explain this—but she was not sure even her mother sitting on the Lion Throne could have kept silent under Moiraine’s compelling, dark-eyed stare. “War will come whether Rand begins it or not,” she said reluctantly. Egwene stepped back a pace, staring at her in disbelief no sharper than that on Nynaeve’s face; the incredulity faded from both women as she continued. “The Forsaken will not stand idly and wait. Sammael cannot be the only one to have seized a nation’s reins, just the lone one we know. They will come after Rand eventually, in their own persons perhaps, but certainly with whatever armies they command. And the nations that are free of the Forsaken? How many will cry glory to the Dragon banner and follow him to Tarmon Gai’don, and how many will convince themselves the fall of the Stone is a lie and Rand only another false Dragon who must be put down, a false Dragon perhaps strong enough to threaten them if they do not move against him first? One way or another, war will come.” She cut off sharply. There was more to it, but she could not, would not, tell them that part.

Moiraine was not so reticent. “Very good,” she said, nodding, “yet incomplete.” The look she gave Elayne said she knew Elayne had left out what she had on purpose. Hands folded calmly at her waist, she addressed Nynaeve and Egwene. “Nothing makes this war better, or cleaner. Except that it will cement the Tairens to him, and the Illianers will end up following him just as the Tairens do now. How could they not, once the Dragon banner flies over Illian? Just the news of his victory might decide the wars in Tarabon and Arad Doman in his favor; there are wars ended for you.

“In one stroke he will make himself so strong in terms of men and swords that only a coalition of every remaining nation from here to the Blight can defeat him, and with the same blow he shows the Forsaken that he is not a plump partridge on a limb for the netting. That will make them wary, and buy him time to learn to use his strength. He must move first, be the hammer, not the nail.” The Aes Sedai grimaced slightly, a hint of her earlier anger marring her calm. “He must move first. And what does he do? He reads. Reads himself into deeper trouble.”

Nynaeve looked shaken, as if she could see all the battles and death; Egwene’s dark eyes were large with horrified understanding. Their faces made Elayne shiver. One had watched Rand grow up, the other had grown up with him. And now they saw him starting wars. Not the Dragon Reborn, but Rand al’Thor.

Egwene struggled visibly, latching onto the smallest part, the most inconsequential, of what Moiraine had said. “How can reading put him in trouble?”

“He has decided to find out for himself what the Prophecies of the Dragon say.” Moiraine’s face remained cool and smooth, but suddenly she sounded almost as tired as Elayne felt. “They may have been proscribed in Tear, but the Chief Librarian had nine different translations in a locked chest. Rand has them all, now. I pointed out the verse that applies here, and he quoted it to me, from an old Kandori translation.

“ ‘Power of the Shadow made human flesh,wakened to turmoil, strife and ruin.The Reborn One, marked and bleeding,dances the sword in dreams and mist,chains the Shadowsworn to his will,from the city, lost and forsaken,leads the spears to war once more,breaks the spears and makes them see,truth long hidden in the ancient dream.’ ”She grimaced. “It applies to this as well as it does to anything. Illian under Sammael is surely a forsaken city. Lead the Tairen spears to war, chain Sammael, and he has fulfilled the verse. The ancient dream of the Dragon Reborn. But he will not see it. He even has a copy in the Old Tongue, as if he understood two words. He runs after shadows, and Sammael, or Rahvin, or Lanfear may have him by the throat before I can convince him of his mistake.”

“He is desperate.” Nynaeve’s gentle tone was not for Moiraine, Elayne was sure, but for Rand. “Desperate and trying to find his way.”

“So am I desperate,” Moiraine said firmly. “I have dedicated my life to finding him, and I will not let him fail if I can prevent it. I am almost desperate enough to—” She broke off, pursing her lips. “Let it be enough that I will do what I must.”

“But it isn’t enough,” Egwene said sharply. “What is it you’ll do?”

“You have other matters to concern you,” the Aes Sedai said. “The Black Ajah—”

“No!’ Elayne’s voice was knife-edged and commanding, her knuckles a hard white where she gripped her soft blue skirts. “You keep many secrets, Moiraine, but tell us this. What do you mean to do to him?” An image flashed in her mind of seizing Moiraine and shaking the truth out of her if need be.

“Do to him? Nothing. Oh, very well. There is no reason you should not know. You have seen what the Tairens call the Great Holding?”

Oddly for a people that feared the Power so, the Tairens held in the Stone a collection of objects connected to the Power second only to that in the White Tower. Elayne, for one, thought it was because they had been forced to guard Callandor so long, whether they wanted or not. Even the Sword That Is Not a Sword might seem less than what it was when it was one among many. But the Tairens had never been able to make themselves display their prizes. The Great Holding was kept in a filthy series of crowded rooms buried even deeper than the dungeons. When Elayne had first seen them the locks on the doors had long since rusted shut, where the doors had not simply collapsed from dry rot.

“We spent an entire day down there,” Nynaeve said. “To see if Liandrin and her friends took anything. I don’t think they did. Everything was buried in dust and mold. It will take ten riverboats to transport all of it to the Tower. Perhaps they can make some sense of it there; I surely could not.” The temptation to prod Moiraine was apparently too great to avoid, for she added, “You would know all this if you had given us a little more of your time.”

Moiraine took no notice. She seemed to be looking inward, examining her own thoughts, and she spoke almost to herself. “There is one particular ter’angreal in the Holding, a thing like a redstone doorframe, subtly twisted to the eye. If I cannot make him reach some decision, I may have to step through.” The small blue stone on her forehead trembled, sparkling. Apparently she was not eager to take that step.

At the mention of ter’angreal, Egwene instinctively touched the bodice of her dress. She had sewn a small pocket there herself, to hide the stone ring it now held. That ring was a ter’angreal, powerful in its way if small, and Elayne was one of only three women who knew she had it. Moiraine was not one of the three.

They were strange things, ter’angreal, fragments of the Age of Legends like angreal and sa’angreal, if more numerous. Ter’angreal used the One Power instead of magnifying it. Each had apparently been made to do one thing and one thing alone, but though some were used now, no one was sure if those uses were anything like what they had been made for. The Oath Rod, on which a woman took the Three Oaths on being raised Aes Sedai, was a ter’angreal that made those oaths a part of her flesh and bone. The last test a novice took on being raised to Accepted was inside another ter’angreal that ferreted out her most heartfelt fears and made them seem real—or perhaps took her to a place where they were real. Odd things could happen with ter’angreal. Aes Sedai had been burned out or killed, or had simply vanished, in studying them. And in using them.

“I saw that doorway,” Elayne said. “In the last room at the end of the hall. My lamp went out, and I fell three times before I made it to the door.” A slight flush of embarrassment reddened her cheeks. “I was afraid to channel in there, even to relight the lamp. Much of it looks rubbish, to me—I think the Tairens simply grabbed anything that anyone hinted might be connected to the Power—but I thought if I channeled, I might accidentally empower something that wasn’t rubbish, and who knows what it might do.”

“And if you had stumbled in the dark and fallen through the twisted doorway?” Moiraine said wryly. “That needs no channeling, only to step through.”

“To what purpose?” Nynaeve asked.

“To gain answers. Three answers, each true, about past, present or future.”

Elayne’s first thought was for the children’s tale, Bili Under the Hill, but only because of the three answers. A second thought came on its heels, and not to her alone. She spoke while Nynaeve and Egwene were still opening their mouths. “Moiraine, this solves our problem. We can ask whether Joiya or Amico is telling the truth. We can ask where Liandrin and the others are. The names of the Black Ajah still in the Tower—”

“We can ask what this thing is that is dangerous to Rand,” Egwene put in, and Nynaeve added, “Why haven’t you told us of this before? Why have you let us go on listening to the same tales day after day when we could have settled it all by now?”

The Aes Sedai winced and threw up her hands. “You three rush in blindly where Lan and a hundred Warders would tread warily. Why do you think I have not stepped through? Days ago I could have asked what Rand must do to survive and triumph, how he can defeat the Forsaken and the Dark One, how he can learn to control the Power and hold off madness long enough to do what he must.” She waited, hands on hips, while it sank in. None of them spoke. “There are rules,” she went on, “and dangers. No one may step through more than once. Only once. You may ask three questions, but you must ask all three and hear the answers before you may leave. Frivolous questions are punished, it seems, but it also seems what may be serious for one can be frivolous coming from another. Most importantly, questions touching the Shadow have dire consequences.

“If you asked about the Black Ajah, you might be returned dead, or come out a gibbering madwoman, if you came out at all. As for Rand.... I am not certain it is possible to ask a question about the Dragon Reborn that does not touch the Shadow in some way. You see? Sometimes there are reasons for caution.”

“How do you know all this?” Nynaeve demanded. Planting fists on hips she confronted the Aes Sedai. “The High Lords surely never let Aes Sedai study anything in the Holding. From the filth down there, none of it has seen sunlight in a hundred years or more.”

“More, I should think,” Moiraine told her calmly. “They ceased their collecting nearly three hundred years gone. It was just before they stopped completely that they acquired this ter’angreal. Up until then it was the possession of the Firsts of Mayene, who used its answers to help keep Mayene out of Tear’s grasp. And they allowed Aes Sedai to study it. In secret, of course; Mayene has never dared anger Tear too openly.”

“If it was so important to Mayene,” Nynaeve said suspiciously, “why is it here, in the Stone?”

“Because Firsts have made bad decisions as well as good in trying to keep Mayene free of Tear. Three hundred years ago the High Lords were planning to build a fleet to follow Mayener ships and find the oilfish shoals. Halvar, the then First, raised the price of Mayener lamp oil well above that of oil from Tear’s olives, and to further convince the High Lords that Mayene would always put its own interests behind those of Tear, made them a gift of the ter’angreal. He had already used it, so it was no further good to him, and he was almost as young as Berelain is now, apparently with a long reign ahead of him and many years of needing Tairen goodwill.”

“He was a fool,” Elayne muttered. “My mother would never make such a mistake.”

“Perhaps not,” Moiraine said. “But then, Andor is not a small nation cornered by a much larger and stronger. Halvar was a fool as it turned out—the High Lords had him assassinated the very next year—but his foolishness does present me with an opportunity, if I need it. A dangerous one, yet better than none.”

Nynaeve muttered to herself, perhaps disappointed that the Aes Sedai had not tripped herself up.

“It leaves the rest of us right where we were.” Egwene sighed. “Not knowing who is lying, or whether they both are.”

“Question them again, if you wish,” Moiraine said. “You have until they are put on the ship, though I very much doubt either will change her tale now. My advice is to concentrate on Tanchico. If Joiya speaks truly, it will take Aes Sedai and Warders to guard Mazrim Taim, not just the three of you. I sent a warning to the Amyrlin by pigeon when I first heard Joiya’s story. In fact, I sent three pigeons, to make sure one reaches the Tower.”

“So kind of you to keep us informed,” Elayne murmured coolly. The woman did go her own way. Just because they were only pretending to be full Aes Sedai was no reason for Moiraine to keep them in the dark. The Amyrlin had sent them out to hunt the Black Ajah.

Moiraine inclined her head briefly, as if accepting the thanks for real. “You are welcome. Remember that you are the hounds the Amyrlin set after the Black Ajah.” Her slight smile at Elayne’s start said she knew exactly what Elayne had been thinking. “The decision on where to course must be yours. You have pointed that out to me, as well,” she added drily. “I trust it will prove an easier decision than mine. And I trust you will sleep well, what sleep is left before daybreak. A good night to you.”

“That woman...” Elayne muttered when the door had closed behind the Aes Sedai. “Sometimes I could almost strangle her.” She dropped into one of the chairs at the table and sat frowning at her hands in her lap.

Nynaeve gave a grunt that might have been agreement as she went to a narrow table against the wall where silver goblets and spice jars stood next to two pitchers. One pitcher, full of wine, rested in a gleaming bowl of now mostly melted ice, brought all the way from the Spine of the World packed in chests of sawdust. Ice in the summer to chill a High Lord’s drink; Elayne could barely imagine such a thing.

“A cool drink before bed will do us all good,” Nynaeve said, busying herself with wine and water and spices.

Elayne lifted her head as Egwene took a seat next to her. “Did you mean what you said, Egwene? About Rand?” Egwene nodded, and Elayne sighed. “Do you remember what Min used to say, all her jokes about sharing him? I sometimes wondered if that was a viewing she did not tell us about. I thought she meant we both loved him, and she knew it. But you had the right to him, and I didn’t know what to do. I still don’t. Egwene, he loves you.”

“He will just have to be put straight,” Egwene said firmly. “When I marry, it will be because I want to, not just because a man expects me to love him. I will be gentle with him, Elayne, but before I am done, he will know he is free. Whether he wants to be or not. My mother says men are different from us. She says we want to be in love, but only with the one we want; a man needs to be in love, but he will love the first woman to tie a string to his heart.”

“That is all very well,” Elayne said in a tight voice, “but Berelain was in his chambers.”

Egwene sniffed. “Whatever she intends, Berelain won’t keep her mind on one man long enough to make him love her. Two days ago she was casting eyes at Rhuarc. In two more, she’ll be smiling at someone else. She is like Else Grinwell. You remember her? The novice who spent all her time out at the practice yards fluttering her eyelashes at the Warders?”

“She was not just fluttering her eyelashes, in his bedchamber at this hour. She was wearing even less than usual, if that is possible!”

“Do you mean to let her have him, then?”

“No!” Elayne said it very fiercely, and she meant it, but in the next breath she was full of despair. “Oh, Egwene, I do not know what to do. I love him. I want to marry him. Light! What will mother say? I would rather spend a night in Joiya’s cell than listen to the lectures mother will give me.” Andoran nobles, even in royal families, married commoners often enough that it hardly occasioned comment—in Andor, at least—but Rand was not exactly the usual run of commoner. Her mother was quite capable of actually sending Lini to drag her home by her ear.

“Morgase can hardly say much if Mat is to be believed,” Egwene said comfortingly. “Or even half believed. This Lord Gaebril your mother is mooning after hardly sounds the choice of a woman thinking with her head.”

“I am sure Mat exaggerated,” Elayne replied primly. Her mother was too shrewd to make herself a fool over any man. If Lord Gaebril—she had never even heard of him before Mat spoke his name—if this fellow dreamed he could gain power through Morgase, she would give him a rude awakening.

Nynaeve brought three goblets of spiced wine to the table, beads of condensation running down their shining sides, and small green-and-gold woven straw mats to put them on so the damp would not mar the table’s polish. “So,” she said, taking a chair, “you’ve discovered you are in love with Rand, Elayne, and Egwene has discovered she isn’t.”

The two younger women gaped at her, one dark, the other fair, yet a near mirror image of astonishment.

“I have eyes,” Nynaeve said complacently. “And ears, when you don’t take the trouble to whisper.” She sipped at her wine, and her voice grew cold when she continued. “What do you mean to do about it? If that chit Berelain has her claws into him, it will not be easy to pry them loose. Are you sure you want to go to the effort? You know what he is. You know what lies ahead of him, even setting the Prophecies aside. Madness. Death. How long does he have? A year? Two? Or will it begin before summer’s end? He is a man who can channel.” She bit off each word in tones of iron. “Remember what you were taught. Remember what he is.”

Elayne held her head high and met Nynaeve stare for stare. “It does not matter. Perhaps it should, but it doesn’t. Perhaps I am being foolish. I do not care. I cannot change my heart to order, Nynaeve.”

Suddenly Nynaeve smiled. “I had to be sure,” she said warmly. “You must be sure. It isn’t easy loving any man, but loving this man will be harder yet.” Her smile faded as she went on. “My first question still has to be answered. What do you mean to do about it? Berelain may look soft—she certainly makes men see her so!—but I do not think she is. She will fight for what she wants. And she’s the kind to hold hard to something she doesn’t particularly want, just because someone else does want it.”

“I would like to stuff her in a barrel,” Egwene said, gripping her goblet as if it were the First’s throat, “and ship her back to Mayene. In the bottom of the hold.”

Nynaeve’s braid swung as she shook her head. “All very well, but try to offer advice that helps. If you cannot, keep silent and let her decide what she must do.” Egwene stared at her, and she added, “Rand is Elayne’s to deal with, now, not yours. You have stepped aside, remember.”

The remark should have made Elayne smile, but it did not. “This was all supposed to be different.” She sighed. “I thought I would meet a man, learn to know him over months or years, and slowly I would come to realize I loved him. That is the way I always thought it would be. I hardly know Rand. I’ve talked with him no more than half a dozen times in the space of a year. But I knew I loved him five minutes after I first set eyes on him.” Now that was foolish. Only, it was true, and she did not care if it was foolish. She would tell her mother the same to her face, and Lini. Well, perhaps not Lini. Lini had drastic ways of dealing with foolishness, and she seemed to think Elayne had not aged beyond ten. “As matters stand, though, I don’t even have the right to be angry with him. Or Berelain.” But she was. I would like to slap his face till his ears ring for a year! I’d like to switch her all the way to the ship that takes her back to Mayene! Only, she did not have the right, and that made it all the worse. Infuriatingly, a plaintive tone touched her voice. “What can I do? He has never looked at me twice.”

“In the Two Rivers,” Egwene said slowly, “if a woman wants a man to know she is interested in him, she puts flowers in his hair at Bel Time or Sunday. Or she might embroider a feastday shirt for him any time. Or make a point of asking him to dance and no one else.” Elayne gave her an incredulous look, and she hastened to add, “I am not suggesting you embroider a shirt, but there are ways to let him know how you feel.”

“Mayeners believe in speaking out.” Elayne’s voice held a brittle edge. “Perhaps that is the best way. Just tell him right out. At least he’ll know how I feel, then. At least I’ll have some right to—”

She snatched her spiced wine and tilted her head back, drinking. Speak out? Like some Mayener hussy! Setting the empty goblet back on the small mat, she drew a deep breath and murmured, “What will Mother say?”

“What’s more important,” Nynaeve said gently, “is what you will do when we have to leave here. Whether it’s Tanchico, or the Tower, or somewhere else, we will have to go. What will you do when you’ve just told him you love him, and you must leave him behind? If he asks you to stay with him? If you want to?”

“I will go.” There was no hesitation in Elayne’s reply, but a touch of asperity. The other woman should not have had to ask. “If I must accept him being the Dragon Reborn, he must accept that I am what I am, that I have duties. I want to be Aes Sedai, Nynaeve. It isn’t some idle amusement. Neither is the work we three have to do. Could you really think I would abandon you and Egwene?”

Egwene hurried to assure her that the thought had never crossed her mind; Nynaeve did the same, but slowly enough to give herself the lie.

Elayne looked from one to the other of them. “In truth, I feared you might tell me I was foolish, fretting over a thing like this when we have the Black Ajah to worry about.”

A slight flicker of Egwene’s eyes said the thought had occurred to her, but Nynaeve said, “Rand is not the only one who might die next year, or next month, We might, too. Times are not what they were, and we cannot be, either. If you sit and wish for what you want, you may not see it this side of the grave.”

It was a chilling sort of reassurance, but Elayne nodded. She was not being silly. If only the Black Ajah could be settled so easily. She pressed her empty silver goblet to her forehead for the coolness. What were they to do?

CHAPTER 7
Playing with Fire

With the sun barely above the horizon the next morning, Egwene presented herself at the doors to Rand’s chambers, followed by a foot-dragging Elayne. The Daughter-Heir wore a long-sleeved dress of pale blue silk, cut in the Tairen fashion, and pulled low after some little discussion. A necklace of sapphires like a deep morning sky, and another strand woven into her red-gold curls, showed up the blue of her eyes. Despite the damp warmth, Egwene wore a plain, deep red scarf, as large as a shawl, around her shoulders. Aviendha had supplied the scarf, and the sapphires too. Surprisingly, the Aiel woman had a tidy store of such things somehow.

For all she had known they were there, Egwene gave a start when the Aiel guards glided to their feet with startling suddenness. Elayne let out a small gasp, but quickly eyed them with that regal bearing she managed so well. It seemed to have no effect on these sun-dark men. The six were Shae’en M’taal, Stone Dogs, and appeared relaxed for Aiel, meaning they seemed to be looking everywhere, seemed ready to move in any direction.

Egwene drew herself up in imitation of Elayne—she did wish she could do that as well as the Daughter-Heir—and announced, “I... we... want to see how the Lord Dragon’s wounds are.”

Her remark was plainly foolish, if they knew much about Healing, but that likelihood was small; few people did, and Aiel probably less than most. She had not intended to give any reason for being there—it was enough that they thought her Aes Sedai—but when the Aiel appeared almost to spring out of the black marble floor, it suddenly seemed a good idea. Not that they were making any move to stop Elayne and her, of course. But these men were all so tall, so stone-faced, and they carried those short spears and horn bows as if using them would be as natural as breathing, and as easy. With those light-colored eyes regarding her so intently, it was all too easy to remember stories of black-veiled Aiel, without mercy or pity, of the Aiel War and the men like these who had destroyed every army sent against them until the last, who had only turned back to the Waste after fighting the allied nations to a standstill during three blood-soaked days and nights before Tar Valon itself. She very nearly embraced saidar.

Gaul, the Stone Dogs’ leader, nodded, looking down at Elayne and her with a touch of respect. He was a handsome man, in a rugged way, a little older than Nynaeve, with eyes as green and clear as polished gems and long eyelashes so dark they seemed to outline his eyes in black. “They may be troubling him. He is in a foul mood this morning.” Gaul grinned, just a quick flash of white teeth, in understanding of a temper when wounded. “He has chased off a group of these High Lords already, and threw one of them out himself. What was his name?”

“Torean,” another, even taller man replied. He had an arrow nocked, the short, curved bow held almost casually. His gray eyes rested on the two women for an instant, then went back to searching among the anteroom’s columns.

“Torean,” Gaul agreed. “I thought he would slide as far as those pretty carvings...” He pointed a spear to the ring of stiff-standing Defenders. “. . . but he came short by three paces. I lost a good Tairen hanging, all hawks in gold thread, to Mangin.” The taller man gave a brief, contented smile.

Egwene blinked at the image of Rand physically pitching a High Lord across the floor. He had never been violent; far from it. How much had he changed? She had been too busy with Joiya and Amico, and he too busy with Moiraine or Lan or the High Lords, to do more than speak in passing, a few words about home here and there, about how the Bel Tine festival might have gone this year and what Sunday would be like. It had all been so brief. How much had he changed?

“We have to see him,” Elayne said, a slight tremor in her voice.

Gaul made a bow, grounding the point of one spear on the black marble. “Of course, Aes Sedai.”

It was with some trepidation that Egwene entered Rand’s chambers, and Elayne’s face spoke volumes of the effort those few steps took.

No evidence of last night’s horror remained, unless it was the absence of mirrors; lighter patches marked the wall panels where those hanging there had been taken away. Not that the room came anywhere near neatness; books lay everywhere, on everything, some lying open as if abandoned in the middle of a page, and the bed was still unmade. The crimson draperies were pulled open on all the windows, facing westward toward the river that was Tear’s heartvein, and Callandor sparkled like polished crystal on a huge gilded stand of surpassing gaudiness. Egwene thought the stand the ugliest thing she had ever seen decorating a room—until she glimpsed the silver wolves savaging a golden stag on the mantel above the fireplace. Scant breezes off the river kept the room surprisingly cool compared to the rest of the Stone.

Rand sat in his shirtsleeves, sprawled in a chair with one leg over the arm and a leather-bound book propped against his knee. At the sound of their footsteps, he snapped the book shut and dropped it among the others on the scroll-worked carpet, bounding to his feet ready to fight. The scowl on his face faded as he took in who they were.

For the first time in the Stone, Egwene looked for changes in him and found them. How many months before then since she had seen him last? Enough for his face to have grown harder, for the openness that had once been there to fade. He moved differently, too, a little like Lan, a little like the Aiel. With his height and his reddish hair, and eyes that seemed now blue, now gray, as the light took them, he looked all too much like an Aielman, too much for comfort. But had he changed inside?

“I thought you were... someone else,” he mumbled, sharing out embarrassed glances between them. That was the Rand she knew, even to the flush that rose in his cheeks every time he looked at her or Elayne, either one. “Some... people want things I can’t give. Things I will not give.” Suspicion grew on his face with shocking suddenness, and his tone hardened. “What do you want? Did Moiraine send you? Are you supposed to convince me to do what she wants?”

“Don’t be a goose,” Egwene said sharply before she thought. “I do not want you to start a war!”

Elayne added in pleading tones, “We came to... to help you, if we can.” That was one of their reasons, and the easiest to bring up, they had decided over breakfast.

“You know about her plans for...” he began roughly, then made a sudden shift. “Help me? How? That is what Moiraine says.”

Egwene sternly folded her arms beneath her breasts, holding the scarf tight, in the way Nynaeve used to address the Village Council when she meant to have her way no matter how stubborn they were. It was too late to start over; the only thing was to go on as she had begun. “I told you not to be a fool, Rand al’Thor. You may have Tairens bowing to your boots, but I remember when Nynaeve switched your bottom for letting Mat talk you into stealing a jar of apple brandy.” Elayne kept her face carefully composed. Too carefully; it was plain to Egwene that she wanted to laugh out loud.

Rand did not notice, of course. Men never did. He grinned at Egwene, close to laughing himself. “We had just turned thirteen. She found us asleep behind your father’s stable, and our heads hurt so much we didn’t even feel her switch.” That was not at all the way Egwene recalled it. “Not like when you threw that bowl at her head. Remember? She’d dosed you with dogweed tea because you had been moping about for a week, and as soon as you tasted it, you hit her with her best bowl. Light, did you squeal! When was that? Two years ago come this—”

“We are not here to talk over old times,” Egwene said, shifting the scarf irritably. It was thin wool, but still far too hot. Really, he did have the habit of remembering the most unfortunate things.

He grinned as if he knew what she was thinking, and went on in better humor. “You are here to help me, you say. With what? I don’t suppose you know how to make a High Lord keep his word when I’m not staring over his shoulder. Or how to stop unwanted dreams? I could surely use help with—” Eyes darting to Elayne and back to her, he made another abrupt shift. “What about the Old Tongue? Did you learn any of that in the White Tower?” Without waiting for an answer he began rooting through the volumes scattered across the carpet. There were more on the chairs, among the tumbled bedclothes. “I have a copy here... somewhere... of....”

“Rand.” Egwene raised her voice. “Rand, I cannot read the Old Tongue.” She shot a look at Elayne, warning her not to admit to any such knowledge. They had not come to translate the Prophecies of the Dragon for him. The sapphires in the Daughter-Heir’s hair swayed as she nodded agreement. “We had other things to learn.”

He straightened from the books with a sigh. “It was too much to hope.” For a moment he seemed on the point of saying more, but stared at his boots. Egwene wondered how he managed to deal with the High Lords in all their arrogance if she and Elayne put him so out of countenance.

“We came to help you with channeling,” she told him. “With the Power.” What Moiraine claimed was supposed to be true; a woman could not teach a man to channel any more than she could teach him how to bear a child. Egwene was not so sure. She had felt something woven from saidin, once. Or rather, she had felt nothing, something blocking her own flows as surely as stone dammed water. But she had learned as much outside the Tower as within; surely in her knowledge there was something she could teach him, some guidance she could offer.

“If we can,” Elayne added.

Suspicion flashed across his face again. It was unnerving how his mood changed so quickly. “I have more chance of reading the Old Tongue than you do of.... Are you sure this isn’t Moiraine’s doing? Did she send you here? Thinks she can convince me by some roundabout way, does she? Some twisty Aes Sedai plot I’ll not see the point of until I am mired in it?” He grunted sourly and pulled a dark green coat from the floor behind one of the chairs, shrugging into it hastily. “I agreed to meet some more of the High Lords this morning. If I don’t keep an eye on them, they just find ways to get around what I want. They’ll learn sooner or later. I rule Tear, now. Me. The Dragon Reborn. I will teach them. You will have to excuse me.”

Egwene wanted to shake him. He ruled Tear? Well, perhaps he did, if it came to that, but she remembered a boy with a lamb nestled inside his coat, proud as a rooster because he had driven off the wolf that tried to take it. He was a shepherd, not a king, and even if he had call to give himself airs, it was no good to him that he did.

She was about to tell him as much, but before she could Elayne spoke up fiercely. “No one sent us. No one. We came because... because we care for you. Perhaps it will not work, but you can try. If I... if we care enough to try, you can try, too. Is it so unimportant to you that you cannot spare us an hour? For you life?”

He stopped buttoning up his coat, staring at the Daughter-Heir so intently that for a moment Egwene thought he had forgotten she was there. With a shiver he pulled his eyes away. Glancing at Egwene, he shifted his feet and frowned at the floor. “I will try,” he muttered. “It’ll do no good, but I will.... What do you want me to do?”

Egwene drew a deep breath. She had not thought convincing him would be this easy; he had always been like a boulder buried in mud when he decided to dig his heels in, which he did far too often.

“Look at me,” she said, embracing saidar. She let the Power fill her as completely as it ever had, more completely, accepting every drop she could hold; it was as if light suffused every particle of her, as if the Light itself filled every cranny. Life seemed to burst inside her like fireworks. She had never before let this much in. It was a shock to realize she was not quivering; surely she could not bear this glorious sweetness. She wanted to revel in it, to dance and sing, to simply lie back and let it roll through her, over her. She made herself speak. “What do you see? What do you feel? Look at me, Rand!”

He lifted his head slowly, still frowning. “I see you. What am I supposed to see? Are you touching the Source? Egwene, Moiraine has channeled around me a hundred times, and I never saw anything. Except what she did. It doesn’t work that way. Even I know that much.”

“I am stronger than Moiraine,” she told him firmly. “She would be whimpering on the floor, or insensible, if she tried to hold as much as I hold now.” It was true, though she had never before rated the Aes Sedai’s ability so closely.

It cried out to be used, this Power pulsing through her stronger than heartblood. With this much, she could do things Moiraine could not dream of doing. The wound in Rand’s side that Moiraine could never Heal completely. She did not know Healing—it was considerably more complex than anything she had ever done—but she had watched Nynaeve Heal, and perhaps, with this great pool of the Power filling her, she could see something of how that could be Healed. Not to do it, of course; only to see.

Carefully she spun out hair-fine flows of Air and Water and Spirit, the Powers used for Healing, and felt for his old injury. One touch, and she recoiled, shivering, snatching back her weaving; her stomach churned as if every meal she had ever eaten wanted to come up. It seemed that all the darkness in the world rested there in Rand’s side, all the world’s evil in a festering sore only lightly covered by tender scar tissue. A thing like that would soak up Healing flows like drops of water on dry sand. How could he bear the pain? Why was he not weeping?

From first thought to action had taken only a moment. Shaken, and desperately hiding it, she went on without a pause. “You are as strong as I. I know it; you must be. Feel, Rand. What do you feel?” Light, what can Heal that? Can anything?

“I don’t feel anything,” he muttered, shifting his feet. “Goose bumps. And no wonder. It’s not that I don’t trust you, Egwene, but I cannot help being nervous when a woman is channeling around me. I am sorry.”

She did not bother explaining to him the difference between channeling and merely embracing the True Source. There was so much he did not know, even compared to her own scant knowledge. He was a blind man trying to work a loom by touch, with no idea of colors or what the threads, or even the loom, looked like.

With an effort she released saidar, and it was an effort. Part of her wanted to cry at the loss. “I am not touching the Source now, Rand.” She stepped closer and peered up at him. “Do you still feel goose bumps?”

“No. But that’s just because you told me.” He gave an abrupt shrug of his shoulders. “You see? I started thinking about it, and I have them again.”

Egwene smiled triumphantly. She did not need to look around at Elayne to confirm what she had already sensed, what they had agreed upon earlier for this point. “You can sense a woman embracing the Source, Rand. Elayne is doing just that right now.” He squinted at the Daughter-Heir. “It doesn’t matter what you see or don’t see. You felt it. We have that much. Let’s see what else we can find. Rand, embrace the Source. Embrace saidin.” The words came out hoarsely. They had agreed on this, too, she and Elayne. He was Rand, not a monster from the stories, and they had agreed on it, but still, asking a man to.... The wonder was that she had gotten the words out at all. “Do you see anything?” she asked Elayne. “Or feel anything?”

Rand still doled out glances between them, in between staring at the floor and sometimes blushing. Why was he so out of countenance? Studying him fixedly, the Daughter-Heir shook her head. “He could just be standing there for all I can tell. Are you sure he is doing anything?”

“He can be stubborn, but he isn’t foolish. At least, he isn’t foolish most of the time.”

“Well, stubborn or foolish or something else, I feel nothing at all.”

Egwene frowned at him. “You said you would do as we asked, Rand. Are you? If you felt something, so should I, and I do not—” She broke off with a stifled yelp. Something had pinched her bottom. Rand’s lips twitched, clearly fighting a grin. “That,” she told him crisply, “was not nice.”

He tried to keep his face innocent, but the grin slipped. “You said you wanted to feel something, and I just thought—” His sudden roar made Egwene jump. Clapping a hand to his left buttock, he hobbled in a pained circle. “Blood and ashes, Egwene! There was no need to—” He fell off into deeper, inaudible mutters Egwene was just as glad she did not understand.

She took the opportunity to flap the scarf for a little air, and shared a small smile with Elayne. The glow faded around the Daughter-Heir. They both came close to giggling as they rubbed themselves surreptitiously. That should show him. About a hundred for one, Egwene estimated.

Turning back to Rand, she put on her sternest face. “I would have expected something like that from Mat. I thought you, at least, had grown up. We came here to help you, if we can. Try to cooperate. Do something with the Power, something that isn’t childish. Perhaps we will be able to sense that.”

Hunched, he glared at them. “Do something,” he muttered. “You had no call to—I’ll limp for—You want me to do something?”

Suddenly she lifted into the air, and Elayne, too; they stared at each other, wide-eyed, as they floated a pace above the carpet. There was nothing holding them, no flows Egwene could feel or see. Nothing. Her mouth tightened. He had no right to do this. No right at all, and it was time he learned it. The same sort of shield of Spirit that cut Joiya off from the Source would stop him, too; Aes Sedai used it on the rare men they found who could channel.

She opened herself to saidar—and her stomach sank. Saidar was there—she could feel its warmth and light—but between her and the True Source stood something, nothing, an absence that shut her away from the Source like a stone wall. She felt hollow inside, until panic welled up to fill her. A man was channeling, and she was caught in it. He was Rand, of course, but dangling there like a basket, helpless, all she could think of was a man channeling, and the taint on saidin. She tried to shout at him, but all that came out was a croak.

“You want me to do something?” Rand growled. A pair of small tables flexed their legs awkwardly, the wood creaking, and began to stumble about in a stiff parody of dance, gilt flaking off and falling. “Do you like this?” Fire flared up in the fireplace, filling the hearth from side to side, burning on stone bare of ashes. “Or this?” The tall stag and wolves above the fireplace began to soften and slump. Thin streams of gold and silver flowed out from the mass, fining down to shining threads, snaking, weaving themselves into a narrow sheet of metallic cloth; the length of glittering fabric hung in the air as it grew, its far end still linked to the slowly melting statuette on the stone mantel. “Do something,” Rand said. “Do something! Do you have any idea what it is like to touch saidin, to hold it? Do you? I can feel the madness waiting. Seeping into me!”

Abruptly the capering tables burst into flame like torches, dancing still; books spun into the air, pages fluttering; the mattress on the bed erupted, showering feathers across the room like snow. Feathers falling onto the burning tables filled the room with their sharp, sooty stink.

For a moment Rand stared wildly at the blazing tables. Then whatever was holding Egwene and Elayne vanished, along with the shield; their heels thumped onto the carpet in the same instant the flames went out as if sucked into the wood they had been consuming. The blaze in the fireplace winked out, as well, and the books fell to the floor in a worse jumble than before. The length of gold-and-silver cloth dropped, too, along with strands of rough-melted metal, no longer liquid or even hot. Only three largish lumps, two silver and one gold, remained on the mantel, cold and unrecognizable.

Egwene had staggered into Elayne as they landed. They clutched each other for support, but Egwene felt the other woman doing exactly what she was doing, embracing saidar as quickly as she could. In moments she had a shield ready to throw around Rand if he even appeared to be channeling, but he stood stunned, staring at the charred tables with feathers still drifting down around him, flecking his coat.

He did not seem to be a danger, now, but the room was certainly a mess. She wove tiny flows of Air to pull all the floating feathers together, and those already on the carpet, as well. As an afterthought, she added those on his coat. The rest of it he could have the majhere straighten, or see to himself.

Rand flinched as the feathers floated past him to alight on the tattered ruins of the mattress. It did nothing for the smell, burned feathers and burned wood, but at least the room was neater, and the open windows and faint breezes were already lessening the stench.

“The majhere may not want to give me another,” he said with a strained laugh. “A mattress a day is probably more than she is willing to....”He avoided looking at her or Elayne. “I’m sorry. I did not mean to.... Sometimes it runs wild. Sometimes there’s nothing there when I reach for it, and sometimes it does things I don’t.... I’m sorry. Perhaps you had better go. I seem to say that a lot.” He blushed again and cleared his throat. “I am not touching the Source, but maybe you had best go.”

“We are not done yet,” Egwene said gently. More gently than she felt—she wanted to box his ears; the idea of picking her up like that, shielding her—and Elayne—but he was on the ragged edge. Of what, she did not know, and she did not want to find out, not now, not here. With so many exclaiming over their strength—everyone said she and Elayne would be among the strongest Aes Sedai, if not the strongest, in a thousand years or more—she had assumed they were as strong as he. Near to it, at least. She had just been rudely disabused. Perhaps Nynaeve could come close, if she was angry enough, but Egwene knew she herself could never have done what he just had, split her flows that many ways, worked that many things at once. Working two flows at once was far more than twice as hard as working one of the same magnitude, and working three much more than twice again working two. He had to have been weaving a dozen. He did not even look tired, yet exertion with the Power took energy. She very much feared he could handle her and Elayne both like kittens. Kittens he might decide to drown, if he went mad.

But she would not, could not, just walk away. That would be the same as quitting, and she was not made that way. She meant to do what she had come there for—all of it—and he was not going to chase her off short of it. Not him or anything else.

Elayne’s blue eyes were filled with determination, and the moment Egwene fell silent she added in a much firmer voice, “And we will not go until we are. You said you would try. You must try.”

“I did say that, didn’t I?” he murmured after a time. “At least we can sit down.”

Not looking at the blackened tables or the band of metallic cloth lying crumpled on the carpet, he led them, limping slightly, to high-backed chairs near the windows. They had to move books from the red silk cushions in order to sit; Egwene’s chair held Volume Twelve of The Treasures of the Stone of Tear, a dusty, wood-bound book entitled Travels in the Aiel Waste, with Various Observations on the Savage Inhabitants, and a thick, tattered leather volume called Dealings with the Territory of Mayene, 500 to 750 of the New Era. Elayne had a bigger stack to move, but Rand hurriedly took them from her along with those from his chair and put them all on the floor, where the pile promptly fell over. Egwene laid hers neatly beside them.

“What do you want me to do now?” He sat on the edge of his seat, hands on his knees. “I promise I won’t do anything but what you ask this time.”

Egwene bit her tongue to keep from telling him that promise came a bit late. Perhaps she had been a little vague in what she had asked for, but that was no excuse. Still, that was something to be dealt with another time. She realized she was thinking of him as just Rand again, but he looked as if he had just splashed mud on her best dress and was worried she would not believe it an accident. Yet she had not let go of saidar, and neither had Elayne. There was no need to be foolish. “This time,” she said, “we just want you to talk. How do you embrace the Source? Just tell us. Take it step by step, slowly.”

“More like wrestling than embracing.” He grunted. “Step by step? Well, first I imagine a flame, and then I push everything into it. Hate, fear, nervousness. Everything. When they’re all consumed, there’s an emptiness, a void, inside my head. I am in the middle of it, but I’m a part of whatever I am concentrating on, too.”

“That sounds familiar,” Egwene said. “I’ve heard your father talk about a trick of concentration he uses to win the archery competitions. What he calls the Flame and the Void.”

Rand nodded; sadly, it seemed. She thought he must be missing home, and his father. “Tam taught it to me first. And Lan uses it, too, with the sword. Selene—someone I met once—called it the Oneness. A good many people seem to know about it, whatever they call it. But I found out for myself that when I was inside the void, I could feel saidin, like a light just beyond the corner of my eye in the emptiness. There’s nothing but me and that light. Emotion, even thought, is outside. I used to have to take it bit by bit, but it all comes at once, now. Most of it does, anyway. Most of the time.”

“Emptiness,” Elayne said with a shiver. “No emotion. That doesn’t sound very much like what we do.”

“Yes, it does,” Egwene insisted eagerly. “Rand, we just do it a little differently, that’s all. I imagine myself to be a flower, a rosebud, imagine it until I am the rosebud. That is like your void, in a way. The rosebud’s petals open out to the light of saidar, and I let it fill me, all light and warmth and life and wonder. I surrender to it, and by surrendering, I control it. That was the hardest part to learn, really; how to master saidar by submitting, but it seems so natural now that I do not even think about it. That is the key to it, Rand. I am sure. You must learn to surrender—” He was shaking his head vigorously.

“That’s nothing like what I do,” he protested. “Let it fill me? I have to reach out and take hold of saidin. Sometimes there’s still nothing there when I do, nothing I can touch, but if I didn’t reach for it, I could stand there forever and nothing would happen. It fills me all right, once I take hold, but surrender to it?” He raked his fingers through his hair. “Egwene, if I surrendered—even for a minute—saidin would consume me. It’s like a river of molten metal, an ocean of fire, all the light of the sun gathered in one spot. I must fight it to make it do what I want, fight it to keep from being eaten up.”

He sighed. “I know what you mean about life filling you, though, even with the taint turning my stomach. Colors are sharper, smells clearer. Everything is more real, somehow. I don’t want to let go, once I have it, even while it’s trying to swallow me. But the rest.... Face the facts, Egwene. The Tower is right about this. Accept it for the truth, because it is.”

She shook her head. “I will accept it when it is proved to me.” She did not sound as sure as she wanted to, not as sure she had been. What he told sounded like some twisted half-reflection of what she did, similarities only emphasizing differences. Yet there were similarities. She would not give up. “Can you tell the flows apart? Air, Water, Spirit, Earth, Fire?”

“Sometimes,” he said slowly. “Not usually. I just take what I need to do what I want. Fumble for it, mostly. It’s very strange. Sometimes I need to do a thing, and I do it, but only afterward do I know what it was I did, or how. It’s almost like remembering something I’ve forgotten. But I can remember how to do it again. Most of the time.”

“Yet you do remember how,” she insisted. “How did you set fire to those tables?” She wanted to ask him how he had made them dance—she thought she saw a way, with Air and Water—but she wanted to start with something simple; lighting a candle and putting it out were things a novice could do.

Rand’s face took on a pained expression. “I don’t know.” He sounded embarrassed. “When I want fire, for a lamp or a fireplace, I just make it, but I do not know how. I don’t really need to think to do things with fire.”

That almost stood to reason. Of the Five Powers, Fire and Earth had been strongest in men in the Age of Legends, and Air and Water in women; Spirit had been shared equally. Egwene hardly had to think to use Air or Water, once she had learned to do a thing in the first place. But the thought did not further their purpose.

This time it was Elayne who pressed him. “Do you know how you extinguished them? You seemed to think before they went out.”

“That I do remember, because I don’t believe I have ever done it before. I took in the heat from the tables and spread it into the stone of the fireplace; a fireplace wouldn’t even notice that much heat.”

Elayne gasped, unconsciously cradling her left arm for a moment, and Egwene winced in sympathy. She remembered when that arm had been a mass of blisters because the Daughter-Heir had done what Rand had just described, and with just the lamp in her room. Sheriam had threatened to let the blisters heal by themselves; she had not done it, but she had threatened. It was one of the warnings novices were given; never draw heat in. A flame could be extinguished using Air or Water, but using Fire to pull the heat away meant disaster with a flame of any size. It was not a matter of strength, so Sheriam had said; heat once taken in could not be gotten rid of, not by the strongest woman ever to come out of the White Tower. Women had actually burst into flame themselves that way. Women had burst into flame. Egwene drew a ragged breath.

“What’s the matter?” Rand asked.

“I think you just proved the difference to me.” She sighed.

“Oh. Does that mean you’re ready to give up?”

“No!” She tried to make her voice softer. She was not angry with him. Exactly. She was not sure who she was angry with. “Maybe my teachers were right, but there has to be a way. Some way. Only I cannot think of one, right now.”

“You tried,” he said simply. “I thank you for that. It is not your fault it did not work.”

“There must be a way,” Egwene muttered, and Elayne murmured, “We will find it. We will.”

“Of course you will,” he said with a forced cheerfulness. “But not today.” He hesitated. “I suppose you’ll be going, then.” He sounded half-regretful, half-glad. “I do need to tell the High Lords a few things about taxes this morning. They seem to think they can take as much from a farmer in a poor year as a good without beggaring him. And I suppose you have to get back to questioning those Darkfriends.” He frowned.

He had not said anything, but Egwene was sure he would like to keep them as far from the Black Ajah as possible. She was a little surprised he had not already tried to make them return to the Tower. Perhaps he knew that she and Nynaeve would put a flea in his ear the size of a horse if he tried.

“We do,” she said firmly. “But not right away. Rand...” The time had come to bring up her second reason for being there, but it was even more difficult than she had expected. This was going to hurt him; those sad, wary eyes convinced her it would. But it had to be done. She snugged the scarf around her; it enveloped her from shoulders to waist. “Rand, I cannot marry you.”

“I know,” he said.

She blinked. He was not taking it as hard as she expected. She told herself that was good. “I do not mean to hurt you—really, I don’t—but I do not want to marry you.”

“I understand, Egwene. I know what I am. No woman could—”

“You wool-brained idiot!” she snapped. “This had nothing to do with you channeling. I do not love you! At least, not in the way to want to marry you.”

Rand’s jaw dropped. “You don’t... love me?” He sounded as surprised as he looked. And hurt, too.

“Please try to understand,” she said in a gentler voice. “People change, Rand. Feelings change. When people are apart, sometimes they grow apart. I love you as I would a brother, perhaps more than a brother, but not to marry. Can you understand that?”

He managed a rueful grin. “I really am a fool. I didn’t really believe you might change, too. Egwene, I do not want to marry you, either. I did not want to change, I didn’t try to, but it happened. If you knew how much this means to me. Not having to pretend. Not being afraid I’ll hurt you. I never wanted to do that, Egwene. Never to hurt you.”

She very nearly smiled. He was putting on such a brave face; he was actually quite close to convincing. “I am glad you are taking it so well,” she told him in a soft voice. “I did not want to hurt you, either. And now I really must go.” Rising from her chair, she bent to brush a kiss across his cheek. “You will find someone else.”

“Of course,” he said, getting to his feet, the lie loud in his voice.

“You will.”

She slipped out with a sense of satisfaction and hurried across the anteroom, letting saidar go as she took the scarf from her shoulders. The thing was abominably hot.

He was ready for Elayne to pick up like a lost puppy if she handled him the way they had discussed. She thought Elayne would manage him nicely, now and later. For as much later as they had. Something had to be done about his control. She was willing to admit that what she had been told was right—no woman could teach him; fish and birds—but that was not the same as giving up. Something had to be done, so a way had to be found. That horrible wound and the madness were problems for later, but they would be dealt with eventually. Somehow. Everyone said Two Rivers men were stubborn, but they could not match Two Rivers women.

CHAPTER 8
Hard Heads

Elayne was not certain Rand realized she was still in the room, the way he stared after Egwene with a half-bewildered expression. Now and again he shook his head as if arguing with himself, or trying to straighten his mind. She was content to wait him out. Anything that put off the moment a while longer. She concentrated on maintaining an outward composure, back straight and head high, hands folded in her lap, a calmness on her face that could have rivaled Moiraine’s best. Butterflies the size of hedgehogs frolicked in her stomach.

It was not fear of him channeling. She had let go of saidar as soon as Egwene stood to leave. She wanted to trust him, and she had to. It was what she wanted to happen that had her trembling inside. She had to concentrate not to finger her necklace or fiddle with the strand of sapphires in her hair. Was her perfume too heavy? No. Egwene said he liked the smell of roses. The dress. She wanted to tug it up, but....

He turned—the slight limp in his step tightened her lips thoughtfully—saw her sitting in her chair, and gave a start, eyes widening with what seemed very close to panic. She was glad to see it; the effort of keeping her own face serene had leaped tenfold as soon as his eyes touched her. Those eyes were blue now, like a misty morning sky.

He recovered on the instant and made a quite unnecessary bow, wiping his hands once nervously on his coat. “I did not realize you were still—” Flushing, he cut off; forgetting her presence might be taken as an insult. “I mean... I didn’t... that is, I....” He took a deep breath and began again. “I am not as much of a fool as I sound, my Lady. It isn’t every day someone tells you they don’t love you, my Lady.”

She put on a tone of mock severity. “If you call me that again, I shall call you my Lord Dragon. And curtsy. Even the Queen of Andor might curtsy to you, and I am only Daughter-Heir.”

“Light! Don’t do that.” He seemed uneasy out of all proportion to the threat.

“I will not, Rand,” she said in a more serious voice, “if you call me by my name. Elayne. Say it.”

“Elayne.” He spoke awkwardly, yet, delightfully, as if he were savoring the name, too.

“Good.” It was absurd to be so pleased; all he had done was say her name, after all. There was something she had to know before she could go on. “Did it hurt you very much?” That could be taken two ways, she realized. “What Egwene told you, I mean.”

“No. Yes. Some. I don’t know. Fair is fair, after all.” His small grin took some of the edge off of his wariness. “I sound a fool again, don’t I?”

“No. Not to me.”

“I told her the pure truth, but I don’t think she believed me. I suppose I did not want to believe it of her, either. Not really. If that isn’t foolish, I don’t know what is.”

“If you tell me one more time that you are a fool, I may begin to believe it.” He won’t try to hold on to her; I won’t have to deal with that. Her voice was calm, with a light enough tone to let him know she did not really mean what she said. “I saw a Cairhienin lord’s fool, once, a man in a funny striped coat, too big for him and sewn with bells. You would look silly wearing bells.”

“I suppose I would,” he said ruefully. “I will remember that.” His slow grin was wider this time, warming his whole face.

The butterflies’ wings flogged her for haste, but she occupied herself with straightening her skirts. She had to go slowly, carefully. If I don’t, he’ll think I am just a foolish girl. And he will be right. The butterflies in her belly were beating kettle drums, now.

“Would you like a flower?” he asked suddenly, and she blinked in confusion.

“A flower?”

“Yes.” Striding to the bed, he scooped up a double handful of feathers from the tattered mattress and held them out to her. “I made one for the majhere last night. You’d have thought I had given her the Stone. But yours will be much prettier,” he added hastily. “Much prettier. I promise.”

“Rand, I—”

“I will be careful. It takes only a trickle of the Power. Just a thread, and I will be very careful.”

Trust. She had to trust him. It was a small surprise to realize that she did. “I would like that, Rand.”

For long moments he stared at the fluffy mound in his hands, a slow frown on his face. Abruptly he let the feathers fall, dusting his hands. “Flowers,” he said. “That’s no fit gift for you.” Her heart went out to him; clearly he had tried to embrace saidin and failed. Masking disappointment in action, he limped hurriedly to the metallic cloth and began gathering it over his arm. “Now this is a proper gift for the Daughter-Heir of Andor. You could have a seamstress make....” He floundered over what a seamstress might make from a four-pace length of gold-and-silver cloth, less than two feet wide.

“I am sure a seamstress will have many ideas,” she told him diplomatically. Pulling a handkerchief from her sleeve, she knelt for a moment to collect the feathers he had dropped into the square of pale blue silk.

“The maids will take care of that,” he said as she tucked the small bundle securely into her belt pouch.

“Well, this bit is done.” How could he understand that she would keep the feathers because he had wanted them to be a flower? He shifted his feet, holding the glittering folds as if he did not know what to do with them. “The majhere must have seamstresses,” she told him. “I will give that to one of them.” He brightened, smiling; she saw no reason to tell him she meant it as a gift. Those thundering butterflies would not let her hold back any longer. “Rand, do you... like me?”

“Like you?” he frowned. “Of course, I like you. I like you very much.”

Did he have to look as if he did not understand at all? “I am fond of you, Rand.” She was startled that she said it so calmly; her stomach seemed to be trying to writhe up into her throat, and her hands and feet felt like ice. “More than fond.” That was enough; she was not going to make a fool of herself. He has to say more than “like,” first. She almost giggled hysterically. I will keep control of myself. I will not let him see me behave like a moon-eyed girl. I will not.

“I am fond of you,” he said slowly.

“I am not usually so forward.” No; that might make him think of Berelain. There was red in his cheeks; he was thinking of Berelain. Burn him! Her voice came as smooth as silk. “Soon I will have to go, Rand. To leave Tear. I may not see you again for months.” Or ever, a tiny voice cried in her head. She refused to listen. “I could not go without letting you know how I feel. And I am... very fond of you.”

“Elayne, I am fond of you. I feel.... I want....” The scarlet spots on his cheeks grew. “Elayne, I don’t know what to say, how to....”

Suddenly it was her face that was flaming. He must think she was trying to force him into saying more. Aren’t you? the small voice mocked, which only made her cheeks hotter. “Rand, I am not asking for....” Light! How to say it? “I only wanted you to know how I feel. That is all.” Berelain would not have let it go at that. Berelain would have been wrapped around him by now. Telling herself she would not let that half-dressed snip better her, she moved closer to him, took the glittering cloth from his arm, and dropped it on the carpet. For some reason he seemed taller than he ever had before. “Rand.... Rand, I want you to kiss me.” There. It was out.

“Kiss you?” he said as if he had never heard of kissing before. “Elayne, I don’t want to promise more than.... I mean, it isn’t as if we were betrothed. Not that I am suggesting we should be. It’s just that.... I am fond of you, Elayne. More than fond. I just do not want you to think I....”

She had to laugh at him, with all his confused earnestness. “I do not know how things are done in the Two Rivers, but in Caemlyn you don’t wait until you are betrothed before kissing a girl. And it does not mean you must become betrothed, either. But perhaps you do not know how—” His arms went around her almost roughly, and his lips came down on hers. Her head spun; her toes tried to curl up in her slippers. Some time later—she was not certain how long—she realized she was leaning against his chest, knees trembling, trying to gulp air.

“Forgive me for interrupting you,” he said. She was glad to hear a touch of breathlessness in his voice. “I am just a backward shepherd from the Two Rivers.”

“You are uncouth,” she murmured against his shirt, “and you did not shave this morning, but I would not say you are backward.”

“Elayne, I—”

She put a hand over his mouth. “I do not want to hear anything from you that you do not mean with your whole heart,” she said firmly. “Not now, or ever.”

He nodded, not as if he understood why, but at least as if he understood that she meant what she said. Straightening her hair—the strand of sapphires was tangled beyond mending without a mirror—she stepped out of his encircling arms, not without reluctance; it would be all too easy to remain there, and she had already been more forward than she had ever dreamed of before. Speaking up like that; asking for a kiss. Asking! She was not Berelain.

Berelain. Perhaps Min had had a viewing. What Min saw, happened, but she would not share him with Berelain. Perhaps she needed to do a bit more plain speaking. Obliquely plain, at least. “I expect you will not lack for company after I go. Just remember that some women see a man with their hearts, while others see no more than a bauble to wear, no different than a necklace or a bracelet. Remember that I will come back, and I am one who sees with her heart.” He looked confused, at first, then a little alarmed. She had said too much, too fast. She had to divert him. “Do you know what you have not said to me? You have not tried to frighten me away by telling me how dangerous you are. Don’t try now. It is too late.”

“I did not think of it.” Another thought came to him, though, and his eyes crinkled with suspicion. “Did you and Egwene scheme this up between you?”

She managed to combine wide-eyed innocence with mild outrage. “How could you even consider such a thing? Do you imagine we would hand you around between us like a package? You think a good deal of yourself. There is such a thing as being overproud.” He did look confused, now. Quite satisfactory. “Are you sorry for what you did to us, Rand?”

“I did not mean to frighten you,” he said hesitantly. “Egwene made me angry; she’s always been able to without half trying. That’s no excuse, I know. I said I was sorry, and I am. Look what it got me. Burned tables and another mattress ruined.”

“And for... the pinch?”

His face reddened again, but he faced her firmly even so. “No. No, I am not sorry for that. The two of you, talking over my head, as if I were a lump of wood with no ears. You deserved as much, both of you, and I won’t say different.”

For a moment she considered him. He rubbed his arms through his coat sleeves as she momentarily embraced saidar. She did not know Healing to any degree, but she had learned bits and pieces on the edge of it. Channeling, she soothed away the hurt she had given him for the pinch. His eyes widened in surprise, and he shifted on his feet as if testing the absence of pain. “For being honest,” she told him simply.

There was a rap at the door, and Gaul looked in. At first the Aielman had his head down, but after a quick glance at them he raised it. Color flooded Elayne’s face as she realized he had suspected that he might be interrupting something he should not see. She very nearly embraced saidar again and taught him a lesson.

“The Tairens are here,” Gaul said. “The High Lords you were expecting.”

“I will go, then,” she told Rand. “You must tell them about—taxes, was it not? Think on what I have said.” She did not say “think of me,” but she was sure the effect would be the same.

He reached out as if to stop her, but she slipped away from him. She had no intention of putting on a display in front of Gaul. The man was Aiel, but what must he think of her, wearing perfume and sapphires at that hour of the morning? It required real effort not to pull the neckline of her dress up higher.

The High Lords entered as she reached the door, a cluster of graying men in pointed beards and colorful, ornate coats with puffy sleeves. They crowded out of her way with reluctant bows, their bland faces and polite murmurs not hiding their relief that she was leaving.

She glanced back once from the doorway. A tall, broad-shouldered young man in a plain green coat among the High Lords in their silks and satin stripes, Rand looked like a stork among peacocks, yet there was something about him, a presence that said he commanded there by right. The Tairens recognized it, bending their stiff necks reluctantly. He thought probably they bowed just because he was the Dragon Reborn, and perhaps they thought so, too. But she had seen men, like Gareth Bryne, the Captain-Commander of her mother’s Guards, who could have dominated a room in rags, with no title and no one knowing their name. Rand might not know it, but he was such a man. He had not been when she first saw him, but he was now. She pulled the door shut behind her.

The Aiel around the entrance glanced at her, and the captain commanding the ring of Defenders in the middle of the anteroom stared uneasily, but she barely noticed them. It was done. Or at least it was begun. Four days she had before Joiya and Amico were put on that ship, four days at most to twine herself so firmly into Rand’s thoughts that he had no room for Berelain. Or if not that, firmly enough that she stayed inside his head until she had the chance to do more. She had never thought she might do a thing like this, stalk a man like a huntress stalking a wild boar. The butterflies were still gamboling in her stomach. At least she had not let him see how nervous she was. And it occurred to her that she had not once thought of what her mother would say. With that, the flutterings vanished. She did not care what her mother said. Morgase had to accept her daughter as a woman; that was all there was to it.

The Aiel bowed as she moved away, and she acknowledged them with a gracious nod that would have done Morgase proud. Even the Tairen captain looked at her as if he could see her new serenity. She did not think she would be troubled by butterflies again. For the Black Ajah perhaps, but not for Rand.

Ignoring the High Lords in their anxious semicircle, Rand watched the door close behind Elayne with wonder in his eyes. Dreams coming true, even only this much, made him uneasy. A swim in the Waterwood was one thing, but he would never have believed a dream where she came to him like this. She had been so cool and collected, while he was tripping over his own tongue. And Egwene, giving his own thoughts back to him and only concerned she might hurt him. Why was it women could go to pieces or fly into a rage at the smallest thing, yet never flicker an eyelash at what left you gaping?

“My Lord Dragon?” Sunamon murmured even more diffidently than usual. Word of this morning must have spread through the Stone already; that first lot had nearly run on their way out, and it was doubtful Torean would show his face, or his filthy suggestions, anywhere Rand was.

Sunamon essayed an ingratiating smile, then smothered it, drywashing his plump hands, when Rand only looked at him. The rest pretended they did not see the burned tables, or the shattered mattress and scattered books, or the half-melted lumps over the fireplace that had been the stag and wolves. High Lords were good at seeing only what they wanted to see. Carleon and Tedosian, false self-effacement in every line of their thick bodies, surely never realized there was anything suspicious in never looking at one another. But then, Rand might never have noticed if not for Thom’s note, found in the pocket of a coat just back from being brushed.

“The Lord Dragon wished to see us?” Sunamon managed.

Could Egwene and Elayne have worked it up between them? Of course not. Women did not do things like that any more than men. Did they? It had to be coincidence. Elayne heard that he was free and decided to speak. That was it. “Taxes,” he barked. The Tairens did not move, but they gave the impression of stepping back. How he hated dealing with these men; he wanted to dive back into the books.

“It is a bad precedent, my Lord Dragon, lowering taxes,” a lean, gray-haired man said in an oily voice. Meilan was tall for a Tairen, only a hand shorter than Rand, and hard as any Defender. He held himself in a stoop in Rand’s presence; his dark eyes showed how he hated it. But he had hated it when Rand told them to stop crouching around him, too. None of them straightened, but Meilan especially had not liked being reminded of what he did. “The peasants have always paid easily, but if we lower their taxes, when the day comes that we raise them back to where they now are, the fools will complain as bitterly as if we had doubled the present levy. There might well be riots when that day comes, my Lord Dragon.”

Rand strode across the room to stand before Callandor; the crystal sword glittered, outshining the gilt and gemstones surrounding it. A reminder of who he was, of the power he could wield. Egwene. It was foolish to feel hurt because she said she no longer loved him. Why should he expect her to have feelings for him that he did not have for her? Yet it did hurt. A relief, but not a pleasant one. “You will have riots if you drive men off their farms.” Three books stood in a stack almost by Meilan’s feet. The Treasures of the Stone of Tear, Travels in the Waste, and Dealings with the Territory of Mayene. The keys lay in those, and in the various translations of The Karaethon Cycle, if he could only find them and fit them to the proper locks. He pushed his mind back to the High Lords. “Do you think they will watch their families starve and do nothing?”

“The Defenders of the Stone have put down riots before, my Lord Dragon,” Sunamon said soothingly. “Our own guards can keep peace in the countryside. The peasants will not disturb you, I give you my assurance.”

“There are too many farmers as it is.” Carleon flinched at Rand’s glare. “It is the civil war in Cairhien, my Lord Dragon,” he explained hurriedly. “The Cairhienin can buy no grain, and the granaries are bursting. This year’s harvest will go to waste as it is. And next year... ? Burn my soul, my Lord Dragon, but what we need is for some of those peasants to stop their eternal digging and planting.” He seemed to realize he had said too much, though he clearly did not understand why. Rand wondered whether he had any idea how food got to his table. Did he see anything but gold, and power?

“What will you do when Cairhien is buying grain again?” Rand said coolly. “For that matter, is Cairhien the only land that needs grain?” Why had Elayne spoken up like that? What did she expect of him? Fond, she said. Women could play games with words like Aes Sedai. Did she mean she loved him? No, that was plain foolishness. Overproud to a degree.

“My Lord Dragon,” Meilan said, half subservient, half as if explaining something to a child, “if the civil wars stopped today, Cairhien still could not buy more than a few bargeloads for two, even three years. We have always sold our grain to Cairhien.”

Always—for the twenty years since the Aiel War. They were so bound up in what they had always done that they could not see what was so simple. Or would not see it. When the cabbages sprouted like weeds around Emond’s Field, it was a near certainty that bad rain or whiteworm had struck Deven Ride or Watch Hill. When Watch Hill had too many turnips, Emond’s Field would have a shortage, or Deven Ride.

“Offer it in Illian,” he told them. What did Elayne expect? “Or Altara.” He did like her, but he liked Min as much. Or thought he did. It was impossible to sort out his feelings for either of them. “You have ships for the sea as well as riverboats and barges, and if you don’t have enough, hire them from Mayene.” He liked both women, but beyond that.... He had spent very nearly his whole life mooning after Egwene; he was not about to dive into that again until he was sure. Sure of something. Sure. If Dealings with the Territory of Mayene was to be believed.... Stop this, he told himself. Keep your mind on these weasels, or they’ll find cracks to slip through, and bite you on the way. “Pay with grain; I’m sure the First will be amenable, for a good price. And maybe a signed agreement, a treaty....” That was a good word; the sort they used. “. . . pledging to leave Mayene alone in return for ships.” He owed her that.

“We trade little with Illian, my Lord Dragon. They are vultures, and scum.” Tedosian sounded scandalized, and so did Meilan when he said, “We have always dealt with Mayene from strength, my Lord Dragon. Never with bent knee.”

Rand took a deep breath. The High Lords tensed. It always came to this. He always tried to reason with them, and it always failed. Thom said the High Lords had heads as hard as the Stone, and he was right. What do I feel for her? Dreaming about her. She’s certainly pretty. He was not sure if he meant Elayne or Min. Stop this! A kiss means no more than a kiss. Stop it! Putting women firmly out of his head, he set himself to telling these stone-brained fools what they were going to do. “First, you will cut taxes on farmers by three-quarters, and on everyone else by half. Don’t argue! Just do it! Second, you go to Berelain and ask—ask!—her price for hiring....”

The High Lords listened with false smiles and grinding teeth, but they listened.

Egwene was considering Joiya and Amico when Mat fell in beside her, just walking down the hallway as if he merely happened to be going the same way. He was frowning to himself, and his hair needed brushing, as if he had been scrubbing his fingers through it. Once or twice he glanced at her but did not speak. The servants they passed bowed or curtsied, and so did the occasional High Lords and Ladies, if with markedly less enthusiasm. Mat’s lip-curling stares at the nobles would have brought trouble if she had not been there, friend of the Lord. Dragon or not.

This silence was not like him, not like the Mat she knew. Except for his fine red coat—wrinkled as if he had slept in it—he seemed no different than the old Mat, yet they were surely all different now. His quiet was unsettling. “Is last night troubling you?” she asked at last.

He missed a step. “You know about that? Well, you would, wouldn’t you. Doesn’t bother me. Wasn’t much to it. Over and done with now, anyway.”

She pretended to believe him. “Nynaeve and I do not see much of you.” That was a rank understatement.

“I have been busy,” he muttered with an uncomfortable shrug, looking everywhere but at her again.

“Dicing?” she asked dismissively.

“Cards.” A plump maid, curtsying with her arms full of folded towels, glanced at Egwene and, apparently thinking she was not looking, winked at Mat. He grinned at her. “I’ve been busy playing cards.”

Egwene’s eyebrows rose sharply. That woman had to be ten years older than Nynaeve. “I see. It must use up a great deal of time. Playing cards. Too much to spare a few moments for old friends.”

“The last time I spared you a moment, you and Nynaeve tied me up with the Power like a pig for market so you could rummage through my room. Friends don’t steal from friends.” He grimaced. “Besides, you’re always with that Elayne, with her nose in the air. Or Moiraine. I do not like—” Clearing his throat, he shot her a sideways glance. “I don’t like taking up your time. You are busy, from what I hear. Questioning Darkfriends. Doing all sorts of important things, I should imagine. You know these Tairens think you are Aes Sedai, don’t you?”

She shook her head ruefully. It was Aes Sedai he did not like. However much of the world Mat saw, nothing would ever change him. “It is not stealing to take back what was supposed to be a loan,” she told him.

“I don’t remember you saying anything about a loan. Aaah, what use do I have for a letter from the Amyrlin? Just get me in trouble. You could have asked, though.”

She refrained from pointing out that they had asked. She wanted neither an argument nor a sulky departure. He would not call it that, of course. This time she would let him get away with his version. “Well, I am glad you are still willing to talk to me. Was there a special reason for it today?”

He shoved his fingers through his hair and muttered to himself. What he needed was his mother to haul him off by his ear for a long talking to. Egwene counseled herself to patience. She could be patient when she wanted to. She would not say a word before he did, if she burst for it.

The corridor opened into a railed colonnade of white marble, looking down on one of the Stone’s few gardens. Large white blossoms covered a few small, waxy-leafed trees and gave a scent even sweeter than the banks of red and yellow roses. A sullen breeze failed to stir the hangings on the inner wall, but it did cut the morning’s growing damp warmth. Mat took a seat on the wide balustrade with his back against a column and one foot up in front of him. Peering down into the garden, he finally said, “I... need some advice.”

He wanted advice from her? She goggled at him. “Whatever I can do to help,” she said faintly. He turned his head to her, and she did her best to assume something like Aes Sedai calm. “What do you want advice about?”

“I don’t know.”

It was a ten-pace drop to the garden. Besides, there were men down there weeding among the roses. If she pushed him over, he might land on one. A gardener, not a rosebush. “How am I supposed to advise you, then?” she asked in a thin voice.

“I am... trying to decide what to do.” He looked embarrassed; he had a right to, in her opinion.

“I hope you are not thinking of trying to leave. You know how important you are. You cannot run away from it, Mat.”

“You think I don’t know that? I don’t think I could leave if Moiraine told me I could. Believe me, Egwene, I am not going anywhere. I just want to know what’s going to happen.” He gave a rough shake of his head, and his voice grew tighter. “What comes next? What’s in these holes in my memory? There are chunks of my life that aren’t even there; they don’t exist, as if they never happened! Why do I find myself spouting gibberish? People say it’s the Old Tongue, but it’s goose gabble to me. I want to know, Egwene. I have to know, before I go as crazy as Rand.”

“Rand is not crazy,” she said automatically. So Mat was not trying to run away. That was a pleasant surprise; he had not seemed to believe in responsibility. But there was pain and worry in his voice. Mat never worried, or never let anyone see it if he did. “I do not know the answers, Mat,” she said gently. “Perhaps Moiraine—”

“No!” He was on his feet in a bound. “No Aes Sedai! I mean.... You’re different. I know you, and you aren’t.... Didn’t they teach you anything in the Tower, some trick or other, something that would serve?”

“Oh, Mat, I am sorry. I am so sorry.”

His laugh reminded her of their childhood. Just so he had always laughed when his grandest expectations went astray. “Ah, well, I guess it does not matter. It’d still be the Tower, if at second hand. No offense to you.” Just so he had moaned over a splinter in his finger and treated a broken leg as if it were nothing at all.

“There might be a way,” she said slowly. “If Moiraine says it is all right. She might.”

“Moiraine! Haven’t you heard a word I said? The last thing I want is Moiraine meddling. What way?”

Mat had always been rash. But he wanted no more than she did, to know. If only he showed a little sense and caution for once. A passing Tairen noblewoman with dark braids coiled about her head, shoulders bare above yellow linen, bent her knee slightly, looking at them with no expression; she walked on quickly, with a stiff back. Egwene watched her until she was well beyond earshot, and they were alone. Unless the gardeners, thirty feet below, counted. Mat was staring at her expectantly.

In the end, she told him of the ter’angreal, the twisted doorway that held answers on its other side. It was the dangers she emphasized, the consequences of foolish questions, or those touching the Shadow, the dangers even Aes Sedai might not know. She was more than flattered that he had come to her, but he had to show a little sense. “You must remember this, Mat. Frivolous questions can get you killed, so if you do use it, you will have to be serious for a change. And you mustn’t ask any questions that touch the Shadow.”

He had listened with greater and greater incredulity. When she was done, he exclaimed, “Three questions? You go in like Bili, I suppose, spend a night and come out ten years later with a purse that’s always full of gold and a—”

“For once in your life, Matrim Cauthon,” she snapped, “do not talk like a fool. You know very well ter’angreal are not stories. It’s the dangers you have to be aware of. Maybe the answers you seek are inside this one, but you must not try it before Moiraine says you can. You must promise me that, or I promise you I will take you to her like a trout on a string. You know I can.”

He gave a loud snort. “I’d be a fool if I did try it, no matter what Moiraine says. Walk into a bloody ter’angreal? It’s less I want to do with the bloody Power, not more. You can blot it right out of your mind.”

“It is the only chance I know, Mat.”

“Not for me, it isn’t,” he said firmly. “No chance at all is better than that.”

Despite his tone, she wanted to put an arm around him. Only he would likely make some joke at her expense, and try to goose her. He had been incorrigible from the day he was born. But he had come to her for help. “I’m sorry, Mat. What will you do?”

“Oh, play cards, I suppose. If anyone will play with me. Play stones with Thom. Dice in the taverns. I can still go as far as the city, at least.” His gaze strayed toward a passing maidservant, a slender, dark-eyed girl, near his own age. “I’ll find something to take up time.”

Her hand itched to slap him, but instead she said cautiously, “Mat, you really aren’t thinking of leaving, are you?”

“Would you tell Moiraine, if I was?” He put up his hands to forestall her. “Well, there’s no need. I told you I wouldn’t. I’ll not pretend I’d not like to, but I won’t. Is that good enough for you?” A pensive frown crept onto his face. “Egwene, do you ever wish you were back home? That none of this had ever happened?”

It was a startling question, coming from him, but she knew her answer. “No. Even with everything, no. Do you?”

“I would be a fool then, wouldn’t I?” he laughed. “It’s cities I like, and this one will do for now. This one will do. Egwene, you won’t tell Moiraine about this, will you? About me asking for advice and all?”

“Why shouldn’t I?” she asked suspiciously. He was Mat, after all.

He gave an embarrassed hitch of his shoulders. “I’ve been keeping wider of her than I have of.... Anyway, I’ve been staying clear, especially when she wants to root around in my head. She might think I’m weakening. You won’t tell her, will you?”

“I won’t,” she said, “if you promise me you will not go near that ter’angreal without asking her permission. I shouldn’t even have told you about it.”

“I promise.” He grinned. “I won’t go near that thing unless my life depends on it. I swear.” He finished with mock solemnity.

Egwene shook her head. However much everything else changed, Mat just never would.

CHAPTER 9
Decisions

Three days passed with heat and damp that seemed to sap even the Tairens’ strength. The city slowed to a lethargic walk, the Stone to a crawl. Servants worked nearly in their sleep; the majhere tore her coiled braids in frustration, but even she could not find the energy to rap knuckles or flick ears with a hard finger. Defenders of the Stone slumped at their posts like half-melted candles, and the officers showed more interest in chilled wine than in making their rounds. The High Lords kept largely to their apartments, sleeping through the hottest part of the day, and a few left the Stone entirely for the relative cool of estates far to the east, on the slopes of the Spine of the World. Oddly, only the outlanders, who felt the heat worst of all, pushed on with their lives as hard as ever, if not harder. For them, the heavy heat did not weigh nearly as much as did the hours rushing by.

Mat quickly discovered that he had been right about the young lords who saw the playing cards try to kill him. Not only did they avoid him, they spread the word among their friends, often garbled; no one in the Stone who had two pieces of silver in hand would say more than hasty excuses while backing away. The rumors spread beyond the lordlings. More than one serving woman who had enjoyed a cuddle now declined, too, and two said uneasily that they had heard it was dangerous to be alone with him. Perrin appeared all wrapped up in his own worries, and Thom seemed to vanish by sleight of hand; Mat had no idea what occupied the gleeman, but he was seldom to be found, day or night. Moiraine, the one person Mat wished would ignore him, instead seemed to be there whenever he turned around; she was just passing by, or crossing the corridor in the distance, but her eyes met his every last time, looking as if she knew what he was thinking and what he wanted, knew how she was going to make him do exactly what she wanted instead. None of it made any difference in one respect; he still managed to find excuses to put off leaving for another day. As he saw it, he had not promised Egwene he would stay. But he did.

Once, he carried a lamp down into the belly of the Stone, to the so-called Great Holding, as far as the dry-rotted door at the far end of the narrow hallway. A few minutes of peering into the shadowy interior at dim shapes covered with dusty canvas, roughly stacked crates and barrels, their flat ends used as shelves for jumbles of figurines and carvings and peculiar things of crystal and glass and metal—a few minutes of that, and he hurried away, muttering, “I’d have to be the biggest bloody fool in the whole bloody world!”

Nothing kept him from going into the city, though, and there was no chance at all of meeting Moiraine in the dockside taverns of the Maule, the port district, or the inns in the Chalm, where the warehouses were, dimly lit, cramped, often dirty places of cheap wine, bad ale, occasional fights and unending dice games. The stakes in the dice games were small, compared to what he had grown used to, but that was not why he always found himself back in the Stone after a few hours. He tried not to think about what always drew him back, near to Rand.

Perrin sometimes saw Mat in the waterfront taverns, drinking too much cheap wine, dicing as if he did not care whether he won or lost, once flashing a knife when a burly shipman pressed him on how often he did win. It was not like Mat to be so irritable, but Perrin avoided him instead of trying to find out what was troubling him. Perrin was not there for wine or dice, and the men who thought of fighting changed their minds after a good look at his shoulders—and his eyes. He bought bad ale, though, for sailors in wide leather trousers and for under-merchants with thin silver chains across their coat fronts, for any man who looked to be from a distant land. It was rumor he hunted, word of something that might draw Faile away from Tear. Away from him.

He was sure if he found an adventure for her, something that smacked of a chance at putting her name in the stories, she would go. She pretended to understand why he had to stay, but occasionally she still hinted that she wanted to leave and hoped he would go with her. He was certain the right bait would pull her, without him.

Most rumors she would know for outdated twistings of the truth, just as he did. The war that burned along the Aryth Ocean was said to be the work of a people no one had ever heard of before called the Sawchin, or something like it—he heard many variations from many tellers—a strange folk who might be Artur Hawkwing’s armies come back after a thousand years. One fellow, a Taraboner in a round, red hat and a mustache as thick as a bull’s horns, solemnly informed him that Hawkwing himself led these people, his legendary sword Justice in hand. There were rumors that the fabled Horn of Valere, meant to call dead heroes from the grave to fight in the Last Battle, had been found. In Ghealdan, riots had broken out all over the country; Illian was suffering from outbreaks of mass madness; in Cairhien, famine was slowing the killing; someplace in the Borderlands, Trolloc raids were on the increase. Perrin could not send Faile into any of that, not even to get her away from Tear.

Reports of trouble in Saldaea seemed promising—her own home must be attractive to her, and he had heard that Mazrim Taim, the false Dragon, was safely in Aes Sedai hands—but no one knew what sort of trouble. Making something up would do no good; whatever he found, she would surely ask her own questions before chasing after it. Besides, any turmoil in Saldaea might easily be as bad as the other things he heard.

He could not tell her where he was spending his time, either, because she would inevitably ask why. She knew he was not Mat, to enjoy lolling about taverns. He had never been good at lying, so he put her off as best he could, and she began to give him long, silent, slanted looks. All he could do was redouble his efforts to find a tale to lure her away. He had to send her away from him before he got her killed. He had to.

Egwene and Nynaeve spent more hours with Joiya and Amico, to no avail. Their stories never wavered. Over Nynaeve’s protests, Egwene even tried telling each of them what the other had said, to see if anything joggled loose. Amico stared at them, whining that she had never heard any such plan. But it might be true, she added. It might. She sweated with eagerness to please. Joiya coolly told them to go to Tanchico if they wished. “It is an uncomfortable city now, I hear,” she said smoothly, raven eyes glittering. “The King holds little more than the city itself, and I understand the Panarch has ceased keeping civil order. Strong arms and quick knives rule Tanchico. But go, if it pleases you.”

No word came from Tar Valon, nothing to say if the Amyrlin was dealing with the possible threat to free Mazrim Taim. There had been plenty of time for a message to come, by quick riverboat or a man changing horses, since Moiraine had sent the pigeons—provided she had sent them. Egwene and Nynaeve argued about that; Nynaeve admitted the Aes Sedai could not lie, but she tried to find some twist in Moiraine’s words. Moiraine did not seem to fret over the lack of response from the Amyrlin, though it was hard to tell through her crystal calm.

Egwene did fret over it, and over whether Tanchico was a false trail, or a real one, or a trap. The Stone’s library held books about Tarabon and Tanchico, but though she read until her eyes ached she found no clue to anything dangerous to Rand. Heat and worry did nothing for her temper; she was sometimes as snappish as Nynaeve.

Some things were going well, of course. Mat was still in the Stone; obviously he really was growing up and learning about responsibility. She regretted failing him, but she was not certain any woman in the Tower could have done more. She understood his thirst to know, because she thirsted, too, although for other knowledge, for the things she could only learn in the Tower, the things she might discover that no one else had known how to do before, the lost things she might relearn.

Aviendha began to visit with Egwene, apparently of her own choice. If the woman was wary at first, well, she was Aiel, after all, and she did think Egwene was full Aes Sedai. Still, her company was enjoyable, although Egwene sometimes thought she saw unasked questions in her eyes. If Aviendha kept her reserve, it soon became apparent that she had a quick wit, and a sense of humor akin to Egwene’s; they sometimes ended up giggling together like girls. Aiel ways were nothing Egwene was used to, though, such as Aviendha’s discomfort at sitting in a chair, and her shock at finding Egwene in her bath, a silver-plated tub the majhere had had brought up. Not shock at walking in on her naked—in fact, when she saw that Egwene was uncomfortable, she peeled off her own clothes and sat down on the floor to talk—but at seeing Egwene sitting chest-deep in water. It was dirtying so much water that made her eyes pop. For another thing, Aviendha refused to understand why she and Elayne had not done something drastic to Berelain, since they wanted her out of the way. It was all but forbidden for a warrior to kill a woman not wed to the spear, but since neither Elayne nor Berelain were Maidens of the Spear, it was apparently quite all right in Aviendha’s view for Elayne to challenge the First of Mayene to fight with knives, or failing that with fists and feet. Knives were best, as she saw it. Berelain looked the sort of woman who could be beaten several times without giving up. Best simply to challenge and kill her. Or Egwene could do it for her, as friend and near-sister.

Even with that, it was a pleasure to have someone to talk and laugh with. Elayne was occupied most of the time, of course, and Nynaeve, seeming to feel the rush of time as keenly as Egwene, gave her free moments over to moonlit walks on the battlements with Lan and to preparing foods the Warder liked with her own hands, not to mention curses that sometimes drove the cooks from the kitchen; Nynaeve did not know very much about cooking. If not for Aviendha, Egwene was not sure what she would have done in the muggy hours between questionings of the Darkfriends: sweated, undoubtedly, and worried that she might have to do something that gave her nightmares thinking of it.

By agreement, Elayne was never present at those questionings; one more set of ears listening would make no difference. Instead, whenever Rand had a moment to spare, the Daughter-Heir just happened to be close by, to talk, or simply walk holding his arm, even if it was only from a meeting with some High Lords to a room where others waited, or to a lightning inspection of the Defenders’ quarters. She became quite good at finding secluded corners where the two of them could pause, alone. Of course, he always had Aiel trailing after him, but she soon cared as little for what they thought as for what her mother would. She even entered a sort of conspiracy with the Maidens of the Spear; they seemed to know every hidden nook in the Stone, and they let her know whenever Rand was alone. They seemed to think the game great sport.

The surprise was that he asked her about the governing of nations and listened to what she said. That, she wished her mother could see. More than once Morgase had laughed, half-despairingly, and told her she had to learn to concentrate. Which crafts to protect and how, and which not and why, might be dry decisions, but as important as how to care for the sick. It might be fun to guide a stubborn lord or merchant into doing what he did not want to while thinking it was his own idea, it might be warming to feed the hungry, but if the hungry were to be fed it was necessary to decide how many clerks and drivers and wagons were needed. Others might arrange it, but then you would never know until it was too late whether they had made a mistake. He listened to her, and often took her advice. She thought she could have loved him for those two things alone. Berelain was not setting foot outside her chambers; Rand had begun smiling as soon as he saw her; nothing could be finer about the world. Unless the days could stop passing.

Three short days, slipping away like water through her fingers. Joiya and Amico would be sent north and the reason for staying in Tear would vanish; it would be time for her and Egwene and Nynaeve to leave, too. She would go, when that time came; she had never considered not. Knowing that made her proud of behaving like a woman, not a girl; knowing it made her want to cry.

And Rand? He met with High Lords in his chambers and issued orders. He startled them by appearing at secret gatherings of three or four that Thom had ferreted out, just to reiterate some point from his last commands. They smiled and bowed and sweated and wondered how much he knew. A use had to be found for their energy before one of them decided that if Rand could not be manipulated, he must be killed. Whatever it took to divert them, he would not start a war. If he had to confront Sammael, so be it; but he would not start a war.

Forming his plan of action occupied most of his time not given over to hounding the High Lords. Bits and pieces came from the books he had the librarians bring to his rooms by armloads, and from his talks with Elayne. Her advice was certainly useful with the High Lords; he could see them hastily reassessing him when he displayed knowledge of things they themselves only half-knew. She stopped him when he wanted to give her the credit.

“A wise ruler takes advice,” she told him, smiling, “but should never be seen to take it. Let them think you know more than you do. It will not harm them, and it will help you.” She seemed pleased he had suggested it, though.

He was not entirely sure that he was not still putting off some decision, at least, because of her. Three days of planning, of trying to puzzle out what was still missing. Something was. He could not react to the Forsaken; he had to make them react to him. Three days, and on the fourth she would go—back to Tar Valon, he hoped—but once he moved, he suspected even their brief moments together would end. Three days of stolen kisses, when he could forget he was anything but a man with his arms around a woman. He knew it for a foolish reason, if true. He was relieved she did not seem to want more than his company, but in those moments alone he could forget decisions, forget the fate awaiting the Dragon Reborn. More than once he considered asking her to stay, but it would not be fair to raise her expectations when he had no idea what he wanted from her beyond her presence. If she had any expectations, of course. Much better just to think of them as a man and a young woman walking out together on a feastday evening. That became easier; sometimes he forgot she was the Daughter-Heir, and he a shepherd. But he wished she were not going. Three days. He had to decide. He had to move. In a direction no one expected.

The sun slid slowly toward the horizon on the evening of the third day. The half-drawn draperies of Rand’s bedchamber lessened the reddish yellow glare. Callandor glittered on its ornate stand like the purest crystal.

Rand stared at Meilan and Sunamon, then tossed the thick bundle of large vellum sheets at them. A treaty, all neatly scribed, lacking only signatures and seals. It hit Meilan in the chest, and he caught it by reflex; he bowed as if honored, but his tight smile revealed clenched teeth.

Sunamon shifted from foot to foot, dry-washing his hands. “All is as you said, my Lord Dragon,” he said anxiously. “Grain for ships—”

“And two thousand Tairen levies,” Rand cut him off. “ ‘To see to proper distribution of the grain and protect Tairen interests.’ ” His voice was like ice, but his stomach seemed to be boiling; he nearly shook with the desire to pound at these fools with his fists. “Two thousand men. Under the command of Torean!”

“The High Lord Torean has an interest in affairs with Mayene, my Lord Dragon,” Meilan said smoothly.

“He has an interest in forcing his attentions on a woman who won’t look at him!” Rand shouted. “Grain for ships, I said! No soldiers. And certainly no bloody Torean! Have you even spoken to Berelain?”

They blinked at him as if they did not understand the words. It was too much. He snatched at saidin; the vellum in Meilan’s arms erupted into flame. With a yell, Meilan hurled the fiery bundle into the bare fireplace and hurriedly brushed at sparks and scorch marks on his red silk coat. Sunamon stared at the burning sheets, which were crackling and turning black, with his mouth hanging open.

“You will go to Berelain,” he told them, surprised at how calm his voice was. “By tomorrow midday you will have offered her the treaty I want, or by sunset tomorrow I’ll hang both of you. If I have to hang High Lords every day, two by two, I will. I will send every last one of you to the gallows if you won’t obey me. Now, get out of my sight.”

The quiet tone seemed to affect them more than his shouting had. Even Meilan looked uneasy as they backed away, bowing at every other step, murmuring protestations of undying loyalty and everlasting obedience. They sickened him.

“Get out!” he roared, and they abandoned dignity, almost fighting with one another to pull the doors open. They ran. One of the Aiel guards put his head in for a moment, to see that Rand was all right, before drawing the door shut.

Rand trembled openly. They disgusted him almost as much as he disgusted himself. Threatening to hang men because they did not do as he told them. Worse, meaning it. He could remember when he did not have a temper, or, at least, when he rarely had, and had managed to keep it on a short rein.

He crossed the room to where Callandor sparkled with the light streaming in between the draperies. The blade looked like the finest glass, absolutely clear; it felt like steel to his fingers, sharp as a razor. He had come close to reaching for it, to deal with Meilan and Sunamon. Whether to use it as a sword or for its real purpose, he did not know. Either possibility horrified him. I am not mad yet. Only angry. Light, so angry!

Tomorrow. The Darkfriends would be put on a ship, tomorrow. Elayne would be leaving. And Egwene and Nynaeve, of course. Back to Tar Valon, he prayed; Black Ajah or no Black Ajah, the White Tower had to be as safe a place as there was now. Tomorrow. No more excuses to put off what he had to do. Not after tomorrow.

He turned his hands over, looking at the heron branded into each palm. He had examined them so often that he could have sketched every line perfectly from memory. The Prophecies foretold them.

Twice and twice shall he be marked,
twice to live, and twice to die.
Once the heron to set his path.
Twice the heron, to name him true.
Once the Dragon, for remembrance lost.

Twice the Dragon, for the price he must pay.But if the herons “named him true,” what need for Dragons? For that matter, what was a Dragon? The only Dragon he had ever heard of was Lews Therin Telamon. Lews Therin Kinslayer had been the Dragon; the Dragon was the Kinslayer. Except now there was himself. But he could not be marked with himself. Perhaps the figure on the banner was a Dragon; not even Aes Sedai seemed to know what that creature was.

“You are changed from when I last saw you. Stronger. Harder.”

He spun, gaping at the young woman standing by the door, fair of skin and dark of hair and eye. Tall, dressed all in white and silver, she arched an eyebrow at the half-melted lumps of gold and silver over the fireplace. He had left them there to remind him what could happen when he acted without thinking, when he lost control. Much good it had done.

“Selene,” he gasped, hurrying to her. “Where did you come from? How did you get here? I thought you must still be in Cairhien, or....” Looking down at her, he did not want to say he feared she might be dead, or a starving refugee.

A woven silver belt glittered around her narrow waist; silver combs worked with stars and crescent moons shone in hair that fell to her shoulders like waterfalls of night. She was still the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Elayne and Egwene were only pretty beside her. For some reason, though, she did not affect him the way she had; perhaps it was the long months since he had last seen her, in a Cairhien not yet racked by civil war.

“I go where I wish to be.” She frowned at his face. “You have been marked, but no matter. You were mine, and you are mine. Any other is no more than a caretaker whose time has passed. I will lay claim to what is mine openly, now.”

He stared at her. Marked? Did she mean his hands? And what did she mean, he was hers? “Selene,” he said gently, “we had pleasant days together—and hard days; I’ll never forget your courage, or your help—but there was never more between us than companionship. We traveled together, but that was the end of it. You will stay here in the Stone, in the best apartments, and when peace returns to Cairhien, I will see that your estates there are returned to you, if I can.”

“You have been marked.” She smiled wryly. “Estates in Cairhien? I may have had estates in those lands, once. The land has changed so much that nothing is as it was. Selene is only a name I sometimes use, Lews Therin. The name I made my own is Lanfear.”

Rand barked a shallow laugh. “A poor joke, Selene. I’d as soon make jests about the Dark One as one of the Forsaken. And my name is Rand.”

“We call ourselves the Chosen,” she said calmly. “Chosen to rule the world forever. We will live forever. You can, also.”

He frowned at her worriedly. She actually thought she was.... Her travails in reaching Tear must have unhinged her. But she did not look mad. She was calm, cool, certain. Without thinking, he found himself reaching for saidin. He reached for it—and struck a wall he could not see or feel, except that it kept him from the Source. “You can’t be.” She smiled. “Light,” he breathed. “You are one of them.”

Slowly, he backed away. If he reached Callandor, at least he would have a weapon. Perhaps it could not work as a sa’angreal, but it would do for a sword. Could he use a sword against a woman, against Selene? No, against Lanfear, against one of the Forsaken.

His back came up hard against something, and he looked around to see what it was. There was nothing there. A wall of nothing, with his back pressed against it. Callandor glittered not three paces away—on the other side. He thumped a fist against the barrier in frustration; it was as unyielding as rock.

“I cannot trust you fully, Lews Therin. Not yet.” She came closer, and he considered simply seizing her. He was bigger and stronger by far—and blocked as he was, she could wrap him up with the Power like a kitten tangled in a ball of string. “Not with that, certainly,” she added, grimacing at Callandor. “There are only two more powerful that a man can use. One at least, I know, still exists. No, Lews Therin. I will not trust you yet with that.”

“Stop calling me that,” he growled. “My name is Rand. Rand al’Thor.”

“You are Lews Therin Telamon. Oh, physically, nothing is the same except your height, but I would know who is behind those eyes even if I’d found you in your cradle.” She laughed suddenly. “How much easier everything would be if I had found you then. If I had been free to....” Laughter faded into an angry stare. “Do you wish to see my true appearance? You can’t remember that, either, can you?”

He tried to say no, but his tongue would not work. Once he had seen two of the Forsaken together, Aginor and Balthamel, the first two loosed, after three thousand years trapped just beneath the seal on the Dark One’s prison. The one had been more withered than anything could be and still live; the other hid his face behind a mask, hid every bit of his flesh as though he could not bear to see it or have it seen.

The air rippled around Lanfear, and she changed. She was—older than he, certainly, but older was not the right word. More mature. Riper. Even more beautiful, if that was possible. A lush blossom in full flower compared to a bud. Even knowing what she was, she made his mouth go dry, his throat tighten.

Her dark eyes examined his face, full of confidence yet with a hint of questioning, as if wondering what he saw. Whatever she perceived seemed to satisfy her. She smiled again. “I was buried deeply, in a dreamless sleep where time did not flow. The turnings of the Wheel passed me by. Now you see me as I am, and I have you in my hands.” She drew a fingernail along his jaw hard enough to make him flinch. “The time for games and subterfuge is past, Lews Therin. Long past.”

His stomach lurched. “Do you mean to kill me, then? The Light burn you, I—”

“Kill you?” she spat incredulously. “Kill you! I mean to have you, forever. You were mine long before that pale-haired milksop stole you. Before she ever saw you. You loved me!”

“And you loved power!” For a moment he felt dazed. The words sounded true—he knew they were true—but where had they come from?

Selene—Lanfear—seemed as startled as he, but she recovered quickly. “You’ve learned much—you have done much I’d not have believed you could, unaided—but you are still fumbling your way through a maze in the dark, and your ignorance may kill you. Some of the others fear you too much to wait. Sammael, Rahvin, Moghedien. Others, perhaps, but those of a certainty. They will come after you. They will not try to turn your heart. They will come at you by stealth, destroy you while you sleep. Because of their fear. But there are those who could teach you, show you what you once knew. None would dare oppose you then.”

“Teach me? You want me to let one of the Forsaken teach me?” One of the Forsaken. A male Forsaken. A man who had been Aes Sedai in the Age of Legends, who knew the ways of channeling, knew how to avoid the pitfalls, knew—As much had been offered him before. “No! Even if it was offered, I’d refuse, and why should it be? I oppose them—and you! I hate everything you’ve done, everything you stand for.” Fool! he thought. Trapped here, and I spout defiance like some idiot in a story who never suspects he might make his captor angry enough to do something about it. But he could not force himself to take the words back. Stubbornly, he plowed ahead and made it worse. “I’ll destroy you, if I can. You, and the Dark One, and every last Forsaken!”

A dangerous gleam flashed in her eyes and was gone. “Do you know why some of us fear you? Do you have any idea? Because they are afraid the Great Lord of the Dark will give you a place above them.”

Rand surprised himself by managing a laugh. “Great Lord of the Dark? Can’t you say his true name, either? Surely you don’t fear to attract his attention, as decent people do. Or do you?”

“It would be blasphemy,” she said simply. “They are right to be afraid, Sammael and the rest. The Great Lord does want you. He wants to exalt you above all other men. He told me.”

“That’s ridiculous! The Dark One is still bound in Shayol Ghul, or I would be fighting Tarmon Gai’don right now. And if he knows I exist, he’d want me dead. I mean to fight him.”

“Oh, he knows. The Great Lord knows more than you would suspect. It is possible to talk with him. Go to Shayol Ghul, into the Pit of Doom, and you can... hear him. You can... bathe in his presence.” A different light shone on her face, now. Ecstasy. She breathed through parted lips, and for a moment seemed to stare at something distant and wondrous. “Words cannot even begin to describe it. You must experience it to know. You must.” She was seeing his face again, with eyes large and dark and insistent. “Kneel to the Great Lord, and he will set you above all others. He will leave you free to reign as you will, so long as you bend knee to him only once. To acknowledge him. No more than that. He told me this. Asmodean will teach you to wield the Power without it killing you, teach what you can do with it. Let me help you. We can destroy the others. The Great Lord will not care. We can destroy all of them, even Asmodean, once he has taught you all you need to know. You and I can rule the world together under the Great Lord, forever.” Her voice dropped to a whisper, equal parts eagerness and fear. “Two great sa’angreal were made just before the end, one that you can use, one that I can. Far greater than that sword. Their power is beyond imagining. With those, we could challenge even... the Great Lord himself. Even the Creator!”

“You are mad,” he said raggedly. “The Father of Lies says he will leave me free? I was born to fight him. That is why I am here, to fulfill the Prophecies. I’ll fight him, and all of you, until the Last Battle! Until my last breath!”

“You do not have to. Prophecy is no more than the sign of what people hope for. Fulfilling the Prophecies will only bind you to a path leading to Tarmon Gai’don and your death. Moghedien or Sammael can destroy your body. The Great Lord of the Dark can destroy your soul. An end utter and complete. You will never be born again no matter how long the Wheel of Time turns!”

“No!”

For what seemed a long time she studied him; he could almost see the scales weighing alternatives. “I could take you with me,” she said finally. “I could have you turned to the Great Lord whatever you want or believe. There are ways.”

She paused, perhaps to see if her words had had any effect. Sweat rolled down his back, but he kept his face straight. He would have to do something, whether he had a chance or not. A second attempt to reach saidin battered vainly against that invisible barrier. He let his eyes wander as if he were thinking. Callandor was behind him, as far out of reach as the other side of the Aryth Ocean. His belt knife lay on a table by the bed, together with a half-made fox he had been carving. The shapeless lumps of metal mocking him from above the fireplace, a drably clad man slipping in at the doors with a knife in his hand, the books lying everywhere. He turned back to Lanfear, tensing.

“You were always stubborn,” she muttered. “I won’t take you, this time. I want you to come to me of your own will. And I will have it. What is the matter? You’re frowning.”

A man slipping in at the doors with a knife; his eyes had slid past the fellow almost without seeing. Instinctively he pushed Lanfear out of the way and reached for the True Source; the shield blocking him vanished as he touched it, and his sword was in his hands like a red-gold flame. The man rushed at him, knife held low and point up for a killing stroke. Even then it was difficult to keep his eyes on the fellow, but Rand pivoted smoothly, and The Wind Blows Over the Wall took off the hand holding the knife and finished by driving through his assailant’s heart. For an instant he stared into dull eyes—lifeless while that heart still pumped—then pulled his blade free.

“A Gray Man.” Rand took what felt like his first breath in hours. The corpse at his feet was messy, bleeding onto the scroll-worked carpet, but there was no difficulty in fixing an eye on him now. It was always that way with the Shadow’s assassins; when they were noticed, it was usually too late. “This makes no sense. You could have killed me easily. Why distract me for a Gray Man to sneak up on me?”

Lanfear was watching him warily. “I make no use of the Soulless. I told you there are... differences among the Chosen. It seems I was a day late in my judgment, but there is still time for you to come with me. To learn. To live. That sword,” she all but sneered. “You do not do the tenth part of what you can. Come with me, and learn. Or do you mean to try to kill me, now? I loosed you to defend yourself.”

Her voice, her stance, said she expected an attack, or at the very least was ready to counter it, but that was not what stopped him, any more than her loosing the bonds in the first place. She was one of the Forsaken; she had served evil so long she made a Black sister look like a newborn babe. Yet he saw a woman. He called himself nine kinds of fool, but he could not do it. Maybe if she tried to kill him. Maybe. But all she did was stand there, watching, waiting. No doubt ready to do things with the Power he did not even know were possible, if he attempted to hold her. He had managed to block Elayne and Egwene, but that had been one of those things he did without thinking, the way of it buried somewhere in his head. He could only remember that he had done it, not how. At least he had a firm grip on saidin; she would not surprise him that way again. The stomach-wrenching taint was nothing; saidin was life, perhaps in more ways than one.

A sudden thought boiled up in his head like a hot spring. The Aiel. Even a Gray Man should have found it impossible to sneak through doors watched by half a dozen Aiel.

“What did you do to them?” His voice grated as he backed toward the doors, keeping his eyes on her. If she used the Power, maybe he would have some warning. “What did you do to the Aiel outside?”

“Nothing,” she replied coolly. “Do not go out there. This may be only a testing to see how vulnerable you are, but even a testing may kill you if you are a fool.”

He flung open the left-hand door onto a scene of madness.

CHAPTER 10
The Stone Stands

Dead Aielmen lay at Rand’s feet, tangled with the bodies of three very ordinary men in very ordinary coats and breeches. Ordinary-looking men, except that six Aiel, the entire guard, had been slain, some obviously before they knew what was happening, and each of those ordinary men had at least two Aiel spears through him.

That was not the half of it, though. As soon as he pulled the door open, a roar of battle had washed over him: shouting, howling, steel clashing on steel among the redstone columns. The Defenders in the anteroom were fighting for their lives beneath the gilded lamps, against bulky, black-mailed shapes head-and-shoulders taller than they, shapes like huge men, but with heads and faces distorted by horns or feathers, by muzzle or beak where mouth and nose should be. Trollocs. They strode on paws or hooves as often as on booted feet, cutting men down with oddly spiked axes and hooked spears and scythelike swords that curved the wrong way. And with them, a Myrddraal, like a sleek-moving man with maggot-white skin in black armor, like death made bloodless flesh.

Somewhere in the Stone an alarm gong sounded, then stopped with lethal suddenness. Another took it up, and another, in brazen tolls.

The Defenders fought, and they still outnumbered the Trollocs, but there were more men down than Trollocs. Even as Rand’s eyes found them, the Myrddraal tore off half the Tairen captain’s face with one bare hand while the other drove a dead black blade through a Defender’s throat, slipping Defenders’ spear thrusts like a snake. The Defenders faced what they had thought were only travelers’ tales to frighten children; their nerve was frayed to snapping. One man who had lost his rimmed helmet threw down his spear and tried to flee, only to have his head split like a melon by a Trolloc’s massive axe. Yet another man looked at the Myrddraal and fled screaming. The Myrddraal darted sinuously to intercept. In a moment the humans would all be running.

“Fade!” Rand shouted. “Try me, Fade!” The Myrddraal stopped as if it had never moved, its pale, eyeless face turning to him. Fear rippled through Rand at that stare, sliding over the bubble of cold calm that encased him when he held saidin; in the Borderlands they said, “The look of the Eyeless is fear.” Once he had believed Fades rode shadows like horses and disappeared when they turned sideways. Those old beliefs were not so very far wrong.

The Myrddraal flowed toward him, and Rand leaped the dead men in front of the doorway to meet it, his boots skidding on bloody black marble as he landed. “Rally to the Stone!” he shouted as he leaped. “The Stone stands!” Those were the battle cries he had heard on the night the Stone had not stood.

He thought he heard a vexed shout of “Fool!” from the room he had left, but he had no time for Lanfear or what she might do. That skid very nearly cost him his life; his red-gold blade barely turned the Myrddraal’s black one as he fought for balance. “Rally to the Stone! The Stone stands!” He had to keep the Defenders together, or face the Myrddraal and twenty Trollocs alone. “The Stone stands!”

“The Stone stands!” he heard someone echo him, then another. “The Stone stands!”

The Fade moved as fluidly as a serpent, the snakelike illusion heightened by the overlapping plates of black armor down its chest. Yet not even a blacklance ever struck so quickly. For a time it was all Rand could do to keep its blade from his own unarmored flesh. That black metal could make wounds that festered, almost as hard to Heal as the one that ached in his side now. Each time dark steel forged in Thakan’dar, below the slopes of Shayol Ghul, met red-gold Power-wrought blade, light flashed like sheet lightning in the room, a sharp bluish white that hurt the eyes. “You will die this time,” the Myrddraal rasped at him in a voice like the crumbling of dead leaves. “I will give your flesh to the Trollocs and take your women for my own.”

Rand fought as coldly as he ever had, and as desperately. The Fade knew the use of a sword. Then an instant came when he could strike a blow squarely at the sword itself, not merely divert it. With a hiss as of ice falling on molten metal the red-gold blade sheared through the black. His next blow took that eyeless head from its shoulders; the shock of hacking through bone shivered up his arms. Inky blood fountained from the stump of its neck. The thing did not fall, though. Thrashing blindly with its broken sword, the headless figure stumbled about, striking randomly at the air.

As the Fade’s head fell to roll across the floor, the remaining Trollocs fell, too, shrieking, kicking, tearing at their heads with coarse-haired hands. It was a weakness of Myrddraal and Trollocs. Even Myrddraal did not trust Trollocs, so they often linked with them in some way Rand did not understand; it apparently ensured the Trollocs’ loyalty, but those linked to a Myrddraal did not survive its death long.

The Defenders still standing, fewer than two dozen, did not wait. In twos and threes they stabbed each Trolloc repeatedly with their spears until it stopped moving. Some of them had the Myrddraal down, but it flailed wildly no matter how much they stabbed. As the Trollocs fell silent, a few surviving human wounded could be heard moaning, weeping. There were still more men littering the floor than Shadowspawn. The black marble was slick with blood, almost invisible against the dark stone.

“Leave it,” Rand told the Defenders trying to finish the Myrddraal. “It’s dead already. Fades just don’t want to admit they’re dead.” Lan had told him that, what seemed a long time ago; he had had proof of it before this. “See to the injured.”

Peering at the headless, thrashing shape, its torso a tatter of gaping wounds, they shivered and moved back, muttering about Lurks. That was what they called Fades in Tear, in tales meant for children. Some began to hunt among the downed humans for any still alive, pulling aside those who could not stand, helping those who could to their feet. All too many were left where they lay. Hasty bandages ripped from a man’s own bloody shirt were the only comfort that could be offered now.

They did not look so pretty as they had, these Tairens. Their no longer gleaming breast-and backplates bore dents and scuffs; blood-soaked slashes marred once fine black-and-gold coats and breeches. Some had no helmets, and more than one leaned on his spear as if it were the only thing holding him on his feet. Perhaps it was. They breathed heavily, wild expressions on their faces, that blend of stark terror and blind numbness that afflicts men in battle. They stared at Rand uncertainly—fleeting, fearful stares—as if he might have called these creatures out of the Blight himself.

“Wipe those spearpoints,” he told them. “A Fade’s blood will etch steel like acid if it’s left on long enough.” Most moved slowly to obey, hesitantly using what was available, the coatsleeves of their own dead.

The sounds of more fighting drifted through the corridors, distant shouts, the muted clash of metal. They had obeyed him twice; it was time to see if they would do more. Turning his back on them, he started across the anteroom, toward the sounds of battle. “Follow me,” he ordered. He raised his fire-wrought blade to remind them of who he was, hoping the reminder did not bring a spear in his back. It had to be risked. “The Stone stands! For the Stone!”

For a moment his own hollow footsteps were the only sound in the columned chamber; then boots began to follow. “For the Stone!” a man shouted, and another, “For the Stone and the Lord Dragon!” Others took it up. “For the Stone and the Lord Dragon!” Quickening to a trot, Rand led his bloodied army of twenty-three deeper into the Stone.

Where was Lanfear, and what part had she played in this? He had little time for wondering. Dead men spotted the halls of the Stone in pools of their own blood, one here and farther on two or three more, Defenders, servants, Aiel. Women, too, linen-gowned noble and wool-clad servant alike struck down as they fled. Trollocs did not care whom they killed; they took pleasure in it. Myrddraal were worse; Halfmen gloried in pain and death.

A little deeper in, the Stone of Tear boiled. Knots of Trollocs rampaged through the halls, sometimes with a Myrddraal leading, sometimes alone, battling Aiel or Defenders, cutting down the unarmed, hunting for more to kill. Rand led his small force at any Shadowspawn they found, his sword slicing coarse flesh and black mail with equal ease. Only the Aiel faced a Fade without flinching. The Aiel and Rand. He passed up Trollocs to reach Fades; sometimes the Myrddraal took a dozen or two Trollocs with it in dying, sometimes none.

Some of his Defenders fell and did not rise, but Aiel joined them, nearly doubling their number. Groups of men broke off in furious battles that drifted away in shouts and clatter like a forge gone mad. Other men fell in behind Rand, broke away, were replaced, till none of those who had started with him remained. Sometimes he fought alone, or ran down a hallway, empty save for himself and the dead, following the sounds of distant combat.

Once, with two Defenders, in a colonnade looking down into a long chamber with many doorways, he saw Moiraine and Lan, surrounded by Trollocs. The Aes Sedai stood, head high like some storied queen of battles, and bestial shapes burst into flame around her—but only to be replaced by more, dashing in through this door or that, six or eight at a time. Lan’s sword accounted for those who escaped Moiraine’s fire. The Warder had blood on both sides of his face, yet he flowed through the forms as coolly as if practicing before a mirror. Then a wolf-snouted Trolloc thrust a Tairen spear toward Moiraine’s back. Lan whirled as though he had eyes in the back of his head, taking off the Trolloc’s leg at the knee. The Trolloc fell, howling, yet still managed to thrust spearpoint at Lan just as another clubbed the Warder awkwardly with the flat of its axe, buckling his knees.

Rand could do nothing, for at that moment five Trollocs fell upon him and his two companions, all snouts and boars’ tusks and rams’ horns, pushing the humans out of the colonnade by the sheer weight of their rush. Five Trollocs should have been able to kill three men without much difficulty, except that one of the men was Rand, with a sword that treated their mail like cloth. One of the Defenders died, and the other vanished chasing after a wounded Trolloc, the lone survivor of the five. When Rand hurried back to the colonnade, there was a smell of burned meat from the chamber below, and great burned bodies on its floor, but no sign of Moiraine or Lan.

That was the way of the contest for the Stone. Or the contest for Rand’s life. Battles sprang up and drifted away from where they began, or died when one side fell. Not only did men fight Trollocs and Myrddraal. Men fought men; there were Darkfriends siding with the Shadowspawn, roughly dressed fellows who looked like former soldiers and tavern brawlers. They seemed as fearful of the Trollocs as the Tairens did, but they killed as indiscriminately, where they could. Twice Rand actually saw Trollocs battling Trollocs. He could only assume the Myrddraal had lost control of them and their bloodlust had taken over. If they wanted to slay each other, he left them to it.

Then, alone once more and seeking, he trotted ’round a corner and right into three Trollocs, each twice as wide as he and nearly half again as tall. One of them, with an eagle’s hooked beak thrusting out of an otherwise human face, was hacking an arm from the corpse of a Tairen noblewoman while the other two watched eagerly, licking their snouts. Trollocs ate anything, so long as it was meat. It was an even chance whether he was more surprised or they were, but he was the first to recover.

The one with the eagle’s beak went down, mail and belly alike opened across. The sword-form called Lizard in the Thornbush should have done for the other two, but that first fallen Trolloc, thrashing still, half-kicked his foot out from under him, and he staggered, his blade only scoring a slice along his target’s mail, right into the path of the second Trolloc as it fell, wolf’s muzzle snapping at nothing. It crushed him to the stone tiles beneath its bulk, trapping sword arm and sword alike. The one still standing raised its spiked axe, coming as close to a smile as a boar’s snout and tusks would allow. Rand struggled to move, to breathe.

A scythe-curved sword split the boar’s snout to the neck.

Wrenching its blade free, a fourth Trolloc bared goat teeth at him in a snarl, ears twitching beside its horns. Then it darted away, sharp hooves clicking on the floor tiles.

Rand heaved himself out from under the dead weight of the Trolloc, half-stunned. A Trolloc saved me. A Trolloc? Trolloc blood was all over him, thick and dark. Far down the hallway, in the opposite direction from where the goat-horned Trolloc had fled, blue-white flashed as two Myrddraal moved into view. Fighting each other, in an almost boneless blur of continuous motion. One forced the other into a crossing corridor, and the flashing light faded from sight. I’m mad. That’s what it is. I am mad, and this is all some crazed dream.

“You risk everything, rushing about wildly with that... that sword.”

Rand turned to face Lanfear. She had put on the appearance of a girl again, no older than he, perhaps younger. She lifted her white skirts to step over the Tairen lady’s torn body; for all the emotion on her face, it might as well have been a log.

“You build a hut of twigs,” she went on, “when you could have marble palaces for the snap of your fingers. You could have had their lives and such souls as Trollocs possess with little effort, and instead they nearly killed you. You must learn. Join with me.”

“Was this your doing?” he demanded. “That Trolloc, saving me? Those Myrddraal? Was it?”

She considered him a moment before giving a slight, regretful shake of her head. “If I take credit, you will expect it again, and that could be deadly. None of the others is really certain where I stand, and I like it that way. You can expect no open aid from me.”

“Expect your aid?” he growled. “You want me to turn to the Shadow. You can’t make me forget what you are with soft words.” He channeled, and she slammed against a wall hanging hard enough to make her grunt. He held her there, spread-eagled over a woven hunting scene, feet off the floor and snowy gown spread out and flattened. How had he blocked Egwene and Elayne? He had to remember.

Suddenly he flew across the hallway to crash into the wall opposite Lanfear, pressed there like an insect by something that barely allowed him to breathe.

Lanfear appeared to have no trouble breathing. “Whatever you can do, Lews Therin, I can do. And better.” Pinned against the wall as she was, she seemed unperturbed. The din of fighting surged up somewhere nearby, then faded as the battle moved away. “You half-use the smallest fraction of what you are capable of, and walk away from what would allow you to crush all who come against you. Where is Callandor, Lews Therin? Still up in your bedchamber like some useless ornament? Do you think yours is the only hand that can wield it, now that you have drawn it free? If Sammael is here, he will take it, and use it against you. Even Moghedien would take it to deny you its use; she could gain much by trading it to any male Chosen.”

He struggled against whatever held him; nothing moved but his head, flung from side to side. Callandor in the hands of a male Forsaken. The thought drove him half-mad with fear and frustration. He channeled, tried to pry at what held him, but there might as well have been nothing to pry. And then abruptly it was gone; he lurched away from the wall, still fighting, before he realized he was free. And from nothing he had done.

He looked at Lanfear. She still hung there, as complacently as if taking the air on a streamside. She was trying to lull him, to gull him into softening toward her. He hesitated over the flows holding her. If he tied them off and left her, she might tear half the Stone down trying to get free—if a passing Trolloc did not kill her, thinking she was one of the Stone’s folk. That should not have troubled him—not the death of a Forsaken—but the thought of leaving a woman, or anyone, helpless for Trollocs repelled him. A glance at her unruffled composure rid him of that thought. No one, nothing, in the Stone would harm her as long as she could channel. If he could find Moiraine to block her....

Once more Lanfear took the decision from him. The impact of severed flows jolted him, and she dropped lightly to the floor. He stared as she stepped away from the wall, calmly brushing her skirts. “You can’t do that,” he gasped foolishly, and she smiled.

“I do not have to see a flow to unravel it, if I know what it is and where. You see, you have much to learn. I like you like this. You were always too stiff-necked and sure of yourself for comfort. It was always better when you were a bit uncertain of your footing. Are you forgetting Callandor, then?”

Still he hesitated. One of the Forsaken stood there. And there was absolutely nothing he could do. Turning, he ran for Callandor. Her laughter seemed to follow him.

This time he did not turn aside to fight Trollocs or Myrddraal, did not slow his wild climb through the Stone unless they got in his way. Then his sword carved of fire sliced a way through for him. He saw Perrin and Faile, he with axe in hand, she guarding his back with her knives; the Trollocs seemed as reluctant to face Perrin’s yellow-eyed stare as his axe blade. Rand left them behind without a second look. If one of the Forsaken took Callandor, none of them would live to see the sun rise.

Breathless, he scrambled through the columned anteroom, leaping the dead still lying there, Defenders and Trollocs alike, in his haste to reach Callandor. He flung open both doors. The Sword That Is Not a Sword sat on its gilded and gem-set stand, shining with the light of the setting sun. Waiting for him.

Now that he had it in sight, safe, he was almost loath to touch it. Once, he had used Callandor as it was truly meant to be used. Only once. He knew what awaited him when he took it up again, used it to draw on the True Source far beyond what any human could hold unaided. Letting go the red-gold blade seemed more than he could do; when it vanished, he almost called it back.

Feet dragging, he skirted the corpse of the Gray Man and put his hands slowly on Callandor’s hilt. It was cold, like crystal long in the dark, but it did not feel so smooth that it would slip in the hand.

Something made him look up. A Fade stood in the doorway, hesitating, its pale-faced, eyeless gaze on Callandor.

Rand pulled at saidin. Through Callandor. The Sword That Is Not a Sword blazed in his hands, as if he held noonday. The Power filled him, hammering down like solid thunder. The taint rushed through him in a flood of blackness. Molten rock pulsed along his veins; the cold inside him could have frozen the sun. He had to use it, or burst like a rotted melon.

The Myrddraal turned to flee, and suddenly black clothes and armor crumpled to the floor, leaving oily motes floating in the air.

Rand was not even aware he had channeled until it was done; he could not have said what he had done if his life had depended upon it. But nothing could threaten his life while he held Callandor. The Power throbbed in him like the heartbeat of the world. With Callandor in his hands, he could do anything. The Power hammered at him, a hammer to crack mountains. A channeled thread whisked the Myrddraal’s drifting remains out into the anteroom, and its clothes and armor, too; a trickled flow incinerated both. He strode out to hunt those who had come hunting him.

Some of them had come as far the anteroom. Another Fade and a huddle of cowering Trollocs stood before the columns at the far side staring at ash that sifted out of the air, the last fragments of the Myrddraal and all its garb. At the sight of Rand with Callandor flaring in his hands, the Trollocs howled like beasts. The Fade stood paralyzed with shock. Rand gave them no chance to run. Maintaining his deliberate pace toward them, he channeled, and flames roared from the bare, black marble beneath the Shadowspawn, so hot that he flung up a hand against it. By the time he reached them, the flames were gone; nothing remained but dull circles on the marble.

Back down into the Stone he went, and every Trolloc, every Myrddraal he saw died wreathed in fire. He burned them fighting Aiel or Tairens, and killing servants trying to defend themselves with spears or swords snatched from the dead. He burned them as they ran, whether stalking more victims or fleeing him. He began to move faster, trotting, then running, past the wounded, often lying untended, past the dead. It was not enough; he could not move fast enough. While he killed Trollocs in handfuls, others still slew, if only to escape.

Suddenly he stopped, surrounded by the dead, in a wide hallway. He had to do something—something more. The Power slid along his bones, pure essence of fire. Something more. The Power froze his marrow. Something to kill them all; all of them at once. The taint on saidin rolled over him, a mountain of rotting filth threatening to bury his soul. Raising Callandor, he drew on the Source, drew on it till it seemed he must scream screams of frozen flame. He had to kill them all.

Just beneath the ceiling, right above his head, air slowly began to revolve, spinning faster, milling in streaks of red and black and silver. It roiled and collapsed inward, boiling harder, whining as it whirled and grew smaller still.

Sweat rolled down Rand’s face as he stared up at it. He had no idea what it was, only that racing flows he could not begin to count connected him to the mass. It had mass; a weight growing greater while the thing fell inward on itself. Callandor flared brighter and brighter, too brilliant to look at; he closed his eyes, and the light seemed to burn through his eyelids. The Power raced through him, a raging torrent that threatened to carry all that was him into the spinning. He had to let go. He had to. He forced his eyes open, and it was like looking at all the thunderstorms in the world compressed to the size of a Trolloc’s head. He had to... had to... had to....

Now. The thought floated like cackling laughter on the rim of his awareness. He severed the flows rushing out of him, leaving the thing still whirling, whining like a drill on bone. Now.

And the lightnings came, flashing out along the ceiling left and right like silver streams. A Myrddraal stepped out of a side corridor, and before it could take a second step half a dozen flaring streaks stabbed down, blasting it apart. The other streams flowed on, fanning down every branching of the corridor, replaced by more and more erupting every second.

Rand had not a clue to what he had made, or how it worked. He could only stand there, quivering with the Power that filled him with the need to use it. Even if it destroyed him. He could feel Trollocs and Myrddraal dying, feel the lightnings strike and kill. He could kill them everywhere, everywhere in the world. He knew it. With Callandor he could do anything. And he knew trying would kill him just as surely.

The lightnings faded and died with the last Shadowspawn; the spinning mass imploded with a loud clap of inrushing air. But Callandor still shone like the sun; he shook with the Power.

Moiraine was there, a dozen paces away, staring at him. Her dress was neat, every fold of blue silk in place, but wisps of her hair were disarrayed. She looked tired—and shocked. “How... ? What you have done, I would not have believed possible.” Lan appeared, half-trotting up the hall, sword in hand, face bloodied, coat torn. Without taking her eyes from Rand, Moiraine flung out a hand, halting the Warder short of her. Well short of Rand. As if he were too dangerous for even Lan to approach. “Are you... well, Rand?”

Rand pulled his gaze away from her, and it fell on the body of a dark-haired girl, little more than a child. She lay sprawled on her back, eyes wide and fixed on the ceiling, blood blackening the bosom of her dress. Sadly, he bent to brush strands of hair from her face. Light, she is only a child. I was too late. Why didn’t I do it sooner? A child!

“I will see that someone takes care of her, Rand,” Moiraine said gently. “You cannot help her now.”

His hand shook so hard on Callandor that he could barely hold on. “With this, I can do anything.” His voice was harsh in his own ears. “Anything!”

“Rand!” Moiraine said urgently.

He would not listen. 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. Not this!”

Breathe. She has to breathe. The girl’s chest rose and fell. Heart. Has to beat. Blood already thick and dark oozed from the wound in her chest. Live. Live, burn you! I didn’t mean to be too late. Her eyes stared at him, filmed. Lifeless. Tears trickled unheeded down his cheeks. “She has to live! Heal her, Moiraine. I don’t know how. Heal her!”

“Death cannot be Healed, Rand. You are not the Creator.”

Staring into those dead eyes, Rand slowly withdrew the flows. The body fell stiffly. The body. He threw back his head and howled, as wild as any Trolloc. Braided fire sizzled into walls and ceiling as he lashed out in frustration and pain.

Sagging, he released saidin, pushed it away; it was like pushing away a boulder, like pushing away life. Strength drained out of him with the Power. The taint remained, though, a stain weighing him down with darkness. He had to ground Callandor on the floor tiles and lean on it to stay on his feet.

“The others.” It was hard to speak; his throat hurt. “Elayne, Perrin, the rest? Was I too late for them, too?”

“You were not too late,” Moiraine said calmly. But she had come no closer, and Lan looked ready to dart between her and Rand. “You must not—”

“Are they still alive?” Rand shouted.

“They are,” she assured him.

He nodded in weary relief. He tried not to look at the girl’s body. Three days waiting, so he could enjoy a few stolen kisses. If he had moved three days ago.... But he had learned things in those three days, things he might be able to use if he could put them together. If. Not too late for his friends, at least. Not too late for them. “How did the Trollocs get in? I don’t think they climbed the walls like Aiel, not with the sun still up. Is it still up?” He shook his head to dispel some of the fog. “No matter. The Trollocs. How?”

Lan was the one who answered. “Eight large grain barges tied up at the Stone’s docks late this afternoon. Apparently no one thought to question why laden grain barges would be coming downriver”—his voice was heavy with contempt—“or why they’d dock at the Stone, or why the crews left the hatches shut until nearly sunfall. Also, a train of wagons arrived—about two hours ago, now—thirty of them, supposedly bringing some lord or other’s things from the country for his return to the Stone. When the canvas was thrown back, they were packed with Halfmen and Trollocs, too. If they came in any other way, I don’t know of it, yet.”

Rand nodded again, and the effort buckled his knees. Suddenly Lan was there, pulling Rand’s arm over his shoulder to hold him up. Moiraine took his face in her hands. A chill rippled through him, not the blasting cold of full Healing, but a chill that pushed weariness out as it passed. Most of the weariness. A seed remained, as if he had worked a day hoeing tabac. He moved away from the support he no longer needed. Lan watched him warily, to see if he could really stand alone, or perhaps because the Warder was not certain how dangerous he was, how sane.

“I left some apurpose,” Moiraine told him. “You need to sleep tonight.”

Sleep. There was too much to do to sleep. But he gave another nod. He did not want her shadowing him. Yet what he said was “Lanfear was here. This was not her doing. She said so, and I believe her. You don’t seem surprised, Moiraine.” Would Lanfear’s offer surprise her? Would anything? “Lanfear was here, and I talked with her. She didn’t try to kill me, and I didn’t try to kill her. And you are not surprised.”

“I doubt you could kill her. Yet.” Her glance at Callandor was the merest flicker of dark eyes. “Not unaided. And I doubt she will try to kill you. Yet. We know little of any of the Forsaken, and least of all Lanfear, but we do know she loved Lews Therin Telamon. To say you are safe from her is certainly too strong—there is a good deal she can do to harm you short of murder—but I do not think she will try to kill as long as she thinks she might win Lews Therin back again.”

Lanfear wanted him. The Daughter of the Night, used by mothers who only half-believed in her to frighten children. She certainly frightened him. It was nearly enough to make him laugh. He had always felt guilty for looking at any woman besides Egwene, and Egwene did not want him, but the Daughter-Heir of Andor wanted to kiss him, at least, and one of the Forsaken claimed to love him. Nearly enough for laughter, but not quite. Lanfear seemed jealous of Elayne; that pale-haired milksop, she had called her. Madness. All madness.

“Tomorrow.” He started away from them.

“Tomorrow?” Moiraine said.

“Tomorrow, I will tell you what I am going to do.” Some of it, he would. The thought of Moiraine’s face if he told her everything made him want to laugh. If he knew everything himself, yet. Lanfear had given him almost the last piece, without knowing it. One more step, tonight. The hand holding Callandor by his side trembled. With that, he could do anything. I am not mad yet. Not mad enough for that. “Tomorrow. A good night to us all, the Light willing.” Tomorrow he would begin to unleash another kind of lightning. Another lightning that might save him. Or kill him. He was not mad yet.

CHAPTER 11
What Lies Hidden

Clad in her shift, Egwene drew a deep breath and left the stone ring lying beside an open book on her bedside table. All flecked and striped in brown and red and blue, it was slightly too large for a finger ring, and shaped wrong, flattened and twisted so that a fingertip run along the edge would circle both inside and out before coming back to where it had started. There was only one edge, impossible though that seemed. She was not leaving the ring there because she might fail without it, because she wanted to fail. She had to try without the ring sooner or later, or she could never do more than dabble her toes where she dreamed of swimming. It might as well be now. That was the reason. It was.

The thick leather-bound book was A Journey to Tarabon, written by Eurian Romavni, from Kandor—fifty-three years ago, according to the date the author gave in the first line, but little of any consequence would have changed in Tanchico in that short a time. Besides, it was the only volume she had found with useful drawings. Most of the books only had portraits of kings, or fanciful renderings of battles by men who had not seen them.

Darkness filled both windows, but the lamps gave more than adequate light. One tall beeswax candle burned in a gilded candlestick on the bedside table. She had gone to fetch that herself; this was no night to be sending a maid for a candle. Most of the servants were tending the wounded or weeping over loved ones, or being tended themselves. There had been too many for Healing any but those who would have died without it.

Elayne and Nynaeve waited with high-backed chairs pulled to either side of the wide bed with its tall, swallow-carved posts; they tried to hide their anxiety with differing degrees of success. Elayne managed a passably stately calm, and only spoiled it by frowning and chewing her underlip when she thought Egwene was not looking. Nynaeve was all brisk confidence, the sort that made you feel comforted when she tucked you into a sickbed, but Egwene recognized the set of her eyes; they said Nynaeve was afraid.

Aviendha sat cross-legged beside the door, her browns and grays standing out sharply against the deep blue of the carpet. This time the Aiel woman had her long-bladed knife at one side of her belt, a bristling quiver at the other, and four short spears across her knees. Her round, hide buckler lay close at hand, atop a horn bow in a worked leather case with straps that could hold it on her back. After tonight, Egwene could not fault her for going armed. She still wanted to hold a lightning bolt ready to fling herself.

Light, what was that Rand did? Burn him, he frightened me almost as badly as the Fades did. Maybe worse. It isn’t fair he can do something like that and I can’t even see the flows.

She climbed onto the bed and took the leatherbound book on her knees, frowning at an engraved map of Tanchico. Little of any use was marked, really. A dozen fortresses, surrounding the harbor, guarding the city on its three hilly peninsulas, the Verana to the east, the Maseta in the center, and the Calpene nearest the sea. Useless. Several large squares, some open areas that seemed to be parks, and a number of monuments to rulers long since dust. All useless. A few palaces, and things that seemed strange. The Great Circle, for instance, on the Calpene. On the map it was just a ring, but Master Romavni described it as a huge gathering place that could hold thousands to watch horse races or displays of fireworks by the Illuminators. There was also a King’s Circle, on the Maseta and larger than the Great Circle, and a Panarch’s Circle, on the Verana, just a little smaller. The Chapter House of the Guild of Illuminators was marked as well. They were all useless. The text certainly had nothing of use.

“Are you certain you want to try this without the ring?” Nynaeve asked quietly.

“Certain,” Egwene replied as calmly as she could. Her stomach was leaping as badly as it had when she saw that first Trolloc tonight, holding that poor woman by the hair and slitting her throat like a rabbit’s. The woman had screamed like a rabbit, too. Killing the Trolloc had done her no good; the woman was as dead as the Trolloc. Only her shrill scream would not go away. “If it doesn’t work, I can always try again with the ring.” She leaned over to mark the candle with a thumbnail. “Wake me when it burns down to there. Light, but I wish we had a clock.”

Elayne laughed at her, a lighthearted trill, and it very nearly sounded unforced. “A clock in a bedchamber? My mother has a dozen clocks, but I never heard of a clock in a bedchamber.”

“Well, my father has one clock,” Egwene grumbled, “the only one in the whole village, and I wish I had it here. Do you think it will burn that far in an hour? I don’t want to sleep longer than that. You must wake me as soon as the flame reaches that mark. As soon as!”

“We will,” Elayne said soothingly. “I promise it.”

“The stone ring,” Aviendha said suddenly. “Since you are not using it, Egwene, could not someone—one of us—use it to go with you?”

“No,” Egwene muttered. Light, I wish they could all come with me. “Thank you for the thought, though.”

“Can only you use it, Egwene?” the Aiel woman asked.

“Any of us might,” Nynaeve replied, “even you, Aviendha. A woman needn’t be able to channel, only sleep with it touching her skin. A man might be able to, for all we know. But we do not know Tel’aran’rhiod as well as Egwene, or the rules of it.”

Aviendha nodded. “I see. A woman can make mistakes where she does not know the ways, and her mistakes can kill others as well as herself.”

“Exactly,” Nynaeve said. “The World of Dreams is a dangerous place. That much we do know.”

“But Egwene will be careful,” Elayne added, speaking to Aviendha but obviously meaning it for Egwene’s ears. “She promised. She will look around—carefully!—and no more.”

Egwene concentrated on the map. Careful. If she had not guarded her twisted stone ring so jealously—she thought of it as hers; the Hall of the Tower might not agree, but they did not know she had it—if she had been willing to let Elayne or Nynaeve use it more than once or twice, they might know enough to come with her now. Yet it was not regret that made her avoid looking at the other women. She did not want them to see the fear in her eyes.

Tel’aran’rhiod. The Unseen World. The World of Dreams. Not the dreams of ordinary people, though sometimes they touched Tel’aran’rhiod briefly, in dreams that seemed as true as life. Because they were. In the Unseen World, what happened was real, in a strange way. Nothing that happened there affected what was—a door opened in the World of Dreams would still be shut in the real world; a tree cut down there still stood here—yet a woman could be killed there, or stilled. “Strange” barely began to describe it. In the Unseen World the whole world lay open, and maybe other worlds, too; any place was attainable. Or at least, its reflection in the World of Dreams was. The weave of the Pattern could be read there—past, present and future—by one who knew how. By a Dreamer. There had not been a Dreamer in the White Tower since Corianin Nedeal, nearly five hundred years earlier.

Four hundred and seventy-three years, to be exact, Egwene thought. Or is it four hundred seventy-four now? When did Corianin die? If Egwene had had a chance to finish novice training in the Tower, to study there as an Accepted, perhaps she would know. There was so much she might have known, then.

A list lay in Egwene’s pouch of the ter’angreal, most small enough to slip into a pocket, that had been stolen by the Black Ajah when they fled the Tower. They all three had a copy. Thirteen of those stolen ter’angreal had “no known use” written alongside, and “last studied by Corianin Nedeal.” But if Corianin Sedai had truly not discovered their uses, Egwene was sure of one of them. They gave entrance to Tel’aran’rhiod; not as easily as the stone ring, perhaps, and perhaps not without channeling, but they did it.

Two they had recovered from Joiya and Amico: an iron disc, three inches across, scribed on both sides with a tight spiral, and a plaque no longer than her hand, apparently clear amber yet hard enough to scratch steel, with a sleeping woman somehow carved into the middle of it. Amico had spoken freely of them, and so had Joiya, after a session alone in her cell with Moiraine that had left the Darkfriend pale-faced and almost civil. Channel a flow of Spirit into either ter’angreal, and it would take you into sleep and then into Tel’aran’rhiod. Elayne had tried both of them briefly, and they worked, though all she saw was the inside of the Stone, and Morgase’s Royal Palace in Caemlyn.

Egwene had not wanted her to try, however fleeting the visit, but not from jealousy. She had not been able to argue very effectively, though, for she had been afraid Elayne and Nynaeve would hear what was in her voice.

Two recovered meant eleven still with the Black Ajah. That was the point Egwene had tried to make. Eleven ter’angreal that could take a woman to Tel’aran’rhiod, all in the hands of Black sisters. When Elayne made her short journeys into the Unseen World, she could have found the Black Ajah waiting for her, or walked into them before she knew they were there. The thought made Egwene’s stomach writhe. They could be waiting for her now. Not likely; not on purpose—how would they know she was coming?—but they could be there when she stepped through. One she could face, unless she was caught by surprise, and she did not mean to allow that. But if they did surprise her? Two or three of them together? Liandrin and Rianna, Chesmal Emry and Jeane Caide and all the rest at once?

Frowning at the map, she made her hands loosen their white-knuckled grip. Tonight had given everything urgency. If Shadowspawn could attack the Stone, if one of the Forsaken could suddenly appear in their midst, she could not give in to fear. They had to know what to do. They had to have something besides Amico’s vague tale. Something. If only she could learn where Mazrim Taim was in his caged journey to Tar Valon, or if she could somehow slip into the Amyrlin’s dreams and speak to her. Perhaps those things were possible for a Dreamer. If they were, she did not know how. Tanchico was what she had to work with.

“I must go alone, Aviendha. I must.” She thought her voice was calm and steady, but Elayne patted her shoulder.

Egwene did not know why she was scrutinizing the map. She already had it fixed in her head, everything in relation to everything else. Whatever existed in this world existed in the World of Dreams, and sometimes more besides, of course. She had her destination chosen. She thumbed through the book to the only engraving showing the inside of a building named on the map, the Panarch’s Palace. It would do no good to find herself in a chamber if she had no idea where it was in the city. None of it might do any good in any case. She put that out of her mind. She had to believe there was some chance.

The engraving showed a large room with a high ceiling. A rope strung along waist-high posts would keep anyone from going too close to the things displayed on stands and in open-fronted cabinets along the walls. Most of those displays were indistinct, but not what stood at the far end of the room. The artist had taken pains to show the massive skeleton standing there as if the rest of the creature had that moment disappeared. It had four thick-boned legs, but otherwise resembled no animal Egwene had ever seen. For one thing, it had to stand at least two spans high, well over twice her height. The rounded skull, set low on the shoulders like a bull’s, looked big enough for a child to climb inside, and in the picture it seemed to have four eye sockets. The skeleton marked the room off from any other; there was no mistaking it for anything but itself. Whatever it was. If Eurian Romavni had known, he had not named it in these pages.

“What is a panarch, anyway?” she asked, laying the book aside. She had studied the picture a dozen times. “All of these writers seem to think you know already.”

“The Panarch of Tanchico is the equal of the king in authority,” Elayne recited. “She is responsible for collecting taxes, customs and duties; he for spending them properly. She controls the Civil Watch and the courts, except for the High Court, which is the king’s. The army is his, of course, except for the Panarch’s Legion. She—”

“I didn’t really want to know.” Egwene sighed. It had only been something to say, another few moments to delay what she was going to do. The candle was burning down; she was wasting precious minutes. She knew how to step out of the dream when she wanted, how to wake herself, but time passed differently in the World of Dreams, and it was easy to lose track. “As soon as it reaches the mark,” she said, and Elayne and Nynaeve murmured reassurances.

Settling back on her feather pillows, at first she only stared at the ceiling, painted with blue sky and clouds and swooping swallows. She did not see them.

Her dreams had been bad enough lately, most of them. Rand was in them, of course. Rand as tall as a mountain, walking through cities, crushing buildings beneath his feet, with screaming people like ants fleeing from him. Rand in chains, and it was he who was screaming. Rand building a wall with him on one side and her on the other, her and Elayne and others she could not make out. “It has to be done,” he was saying as he piled up stones. “I’ll not let you stop me now.” These were not the only nightmares. She had dreamed of Aiel fighting each other, killing each other, even throwing away their weapons and running as if they had gone mad. Mat wrestling with a Seanchan woman who tied an invisible leash to him. A wolf—she was sure it was Perrin, though—fighting a man whose face kept changing. Galad wrapping himself in white as though putting on his own shroud, and Gawyn with his eyes full of pain and hatred. Her mother weeping. They were the sharp dreams, the ones she knew meant something. They were hideous, and she did not know what any of them meant. How could she presume to think she could find any meanings or clues in Tel’aran’rhiod? But there was no other choice. No other choice but ignorance, and she could not choose that.

Despite her anxiety, going to sleep was no problem; she was exhausted. It was just a matter of closing her eyes and taking deep, regular breaths. She fixed in her thoughts the room in the Panarch’s Palace and the huge skeleton. Deep, regular breaths. She could remember how using the stone ring felt, the step into Tel’aran’rhiod. Deep—regular—breaths.

Egwene stepped back with a gasp, one hand to her throat. This close, the skeleton seemed even larger than she had thought, the bones bleached dull and dry. She stood right in front of it, inside the rope. A white rope, as thick as her wrist and apparently silk. She had no doubt this was Tel’aran’rhiod. The detail was as fine as reality, even for things half-seen from the corner of her eye. That she could even be aware of the differences between this and an ordinary dream told her where she was. Besides, it felt... right.

She opened herself to saidar. A nick on the finger in the World of Dreams would still be there on waking; there would be no waking from a killing stroke with the Power, or even from a sword, or a club. She did not intend to be vulnerable for an instant.

Instead of her shift, she wore something very much like Aviendha’s Aiel garb, but in red brocaded silk; even her soft boots, laced to the knee, were supple red leather, suitable for gloves, with gold stitching and laces. She laughed softly to herself. Clothes in Tel’aran’rhiod were what you wanted them to be. Apparently part of her mind wanted to be ready to move quickly, while another part wanted to be ready for a ball. It would not do. The red faded to grays and browns; the coat and breeches and boots became exact copies of the Maidens’. No better, really, not in a city. Abruptly she was in a copy of the dresses Faile always wore, dark, with narrow divided skirts, long sleeves and a high snug bodice. Foolish to worry about it. No one is going to see me except in their dreams, and few ordinary dreams reach here. It would make no difference if I were naked.

For a moment she was naked. Her face colored with embarrassment; there was no one there to see her bare as in her bath, before she hastily brought the dark dress back, but she should have remembered how stray thoughts could affect things here, especially when you had embraced the Power. Elayne and Nynaeve thought she was so knowledgeable. She knew a few of the rules of the Unseen World, and knew there were a hundred, a thousand more of which she was ignorant. Somehow, she had to learn them, if she was to be the Tower’s first Dreamer since Corianin.

She took a closer look at the huge skull. She had grown up in a country village, and she knew what animal bones looked like. Not four eye sockets after all. Two seemed to be for tusks of some kind instead, on either side of where its nose had been. Some sort of monstrous boar, perhaps, though it looked like no pig skull she had ever seen. It had a feel of age, though; great age.

With the Power in her, she could sense things like that, here. The usual enhancement of senses was with her, of course. She could feel tiny cracks in the gilded plaster bosses covering the ceiling fifty feet up, and the smooth polish of the white stone floor. Infinitesimal cracks, invisible to the eye, spread across the floorstones as well.

The chamber was huge, perhaps two hundred paces long and nearly half as wide, with rows of thin white columns, and that white rope running all the way around except where there were doorways, with double-pointed arches. More ropes encircled polished wooden stands and cabinets holding other exhibits out in the floor. Up under the ceiling, an elaborate pattern of tiny carvings pierced the walls, letting in plenty of light. Apparently she had dreamed herself into a Tanchico where it was day.

“A grand display of artifacts of Ages long past, of the Age of Legends and Ages before, open to all, even the common folk, three days in the month and on feastdays,” Eurian Romavni had written. He had spoken in glowing terms of the priceless display of cuendillar figures, six of them, in a glass-sided case in the center of the hall, always watched by four of the Panarch’s personal guards when people were allowed in, and had gone on for two pages about the bones of fabulous beasts “never seen alive by the eyes of man.” Egwene could see some of those. On one side of the room was the skeleton of something that looked a little like a bear, if a bear had two front teeth as long as her forearm, and opposite it on the other side were the bones of some slender, four-footed beast with a neck so long the skull was half as high as the ceiling. There were more, spaced down the chamber’s walls, just as fantastic. All of them felt old enough to make the Stone of Tear seem new-built. Ducking under the rope barrier, she walked down the chamber slowly, staring.

A weathered stone figurine of a woman, seemingly unclothed but wrapped in hair that fell to her ankles, was outwardly no different from the others sharing its case, each not much bigger than her hand. But it gave an impression of soft warmth that she recognized. It was an angreal, she was sure; she wondered why the Tower had not managed to get it away from the Panarch. A finely jointed collar and two bracelets of dull black metal, on a stand by themselves, made her shiver; she felt darkness and pain associated with them—old, old pain, and sharp. A silvery thing in another cabinet, like a three-pointed star inside a circle, was made of no substance she knew; it was softer than metal, scratched and gouged, yet even older than any of the ancient bones. From ten paces she could sense pride and vanity.

One thing actually seemed familiar, though she could not say why. Tucked into a corner of one of the cabinets, as if whoever put it there had been uncertain that it was worthy of display, lay the upper half of a broken figure carved from some shiny white stone, a woman holding a crystal sphere in one upraised hand, her face calm and dignified and full of wise authority. Whole, she would have been perhaps a foot tall. But why did she appear so familiar? She almost seemed to call to Egwene to pick her up.

Not until Egwene’s fingers closed on the broken statuette did she realize she had climbed over the rope. Foolish, when I don’t know what it is, she thought, but it was already too late.

As her hand grasped it, the Power surged within her, into the half-figure then back into her, into the figure and back, in and back. The crystal sphere flickered in fitful, lurid flashes, and needles stabbed her brain with each flash. With a sob of agony, she loosed her hold and clasped both hands to her head.

The crystal sphere shattered as the figure hit the floor and broke into pieces, and the needles vanished, leaving only dull memories of the pain and a queasiness that wobbled her knees. She squeezed her eyes shut so she could not see the room heaving. The figure had to be a ter’angreal, but why had it hurt her like that when she only touched it? Perhaps because it was broken; perhaps, broken, it could not do what it was meant for. She did not even want to think of what it might have been made for; testing ter’angreal was dangerous. At least it must be broken beyond danger now. Here, at least. Why did it seem to call me?

Nausea faded, and she opened her eyes. The figure was back on the shelf, as whole as it had been when she first saw it. Strange things happened in Tel’aran’rhiod, but that was stranger than she wanted to see. And this was not what she had come for. First she had to find her way out of the Panarch’s Palace. Climbing back over the rope, she hurried out of the chamber, trying not to run.

The palace was empty of life, of course. Human life, at least. Colorful fish swam in large fountains that splashed merrily in the courtyards surrounded by delicately columned walks and balconies screened by stonework like intricately carved lace. Lily pads floated on the waters, and white flowers as big as dinner plates. In the World of Dreams, a place was as it was in the so-called real world. Except for people. Elaborate golden lamps stood in the hallways, wicks uncharred, but she could smell the perfumed oil in them. Her feet raised no hint of dust from the bright carpets that surely could never have been beaten, not here.

Once she did see another person walking ahead of her, a man in gilded, ornately worked plate-and-mail armor, a pointed golden helmet crested with white egret plumes under his arm. “Aeldra?” he called, smiling. “Aeldra, come look at me. I am named the Lord Captain of the Panarch’s Legion. Aeldra?” He walked on another pace, still calling, and suddenly was not there. Not a Dreamer. Not even someone using a ter’angreal like her stone ring or Amico’s iron disc. Only a man whose dream had touched a place he was not aware of, with dangers he did not know. People who died unexpectedly in their sleep had often dreamed their way into Tel’aran’rhiod and in truth had died there. He was well out of it, back into an ordinary dream.

The candle was burning down beside that bed back in Tear. Her time in Tel’aran’rhiod was burning away.

Hastening her steps, she came to tall, carved doors leading outside, to wide white stairs and a huge empty square. Tanchico spread out in every direction across steep hills, white buildings upon white buildings shining in the sun, hundreds of thin towers and almost as many pointed domes, some gilded. The Panarch’s Circle, a tall round wall of white stone, stood in plain sight not half a mile away and a little lower than the palace. The Panarch’s Palace rose atop one of the loftiest hills. At the top of the deep stairs, she was high enough to see water glinting to the west, inlets separating her from more hilly fingers where the rest of the city lay. Tanchico was larger than Tear, perhaps larger than Caemlyn.

So much to search, and she did not even know for what. For something that signified the presence of the Black Ajah, or something that indicated some sort of danger to Rand, if either existed here. Had she been a real Dreamer, trained in the use of her talent, she would surely have known what to look for, how to interpret what she saw. But no one remained who could teach her. Aiel Wise Ones supposedly knew how to decipher dreams. Aviendha had been so reluctant to talk about the Wise Ones that Egwene had not asked any of the other Aiel. Perhaps a Wise One could teach her. If she could find one.

She took a step toward the square, and suddenly she was somewhere else.

Great stone spires rose around her in a heat that sucked the moisture out of her breath. The sun seemed to bake right through her dress, and the breeze blowing in her face seemed to come from a stove. Stunted trees dotted a landscape almost bare of other growth, except for a few patches of tough grass and some prickly plants she did not recognize. She recognized the lion, however, even if she had never seen one in the flesh. It lay in a crevice in the rocks not twenty paces away, black-tufted tail switching idly, looking not at her but at something another hundred strides on. The large boar covered in coarse hair was rooting and snuffling at the base of a thorny bush, never noticing the Aiel woman creeping up on it with a spear ready to thrust. Garbed like the Aiel in the Stone, she had her shoufa around her head but her face uncovered.

The Waste, Egwene thought incredulously. I’ve jumped into the Aiel Waste! When will I learn to watch what I think here?

The Aiel woman froze. Her eyes were on Egwene now, not the boar. If it was a boar; it did not seem to be shaped exactly right.

Egwene was sure the woman was not a Wise One. Not dressed like a Maiden, from what Egwene had been told, a Maiden of the Spear who wanted to become a Wise One had to “give up the spear.” This had to be just an Aiel woman who had dreamed herself into Tel’aran’rhiod, like that fellow in the palace. He would have seen her, too, if he had ever turned around. Egwene closed her eyes and concentrated on her one clear image of Tanchico, that huge skeleton in the great hall.

When she opened them again, she was staring at the massive bones. They had been wired together, she noticed this time. Quite cleverly, so that the wires hardly showed at all. The half-figurine with its crystal sphere was still on its shelf. She did not go near it, any more than the black collar and bracelets that felt of so much pain and suffering. The angreal, the stone woman, was a temptation. What are you going to do with it? Light, you’re here to look, to search! Nothing more than that. Get on with it, woman!

This time she quickly found her way back to the square. Time passed differently here; Elayne and Nynaeve could be waking her up any moment, and she still had not even begun. There might be no more minutes to waste. She had to be careful of what she thought from here on. No more thinking about the Wise Ones. Even the admonition made everything lurch around her. Keep your mind on what you are doing, she told herself firmly.

She set out through the empty city, walking fast, sometimes trotting. Winding, stone-paved streets slanted up and down, curving every which way, all empty, except for green-backed pigeons and pale gray gulls that rose in thunderclaps of wings when she came close. Why birds and not people? Flies buzzed by, and she could see roaches and beetles scurrying along in the shadows. A pack of lean dogs, all different colors, loped across the street far ahead of her. Why dogs?

She pulled herself back to why she was there. What would be a sign of the Black Ajah? Or of this danger to Rand, if it existed? Most of the white buildings were plastered, the plaster chipped and cracked, often showing weathered wood or pale brown brick beneath. Only the towers and the larger structures—palaces, she supposed—were stone, if still white. Even the stone had tiny fissures, though, most of it; cracks too minute for the eye to catch, but she could feel them with the Power in her, spiderwebbing domes and towers. Perhaps that meant something. Perhaps it meant Tanchico was a city not looked after by its inhabitants. As likely that as anything else.

She jumped as a shrieking man suddenly plummeted out of the sky in front of her. She only had time to register baggy white trousers and thick mustaches covered by a transparent veil before he vanished, only a pace above the pavement. Had he struck, here in Tel’aran’rhiod, he would have been found dead in his bed.

He probably has as much to do with anything as the roaches, she told herself.

Perhaps something inside the buildings. It was a small chance, a wild hope, but she was desperate enough to try anything. Almost anything. Time. How much time did she have left? She began running from doorway to doorway, putting her head into shops and inns and houses.

Tables and benches stood in common rooms awaiting customers, as neatly arranged as the dully gleaming pewter mugs and plates on their shelves. The shops were as tidy as if the shopkeeper had just opened for the morning, yet while a tailor’s tables held bolts of cloth, and a cutler’s knives and scissors, the ceiling hooks hung empty in a butcher’s shop and the shelves stood bare. A finger run along anywhere picked up no dust at all; everything was clean enough to suit her mother.

In the narrower streets there were homes, small simple white-plastered buildings with flat roofs and no windows onto the street, ready for families to walk in and sit on benches before cold fireplaces or around narrow tables with carved legs where a goodwife’s best bowl or platter was given pride of place. Clothes hung on pegs, pots hung from ceilings, handtools lay on benches, waiting.

On a hunch she retraced her steps once, just to see, back a dozen doors, and peered a second time into what was some woman’s home in the real world. It was almost the way it had been. Almost. The red-striped bowl that had been on the table was now a narrow blue vase; one of the benches, on it a broken harness and the tools for mending it, that had been near the fireplace now sat by the door holding a darning basket and a child’s embroidered dress.

Why did it change? she wondered. But for that matter, why should it stay the same? Light, I don’t know anything!

There was a stable across the street, the white plaster showing large patches of brick. She trotted to it and pulled open one of the big doors. Straw covered the dirt floor, just as in every stable she had ever seen, but the stalls stood empty. No horses. Why? Something rustled in the straw, and she realized the stalls were not empty after all. Rats. Dozens of them, staring at her boldly, noses testing the air for her scent. None of the rats ran, or even shied away; they behaved as if they had more right there than she. In spite of herself she stepped back. Pigeons and gulls and dogs, flies and rats. Maybe a Wise One would know why.

As suddenly as that she was back in the Waste.

With a scream she fell flat on her back as the hairy boarlike creature darted straight for her, looking as large as a small pony. Not a pig, she saw as it leaped nimbly over her; the snout was too sharp and full of keen teeth, and it had four toes on each foot. The thought was calm, but she shuddered as the beast scampered away through the rocks. It was big enough to have trampled her, breaking bones and worse; those teeth could have ripped and torn as well as any wolf’s. She would have awakened with the wounds. If she had waked at all.

The gritty rock under her back was a blistering stovetop. She scrambled to her feet, angry with herself. If she could not keep her mind on what she was doing, she would accomplish nothing. Tanchico was where she was supposed to be; she had to concentrate on that. Nothing else.

She stopped brushing at her skirts when she saw the Aiel woman watching her with sharp blue eyes from ten paces off. The woman was Aviendha’s age, no older than herself, but the wisps of hair that stuck out from under her shoufa were so pale as to be almost white. The spear in her hands was ready to be cast, and at that distance she was not likely to miss.

The Aiel were said to be more than rough with those who entered the Waste without permission. Egwene knew she could wrap woman and spear in Air, hold them safely, but would the flows keep long enough when she began to fade? Or would they just anger the woman enough to make her cast her spear the moment she was able, perhaps before Egwene was truly gone? Much good it would do to take herself back to Tanchico with an Aiel spear through her. If she tied the flows, that would leave the woman trapped in Tel’aran’rhiod until they were unraveled, helpless if that lion or the boarlike creature returned.

No. She simply needed the woman to lower her spear, just long enough to feel safe closing her eyes, to take herself back to Tanchico. Back to what she was supposed to be doing. She had no more time for these flights of fancy. She was not entirely sure someone who had only dreamed themselves into Tel’aran’rhiod could harm her the way other things there could, but she was not going to risk finding out with an Aiel spear-point. The Aiel woman should vanish in a few moments. Something to put her off balance until then.

Changing her clothes was easy; as soon as the thought came, Egwene was wearing the same browns and grays as the woman. “I mean you no harm,” she said, outwardly calm.

The woman did not lower her weapon. Instead, she frowned and said, “You have no right to wear cadin’sor, girl.” And Egwene found herself standing there in her skin, the sun burning her from overhead, the ground searing her bare feet.

For a moment she gaped in disbelief, dancing from foot to foot. She had not thought it possible to change things about someone else. So many possibilities, so many rules, that she did not know. Hurriedly she thought herself back into stout shoes and the dark dress with its divided skirts and at the same time made the Aiel woman’s garments vanish. She had to draw on saidar to do it; the woman must have been concentrating on keeping Egwene naked. She had a flow ready to seize the spear if the other woman made to throw it.

It was the Aiel woman’s turn to look shocked. She let the spear fall to her side, too, and Egwene seized the moment to shut her eyes and take herself back to Tanchico, back to the skeleton of that huge boar. Or whatever it was. She barely gave it a second glance this time. She was growing tired of things that looked like boars and were not. How did she do that? No! It’s wondering about how and why that keeps pulling me off the path. This time I’ll stick to it.

She did hesitate, though. Just as she had closed her eyes it had seemed she saw another woman, beyond the Aiel woman, watching them both. A golden-haired woman holding a silver bow. You are letting wild fancies take you, now. You’ve been listening to too many of Thom Merrilin’s stories. Birgitte was long dead; she could not come again until the Horn of Valere called her back from the grave. Dead women, even heroes of legend, surely could not dream themselves into Tel’aran’rhiod.

It was only a moment’s pause, though. Shutting off futile speculation, she ran back to the square. How much time did she have left? The whole city to search, and time slipping away, and she as ignorant as when she started. If only she had some idea of what to look for. Or where. Running did not seem to tire her here in the World of Dreams, but run as hard as she might, she would never cover the entire city before Elayne and Nynaeve woke her. She did not want to have to come back.

A woman appeared suddenly among the flock of pigeons that had gathered in the square. Her gown was pale green, thin and draped closely enough to have satisfied Berelain, her dark hair was in dozens of narrow braids, and her face was covered to the eyes by a transparent veil like the one the falling man had worn. The pigeons soared up, and so did the woman gliding over the nearest rooftops with them before abruptly winking out of existence.

Egwene smiled. She dreamed of flying like a bird all the time, and this was a dream, after all. She leaped into the air, and kept going up, toward the roofs. She wobbled as she thought how ridiculous this was—Flying? People did not fly!—then steadied again as she forced herself to be confident. She was doing it, and that was all there was to it. This was a dream, and she was flying. The wind rushed in her face, and she wanted to laugh giddily.

She skimmed across the Panarch’s Circle, where rows of stone benches slanted down from the high wall to a broad field of packed dirt in the center. Imagine so many people gathered, and to watch a fireworks display by the Guild of Illuminators themselves. Back home fireworks were a rare treat. She could remember the handful of times in her life Emond’s Field had had them, with the grown-ups as excited as the children.

She sailed over rooftops like a falcon, over palaces and mansions, humble dwellings and shops, warehouses and stables. She slid by domes topped with golden spires and bronze weathervanes, by towers ringed with lacy stone balconies. Carts and wagons dotted wagonyards, waiting. Ships crowded the great harbor and the fingers of water between the city’s peninsulas; they lined the docks. Everything seemed in a poor state of repair, from the carts to the ships, but nothing she saw pointed to the Black Ajah. As far as she knew.

She considered trying to envision Liandrin—she knew that doll’s face all too well, with its multitude of blond braids, its self-satisfied brown eyes, and its smirking rosebud mouth—picture her in the hopes she might be drawn to where the Black sister was. But if it worked, she might find Liandrin in Tel’aran’rhiod, too, and maybe others of them. She was not ready for that.

It suddenly occurred to her that if any of the Black Ajah were in Tanchico, in the Tanchico of Tel’aran’rhiod, she was flaunting herself for them. Any eye looking at the sky would notice a woman flying, one who did not vanish after a few moments. Her smooth flight staggered, and she swooped down below roof level, floating along the streets more slowly than before but still faster than a horse could run. She might be rushing toward them, but she could not make herself stop and wait for them.

Fool! she called herself furiously. Fool! They could know I’m here now. They could be laying a trap already. She considered stepping out of the dream, back to her bed in Tear, but she had found nothing. If there was anything to find.

A tall woman was suddenly standing in the street ahead of her, slim in a bulky brown skirt and loose white blouse, with a brown shawl around her shoulders and a folded scarf around her forehead to hold white hair that spilled to her waist. Despite her plain clothes she wore a great many necklaces and bracelets of gold or ivory or both. Fists planted on her hips, she stared straight at Egwene, frowning.

Another fool woman who’s dreamed herself where she has no right to be and doesn’t believe what she’s seeing, Egwene thought. She had the description of every woman who had gone with Liandrin, and this woman certainly matched none of them. But the woman did not vanish again; she stood there as Egwene approached swiftly. Why doesn’t she go? Why... ? Oh, Light! She’s really... ! She snatched for the flows to weave lightning, to tangle the woman in Air, fumbling in startled haste.

“Put your feet on the ground, girl,” the woman barked. “I had enough trouble finding you again without you flying off like some bird when I do.”

Abruptly Egwene stopped flying. Her feet thumped hard on the pavement, and she staggered. It was the Aiel woman’s voice, but this was an older woman. Not as old as Egwene had thought at first—in fact, she looked much younger than her white hair suggested—but with the voice, and those sharp blue eyes, she was sure it was the same woman. “You’re... different,” she said.

“You can be what you wish to be, here.” The woman sounded embarrassed, but only a little. “At times I like to remember.... That is not important. You are from the White Tower? It has been long since they had a dreamwalker. Very long. I am Amys, of the Nine Valleys sept of the Taardad Aiel.”

“You are a Wise One? You are! And you know dreams, you know Tel’aran’rhiod! You can.... My name is Egwene. Egwene al’Vere. I....” She took a deep breath; Amys did not look a woman to lie to. “I am Aes Sedai. Of the Green Ajah.”

Amys’s expression did not change, really. A slight crinkling of her eyes, perhaps in skepticism. Egwene hardly looked old enough to be full Aes Sedai. What she said, though, was “I meant to leave you standing in your skin until you asked for some proper clothes. Putting on cadin’sor that way, as though you were.... You surprised me, pulling free as you did, turning my own spear on me. But you are still untaught, are you not, however strong. Else you would not have popped into the middle of my hunt that way, where you obviously did not wish to be. And this flying about? Did you come to Tel’aran’rhiod—Tel’aran’rhiod!—to stare at this city, wherever it is?”

“It’s Tanchico,” Egwene said faintly. She didn’t know. But then how had Amys followed her, or found her? It was obvious she knew more of the World of Dreams than Egwene did, by far. “You can help me. I am trying to find women of the Black Ajah, Darkfriends. I think they are here, and I have to find them if they are.”

“It truly exists, then.” Amys almost whispered it. “An Ajah of Shadow-runners in the White Tower.” She shook her head. “You are like a girl just wedded to the spear who thinks now she can wrestle men and leap mountains. For her it means a few bruises and a valuable lesson in humility. For you, here, it could mean death.” Amys eyed the white buildings around them and grimaced. “Tanchico? In... Tarabon? This city is dying, eating itself. There is a darkness here, an evil. Worse than men can make. Or women.” She looked at Egwene pointedly. “You cannot see it, or feel it, can you? And you want to hunt Shadowrunners in Tel’aran’rhiod.”

“Evil?” Egwene said quickly. “That could be them. Are you sure? If I told you what they look like, could you be certain it was them? I can describe them. I can describe one to her last braid.”

“A child,” Amys muttered, “demanding a silver bracelet from her father this minute when she knows nothing of trading or the making of bracelets. You have much to learn. Far more than I can begin to teach you, now. Come to the Three-fold Land. I will have the word spread through the clans that an Aes Sedai called Egwene al’Vere is to be brought to me at Cold Rocks Hold. Give your name and show your Great Serpent ring, and you will have safe running. I am not there now, but I will return from Rhuidean before you can arrive.”

“Please, you must help me. I need to know if they are here. I have to know.”

“But I cannot tell you. I do not know them, or this place, this Tanchico. You must come to me. What you do is dangerous, far more dangerous than you know. You must—Where are you going? Stay!”

Something seemed to snatch at Egwene, pulling her into darkness.

Amys’s voice followed her, hollow and dwindling. “You must come to me and learn. You must....

CHAPTER 12
Tanchico or the Tower

Elayne drew a ragged, relieved breath as Egwene finally stirred and opened her eyes. At the foot of the bed, Aviendha’s features lost their tinge of frustration and anxiety, and she flashed a quick smile that Egwene returned. The candle had burned past the mark minutes ago; it seemed an hour.

“You would not wake up,” Elayne said unsteadily. “I shook you and shook you, but you would not wake.” She gave a small laugh. “Oh, Egwene, you even frightened Aviendha.”

Egwene put a hand on her arm and squeezed reassuringly. “I am back, now.” She sounded tired, and she had sweated her shift through. “I suppose I had reason to stay a little longer than we planned. I will be more careful next time. I promise.”

Nynaeve returned the pitcher of water to the washstand vigorously, sloshing some out. She had been on the point of throwing it in Egwene’s sleeping face. Her features were composed, but the pitcher rattled the washbowl, and she let the spilled water drip to the carpet. “Was it something you found? Or was it... ? Egwene, if the World of Dreams can hold on to you in some way, maybe it is too dangerous until you learn more. Maybe the more often you go, the harder it is to come back. Maybe.... I don’t know. But I do know we cannot risk letting you become lost.” She crossed her arms under her breasts, ready for an argument.

“I know,” Egwene said, very close to meekly. Elayne’s eyebrows shot up; Egwene was never meek with Nynaeve. Anything but.

Egwene struggled off the bed, refusing Elayne’s help, and made her way to the washstand to bathe her face and arms in the relatively cool water. Elayne found a dry shift in the wardrobe while Egwene pulled off her sodden one.

“I met a Wise One, a woman named Amys.” Egwene’s voice was muffled until her head popped out of the top of the new shift. “She said I should come to her, to learn about Tel’aran’rhiod. At some place in the Waste called Cold Rocks Hold.”

Elayne had caught a flicker of Aviendha’s eye at the mention of the Wise One’s name. “Do you know her? Amys?”

The Aiel woman’s nod could only be described as reluctant. “A Wise One. A dreamwalker. Amys was Far Dareis Mai until she gave up the spear to go to Rhuidean.”

“A Maiden!” Egwene exclaimed. “So that’s why she.... No matter. She said she is at Rhuidean, now. Do you know where this Cold Rocks Hold is, Aviendha?”

“Of course. Cold Rocks is Rhuarc’s hold. Rhuarc is Amys’s husband. I visit there, sometimes. I used to. My sister-mother, Lian, is sister-wife to Amys.”

Elayne exchanged confused glances with Egwene and Nynaeve. Once Elayne had thought she knew a good bit about Aiel, all learned from her teachers in Caemlyn, but she had discovered since meeting Aviendha how little she did know. Customs and relationships all were a maze. First-sisters meant having the same mother; except that it was possible for friends to become first-sisters by making a pledge before Wise Ones. Second-sisters meant your mothers were sisters; if your fathers were brothers, you were father-sisters, and not considered as closely related as second-sisters. After that, it truly grew bewildering.

“What does ‘sister-wife’ mean?” she asked hesitantly.

“That you have the same husband.” Aviendha frowned at the way Egwene gasped and Nynaeve’s eyes opened as wide as they would go. Elayne had been half-expecting the answer, but she still found herself fussing with skirts that were perfectly straight. “This is not your custom?” the Aiel woman asked.

“No,” Egwene said faintly. “No, it is not.”

“But you and Elayne care for one another as first-sisters. What would you have done had one of you been unwilling to step aside for Rand al’Thor? Fight over him? Let a man damage the ties between you? Would it not have been better if you both had married him, then?”

Elayne looked at Egwene. The thought of.... Could she have done such a thing? Even with Egwene? She knew her cheeks were red. Egwene merely looked startled.

“But I wanted to step aside,” Egwene said.

Elayne knew the remark was as much for her as for Aviendha, but the thought would not go away. Had Min had a viewing? What would she do if Min had? If it’s Berelain, I will strangle her, and him too! If it has to be someone, why couldn’t it be Egwene? Light, what am I thinking? She knew she was becoming flustered, and to cover it, she made her voice light. “You sound as if the man has no choice in the matter.”

“He can say no,” Aviendha said as if it were obvious, “but if he wishes to marry one, he must marry both when they ask. Please take no offense, but I was shocked when I learned that in your lands a man can ask a woman to marry him. A man should make his interest known, then wait for the woman to speak. Of course, some women lead a man to see where his interest lies, but the right of the question is hers. I do not really know very much of these things. I have wanted to be Far Dareis Mai since I was a child. All I want in life is the spear and my spear-sisters,” she finished quite fiercely.

“No one is going to try to make you marry,” Egwene said soothingly. Aviendha gave her a startled look.

Nynaeve cleared her throat loudly. Elayne wondered if she had been thinking about Lan; there were certainly hard spots of color in her cheeks. “I suppose, Egwene,” Nynaeve said in a slightly too energetic voice, “that you did not find what you were looking for, or you would have said something by now.”

“I found nothing,” Egwene replied regretfully. “But Amys said.... Aviendha, what sort of woman is Amys?”

The Aiel woman had taken up a study of the carpet. “Amys is hard as the mountains and pitiless as the sun,” she said without looking up. “She is a dreamwalker. She can teach you. Once she lays her hands on you, she will drag you by the hair toward what she wants. Rhuarc is the only one who can stand up to her. Even the other Wise Ones step carefully when Amys speaks. But she can teach you.”

Egwene shook her head. “I meant would being in a strange place unsettle her, make her nervous? Being in a city? Would she see things that weren’t there?”

Aviendha’s laugh was a short, sharp sound. “Nervous? Waking to find a lion in her bed would not make Amys nervous. She was a Maiden, Egwene, and she has grown no softer, you can be sure of it.”

“What did this woman see?” Nynaeve asked.

“It wasn’t something she saw, exactly,” Egwene said slowly. “I think not seeing. She said Tanchico had an evil in it. Worse than men could make, she said. That could be the Black Ajah. Don’t argue with me, Nynaeve,” she added in a firmer voice. “Dreams have to be interpreted. It very well could be.”

Nynaeve had begun frowning as soon as Egwene mentioned evil in Tanchico, and her frown turned to a heated glare when Egwene told her not to argue. Sometimes Elayne wanted to shake both women. She stepped in quickly, before the older woman could erupt. “It very well could be, Egwene. You did find something. More than Nynaeve or I thought you could. Didn’t she, Nynaeve? Don’t you think so?”

“It could be,” Nynaeve said grudgingly.

“It could be.” Egwene did not sound happy about it. She took a deep breath. “Nynaeve is right. I have to learn what I’m doing. If I knew what I should, I would not have had to be told about the evil. If I knew what I should, I could have found the very room Liandrin is staying in, wherever she is. Amys can teach me. That is why.... That is why I have to go to her.”

“Go to her?” Nynaeve sounded appalled. “Into the Waste?”

“Aviendha can take me right to this Cold Rocks Hold.” Egwene’s look, half-defiant, half-anxious, darted between Elayne and Nynaeve. “If I was certain they were in Tanchico, I wouldn’t let you go alone. If you decide to. But with Amys to help me, maybe I can find out where they are. Maybe I can.... That is just it; I do not even know what I’ll be able to do, only that I am certain it will be far more than I can now. It isn’t as if I will be abandoning you. You can take the ring with you. You know the Stone well enough to come back here in Tel’aran’rhiod. I can come to you in Tanchico. Whatever I learn from Amys, I can teach you. Please say you understand. I can learn so much from Amys, and then I can use it to help you. It will be as if all three of us had been trained by her. A dreamwalker; a woman who knows! Liandrin and the rest of them will be like children; they won’t know a quarter of what we do.” She chewed her lip, one pensive bite. “You don’t believe I am running out on you, do you? If you do, I won’t go.”

“Of course you must go,” Elayne told her. “I will miss you, but no one promised us we could stay together until this was done.”

“But the two of you... going alone... I should go with you. If they really are in Tanchico, I should be with you.”

“Nonsense,” Nynaeve said briskly. “Training is what you need. That will do us far more good in the long run than your company to Tanchico. It isn’t even as if we know any of them are in Tanchico. If they are, Elayne and I will do very well together, but we could arrive and find that this evil is no more than the war after all. The Light knows, war should be evil enough for anyone. We may be back in the Tower before you are. You must be careful in the Waste,” she added in a practical tone. “It is a dangerous place. Aviendha, you will look after her?”

Before the Aiel woman could open her mouth, there was a knock at the door, followed immediately by Moiraine. The Aes Sedai took them in with one sweeping look that weighed, measured and considered them and what they had been doing, all without the twitch of an eyelid to suggest her conclusions. “Joiya and Amico are dead,” she announced.

“Was that the reason for the attack, then?” Nynaeve said. “All that to kill them? Or perhaps to kill them if they could not be freed. I’ve been sure Joiya was so confident because she expected rescue. She must have been lying after all. I never trusted her repentance.”

“Not the main purpose, perhaps,” Moiraine replied. “The captain very wisely kept his men to their posts in the dungeons during the attack. They never saw a single Trolloc or Myrddraal. But they found the pair dead, after. Each with her throat rather messily cut. After her tongue had been nailed to her cell door.” She might as well have been speaking of having a dress mended.

Elayne’s stomach heaved leadenly at the detached description. “I would not have wanted that for them. Not like that. The Light illumine their souls.”

“They sold their souls to the Shadow long ago,” Egwene said roughly. She had both hands pressed to her stomach, though. “How.... How was it done? Gray Men?”

“I doubt even Gray Men could have managed that,” Moiraine said dryly. “The Shadow has resources beyond what we know, it seems.”

“Yes.” Egwene smoothed her dress, and her voice. “If there was no attempt at rescue, it must mean they were both telling the truth. They were killed because they talked.”

“Or to stop them from it,” Nynaeve added grimly. “We can hope they do not know that those two told us anything. Perhaps Joiya did repent, but I’ll not believe it.”

Elayne swallowed, thinking of being in a cell, having your face pressed to the door so your tongue could be pulled out and.... She shivered, but made herself say, “They might have been killed simply to punish them for being captured.” She left out her thought that the killing might have been to make them believe whatever Joiya and Amico had said; they had enough doubts about what to do as it was. “Three possibilities, and only one says the Black Ajah knows they revealed a word. Since all three are equal, the chances are that they do not know.”

Egwene and Nynaeve looked shocked. “To punish them?” Nynaeve said incredulously.

They were both tougher than she in many ways—she admired them for it—but they had not grown up watching the maneuverings at court in Caemlyn, hearing tales of the cruel way Cairhienin and Tairens played the Games of Houses.

“I think the Black Ajah might be less than gentle with failure of any kind,” she told them. “I can imagine Liandrin ordering it. Joiya surely could have done it easily.” Moiraine eyed her briefly, a reassessing look.

“Liandrin,” Egwene said, her tone absolutely flat. “Yes, I can imagine Liandrin or Joiya giving that command.”

“You did not have much longer to question them in any case,” Moiraine said. “They would have been shipbound by midday tomorrow.” A hint of anger touched her voice; Elayne realized Moiraine must see the Black sisters’ deaths as an escape from justice. “I hope you reach some decision soon. Tanchico or the Tower.”

Elayne met Nynaeve’s eyes and gave a slight nod.

Nynaeve nodded back, more assertively, before turning to the Aes Sedai. “Elayne and I will be going to Tanchico as soon as we can find a ship. A fast ship, I hope. Egwene and Aviendha will be going to Cold Rocks Hold, in the Aiel Waste.” She gave no reasons, and Moiraine’s eyebrows rose.

“Jolien can take her,” Aviendha said into the momentary silence. She avoided looking at Egwene. “Or Sefela, or Bain and Chiad. I... I have a thought to go with Elayne and Nynaeve. If there is war in this Tanchico, they have need of a sister to watch their backs.”

“If that is what you want, Aviendha,” Egwene said slowly.

She looked surprised and hurt, but no more surprised than Elayne. She had thought the two of them were becoming friends. “I am glad you want to help us, Aviendha, but you should be the one to take Egwene to Cold Rocks Hold.”

“She is going neither to Tanchico nor Cold Rocks Hold,” Moiraine said, taking a letter from her pouch and unfolding the pages. “This was placed in my hand an hour gone. The young Aielman who brought it told me it was given to him a month ago, before any of us reached Tear, yet it is addressed to me by name, at the Stone of Tear.” She glanced at the last sheet. “Aviendha, do you know Amys, of the Nine Valleys sept of the Taardad Aiel; Bair, of the Haido sept of the Shaarad Aiel; Melaine, of the Jhirad sept of the Goshien Aiel; and Seana, of the Black Cliff sept of the Nakai Aiel? They signed it.”

“They are all Wise Ones, Aes Sedai. All dreamwalkers.” Aviendha’s stance had shifted to wariness, though she did not seem aware of it. She looked ready to fight or flee.

“Dreamwalkers,” Moiraine mused. “Perhaps that explains it. I have heard of dreamwalkers.” She turned to the second page of the letter. “Here is what they say about you. What they said perhaps before you had even decided to come to Tear. ‘There is among the Maidens of the Spear in the Stone of Tear a willful girl called Aviendha, of the Nine Valleys sept of the Taardad Aiel. She must now come to us. There can be no more waiting or excuses. We will await her on the slopes of Chaendaer, above Rhuidean.’ There is more about you, but mainly telling me that I must see you come to them without delay. They issue commands like the Amyrlin, these Wise Ones of yours.” She made a vexed sound, which brought Elayne to wonder if the Wise Ones had tried issuing commands to the Aes Sedai, too. Not very likely. And unlikely to be successful if tried. Still, something about that letter irritated the Aes Sedai.

“I am Far Dareis Mai,” Aviendha said angrily. “I do not go running like a child when someone calls my name. I will go to Tanchico if I wish.”

Elayne pursed her lips thoughtfully. This was something new from the Aiel woman. Not the anger—she had seen Aviendha angry before, if not quite to this degree—but the undertone. She could call it nothing but sulkiness. That seemed as unlikely as Lan being sulky, but there it was.

Egwene heard it, too. She patted Aviendha’s arm. “It’s all right. If you want to go to Tanchico, I’ll be pleased that you are protecting Elayne and Nynaeve.” Aviendha gave her a truly miserable look.

Moiraine shook her head, only slightly, but still deliberate. “I showed this to Rhuarc.” Aviendha opened her mouth, her face irate, but the Aes Sedai raised her voice and went on smoothly. “As the letter asks me to. Only the part concerning you, of course. He seems quite determined that you will do as the letter asks. As it orders. I think it wisest to do as Rhuarc and the Wise Ones wish, Aviendha. Do you not agree?”

Aviendha stared around the room wildly, as at a trap. “I am Far Dareis Mai,” she muttered, and strode for the door without another word.

Egwene took a step, half-raising a hand to stop her, then let it fall as the door banged shut. “What do they want with her?” she demanded of Moiraine. “You always know more than you let on. What are you holding back this time?”

“Whatever the Wise Ones’ reason,” Moiraine said coolly, “it is surely a matter between Aviendha and them. If she wished you to know, she would have told you.”

“You cannot stop trying to maneuver people,” Nynaeve said bitterly. “You’re maneuvering Aviendha into something now, aren’t you?”

“Not I. The Wise Ones. And Rhuarc.” Moiraine folded the letter, returning it to her belt pouch with a touch of acerbity in her manner. “She can always say no to him. A clan chief is not the same as a king, as I understand Aiel ways.”

“Can she?” Elayne asked. Rhuarc reminded her of Gareth Bryne. The Captain-General of her mother’s Royal Guards had seldom put his foot down, but when he did, not even Morgase could bring him around, short of a royal command. There would be no command from the throne this time—not that Morgase had ever issued one to Gareth Bryne when he had decided he was right, now that Elayne thought of it—and without one, she expected that Aviendha was going to the slopes of Chaendaer, above Rhuidean. “At least she can journey with you, Egwene. Amys can hardly meet you at Cold Rocks Hold if she plans to wait for Aviendha at Rhuidean. You can go to Amys together.”

“But I do not want her to,” Egwene said sadly. “Not if she doesn’t want to.”

“Whatever anyone wants,” Nynaeve said, “we have work to do. You will need many things for a trip into the Waste, Egwene. Lan will tell me what. And Elayne and I must make preparations to sail for Tanchico. I suppose we can find a ship tomorrow, but that means deciding what to pack tonight.”

“There is a ship of the Atha’an Miere at the docks in the Maule,” Moiraine told them. “A raker. There are no ships faster. You did want a fast ship.” Nynaeve gave a grudging nod.

“Moiraine,” Elayne said, “what is Rand going to do now? After this attack.... Will he start the war you want?”

“I do not want a war,” the Aes Sedai replied. “I want what will see him alive to fight Tarmon Gai’don. He says he will tell us all what he means to do tomorrow.” The smallest frown creased her smooth forehead. “Tomorrow, we will all know more than we do tonight.” Her departure was abrupt.

Tomorrow, Elayne thought. What will he do when I tell him? What will he say? He has to understand. Determinedly, she joined the other two to discuss their preparations.

CHAPTER 13
Rumors

The tavern’s business rocked along like any in the Maule, a wagon-load of geese and crockery careering downhill through the night. The babble of voices fought with the musicians’ offerings on three assorted drums, two hammered dulcimers, and a bulbous semseer that produced whining trills. The serving maids in dark, ankle-length dresses with necks up to the chin and short white aprons hustled between crowded tables, holding clusters of pottery mugs overhead so they could squeeze through. Barefoot leather-vested dockmen mixed with fellows in coats tight to the waist and bare-chested men with broad, colorful sashes to hold up their baggy breeches. So close to the docks, vestments of outlanders were everywhere among the crowd; high collars from the north and long collars from the west, silver chains on coats and bells on vests, knee-high boots and thigh-high boots, necklaces or earrings on men, lace on coats or shirts. One man with wide shoulders and a big belly had a forked yellow beard, and another had smeared something on his mustaches to make them glisten in the lamplight and curl up on either side of his narrow face. Dice rolled and tumbled in three corners of the room and on a number of tabletops, silver changing hands briskly to shouts and laughter.

Mat sat alone with his back to the wall where he could see all the doors, though mostly he peered into a still untouched mug of dark wine. He did not go near the dice games, and he never glanced at the serving girls’ ankles. With the tavern so crowded, men occasionally thought to share his table, but a good look at his face made them sheer away and crowd onto a bench elsewhere.

Dipping a finger in his wine, he sketched aimlessly on the tabletop. These fools had no idea what had happened in the Stone tonight. He had heard a few Tairens mention some kind of trouble, quick words that trailed off into nervous laughter. They did not know and did not want to. He almost wished he did not know himself. No, he wished he had a better idea of what had happened. The images kept flashing in his head, flashing through the holes in his memory, making no real sense.

The din of fighting somewhere in the distance echoed down the corridor, dulled by the wall hangings. He retrieved his knife from the Gray Man’s corpse with a shaking hand. A Gray Man, and hunting him. It had to have been after him. Gray Men did not wander about killing at random; they had targets as surely as an arrow. He turned to run, and there was a Myraddraal striding toward him like a black snake on legs, its pasty-faced, eyeless stare sending shivers into his bones. At thirty paces he hurled the knife straight at where an eye should have been; at that distance he could hit a knothole no larger than an eye four times in five.

The Fade’s black sword blurred as it knocked the dagger away, almost casually; it did not even break stride. “Time to die, Hornsounder.” Its voice was a red adder’s dry hiss, warning of death.

Mat backed away. He had a knife in either hand, now, though he did not remember drawing them. Not that knives would be much good against a sword, but running meant that black blade in his back as sure as five sixes beat four threes. He wished he had a good quarterstaff. Or a bow; he would like to see this thing try to deflect a shaft from a Two Rivers longbow. He wished he were somewhere else. He was going to die, here.

Suddenly a dozen Trollocs roared out of a side hallway, piling onto the Fade in a frenzy of chopping axes and stabbing swords. Mat stared in amazed disbelief. The Halfman fought like a black-armored whirlwind. More than half the Trollocs were dead or dying before the Fade lay in a twitching heap; one arm flexed and thrashed like a dying snake three paces away from the body, still with that black sword in its fist.

A ram-horned Trolloc peered toward Mat, snout lifted to sniff the air. It snarled at him, then whined and began licking a long gash that had laid open mail and hairy forearm. The others finished cutting the throats of their wounded, and one barked a few harsh, guttural words. Without another glance at Mat, they turned and trotted away, hooves and boots making hollow sounds on the stone floor.

Away from him. Mat shivered. Trollocs to the rescue. What had Rand gotten him into now? He saw what he had drawn with the wine—an open door—and scrubbed it out angrily. He had to get away from here. He had to. And he could also feel that urge in the back of his head, that it was time to go back to the Stone. He pushed it away angrily, but it kept buzzing at him.

He caught a snatch of talk from the table to his right, where the lean-faced fellow with the curling mustaches was holding forth in a heavy Lugarder accent. “Now this Dragon of yours is a great man no doubt, I’ll not be denying it, but he’s not a patch on Logain. Why, Logain had all of Ghealdan at war, and half of Amadicia and Altara, as well. He made the earth swallow whole towns that resisted him, he did. Buildings, people and all entire. And the one up in Saldaea, Maseem? Why, they say he made the sun stand still till he defeated the Lord of Bashere’s army. ’Tis a fact, they do say.”

Mat shook his head. The Stone fallen and Callandor in Rand’s hand, and this idiot still thought he was another false Dragon. He had sketched that doorway again. Rubbing a hand through it, he grabbed up the mug of wine, then stopped with it halfway to his mouth. Through the commotion his ear had picked out a familiar name spoken at a nearby table. Scraping back his bench, he made his way to that table, mug in hand.

The people around it were the sort of odd mixture made in taverns in the Maule. Two barefoot sailors wearing oiled coats over bare chests, one with a thick gold chain close around his neck. A once fat man with sagging jowls, in a dark Cairhienin coat with slashes of red and gold and green across his chest which might have indicated that he was a noble, though one sleeve was torn at the shoulder; a good many Cairhienin refugees had come down far in the world. A gray-haired woman all in subdued dark blue, with a hard face and a sharp eye and heavy gold rings on her fingers. And the speaker, the fork-bearded fellow, with a ruby the size of a pigeon’s egg in his ear. The three silver chains looped across the straining chest of his dark, reddish coat named him a Kandori master merchant. They had a guild for merchants in Kandor.

The talk ceased and all eyes swung to Mat when he stopped at their table. “I heard you mention the Two Rivers.”

Forkbeard ran a quick eye over him, the unbrushed hair, the tight expression on his face and the wine in his fist, the gleaming black boots, the green coat with its gold scrollwork, open to the waist to reveal a snowy linen shirt, but both coat and shirt heavily wrinkled. In short, the very image of a young noble sporting himself among the commoners. “I did, my Lord,” he said heartily. “I was saying there’ll be no tabac out of there this year, I’ll wager. I have twenty casks of the finest Two Rivers leaf, though, than which there is none finer. Fetch an excellent price later in the year. If my Lord wishes a cask for his own stock...” He tugged one point of his yellow beard and laid a finger alongside his nose. “. . . I am certain I could manage to—”

“You’ll wager that, will you?” Mat said softly, cutting him short. “Why would there be no tabac out of the Two Rivers?”

“Why, the Whitecloaks, my Lord. The Children of the Light.”

“What about Whitecloaks?”

The master merchant peered around the table for help; there was a dangerous note in that quiet tone. The sailors looked as if they would leave if they dared. The Cairhienin was glaring at Mat, sitting up too straight and smoothing his worn coat as he swayed; the empty mug in front of him was obviously not his first. The gray-haired woman had her mug to her mouth, her sharp eyes watching Mat over the rim in a calculating way.

Managing a seated bow, the merchant put on an ingratiating tone. “The rumor is, my Lord, that the Whitecloaks have gone into the Two Rivers. Hunting the Dragon Reborn, it’s said. Though of course, that cannot be, since the Lord Dragon is here in Tear.” He eyed Mat to see how that had been taken; Mat’s face did not change. “These rumors can run very wild, my Lord. Perhaps it’s only wind in a bucket. The same rumor claims the Whitecloaks are after some Darkfriend with yellow eyes, too. Did you ever hear of a man with yellow eyes, my Lord? No more have I. Wind in a bucket.”

Mat set his mug on the table and leaned closer to the man. “Who else are they hunting? According to this rumor. The Dragon Reborn. A man with yellow eyes. Who else?”

Beads of sweat formed on the merchant’s face. “No one, my Lord. No one that I heard. Only rumor, my Lord. Straws in the wind; no more. A puff of smoke, soon vanished. If I might have the honor of presenting my Lord a cask of Two Rivers tabac? A gesture of appreciation... the honor of... to express my....”

Mat tossed an Andoran gold crown onto the table. “Buy your drink on me till that runs out.”

As he turned away he heard mutters from the table. “I thought he’d cut my throat. You know these lordlings when they’re full of wine.” That from the fork-bearded merchant. “An odd young man,” the woman said. “Dangerous. Do not try your ploys on that kind, Paetram.” “I do not think he is a lord at all,” another man said petulantly. The Cairhienin, Mat supposed. His lip curled. A lord? He would not be a lord if it was offered to him. Whitecloaks in the Two Rivers. Light! Light help us!

Plowing his way to the door, he pulled a pair of wooden clogs from the pile against the wall. He had no idea whether they were the ones he had worn in—they all looked alike—and did not care. They fit his boots.

It had started raining outside, a light fall that made the darkness that much deeper. Turning up his collar, he splashed along the muddy streets of the Maule in an awkward trot, past blaring taverns and well-lit inns and dark-windowed houses. When mud gave way to paving stones at the wall marking the inner city, he kicked the clogs off and left them lying as he ran on. The Defenders guarding the nearest gate into the Stone let him pass without a word; they knew who he was. He ran all the way to Perrin’s room and flung open the door, barely noticing the splintered split in the wood. Perrin’s saddlebags lay on the bed, and Perrin was stuffing shirts and stockings into them. There was only one candle lit, but he did not seem to notice the gloom.

“You’ve heard, then,” Mat said.

Perrin went on with what he was doing. “About home? Yes. I went down to sniff out a rumor for Faile. After tonight, more than ever, I have to get her....” The growl, deep in his throat, made Mat’s hackles rise; it sounded like an angry wolf. “No matter. I heard. Maybe this will do as well.”

As well as what? Mat wondered. “You believe it?”

For a moment Perrin looked up; his eyes gathered the light of the candle, shining a burnished golden yellow. “There doesn’t seem to be much doubt, to me. It’s all too close to the truth.”

Mat shifted uncomfortably. “Does Rand know?” Perrin only nodded and went back to his packing. “Well, what does he say?”

Perrin paused, staring at the folded cloak in his hands. “He started muttering to himself. ‘He said he’d do it. He said he would. I should have believed him.’ Like that. It made no sense. Then he grabbed me by the collar and said he had to do ‘what they don’t expect.’ He wanted to me to understand, but I’m not certain he does himself. He didn’t seem to care whether I leave or stay. No, I take that back. I think he was relieved I’m leaving.”

“Boil it down, and he’s not going to do anything,” Mat said. “Light, with Callandor he could blast a thousand Whitecloaks! You saw what he did to those bloody Trollocs. You’re going, are you? Back to the Two Rivers? Alone?”

“Unless you are coming, too.” Perrin stuffed the cloak into the saddlebags. “Are you?”

Instead of answering, Mat paced back and forth, his face in half-light and shadow by turns. His mother and father were in Emond’s Field, and his sisters. Whitecloaks had no reason to hurt them. If he went home, he had the feeling he would never leave again, that his mother would marry him off before he could sit down. But if he did not go, if the Whitecloaks harmed them.... All it took was rumor, for Whitecloaks, so he had heard. But why should there be any rumor about them? Even the Coplins, liars and troublemakers to a man, liked his father. Everyone liked Abell Cauthon.

“You don’t have to,” Perrin said quietly. “Nothing I heard mentioned you. Only Rand, and me.”

“Burn me, I will g—” He could not say it. Thinking of going was easy enough, but saying he would? His throat tightened up to strangle the words. “Is it easy for you, Perrin? Going, I mean? Don’t you... feel anything? Trying to hold you back? Telling you reasons you shouldn’t go?”

“A hundred of them, Mat, but I know it comes down to Rand, and ta’veren. You won’t admit that, will you? A hundred reasons to stay, but the one reason to go outweighs them. The Whitecloaks are in the Two Rivers, and they’ll hurt people trying to find me. I can stop it, if I go.”

“Why should the Whitecloaks want you enough to hurt anybody? Light, if they go asking for somebody with yellow eyes, nobody in Emond’s Field will know who they’re talking about! And how can you stop anything? One more pair of hands won’t do much good. Aaah! The Whitecloaks have bitten a mouthful of leather if they think they can push Two Rivers folk around.”

“They know my name,” Perrin said softly. His gaze swung to where his axe hung on the wall, the belt tied around the haft and the wall hook. Or maybe it was his hammer he was staring at, standing propped against the wall beneath the axe; Mat could not be sure. “They can find my family. As for why, they have their reasons, Mat. Just as I have mine. Who can say who has the better?”

“Burn me, Perrin. Burn me! I want to g-g—See? I can’t even say it, now. Like my head knows I’ll do it if I say it. I can’t even get it out in my mind!”

“Different paths. We’ve been sent down different paths before.”

“Different paths be bloodied,” Mat grunted. “I’ve had all I want of Rand, and Aes Sedai, shoving me down their bloody paths. I want to go where I want for a change, do what I want!” He turned for the door, but Perrin’s voice halted him.

“I hope your path is a happy one, Mat. The Light send you pretty girls and fools who want to gamble.”

“Oh, burn me, Perrin. The Light send you what you want, too.”

“I expect it will.” He did not sound happy at the prospect.

“Will you tell my da I’m all right? And my mother? She always did worry. And look after my sisters. They used to spy on me and tell Mother everything, but I wouldn’t want anything to happen to them.”

“I promise, Mat.”

Closing the door behind him, Mat wandered down the hallways aimlessly. His sisters. Eldrin and Bodewhin had always been ready to run shouting “Mama, Mat’s in trouble again, Mat’s doing what he shouldn’t, Mama.” Especially Bode. They would be sixteen and seventeen, now. Probably thinking of marriage before too much longer, already with some dull farmer picked out whether the fellow knew it or not. Had he really been gone so long? It did not seem so, sometimes. Sometimes he felt as if he had left Emond’s Field just a week or two past. Other times it seemed years gone, only dimly remembered at all. He could remember Eldrin and Bode smirking when he had been switched, but their faces were no longer sharp. His own sisters’ faces. These bloody holes in his memory, like holes in his life.

He saw Berelain coming toward him and grinned in spite of himself. For all her airs, she was a fine figure of a woman. That clinging white silk was thin enough for a handkerchief, not to mention being scooped low enough at the top to expose a considerable amount of excellent pale bosom.

He swept her his best bow, elegant and formal. “A good evening to you, my Lady.” She started to sweep by without a glance, and he straightened angrily. “Are you deaf as well as blind, woman? I’m not a carpet to walk over, and I distinctly heard myself speak. If I pinch your bottom, you can slap my face, but until I do, I expect a civil word for a civil word!”

The First stopped dead, eyeing him in that way women had. She could have sewn him a shirt and told his weight, not to mention when he had his last bath, from that look. Then she turned away, murmuring something to herself. All he caught was “too much like me.”

He stared after her in amazement. Not a word to him! That face, that walk, and her nose so far in the air it was a wonder her feet touched the ground. That was what he got, speaking to the likes of Berelain and Elayne. Nobles who thought you were dirt unless you had a palace and bloodlines back to Artur Hawkwing. Well, he knew a plump cook’s helper—just plump enough—who did not think he was dirt. Dara had a way of nibbling his ears that....

His thoughts stopped dead in their tracks. He had been considering seeing whether Dara was awake and up for a cuddle. He had even considered flirting with Berelain. Berelain! And the last words he had said to Perrin. Look after my sisters. As if he had already decided, already knew what to do. Only he had not. He would not, not so easily, just sliding into it. There was a way, perhaps.

Digging a gold coin from his pocket, he flipped it into the air and snatched it onto the back of his other hand. A Tar Valon mark, he saw for the first time, and he was staring at the Flame of Tar Valon, stylized like a teardrop. “Burn all Aes Sedai!” he announced loudly. “And burn Rand al’Thor for getting me into this!”

A black-and-gold liveried servant stopped in midstride, staring at him worriedly. The man’s silver tray was piled high with rolled bandages and jars of ointment. As soon as he realized Mat had seen him, he gave a jump.

Mat tossed the gold mark onto the man’s tray. “From the biggest fool in the world. Mind you spend it well, on women and wine.”

“Th-thank you, my Lord,” the man stammered as if stunned.

Mat left him standing there. The biggest fool in the world. Aren’t I just!

CHAPTER 14
Customs of Mayene

Perrin shook his head as the door closed behind Mat. Mat would as soon hit himself on the head with a hammer as go back to the Two Rivers. Not unless he must. Perrin wished there was some way he could avoid going home, too. But there was no way; it was a fact as hard as iron and less forgiving. The difference between Mat and himself was that he was willing to accept that, even when he did not want to.

Easing his shirt off made him grunt, careful as he could be. A large bruise, already faded to browns and yellows, stained his entire left shoulder. A Trolloc had slipped past his axe, and only Faile’s quick work with a knife had kept it from being more than it was. The shoulder made washing painful, but at least there was no worry about cold water in Tear.

He was packed and ready, only a change of clothes for the morning remaining out of his saddlebags. As soon as the sun rose, he would go find Loial. No point in bothering the Ogier tonight. He was probably already abed, where Perrin meant to be shortly. Faile was the only problem he had not figured out how to deal with. Even staying in Tear would be better for her than going with him.

The door opened, surprising him. Perfume wafted in to him as soon as the door cracked; it made him think of climbing flowers on a hot summer night. A tantalizing scent, not heavy, not to anyone but him, but nothing Faile would wear. Still, he was even more surprised when Berelain stepped into his room.

Holding the edge of the door, she blinked, making him realize how dim the light must be for her. “You are going somewhere?” she said hesitantly. With the light of the hallway’s lamps behind her, it was difficult not to stare.

“Yes, my Lady.” He bowed; not smoothly, but as well as he could. Faile could give all the sharp sniffs she wanted, but he saw no reason not to be polite. “In the morning.”

“So am I.” She closed the door and crossed her arms beneath her breasts. He looked away, watching her from the corner of his eye, so she would not think he was goggling. She went on without noticing his reaction. The single candle flame was reflected in her dark eyes. “After tonight.... Tomorrow I will leave by carriage for Godan, and from there take ship for Mayene. I should have gone days ago, but I thought there must be some way to work matters out. Only, there wasn’t, of course. I should have seen that sooner. Tonight convinced me. The way he.... All that lightning, flowing down the halls. I will leave tomorrow.”

“My Lady,” Perrin said in confusion, “why are you telling me?”

The way she tossed her head reminded him of a mare he had sometimes shoed in Emond’s Field; that mare would try to take a bite out of you. “So you can tell the Lord Dragon, of course.”

That made no more sense to him. “You can tell him yourself,” he said with more than a little exasperation. “I’ve no time for carrying messages before I go.”

“I... do not think he would wish to see me.”

Any man would want to see her, and she was beautiful to look at; she knew both things. He thought she had started to say something else. Could she have been that frightened by what had happened that night in Rand’s bedchamber? Or the attack and the way Rand had ended it? Perhaps, but this was not a woman to frighten easily, not from the cool way she was eyeing him. “Give your message to a servant. I doubt I’ll see Rand again. Not before I leave. Any servant will take a note to him.”

“It would come better from you, a friend of the Lord—”

“Give it to a servant. Or one of the Aiel.”

“You will not do as I ask?” she asked incredulously.

“No. Haven’t you been listening to me?”

She tossed her head again, but there was a difference this time, though he could not have said what. Studying him thoughtfully, she murmured half to herself, “Such striking eyes.”

“What?” Suddenly he realized he was standing there naked to the waist. Her intense scrutiny abruptly seemed like the study of a horse before purchase. Next thing, she would be feeling his ankles and inspecting his teeth. He snatched the shirt meant for morning from the bed and pulled it over his head. “Give your message to a servant. I want to go to bed now. I mean to be up early. Before sunrise.”

“Where are you going tomorrow?”

“Home. The Two Rivers. It is late. If you are leaving tomorrow, too, I suppose you want to get some sleep. I know I’m tired.” He yawned as widely as he could.

She still made no move toward the door. “You are a blacksmith? I have need of a blacksmith in Mayene. Making ornamental ironwork. A short stay before returning to the Two Rivers? You would find Mayene... entertaining.”

“I am going home,” he told her firmly, “and you are going back to your own rooms.”

Her small shrug made him look away again hastily. “Perhaps another day. I always get what I want in the end. And I think I want...” She paused, eyeing him up and down. “. . . ornamental ironwork. For the windows of my bedchamber.” She smiled so innocently that he felt alarm gongs sounding his head.

The door opened again, and Faile came in. “Perrin, I went into the city looking for you, and I heard a rumor—” She stopped stock still, her eyes hard on Berelain.

The First ignored her. Stepping close to Perrin, she ran a hand up his arm, across his shoulder. For an instant he thought she meant to try pulling his head down for a kiss—she certainly lifted her face as if for one—but she only trailed her hand along the side of his neck in a quick caress and stepped back. It was over and done before he could move to stop her. “Remember,” she said softly, as if they were alone, “I always get what I want.” And she swept past Faile and out of the room.

He waited for an explosion from Faile, but she glanced at his stuffed saddlebags on the bed and said, “I see you’ve heard the rumor already. It is only a rumor, Perrin.”

“Yellow eyes make it more than that.” She should have been erupting like a bundle of dry twigs tossed on a fire. Why was she so cool? “Very well. Moiraine is the next problem, then. Will she try to stop you?”

“Not if she doesn’t know. If she tries, I will go anyway. I have family and friends, Faile; I won’t leave them to Whitecloaks. But I hope to keep it from her until I am well out of the city.” Even her eyes were calm, like dark pools in the forest. It made his hackles rise.

“But it had to take weeks for that rumor to reach Tear, and it will take weeks more to ride to the Two Rivers. The Whitecloaks could be gone by then. Well, I have been wanting you to leave here. I should not complain. I just want you to know what to expect.”

“It won’t take weeks by the Ways,” he told her. “Two days, maybe three.” Two days. He supposed there was no means to make it faster.

“You are as mad as Rand al’Thor,” she said disbelievingly. Dropping on the foot of his bed, she folded her legs crosswise and addressed him in a voice suitable for lecturing children. “Go into the Ways, and you come out hopelessly mad. If you come out at all, which it is most likely you will not. The Ways are tainted, Perrin. They have been dark for—what?—three hundred years? Four hundred? Ask Loial. He could tell you. It was Ogiers built the Ways, or grew them, or whatever it was. Not even they use the Ways. Why, even if you managed to make it through them unscathed, the Light alone knows where you would come out.”

“I have traveled them, Faile.” And a frightening trip it had been, too. “Loial can guide me. He can read the guideposts; that’s how we went before. He will do it for me again when he knows how important it is.” Loial was eager to be away from Tear, too; he seemed to be afraid that his mother knew where he was. Perrin was sure he would help.

“Well,” she said, rubbing her hands together briskly. “Well, I wanted adventure, and this is certainly it. Leaving the Stone of Tear and the Dragon Reborn, traveling the Ways to fight Whitecloaks. I wonder whether we can persuade Thom Merrilin to come along. If we cannot have a bard, a gleeman will do. He could compose the story, and you and I the heart of it. No Dragon Reborn or Aes Sedai about to swallow up the tale. When do we leave? In the morning?”

He took a deep breath to steady his voice. “I will be going alone, Faile. Just Loial and me.”

“We will need a packhorse,” she said as if he had not spoken. “Two, I think. The Ways are dark. We will need lanterns, and plenty of oil. Your Two Rivers people. Farmers? Will they fight Whitecloaks?”

“Faile, I said—”

“I heard what you said,” she snapped. Shadows gave her a dangerous look, with her tilted eyes and high cheekbones. “I heard, and it makes no sense. What if these farmers won’t fight? Or don’t know how? Who is going to teach them? You? Alone?”

“I will do what has to be done,” he said patiently. “Without you.”

She bounced to her feet so fast he thought she was coming for his throat. “Do you think Berelain will go with you? Will she guard your back? Or perhaps you prefer her to sit on your lap and squeal? Tuck your shirt in, you hairy oaf! Does it have to be so dark in here? Berelain likes dim light, does she? Much good she will do you against the Children of the Light!”

Perrin opened his mouth to protest, and changed what he had been going to say. “She looks a pleasant armful, Berelain. What man wouldn’t want her on his lap?” The hurt on her face banded his chest with iron, but he made himself go on. “When I am done at home, I may go to Mayene. She asked me to come, and I might.”

Faile said not a word. She stared at him with a face like stone, then whirled and ran out, slamming the door behind her with a crash.

In spite of himself he started to follow, then stopped with his hands gripping the doorframe till his fingers hurt. Staring at the splintered gash his axe had made in the door, he found himself telling it what he could not tell her. “I killed Whitecloaks. They would have killed me if I hadn’t, but they still call it murder. I’m going home to die, Faile. That’s the only way I can stop them hurting my people. Let them hang me. I cannot let you see that. I can’t. You might even try to stop it, and then they’d....”

His head dropped against the door. She would not be sorry to see the last of him now; that was what was important. She would go find her adventure somewhere else, safe from Whitecloaks and ta’veren and bubbles of evil. That was all that was important. He wished he did not want to howl with grief.

Faile strode through the halls at a near run, oblivious of who she passed or who had to scramble out of her way. Perrin. Berelain. Perrin. Berelain. He wants a milk-faced vixen who runs about half-naked, does he? He doesn’t know what he wants. Hairy lummox! Wooden-headed buffoon! Blacksmith! And that sneaking sow, Berelain. That prancing she-goat!

She did not realize where she was going until she saw Berelain ahead of her, gliding along in that dress that left nothing to the imagination, swaying along as if that walk of hers was not deliberately calculated to make male eyes pop. Before Faile knew what she was doing, she had darted ahead of Berelain and turned to face her where two corridors met.

“Perrin Aybara belongs to me,” she snapped. “You keep your hands and your smiles away from him!” She flushed to her hairline when she heard what she had said. She had promised herself she would never do this, never fight over a man like a farmgirl rolling in the dirt at harvest.

Berelain arched a cool eyebrow. “Belongs to you? Strange, I saw no collar on him. You serving girls—or are you a farmer’s daughter?—you have the most peculiar ideas.”

“Serving girl? Serving girl! I am—” Faile bit her tongue to stop the furious words. The First of Mayene, indeed. There were estates in Saldaea larger than Mayene. She would not last a week in the courts of Saldaea. Could she recite poetry while hawking? Could she ride in the hunt all day, then play the cittern at night while discussing how to counter Trolloc raids? She thought she knew men, did she? Did she know the language of fans? Could she tell a man to come or go or stay, and a hundred things more, all with the twist of a wrist and the placement of a lace fan? Light shine on me, what am I thinking? I swore I would never even hold a fan again! But there were other Saldaean customs. She was surprised to see the knife in her hand; she had been taught not to draw a knife unless she meant to use it. “Farm girls in Saldaea have a way of dealing with women who poach others’ men. If you do not swear to forget Perrin Aybara, I will shave your head as bald as an egg. Perhaps the boys who tend the chickens will pant after you, then!”

She was not sure exactly how Berelain gripped her wrist, but suddenly she was flying through the air. The floor crashing into her back drove all the air from her lungs.

Berelain stood smiling, tapping the blade of Faile’s knife on her palm. “A custom of Mayene. The Tairens do like to use assassins, and the guards cannot always be close at hand. I despise being attacked, farmgirl, so this is what I will do. I will take the blacksmith away from you and keep him as a pet for as long as he amuses me. Ogier’s oath on it, farmgirl. He is quite ravishing, really—those shoulders, those arms; not to mention those eyes of his—and if he is a bit uncultured, I can have that remedied. My courtiers can teach him how to dress, and rid him of that awful beard. Wherever he goes, I will find him and make him mine. You can have him when I am finished. If he still wants you, of course.”

Finally managing to draw a breath, Faile struggled to her feet, pulling a second knife. “I will drag you to him, after I cut off those clothes you are almost wearing, and make you tell him you are nothing but a sow!” Light help me, I am behaving like a farmgirl, and talking like one! The worst part was that she meant it.

Berelain set herself warily. She meant to use her hands, obviously, not the knife. She held it like a fan. Faile advanced on the balls of her feet.

Suddenly Rhuarc was there between them, towering over them, snatching the knives away before either woman was really aware of him. “Have you not seen enough blood already tonight?” he said coldly. “Of all those I thought I might find breaking the peace, the two of you would be the last named.”

Faile gaped at him. With no warning, she pivoted, driving her fist toward Rhuarc’s short ribs. The toughest man would feel it there.

He seemed to move without looking at her, caught her hand, forced her arm straight to her side, twisted. Abruptly she was standing very straight and hoping he did not push her arm right up out of her shoulder.

As if nothing had happened, he addressed Berelain. “You will go to your room, and you will not come out until the sun is above the horizon. I will see that no breakfast is brought to you. A little hunger will remind you that there is a time and place for fighting.”

Berelain drew herself up indignantly. “I am the First of Mayene. I will not be ordered about like—”

“You will go to your rooms. Now,” Rhuarc told her flatly. Faile wondered if she could kick him; she must have tensed, because as soon as she thought of it, he increased the pressure on her wrist, and she was up on her tiptoes. “If you do not,” he went on to Berelain, “we will repeat our first talk together, you and I. Right here.”

Berelain’s face went white and red by turns. “Very well,” she said stiffly. “If you insist, I will perhaps—”

“I did not propose a discussion. If I can still see you when I have counted three.... One.”

With a gasp, Berelain hiked her skirts and ran. She even managed to sway doing that.

Faile stared after her in amazement. It was almost worth having her arm nearly disjointed. Rhuarc was watching Berelain go, too, a small appreciative smile on his lips.

“Do you mean to hold me all night?” she demanded. He released her—and tucked her knives into his belt. “Those are mine!”

“Forfeit,” he said. “Berelain’s punishment for fighting was to have you see her sent to bed like a willful child. Yours is to lose these knives you prize. I know you have others. If you argue, I might take those, too. I will not have the peace broken.”

She glared at him, but she suspected he meant just what he said. Those knives had been made for her by a man who knew what he was doing; the balance was just right. “What ‘first talk’ did you have with her? Why did she run like that?”

“That is between her and me. You will not go near her again, Faile. I do not believe she started this; that one’s weapons are not knives. If either of you makes trouble again, I will put both of you to carrying offal. Some of the Tairens thought they could keep on fighting their duels after I had declared peace on this place, but the smell of the refuse carts soon taught them their mistake. Be sure you do not have to learn it the same way.”

She waited until he had gone before nursing her shoulder. He reminded her of her father. Not that her father had ever twisted her arm, but he had small patience with those who made trouble, whatever their position, and no one ever caught him by surprise. She wondered if she could bait Berelain into something, just to see the First of Mayene sweating among the refuse carts. But Rhuarc had said both of them. Her father meant what he said, too. Berelain. Something Berelain had said was tickling the back of her mind. Ogier’s oath. That was it. An Ogier never broke an oath. To say “Ogier oathbreaker” was like saying “brave coward,” or “wise fool.”

She could not help laughing aloud. “You will take him from me, you silly peahen? By the time you see him again, if you ever do, he’ll be mine once more.” Chuckling to herself, and occasionally rubbing her shoulder, she walked on with a light heart.

CHAPTER 15
Into the Doorway

Holding the glass-mantled lamp high, Mat peered down the narrow corridor, deep in the belly of the Stone. Not unless my life depended on it. That’s what I promised. Well, burn me if it doesn’t! Before doubt could seize him again, he hurried on, past doors dry-rotted and hanging aslant, past others only shreds of wood clinging to rusted hinges. The floor had been swept recently, but the air still smelled of old dust and mold. Something skittered in the darkness, and he had a knife out before he realized it was just a rat, running from him, no doubt running toward some escape hole it knew.

“Show me the way out,” he whispered after it, “and I’ll come with you.” Why am I whispering? There’s nobody down here to hear me. It seemed a place for quiet, though. He could feel the whole weight of the Stone over his head, pressing down.

The last door, she had said. That one hung askew, too. He kicked it open, and it fell apart. The room was littered with dim shapes, with crates and barrels and things stacked high against the walls and out into the floor. Dust, too. The Great Hold! It looks like the basement of an abandoned farmhouse, only worse. He was surprised that Egwene and Nynaeve had not dusted and tidied while they were down here. Women were always dusting and straightening, even things that did not need it. Footprints crisscrossed the floor, some of them from boots, but no doubt they had had men to shift the heavier items about for them. Nynaeve liked finding ways to make a man work; likely she had deliberately hunted out some fellows enjoying themselves.

What he sought stood out among the jumble. A tall redstone doorframe, looming oddly in the shadows cast by his lamp. When he came closer, it still looked odd. Twisted, somehow. His eye did not want to follow it around; the corners did not join right. The tall hollow rectangle seemed likely to fall over at a breath, but when he gave it an experimental push, it stood steady. He pushed a bit harder, not sure he did not want to heave the thing over, and that side of it scraped through the dust. Goose bumps ran down his arms. There might as well have been a wire fastened to the top, suspending it from the ceiling. He held the lamp up to see. There was no wire. At least it won’t topple while I’m inside. Light, I am going inside, aren’t I?

A clutter of figurines and small things wrapped in rotting cloth occupied the top of a tall, upended barrel near him. He pushed the jumble to one side so he could set the lamp there, and studied the doorway. The ter’angreal. If Egwene knew what she was talking about. She probably did; no doubt she had learned all sorts of strange things in the Tower, however much she denied. She would deny things, wouldn’t she now. Learning to be Aes Sedai. She didn’t deny this though, now did she? If he squinted, it just looked like a stone doorframe, dully polished and the duller for dust. Just a plain doorframe. Well, not entirely plain. Three sinuous lines carved deep in the stone ran down each upright from top to bottom. He had seen fancier on farmhouses. He would probably step through and find himself still in this dusty room.

Won’t know till I try, will I? Luck! Taking a deep breath—and coughing from the dust—he put his foot through.

He seemed to be stepping through a sheet of brilliant white light, infinitely bright, infinitely thick. For a moment that lasted forever, he was blind; a roaring filled his ears, all the sounds of the world gathered together at once. For just the length of one measureless step.

Stumbling another pace, he stared around in amazement. The ter’angreal was still there, but this was certainly not where he had started. The twisted stone doorframe stood in the center of a round hall with a ceiling so high it was lost in shadows, surrounded by strange spiraled yellow columns snaking up into the gloom, like huge vines twining ’round poles that had been taken away. A soft light came from glowing spheres atop coiled stands of some white metal. Not silver; the shine was too dull for that. And no hint of what made the glow; it did not look like flame; the spheres simply shone. The floor tiles spiraled out in white and yellow stripes from the ter’angreal. There was a heavy scent in the air, sharp and dry and not particularly pleasant. He almost turned around and went back on the spot.

“A long time.”

He jumped, a knife coming into his hand, and peered among the columns for the source of the breathy voice that pronounced those words so harshly.

“A long time, yet the seekers come again for answers. The questioners come once more.” A shape moved, back among the columns; a man, Mat thought. “Good. You have brought no lamps, no torches, as the agreement was, and is, and ever will be. You have no iron? No instruments of music?”

The figure stepped out, tall, barefoot, arms and legs and body wound about in layers of yellow cloth, and Mat was suddenly not so sure if it was a man. Or human. It looked human, at first glance, though perhaps too graceful, but it seemed far too thin for its height, with a narrow, elongated face. Its skin, and even its straight black hair, caught the pale light in a way that reminded him of a snake’s scales. And those eyes, the pupils just black, vertical slits. No, not human.

“Iron. Instruments of music. You have none?”

Mat wondered what it thought the knife was; it certainly did not seem concerned over it. Well, the blade was good steel, not iron. “No. No iron, and no instruments of—Why—?” He cut off sharply. Three questions, Egwene had said. He was not about to waste one on “iron” or “instruments of music.” Why should he care if I have a dozen musicians in my pocket and a smithy on my back? “I have come here for true answers. If you are not the one to give them, take me to who can.”

The man—it was male at least, Mat decided—smiled slightly. He did not show any teeth. “According to the agreement. Come.” He beckoned with one long-fingered hand. “Follow.”

Mat made the knife disappear up his sleeve. “Lead, and I will follow.” Just you keep ahead of me and in plain sight. This place makes my skin crawl.

There was not a straight line to be seen anywhere except for the floor itself, as he trailed the strange man. Even the ceiling was always arched, and the walls bowed out. The halls were continuously curved, the doorways rounded, the windows perfect circles. Tilework made spirals and sinuous lines, and what seemed to be bronze metalwork set in the ceiling at intervals was all complicated scrolls. There were no pictures of anything, no wall hangings or paintings. Only patterns, and always curves.

He saw no one except his silent guide; he could have believed the place empty except for the two of them. From somewhere he had a dim memory of walking halls that had not known a human foot in hundreds of years, and this felt the same. Yet sometimes he caught a flicker of motion out of the corner of his eye. Only, however quickly he turned, there was never anyone there. He pretended to rub his forearms, checking the knives up his coatsleeves for reassurance.

What he saw through those round windows was even worse. Tall wispy trees with only a drooping umbrella of branches at the top, and others like huge fans of lacy leaves, a tangle of growth equal to the heart of any briar-choked thicket, all under a dim, overcast light, though there did not seem to be a cloud in the sky. There were always windows, always along just one side of the curving corridor, but sometimes the side changed, and what surely should have been looking into courtyard or rooms instead gave out into that forest. He never caught as much as a glimpse of any other part of this palace, or whatever it was, through those windows, or any other building, except....

Through one circular window he saw three tall silvery spires, curving in toward each other so their points all aimed at the same spot. They were not visible from the next window, three paces away, but a few minutes later, after he and his guide had rounded enough curves that he had to be looking in another direction, he saw them again. He tried telling himself these were three different spires, but between them and him was one of those fan-shaped trees with a dangling broken branch, a tree that had been in the same spot the first time. After his third sight of the spires and the strange tree with the broken branch, this time ten paces farther on but on the other side of the hallway, he tried to stop looking at what lay outside at all.

The walk seemed interminable.

“When—? Are—?” Mat ground his teeth. Three questions. It was hard to learn anything without asking questions. “I hope you are taking me to those who can answer my questions. Burn my bones, I do. For my sake and yours, the Light know it true.”

“Here,” the peculiar, yellow-wrapped fellow said, gesturing with one of those thin hands to a rounded doorway twice as large as any Mat had seen before. His strange eyes studied Mat intently. His mouth gaped open, and he inhaled, long and slow. Mat frowned at him, and the stranger gave a writhing hitch of his shoulders. “Here your answers may be found. Enter. Enter and ask.”

Mat drew a deep breath of his own, then grimaced and scrubbed at his nose. That sharp, heavy smell was a rank nuisance. He took a hesitant step toward the tall doorway, and looked around for his guide again. The fellow was gone. Light! I don’t know why anything in this place surprises me now. Well, I will be burned if I’ll turn back now. Trying not to think of whether he could find the ter’angreal again on his own, he went in.

It was another round room, with spiraling floor tiles in red and white under a domed ceiling. It had no columns, or furnishings of any kind, except for three thick, coiled pedestals around the heart of the floor’s spirals. Mat could see no way to reach the top of them except by climbing the twists, yet a man like his guide sat cross-legged atop each, only wrapped in layers of red. Not all men, he decided at a second look; two of those long faces with the odd eyes had a definite feminine cast. They stared at him, intense penetrating stares, and breathed deeply, almost panting. He wondered if he made them nervous in some way. Not much bloody chance of that. But they’re certainly getting under my coat.

“It has been long,” the woman on the right said.

“Very long,” the woman on the left added.

The man nodded. “Yet they come again.”

All three had the breathy voice of the guide—almost indistinguishable from it, in fact—and the harsh way of pronouncing words. They spoke in unison, and the words might as well have come from one mouth. “Enter and ask, according to the agreement of old.”

If Mat had thought his skin crawled before, now he was sure it was writhing. He made himself go closer. Carefully—careful to say nothing that even sounded like a question—he laid the situation before them. The Whitecloaks, certainly in his home village, surely hunting friends of his, maybe hunting him. One of his friends going to face the Whitecloaks, another not. His family, not likely in danger, but with the bloody Children of the bloody Light around.... A ta’veren pulling at him so he could hardly move. He saw no reason to give names, or mention that Rand was the Dragon Reborn. His first question—and the other two, for that matter—he had worked out before going down to the Great Hold. “Should I go home to help my people?” he asked finally.

Three sets of slitted eyes lifted from him—reluctantly, it seemed—and studied the air above his head. Finally the woman on the left said, “You must go to Rhuidean.”

As soon as she spoke their eyes all dropped to him again, and they leaned forward, breathing deeply again, but at that moment a bell tolled, a sonorous brazen sound that rolled through the room. They swayed upright, staring at one another, then at the air over Mat’s head again.

“He is another,” the woman on the left whispered. “The strain. The strain.”

“The savor,” the man said. “It has been long.”

“There is yet time,” the other woman told them. She sounded calm—they all did—but there was a sharpness to her voice when she turned back to Mat. “Ask. Ask.”

Mat glared up at them furiously. Rhuidean? Light! That was somewhere out in the Waste, the Light and the Aiel knew where. That was about as much as he knew. In the Waste! Anger drove questions about how to get away from Aes Sedai and how to recover the lost parts of his memory right out his head. “Rhuidean!” he barked. “The Light burn my bones to ash if I want to go Rhuidean! And my blood on the ground if I will! Why should I? You are not answering my questions. You are supposed to answer, not hand me riddles!”

“If you do not go to Rhuidean,” the woman on the right said, “you will die.”

The bell tolled again, louder this time; Mat felt its tremor through his boots. The looks the three shared were plainly anxious. He opened his mouth, but they were only concerned with each other.

“The strain,” one of the women said hurriedly. “It is too great.”

“The savor of him,” the other woman said on her heels. “It has been so very long.”

Before she was done the man spoke. “The strain is too great. Too great. Ask. Ask!”

“Burn your soul for a craven heart,” Mat growled, “I will that! Why will I die if I do not go to Rhuidean? I very likely will die if I try. It makes no—”

The man cut him off and spoke hurriedly. “You will have sidestepped the thread of fate, left your fate to drift on the winds of time, and you will be killed by those who do not want that fate fulfilled. Now, go. You must go! Quickly!”

The yellow-clad guide was suddenly there at Mat’s side, tugging at his sleeve with those too-long hands.

Mat shook him off. “No! I will not go! You have led me from the questions I wanted to ask and given me senseless answers. You will not leave it there. What fate are you talking about? I will have one clear answer out of you, at least!”

A third time the bell sounded mournfully, and the entire room trembled.

“Go!” the man shouted. “You have had your answers. You must go before it is too late!”

Abruptly a dozen of the yellow-clad men were around Mat, seeming to appear out of the air, trying to pull him toward the door. He fought with fists, elbows, knees. “What fate? Burn your hearts, what fate?” It was the room itself that pealed, the walls and floor quivering, nearly taking Mat and his attackers off their feet. “What fate?”

The three were on their feet atop the pedestals, and he could not tell which shrieked which answer.

“To marry the Daughter of the Nine Moons!”

“To die and live again, and live once more a part of what was!”

“To give up half the light of the world to save the world!”

Together they howled like steam escaping under pressure. “Go to Rhuidean, son of battles! Go to Rhuidean, trickster! Go, gambler! Go!”

Mat’s assailants snatched him into the air by his arms and legs and ran, holding him over their heads. “Unhand me, you white-livered sons of goats!” he shouted, struggling. “Burn your eyes! The Shadow take your souls, loose me! I will have your guts for a saddle girth!” But writhe and curse as he would, those long fingers gripped like iron.

Twice more the bell tolled, or the palace did. Everything shook as in an earthquake; the walls rang with deafening reverberations, each louder than the last. Mat’s captors stumbled on, nearly falling but never stopping their pell-mell race. He did not even see where they were taking him until they suddenly stopped short, heaving him into the air. Then he saw the twisted doorway, the ter’angreal, as he flew toward it.

White light blinded him; the roar filled his head till it drove thought away.

He fell heavily onto a dusty floor in dim light and rolled up against the barrel holding his lamp in the Great Hold. The barrel rocked, packets and figurines toppling to the floor in a crash of breaking stone and ivory and porcelain. Bounding to his feet, he threw himself back at the stone doorframe. “Burn you, you can’t throw me—!”

He hurtled through—and stumbled against the crates and barrels on the other side. Without a pause, he turned and leaped at it again. With the same result. This time he caught himself on the barrel holding his lamp, which nearly fell onto the already shattered things littering the floor under his boots. He grabbed it in time, burning his hand, and fumbled it back to a steadier perch.

Burn me if I want to be down here in the dark, he thought, sucking his fingers. Light, the way my luck is running, it probably would have started a fire and I’d have burned to death!

He glared at the ter’angreal. Why was it not working? Maybe the folk on the other side had shut it off somehow. He understood practically nothing of what had happened. That bell, and their panic. You would have thought they were afraid the roof would come down on their heads. Come to think of it, it very nearly had. And Rhuidean, and all the rest of it. The Waste was bad enough, but they said he was fated to marry somebody called the Daughter of the Nine Moons. Marry! And to a noblewoman, by the sound of it. He would sooner marry a pig than a noblewoman. And that business about dying and living again. Nice of them to add the last bit! If some black-veiled Aielman killed him on the way to Rhuidean, he would find out how true it was. It was all nonsense, and he did not believe a word of it. Only.... The bloody doorway had taken him somewhere, and they had only wanted to answer three questions, just the way Egwene had said.

“I won’t marry any bloody noblewoman!” he told the ter’angreal. “I’ll marry when I’m too old to have any fun, that’s what! Rhuidean my bloody—!”

A boot appeared, backing out of the twisted stone doorway, followed by the rest of Rand, with that fiery sword in his hands. The blade vanished as he stepped clear, and he heaved a sigh of relief. Even in the dim light, Mat could see he was troubled, though. He gave a start when he saw Mat. “Just poking around, Mat? Or did you go through, too?”

Mat eyed him warily for a moment. At least that sword was gone. He did not seem to be channeling—though how was anybody to tell?—and he did not look particularly like a madman. In fact, he looked very much as Mat remembered. He had to remind himself they were not back home any longer, and Rand was not what he remembered. “Oh, I went through, all right. A bunch of bloody liars, if you ask me! What are they? Made me think of snakes.”

“Not liars, I think.” Rand sounded as if he wished they were. “No, not that. They were afraid of me, right from the first. And when that tolling started.... The sword kept them back; they wouldn’t even look at it. Shied away. Hid their eyes. Did you get your answers?”

“Nothing that makes sense,” Mat muttered. “What about you?”

Suddenly Moiraine appeared from the ter’angreal, seeming to step gracefully out of thin air, flowing out. She would be a fine one to dance with if she were not Aes Sedai. Her mouth tightened at the sight of them.

“You! You were both in there. That is why... !” She made a vexed hiss. “One of you would have been bad enough, but two ta’veren at once—you might have torn the connection entirely and been trapped there. Wretched boys playing with things you do not know the danger of. Perrin! Is Perrin in there, too? Did he share your... exploit?”

“The last I saw of Perrin,” Mat said, “he was getting ready to go bed.” Maybe Perrin would give him the lie by being the next to step out of the thing, but he might as well deflect the Aes Sedai’s anger if he could. No need for Perrin to face it, too. Maybe he’ll make it clear of her, at least, if he gets away before she knows what he’s doing. Bloody woman! I’ll wager she was noble born.

That Moraine was angry there was no doubt. The blood had drained out of her cheeks, and her eyes were dark augers boring into Rand. “At least you escaped with your lives. Who told you of this? Which one of them? I will make her wish I had peeled off her hide like a glove.”

“A book told me,” Rand said calmly. He sat down back on the edge of a crate that creaked alarmingly under his weight and crossed his arms. All very cool; Mat wished he could emulate it. “A pair of books, in fact. Treasures of the Stone and Dealings with the Territory of Mayene. Surprising what you can dig out of books if you read long enough, isn’t it?”

“And you?” She shifted that drilling gaze to Mat. “Did you read it in a book, too? You?”

“I do read sometimes,” he said dryly. He would not have been averse to a little hide-peeling for Egwene and Nynaeve after what they had done to make him tell where he had hidden the Amyrlin’s letter—tying him up with the Power was bad enough, but the rest!—yet it was more fun to tweak Moiraine’s nose. “Treasures. Dealings. Lots of things in books.” Luckily, she did not insist that he repeat the titles; he had not paid attention once Rand brought up books.

Instead she swung back to Rand. “And your answers?”

“Are mine,” Rand replied, then frowned. “It wasn’t easy, though. They brought a... woman... to interpret, but she talked like an old book. I could hardly understand some of the words. I never considered they might speak another language.”

“The Old Tongue,” Moiraine told him. “They use the Old Tongue—a rather harsh dialect of it—for their dealings with men. And you, Mat? Was your interpreter easily understood?”

He had to work moisture back into his mouth. “The Old Tongue? Is that what it was? They didn’t give me one. In fact, I never got to ask any questions. That bell started shaking the walls down, and they hustled me out like I was tracking cow manure on the rugs.” She was still staring, her eyes still digging into his head. She knew about the Old Tongue slipping out of him, sometimes. “I... almost understood a word here and there, but not to know it. You and Rand got answers. What do they get out of it? The snakes with legs. We aren’t going upstairs to find ten years gone, are we, like Bili in the story?”

“Sensations,” Moiraine replied with a grimace. “Sensations, emotions, experiences. They rummage through them; you can feel them doing it, making your skin crawl. Perhaps they feed on them in some manner. The Aes Sedai who studied this ter’angreal when it was in Mayene wrote of a strong desire to bathe afterward. I certainly intend to.”

“But their answers are true?” Rand said as she started to turn away. “You are sure of it? The books implied as much, but can they really give true answers about the future?”

“The answers are true,” Moiraine said slowly, “so long as they are in regard to your own future. That much is certain.” She watched Rand, and himself, weighing the effect of her words. “As to how, though, there is only speculation. That world is... folded... in strange ways. I cannot be clearer. It may be that that allows them to read the thread of a human life, read the various ways it may yet be woven into the Pattern. Or perhaps it is a talent of the people. The answers are often obscure, however. If you need help working out what yours mean, I offer my services.” Her eyes flickered from one of them to the other, and Mat nearly swore. She did not believe him about no answers. Unless it was simply general Aes Sedai suspicion.

Rand gave her a slow smile. “And will you tell me what you asked, and what they answered?”

For answer, she returned a level, searching look, then started for the door. A small ball of light, as bright as a lantern, was suddenly floating ahead of her, illuminating her way.

Mat knew he should leave it alone, now. Just let her go and hope she forgot he had ever been down here. But a knot of anger still burned inside him. All those ridiculous things they had said. Well, maybe they were true, if Moiraine said so, but he wanted to grab those fellows by the collar, or whatever passed for a collar in those wrappings, and make them explain a few things.

“Why can’t you go there twice, Moiraine?” he called after her. “Why not?” He very nearly asked why they worried about iron and musical instruments, too, and bit his tongue. He could not know about those if he had not understood what they were saying.

She paused at the door to the hall, and it was impossible to see if she was looking at the ter’angreal or at Rand. “If I knew everything, Matrim, I would not need to ask questions.” She peered into the room a moment longer—she was staring at Rand—then glided away without another word.

For a time Mat and Rand looked at each other in silence.

Did you find out what you wanted?” Rand asked finally.

“Did you?”

A bright flame leaped into existence, balanced above Rand’s palm. Not the smooth glowing sphere of the Aes Sedai, but a rough blaze like a torch. As Rand moved to leave, Mat added another question. “Are you really going to just let the Whitecloaks do whatever they want back home? You know they’re heading for Emond’s Field. If they are not there already. Yellow eyes, the bloody Dragon Reborn. It’s too much, otherwise.”

“Perrin will do... what he has to do to save Emond’s Field,” Rand replied in a pained voice. “And I must do what I have to, or more than Emond’s Field will fall, and to worse than Whitecloaks.”

Mat stood watching the light of that flame fade away down the hall, until he remembered where he was. Then he snatched up his lamp and hurried out. Rhuidean! Light, what am I going to do?

CHAPTER 16
Leavetakings

Lying on sweat-soaked sheets, staring at the ceiling, Perrin realized that the darkness was turning to gray. Soon the sun would be edging above the horizon. Morning. A time for new hopes; a time to be up and doing. New hopes. He almost laughed. How long had he been awake? An hour or more, surely, this time. Scratching his curly beard, he winced. His bruised shoulder had stiffened, and he sat up slowly; sweat popped out on his face as he worked the arm. He kept at it methodically, though, suppressing groans and now and again biting back a curse, until he could move the arm freely, if not comfortably.

Such sleep as he had managed had been broken and fitful. When he was awake he had seen Faile’s face, her dark eyes accusing him, the hurt he had put there making him cringe inside. When he slept, he dreamed of mounting a gallows, and Faile watching, or worse, trying to stop it, trying to fight Whitecloaks with their lances and swords, and he was screaming while they fitted the noose around his neck, screaming because the Whitecloaks were killing Faile. Sometimes she watched them hang him with a smile of angry satisfaction. Small wonder such dreams wakened him with a jerk. Once he had dreamed of wolves running out of the forest to save both Faile and him—only to be spitted on Whitecloak lances, shot down by their arrows. It had not been a restful night. Washing and dressing as hurriedly as he could, he left the room as if hoping to leave memories of his dreams behind.

Little outward evidence remained of the night’s attack, here a sword-slashed tapestry, there a chest with a corner splintered by an axe or a lighter patch on the stone-tiled floor where a bloodstained rug had been removed. The majhere had her liveried army of servants out in force, though many wore bandages, sweeping, mopping, clearing away and replacing. She limped about leaning on a stick, a broad woman with her gray hair pushed up like a round cap by the dressing wound around her head, calling her orders in a firm voice, with the clear intention of removing every sign of the Stone’s second violation. She saw Perrin and gave him an infinitesimal curtsy. Even the High Lords did not get much more from her, even when she was well. Despite all the cleaning and scrubbing, under the smell of waxes and polishes and cleaning fluids Perrin could still catch the faint scent of blood, sharply metallic human blood, fetid Trolloc blood, acrid Myrddraal blood with its stink that burned his nostrils. He would be glad to be away from here.

The door to Loial’s room was a span across and more than two spans high, with an overlarge door handle in the shape of entwined vines level with Perrin’s head. The Stone had a number of rarely used Ogier guest rooms; the Stone of Tear predated even the age of great Ogier stoneworks, but it was a point of prestige to use Ogier stonemasons, at least from time to time. Perrin knocked and at the call of “Come in,” in a voice like a slow avalanche, lifted the handle and complied.

The room was on a scale with the door in every dimension, yet Loial, standing in the middle of the leaf-patterned carpet in his shirtsleeves, a long pipe in his teeth, reduced it all to seemingly normal size. The Ogier stood taller than a Trolloc in his wide-toed, thigh-high boots, if not so broad as one. His dark green coat, buttoned to the waist, then flaring to his boot tops like a kilt over baggy trousers, no longer looked odd to Perrin, but one look was enough to tell this was not an ordinary man in an ordinary room. The Ogier’s nose was so broad as to seem a snout, and eyebrows like long mustaches dangled beside eyes the size of teacups. Tufted ears poked up through shaggy black hair that hung nearly to his shoulders. When he grinned around his pipestem at the sight of Perrin, it split his face in half.

“Good morning, Perrin,” he rumbled, removing the pipe. “You slept well? Not easy, after such a night as that. Myself, I have been up half the night, writing down what happened.” He had a pen in his other hand, and ink stains on his sausage-thick fingers.

Books lay everywhere, on Ogier-sized chairs and the huge bed and the table that stood as high as Perrin’s chest. That was no surprise, but what was a little startling was the flowers. Flowers of every sort, in every color. Vases of flowers, baskets of them, posies tied with ribbon or even string, great woven banks of flowers standing about like lengths of garden wall. Perrin had certainly never seen the like inside a room. Their scent filled the air. Yet what really caught his eye was the swollen knot on Loial’s head, the size of a man’s fist, and the heavy limp in Loial’s walk. If Loial had been hurt too badly to travel.... He felt ashamed at thinking of it that way—the Ogier was a friend—but he had to.

“You were injured, Loial? Moiraine could Heal you. I’m sure she will.”

“Oh, I can get around with no trouble. And there were so many who truly needed her help. I would not want to bother her. It certainly is not enough to hamper me in my work.” Loial glanced at the table where a large cloth-bound book—large for Perrin, but it would fit in one of the Ogier’s coat pockets—lay open beside an uncorked ink bottle. “I hope I wrote it all down correctly. I did not see very much last night until it was done.”

“Loial,” Faile said, standing up from behind one of the banks of flowers with a book in her hands, “is a hero.”

Perrin jumped; the flowers had masked her scent completely. Loial made shushing noises, his ears twitching with embarrassment, and waved his big hands at her, but she went on, her voice cool but her eyes hot on Perrin’s face.

“He gathered as many children as he could—and some of their mothers—into a large room, and held the door alone against Trollocs and Myrddraal through the entire fight. These flowers are from the women of the Stone, tokens to honor his steadfast courage, his faithfulness.” She made “steadfast” and “faithfulness” crack like whips.

Perrin managed not to flinch, but only just. What he had done was right, but he could not expect her to see it. Even if she knew why, she would not see it. It was the right thing. It was. He only wished he felt better about the entire matter. It was hardly fair that he could be right and still feel in the wrong.

“It was nothing.” Loial’s ears twitched wildly. “It is just that the children could not defend themselves. That’s all. Not a hero. No.”

“Nonsense.” Faile marked her place in the book with a finger and moved closer to the Ogier. She did not come up to his chest. “There is not a woman in the Stone who would not marry you, if you were human, and some would anyway. Loial well named, for your nature is loyalty. Any woman could love that.”

The Ogier’s ears went stiff with shock, and Perrin grinned. She had obviously been feeding Loial honey and butter all morning in hope the Ogier would agree to take her along no matter what Perrin wanted, but in trying to prick him she had just fed Loial a stone without knowing it. “Have you heard from your mother, Loial?” he asked.

“No.” Loial managed to sound relieved and worried at the same time. “But I saw Laefar in the city yesterday. He was as surprised to see me as I to see him; we are not a common sight in Tear. He came from Stedding Shangtai to negotiate repairs on some Ogier stonework in one of the palaces. I have no doubt the first words out of his mouth when he returns to the stedding will be ‘Loial is in Tear.’ ”

“That is worrying,” Perrin said, and Loial nodded dejectedly.

“Laefar says the Elders have named me a runaway and my mother has promised to have me married and settled. She even has someone chosen. Laefar did not know who. At least, he said he did not. He thinks such things are funny. She could be here in a month’s time.”

Faile’s face was a picture of confusion that almost made Perrin grin again. She thought she knew so much more than he did about the world—well, she did, in truth—but she did not know Loial. Stedding Shangtai was Loial’s home, in the Spine of the World, and since he was barely past ninety, he was not old enough to have left on his own. Ogier lived a very long time; by their standards, Loial was no older than Perrin, maybe younger. But Loial had gone anyway, to see the world, and his greatest fear was that his mother would find him and drag back to the stedding to marry, never to leave again.

While Faile was trying to figure out what was going on, Perrin stepped into the silence. “I need to go back to the Two Rivers, Loial. Your mother won’t find you there.”

“Yes. That is true.” The Ogier gave an uncomfortable shrug. “But my book. Rand’s story. And yours, and Mat’s. I have so many notes already, but....” He moved around behind the table, peering down at the open book, the pages filled with his neat script. “I will be the one to write the true story of the Dragon Reborn, Perrin. The only book by someone who traveled with him, who actually saw it unfold. The Dragon Reborn, by Loial, son of Arent son of Halan, of Stedding Shangtai.” Frowning, he bent over the book, dipping his pen in the ink bottle. “That is not quite right. It was more—”

Perrin put a hand on the page where Loial was going to write. “You’ll write no book if your mother finds you. Not about Rand, at least. And I need you, Loial.”

“Need, Perrin? I do not understand.”

“There are Whitecloaks in the Two Rivers. Hunting me.”

“Hunting you? But why?” Loial looked almost as confused as Faile had. Faile, on the other hand, had donned a complacent smugness that was worrisome. Perrin went on anyway.

“The reasons don’t matter. The fact is that they are. They may hurt people, my family, looking for me. Knowing Whitecloaks, they will. I can stop it, if I can get there quickly, but it must be quickly. The Light only knows what they’ve done already. I need you to take me there, Loial, by the Ways. You told me once there was a Waygate here, and I know there was one at Manetheren. It must still be there, in the mountains above Emond’s Field. Nothing can destroy a Waygate, you said. I need you, Loial.”

“Well, of course I will help,” Loial said. “The Ways.” He exhaled noisily, and his ears wilted a bit. “I want to write of adventures, not have them. But I suppose one more time will not hurt. The Light send it so,” he finished fervently.

Faile cleared her throat delicately. “Are you not forgetting something, Loial? You promised to take me into the Ways whenever I asked, and before you took anyone else.”

“I did promise you a look at a Waygate,” Loial said, “and what it is like inside. You can have that when Perrin and I go. You could come with us, I suppose, but the Ways are not traveled lightly, Faile. I would not enter them myself if Perrin did not have need.”

“Faile will not be coming,” Perrin said firmly. “Just you and me, Loial.”

Ignoring him, Faile smiled up at Loial as if he were teasing her. “You promised more than a look, Loial. To take me wherever I wanted, whenever I wanted, and before anyone else. You swore to it.”

“I did,” Loial protested, “but only because you refused to believe I would show you. You said you would not believe unless I swore. I will do as I promised, but surely you do not want to step ahead of Perrin’s need.”

“You swore,” Faile said calmly. “By your mother, and your mother’s mother, and your mother’s mother’s mother.”

“Yes, I did, Faile, but Perrin—”

“You swore, Loial. Do you mean to break your oath?”

The Ogier looked like misery stacked on misery. His shoulders slumped and his ears drooped, the corners of his wide mouth turned down and the ends of his long eyebrows draggled onto his cheeks.

“She tricked you, Loial.” Perrin wondered if they could hear his teeth grinding. “She deliberately tricked you.”

Red stained Faile’s cheeks, but she still had the nerve to say, “Only because I had to, Loial. Only because a fool man thinks he can order my life to suit himself. I’d not have done it, otherwise. You must believe that.”

“Doesn’t it make any difference that she tricked you?” Perrin demanded, and Loial shook his massive head sadly.

“Ogier keep their word,” Faile said. “And Loial is going to take me to the Two Rivers. Or to the Waygate at Manetheren, at least. I have a wish to see the Two Rivers.”

Loial stood up straight, “But that means I can help Perrin after all. Faile, why did you drag this out? Even Laefar would not think this funny.” There was a touch of anger in his voice; it took a good bit to make an Ogier angry.

“If he asks,” she said determinedly. “That was part of it, Loial. No one but you and me, unless they asked me. He has to ask me.”

“No,” Perrin told her while Loial was still opening his mouth. “No, I won’t ask. I will ride to Emond’s Field first. I’ll walk! So you might as well give up this foolishness. Tricking Loial. Trying to force yourself in where... where you aren’t wanted.”

Her calm dropped away in anger. “And by the time you reach there, Loial and I will have done for the Whitecloaks. It will all be over. Ask, you anvil-headed blacksmith. Just ask and you can come with us.”

Perrin took hold of himself. There was no way to argue her around to his way of thinking, but he would not ask. She was right—he would need weeks to reach the Two Rivers on his horse; they could be there in two days, perhaps, through the Ways—but he would not ask. Not after she tricked Loial and tried to bully me! “Then I’ll travel the Ways to Manetheren alone. I’ll follow you two. If I stay far enough back not to be part of your party, I won’t be breaking Loial’s oath. You can’t stop me following.”

“That is dangerous, Perrin,” Loial said worriedly. “The Ways are dark. If you miss a turning, or take the wrong bridge by accident, you could be lost forever. Or until Machin Shin catches you. Ask her, Perrin. She said you can come if you do. Ask her.”

The Ogier’s deep voice trembled speaking the name of Machin Shin, and a shiver ran down Perrin’s back, too. Machin Shin. The Black Wind. Not even Aes Sedai knew whether it was Shadowspawn or something that had grown out of the Ways’ corruption. Machin Shin was why traveling the Ways meant risking death; that was what Aes Sedai said. The Black Wind ate souls; that Perrin knew for truth. But he kept his voice steady and his face straight. I’ll be burned if I let her think I am weakening. “I can’t, Loial. Or anyway, I won’t.”

Loial grimaced. “Faile, it will be dangerous for him, trying to follow us. Please relent and let him—” She cut him off sharply.

“No. If he is too stiff-necked to ask, why should I? Why should I even care if he does get lost?” She turned to Perrin. “You can travel close to us. As close as you need to, so long as it’s plain you are following. You will trail after me like a puppy until you ask. Why won’t you just ask?”

“Stubborn humans,” the Ogier muttered. “Hasty and stubborn, even when haste lands you in a hornet nest.”

“I would like to leave today, Loial,” Perrin said, not looking at Faile.

“Best to go quickly,” Loial agreed with a regretful look at the book on the table. “I can tidy my notes on the journey, I suppose. The Light knows what I will miss, being away from Rand.”

“Did you hear me, Perrin?” Faile demanded.

“I will get my horse and a few supplies, Loial. We can be on our way by midmorning.”

“Burn you, Perrin Aybara, answer me!”

Loial eyed her worriedly. “Perrin, are you certain you could not—”

“No,” Perrin interrupted gently. “She is muleheaded, and she likes playing tricks. I won’t dance so she can laugh.” He ignored the sound coming from deep in Faile’s throat, like a cat staring at a strange dog and ready to attack. “I will let you know as soon as I am ready.” He started for the door, and she called after him furiously.

“ ‘When’ is my decision, Perrin Aybara. Mine and Loial’s. Do you hear me? You had better be ready in two hours, or we’ll leave you behind. You can meet us at the Dragonwall Gate stable, if you’re coming. Do you hear me?”

He sensed her moving and shut the door behind him just as something thumped into it heavily. A book, he thought. Loial would give her fits about that. Better to hit Loial on the head than harm one of his books.

For a moment he leaned against the door, despairing. All he had done, all he had gone through, making her hate him, and she was going to be there to see him die anyway. The best thing he could say was that she might enjoy it now. Stubborn, muleheaded woman!

When he turned to go, one of the Aiel was approaching, a tall man with reddish hair and green eyes who could have been Rand’s older cousin, or a young uncle. He knew the man, and liked him, if only because Gaul had never given even a flicker of notice to his yellow eyes. “May you find shade this morning, Perrin. The majhere told me you had come this way, though I think she itched to put a broom in my hands. As hard as a Wise One, that woman.”

“May you find shade this morning, Gaul. Women are all hardheaded, if you ask me.”

“Perhaps so, if you do not know how to get ’round them. I hear you are journeying to the Two Rivers.”

“Light!” Perrin growled before the Aiel could say more. “Does the whole Stone know?” If Moiraine knew—

Gaul shook his head. “Rand al’Thor took me aside and spoke to me, asking me to tell no one. I think he spoke to others, too, but I do not know how many will want to go with you. We have been on this side of the Dragonwall for a long time, and many ache for the Three-fold Land.”

“Come with me?” Perrin felt stunned. If he had Aiel with him.... There were possibilities he had not dared consider before. “Rand asked you to come with me? To the Two Rivers?”

Gaul shook his head again. “He said only that you were going, and that there were men who might try to kill you. I mean to accompany you, though, if you will have me.”

“Will I?” Perrin almost laughed. “I will that. We will be into the Ways in a few hours.”

“The Ways?” Gaul’s expression did not change, but he blinked.

“Does that make a difference?”

“Death comes for all men, Perrin.” It was hardly a comforting answer.

“I cannot believe Rand is that cruel,” Egwene said, and Nynaeve added, “At least he did not try to stop you.” Seated on Nynaeve’s bed, they were finishing the division of the gold Moiraine had provided. Four fat purses apiece to be carried in pockets sewn under Elayne’s and Nynaeve’s skirts, and another each, not so large as to attract unwanted attention, to carry at the belt. Egwene had taken a lesser amount, there being less use for gold in the Waste.

Elayne frowned at the two neatly tied bundles and the leather scrip lying beside the door. They held all of her clothes and other things. Cased knife and fork, hairbrush and comb, needles, pins, thread, thimble, scissors. A tinder box and a second knife, smaller than the one at her belt. Soap and bath powder and.... It was ridiculous to go over the list again. Egwene’s stone ring was snug in her pouch. She was ready to go. There was nothing to hold her back.

“No, he did not.” Elayne was proud of how calm and collected she sounded. He seemed almost relieved! Relieved! And I had to give him that letter, laying my heart open like a stone-blind fool. At least he won’t open it until I am gone. She jumped at the touch of Nynaeve’s hand on her shoulder.

“Did you want him to ask you to stay? You know what your answer would have been. You do, don’t you?”

Elayne compressed her lips. “Of course I do. But he did not have to look happy about it.” She had not meant to say that.

Nynaeve gave her an understanding look. “Men are difficult at the best.”

“I still cannot believe he would be so... so...” Egwene began in an angry mutter. Elayne never learned what she meant to say, for at that moment the door crashed open so hard that it bounced off the wall.

Elayne embraced saidar before she had stopped flinching, then felt a moment of embarrassment when the rebounding door slapped hard against Lan’s outstretched hand. A moment more, and she decided to hold on to the Source a while longer. The Warder filled the doorway with his broad shoulders, his face a thunderhead; if his blue eyes could really have given off the thunderbolts they threatened, they would have blasted Nynaeve. The glow of saidar surrounded Egwene, too, and did not fade.

Lan did not appear to see anyone but Nynaeve. “You let me believe you were returning to Tar Valon,” he rasped at her.

“You may have believed it,” she said calmly, “but I never said it.”

“Never said it? Never said it! You spoke of leaving today, and always linked your leaving with those Darkfriends being sent to Tar Valon. Always! What did you mean me to think?”

“But I never said—”

“Light, woman!” he roared. “Do not bandy words with me!”

Elayne exchanged worried looks with Egwene. This man had an iron self-control, but he was at a breaking point now. Nynaeve was one who often let her emotions rage, yet she faced him coolly, head high and eyes serene, hands still on her green silk skirts.

Lan took hold of himself with an obvious effort. He appeared as stone-faced as ever, as much in control of himself—and Elayne was sure it was all on the surface. “I’d not have known where you were off to if I had not heard that you had ordered a carriage. To take you to a ship bound for Tanchico. I do not know why the Amyrlin allowed you to leave the Tower in the first place, or why Moiraine involved you in questioning Black sisters, but you three are Accepted. Accepted, not Aes Sedai. Tanchico now is no place for anyone except a full Aes Sedai with a Warder to watch her back. I’ll not let you go into that!”

“So,” Nynaeve said lightly. “You question Moiraine’s decisions, and those of the Amyrlin Seat as well. Perhaps I’ve misunderstood Warders all along. I thought you swore to accept and obey, among other things. Lan, I do understand your concern, and I am grateful—more than grateful—but we all have tasks to perform. We are going; you must resign yourself to the fact.”

“Why? For the love of the Light, at least tell me why! Tanchico!”

“If Moiraine has not told you,” Nynaeve said gently, “perhaps she has her reasons. We must do our tasks, as you must do yours.”

Lan trembled—actually trembled!—and clamped his jaw shut angrily. When he spoke, he was strangely hesitant. “You will need someone to help you in Tanchico. Someone to keep a Taraboner street thief from slipping a knife into your back for your purse. Tanchico was that sort of city before the war began, and everything I’ve heard says it is worse now. I could... I could protect you, Nynaeve.”

Elayne’s eyebrows shot up. He could not be suggesting.... He just could not be.

Nynaeve gave no sign that he had said anything out of the ordinary. “Your place is with Moiraine.”

“Moiraine.” Sweat beaded on the Warder’s hard face, and he struggled with the words. “I can... I must... Nynaeve, I... I....”

“You will remain with Moiraine,” Nynaeve said sharply, “until she releases you from your bond. You will do as I say.” Pulling a carefully folded paper from her pouch, she thrust it into his hands. He frowned, read, then blinked and read again.

Elayne knew what it said.

What the bearer does is done at my order and by my authority. Obey, and keep silent, at my command.Siuan Sanche

Watcher of the Seals
Flame of Tar Valon

The Amyrlin SeatThe other like it rested in Egwene’s pouch, though none of them were sure what good it would do where she was going.

“But this allows you to do anything you please,” Lan protested. “You can speak in the Amyrlin’s name. Why would she give this to an Accepted?”

“Ask no questions I cannot answer,” Nynaeve said, then added with a hint of a grin, “Just count yourself lucky I do not tell you to dance for me.”

Elayne suppressed a smile of her own. Egwene made a choking sound of swallowed laughter. It was what Nynaeve had said when the Amyrlin first handed them the letters. With this I could make a Warder dance. Neither of them had had any doubt which Warder she had meant.

“Do you not? You dispose of me very neatly. My bond, and my oaths. This letter.” Lan had a dangerous gleam in his eye, which Nynaeve seemed not to notice as she took back the letter and replaced it in the pouch on her belt.

“You are very full of yourself, al’Lan Mandragoran. We do as we must, as you will.”

“Full of myself, Nynaeve al’Meara? I am full of myself?” Lan moved so quickly toward Nynaeve that Elayne very nearly wrapped him in flows of Air before she could think. One moment Nynaeve was standing there, with just time to gape at the tall man sweeping toward her; the next her shoes were dangling a foot off the floor and she was being quite thoroughly kissed. At first she kicked his shins and hammered him with her fists and made sounds of frantic, furious protest, but her kicks slowed and stopped, and then she was holding on to his shoulders and not protesting at all.

Egwene dropped her eyes with embarrassment, but Elayne watched interestedly. Was that how she had looked when Rand.... No! I will not think about him. She wondered if there was time to write him another letter, taking back everything she had said in the first, letting him know she was not to be trifled with. But did she want to?

After a while Lan set Nynaeve back on her feet. She swayed a bit as she straightened her dress and patted her hair furiously. “You have no right...” she began in a breathless voice, then stopped to swallow. “I will not be manhandled in that fashion for the whole world to see. I will not!”

“Not the whole world,” he replied. “But if they can see, they can hear as well. You have made a place in my heart where I thought there was no room for anything else. You have made flowers grow where I cultivated dust and stones. Remember this, on this journey you insist on making. If you die, I will not survive you long.” He gave Nynaeve one of his rare smiles. If it did not exactly soften his face, at least it made it less hard. “And remember also, I am not always so easily commanded, even with letters from the Amyrlin.” He made an elegant bow; for a moment Elayne thought he actually meant to kneel and kiss Nynaeve’s Great Serpent ring. “As you command,” he murmured, “so do I obey.” It was difficult to tell whether he meant to be mocking or not.

As soon as the door closed behind him, Nynaeve sank onto the edge of her bed as if letting her knees give way at last. She stared at the door with a pensive frown.

“ ‘Poke the meekest dog too often,’ ” Elayne quoted, “ ‘and he will bite.’ Not that Lan is very meek.” She got a sharp look and a sniff from Nynaeve.

“He is insufferable,” Egwene said. “Sometimes he is. Nynaeve, why did you do that? He was ready to go with you. I know you want nothing more than to break him free of Moiraine. Do not try to deny it.”

Nynaeve did not try. Instead she fussed with her dress, and smoothed the coverlet on the bed. “Not like that,” she said finally. “I mean him to be mine. All of him. I will not have him remembering a broken oath to Moiraine. I will not have that between us. For him, as well as myself.”

“But will it be any different if you bring him to ask Moiraine to release him from his bond?” Egwene asked. “Lan is the kind of man who would see it as much the same thing. All that leaves is to somehow make her let him go of her own accord. How can you manage that?”

“I do not know.” Nynaeve firmed her voice. “Yet what must be done, can be done. There is always a way. That is for another time. Work to be done, and we sit here fretting over men. Are you sure you have everything you need for the Waste, Egwene?”

“Aviendha is readying everything,” Egwene said. “She still seems unhappy, but she says we can reach Rhuidean in little more than a month, if we are lucky. You will be in Tanchico by then.”

“Perhaps sooner,” Elayne told her, “if what they say about Sea Folk rakers is true. You will be careful, Egwene? Even with Aviendha for a guide, the Waste cannot be safe.”

“I will. You be careful. Both of you. Tanchico is not much safer than the Waste now.”

Abruptly they were all hugging one another, repeating cautions to take care, making sure they all remembered the schedule for meeting in Tel’aran’rhiod’s Stone.

Elayne wiped tears from her cheeks. “As well Lan left.” She laughed tremulously. “He would think we were all being foolish.”

“No, he would not,” Nynaeve said, pulling up her skirts to settle a purse of gold into its pocket. “He may be a man, but he is not a complete dolt.”

There had to be time between here and the carriage to locate paper and pen, Elayne decided. She would find time. Nynaeve had the right of it. Men needed a firm hand. Rand would find he could not get away from her so easily. And he would not find it easy to worm his way back into her good graces.

CHAPTER 17
Deceptions

Favoring his stiff right leg, Thom bowed with a flourish of his gleeman’s cloak that set the colorful patches fluttering. His eyes felt grainy, but he made himself speak lightly. “A good morning to you.” Straightening, he knuckled his long white mustaches grandly.

The black-and-gold-clad servants looked surprised. The two muscular lads straightened from the gold-studded red lacquer chest, with a shattered lid, that they had been about to lift, and the three women stilled their mops in front of them. The hallway was empty along here except for them, and any excuse to break their labor was good, especially at this hour. They looked as tired as Thom felt, with slumping shoulders and dark circles under their eyes.

“A good morning to you, gleeman,” the oldest of the women said. A bit plump and plain-faced, perhaps, she had a nice smile, weary as she was. “Can we help you?”

Thom produced four colored balls from a capacious coatsleeve and began to juggle. “I am just going about trying to raise spirits. A gleeman must do what he can.” He would have used more than four, but he was fatigued enough to make even that many an exercise in concentration. How long since he had nearly dropped a fifth ball? Two hours? He stifled a yawn, turned it into a reassuring smile. “A terrible night, and spirits need lifting.”

“The Lord Dragon saved us,” one of the younger women said. She was pretty and slim, but with a predatory gleam in her dark, shadowed eyes that warned him to temper his smile. Of course, she might be useful if she was both greedy and honest, meaning that she would stay bought once he paid her. It was always good to find another set of hands to place a note, a tongue that would tell him what was heard and say what he wanted where he wanted. Old fool! You have enough hands and ears, so stop thinking of a fine bosom and remember the look in her eye! The interesting thing was that she sounded as if she meant what she said, and one of the young fellows nodded agreement to her words.

“Yes,” Thom said. “I wonder which High Lord had charge of the docks yesterday?” He nearly fumbled the balls in irritation at himself. Bringing it right out like that. He was too tired; he should be in his bed. He should have been there hours ago.

“The docks are the Defenders’ responsibility,” the oldest woman told him. “You’d not know that, of course. The High Lords would not concern themselves.”

Thom knew it very well. “Is that so? Well, I am not Tairen, of course.” He changed the balls from a simple circle to a double loop; it looked more difficult than it was, and the girl with the predatory look clapped her hands. Now that he was into it, he might as well go on. After this, though, he would call it a night. A night? The sun was rising already. “Still, it is a shame no one asked why those barges were at the docks. With their hatches down, hiding all those Trollocs. Not that I am saying anyone knew the Trollocs were there.” The double loop wobbled, and he quickly went back to a circle. Light, he was exhausted. “You’d think one of the High Lords would have asked, though.”

The two young men frowned thoughtfully at one another, and Thom smiled to himself. Another seed planted, just that easily, if clumsily as well. Another rumor started, whatever they knew for a fact about who had charge of the docks. And rumors spread—a rumor like this would not stop short of the city—so it was another small wedge of suspicion driven between commoners and nobles. Who would the commoners turn to, except the man they knew the nobles hated? The man who had saved the Stone from Shadowspawn. Rand al’Thor. The Lord Dragon.

It was time to leave what he had sown. If the roots had taken hold here, nothing he said now could pull them loose, and he had scattered other seeds this night. But it would not do for anyone to discover he was the one doing the planting. “They fought bravely last night, the High Lords did. Why, I saw....” He trailed off as the women leaped to their mopping and the men grabbed up the chest and hurried away.

“I can find work for gleemen, too,” the majhere’s voice said behind him. “Idle hands are idle hands.”

He turned gracefully, considering his leg, and swept her a deep bow. The top of her head was below his shoulder, but she probably weighed half again what he did. She had a face like an anvil—not improved by the bandage around her temples—an extra chin, and deep-set eyes like chips of black flint. “A good morning to you, gracious lady. A small token of this fresh, new day.”

He gestured with a flurry of hands and tucked a golden yellow sunburst blossom, only a little bedraggled for its time up his sleeve, into the gray hair above her bandage. She snatched the flower right out again, of course, and eyed it suspiciously, but that was just as he wanted. He put three limping strides into her moment of hesitation, and when she shouted something after him, he neither listened nor slowed.

Horrible woman, he thought. If we had turned her loose on the Trollocs, she’d have had them all sweeping and mopping.

He yawned behind a hand, jaws creaking. He was too old for this. He was tired, and his knee was a knot of pain. Nights with no sleep, battles, plotting. Too old. He should be living quietly on a farm somewhere. With chickens. Farms always had chickens. And sheep. They must not be difficult to look after; shepherds seemed to loll about and play the pipes all the time. He would play the harp, of course, not pipes. Or his flute; weather was not good for the harp. And there would be a town nearby, with an inn where he could amaze the patrons in the common room. He flourished his cloak as he passed two servants. The only point in wearing it in this heat was to let people know he was a gleeman. They perked up at the sight of him, of course, hoping he might pause to entertain for a moment. Most gratifying. Yes, a farm had its virtues. A quiet place. No people to bother him. As long as there was a town close by.

Pushing open the door to his room, he stopped in his tracks. Moiraine straightened as if she had a perfect right to be going through the papers scattered on his table and calmly arranged her skirts as she sat on the stool. Now there was a beautiful woman, with every grace a man could want, including laughing at his quips. Fool! Old fool! She’s Aes Sedai, and you’re too tired to think straight.

“A good morning to you, Moiraine Sedai,” he said, hanging his cloak on a peg. He avoided looking at his writing case, still sitting under the table where he had left it. No point in letting her know it was important. Probably no point in checking after she went, for that matter; she could have channeled the lock open and closed again, and he would never be able to tell. Weary as he was, he could not even remember whether he had left anything incriminating in the case. Or anywhere else, for that matter. Everything he could see in the room was right where it belonged. He did not think he could have been foolish enough to leave anything out. Doors in the servants’ quarters had no locks or latches. “I would offer you a refreshing drink, but I fear I have nothing but water.”

“I am not thirsty,” she said in a pleasant, melodious voice. She leaned forward, and the room was small enough for her to place a hand on his right knee. A chill tingle rippled through him. “I wish a good Healer had been near when this happened. It is too late now, I regret.”

“A dozen Healers would not have been enough,” he told her. “A Half-man did it.”

“I know.”

What else does she know? he wondered. Turning to pull his lone chair out from behind the table, he bit back an oath. He felt as if he had had a good night’s sleep, and the pain was gone from his knee. His limp remained, but the joint was more limber than it had been since he was injured. The woman didn’t even ask if I wanted it. Burn me, what is she after? He refused to flex the leg. If she would not ask, he would not acknowledge her gift.

“An interesting day, yesterday,” she said as he sat down.

“I’d not call Trollocs and Halfmen interesting,” he said dryly.

“I did not mean them. Earlier. The High Lord Carleon dead in a hunting accident. His good friend Tedosian apparently mistook him for a boar. Or perhaps a deer.”

“I hadn’t heard.” He kept his voice calm. Even if she had found the note, she could not have traced it to him. Carleon himself would have thought it by his own hand. He did not think she could have, but he reminded himself again that she was Aes Sedai. As if he needed any reminding, with that smooth pretty face across from him, those serene dark eyes watching him full of all his secrets. “The servants’ quarters are full of gossip, but I seldom listen.”

“Do you not?” she murmured mildly. “Then you will not have heard that Tedosian fell ill not an hour after returning to the Stone, directly after his wife gave him a goblet of wine to wash away the dust of the hunt. It is said he wept when he learned that she means to tend him herself, and feed him with her own hands. No doubt tears of joy at her love. I hear she has vowed not to leave his side until he can rise again. Or until he dies.”

She knew. How, he could not say, but she knew. But why was she revealing it to him? “A tragedy,” he said, matching her bland tone. “Rand will need all the loyal High Lords he can find, I suppose.”

“Carleon and Tedosian were hardly loyal. Even to each other, it seems. They led the faction that want to kill Rand and try to forget he ever lived.”

“Do you say so? I pay little attention to such things. The works of the mighty are not for a simple gleeman.”

Her smile was just short of laughter, but she spoke as if reading from a page. “Thomdril Merrilin. Called the Gray Fox, once, by some who knew him, or knew of him. Courtbard at the Royal Palace of Andor in Caemlyn. Morgase’s lover for a time, after Taringail died. Fortunate for Morgase, Taringail’s death. I do not suppose she ever learned he meant her to die and himself to be Andor’s first king. But we were speaking of Thom Merrilin, a man who, it was said, could play the Game of Houses in his sleep. It is a shame that such a man calls himself a simple gleeman. But such arrogance to keep the same name.”

Thom masked his shock with an effort. How much did she know? Too much if she knew not another word. But she was not the only one with knowledge. “Speaking of names,” he said levelly, “it is remarkable how much can be puzzled out from a name. Moiraine Damodred. The Lady Moiraine of House Damodred, in Cairhien. Taringail’s youngest half-sister. King Laman’s niece. And Aes Sedai, let us not forget. An Aes Sedai aiding the Dragon Reborn since before she could have known that he was more than just another poor fool who could channel. An Aes Sedai with connections high in the White Tower, I would say, else she’d not risk what she has. Someone in the Hall of the Tower? More than one, I’d say; it would have to be. News of that would shake the world. But why should there be trouble? Perhaps it’s best to leave an old gleeman tucked away in his hole in the servants’ quarters. Just an old gleeman playing his harp and telling his tales. Tales that harm no one.”

If he had managed to stagger her even a fraction, she did not show it. “Speculation without facts is always dangerous,” she said calmly. “I do not use my House name, by choice. House Damodred had a deservedly unpleasant reputation before Laman cut down Avendoraldera and lost the throne and his life for it. Since the Aiel War, it has grown worse, also deservedly.”

Would nothing shake the woman? “What do you want of me?” he demanded irritably.

She did not as much as blink. “Elayne and Nynaeve take ship for Tanchico today. A dangerous city, Tanchico. Your knowledge and skills might keep them alive.”

So that was it. She wanted to separate him from Rand, leave the boy naked to her manipulations. “As you say, Tanchico is dangerous now, but then it always was. I wish the young women well, yet I’ve no wish to stick my head into a vipers’ nest. I am too old for that sort of thing. I have been thinking of taking up farming. A quiet life. Safe.”

“A quiet life would kill you, I think.” Sounding distinctly amused, she busied herself rearranging the folds of her skirt with small, slender hands. He had the impression she was hiding a smile. “Tanchico will not, however. I guarantee that, and by the First Oath, you know it for truth.”

He frowned at her despite his best efforts to keep his face straight. She had said it, and she could not lie, yet how could she know? He was sure she could not Foretell; he was certain he had heard her disavow the Talent. But she had said it. Burn the woman! “Why should I go to Tanchico?” She could do without titles.

“To protect Elayne? Morgase’s daughter?”

“I have not seen Morgase in fifteen years. Elayne was an infant when I left Caemlyn.”

She hesitated, but when she spoke her voice was unrelentingly firm. “And your reason for leaving Andor? A nephew named Owyn, I believe. One of those poor fools you spoke of who can channel. The Red sisters were supposed to bring him to Tar Valon, as any such man is, but instead they gentled him on the spot and abandoned him to the... mercies of his neighbors.”

Thom knocked his chair over standing up, then had to hold on to the table because his knees were shaking. Owyn had not lived long after being gentled, driven from his home by supposed friends who could not bear to let even a man who could no longer channel live among them. Nothing Thom did could stop Owyn not wanting to live, or stop his young wife from following him to the grave inside the month.

“Why... ?” He cleared his throat roughly, tried to make his voice less husky. “Why are you telling me this?”

There was sympathy on Moiraine’s face. And could it be regret? Surely not. Not from an Aes Sedai. The sympathy had to be false as well. “I would not have done, had you been willing to go simply to help Elayne and Nynaeve.”

“Why, burn you! Why?”

“If you go with Elayne and Nynaeve, I will tell you the names of those Red sisters when I see you next, as well as the name of the one who gave them their orders. They did not act on their own. And I will see you again. You will survive Tarabon.”

He drew an uneven breath. “What good will their names do me?” he asked in a flat voice. “Aes Sedai names, wrapped in all the power of the White Tower.”

“A skilled and dangerous player of the Game of Houses might find a use for them,” she replied quietly. “They should not have done what they did. They should not have been excused for it.”

“Will you leave me, please?”

“I will teach you that not all Aes Sedai are like those Reds, Thom. You must learn that.”

“Please?”

He stood leaning on the table until she was gone, unwilling to let her see him sink awkwardly to his knees, see the tears trickling down his weathered face. Oh, Light, Owyn. He had buried it all as deeply as he could. I couldn’t get there in time. I was too busy. Too busy with the bloody Game of Houses. He scrubbed at his face testily. Moiraine could play the Game with the best. Wrenching him around this way, tugging every string he had thought perfectly hidden. Owyn, Elayne. Morgase’s daughter. Only fondness remained for Morgase, perhaps a little more than that, but it was hard to walk away from a child you had bounced on your knee. That girl in Tanchico? That city would eat her alive even without a war. It must be a pit of rabid wolves, now. And Moiraine will give me the names. All he had to do was leave Rand in Aes Sedai hands. Just as he had left Owyn. She had him like a snake in a cleft stick, damned however he writhed. Burn the woman!

Looping the embroidery basket’s handle over her arm, Min gathered her skirts with her other hand and strolled out of the dining hall after breakfast in a gliding pace, her back straight. She could have balanced a full goblet of wine on her head without spilling a drop. Partly that was because she could not take a proper stride in her dress, all pale blue silk with a snug bodice and sleeves and a full skirt that would drag its embroidered hem on the ground if she did not hold it up. It was also partly because she was sure she could feel Laras’s eyes on her.

A glance back proved her right. The Mistress of the Kitchens, a winecask on legs, was beaming after her approvingly from the dining hall doorway. Who would have thought the woman had been a beauty in her youth, or would have a place in her heart for pretty, flirtatious girls? “Lively,” she called them. Who would have suspected she would decide to take “Elmindreda” under her stout wing? It was hardly a comfortable position. Laras kept a protective eye on Min, an eye that seemed to find her anywhere in the Tower grounds. Min smiled back and patted her hair, now a round black cap of curls. Burn the woman! Doesn’t she have something to cook, or some scullion to yell at?

Laras waved to her, and she waved in return. She could not afford to offend someone who watched her so closely, not when she had no idea how many mistakes she might be making. Laras knew every trick of “lively” women, and expected to teach Min any she did not already know.

One real mistake, Min reflected as she took a seat on a marble bench beneath a tall willow, had been the embroidery. Not from Laras’s point of view, but her own. Pulling her embroidery hoop from the basket, she ruefully examined yesterday’s work, a number of lopsided yellow oxeyes and something she had meant to be a pale yellow rosebud, though no one would know unless she told them. With a sigh, she set to picking the stitches out. Leane was right, she supposed; a woman could sit for hours with an embroidery hoop, watching everyone and everything, and nobody thought it strange. It would have helped, though, if she had any skill at all.

At least it was a perfect morning for being out-of-doors. A golden sun had just cleared the horizon in a sky where the few fluffy white clouds seemed arrayed to emphasize the perfection. A light breeze caught the scent of roses and ruffled tall calma bushes with their big red or white blossoms. Soon enough the gravel-covered paths near the tree would be full of people on one errand or another, everyone from Aes Sedai to stablemen. A perfect morning, and a perfect place from which to watch unobserved. Perhaps today she would have a useful viewing.

“Elmindreda?”

Min jumped, and stuck her pricked finger in her mouth. Twisting ’round on the bench, she prepared to assail Gawyn for sneaking up on her, but the words froze in her throat. Galad was with him. Taller than Gawyn, with long legs, he moved with a dancer’s grace and a lean, sinewy strength. His hands were long, too, elegant yet strong. And his face.... He was, quite simply, the most beautiful man she had ever seen.

“Stop sucking your finger,” Gawyn said with a grin. “We know you are a pretty little girl; you do not need to prove it to us.”

Blushing, she hastily pulled her hand down, and barely restrained herself from a furious glare that would not have been at all in keeping with Elmindreda. He had needed no threats or commands from the Amyrlin to keep her secret, only her asking, but he did take any opportunity to tease that presented itself.

“It is not right to mock, Gawyn,” Galad said. “He did not mean to offend, Mistress Elmindreda. Your pardon, but can it be we have met before? When you frowned at Gawyn so fiercely just then, I almost thought I knew you.”

Min dropped her eyes demurely. “Oh, I could never forget meeting you, my Lord Galad,” she said in her best foolish-girl voice. The simpering tone, and anger at her own slip, sent a tide of heat to her hairline, improving her disguise.

She did not look anything like herself, and the dress and the hair were only a part of it. Leane had acquired creams and powders and an incredible assortment of mysterious scented things in the city and drilled her until she could have used them in her sleep. She had cheekbones, now, and more color in her lips than nature had put there. A dark cream lining her eyelids and a fine powder that emphasized her lashes made her eyes seem larger. Not at all like herself. Some of the novices had told her admiringly how beautiful she was, and even a few Aes Sedai had called her “a very pretty child.” She hated it. The dress was quite pretty, she admitted, but she hated the rest of it. Yet there was no point in donning a disguise if she did not keep it up.

“I am sure you would remember,” Gawyn said dryly. “I did not mean to interrupt you at your embroidery—swallows, are they? Yellow swallows?” Min thrust the hoop back into the basket. “But I wanted to ask you to comment on this.” He pushed a small, leather-bound book, old and tattered, into her hands, and suddenly his voice was serious. “Tell my brother this is nonsense. Perhaps he will listen to you.”

She examined the book. The Way of the Light, by Lothair Mantelar. Opening it, she read at random. “Therefore abjure all pleasure, for goodness is a pure abstract, a perfect crystalline ideal which is obscured by base emotion. Pamper not the flesh. Flesh is weak but spirit is strong; flesh is useless where spirit is strong. Right thought is drowned in sensation, and right action hindered by passions. Take all joy from rightness, and rightness only.” It seemed to be dry nonsense.

Min smiled at Gawyn, and even managed a titter. “So many words. I fear I know little of books, my Lord Gawyn. I always mean to read one—I do.” She sighed. “But there is so little time. Why, just fixing my hair properly takes hours. Do you think it is pretty?” The outraged startlement on his face nearly made her laugh, but she changed it to a giggle. It was a pleasure to turn the tables on him for a change; she would have to see if she could do it more often. There were possibilities in this disguise she had not considered. This stay in the Tower had turned out to be all boredom and irritation. She deserved some amusement.

“Lothair Mantelar,” Gawyn said in a tight voice, “founded the Whitecloaks. The Whitecloaks!”

“He was a great man,” Galad said firmly. “A philosopher of noble ideals. If the Children of the Light have sometimes been... excessive... since his day, it does not change that.”

“Oh, my. Whitecloaks,” Min said breathlessly, and added a little shudder. “They are such rough men, I hear. I cannot imagine a Whitecloak dancing. Do you think there is any chance of a dance here? Aes Sedai do not seem to care for dancing either, and I do so love to dance.” The frustration in Gawyn’s eyes was delightful.

“I do not think so,” Galad said, taking the book from her. “Aes Sedai are too busy with... with their own affairs. If I hear of a suitable dance in the city, I will escort you, if you wish it. You need have no fear of being annoyed by those two louts.” He smiled at her, unconscious of what he was doing, and she suddenly found herself breathless in truth. Men should not be allowed smiles like that.

It actually took her a moment to remember what two louts he was talking about. The two men who had supposedly asked for Elmindreda’s hand in marriage, nearly fighting each other because she could not make up her mind, pressing her to the point of seeking sanctuary in the Tower because she could not stop encouraging them both. Just the entire excuse for her being there. It’s this dress, she told herself. I could think straight if I had on my proper clothes.

“I’ve noticed the Amyrlin speaks to you every day,” Gawyn said suddenly. “Has she mentioned our sister Elayne? Or Egwene al’Vere? Has she said anything of where they are?”

Min wished she could black his eye. He did not know why she was pretending to be someone else, of course, but he had agreed to help her be accepted as Elmindreda, and now he was linking her to women too many in the Tower knew were friends of Min. “Oh, the Amyrlin Seat is such a wonderful woman,” she said sweetly, baring her teeth in a smile. “She always asks how I am passing the time, and compliments my dress. I suppose she hopes I’ll make a decision soon between Darvan and Goemal, but I just cannot.” She widened her eyes, hoping it made her look helpless and confused. “They are both so sweet. Who did you say? Your sister, my Lord Gawyn? The Daughter-Heir herself? I do not think I’ve ever heard the Amyrlin Seat mention her. What was the other name?” She could hear Gawyn grinding his teeth.

“We should not bother Mistress Elmindreda with that,” Galad said. “It is our problem, Gawyn. It is up to us to find the lie and deal with it.”

She barely heard him, because suddenly she was staring at a big man with long dark hair curling around slumped shoulders, wandering aimlessly down one of the graveled paths through the trees, under the watchful eyes of an Accepted. She had seen Logain before, a sad-faced, once-hearty man, always with an Accepted for companion. The woman was meant to keep him from killing himself as much as to prevent his escape; despite his size, he truly did not seem up to anything of the latter sort. But she had never before seen a flaring halo around his head, radiant in gold and blue. It was only there for a moment, but that was enough.

Logain had proclaimed himself the Dragon Reborn, had been captured and gentled. Whatever glory he might have had as a false Dragon was far behind him now. All that remained for him was the despair of the gentled, like a man who had been robbed of sight and hearing and taste, wanting to die, waiting for the death that inevitably came to such men in a few years. He glanced at her, perhaps not seeing her; his eyes looked hopelessly inward. So why had he worn a halo that shouted of glory and power to come? This was something she had to tell the Amyrlin.

“Poor fellow,” Gawyn muttered. “I cannot help pitying him. Light, it would be a mercy to let him end it. Why do they make him keep on living?”

“He deserves no pity,” Galad pronounced. “Have you forgotten what he was, what he did? How many thousands died before he was taken? How many towns were burned? Let him live on as a warning to others.”

Gawyn nodded, but reluctantly. “Yet men followed him. Some of those towns were burned after they declared for him.”

“I have to go,” Min said, getting to her feet, and Galad was instantly all solicitude.

“Forgive us, Mistress Elmindreda. We did not mean to frighten you. Logain cannot harm you. I give you my assurance.”

“I... Yes, he’s made me feel faint. Do excuse me. I really must go lie down.”

Gawyn looked extremely skeptical, but he scooped up her basket before she could touch it. “Let me see you part of the way, at least,” he said, his voice oozing false concern. “This basket must be too heavy for you, dizzy as you are. I’d not want you to swoon.”

She wanted to snatch the basket and hit him with it, but that was not how Elmindreda would react. “Oh, thank you, my Lord Gawyn. You are so kind. So kind. No, no, my Lord Galad. Do not let me encumber both of you. Do sit down here and read your book. Do say you will. I just could not bear it, otherwise.” She even fluttered her eyelashes.

Somehow she managed to ensconce Galad on the marble bench and get away, though with Gawyn right beside her. Her skirts were an irritant; she wanted to pull them up to her knees and run, but Elmindreda would never run, and never expose so much of her legs except when dancing. Laras had lectured her severely on that very point; one time running, and she would nearly destroy the image of Elmindreda completely. And Gawyn... !

“Give me that basket, you muscle-brained cretin,” she snarled as soon as they were out of Galad’s sight, and pulled it away from him before he could comply. “What do you mean by asking me about Elayne and Egwene in front of him? Elmindreda never met them. Elmindreda does not care about them. Elmindreda doesn’t want to be mentioned in the same sentence with them! Can’t you understand that?”

“No,” he said. “Not since you won’t explain. But I am sorry.” There was hardly enough repentance in his voice to suit her. “It is just that I am worried. Where are they? This news coming upriver about a false Dragon in Tear makes me no easier in my mind. They are out there, somewhere, the Light knows where, and I keep asking myself, what if they are in the middle of the sort of bonfire Logain made out of Ghealdan?”

“What if he isn’t a false Dragon?” she asked cautiously.

“You mean because the stories in the streets say he’s taken the Stone of Tear? Rumor has a way of magnifying events. I will believe that when I see it, and in any case, it will take more to convince me. Even the Stone could fall. Light, I don’t really believe Elayne and Egwene are in Tear, but the not knowing eats at my belly like acid. If she is hurt....”

Min did not know which “she” he meant, and suspected he did not either. In spite of his teasing, her heart went out to him, but there was nothing she could do. “If you could only do as I say and—”

“I know. Trust the Amyrlin. Trust!” He exhaled a long breath. “Do you know Galad has been drinking in the taverns with Whitecloaks? Anyone can cross the bridges if they come in peace, even Children of the bloody Light.”

“Galad?” she said incredulously. “In taverns? Drinking?”

“No more than a cup or two, I’m sure. He would not unbend more than that, not for his own nameday.” Gawyn frowned as if unsure whether that might be a criticism of Galad. “The point is that he is talking with Whitecloaks. And now this book. According to the inscription, Eamon Valda himself gave it to him. ‘In the hope you will find the way.’ Valda, Min. The man commanding the Whitecloaks on the other side of the bridges. Not knowing is eating Galad up, too. Listening to Whitecloaks. If anything happens to our sister, or to Egwene...” He shook his head. “Do you know where they are, Min? Would you tell me if you did? Why are you hiding?”

“Because I drove two men mad with my beauty and cannot make up my mind,” she told him acidly.

He gave a bitter half-laugh, then masked it with a grin. “Well, that at least I can believe.” He chuckled, and stroked under her chin with a finger. “You are a very pretty girl, Elmindreda. A pretty, clever little girl.”

She doubled a fist and tried to punch him in the eye, but he danced back, and she stumbled over her skirts and nearly fell. “You bloody ox of a thimble-brained man!” she growled.

“Such grace of movement, Elmindreda,” he laughed. “Such a dulcet voice, as a nightingale, or a cooing dove of the evening. What man would not grow starry-eyed at the sight of Elmindreda?” The mirth slid away, and he faced her soberly. “If you learn anything, please tell me. Please? I will beg on my knees, Min.”

“I will tell you,” she said. If I can. If it’s safe for them. Light, but I hate this place. Why can’t I just go back to Rand?

She left Gawyn there and entered the Tower proper by herself, keeping an eye out for Aes Sedai or Accepted who might question why she was above the ground floor and where she was going. The news of Logain was too important to wait until the Amyrlin encountered her, seemingly by accident, some time in the late afternoon as usual. At least, that was what she told herself. Impatience threatened to pop out through her skin.

She only saw a few Aes Sedai, turning a corner ahead of her or entering a room in the distance, which was all to the good. No one simply dropped in on the Amyrlin Seat. The handful of servants she passed, all bustling about their work, did not question her, of course, or even look at her twice except to drop quick curties almost without pausing.

Pushing open the door to the Amyrlin’s study, she had a simpering tale ready in case anyone was with Leane, but the antechamber was empty. She hurried to the inner door and put her head in. The Amyrlin and the Keeper were seated on either side of Siuan’s table, which was littered with small strips of thin paper. Their heads swiveled toward her sharply, a stare like four nails.

“What are you doing here?” the Amyrlin snapped. “You are supposed to be a silly girl claiming sanctuary, not a friend of my childhood. There is to be no contact between us except the most casual, in passing. If necessary, I’ll name Laras to watch over you like a nurse over a child. She would enjoy that, I think, but I doubt you would.”

Min shivered at the thought. Suddenly Logain did not seem so urgent; it was hardly likely he could achieve any glory in the next few days. He was not really why she had come, though, only an excuse, and she would not turn back now. Closing the door behind her, she stammered out what she had seen and what it meant. She still felt uncomfortable doing so in front of Leane.

Siuan shook her head wearily. “Another thing to worry about. Starvation in Cairhien. A sister missing in Tarabon. Trolloc raids increasing in the Borderlands again. This fool who calls himself the Prophet, stirring up riots in Ghealdan. He’s apparently preaching that the Dragon has been Reborn as a Shienaran lord,” she said incredulously. “Even the small things are bad. The war in Arad Doman has stopped trade from Saldaea, and the pinch is making unrest in Maradon. Tenobia may even be forced off the throne by it. The only good news I have heard is that the Blight has retreated for some reason. Two miles or more of green beyond the border-stones, without a hint of corruption or pestilence, all the way from Saldaea to Shienar. The first time in memory it has done that. But I suppose good news has to be balanced by bad. When a boat has one leak it is sure to have others. I only wish it was a balance. Leane, have the watch on Logain increased. I can’t see what trouble he could cause now, but I do not want to find out.” She turned those piercing blue eyes on Min. “Why did you come flapping up here with this like a startled gull? Logain could have waited. The man is hardly likely to find power and glory before sunset.”

The near echo of her own thoughts made Min shift uncomfortably. “I know,” she said. Leane’s eyebrows rose warningly, and she added a hasty, “Mother.” The Keeper nodded approvingly.

“That does not tell me why, child,” Siuan said.

Min steeled herself. “Mother, nothing I’ve viewed since the first day has been very important. I certainly have not seen anything that points to the Black Ajah.” That name still gave her a chill. “I’ve told you everything I know about whatever disaster you Aes Sedai are going to face, and the rest of it is just useless.” She had to stop and swallow, with that penetrating gaze on her. “Mother, there is no reason I should not go. There’s reason I should. Perhaps Rand could make real use of what I can do. If he has taken the Stone.... Mother, he may need me.” At least I need him, burn me for a fool!

The Keeper shuddered openly at the mention of Rand’s name. Siuan, on the other hand, snorted loudly. “Your viewings have been very useful. It’s important to know about Logain. You found the groom who was stealing before suspicion could land on anyone else. And that fire-haired novice who was going to get herself with child... ! Sheriam cut that short—the girl won’t even think of men until she’s finished her training—but we’d not have known until it was too late, without you. No, you cannot go. Sooner or later your viewings will draw me a chart to the Black Ajah, and until they do, they still more than pay their passage.”

Min sighed, and not only because the Amyrlin meant to hold on to her. The last time she had seen that redheaded novice, the girl had been sneaking off to a wooded part of the grounds with a muscular guard. They would be married, maybe before the end of summer; Min had known that as soon as she saw them together, though the Tower never let a novice leave until the Tower was ready, even one who could not go any further in her training. There was a farm in that pair’s future, and a swarm of children, but it was pointless to tell the Amyrlin that.

“Could you at least let Gawyn and Galad know that Egwene and their sister are all right, Mother?” Asking irked her, and her tone of voice did, too. A child denied a slice of cake begging for a cookie instead. “At least tell them something besides that ridiculous tale about doing penance on a farm.”

“I have told you that is none of your concern. Do not make me tell you again.”

“They don’t believe it any more than I do,” Min got out before the Amyrlin’s dry smile quieted her. It was not an amused smile.

“So you suggest I change where they are supposed to be? After letting everyone think them on a farm? Do you suppose that might raise a few eyebrows? Everyone but those boys accepts it. And you. Well, Coulin Gaidin will just have to work them that much harder. Sore muscles and enough sweat will take most men’s minds off other troubles. Women’s minds, too. You ask many more questions, and I’ll see what a few days scrubbing pots will do for you. Better to lose your services for two or three days than have you poking your nose where it does not belong.”

“You don’t even know if they are in trouble, do you? Or Moiraine.” It was not Moiraine she meant.

“Girl,” Leane said warningly, but Min was not to be stopped now.

“Why haven’t we heard? Rumors reached here two days ago. Two days! Why doesn’t one of those slips on your desk contain a message from her? Doesn’t she have pigeons? I thought you Aes Sedai had people with messenger pigeons everywhere. If there isn’t one in Tear, there should be. A man on horseback could have reached Tar Valon before now. Why—?”

The flat crack of Siuan’s palm on the table cut her off. “You obey remarkably well,” she said wryly. “Child, until we hear something to the contrary, assume the young man is well. Pray that he is.” Leane shivered again. “There’s a saying in the Maule, child,” the Amyrlin went on. “ ‘Do not trouble trouble till trouble troubles you.’ Mark it well, child.”

There was a timid knock at the door.

The Amyrlin and the Keeper exchanged glances; then two sets of eyes shifted to Min. Her presence was a problem. There was certainly nowhere to hide; even the balcony was clearly visible from the room in its entirety.

“A reason for you to be here,” Siuan muttered, “that doesn’t make you any more than the fool girl you’re supposed to be. Leane, stand ready at the door.” She and the Keeper were on their feet together, Siuan coming around the table while Leane moved to the door. “Take Leane’s seat, girl. Move your feet, child; move your feet. Now look sulky. Not angry, sulky! Stick your lower lip out and stare at the floor. I may make you wear ribbons in your hair, huge red bows. That’s it. Leane.” The Amyrlin put her fists on her hips and raised her voice. “And if you ever walk in on me unannounced again, child, I will....”

Leane pulled the door open to reveal a dark novice who flinched at Siuan’s continuing tirade, then dropped a deep curtsy. “Messages for the Amyrlin, Aes Sedai,” the girl squeaked. “Two pigeons arrived at the loft.” She was one of those who had told Min she was beautiful, and she tried to stare past the Keeper with wide eyes.

“This does not concern you, child,” Leane said briskly, taking the tiny cylinders of bone out of the girl’s hand. “Back to the loft with you.” Before the novice finished rising, Leane shut the door, then leaned against it with a sigh. “I have jumped at every unexpected sound since you told me....”Straightening, she came back to the table. “Two more messages, Mother. Shall I... ?”

“Yes. Open them,” the Amyrlin said. “No doubt Morgase has decided to invade Cairhien after all. Or Trollocs have overrun the Borderlands. It would be of a piece with everything else.” Min kept her seat; Siuan had sounded all too realistic with some of those threats.

Leane examined the red wax seal on the end of one of the small cylinders, no larger than her own finger joint, then broke it open with a thumbnail when she was satisfied it had not been tampered with. The rolled paper inside she extracted with a slim ivory pick. “Nearly as bad as Trollocs, Mother,” she said almost as soon as she began reading. “Mazrim Taim has escaped.”

“Light!” Siuan barked. “How?”

“This only says he was taken away by stealth in the night, Mother. Two sisters are dead.”

“The Light illumine their souls. But we’ve little time to mourn the dead while the likes of Taim are alive and ungentled. Where, Leane?”

“Denhuir, Mother. A village east of the Black Hills on the Maradon Road, above the headwaters of the Antaeo and the Luan.”

“It had to be some of his followers. Fools. Why won’t they know when they are beaten? Choose out a dozen reliable sisters, Leane....” The Amyrlin grimaced. “Reliable,” she muttered. “If I knew who was more reliable than a silverpike, I’d not have the problems I do. Do the best you can, Leane. A dozen sisters. And five hundred of the guards. No, a full thousand.”

“Mother,” the Keeper said worriedly. “The White cloaks—”

“—would not try to cross the bridges if I left them unwatched entirely. They would be afraid of a trap. There is no telling what is going on up there, Leane. I want whoever I send to be ready for anything. And Leane... Mazrim Taim is to be gentled as soon as he is taken again.”

Leane’s eyes opened wide with shock. “The law.”

“I know the law as well as you, but I will not risk having him freed again ungentled. I’ll not risk another Guaire Amalasan, not on top of every thing else.”

“Yes, Mother,” Leane said faintly.

The Amyrlin picked up the second bone cylinder and snapped it in two with a sharp crack to get the message out. “Good news at last,” she breathed, a smile blooming on her face. “Good news. ‘The sling has been used. The shepherd holds the sword.’ ”

“Rand?” Min asked, and Siuan nodded.

“Of course, girl. The Stone has fallen. Rand al’Thor, the shepherd, has Callandor. Now I can move. Leane, I want the Hall of the Tower convened this afternoon. No, this morning.”

“I don’t understand,” Min said. “You knew the rumors were about Rand. Why are you calling the Hall now? What can you do that you could not before?”

Siuan laughed like a girl. “What I can do now is tell them right out that I have received word from an Aes Sedai that the Stone of Tear has fallen and a man has drawn Callandor. Prophecy fulfilled. Enough of it for my purpose, at least. The Dragon is Reborn. They’ll flinch, they’ll argue, but none can oppose my pronouncement that the Tower must guide this man. At last I can involve myself with him openly. Openly for the most part.”

“Are we doing the right thing, Mother?” Leane said abruptly. “I know.... If he has Callandor, he must be the Dragon Reborn, but he can channel, Mother. A man who can channel. I only saw him once, but even then there was something strange about him. Something more than being ta’veren. Mother, is he so very different from Taim when it comes down to it?”

“The difference is that he is the Dragon Reborn, daughter,” the Amyrlin said quietly. “Taim is a wolf, and maybe rabid. Rand al’Thor is the wolfhound we will use to defeat the Shadow. Keep his name to yourself, Leane. Best not to reveal too much too soon.”

“As you say, Mother,” the Keeper said, but she still sounded uneasy.

“Off with you now. I want the Hall assembled in an hour.” Siuan thoughtfully watched the taller woman go. “There may be more resistance than I would wish,” she said when the door clicked shut.

Min looked at her sharply. “You don’t mean....”

“Oh, nothing serious, child. Not as long as they don’t know how long I have been involved with the al’Thor boy.” She looked at the slip of paper again, then dropped it onto the table. “I could wish Moiraine had told me more.”

“Why didn’t she say more? And why have we not heard from her before this?”

“More questions with you. That one you must ask Moiraine. She has always gone her own way. Ask Moiraine, child.”

Sahra Covenry worked the hoe in desultory fashion, frowning at the tiny sprouts of threadleaf and hensfoot poking up in the rows of cabbages and beets. It was not that Mistress Elward was a harsh taskmistress—she was no more stern than Sahra’s mother, and certainly easier that Sheriam—but Sahra had not gone to the White Tower to end up back on a farm hoeing vegetables with the sun barely up. Her white novice dresses were packed away; she wore brown wool her mother might have sewn, the skirt tied up to her knees to keep it out of the dirt. It was all so unfair. She had not done anything.

Wriggling her bare toes in the turned soil, she glared at a stubborn hensfoot and channeled, meaning to burn it out of the ground. Sparks flashed around the leafy sprout, and it wilted. Hurriedly she sliced the thing out of the dirt and her mind. If there was any fairness in the world, Lord Galad would come to the farm while out hunting.

Leaning on the hoe, she lost herself in a daydream of Healing Galad’s injuries, received in a fall from his horse—not his fault, of course; he was a wonderful horseman—and him lifting her up in front of him on his saddle, declaring he would be her Warder—she would be Green Ajah, of course—and....

“Sahra Covenry?”

Sahra jumped at the sharp voice, but it was not Mistress Elward. She curtsied as best she could, with her skirts gathered up. “The day’s greeting, Aes Sedai. Have you come to take me back to the Tower?”

The Aes Sedai moved closer, not caring that her skirts dragged through the dirt of the vegetable patch. Despite the summer warmth of the morning, she wore a cloak, the hood pulled up to shadow her face. “Just before you left the Tower, you took a woman to the Amyrlin Seat. A woman calling herself Elmindreda.”

“Yes, Aes Sedai,” Sahra said, a slight question in her voice. She did not like the way the Aes Sedai had said that, as if she had left the Tower for good.

“Tell me everything that you heard or saw, girl, from the moment you took the woman in charge. Everything.”

“But I heard nothing, Aes Sedai. The Keeper sent me away as soon as—” Pain racked her, digging her toes into the dirt, arching her back; the spasm lasted only moments, but it seemed eternal. Struggling for breath, she realized her cheek was pressed to the ground, and her still trembling fingers dug into the soil. She did not remember falling. She could see Mistress Elward’s laundry basket lying on its side near the stone farmhouse, damp linens spilled out in a heap. Dazed, she thought that that was odd; Moria Elward would never leave her washing lying like that.

“Everything, girl,” the Aes Sedai said coldly. She was standing over Sahra now, making no move to help her. She had hurt her; it was not supposed to be that way. “Every person this Elmindreda spoke to, every word she said, every nuance and expression.”

“She spoke to Lord Gawyn, Aes Sedai,” Sahra sobbed into the earth. “That is all I know, Aes Sedai. All.” She began to weep in earnest, sure that was not enough to satisfy this woman. She was right. She did not stop screaming for a long time, and when the Aes Sedai left there was not a sound around the farmhouse except for the chickens, not even breathing.

CHAPTER 18
Into the Ways

Buttoning up his coat, Perrin paused, looking at the axe, still secured on the wall as he had left it since drawing it out of the door. He did not like the idea of carrying the weapon again, but he untied the belt from the peg and buckled it around his waist anyway. The hammer he tied to his already stuffed saddlebags. Draping saddlebags and blanket roll over his shoulder, he gathered a filled quiver and his unstrung longbow from the corner.

The rising sun poured heat and light through the narrow windows. The rumpled bed was the only proof that anyone had stayed here. Already the room had lost the feel of him; it even seemed to smell empty, despite his own scent on the sheets. He never stayed anywhere long enough to make that feel cling past his readiness to leave. Never long enough to put down roots, make it any kind of home. Well, I’m going home now.

Turning his back on the already unoccupied room, he went out.

Gaul rose easily from where he had been squatting against the wall beneath a tapestry of men on horseback hunting lions. He bore all of his weapons, with two leather water bottles, and a rolled blanket and a small cookpot were strapped beside the worked-leather bow case on his back. He was alone.

“The others?” Perrin asked, and Gaul shook his head.

“Too long away from the Three-fold Land. I warned you of that, Perrin. These lands of yours are too wet; the air is like breathing water. There are too many people, too close together. They have seen more than they want of strange places.”

“I understand,” Perrin said, though what he understood was that there would be no rescue after all, no company of Aiel to drive the Whitecloaks out of the Two Rivers. He kept his disappointment inside. It was sharp after thinking he had escaped his fate, but he could not say he had not prepared himself for the alternative. No point in crying when the iron split; you just reforged it. “Did you have any trouble doing what I asked?”

“None. I told one Tairen to take each thing you want to the Dragonwall Gate stable and tell no one of it; they will have seen one another there, but they will think the things are for me, and they will keep silent. The Dragonwall Gate. You would think the Spine of the World was just over the horizon, instead of a hundred leagues or more off.” The Aiel hesitated. “The girl and the Ogier make no secret of their preparations, Perrin. She has been trying to find the gleeman, and telling everyone she means to travel the Ways.”

Scratching his beard, Perrin breathed heavily, close to a growl. “If she gives me away to Moiraine, I vow she’ll not sit down for a week.”

“She is very handy with those knives,” Gaul said in a neutral tone.

“Not handy enough. Not if she’s given me away.” Perrin hesitated. No company of Aiel. The gallows still waited. “Gaul, if anything happens to me, if I give you the word, take Faile away. She might not want to go, but take her anyway. See her safely out of the Two Rivers. Will you promise me that?”

“I will do what I can, Perrin. For the blood debt I owe you, I will.” Gaul sounded doubtful, but Perrin did not think Faile’s knives would be enough to stop him.

They took back passages as much as possible, and narrow stairs meant to carry servants unobtrusively. Perrin thought it too bad the Tairens had not given servants their own corridors, as well. Still, they saw few people even in the broad hallways with their gilded lamp stands and ornate hangings, and no nobles at all.

He commented on the absence, and Gaul said, “Rand al’Thor has called them to the Heart of the Stone.”

Perrin only grunted, but he hoped Moiraine had been among those summoned. He wondered whether this was Rand’s way of helping him escape her. Whatever the reason, he was glad enough to take advantage of it.

They stepped out of the last cramped stairway onto the ground floor of the Stone, where cavernous hallways as wide as roads led to all the outer gates. There were no wall hangings here. Black iron lamps in iron brackets high on the walls lit the windowless passages, and the floor was paved with broad, rough stones able to stand long wear from horses’ shod hooves. Perrin picked his pace up to a trot. The stables lay just in sight ahead down the great tunnel, the wide Dragonwall Gate itself standing open beyond and only a handful of Defenders for guard. Moiraine could not intercept them now, not without the Dark One’s own luck.

The stable’s open doorway was an arch fifteen paces across. Perrin took one step inside and stopped.

The air was heavy with the smell of straw and hay, underlaid with grain and oats, leather and horse manure. Stalls filled with fine Tairen horses, prized everywhere, lined the walls, with more in rows across the wide floor. Dozens of grooms were at work, currying and combing, mucking out, mending tack. Without pausing, one or another sometimes glanced at where Faile and Loial stood, booted and ready for travel. And beside them, Bain and Chiad, accoutered like Gaul with weapons and blankets, water bottles and cooking pot.

“Are they why you only said you would try?” Perrin asked quietly.

Gaul shrugged. “I will do what I can, but they will take her side. Chiad is Goshien.”

“Her clan makes a difference?”

“Her clan and mine have blood feud, Perrin, and I am no spear-sister to her. But perhaps the water oaths will hold her. I will not dance spears with her unless she offers.”

Perrin shook his head. A strange people. What were water oaths? What he said, though, was “Why are they with her?”

“Bain says they wish to see more of your lands, but I think it is the argument between you and Faile which fascinates them. They like her, and when they heard of this journey, they decided to go with her instead of you.”

“Well, as long as they keep her out of trouble.” He was surprised when Gaul threw back his head and laughed. It made him scratch his beard worriedly.

Loial came toward them, long eyebrows sagging anxiously. His coat pockets bulged, as was usual when he was traveling, mainly with the angular shapes of books. At least his limp seemed better. “Faile is becoming impatient, Perrin. I think she might insist on leaving any minute. Please hurry. You could not even find the Waygate without me. Not that you should try, certainly. You humans make me leap about so I can hardly find my own head. Please hurry.”

“I will not leave him,” Faile called. “Not even if he is yet too stubborn and foolish to ask a simple favor. Should that be the case, he may still follow me like a lost puppy. I promise to scratch his ears and take care of him.” The Aiel women doubled over laughing.

Gaul leaped straight up suddenly, kicking higher, two paces or more above the floor, while twirling one of his spears. “We will follow like stalking ridgecats,” he shouted, “like hunting wolves.” He landed easily, lightly. Loial stared at him in amazement.

Bain, on the other hand, lazily combed her short, fiery hair with her fingers. “I have a fine wolfskin with my bedding in the hold,” she told Chiad in a bored voice. “Wolves are easily taken.”

A growl rose in Perrin’s throat, pulling both women’s eyes to him. For a moment Bain looked on the point of saying something more, but she frowned at his yellow stare and held her peace, not afraid, but suddenly wary.

“This puppy is not well housebroken yet,” Faile confided to the Aiel women.

Perrin refused to look at her. Instead he went to the stall that held his dun stallion, as tall as any of the Tairen animals but heavier in shoulder and haunch. Waving away a groom, he bridled Stepper and led him out himself. The grooms had walked the horse, of course, but he had been confined enough to frisk in the quick steps that had made Perrin give him his name. Perrin soothed him with the sure confidence of a man who had shoed many horses. It was no trouble at all putting his high-cantled saddle on and lashing his saddlebags and blanket roll behind.

Gaul watched with no expression. He would not ride a horse unless he had to, and then not a step farther than absolutely necessary. None of the Aiel would. Perrin did not understand why. Pride, perhaps, in their ability to run for long distances. The Aiel made it seem more than that, but he suspected none of them could have explained.

The packhorse had to be readied too, of course, but that was quickly done, since everything Gaul had ordered was waiting in a neat pile. Food and waterskins. Oats and grain for the horses. None of that would be available in the Ways. A few other things, like hobbles, some horse medicines just in case, spare tinderbox and such. Most of the space in the wicker hampers went for leather bottles like those the Aiel used for water, only larger and filled with lamp oil. Once the lanterns, on long poles, were strapped atop the rest, it was done.

Thrusting his unstrung bow under the saddle girth, he swung up into Stepper’s saddle with the pack animal’s lead in hand. And then had to wait, seething.

Loial was already mounted, on a huge, hairy-fetlocked horse, taller than any other in the stable by hands yet reduced nearly to pony size by the Ogier’s long legs hanging down. There had been a time when the Ogier was almost as unwilling a rider as the Aiel, but he was at home on a horse now. It was Faile who took her time, examining her mount almost as if she had never seen the glossy black mare before, though Perrin knew she had put the horse through her paces before buying, soon after they came to the Stone. The horse, Swallow by name, was a fine animal of Tairen breeding, with slender ankles and an arched neck, a prancer with the look of speed and endurance both, though shod too lightly for Perrin’s taste. Those shoes would not last. It was all another effort to put him in his place, whatever she thought that was.

When Faile finally mounted, in her narrow divided skirts, she reined closer to Perrin. She rode well, woman and horse moving as one. “Why can you not ask, Perrin?” she said softly. “You tried to keep me away from where I belong, so now you have to ask. Can such a simple thing be so difficult?”

The Stone rang like a monstrous bell, the stable floor leaping, the ceiling quivering on the point of coming down. Stepper leaped, too, screaming, head flailing; it was all Perrin could do to keep his seat. Grooms scrambled off the floor where they had fallen and ran desperately to quiet horses rearing, shrieking, attempting to climb out of their stalls. Loial clung to the neck of his huge mount, but Faile sat Swallow surely as the mare danced and squealed wildly.

Rand. Perrin knew it was him. The pull of ta’veren dragged at him, two whirlpools in a stream drawing one another. Coughing in the falling dust, he shook his head as hard as he could, straining not to dismount and run back up into the Stone. “We ride!” he shouted while tremors still shook the fortress. “We ride now, Loial! Now!”

Faile seemed to see no more point to delay; she heeled her mare out of the stable beside Loial’s taller horse, their two pack animals pulled along, all galloping before they reached the Dragonwall Gate. The Defenders took one look and scattered, some still on hands and knees; it was their duty to keep people out of the Stone, and they had no orders to keep these in. Not that they would necessarily have been able to think straight enough to do so if they had had orders, not with the tremors just subsiding and the Stone still groaning above them.

Perrin was right behind with his own packhorse, wishing the Ogier’s animal could run faster, wishing he could leave Loial’s lumbering mount behind and outrun the suction trying to draw him back, that pull of ta’veren to ta’veren. They galloped together through the streets of Tear, toward the rising sun, barely slowing to avoid carts and carriages. Men in tight coats and women with layered aprons, still shaken by the upheaval, stared at them, dazed, sometimes barely leaping out of the way.

At the walls of the inner city paving stones gave way to dirt, shoes and coats to bare feet and bare chests above baggy breeches held up by broad sashes. The folk here dodged no less assiduously, though, for Perrin would not let Stepper slow until they had galloped past the city’s outer wall, past the simple stone houses and shops that clustered outside the city proper, into a countryside of scattered farms and thickets and beyond the pull of ta’veren. Only then, breathing almost as hard as his lathered horse, he reined Stepper to a walk.

Loial’s ears were stiff with shock. Faile licked her lips and stared from the Ogier to Perrin, white-faced. “What happened? Was that... him?”

“I don’t know,” Perrin lied. I have to go, Rand. You know that. You looked me in the face when I told you, and said I had to do what I thought I must.

“Where are Bain and Chiad?” Faile said. “It will take them an hour to catch up now. I wish they would ride. I offered to buy them horses, and they looked offended. Well, we need to walk the horses anyway after that, to let them cool down.”

Perrin held back from telling her she did not know as much of Aiel as she thought she did. He could see the city walls behind them, and the Stone rearing above like a mountain. He could even make out the sinuous shape on the banner waving over the fortress, and the displaced birds swirling about; neither of the others could have. It was no difficulty at all to see three people running toward them in long, ground-eating strides, their flowing ease belying the pace. He did not think he could have run that fast, not for long, but the Aiel had to have maintained their speed from the Stone to be this close behind.

“We’ll not have to wait that long,” he said.

Faile frowned back toward the city. “Is that them? Are you certain?” Abruptly the frown shifted to him for a moment, daring him to answer. Asking him had been too much like admitting he was part of her party, of course. “He is very boastful of his eyesight,” she told Loial, “but his memory is not very good. At times I think he would forget to light a candle at night if I did not remind him. I expect he’s seen some poor family running from what they think is an earthquake, don’t you?”

Loial shifted uncomfortably in his saddle, sighing heavily, and muttered something about humans that Perrin doubted was complimentary. Faile did not notice, of course.

Not too many minutes later, Faile stared at Perrin as the three Aiel drew close enough for her to make out, but she said nothing. In this mood, she was not about to admit he had been right about anything, not if he said the sky was blue. The Aiel were not even breathing hard when they slowed to a halt beside the horses.

“It is too bad it was not a longer run.” Bain shared a smile with Chiad, and both gave Gaul a sly look.

“Else we could have run this Stone Dog into the ground,” Chiad said as if finishing the other woman’s sentence. “That is why Stone Dogs take their vows not to retreat. Stone bones and stone heads make them too heavy to run.”

Gaul took no offense, though Perrin noticed he stood where he could keep an eye on Chiad. “Do you know why Maidens are so often used as scouts, Perrin? Because they can run so far. And that comes from being afraid some man might want to marry them. A Maiden will run a hundred miles to avoid that.”

“Very wise of them,” Faile said tartly. “Do you need to rest?” she asked the Aiel women, and looked surprised when they denied it. She turned to Loial anyway. “Are you ready to go on? Good. Find me this Waygate, Loial. We have stayed here too long. If you let a stray puppy stay close to you, it begins to think you will take care of it, and that will never do.”

“Faile,” Loial protested, “are you not carrying this too far?”

“I will carry it as far as I must, Loial. The Waygate?”

Ears sagging, Loial puffed out a heavy breath and turned his horse eastward again. Perrin let him and Faile get a dozen paces ahead before he and Gaul followed. He must play by her rules, but he would play them at least as well as she.

The farms, cramped little places with rough stone houses Perrin would not have used to shelter animals, grew more scattered the farther east they rode, and the thickets smaller, until there were neither farms nor thickets, only a rolling, hilly grassland. Grass as far as the eye could see, unbroken except for patches of bush here and there on a hill.

Horses dotted the green slopes, too, in clumps of a dozen or herds of a hundred, the famed Tairen stock. Large or small, each gathering of horses was under the eyes of a shoeless boy or two, mounted bareback. The boys carried long-handled whips that they used to keep the horses together, or turn them, cracking the whips expertly to turn a stray without ever coming close to the animal’s hide. They kept their charges clear of the strangers, moving them back if necessary, but they watched the passage of this odd company—two humans and an Ogier mounted, plus three of the fierce Aiel that stories said had taken the Stone—with the bold curiosity of the young.

It was all a pleasing sight to Perrin. He liked horses. Part of the reason he had asked to be apprenticed to Master Luhhan had been the chance to work with horses, not that there were so many as this in Emond’s Field, nor so fine.

Not so Loial. The Ogier began muttering to himself, louder the farther they rode across the grassy hills, until at last he burst out in a deep bass rumble. “Gone! All gone, and for what? Grass. Once this was an Ogier grove. We did no great works here, not to compare with Manetheren, or the city you call Caemlyn, but enough that a grove was planted. Trees of every kind, from every land and place. The Great Trees, towering a hundred spans into the sky. All tended devotedly, to remind my people of the stedding they had left to build things for men. Men think it is the stonework we prize, but that is a trifling thing, learned during the Long Exile, after the Breaking. It is the trees we love. Men thought Manetheren my people’s greatest triumph, but we knew it to be the grove there. Gone, now. Like this. Gone, and it will not come again.”

Loial stared at the hills, bare save for grass and horses, with a hard face, his ears drawn back tight to his head. He smelled of... fury. Peaceful, most stories called Ogier, almost as pacific as the Traveling People, but some, a few, named them implacable enemies. Perrin had only seen Loial angry once before. Perhaps he had been angry last night, defending those children. Looking at Loial’s face, an old saying came back to him. “To anger the Ogier and pull the mountains down on your head.” Everyone took its meaning as to try to do something that was impossible. Perrin thought maybe the meaning had changed with the years. Maybe in the beginning, it had been “Anger the Ogier, and you pull the mountains down on your head.” Difficult to do, but deadly if accomplished. He did not think he would ever want Loial—gentle, fumbling Loial with his broad nose always in a book—to become angry with him.

It was Loial who took the lead once they reached the site of the vanished Ogier grove, bending their path a little southward. There were no landmarks, but he was sure of his direction, surer with every pace of the horses. Ogier could feel a Waygate, sense it somehow, find it as certainly as a bee could find the hive. When Loial finally dismounted, the grass was little more than knee-high on him. There was only a thick clump of brush to be seen, taller than most, leafy shrubs as tall as the Ogier. He ripped it all away almost regretfully, stacking it to one side. “Perhaps the boys with the horses can use it for firewood when it dries.”

And there was the Waygate.

Rearing against the side of the hill, it appeared more a length of gray wall than a gate, and the wall of a palace at that, thickly carved in leaves and vines so finely done that they seemed almost as alive as the bushes had been. Three thousand years at least it had stood there, but not a trace of weathering marred its surface. Those leaves could have rippled with the next breeze.

For a moment they all stared at it silently, until Loial took a deep breath and put his hand on the one leaf that was different from any other on the Waygate. The trefoil leaf of Avendesora, the fabled Tree of Life. Until the moment his huge hand touched it, it seemed as much a part of the carving as all the rest, but it came away easily.

Faile gasped loudly, and even the Aiel murmured. The air was full of the smell of unease; there was no saying who it came from. All of them, perhaps.

The stone leaves did seem to stir from an unfelt breeze now; they took a tinge of green, of life. Slowly a split appeared down the middle, and the halves of the Waygate opened out, revealing not the hill behind, but a dull shimmering that faintly reflected their images.

“Once, it is said,” Loial murmured, “the Waygates shone like mirrors, and those who walked the Ways walked through the sun and the sky. Gone, now. Like this grove.”

Hastily pulling one of the filled pole-lanterns from his packhorse, Perrin got it alight. “It is too hot out here,” he said. “A little shade would be good.” He booted Stepper toward the Waygate. He thought he heard Faile gasp again.

The dun stallion balked, approaching his own dim reflection, but Perrin heeled him onward. Slowly, he remembered. It should be done slowly. The horse’s nose touched its image hesitantly, then merged in as though walking into a mirror. Perrin moved closer to himself, touched.... Icy cold slid along his skin, enveloping him hair by hair; time stretched out.

The cold vanished like a pricked bubble, and he was in the midst of endless blackness, the light of his pole-lantern a crushed pool around him. Stepper and the packhorse whickered nervously.

Gaul stepped through calmly and began preparing another lantern. Behind him was what seemed like a sheet of smoked glass. The others were visible out there, Loial getting back on his horse, Faile gathering her reins, all of them creeping, barely moving. Time was different inside the Ways.

“Faile is upset with you,” Gaul said once he had his lantern alight. It did not add much illumination. The darkness drank in light, swallowed it. “She seems to think you have broken some sort of agreement. Bain and Chiad.... Do not let them get you alone. They mean to teach you a lesson, for Faile’s sake, and you will not sit on that animal so easily if they manage what they plan.”

“I agreed to nothing, Gaul. I do what she’s forced me to do through trickery. We will have to follow Loial as she wants soon enough, but I mean to take the lead for as long as I can.” He pointed to a thick white line under Stepper’s hooves. Broken and heavily pitted, it led off ahead, vanishing in the blackness only a few feet away. “That leads to the first guidepost. We will need to wait there for Loial to read it and decide which bridge to take, but Faile can follow us that far.”

“Bridge,” Gaul murmured thoughtfully. “I know that word. There is water in here?”

“No. It isn’t exactly that kind of bridge. They look the same, sort of, but.... Maybe Loial can explain it.”

The Aielman scratched his head. “Do you know what you are doing, Perrin?”

“No,” Perrin admitted, “but there’s no reason for Faile to know that.”

Gaul laughed. “It is fun to be so young, is it not, Perrin?”

Frowning, uncertain whether the man was laughing at him, Perrin heeled Stepper on, drawing the packhorse behind. The lantern light would not be visible at all in here twenty or thirty paces from its edge. He wanted to be completely out of sight before Faile came through. Let her think he had decided to go on without her. If she worried for a few minutes, until she found him at the guidepost, it was the least she deserved.

CHAPTER 19
The Wavedancer

With the golden sun barely over the horizon, the shiny black-lacquered carriage rocked to a halt at the foot of the wharf behind a team of four matched grays, and the lanky dark-haired driver in his black-and-gold striped coat leaped down to open the door. No sigil adorned the door panel, of course; Tairen nobles gave aid to Aes Sedai only under duress, no matter how effusive the smiles, and none wanted their names or houses linked to the Tower.

Elayne got down gratefully without waiting for Nynaeve, straightening her blue linen summer traveling cloak; the streets of the Maule were rutted by carts and wagons, and the carriage’s leather springs had not been very good. A breeze slanting across the Erinin actually seemed cool after the heat of the Stone. She had intended to show no effects of the rough ride, but once upright she could not help knuckling the small of her back. At least last night’s rain still holds the dust down, she thought. She suspected that they had been given a carriage without curtains on purpose.

North and south of her, more docks like wide stone fingers stretched into the river. The air smelled of tar and rope, fish and spices and olive oil, of nameless things rotting in the stagnant water between the piers and peculiar long yellow-green fruits in huge bunches heaped in front of the stone warehouse behind her. Despite the early hour, men wearing leather vests on shirtless shoulders scurried about, toting large bundles on bent backs or pushing handcarts piled with barrels or crates. None spared her more than a passing sullen glance, dark eyes falling quickly, forelock touched grudgingly; most did not raise their heads at all. She was sad to see it.

These Tairen nobles had handled their people badly. Mishandled them was more like it. In Andor she could have expected cheerful smiles and a respectful word of greeting, freely given by straight-backed men who knew their worth as well as hers. It was almost enough to make her regret leaving. She had been raised to lead and one day govern a proud people, and she felt the urge to teach these folk dignity. But that was Rand’s job, not hers. And if he doesn’t do it properly, I will give him a piece of my mind. A bigger piece. At least he had begun, by following her advice. And she had to admit he knew how to treat his people. It would be interesting to see what he had done by the time she returned. If there’s a point to coming back.

A dozen ships were clearly visible from where she stood, and more beyond, but one, moored across the end of the dock she faced, sharp bow upriver, filled her eyes. The Sea Folk raker was easily a hundred paces long, half again as large as the next vessel in sight, with three great towering masts amidships, and one shorter on the raised deck at the stern. She had been on ships before, but never one so big, and never on one going to sea. Just the name of the ship’s owners spoke of distant lands and strange ports. The Atha’an Miere. The Sea Folk. Stories meant to be exotic always contained the Sea Folk, unless they were about the Aiel.

Nynaeve climbed out of the carriage behind her, tying a green traveling cloak at her neck and grumbling to herself and to the driver. “Tumbled about like a hen in a windstorm! Thumped like a dusty rug! How did you manage to find every last rut and hole between here and the Stone, goodman? That took true skill. A pity none of it goes into handling horses.” He tried to hand her down, his narrow face sullen, but she refused his aid.

Sighing, Elayne doubled the number of silver pennies she was taking from her purse. “Thank you for bringing us safely and swiftly.” She smiled as she pressed the coins into his hand. “We told you to go fast, and you did as we asked. The streets are not your fault, and you did an excellent job under poor conditions.”

Without looking at the coins, the fellow gave her a deep bow, a grateful look, and a murmured “Thank you, my Lady,” as much for the words as the money, she was sure. She had found that a kind word and a little praise were usually received as well as silver was, if not better. Though the silver itself was seldom unappreciated, to be sure.

“The Light send you a safe journey, my Lady,” he added. The merest flicker of his eyes toward Nynaeve said that wish was for Elayne alone. Nynaeve had to learn how to make allowances and give consideration; truly she did.

When the driver had handed their bundles and belongings out of the carriage, turned his team and started away, Nynaeve said grudgingly, “I shouldn’t have snapped at the man, I suppose. A bird could not make an easy way over those streets. Not in a carriage, at any rate. But after bouncing about all the way here, I feel as if I’d been on horseback a week.”

“It isn’t his fault you have a sore... back,” Elayne said, with a smile to take away any sting, as she took up her things.

Nynaeve barked a wry laugh. “I said that, didn’t I? You will not expect me to go running after him to apologize, I hope. That handful of silver you gave him should soothe any wounds short of mortal. You really must learn to be more careful with money, Elayne. We do not have the Realm of Andor’s resources for our own use. A family could live comfortably for a month on what you hand out to everyone who does the work they’ve been paid to do for you.” Elayne gave her a quietly indignant look—Nynaeve always seemed to think they should live worse than servants unless there was reason not to, instead of the other way around, as made sense—but the older woman did not appear to notice the expression that always put Royal Guardsmen on their toes. Instead, Nynaeve hoisted her bundles and sturdy cloth bags and turned down the dock. “At least this ship will be a smoother ride than that. I do hope smooth. Shall we go aboard?”

As they picked their way down the pier, between working men and stacked barrels and carts full of goods, Elayne said, “Nynaeve, the Sea Folk can be touchy until they know you, or so I was taught. Do you think you might try to be a little... ?”

“A little what?”

“Tactful, Nynaeve.” Elayne skipped a step as someone spat on the dock in front of her. There was no telling which fellow had done it; when she looked around they all had their heads down and were hard at work. Mishandling by the High Lords or no, she would have said a few quietly sharp words that the culprit would not have soon forgotten if she could have found him. “You might try to be a little tactful for once.”

“Of course.” Nynaeve started up the raker’s rope-railed gangway. “As long as they do not bounce me about.”

Elayne’s first thought on reaching the deck was that the raker appeared very narrow for its length; she did not know a great deal about ships, in truth, but to her it seemed a huge splinter. Oh, Light, this thing will toss worse than the carriage, however big it is. Her second was for the crew. She had heard stories about the Atha’an Miere, but had never seen one before. Even the stories told little, really. A secretive people who kept to themselves, almost as mysterious as the Aiel. Only the lands beyond the Waste could possibly be more strange, and all anyone knew of them was that the Sea Folk brought ivory and silk from there.

These Atha’an Miere were dark, barefoot and bare-chested men, all cleanly shaven, with straight black hair and tattooed hands, moving with the sureness of those who knew their tasks well enough to do them with half a mind but were putting their whole minds to it. There was a rolling grace to their movements, as though, with the ship still, they yet felt the motions of the sea. Most wore gold or silver chains around their necks, and rings in their ears, sometimes two or three in each, and some with polished stones.

There were women among the crew, too, as many as the men, hauling ropes and coiling lines right with the men, with the same tattooed hands, in the same baggy breeches of some dark, oiled cloth, held by colorful narrow sashes and hanging open at the ankle. But the women wore loose colorful blouses, too, all brilliant reds and blues and greens, and they had at least as many chains and earrings as the men. Including, Elayne noticed with a small shock, two or three women with rings in one side of their noses.

The grace of the women outshone even that of the men, and put Elayne in mind of some stories she had heard as a child by listening where she was not supposed to. Women of the Atha’an Miere were, in those tales, the epitome of alluring beauty and temptation, pursued by all men. The women on this ship were no more beautiful than any others, really, but watching them move, she could believe those tales.

Two of the women, on the raised deck at the stern, were obviously not ordinary crew. They were barefoot, too, and their garb of the same cut, but one was clothed entirely in brocaded blue silks, the other in green. The older of the pair, the one in green, wore four small gold rings in each ear and one in the left side of her nose, all worked so they sparkled in the morning sunlight. A fine chain ran from her tiny nose ring to one earring, supporting a row of tiny dangling gold medallions, and one of the chains around her neck held a pierced golden box, like ornate gold lace, that she lifted to sniff from time to time. The other woman, the taller, had only six earrings in total, and fewer medallions. The pierced box she sniffed at was just as finely wrought gold, though. Exotic, indeed. Elayne winced just thinking about the nose rings. And that chain!

Something odd about the sterndeck itself caught her eye, but at first she could not tell what. Then she saw. There was no tiller for the rudder. Some sort of spoked wheel stood behind the women, lashed down so it could not turn, but no tiller. How do they steer? The smallest riverboat she had seen had had a tiller. There had been tillers on all the others ships lining the nearby docks. More and more mysterious, these Sea Folk.

“Remember what Moiraine told you,” she cautioned as they approached the sterndeck. That had not been much; even Aes Sedai knew little about the Atha’an Miere. Moiraine had imparted the proper phrasings, though; the things that had to be said for good manners. “And remember tact,” she added in a firm whisper.

“I will remember,” Nynaeve replied sharply. “I can be tactful.” Elayne truly hoped she would.

The two Sea Folk women waited for them at the top of the stairs—ladder, Elayne remembered, even when they were stairs. She did not understand why ships had to have different names for common things. A floor was a floor, in a barn or an inn or a palace. Why not on a ship? A cloud of perfume surrounded the two, a slightly musky scent, wafting from the lacy gold boxes. The tattoos on their hands were stars and seabirds surrounded by the curls and whirls of stylized waves.

Nynaeve inclined her head. “I am Nynaeve al’Meara, Aes Sedai of the Green Ajah. I seek the Sailmistress of this vessel, and passage, if it pleases the Light. This is my companion and friend, Elayne Trakand, also Aes Sedai of the Green Ajah. The Light illumine you and your vessel, and send the winds to speed you.” That was almost exactly the way Moiraine had instructed them to speak. Not about Aes Sedai of the Green Ajah—Moiraine had seemed resigned to that more than anything else, and amused at their choice of ajah—but the rest.

The older woman, with gray touches in her black hair and fine wrinkles at the corners of her large brown eyes, inclined her head just as formally. Nevertheless, she seemed to be taking them in from head to foot, especially the Great Serpent ring each wore on her right hand. “I am Coine din Jubai Wild Winds, Sailmistress of Wavedancer. This is Jorin din Jubai White Wing, my sister of the blood and Windfinder of Wavedancer. There may be passage available, if it pleases the Light. The Light illumine you, and see you safe to your journey’s end.”

It was a surprise that the two were sisters. Elayne could see the resemblance, but Jorin looked much younger. She wished the Windfinder were the one they had to deal with; both women had the same reserve, but something about the Windfinder reminded her of Aviendha. It was absurd, of course. These women were no taller than she herself, their coloring could not have been more different from the Aiel woman’s, and the only weapon either had in sight was the stout knife tucked in her sash, looking very workmanlike despite carvings and gold-wire inlays on the handle. But Elayne could not help feeling some similarity, between Jorin and Aviendha, anyway.

“Let us talk then, Sailmistress, if it pleases you,” Nynaeve said, following Moiraine’s formula, “of sailings and ports, and the gift of passage.” The Sea Folk did not charge for passage, according to Moiraine; it was a gift, which just coincidentally would be exchanged for a gift of equal value.

Coine glanced away, then, astern toward the Sto